Lockdown has made us value our museums and galleries more than ever and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is one of our favourites.
We thought we’d explore one of their most fascinating exhibits, the oldest dated carpet and one of the largest and finest displayed anywhere in the world, the Ardabil Carpet
It is one of the most important objects in the V&A’s Middle Eastern Collection, and is the centrepiece of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic art, displayed on the floor in a specially engineered case created to conserve the carpet for at least the next 500 years.
The carpet is incredibly delicate and needs careful preservation, which is documented in the fascinating film below.
The display case makes sure dust and dirt particles are minimised and includes insect traps to ensure moths and other pests detrimental to the carpet are kept at bay. The carpet is lit for 10 minutes every half hour to preserve its rich colours and the effect of this minimal light on the carpet is carefully gauged. Opening the case is an intricate operation involving a hydraulic lift.
It was made in the town of Ardabil in north-west Iran, the burial place of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili, who died in 1334. The Shaykh was a Sufi leader, ancestor of Shah Ismail, founder of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722).
While the exact origins of the carpet are unclear, it’s believed to have been commissioned by the court for the shrine of the Shaykh, which, by the 16th century, had become a place of pilgrimage.
The carpet can be dated exactly due to an inscription woven in its edge date, 946 in the Muslim calendar, equivalent to AD 1539 – 1540.
The wool carpet is extremely dense, an astonishing 5,300 knots per ten centimetres square (compared to 100 knots per square inch on a Deirdre Dyson hand knotted carpet) This allows for a mind bogglingly intricate level of detail in the complex, bordered design featuring a central medallion, different sized lanterns, arabesques and foliate detail typical of carpets of the period.
There are 10 dyes used in the design, these create ‘Abrash’ a naturally occurring variation in shade due to the slight differences in dye batches which is unique to hand made carpets and even more apparent in a carpet of this scale. It is well documented that Middle Eastern carpets were deliberately imperfect, reflecting the belief that perfection belongs to God alone.
The carpet has been part of the V&A’s collection since 1893, prior to that it was documented as still being in the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din in 1843 – it was sold when an earthquake struck the shrine in the late 19th Century. Inspecting the carpet on behalf of the V&A, prior to acquisition designer William Morris reported it of “singular perfection … logically and consistently beautiful”.