This faded, slightly tattered carpet looks like many ancient wool rugs; but for those who know the history of antique rugs well enough, they will recognize this ancient carpet discovered in the Pazyryk valley of Russia as the oldest surviving carpet in the world. It is one of Russia’s many historic treasures housed at the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum and represents a fascinating insight into the nomadic tribesmen who roamed these plains millennia ago.
The Pazyrk carpet dates back to the 4th century BC, but its basic appearance is very much like modern handmade rugs, showing the continuity of style oriental rugs have shown over the centuries. The rug’s center is filled with a rectangle of 24 squares depicting lotus buds, surrounded by a single layer of boxes and four outer layers with deer, horsemen, and more floral patterns. Once it was cleaned, the reds, greens, and other vibrant colors showed despite its tremendous age, proof of the ancient dye's quality.
The exact origins of this carpet remain mysterious. It may be the oldest surviving Persian rug in the world, or it may be a locally made rug meant to imitate the beautiful Persian rugs of the south. A nomadic craftsman would certainly want to include images of horsemen onto a carpet, since riding was so central to daily life on the vast plain. It shows incredible skill and technique with its close weave and delicate pattern, which is why some say it must have come from a city, not the open plain. Remnants of oriental rugs have been found in other Pazyryk tombs, so there would have been contemporary Persian rugs to use as a guide. However, nobody knows for certain where this rug would have come from originally.
Adding to the confusion, in the 4th century BC, the northern Asian plains were at the middle of vast trade networks. Silk rugs traveled out of China and dyes such as the ones found in the Pazyryk carpet came out of Armenia in Eastern Europe. Nomadic herdsmen such as the Pazyryk tribes were at the center of these trade routes, so it would have been possible for an ambitious craftsman to gather local materials such as sheep’s wool, far flung dyes of Armenia and the carpets of Persia together when weaving one to imitate those crafted in the vast trade cities of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia.