While the most famous rug in history is a debatable topic, more often than not the honor falls on the illustrious Ardabil Rug. The Ardabil Rug is actually a pair of rugs and a series of nomadic fragments dating back to sometime in the middle of the 16th century so they aren’t noted especially for their old age. Rather, the Ardabil Rug pieces are considered exemplary masterpieces of Persian rug artistry. Currently, the larger rug is on display at the Victoria and Albert museum in South Kensington, London while the smaller rug is in the possession of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The Ardabil Rug finds its origins in the influence of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili who instilled the values of Islamic mysticism in his students before his death in 1334. When Safavid Shah Tahmasp I, a devout follower of Ardabili’s teachings, came into power, he ordered a shrine to be erected in honor of Ardabili. But it wasn’t until sometime around 1540 that the Ardabili rug was woven as part of a renovation of the shrine. This would have been just at the inception of the royal factory system that found carefully curated artisans procured for the royal court for the purpose of creating a rug splendid enough to adorn the shrine. Woven at the pinnacle of Persian rug craftsmanship by the best artisans of the time, it’s no wonder why the Ardabil Rug is held in such high regard.
One of the most obviously distinguishable aspects of the Ardabil Rug on display in London is the woven inclusion of a series of lines of poetry, indicating the sacred power this rug invoked in a shrine of sanctuary. The lines roughly translate as:
“Except for thy threshold, there is no refuge for me in all the world.Except for this door there is no resting place for my head.The work of the slave of the portal, Maqsud Kashani.”
It’s widely believed that the final line is a signature of sorts with Maqsud Kashani most likely serving as the royal official supervising the weaving of the Ardabil Rug. He may not have been a literal slave but likely chose such strong words to express humbleness in the face of the sacred energy of the shrine and the work of art itself. This portion of the Ardabil Rug also provides a date of 946 in the Muslim calendar which would convert to roughly AD 1539 or AD 1540.
After an earthquake left the shrine with considerable damage sometime toward the end of the 1800s, the Ardabil rugs were sold, possibly as a means to financially cover repairs needed for the shrine. While Ziegler & Co. were the first to purchase the rugs, they quickly sold the piece that is now on display in London to the Victoria and Albert museum in 1893. The other significant piece of the Ardabil Rug made its way to the U.S. trading hands among collectors until J. Paul Getty donated it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The knot density of the Ardabil Rug on display in London measures somewhere between an impressive 300 – 350 knots per square inch. There are well over 26 million knots making up the 34.5 ft. x 17.5 ft. Persian rug. The piece in Los Angeles actually boasts an even higher knot density. Additional pieces of the Ardabil Rug are still in circulation but most references point to the piece on display in London as the senior masterpiece with the Los Angeles piece as its junior. The London piece is still in its original form whereas the Los Angeles piece is a composite created from fragments of the original, smaller in size than the London piece, and lacking a border.
The Ardabil Rug pieces serve as the most well-known examples of Ardabil rugs, a specific type of Persian rug woven using Azerbaijani knots. However, due to its prestigious craftsmanship and storied history, the rug on display in London is given special treatment. The Victoria and Albert museum only illuminates the Ardabil Rug for 10 minutes at a time, twice an hour, to preserve its color. Though it was once presented hanging from a museum wall, it has since been placed behind glass and laid flat to be displayed as it was intended. The next time you find yourself in London, treat yourself to a viewing of the world’s most famous Persian rug, the illustrious Ardabil Rug, in the main gallery of their Islamic Art exhibit.