If you've never travelled in an Islamic country before, you may need to reset your artistic eye. In Iran, Islamic art (there is rarely any other kind) favours the non-representational, the derivative and the stylised over the figurative and the true to life, primarily because Islam forbids the representation of sentient beings. That doesn't mean Iran's art is not beautiful – very often it's exquisite and intricate and glorious all at once with geometric shapes and complex floral patterns especially popular.

Carpets

The best-known Iranian cultural export, the Persian carpet, is far more than just a floor covering to an Iranian. A Persian carpet is a display of wealth, an investment, an integral aspect of religious and cultural festivals, and part of everyday life.

History

The oldest surviving carpet is the ‘Pazyryk’ rug, believed to date from the 5th century BC and discovered in the frozen tomb of a Scythian prince in Siberia in 1948. Its exact origins are unknown, but some scholars believe it is in the style of carpets found in the Achaemenid court. Today it is in the Hermitage Museum (www.hermitagemuseum.org) in St Petersburg.

Early patterns were usually symmetrical, with geometric and floral motifs designed to evoke the beauty of the classical Persian garden. Stylised animal figures were also woven into carpets, and along with human figures (often royalty), became more popular in the later pre-Islamic period. After the Arab conquest, Quranic verses were incorporated into some carpet designs, and prayer mats began to be produced on a grand scale; secular carpets also became a major industry and were prized in European courts. However, little remains from before the 16th century.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, carpet-making was patronised by the shahs and a favoured designer or weaver could expect great privileges. Carpet designs were inspired by book illumination and the whole process reached a peak during the reign of Shah Abbas I (Abbas the Great; r 1587–1629). As demand for Persian carpets grew, so standards of production fell and designs became less inspired, though they still led the world in quality and design.

According to the National Iranian Carpet Center, today more than five million Iranians work in the industry and carpets are the country’s largest non-fossil-fuel export by value. The trade relies on the prestige evoked by the term ‘Persian carpet’, but maintaining the brand is increasingly difficult with cheaper ‘Persian carpets’ being produced in India and Pakistan, and fewer young Iranians interested in learning to weave.

Types of Carpets & Rugs

To most people (including us in this section), the words ‘carpet’ and ‘rug’ are used interchangeably. But there is a difference – a carpet is bigger than a rug. Anything longer than about 2m is considered a carpet, while anything shorter is a rug. As well as carpets, which are made using thousands or even millions of knots, you will also find kilims, which are thinner, flat-woven mats without knots and thus, no pile.

Carpets come in a huge variety of designs. Some are inspired by religion, such as those on prayer rugs, usually displaying an arch representing the main arch of the Al Haram Mosque in Mecca and perhaps a lamp symbolic of the statement in the Quran that ‘Allah is the light of Heaven’. Other common motifs include amulets to avert the evil eye and other, pre-Islamic motifs, such as stylised Trees of Life. They may also be inspired by whatever surrounds the weaver, eg trees, animals and flowers, particularly the lotus, rose and chrysanthemum. Gardens are commonly depicted and, in the case of a tribal nomad, such a carpet will be the only garden the weaver will ever own.

In general, these designs are classified as either ‘tribal’ or ‘city’ carpets. Tribal designs vary greatly depending on their origin, but are typically less ornate. City carpets are the classic Persian rugs, usually highly ornate floral designs around one or more medallions.

Most Iranians aspire to own fine, formal city rugs of Tabriz, Esfahan, Kashan, Qom or Kerman. They consider tribal carpets the work of peasants, and those who cannot afford hand-woven city carpets would buy a carpet made on a machine using chemical dyes and inferior wool (or even synthetic fibres) before they’d buy a tribal carpet.

Weaving

Most handmade carpets are woven from hand-spun wool. Each rug is woven around a vertical (warp) and horizontal (weft) foundation, usually made of cotton – the skeleton of the rug. The best are made from sheep wool though occasionally goat or camel hair is used, usually by tribal weavers in the warps or selvedges (edge bindings) of rugs, kilims or saddle bags to give them strength. Silk carpets are magnificent but they’re largely decorative, while wool and silk mixtures are more practical and look beautiful. Weavers are often, but not always, women.

Dyes

Dyeing is often done in large vats in small, old-style buildings in the older parts of towns; walk the old town streets of Kashan, in particular, to see it in action. The dyes themselves are the product of centuries of innovation and experimentation. Colours are extracted from natural, locally available sources, including plants (such as herbs, vegetables and fruit skins), insects and even shellfish.

In 1859 chemical dyes such as aniline and chrome were introduced. They caught on quickly because they were cheap and easy to use. Not everyone abandoned the old ways, however, and some weavers, notably those in the Chahar Mahal va Bakhtyari region west of Esfahan, have continued using natural dyes almost uninterrupted to the present day. Today Iranian rug producers big and small are turning back to natural dyes.

Looms

Traditionally, nomadic carpet-weavers used horizontal looms, which are lightweight and transportable. Designs were either conjured up from memory, or made up as the weaver worked. These carpets and rugs were woven for domestic use or occasional trade and were small because they had to be portable. In villages, many homes or small workshops have simple upright looms where weavers can create better designs, with more variety.

Over the last 150 years larger village workshops and city factories have begun using bigger, modern looms. Some still require people to do the weaving, while others are fully mechanised – producing ‘machine carpets’ that cost about half as much as their hand-woven equivalents.

Knots

You may come across the terms ‘Persian (or senneh) knot’ (known in Farsi as a farsi-baf) and ‘Turkish (or ghiordes) knot’ (turki-baf). Despite the names, both are used in Iran: the Turkish knot is common in the Azerbaijan provinces and western Iran.

As a rough guide, an everyday carpet or rug will have up to 30 knots per sq cm, a medium-grade piece 30 to 50 knots per sq cm, and a fine one 50 knots or more per sq cm. A prize piece might have 500 or more knots per sq cm. The higher the number of knots, the better the quality. Nomad weavers tie around 8000 knots a day; factory weavers about 12,000 knots a day.

Buying Carpets & Rugs

Iranians have had more than 2500 years to perfect the art of carpet making – and just as long to master the art of carpet selling. If you don’t know your warp from your weft, it might be worth reading up before visiting Iran, or taking an Iranian friend when you go shopping (bearing in mind that professional ‘friends’ who make a living from commission are a fact of life).

If you know what you’re doing you might pick up a bargain, but unless you’re an expert, don’t buy a carpet or rug as an investment – buy it because you like it. Before buying, lie the carpet flat to check for bumps or other imperfections. Small bumps will usually flatten out with wear but big ones are probably there to stay. To check if a carpet is handmade, turn it over; on most handmade pieces the pattern will be distinct on the underside (the more distinct, the better the quality).

Taking Them Home

Export regulations for carpets are notoriously changeable; ask a reputable dealer for the latest. At the time of writing there was no limit to the number of carpets you could take home. However, some larger, older and more valuable carpets cannot be exported without special permission.

Sanctions mean the customs guys in your home country might frown upon purchases from Iran. One reader reported US customs are ‘quite strict’ about anything bought in Iran for more than US$100 – meaning most carpets. Carpet sellers know this and will offer to give you a receipt for less than you paid, or even to indicate you bought it in Dubai.

Carrying carpets is usually cheaper than posting because you’re less likely to have to pay duty if you can get them through airport customs at home. Alternatively, most carpet dealers can arrange postage and costs are not outrageous. If there are no sanctions, most countries allow you to import up to 25 sq metres of Persian carpets before they start charging you as a merchant; though you will probably still have to pay some duty.

Where to buy your Persian rug

Persian carpets come in almost as many different designs as there are ethnic groups and major urban centres. Usually the name of a carpet indicates where it was made or where the design originated. The bazaars are the best places to buy and the experience of shopping, haggling and eventually buying is a memorable part of travelling in Iran.

  • Tehran With more than 3000 carpet merchants, this labyrinthine bazaar has the biggest range, most competition and lowest prices.
  • Esfahan Many travellers buy here because shopping around Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sq is so enjoyable. Prices are a bit higher. Plenty of Esfahani city carpets are available, and the widest selection of Bakhtiyari rugs from the nearby Zagros Mountains.
  • Shiraz Another pleasant place to shop, with evenings in the bazaar particularly atmospheric. Shiraz has the best range of Qashqa’i rugs, runners, kilims and saddle bags, with their distinct geometric patterns, including stylised animals and birds and floral designs in the borders, and fine gabbeh, small, thick flat-woven rugs with loose pile.
  • Tabriz Huge range of carpets, from fine works in silk or with silk highlights, to simpler weaves from regional villages and tribal groups.

Painting

The earliest known distinctively Persian style of painting dates back to the Seljuk period (1051–1220) and is often referred to as the Baghdad School. Early painting was mainly used to decorate Qurans and pottery, and during the Mongol period (1220–1335) all sorts of manuscripts, especially poetry books.

In the 16th century an important school of Persian art developed in Tabriz, under the guidance of Sultan Mohammed, and its distinctive designs and patterns also influenced carpet design. Persian painting reached its apex under the Safavids, when Shah Abbas I turned Esfahan into a centre for the arts. The demise of the Safavids deprived artists of their patrons, and coincided with growing influences from India and Europe. Persian artists rarely signed their works so little is known about most artists.

Calligraphy

With the arrival of Islam, several distinctly Persian calligraphic styles emerged, some of them so elaborate that they are almost illegible, eg nashki and later, thulth. The Quran was faithfully reproduced as a whole in calligraphic form, but you’re more likely to see Quranic verses, and the names of Allah and Mohammed, in tiles and deep relief stucco in mosques across the country.

By the 16th century, Shiraz and Esfahan were producing some of the finest calligraphy in the Islamic world. Some of the best examples can be seen at Tehran’s Reza Abbasi Museum, named for the renowned 16th-century calligrapher and painter.

Miniatures

The Persian miniature-painting (minyaturha) tradition began after the Mongol invasion, influenced by artisans brought to the royal court from China. It reached its peak during the 15th and 16th centuries. Later, artists from eastern Iran, who had studied under the great Mohammadi in Herat (now in Afghanistan), also influenced this art form.

Persian miniatures are now famous throughout the world. Favourite subjects include courting couples in traditional dress (usually figures from popular poetry), polo matches and hunting scenes. Esfahan has dozens of miniaturists and is the best place to buy.

Contemporary Art

Iran has a thriving contemporary art scene, with most of the action centred in Tehran, where a small but sophisticated community of artists produce and exhibit work in a variety of media. Their work is not always appreciated by the authorities, and several, including Tehrani artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh, have found greater acclaim internationally than at home.

Photorealist painter Afshin Pirhashemi is another name to look out for, with his paintings casting sometimes uncomfortable light upon the contradictions of modern Iranian life, particularly when it comes to women and their role in society. Farhad Moshiri somehow manages to blend pop-art and advertising influences with religious iconography and paintings of antique urns.

Of Iran's contemporary women painters, Golnaz Fathi is a renowned calligraphist who uses performance-art installations in her work. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is a veteran of Iran's artistic scene and her style reflects Iran's journey through the 20th century – she uses deeply traditional forms such as geometric patterns and cut-glass mosaics but her work has also been deeply influenced by everything from Western expressionism to Sufi imagery; she went into exile in the US in 1979 but returned to Iran in 2004.

Despite the limited resources available to Iranian artists – there are few professional galleries and institutions capable of launching an artist’s career – the restrictions themselves seem to inform their aesthetic. The art has a distinctive Iranian flavour that several experts argue is impossible to classify in terms of Western contemporary art.

Tehran Contemporary Art Galleries

Crafts

Glassware

Small, translucent glass vessels dating back to the 2nd millennium BC have been found at Choqa Zanbil and by the Sassanian era Persian shisheh alat (glassware) had become a sought-after luxury traded as far away as Japan. By early Islamic times, two principle techniques were used: mould-blown to produce thicker items, and free-blown for more delicate articles. Glassware was usually green, lapis lazuli, light blue or clear with a tinge of yellow, and decorations were cut into the glass. The art reached its peak during the Seljuk era when the manufacture of enamelled and gilded glassware flourished.

Under the Safavids, Shiraz became an important centre of glass production, with rose-water sprinklers, long-necked wine bottles, flower vases and bowls particularly popular. By the reign of Karim Khan Zand, the famous wine from Shiraz was exported in locally crafted jugs and bottles.

Lacquer Work

Some consider this the most interesting of Iran’s decorative arts; it can be traced back to early Islamic times as an independent art form. Wooden or papier-mâché objects are painted, then a transparent sandarac-based varnish is applied in successive layers from three to more than 20 coats. The result gives an impression of depth and provides great durability. Common designs are the popular Persian motif of the nightingale and the rose, flowers and classic love stories. Pen boxes are the most common form of lacquer work.

Marquetry

One of the most intricate styles of woodwork is a form of marquetry (moarraq) called khatam. A Persian style of marquetry slowly developed through the centuries and by the 17th century khatam was so prestigious that several Safavid princes learned the technique.

Several different woods, including betel, walnut, cypress and pine, are used, with the inlaid pieces made from animal bones, shells, ivory, bronze, silver and gold. The final product is coated with varnish. Genuine Persian khatam contains no paint; the colours come from the inlaid pieces. Khatam can be used for furniture but visitors usually buy it in the form of ornamental boxes or picture frames. Most of what you’ll see for sale in souvenir shops is not genuine, as they are often made with the use of machines.