The king's portable paradise

Carpets representing gardens have an ancient history in Persia, back to the Medes and Achaemenians in the 9th to 4th centuries BC. The real gardens developed in this period became known as "pairidaeza," meaning an enclosure. The English word "paradise" is derived from it.

The 17th-century Wagner Garden Carpet (named for a previous owner) belongs to The Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Scotland. About 17 feet long and 14 feet wide, it is exceptionally large, even for a royal Persian carpet.

Ulrike al-Khamis, curator of Islamic art and culture at The Burrell, says that garden carpets were actually sat upon and walked over, not hung like tapestries.

"They were perceived as portable gardens," Ms. Khamis says. "So you could imagine the carpet being transported out into the desert away from the city when the king wanted to hunt or wanted to have his peace....

"A carpet like this would be spread out in the royal tent, suggesting both a beautiful, lush garden and also, in a more spiritual dimension, the prospect of paradise for every true [Islamic] believer."

The carpet shows a bird's-eye view of a type of garden still found in Persia (modern-day Iran and Afghanistan) and India, Khamis says. Such carpets were always found in a court context. They were meant to be prestigious objects.

Specialized draftsmen would have designed the carpet's imagery and layout, transferring it to a cartoon. From this, the curator says, "several men and women, sitting next to each other on a bench, would work." These knotted-pile carpets were made on large looms. The cartoon was often cut into small sections for the weavers to copy.

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