The Ardabil Carpet

The Ardabil Carpet: The Most Famous Oriental Carpet in the World

When oil magnate Jean Paul Getty was touring Europe in the late 1930s, building his massive art collection, he was “instantly captivated” by a 16th century Persian carpet he spotted at a Paris exhibition. Getty captured his treasure, an exquisite example of weaving artistry and craftsmanship with vibrant colors and striking detail, for $70,000 and then rolled it out to cover a floor in his Manhattan apartment.

Getty’s find was actually one of a pair of carpets, probably created for the famed Ardabil Shrine and Mosque in northwestern Iran. With the other Ardabil on display in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Getty ultimately donated his Ardabil to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1953. By then, the Ardabils were, and remain today, the most famous Oriental carpets in the world.

Getty’s donation has been periodically displayed at LACMA, but only five times since its premiere exhibition in 1965. In 2004, the Ardabil underwent a $250,000 restoration and cleaning. It was displayed in January, 2010, but usually resides in protective dark.

Whenever it is displayed it always draws a large crowd and its recent showings have been timely. “If we can agree about what is beautiful, then maybe there are other things we can agree upon,” says Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic art at LACMA.

The first thing a visitor might notice about the carpets is their size –they’re enormous. Originally measuring 34 feet by 17 feet, the outer border of the L.A. Ardabil was cut down in the 19th century, probably to repair its London twin, which still measures the full size. The L.A. carpet is now 24 feet by 13 feet, still an extraordinary size for a 16th century carpet, says Walter Denny, a carpet scholar and University of Massachusetts professor.

Indeed, “the Ardabils stand all by themselves in the history of carpets,” he says.

Constructed with an unusual silk foundation, the carpet’s wool pile consists of approximately 15.5 million hand-twisted knots. But it is the color and design of the Ardabil that have captivated audiences for centuries.

Viewed from above, the main blue field of the carpet features scrolling, leafy vines, seemingly layered one on top of the other. The vines are covered with lotus palmettes, a traditional Persian flower motif.

A central medallion is surrounded by 16 smaller ovals, a design repeated in the top corners of the carpet. Before the L.A. Ardabil was altered, they also were repeated at the bottom. This pattern conveys the feeling that inside the carpet there are an infinite number of repeating medallions.

Looking down at the precisely symmetrical central medallion, one sees a garden-like nature to the carpet, a suggestion, scholars say, that the innermost part of the medallion is a garden pool.

“For Iranians, the carpets are a symbol of the ultimate beauty in carpet weaving,” says Parviz Tanavoli, a retired art history professor in Tehran.

The Ardabils are two of only a handful of 16th century carpets to contain a signature and a date: 1540.

Yet this signature is where the many mysteries surrounding the Ardabils begin. The inscription bearing the signature reads:

Except for thy haven, there is no refuge for me in this world;

Other than here, there is no place for my head.

Work of a servant of the court, Maksud of Kashan.

The couplet is from an ode written by the legendary Persian poet Hafiz in the 14th century and most likely speaks to the religious purpose of adorning the shrine. However, no record of Maksud of Kashan has been discovered, though most believe he was a weaver-designer, or perhaps the donor, and a member of the ruling court.

There is also no record of where the carpets were made –Tabriz and Kashan are considered the most likely places– nor any proof, except for their longtime moniker, that the carpets actually came from the Shrine at Ardabil.

Persian history, however, supports the theory. At the start of the 16th century, after centuries of foreign rule, Shah Ismail Safavi proclaimed the Safavids the rulers of Persia. “This is when Iran became Iran,” according to Sheila Blair, an Islamic art expert and Boston College professor.

Shah Ismail established Shiite Islam as the state religion, and the Ardabil shrine where his remains and those of his ancestors are buried is closely associated with the rise of the Safavid Dynasty and the Shiite sect. Pilgrims journey there to this day.

Shah Ismail and his son Shah Tahmasp, during whose reign the Ardabils were made, led a renaissance of Islamic artistic traditions. Their Safavid court became a renowned patron of the arts whose commissions included carpets, of which the Ardabils are the most famous survivors.

This carpet’s journey to Los Angeles began in the late 19th century when the pair were reputedly purchased at Ardabil by the Manchester, England-based Zeigler and Co., a firm making carpets in Iran.

One Ardabil was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum for $4,000 at the urging of Arts and Crafts movement founder William Morris, according to Rexford Stead’s 1974 book “The Ardabil Carpets.” The other was purchased in London by an American collector, Charles Yerkes, in 1892 for $80,000, and passed through two other owners before Getty.

It was only after Getty was living with the carpet that its value began to be appreciated. In the 1940s, King Farouk of Egypt offered to buy it for more than $250,000. He wanted it as a wedding gift for his sister who was to marry the shah of Iran.

In 2004, a tattered 1-foot-square fragment, probably from the original border of the L.A. Ardabil, was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $78,000. Since it has been owned by LACMA, the L.A. Ardabil has remained mostly in storage because of its deteriorating condition. “Every time it was unrolled, there would be more tears,” says Catherine McLean, LACMA’s senior textile conservator.

In 1999, LACMA sent the Ardabil to the Royal Palace Textile Conservation Studios at Hampton Court Palace, London. The carpet was hand-washed, tears were mended and linen fabric was attached to the border on the back of the carpet for safe handling. Now, Getty’s bequest is in its best shape in decades. Its blues and turquoises shimmer even in the low light. Keeping it this way means exhibitions will be brief. Every day the Ardabil spends on display has the potential to diminish its beauty, say the curators, who measure its life in “cumulative light exposures.”