The art of Armenian carpet and rug weaving has its roots in ancient times. However, due to the fragile nature of carpets very few examples have survived. Only one specimen has been discovered from the ancient (pre-Christian) period and relatively few specimens are in existence from the early medieval period which can be found in private collections, as well as various museums throughout the world.
"The complex history of Armenian weaving and needlework was acted out in the Near East, a vast, ancient, and ethnically diverse region. Few are the people who, like the Armenians, can boast of a continuous and consistent record of fine textile production from the 1st millennium BC to the present. Armenians today are blessed by the diversity and richness of a textile heritage passed on by thirty centuries of diligent practice; yet they are burdened by the pressure to keep alive a tradition nearly destroyed in the Armenian Genocideof 1915, and subverted by a technology that condemns handmade fabrics to museums and lets machines produce perfect, but lifeless cloth."
The Pazyryk Rug
Various rug fragments have been excavated in Armenia dating back to the 7th century BC or earlier. Complete rugs, or nearly complete rugs of this period have not yet been found. The oldest, single, surviving knotted carpet in existence is the Pazyryk carpet, excavated from a frozen tomb in Siberia, dated from the 5th to the 3rd century BC, now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Although claimed by many cultures, this square tufted carpet, almost perfectly intact, is considered by many experts to be of Caucasian, specifically Armenian, origin. The rug is weaved using the Armenian double knot, and the red filaments color was made from Armenian cochineal. The eminent authority of ancient carpets, Ulrich Schurmann, says of it, "From all the evidence available, I am convinced that the Pazyryk rug was a funeral accessory and most likely a masterpiece of Armenian workmanship." Gantzhorn concurs with this thesis. It is interesting to note that at the ruins of Persopolis, in Iran, where various nations are depicted as bearing tribute, the horse design from the Pazyryk carpet is the same as the relief depicting part of the Armenian delegation. The historian Herodotus writing in the 5th century BC also informs us that the inhabitants of the Caucasus wove beautiful rugs with brilliant colors which would never fade.
The Christian Period
Apart from the Pazyryk carpet, after Armenia declared itself as the first Christian state in 301 AD, carpet making took on a decidedly Christian art form and identity. This art form existed continuously unaltered until the Armenian Genocide. By the Middle Ages, Armenia was a major exporter of carpets to as far away places as China. In many Medieval Chinese artworks for example, carpets were depicted in which the designs were typically that of Armenian carpets with some even depicting clear Christian crosses. The art of the Armenian carpet during this period evolved alongside Armenian church architecture, Armenian cross-stones and illuminated manuscript art, with typical rug motifs using the same elements of these designs. The cruciform with its variations would eventually come to dominate Armenian carpet designs.
The Armenian Genocide
The Armenian Orphan Rug also known as the Ghazir Rug
The period of the Armenian Genocide from 1894-1923 saw a demographic change in the hitherto Armenian tradition of rug and carpet making in Anatolia (Western Armenia, as well as Turkey). Even though carpets from this region had established the commercial name of "Turkish Carpet," there is evidence to suggest that the majority of weavers in the Ottoman Empire were Armenians. However, after 1923, carpet making in the newly established Turkish republic was erroneously declared a "historically Turkish craft," as is claimed, for example, by the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum where many Armenian carpets are depicted as "Turkish or Islamic art."
During the Genocide, in addition to the catastrophic loss of many expert carpet weavers, thousands of Armenian children were also orphaned and the Near East Relief saved many of these children, some of whom ended up in the northern part of Beirut, where a rug factory would be established under the guidance of Dr. Jacob Kuenzler, a Swiss missionary. This factory was established for the purpose of teaching young orphans (mainly girls) rug weaving, so that they may go on making a living later on in their adult lives. Thus for a brief period "orphan-rugs" were created in this factory, the most famous of which was gifted to the White House in 1925, as a gesture of gratitude and good will towards the American people by the orphans. Known as the Armenian Orphan Rug, the rug depicts a Biblical Garden of Eden featuring various animals and symbols and measuring 12 feet by 18 feet with 4 million knots. This rug is said to have been made by 400 orphans over a period of 18 months from 1924-1925.
The Soviet Period
After a short-lived republic, Armenia fell to Soviet rule in 1920 and within a short period, carpet making in the Caucasus, as well as Central Asia, would take a new turn. The Soviet Union commercialized the trade and sponsored much of the production. Thus, carpet making went from a mostly home craft to a mostly commercial craft. However, in rural areas, the carpet making tradition in some families continued. Although commercial carpet makers were mostly free to practice their art, religious themes were discouraged. During this period the designs on Armenian rugs also changed somewhat, although the overall character remained. Many "Soviet carpets" were also produced depicting Communist leaders.
The Modern Era
With the fall of the Soviet Union, carpet making in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh continued. Private companies, as well as home workshops, were again revived. Among some weavers, the traditional method of using rug motifs from Armenian churches, manuscript art and cross-stones was also revived. After the Nagorno-Karabakh War, some carpet making workshops were formed to help the many displaced Armenians find employment. Today the traditional art of Armenian carpet making is kept alive by weavers in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh using all the methods, techniques, and designs from ancient times. This is remarkable considering the history of Armenia.