A Legacy of Beauty

Islam has nourished a rich tradition in the decorative arts.


The design of a carpet can show where and when it was made. Persia and India are known for floral patterns. Geometric designs often denote Caucasian and Turkish rugs. Plants, flowers, and geometric patterns are symbolic, and rug merchants say the endless knot represents wisdom and immortality.

Walter Denny, who teaches art history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, says the two prayer rugs above tell an interesting story. Each depicts a triple-arched gateway with pairs of columns, evoking the entry to paradise. Each carpet was created as an artwork and a practical object, he says, but under vastly different circumstances.

An artist in Istanbul designed the earlier carpet (left), with its hanging lamp (symbolizing God's light) and borders of sickle-shaped leaves and various flowers. The artist of the later carpet, from a village in central Turkey, created her design as she wove. She simplified the forms of the earlier carpet, followed the geometry of the loom, and used brilliant colors and a longer pile. The pile surface of each carpet was woven with tiny knots of colored wool. The earlier carpet has a finer weave; the newer rug has more intense colors, and its pile was originally thicker.

"Using the same basic design format, the artist of each carpet used color, line, geometry, and symbolism in different ways," says Denny. "Each carpet is a masterpiece of its type—with its own vision both of art and of paradise."