Prologue

dragon

The first mention and still the best discussion of the Ferrier Dragon Rug appeared in A History of Oriental Carpets Before 1800, written by F. R. Martin and published in 1908. Seeking to understand the history of Oriental rugs, Martin had researched, among other things, every travel book from the time of the Greek Empire to the beginning of the 19th century, searching for mention of what we now call Oriental rugs. One of his important discoveries had been Travels in Disguise, written in 1692 by the Frenchman, L. B. Ferrier, about his travels in Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Samarkand and China. As translated by Martin himself, the Ferrier passage that has since intrigued so many rug scholars and collectors is as follows:

Having entered China dressed and, I hoped, sufficiently disguised as a Chinese monk, and having established myself (by means of signs I made with my hands) as a holy man who had taken vows of silence, I was permitted to go wherever I wished—that is, I dare say, where no European had ever trod before. I was forever in fear of being discovered, and in morbid moments I wondered whether, if I were unveiled as a fraud, my punishment might be to have my tongue cut out so that I might truly be what I seemed, a mute.

It seemed to me that, as a holy man, my status was ambiguous to the guardians of gates, so to speak, They did not know what to do with me and simply left me alone to do whatever I would. So it was that, after just a few gestures with my hands, I was able to enter unhindered the fabulous palace of Ling Sui Wen with my filthy feet and the few rags I wore. I was left alone to sleep in whatever corner I could find, as long as I was not too much in the way of the kitchen workers or others who had duties.

So it was that I left my corner of a hallway one night and went in search of what I had heard rumors of, the “inner Palace.” Guided by the word “inner,” which I took quite literally to refer to the interior or central part of the palace, I wound through the hallways always choosing the central-most way, striving always to reach the heart of the palace or its innermost geography. Of course no sign marked such a territory, nor could I have read it if one had. No, there was no sign at all and no guard nor barrier nor dragon but for the one I shall presently describe. But presently I was convinced I had gained the inner palace. I was so informed by the simplicity and dignity of all I saw, just as one divines the difference between an office of commerce and a church. This seemed to me to be a cathedral, a place of worship, an area, as it were, of spirit. Guttering candles lit the room and led me to its center, and there lay a rug made of wool pile, and nothing lay on it but its own design. On the rug’s saffron yellow ground lay a dragon, or, rather, there floated or flew a dragon, his head not directly in the rug’s center but somewhat to one side, and he seemed to look into my eyes. He was wingless, four-legged, fanged and clawed— bristling, blue, bescaled, magnificent— a five-toed dragon royal. Never, before that moment, had I been anything other than amused by the dragons in Chinese carpets. They had struck me as comically fierce, mere cartoons. But in that light, or in that chamber, or perhaps because of the danger I was in of being discovered, my dragon thrilled me through. But, really, it was none of that, the strange light or the danger I was in, it was his eyes. “Who are you?” they seemed to ask. “Why have you wandered from your homeland and your people? Why do you disguise yourself among strangers? What do you hide?”

Though soon I retreated from the chamber, I was haunted [envoutant in Ferrier’s original French text] and am haunted still by the dragon’s eyes glaring into mine, asking questions for which I had no answers.

That is the passage that Martin translated at the beginning of the 20th century and which, for more than a hundred years since then, has caused so much speculation, confrontation and refutation among rug scholars and collectors. Martin adds his own speculation as follows.

First, did the rug exist at all or did Ferrier create it from whole cloth? Did he really wander China posed as a mute monk, and if he did, did his disguise really give him access to the inner sanctum he describes? Then, as now, a good story sells travel books.

And yet his description of the dragon rug rings true: its saffron field, the fearsome blue dragon with scales and five toes. Why was it woven? Who commissioned it? If ever it surfaces we will be able to analyze the details of its construction and will finally unlock its mysteries.

We do know that later in his narrative Ferrier casts off his disguise and vows never again to “seem to be what I am not, for I had been haunted by the dragon’s eyes,” he says, “which seemed to ask why I did not join the ranks of honest people. No longer would I seek to gain their trust by currying sympathy or fear. I would be myself and travel as what I was, a French adventurer in fabulous lands seeking impressions for a book, a man whose life had been changed by the eyes of a dragon.” And, according to his account, Ferrier, who had traveled the world essentially as a con artist living off the deluded good will of his hosts, was as good as his word and never again traveled in disguise.

But, again, what of the Ferrier dragon rug? If it was real, will we ever find it? And will we recognize the rug by the dragon’s eyes? Surely, of all the rugs that may never have existed, this must be the most fascinating.

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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