When a merchant unrolls an oriental rug in a dusty bazaar at one of the trading centers along the Silk Route, that rug will have been woven in a tradition that is centuries old. With each rug, there will be at least one surprise in its design that will defy our Western notions and create a level of energy. When taken as a whole the rug will be perfectly balanced and will speak to your soul.
This is what makes the oriental rug truly a work of art. And this is what brings us back to the Silk Route year after year.
Our search begins on the eastern-most shore of the Mediterranean. First arriving in Istanbul - a city at the crossroads of Western and Eastern culture - we travel on to the outlying villages of what was once Constantinople - seat of the Ottoman Empire.
We follow the ancient Silk Route - a caravan route that criss-crosses all of the Middle East and Asia and leads to the exchange of both goods and ideas between the East and West.
Though popularized by the travels of Marco Polo and the crusades, there is ample evidence in Egyptian tapestries to suggest that information and goods traversed the Silk Route 4000 years ago and that the Romans purchased silk from the Chinese using this network of early highways and nautical routes that traversed the Black Sea. The route in fact, looked like - and had the same economic impact - as our rail system that opened America to trade and improved our standard of living as a nation during the 1860's by making all sorts of goods available.
The Silk Route continued to influence life and play an economic role in Europe throughout history. Monks are often depicted spinning silk from cocoons that arrived into Byzantium from China and were shipped to Greece, Italy, Spain and France from the 7th Century onward. The road from the north passed over Batum to Trabzon, Sinop, Istanbul, Bursa and Gallipoli reaching Venice and the Mediterranean, then extending from Syria to Antakya, Antalya, Izmir, Foca and from there to Europe.
In the 13th Century, Marco Polo made the Silk Route famous as a trading caravan route stretching from Europe to China. This caravan route became the life line for sedentary and nomadic people to acquire wonderful European goods in exchange for indigenous items such as silk, spices and hand-knotted rugs. A little known or understood fact about this trade is that these rugs, though beautiful and exotic, were not plentiful or available in great numbers. Therefore, rugs were never an important trade item, only acquired in small numbers and often used as we use tarps today.
Even the native weavers placed no significant value on oriental rugs, they were simply viewed as quaint folk art, fashioned into utilitarian objects such as beds, bags, saddles, and tent doors - about the same way an American settler would create a quilt out of available fabric. In fact, when, oriental rugs were first imported to America, they came over as packing and ballast on ships and sold dockside in Boston and Salem, MA as foot wipers - definitely not attaining any stature as a trade item until the early 19th century.
Today, when we return to the Silk Route in search of oriental rugs, our journey not only follows in the tradition of those early trade caravans, but retraces my own family history as well. My father, Arthur T. Gregorian, trekked across Persia at the turn of the century. He was an eight-year-old refugee, fleeing his homeland before raiding Kurds and Turks during the outbreak of World War I. It is the stories of his flight to America, which I learned on my father's knee, that drew me back to Persia.
Or perhaps it is simply in the genes.
John B. Gregorian
Copies of Oriental Rugs of the Silk Route may be purchased for $50 at John Gregorian's talk on Sunday, April 30, 2 pm in the Dodd Center. Mr. Gregorian will be available to sign books.