What is a Sarouk Rug?
A Sarouk rug is a type of Persian rug originally woven in the Arak weaving district of Iran in the late 19th and early 20th century. Some are expensive: $45,000 to $60,000 for a great 9′ by 12′, for example. But what is the difference between a Ferahan and a Ferahan Sarouk Or between a Malayer and a Josan Sarouk? And why does America get to have its own kind of Sarouk? For collectors and home-decorators alike, big money may ride on being well-informed about Sarouks. Let’s see if we can sort them out.
Setting the stage with some Persian rug history
Persia enjoyed a golden age of rug making during the 16th and 17th centuries, but it was ended by the Afghan invasion in 1722 and an ensuing period of nearly continuous warfare. Carpet-making as an industry seems to have nearly died in Persia during the 18th and much of the 19th centuries. But toward the end of the 19th century, carpet merchants in Tabriz in Northern Persia began to enjoy strong demand for carpets from the West. To meet demand, by 1875 they had organized rug weaving in and around the town of Arak (formerly known as Sultanabad) in north-western Iran. By 1883, Western companies had established their own presence in Arak (Ziegler and Company was the first and most important) and were producing rugs with Western tastes in mind.
Ferahan type Persian rugs
One of the earliest of the new breed of Arak District Persian rugs were known as Ferahans—not Ferahan Sarouks, but simply Ferahans. We mention them here only to distinguish them from the rugs that became known as Ferahan Sarouks.
Ferahans seem to have been made from about 1875 until perhaps 1913. Nearly all were in Herati designs unbroken by medallions, on madder red fields. Ordinarily they were in long and narrow sizes, like 7 ft by 15 ft—though I have seen a few roughly 4 by 6 ft pieces too. They were asymmetrically knotted and single wefted. Many were prized for the color of their borders, invariably described in books as pistachio green. I’m sorry to say they are all worn out. Perhaps three good-conditioned Ferahans have passed through my hands in the past 30 years and none in the past ten. Younger members of my staff have never seen even a worn Ferahan.
Persian Ferahan Sarouk rugs
Another weave was developed in the Arak District at nearly the same time, commissioned by Tabriz merchants and woven from about 1890 to World War One. Simply called Sarouks at the time, these are the rugs that have become known as Ferahan Sarouks. In appearance they are quite different from Ferahans. They’re finer (an average of 270 knots per square inch in a recent sampling) and heavier (they are double-wefted with depressed warps) and unlike Ferahans are most often made in medallion designs on blue or ivory fields. Fairly often they were made in pictorial designs featuring trees and birds.
In the first years of their manufacture, local weaving skills simply were not up to the detailed designs supplied by the Tabriz merchants. Weavers managed to produce finely knotted carpets, but everything in them is just a little out of whack. There is something charmingly clumsy about these Ferahan Sarouks. Indeed, their lack of perfection is a characteristic by which they may be identified. Weavers in Kashan who were making rugs at the same time with similar designs and of similar fineness usually produced more skillfully woven rugs, though perhaps not as charming.
As they have become scarce, Ferahan Sarouks have become extremely desirable and hideously expensive. I personally share the market’s enthusiasm for Ferahan Sarouks. Though they were merely commercial products of their day, created to fill a market demand, the best of these naturally-dyed carpets are wonderful, and they all have a true Persian character. By World War One, the same market forces that had created them judged them to be old fashioned, and their production gave way to the American Sarouk.
Malayer Sarouks and Josan Sarouks
An old dirt road connects Arak and Hamadan, which lie about 125 miles apart. On this road, roughly half way between, lie two villages, Malayer and Josan, whose rugs are often mistaken for Ferahan Sarouks. Rugs from both villages share many characteristics with Ferahan Sarouks: a fine weave and designs featuring medallions, for instance. But they are symmetrically knotted and usually not quite as nice as old Ferahan Sarouks.
Why? For one, they are more likely to have been made with synthetic dyes and often they have pronounced, even jarring abrash. Still, the best old Malayers and Josans are marvelous rugs.
The American Sarouk
Writing in the late 1940s, English oriental carpet professional A. Cecil Edwards identified the gentleman who dreamed up the first rugs destined to become known as American Sarouks or painted Sarouks. Mr. S. Tyriakian, of the New York firm of K.S Taushandjian, thought Americans might buy rose-field carpets with blue borders and detached floral motives. He submitted his own design to Arak weavers, a design that was not very Persian in character but was nonetheless attractive. Writes Edwards, "The design was successful beyond its creator’s fondest imaginings. The orders poured in to Sultanabad…Before long, Sultanabad was weaving little else…Unhappily, the story does not end there. The new style radiated outwards from Sultanabad and spread its baleful influence over the designers of Kashan, Meshed, Kerman and Hamadan. Tabriz alone escaped." Why does Edwards call the new style baleful? Largely because of its monotony and pervasiveness over many years, but also because of an additional twist. You see, the beautiful, naturally-dyed rose color used in Sarouks of the 20s and 30s could not stand up to the alkaline bath to which new rugs in Arak were subjected in the finishing process. The rose-color faded radically.
But instead of changing the finishing process or changing the composition of the dyes to stand up to alkali, New York merchants "solved" the problem by arming their staffs with synthetic dyes and little paint brushes with which they painted back in the rose-color in the entire fields of thousands and thousands of rugs and carpets over a period of 20 years.
Seventy five years later, many of these Sarouks are still in use on American floors. Some look terrible. Their painted-on red has become mottled and uneven. Others, defying reasonable expectations, look wonderful! After being lightly regarded for perhaps forty years, they are now back in favor. The grace of age has given them added value in our eyes. A pretty 9 by 12 ft carpet, in by no means perfect condition, can easily fetch $8,500. During the past 15 years techniques have been developed for stripping the paint from old Sarouks. Sometimes the process results in the restoration of a rug’s original, glorious color. But not always. The results are inconsistent, and it is possible to ruin a Sarouk by stripping it. In any case, because the process is hard on rugs, only Sarouks in very good condition can be successfully stripped.
How do you identify an American Sarouk? They are woven with the asymmetrical knot, usually about 120 of them per square inch. They are double wefted and have a fairly stiff handle. At least 95% are in rose fields; a few are blue. They have designs of scattered floral sprays. If, in addition to these features, you find that the field-color of a carpet is light rose on the back and dark rose- or even burgundy- on the top, it’s an American Sarouk.
Every rug dealer knows exactly what a Mohajaran Sarouk is. The trouble is that they don’t agree. A survey of a few of my colleagues reveals that some believe Mohajarans began to be woven in about 1900 while others think they were not produced until about 1920. One dealer says there was a village named Mohajaran near Arak and that Mohajarans were made there—though I’ve not been able to find Mohajaran on any map. Others believe that Mohajaran is nothing but the name of a grade of Sarouk. Most believe that Mohajarans are finer than American painted Sarouks, though my survey suggests they are just the same—about 120 knots per square inch. Unfortunately, no one has written authoritatively about Mohajaran Sarouks. A. Cecil Edwards, who was in the rug business from about 1900 to 1947 and who for many years was stationed in Persia, says not a word about them though he writes at length about other kinds of Sarouks. It seems likely that, whatever Mohajaran Sarouks are, they were not thought of as separate from other American Sarouks until after Edward’s time.
Here’s what most dealers do seem to agree on. Mohajarans were contemporaries of the American painted Sarouk, made from about 1924 or earlier (I personally doubt they were made earlier) until the late 1930s. Though their designs of scattered floral sprays are essentially the same as those in American Sarouks, they are sparer and less highly ornamented than American Sarouks. They are more likely to have blue fields than American Sarouks, though rose fields probably constitute the majority. Some dealers have noted in them a softer, more blankety handle than in other American Sarouks. They may be a little less likely to have been painted. Small Mohajarans are rare; most are room-sized. Dealers also agree that they are more valuable than American Sarouks as, indeed, they are rarer and often prettier.
Did Mohajarans have a common maker: a particular workshop or a village behind them? Possibly so. But it is also possible that Mohajaran is nothing but the name we give to extra nice American Sarouks. Some are very nice indeed and are worth the extra cost.
Indo-Sarouks are Indian copies of Sarouks. For decades Indian rug makers tried to capture the look of old Sarouks without succeeding. Just lately, though, we have begun to see impressively attractive and well-made Indo-Sarouks. (I have counted 169 knots per inch in a Mohajaran look-alike and nearly 300 knots in a Ferahan knock-off.) As with many other new rugs in the market now, rug-designers have gone back to the best old pieces for their models. When rug-makers reproduce American Sarouks, for instance, they often copy exceptional old Mohajaran-types with spare designs. The best producers have captured the exquisite rose-color of old Sarouks. A few manufacturers have undertaken to reproduce old Ferahan Sarouks and one or two have succeeded admirably. Most, though, are still short of the mark when it comes to capturing the beauty of an old Ferahan Sarouk.