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A people's culture. Rugs of Armenia

By John Edward YoungStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 1985



This is the second article highlighting Armenian culture. The series was prompted by the exhibit ``Weavers, Merchants, and Kings -- The Inscribed Rugs of Armenia,'' which is on its way to Washington, D.C. (Oct. 27-Jan. 25), and Fresno, Calif. (Feb. 15-April 8). Tomorrow: Armenian dance.

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The close association of Armenians with the trade, commission, and distribution of Oriental carpets leaves no room for argument. But did they actually dye the yarns, set the looms, and most important, sit and weave these fascinating, exotic coverings? That's been a question.

In the harsh, rugged land of Armenia, exquisitely woven carpets have brought color and warmth to even the most humble of homes for literally hundreds of years.

They were used to dine upon and sleep upon, for floor coverings and wall hangings. They were collected as tax tribute, bestowed as gifts, and sometimes offered as part of a woman's dowry.

Sophisticated carpets, sometimes woven of silk with gold and silver threads and encrusted with sparkling jewels, were draped over the thrones of kings and emperors, spread before sultans and princes, presented to churches, and in the worst of times, carried off as spoils of war.

For centuries travelers, merchants, missionaries, even Crusaders passing through Armenia returned to the West with these treasured carpets and all sorts of romantic tales about them.

Rugs brought from the East were instrumental in changing Western floor coverings from simple animal skins and woven rush and grasses to the colorfully designed woolen carpets of the Orient.

These weavings dazzled the imagination of artists like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Holbein, Memling, and van Eyck, who included them in many of their portraits and still-life paintings. And some 14th-century Armenian churches are embellished with stone carvings of the Virgin and Child sitting on richly designed tasseled rugs.

In the mountainous terrain of Armenia, now fenced within Soviet borders, these rugs portray a continuous thread of culture, religion, folklore, and history. What has been lacking, according to some scholars, is clear evidence that Armenians did more than trade in these carpets.

There has been little proof compiled, say these scholars, that Armenians actually wove carpets themselves, despite the many notable historians and travelers who made reference to Armenian weavers. Marco Polo, for one, observed that ``the Armenians and Greeks . . . weave the choicest and most beautiful carpets in the world.''

On the other hand, Arthur Upham Pope, a Harvard University art theorist, wrote in 1925 to dispute this:

``There is no recorded nor even any local tradition that rug weaving was ever carried on in Armenia to any extent . . . that a slow, elaborate and difficult art like rug weaving could have grown up in Armenia without showing relation to contemporary and allied arts is difficult to believe.''

The collection of rugs in the exhibit ``Weavers, Merchants, and Kings -- The Inscribed Rugs of Armenia,'' however, brings to light some needed evidence.

While it is true that most motifs woven into these carpets are not exclusively Armenian, but more general in design, the occasional Christian crosses tucked unobtrusively here and there, as well as Christian dates, indicate an Armenian origin.

In the 4th century Armenia became the first country to declare Christianity its official religion. It became a Christian country surrounded by pagan and Islamic nations -- which is why flagrant displays of Christianity would not have been wise.

According to Dr. Lucy Der Manuelian, who holds the lectureship in Armenian art at Tufts University and who was a co-author of the impressive catalog of this exhibit, ``What makes this exhibit unique as well as invaluable are the inscriptions woven into each of the 68 rugs.