In 1929 two Russian scholars, Sergej Rudenko and Mikhail Griaznov, began a series of archaeological excavations near the eastern border of Russia with Mongolia, where the complex mountain system of the Altai Mountains extends (from the Turkish-Mongolian term Altan which means “gold”).

Thanks to this research, 5 tumulus tombs dating back to the Scythian period (5th-4th century BC) were found and, in 1949, during the excavation of the fifth mound, sepulcher of a warrior chief, the carpet called Pazyryk was found, hibernated in a slab of ice that has guaranteed its preservation over time. This discovery and the extraordinary technical level of execution, have made it possible to move the hypothetical era of creation of the knotted carpet by tens of centuries, subverting numerous studies and hypotheses formulated up to then about the place of origin and the forms of diffusion of the carpet and of his technique.

Woven in the fifth century BC, during the time of the Greek-Persian wars, while Herodotus completed his “history” of the construction of the Parthenon, Sophocles wrote “Antigone” and the ruinous Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta raged, the Pazyryk carpet tells us the story of a surprising, partly nomadic people, occupying the vast expanse of Eurasia: the Scythians.

The particularity of the Scythian populations was in being able to associate the typical mobility of knights and nomads, to the maintenance of a rich and structured culture and court, usually associated with sedentary populations and city dwellers. This was probably also due to the use of carriages, such as the one found dismantled in the tombs of Pazyryk. Through them, in fact, they were able not only to easily move their tents and other necessities, but also to bring entire shops of luxury goods, some of which imported or of own production. In fact, one of the things for which the Scythians are still remembered today is the creation of intricate and splendid jewels, a symptom of a refined ability in gold processing.

 

The Pazyryk carpet kept at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

The other thing for which the Scythians are remembered is the size of their real mounds, known as “kurgan”, which in some cases reached and exceeded 20 meters in height. Inside, like the Egyptian pyramids, the nobles were buried with their treasure, for use in the afterlife.
And this is why the discovery of the Pazyryk carpet is important not only from a purely historical point of view: its discovery in a sepulchral construction gives it a level of importance and value that suggests the idea that carpets, whether they are woven on their own or imported from afar, they awaken a universal human interest as old as time.
The carpet appears to be considered an object of great importance, valuable, a precious asset, so much so that the Scythians included it in the list of things suitable to be inserted in a royal tomb.

Despite having been found inside a scurved kurgan, scholars remain doubtful about its actual origin, considering its construction technique too advanced to be attributed to a predominantly nomadic people. The hypothesis that it was made in an important center of Achaemenid Persia, or perhaps in an outpost of the Persian Empire near Pazyryk, is considered more reliable. This fact would make him not only the oldest carpet found in the world, but also a striking example of the existence of a flourishing carpet trade already at that time.

 

The high-quality Pazyryk rug measures 200 x 182 cm and consists of 360,000 turkibaft1 knots per square meter. The design consists of a central field and a border divided into two main frames delimited by three secondary frames.
The main external frame, with a red background, is decorated with a procession of knights (seven on each side), some of whom are riding while others march next to their white horse. In the main internal frame, with a light background, twenty-four red and yellow elk move in the opposite direction to the riders. The frames, which delimit the border, have squares with a griffin inside. The floral motif of the frame that separates the march of the knights from the pasture of moose recalls the cross of Saint Andrew. The central field is divided into twenty-four squares with a red background, with a cross-shaped design whose ends terminate with a stylized flower. A small frame, made up of small colored squares, decorates each of the twenty-four squares.

These ornamental motifs, of knights and moose, would indicate that it could have been expressly designed for export to the steppes, or, it could have been specifically commissioned by a Scythian leader, to enhance the theory of a carpet business already started and flourishing.

 

Complete diagram (left) and original detail (right) of the Pazyryk carpet

The high-quality Pazyryk rug measures 200 x 182 cm and consists of 360,000 turkibaft1 knots per square meter. The design consists of a central field and a border divided into two main frames delimited by three secondary frames.
The main external frame, with a red background, is decorated with a procession of knights (seven on each side), some of whom are riding while others march next to their white horse. In the main internal frame, with a light background, twenty-four red and yellow elk move in the opposite direction to the riders. The frames, which delimit the border, have squares with a griffin inside. The floral motif of the frame that separates the march of the knights from the pasture of moose recalls the cross of Saint Andrew. The central field is divided into twenty-four squares with a red background, with a cross-shaped design whose ends terminate with a stylized flower. A small frame, made up of small colored squares, decorates each of the twenty-four squares.

Today, the Pazyryk carpet, preserved at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, is regularly reproduced by modern carpet weavers (especially from northern Afghanistan), who find his “design” still rich in magical charm.

It is interesting to think of the Pazyryk carpet, placed in a real curtain, as the first known example in the world, of a room furnished with a carpet.

Even more fascinating is the thought that this example, so surprising for its beauty and refinement of execution, can furnish our homes even today.

 


1The symmetrical Turkibaft node, which in Persian means “knotted by the Turks”, is also known as ghiordes or simply Turkish knot. It takes this name because it is actually used mainly by the Turkish populations, including those of Persia. The Turkibaft node is one of the two types of nodes used by oriental populations for weaving carpets.

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