Persian Rug History

Within the Persian Rug is a place where Persian thought is weaved and knotted together harmoniously with mythology.

The motifs, form, pattern and symbolism in the Persian carpet speak the mythological language of ancient Persia.

What made Persia and Iran?

It was the art of weaving and its culture that knotted Persia historically to become a “mirror of civilization”, long before Pazyryk.

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In the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism, which was the prevalent religion before the arrival of Islam, Ahura Mazda is the central God and creator.  There are certain passages (yasna 29.6 and 48.9) where Ahura is referred to as “Vafush” in the original Avestan, which can be translated as “the Weaver”.  It is said that Ahura Mazda weaves and clothes Himself with the invisible robe of Cosmic Matter, which is at the root of all physical and ultra-physical creation.  Mankind and our universe are made from his cosmic robe.  Weaving, therefore, is an intrinsic part of the creation myth and everything that would follow.


In order to further understand the connections between Persian culture, mythology and weaving a little background information is required.  Knowing a little about the history of ancient Iran allows us to see the different influences that had an impact on Persian culture.  Myths often grow out of a country’s history and culture and all cultures have them.  What exactly are myths and what purpose do they serve?  Finally, many elements influenced the development of Persian mythology and weaving and spinning themes are present in different mythologies around the world.  All of this is important in understanding the Persian rug as a mirror of civilization.

Historical Background

The more important aspects of the historical periods for our purposes are outlined below the timeline.  Many of the historical periods overlap as different civilizations came and went.  This can be seen in the timeline below.

Time Periods                                                          Cultures
Pre-history or Pre-Vedai Era:  8000-2000 BCE         Bactrian
Elamites:  3400-550 BCE                                         Jiroft                           
Vedai Era:  2000-850 BCE                
Pre-Median period:  1000-728 BCE                          Hirmand                     
Pre-Avesta Era: 850-728 BCE
Median Dynasty:  728-550 BCE                               Siyalk
Achaemenid Dynasty:  550-330 B                           Soghdian
Parthian (Arsacid) Dynasty:  248 BCE-224 CE         Scythian
Sasanian Dynasty:  224-651 CE                    Others (Alans & Sarmatians etc.)

The pre-history of Persia, now Iran, dates from 8000 BCE.  The communities at this time were generally small agricultural settlements.  The religion and culture that was present was there long before the arrival of Islam and even before the teachings of Zoroaster.  Like many ancient cultures the religion centered on the natural world, including cults to fire and water.  These elements would remain in Zoroastrian writings when the elements would become personifications. 

The period from 3400-550 is known as that of the Elamites, so called for the civilization of Elam that existed East of Mesopotamia.  Elamite rock bas-reliefs display images showing the procedure of hand spinning animal fur into single or double-ply yarn.  Hand spinning is a delicate process and those talented at it were held in very high esteem.  The hand spinning of thread is still continued today by Zarathushtis (those who practice Zoroastrianism) primarily for the weaving of their sacred thread or Kusti, part of the ritual dress of Zoroastrians.

The first Iranian people to become prominent in the area were the Median tribes who came from the North and West.  Daiaukku was the leader who founded the Median capital Ecbatana and it was his son Phraortes who is credited with bringing together all Iranians.  This would be the beginning of Iran as a nation and an empire.  Under Cyrus the Great, this empire would also become united with the Persians, forming the Achaemenian Empire.  This Persian Empire was the largest in human history up to that point.

The Achaemenian dyansty would last until Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 331BCE.  The period that followed his death, which was ruled by the Greek Seleucid Dynasty was characterized by many cultural exchanges.  Greek language and culture arrived alongside Buddhism from India.  Elements of Persian culture also traveled West, primarily Zoroastrianism which would have an influence on western religions.

It was the Arsacid dynasty that would defeat the Greek Seleucid Empire in the late 3rd century BCE.  This was the Parthian Empire and was the second native dynasty of ancient Iran.  The Sasanian Empire would follow in 224CE and is the final great Iranian empire before the arrival and adoption of Islam.  It is said that it was under this empire that Persian civilization reached its highest achievement.  Persian culture would have an impact on not just the Middle East, but the rest of the world.  Their cultural influence was felt in the Roman Empire, western Europe, China and India.  It would also have a strong impact on the Islamic culture that came to dominate the area.

Myth, Mythology and Weaving

Myth:  A myth is a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being, hero or event without having a basis in fact or a natural explanation.  These stories usually involve gods or demi-gods and explain some practice, rite or phenomenon of nature.  Myths often account for the basic aspects of existence, explaining creation for example.  These beliefs are often used to justify a social institution.   Myths are often considered sacred stories and are often regarded as a true account of the remote past or a primordial age when the world had not yet attained its current form.

Mythology:  In this context, mythology refers to the body of myths of a particular people or person (ex. Greek mythology).  A mythology is a set of stories, traditions or beliefs associated with a particular group or event.  A group’s mythology may arise naturally or be created intentionally.

Persian Mythology:  Myths play a crucial part in Iranian culture. Persian mythology includes the myths and sacred narratives of the culturally and linguistically related group of ancient peoples who inhabited the Iranian Plateau and its borderlands. Persian myths are traditional tales and stories of ancient origin, some involving extraordinary or supernatural beings. Drawn from the legendary past of Iran, they reflect the attitudes of the society to which they first belonged - attitudes towards the confrontation of good and evil, the actions of the gods, yazats (lesser gods), and the exploits of heroes and fabulous creatures.  

Indo-European people migrated south from central Asia and southern Russia to areas including what would become Iran.  Those who remained in Iran would become Persians.  The Indo-Europeans that also had a great influence on early Hindu mythology likely influenced the myths of the Persians.   Mesopotamia bordered Persia on the west.  It is therefore probable that they also felt the influence of Mesopotamian mythology.
Much of what we know about Persian mythology is due to the work of religious reformer and prophet Zoroaster.  He founded a faith, Zoroastrianism, that would dominate Persia for many years. The dates of when Zoroastrianism took hold in Persia and even the date of Zoroaster's birth are largely unknown.  Traditionally Zoroaster was said to have been born in the 6th century BCE but modern scholarship is now placing him in the 11th to 10th century BCE.  Regardless of when the faith first began it would be the principal faith of the region until the mid 7th century CE and the arrival Islam.

Zoroastrianism's sacred book, the Avesta, is where most of the earliest information about Persian mythology can be found.  Unfortunately much of the original work was lost when Alexander the Great conquered Persia around 331 BCE.  Zoroaster did not create new myths but rather he interpreted old myths to draw out teachings.   Zoroaster has therefore given us some insight into Persian mythology from well before his own time.

The focal point of Persian mythology is often the Shahnameh by Ferdowsi written around 1000 CE.  It is considered the national epic of Iran much like the Iliad is of Greece and like epics in other cultures it aims to tell the complete history of a people.  The work begins with the creation of the world and the introductions of arts and civilization to the Aryans and finally the Islamic/Arab conquest of Persia.  Ferdowsi no doubt would have been largely influenced by the work of Zoroaster.

Weaving and Mythology:  Ancient cultures from all parts of the world have myths that involve weaving.  In many accounts of creation the world is formed through weaving and people’s destinies are shaped through the spinning of the thread of life. The Navaho of North America have a legend about the spider woman who weaves the world. In Greece, destiny is controlled by the fates, three old crones who spin the thread of life.  Many cultures also have Gods or Goddesses of weaving such as Neith in Egypt or Athena in Greece. 


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