Pictorial rugs

Pictorial rug, Lahaur, XX c.

With Shiite tradition allowing depiction of living creatures including human beings, the miniatures, just like European paintings, teem with genre scenes and portraits. Its influence on Persian carpet weaving can be found both in urban and regional rugs, comprising single elements or even great historical scenes inspired by the miniatures.

The rug we are presenting here is an outstanding example of weaving craft as well as a unique piece of pictorial art. It is a monumental portrait of King Solomon (Persian ‘Suleiman’) and Queen of Sheba (Persian ‘Belqeis’). Their unusual meeting was mentioned twice in the Bible and has been quite extensively described in the Quran, too.

The Queen of Sheba was to visit Solomon fascinated by the legends she heard concerning his wisdom. She had a long and exhausting journey through the land of Egypt and Red Sea accompanied by her numerous attendants. She brought the king many presents including outstanding jewels, sandalwood, myrrh and incense. Solomon’s gifts were even more impressive. As a result of this encounter, due to the legend, Menelik, the first king of Ethiopia was born.

Rug from Malayer with the figure of Huszanga, XVIII c.

Kerman rug with the picture of Huszanga, beginning of XX c.

King Solomon overwhelmed the Queen of Sheba with his wisdom, justice and might. The Bible quotes her words praising his greatness, wisdom, generosity, wealth and benignancy as well as his powerfull God who has given Solomon such great advantages. Some scholars have even claimed that Solomon convinced her to his faith, though the biblists rather doubt it, taking her words rather for appreciation of the mighty ruler, his unusual doings and powerfull dominion. In Quranic version however leaves no doubts about her conversion to Solomon’s faith.

Solomon has been portrayed on this rug in a manner typical to mythical kings of Persian tradition. There he is sitting on the throne carried by the devas. Arround his head shines the ancient khvarena (aureole) – the sign of royal power. He could well be Hushang or Jamshid, one of legendary rulers of the Book of Kings (Shahname) by Ferdousi.

The devas surrounded to the ruler as well as numerous courtiers and servants can be often find in Persian royal portraits.

However, the variety of animals as well as the presence od mythical bird, Simorgh, make one think of Solomon. In Muslim tradition has been known as a ruler whose wisdom arised from the ability to communication with animals.

Kerman rug with the image of King Solomon, XVIII c.

Nevertheless the primary indication that it is undoubtedly the depiction of Solomon is the picture of Queen of Sheba accompanied by dark-skinned servants. The legendary kingdom of Sheba is believed to had been located somewhere on the lands of today’s Yemen, Ethiopia or Eritrea.
The queen, as we see, has sent towards the king the hoopoe holding a letter in its beak. Quran tells us about the exchange of letters carried by this very bird between those two rulers.

Among numerous figures, one can see two women. One of them holds a baby in her arms. According to the Bible, Solomon artfuly arbitrated between two women each of whom mantained to be the mother of certain child, ordering them to cut the child in two pieces. Obviously, the real mother could be easily recognized as the one who would rather leave the child to the other than let it be killed. Queen of Sheba examined the wisdom of Solomon asking him riddles, as it was commonly practiced in ancient times. The story of the mother and the fraud could easily be one of those.

We learn from Quran that Solomon understood the language of all animals. Thus, symbolically he jointed the dominion of humans and animals, thus he gained the complete lordship over the world. The reflection of this unity in our rug are the humanized figures of animals standing on two feet and holding walking sticks. It is out of the same unity that Solomon’s army comprised jinns, humans and birds.
There are angels flying over the king’s head, whose figures remind more of winged cupids than Iranian Amesha Spenta similar to human beings, although they were often winged, too.

The echo of Queen of Sheba’s journey through Egypt could be a boy wearing Egyptian clothes.

An important element revealing the essence of Solomon power is a pool located in the bottom of the rug. This life-giving attribute of a garden, links the whole picture with the mythical scenery of paradise.

The border plays a similar role. In its upper and lower strips there are clear symbols of the temples of fire, wind towers with pools and plants as well as figures of guardians of fires. These motifs together with Simorgh the bird, mythical sower of the tree of life’s seeds, clearly correspond to important elements of old Persian culture.

The legend of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba brings different religious and cultural traditions together. As Biblical story it arises of course of Judaic culture and has been often presented in the weavings of Iranian Jews.

As the rug we described here comes from Lahore, it should not be left unsaid that during the XVIth and XVIIth centuries the most influential schools of Persian miniatures were located to the East from today’s borders of Iran, that is in nowadays India and Pakistan.

Jewish rug presenting King Solomon and Queen of Sheba, Kashan, XX c.

This rug, weaved in the mid-twentieth century can well speak for the dimensions od Persian cultural impact on that territory and their vitality.