Volume VI Number 2
March 1988

Any respectable field ought to have a venerated icon or two, all the better with a dollop of mystery. Ergo the twin Ardebil carpets of c. 1540: too many, too big, too uncertain a provenance. Inquiry into the Victoria and Albert's acquisition documentation (1) is perfectly fair game, as is archeology, the standard in this latter regard having been set some time ago by A. H. Morton. (2)

The two flying Dutchmen, Cornelis De Bruyn and Jan van Struys, are among the players in the Shrine story. Both have written accounts which are inaccurately translated, especially into English. (That of Struys is particularly so in its textile terms.) They bear further inspection in the Dutch.

On September 15, 1703, in Ardebil, De Bruyn extended his list of shrine visits by viewing the mausoleum of "Sefi", that part of the Ardebil complex containing the tombs of several Persian Shahs. He placed rugs and mats throughout, and noted a large apartment which had a floor covered with rugs: "This place is 52 feet [voeten] long, and 34 wide". (3) A central fact about De Bruyn was a compulsion for measurement, and he measured most of the architecture which he described. The dimensions of this particular room are straight-forward, and it is large.

Struys was in Ardebil at a somewhat earlier date, and offers a detailed description of the Shrine complex, per a visit on November 13, 1671. Some key observations of his walking tour are "striking carpets" in the first of the two rooms with green and blue mosaic floor, a "gallery which was covered with carpets", and a hall with a "vaulted roof" with dimensions of "eight fathoms [48 feet] long and five [30 feet] broad." (4)

A trouble is Struys plagiarizing of Adam Olearius's description. But the primary issue is the reliability of the Struys tale, for it is by an order of magnitude the wildest, grisliest, and luridest of the 17th century travel accounts. Flamboyant events -- his slavery, executions by beheading and flaying, and the like -- and ordinary matters both, however, do have an authentic ring. While there may be question about the relative mix of observation and imagination flowing from the Struys pen, on balance it is necessary to conclude that he did in fact visit the places he describes.

It is useful to pay attention to the Netherlanders' dimensions, especially De Bruyn's, and to their textile artifact citations. Room sequencing (manfully struggled with by Morton) and thus locations of particular objects are best put aside. The accounts apparently indicate the existence of both a space large enough to accommodate a large carpet, and of high grade carpeting. But there are, of course, complications. Observer error heads the list, and ambiguity is not far behind. It is the case, for example, that the big arched roof room is the one place where Struys did not mention floor furnishings. Oversight? Cramped fingers? No carpets?

The accounts also must be balanced against an archeological inference that a room of appropriately large dimension was lacking, and the fact that an 18th century inventory seemingly does not include the carpets.

There is also the matter of the apparent need to collocate the two carpets. The Dutchmen were indefatigable visitors and De Bruyn went to the near-by shrine of Safavid progenitor "Seid Ibrahim", itself no minor place. Here is a particular from this description: "...a nice room...large and roomy, laid with carpets and in a second antechamber "a beautiful apartment...all over the ground there being carpets, striped cloths or mats." (5) He does not give a room dimension, only that of one of the buildings (not a likely carpet site) which, on the interpretation of the word schrede as a pace consisting of a single step, is 100 feet by 77 feet.

The existence of another major shrine nearby suggests a possible alternative to the simple assumption that both carpets had to have been in the Ardebil complex.

An occasional element in the mists shrouding the Ardebil carpet is speculation. There is, for example, the assertion that such valuable items would not have been made in nor intended for the Ardebil Shrine inasmuch as it was then a war zone. So to assert is to assume the burden of knowing the nature of 16th century Middle East warfare. Research Report is lacking in this department, but it does have a datum, John Chesneau' s account of the Turkish expedition against Tabriz in 1548, which he accompanied. He reported that the Shah and the Persians fled the city "with their furnishings and merchandize" and left behind only "the poorest workers ". Looting started but was stopped by the Sultan. (6)

To the extent to which struggles between Shah and Sultan were spasmodic the assertion that war precluded the weaving of quality items commissioned for major religious shrines in the Safavid fountainhead is a little suspect. As with most things, it does not do to project a modern concept into a different context.

Dutchmen and digs and their strengths and imprecisions aside, in the end it is Ockam's Razor which is central, for the simple explanation is the most powerful. Mention in the 1840's of a dated carpet -- "the faded remains", not, as some would have it, "fragments" -- at the Ardebil Shrine must control with respect to the carpet in the Victoria and Albert. The mystery remains as to what could have been in Ardebil in the 16th century; the Dutch accounts suggest that in the late 17th century there were rooms and stuffs enough.


  1. Weaver, Martin E., "The Ardabil Puzzle", Textile Museum Journal, 1984, p. 47-49.
  2. Morton, A. H., "The Ardabil Shrine in the Reign of Shah Tahmasp I", IRAN, Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies, first part, 1974, continuation, 1975.
  3. De Bruyn, Cornelis, Reizen, Amsterdam, 1721, p. 119. Translation C. Kruytbosch.
  4. Struys, Jan J., Drie Aaninerkelijke en seer rampspoedige reysen..., Amsterdam, 1676, pp. 307/309. Translation C. Kruytbosch.
  5. De Bruyn, op. cit., p. 110. Translation, C. Kruytbosch.
  6. Chesneau, John, Le Voyage de Monsieur D'Aramon, annotated by Chas. Schefer, Paris, 1887, p. 83/4. Research Report translation.
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