The earliest record of rugs date back to the Old Testament period and was mentioned in Homer; they were known to the ancient Chinese, the Egyptians, and the Greeks. While a variety of weavings are mentioned in ancient writings, the origin of handwoven Oriental rugs is uncertain. The earliest surviving piece, known as the Pazyryk carpet, dates back to about 400-500 B.C. Discovered in a burial site excavated in southern Siberia in 1947-49 and is now part of the Hermitage Museum Collection in Leningrad. Rugs were made in Persia during the reign of Cyrus (549-530 BC), whose tomb was said to have been covered with precious carpets. By the l6th century, traditions of rug making were highly developed in Persia and Turkey. It then spread north to the Caucasus and east to India, Turkistan (Turkestan), and China; finally, it reached Europe and the West. The American Indians developed weaving traditions independently.
The basic techniques of rug making were first developed in the East. There are two types of knots used in rug-weaving: the Turkish knot (also called Ghiordes or symmetrical knot) and the Persian knot (also known as Senneh or asymmetrical knot). Traditional Oriental rugs are made on vertical looms strung with warp threads. Pile rugs use lengths of yarn tied in Turkish or Persian knots with rows of horizontal weft yarn laced over and under the vertical warp threads for strength. The finer the yarn and the closer the warp threads are strung together, the denser the weave and, usually, the finer the quality. Flat-woven rugs are lighter in weight and less bulky than pile rugs. Warp and weft yarns are made by either wool or cotton. Yarns have been used in their natural colors or colored with dyes extracted from flowers, roots, and insects. Colors, available in a wide spectrum, often have had symbolic as well as decorative importance, especially in Oriental rugs. Despite the existence of distinctive regional styles and motifs, many designs are common to diverse regions in the East and even in the West.
The great tradition of rug making culminated in the 16th and 17th centuries in densely woven court carpets of the Safavid period in Persia. A graceful, curvilinear style and a masterful use of color is typical of Persian rugs. The carpets in this region are classified according to a particular type of design displayed in each such as the medallion, garden, flower, vase, animal and hunting carpets, Regional and village carpets of Persia most often use the central medallion design or all-over pattern of flowers or other flowing forms; they are usually but not always more coarsely woven than court carpets. Regional carpets are usually designated by their place of origin.
Turkish carpets were the first Orientals to be imported into Europe and often appeared in late-Renaissance paintings mostly woven in villages in Anatolia in bright, rich colors with geometric forms such as the star and diamond as well as linear floral forms.
The golden age of Indian rug making occurred under the Mogul emperors who ruled from the mid-16th to the mid-17th century and who imported not only designs and traditions from Persia but weavers as well. The greatest Indian examples were the finely woven florals and the hunting carpets, with their remarkably naturalistic designs.
Carpets made by the nomads of central Asia are collectively designated as Turkoman carpets. The geographic and cultural isolation of the region accounts for the distinctive character of the rugs. Most are reddish and have a geometric design that incorporates, in an all-over pattern, the coat of arms (gul) of the individual tribe. The principal design motifs are medallions in the shape of flattened circles, a pomegranate tree growing out of a vase, and such Chinese figures as bats, butterflies, and frets.
Caucasian rugs are made by various tribes in the mountainous district between the Black and Caspian seas. The designs are often dense all-over patterns of geometric elements — squares, diamonds, stars, and frets — or motifs drawn with angular lines in bold, clear colors. The rugs are generally small, with wide multiple borders.
Simplicity of design, serenity of composition, a limited range of subdued and harmonious colors, and symbolic motifs characterize Chinese carpets. The earliest surviving examples are from the late Ming dynasty in the mid-17th century; they are decorated with simple arrangements of geometric forms, typically a medallion, sometimes with a dragon, and repeat patterns.