‘Samarkand’ rugs and carpets are truly creations of the fabled Silk Road. Although so designated by the rug trade for the great city in Central Asia though which they were exported to the West, rugs and carpets of this kind were actually woven in East Turkestan, i.e., the Xinjiang region that is now part of western China. The weavers who produced them were not, however, Chinese but Turkic-speaking Uighurs whose cultural ties extended far to the West into Central Asia and Persia. And so given the prominent activity of the Uighurs as craftsmen and merchants of the Silk Road, the rugs they produced quite naturally display a remarkable blend of Chinese, Central Asian, and Persian design elements, but always drawn together in a distinctive style and palette all their own.
‘Samarkand’ rugs and carpets were actually produced in several of the Silk Road cities of the Xingiang region – Kashgar, Khotan, and Yarkand, and it was in the last of these cities that this magnificent example was woven, for it displays the classic allover ‘pomegranate’ design characteristic of the finest Yarkand carpets. Here the main design is rendered in a rich, saturated shade of orange for the globe-like pomegranates themselves, while the delicate, leafy stems from which they emanate are done in a somewhat softer shade. The entire design is arranged as pairs of parallel, vertical ‘trees’ which start at either end of the carpet, meeting in the center to produce a larger mirrored design that appears satisfying when viewed from either end. The two vertical trees also mirror each other about an invisible central axis running the length of the field, whose deep blue color beautifully contrasts with the orange tones of the treelike pomegranate trellis.
A complex series of borders frames the entire composition. A delicate leafy vinescoll comprises the innermost minor border, followed by a grander, angular celadon green vinescroll with carnations alternating in color between blue and soft gold, punctuated by additional stems in green and the vibrant orange of the pomegranates in the field, all set against an autumnal soft orange ground. A second main border consists of the classic Chinese cloud band design rendered in soft greyish blue, creamy yellow, celadon green, and orange, accented with deep blue fleur-de-lis between the voluted cloud bands. A second leafy minor border on a soft gold ground comes next, followed by one last minor border of tiny leaves set against a dark blue ground to add one last framing touch.
The overall use of color here is masterful, not only in its various tonal juxtapositions, but in the subtle variation or ‘abrash’ of the oranges and golds, resulting from the use of natural vegetable dyes. The effect of the color is all the more lovely because of the extraordinarily luminous, silky wool of the thick, lush pile, which is remarkably well preserved. This exquisite carpet is a tribute to the rich and complex cultural history of the region and people that created it. And, as recent archaeological discoveries now indicate, Xingiang or East Turkestan may be one of the regions where carpet weaving itself originated thousands of years ago. Small wonder that that the weavers could achieve what we see here with such a long and distinguished tradition behind it.