Persian Rugs

When we were young, playing around with ideas how to make money, we had a little rug business, buying and selling high quality Persian rugs.

When we traveled through Parvin’s home country for the first time I spent hours and hours in the bazaars, enthralled, looking at exotic rugs, I was fascinated by this ancient artform Iran is so famous for. We could not afford to buy any on this first trip, we had no money and I was too restless and busy dreaming up crazy adventures in far away countries. But after we had returned from this first tour around the world, broke but fired up and hungry for more, we went again to Iran, borrowed money, and set out to seriously buy and try to sell later in Germany. At first I knew nothing about rugs but Parvin did; I knew nothing about business either, but she always had a healthy common-sense attitude toward business. The only thing I had to offer was a natural fascination with art and a good eye for general aesthetical quality.

The whole enterprise turned out to be a wonderful adventure. Good rugs are very expensive, at first I could never imagine to actually buy one for myself. The mere concept of walking around on a piece of art was very new and exciting for me. But now I was allowed to not only buy one but to buy many and to be free to take the very best. Parvin did the bargaining; I could revel in beauty and choose what pleased me. I soon got tired of the classic ‘Kermans’ and ‘Kashans’ you see everywhere and soon discovered exotic pieces of unique aesthetical quality, of mysterious sensual beauty, sometimes not only from the visual experience but also from the tactile feel of it. Large, thick, heavy rugs that would fill a room with marvelous atmosphere; I had never even dreamed of having a home where I could use one, but I could buy them all and roll around on them, it was fantastic.

 
A donkey is carrying some of our purchased rugs away

I spent so much time in dimly lit, dusty bazaars sipping tea and wallowing in artistic delight. I learned about the smell of rugs, the stiffness or rather the lack of it, the feel of stroking them in different directions. I learned how, besides wool, silk is sometimes used to create exquisite, subtle nuances in color and how silk reflects or absorbs light, depending on the direction from which you look at it. A good rug can have a preferred side to be viewed from. I learned that the density of knots is not always a measure of high quality.

There are classical designs that get replicated with only minimal variations over and over again. They shine in their traditional fidelity and, if done well, speak compellingly even to one who has no clue about the tradition. And there are designs that use the traditional elements but explore a much wider range of expression. While the classical, noble designs live from the variations of more or less solidified patterns, the other – I always called them the brilliant ones – are more like pictures where the elements often disappear in the over-all communication. The old ones are like Bach, the new ones like Beethoven.

This is a very classical Kashan

This is a Kerman as it was made for hundreds of years

 The classic designs are often replicas of ornaments in mosques

And this is a kind of Kashmar we specialized in.

 * * *

After learning more and more of the trade we went out to look for places where rugs were actually made. These places are often far away from the big cities and rarely visited by chareji (foreigners).

All this happened in the early and mid 70s when the Shah was still in power. A time, in spite of universal suppression of dissidents, of surprising liberal atmosphere, when one looks at it in retrospect. A time when women not only could run around publicly unveiled but could even wear miniskirts. A time when Tehran was a bit like Paris, when the memory of the glorious pre-Islam history of Iran was cherished, a short period in which Bahais or Zoroastrians, like Parvin’s family, could openly follow their old religion and even enjoy special respect as the bearers of ancient genuine Iranian culture. It was a doomed freedom though, we felt it very soon, the underground clerical forces were strongly opposed and we all know how it went on.

 * * *


Farvahar: The old symbol of ancient Zoroastrian Persia. The figure represents Zoroaster (Zarathustra, Zartosht), the founder of this first monotheistic religion and is the key-symbol (perhaps like what the cross is for the Christians). We found rugs with this iconic allegory in them.

 

The ruins of Tachte Jamshid (Persepolis), once the center of a glorious Iranian empire.

 

Persia about 550 years before Christ

It was the Greek Alexander the Great who conquered Iran, but he also brought refined European influence to this culture.

 * * *

 Sometimes Parvin wore a chador just to blend in, however, to this day these emblematic things remind her of a difficult time when she had to grow up in such an oppressive environment.

Out in the country a woman without chador was still seen with suspicion but also with hidden respect when she knew how to behave. And Parvin with this strange hippie as showhar (husband) who made these cute attempts to speak their language had never a problem to win their friendship.

 

They showed us the workshops where the poor women sat side by side before the racks and looked at us, shy but friendly.

 

 

They were surprised that we looked for vivid, picturesque rugs. In traditional Islamic art the depiction of live things is not appropriate, it’s the abstraction, the mystical symbol that is expected to enhance a feeling of religious devotion; any portrayal of humans is considered distracting. But there have always been free thinkers, often Sufis, who did other interpretations of the same thing. They understood what we meant, and at places far out in nowhere we found amazing pieces.

 

 Esfahan is one of the most interesting cities in Iran, full of art of all kinds.

* * *

We drove around with a big green Mercedes-van (Grüne Minna), originally a delivery truck, my second creation in a long series of self-made motor homes. Looking back, it had many flaws, but it had a huge bed – always a number-one priority in all our motor homes – a wonderful couch, a baking stove, a diesel-powered heater, no fridge – I have no idea how we could ever do it without – lots of storage for (rugs), water, and diesel.

To get to Iran you have to drive through many countries all across Europe and Asia, a dangerous trip then on horrible roads. We did it many times.

Some of our tracks in those years

Diesel was cheaper than water in Iran. Once we drove the 5000 km from Tehran to Munich without ever filling up at a gas station. A big old oil drum, banged to shape so it would fit into the rear compartment, countless old 5 gallon oil containers, even big glass bottles, they were all filled with diesel until the rig creaked in its springs. It took hours to fill up in Tehran, but the entire trip cost was under 30 bucks. (I should mention that we mostly remember the terrible stink of diesel we could never escape from on this trip).

Our ‘Grüne Minna‘ survived all abuses on wild, endless desert tracks, it never failed us.

 

Out in the desert I had to learn my lessons.

On one trip we drove for hours on a brand new not yet opened road in remote eastern Turkey (we never found it on any map), no one hindered us to do so, but the asphalt on the road soon turned out to be still liquid (it was incredibly hot) and it’s easy to imagine how the van looked like when we finally reached terra firma again.

We managed to wash off some of it with gasoline, but the entire bottom was sealed forever with caked bitumen, which actually prevented it successfully from rusting.

Turkey was notorious for its bad roads. Anatolia is barren and empty of people; the sheepherders there were famous for throwing rocks at passing trucks, I’m sure they were bored to death and they threw rocks at their sheep too. Once they got us and smashed the window, and we had no other choice but drive home 4000 km without a windshield.

It was quite a trip, we had rain and snow, I got stung by bees, but we smelled all the wonderful smells of spring you otherwise miss, and in Bulgaria we threw unripe plums on cars driving before us (from outside you couldn’t see that there was no glass). When we finally reached the German border and, just for fun, I handed out my passport through the non-existing windshield those typically German jerks wrote me a ticket.

 

Our rig somewhere on the empty plains of Anatolia in eastern Turkey, in the background: Mt. Ararat. The great story in the bible says this was the mountain peak that Noah’s ark landed on as the waters of the great flood receded

 

The ancient city of Bam in south eastern Iran. This is a historical picture because the whole city was later completely destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 2003.

The entire city is built of adobe. Outside of the walls are wonderful date plantations that produce the best dates I’ve ever eaten in my life.

 The oldest part of the city was already devastated by earthquakes long before.

* * *

Back home in Germany in the late 70s we finally decided to play by the rules for a while, settled down, started careers, made tons of money, and made more money selling our beautiful treasures.

* * *

For more stories about these times click: A day in a fairy tale or A gun story or Driving through India or The queen of Afghanistan

                                                                                Klaus July 29. 2011

This entry was posted in older, Other Travels, Stories and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Persian Rugs

  1. Richard Thuillier says:

    Wonderful story and pictures. As you say, historical pictures now that the city is gone. You have a lot of pictures from those years of travels of places that are gone now. Always a pleasure to see your stories and the old pictures of the two of you.

  2. Jojo Scheunemann says:

    Hallo Ihr Beiden, wir sind immer sehr begeistert von den zauberhaften Bildern und Storys. Gerade haben wir den Olympic Nationalp. und Oregon hinter uns. Es war besonders im OLY.PARK besonders beeindruckend ,das Licht ,die Bäume und Pflanzen, unwirklich.
    Wollten eigentlich bei Euch vorbeischauen aber waren wegen der Ferien unserer uns kurzfristig begleitenden Kinder in Zeitnot.
    Nun sind wir in San Francisco. im Januar fliegen wir wieder zurück. Jojo (Walsrode Schule)und Birgit aus Hamburg. Wir haben uns im Joshua Tree getroffen.Herzlichen Gruß

  3. aria says:

    Dear Klaus, very interesting to read, underlined with beautiful pictures, and clearly out of the view of a ‘foreign visitor’ who has good insight into the country and Iranian culture.

    I do disagree with on one point though, that Alexander (the Great?) brought refined European culture on his conquest; this is purely from the European perspective and a myth, porbably couldn’t be further away from truth, it is fact that he brought destruction (Persepolis) and learned and took more then he ever could have given back. History is written by the winner though and passed on via the Greek gatekeepers to Europe, but this doesn’t coincide with the locally known history.

  4. firasz says:

    What a magnificent account of your travel in those ’70s. Remarkable way of story telling with the photos that give an instant feel of those times. Just like reading through history, but with greater interest! The lost city photos are unbelievable to see now—they are a real treasure! You are one of the greatest ever traveler I had ever seen!

    Thank you very much for sharing your experience! It’s a timeless entertainment!

  5. masoud says:

    thank you so much for lovely photos . good story and A Magical View of Iran’s Golden Age

  6. Steve says:

    Very nice article and nothing like seeing vintage pictures, along with the travel . I met someone a few years ago that bought and sold true Persian rugs at auction and yes upwards of 20k from what I recall.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s