Volume IV No.3
May 1986

It may well be that merchants offer the best rug data, and the account of Jean Baptiste Tavernier is one of the best. A dealer in jewels, he spent forty years in travel to the East: 1631--1633; 1638--1643; 1644--1648; 1651--1655; 1657--?; and, 1664--1668. The Tavernier narrative is digressive but has its logic, and appears in three pieces -- Nouvelle Relation (Turkey) in 1675, Six Voyages (Persia and India) in 1676, and Recueil (Far East) in 1679. These volumes have been reissued over the years in various languages. But there is no faithful text in modern French, and no accurate English version. Indeed, the Tavernier volumes in French and English are to some extent an edited pastiche with, for the rug student, serious flaws. One must, therefore, deal with original versions published by Tavernier. (1)

Persian Royal Manufactures

The account establishes that weaving was a component of a Shah's extensive textile and non-textile product line: "The karkrone is the royal manufacturing house, in which they work on handsome rugs of gold and silver, of silk and wool, brocarts [silk fabric] of gold and silver, velvets and taffetas of several sorts." (2) Since the Tavernier accounts are not chronological, and many chapters have no geographic referent, assignment of dates and locations is tenuous. From the context, however, it seems to be the case that the royal enterprise being described is at Ispahan fairly early in the reign of Shah Abbas II. What matters most, however, is the range of textile product and the details concerning carpets.

Weaving Locales

Tavernier from time to time comments on the commercial weaving activity of a particular location.

"For woolen carpets are made at Vettapour [Fatehpur, India], 12 coss [23 mi.] from [WSW] Agra." (3)

[of Persia in general] "...excellent workers for products of gold, silver and silk, as are these rich rugs and these handsome brocarts [silk fabric partly of gold or silver thread] where the gold and the silver never blacken and lose any of their brillance to time." (4)

[on Kerman wool] "...that the biggest part of these wools are to be found in the Province of Kerman...[the best in the neighboring mountains]...they do not dye these wools at all [which are]. .of a clear brown [and] of an ash grey...[with] very little white...[much more expensive], because the Moufis, the Mullahs, and other people of the Law wear only white at their waists, and for the veils with which they cover the head in their prayers..."(5)

[on Shiraz] "For what there is of work in silk and other manufactures, it is not done at all, neither in the city nor in the surrounding countryside." (6)

[on Tabriz] "But there is abundance of workers in silk [from Gilian] that are skilled, and beautiful stuffs, and there are more of those than any other type of artisan." (7)

[on Cashan] "There is in Cashan an abundance of workers in silk who work well, and who make all sorts of brocar[t]s of gold and silver, the most beautiful that come out of Persia." (8)

[on Aleppo] "The principal artisans and who are the most numerous, are workers in silk and those who make wool chamlets [fabrics]..." (9)

[on Chio] "...a great quantity of damasks and fustians [cotton fabric], which they transport to Cairo, and...particularly to Constantinople." (10)

[on upper Mesopotamia] " Marroquins [sheepskin leather] that they make at much as for color as for texture surpassing all the others of the Levant."(11)

[on the commerce of Smyrna] "...raw silk which the Armenians bring out of Persia; thread and wool camelots which come from a little village called Angouri fifteen or sixteen days from Smyrna; spun cotton, leathers and cords or marroquins of several colors, cloths of white and blue cotton, much wool for mattresses, rugs, quilted coverlets..."(12)

[on Persian exports] "Previously they shipped to Europe large amounts of brocarts, velvet, and Persian taffeta, and the biggest part of the velvet went to Moscovy and into Pologne, but today [c. 1675] all its good cloths are in Europe both beautiful and in much better demand."(13)

Palace Furnishings

Tavernier spent time on the premises of Shah and Sultan, who, along with their retinues, were his principal customers. Some observations about the Ispahan palace are: "the floor covered with a rug of gold and of silk" (14); "rooms covered with rugs of gold and of silk" (15); "the floor...covered with rich rugs of gold and silk made expressly for that place" (16); "three tigers crouched on rugs of silk" (17); "seated on a square of gold brocart [which was on] "a magnificent rug" (18); "a large rug where there was neither flowers, nor figures, but only several Persian letters which contained something of the Law." (19)

Commentary on the Constantinople palace identifies: "many rich rugs which covered the floor, and squares of gold and silver brocard, of which some showed an embroidery of pearls" (20); "the base [of the Divan Hall] covered with a large rug" (21); "a black velvet with an embroidery of large pearls" (22); "several old leather rugs which they spread out" (23); "one walks only on rugs of silk, and the paving-stones of the room are of marble and also covered with another rug of spun gold, made a bit like our straw mats and of equal thickness." (24)

Other descriptions concern floor coverings within the Sultan's apartment: "The squares of marble were not at all visible being covered with a rug of silk..." (25); "All of the platform is covered with rich silk rugs..." (26); "one walks only on rich rugs [in the mosque within the palace and in the Sultan's prayer chamber]..." (27); "Every three months they clean this room [the Sultan's bedroom] and change the rug..." (28); "...and the bottom is covered only with big wool rugs which come from Persia, but which are richer and.. .value[d] much more than those that are made of silk." (29)

Religious Matters

Commentary on Persian manufactures includes a religious note:

    "...goldsmiths who make only rings of silver, even though they know also to make it of gold, because the Persians are not able to make their prayers when they have gold on them, they wear neither band nor ring of gold, because it would be too inconvenient to them to take them off and put them back on several times a day." (30)

A discussion of the prayer practice of Mollahs clearly describes prayer artifacts:

"...and spreading out a felt, or if they are poor a simple mat. This felt is five or six feet long and three wide, and the mullah places himself at one of the ends for prayer, one sees at the other the representation of a niche of a different color from that of the felt, in which he puts a flat stone carried from Mecca, of the size more or less of the palm of the hand. These mullahs carry always on them one of these stones, because it being ordained that they often kiss the ground in their prayers, they prefer to kiss a stone brought from a place which they hold so sacred than kissing ordinary earth. They also have for the most part a little compass which marks precisely the location of Mecca, so that all mosques face Mecca, as all the Latin christian temples are turned toward the Levant." (31)

Tavernier also notes that "in each house there is a basin of water" to be used for prayer ablutions. (32)

He also visits and describes the Arbebil Shrine: "It is kept covered with a red brocart, and the other tombs which accompany it are covered with the same rich stuff." (33) The shrine complex is also described, with its mosque and numerous buildings.

Even though space is given to the religious activity of the especially prayerful Mahomet IV, Turkish religious practice is more weakly described, largely in terms of prayers and ablutions, with no mention being made concerning objects on which to pray. The one clear specific has to do with the nature of the Sultan's annual gift to Mecca"the rich rug and the superb tent that he sends to the Sheik [of Mecca] each year to honor the tomb of Mohammed." (34) India's Grand Mogul similarly sent a "rich rug" as gift. (35)

Products Described

Occasionally a textile product is described in some detail:

"It is in Amadabat [Ahmadabad, India] where, as I have said, there is made a large amount of these stuffs of gold and silk, silver and silk, and purely of silk, and carpets of gold, and of silver and of silk, but the colors of these carpets do not last so long as those of the carpets which are in Persia. For craftsmanship, it is good enough. It is for the eye of the Courtier to notice the size, beauty, and fineness of the work in the carpets worked with gold and with silver, and he must judge if it is fine and rich. Finally, as to carpets, and to other stuffs worked with gold and silver, it is necessary to withdraw several threads to test them, and to see if they are what they say they are." (36)

[also Ahmadabad] "...that on the face [?] of the principal pieces of cloth the Indians imprint with a block [?] and leaves of gold an Arabesque flower which occupies the entire piece. If these fabrics are destined to be carried to France, it is necessary to prevent the workers from rendering this flower which costs a half paistre, and to economize this amount from the price of the piece." (37)

[on the utilitarian felt rain hats and cloaks used in Lars province and made of Kerman wool] "...there are whites, blues, greens, browns and reds." (38)

A Perspective

Tavernier is a richly detailed source. While there is some probable hearsay, for example, an account of Yazd weaving, much of the content is first-hand observation. Many items can be cross-checked with other good accounts, for example, Chardin's prayer rug description of roughly the same time, similarly revealing the use of felts and mats. Tavernier offers, in brief, a benchmark account.

It is the narrative as entity which is perhaps of greatest value. Tavernier's syntax and diction are almost always clear and his punctuation usually unambiguous. When he identifies a rug as "of gold and of silk" he can be taken literally. If he says such rugs are made in India, it is likely to be so, as is his quality comparison of equivalent Persian and Indian products. Since he knows in detail the textile products of the East and consistently speaks in terms of specifics, Tavernier offers one of the few opportunities for the evidence of omission; that is, since he describes well, what he does not say can be given some weight if within a limited context. Carpets are, unsurprisingly, not a noteworthy item of Persian exports, and are a subcategory only in an extensive state product line. The implication is that high grade carpets, while esteemed, were not numerous. And in his world, where Kabala stones were certainly a feature, pile rugs are not used for prayer by the priestly class.

  1. Recueil de plusiers Relations, bound together with Nouvelle and Exacte Relation du Serrail du Grand Seigneur, Paris, 1679; Les Six Voyages de Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Paris, 1678, two volumes. Textile terms rendered from Gottel's Dictionnaire Universel, 3rd. edition, Paris, 1819, and Richelet's Dictionnaire Francois, Geneva, 1680. Research Report's translations throughout.
  2. Six Voyages, Vol. I, p. 654.
  3. Six Voyages, Vol. II, p. 301.
  4. Six Voyages, Vol. I, p. 673.
  5. ibid., p. 105.
  6. ibid., p. 732.
  7. ibid., p. 56.
  8. ibid., p. 79.
  9. ibid., p. 151.
  10. ibid., p. 349.
  11. ibid., p. 302.
  12. ibid., p. 87.
  13. ibid., p. 676.
  14. ibid., p. 520.
  15. ibid., p. 521.
  16. ibid., p. 527.
  17. ibid., p. 527.
  18. ibid., p. 528.
  19. ibid., p. 528.
  20. Recueil de, p. 418.
  21. ibid., p. 434.
  22. ibid., p. 451.
  23. ibid., p. 452.
  24. ibid., p. 452.
  25. ibid., p. 511.
  26. ibid., p. 513.
  27. ibid., p. 517.
  28. ibid., p. 520.
  29. ibid., p. 524.
  30. Six Voyages, Vol I, p. 654.
  31. ibid., p. 664.
  32. ibid., p. 696.
  33. ibid., p. 66.
  34. Recueil de, p. 498.
  35. Six Voyages, Vol II, Bk II, Ch 7.
  36. ibid., p. 318/19.
  37. Six Voyages, Vol I, p. 143.
  38. ibid., p. 749.