As people might know, Armenian national garments and rugs are often adorned with a rich, deep red color. But what most might not realize is that this is all thanks to a little insect called the “Armenian cochineal“ also known as “Kermes” which is indigenous to the Ararat plain and Aras River valley in the Armenian Highlands. The lowly scale bug, lies at the center of the creation of one of the most rare and special pigments known to man; the Armenian color Vordan Karmir. In his book Forty Centuries of Ink (1904) David Carvalho who solved crime cases through his expertise in ink, tells the history of ink and writes:
“The term scarlet as employed in the Old Testament was used to designate the blood-red color procured from an insect somewhat resembling cochineal, found in great quantities in Armenia…”
The dye has been prepared in the Ararat Valley since the most ancient times. The Bible mentions that Noah’s descendants wore garments colored with a red dye made from the scale bug. Records of Sargon II dated to 714 BC make note of the precious red fabrics that had been taken from the country around Ararat as trophies of war. During the Middle Ages the Armenian cochineal dyestuff vordan karmir, also known in Persia as kirmiz, was widely celebrated in the Near East.
Ancient physicians also took advantage of its medicinal qualities: soothing temperatures, antiseptic for wounds, and for contraception. The textiles made with Armenian crimson were highly valued in Greece and Rome alike. The beauty queens of the time had many cosmetic uses for the bug. Additional recognition came during the Arab invasion in the period of 7th to 9th centuries AD, when the Europeans declared it the “Wonder of the Orient” for its unique ability to delight the eye.
Some of the more specific descriptions of the dye and the bug are to be found in the notes of Arab travelers and explorers. A renowned writer and geographer, Abu-Isaak Al-Istarkhi, mentioned in his book the Roadmap of Kingdoms (930 AD):
“In the city of Dabil (Dvin) woolen dresses, carpets, pillows, saddles, ropes and many other articles of Armenian industry are made. Also, the red dye kirmiz is manufactured here, and it is used to dye fabrics. I discovered that kirmiz is extracted from the larvae that knit around themselves just as silkworms do.”
Another Arab traveler, Shams Ud-Din Al-Muqaddas, reports:
“Kirmis… is a worm that lives in the ground; women go there and collect the worms in copper… Which they later place in bread ovens.”
The Armenian cities Artashat and Dvin were early centers of its production: during the 8th through 10th centuries Arab and Persian historians even referred to Artashat as “the town of kirmiz” and “the city of the color red”. The early medieval Armenian historians Ghazar Parpetsi and Movses Khorenatsi also wrote specifically of a worm-produced dyestuff from the Ararat region which the Armenians used in garments, rugs, illuminated manuscripts and church fresco’s. The Arabs and Persians regarded kirmiz as one of the most valuable commodities exported from Armenia. The crimson Armenian cochineal-based dyes were equally highly prized in Europe for dyeing silk. There is evidence that Stradivarius and Leonardo Da Vinci used Armenian crimson, and that Rembrandt tried to acquire the vordan as well. On the comparison between Armenian and Polish cochineal, the author of a 15th-century treatise on silks in Florence wrote that:
“two pounds of the large [Armenian cochineal insects] will dye as much [silk] as one pound of small [Polish cochineal insects]; it is true that it gives a more noble and brighter colour than the small, but it gives less dye.”
Regarding it’s value in renaissance Europe, French historian Cardon, Dominique (2007) wrote that according to the records of a Venetian merchant trading in Constantinople during the 1430s, even the cheapest Armenian cochineal insects were still worth more, pound-for-pound, than some live slaves (Circassian women and adolescents) that he had bought. These insects were so valuable that in Constantinople during the 1430s, one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of Armenian cochineal insects was worth more than 5 grams (0.18 ounces) of gold.
Chemical analyses have identified the dye of Armenian cochineal in Coptic textiles of the 3rd through 10th centuries, a cashmere cloth used in a kaftan from Sassanid Persia in the 6th or 7th century, silk liturgical gloves from 15th-century France, and Ottoman fabrics such as velvets and lampas of the 15th through 17th centuries.
It was considered the ancient symbol of power and admiration, essence of beauty and goodness. The same can be said of the famous scarlet colored Armenian rugs.
The Armenian Rugs
The Great amount of carpet fragments and primitive weaving tools from the 3rd-2nd millennium BCE that have been discovered at various archaeological sites in Armenian (like Teghut, Shresh blur, Shengavit, Artik tomb valley, etc.) attest to an ancient rug weaving tradition in Armenian Highlands. For example excavations at a Bronze age burial site of Karmir Blur revealed a fragment of a high quality rug including various other textiles.
Marco Polo and Herodotus are among the many observers and historians who recognized the beauty of Armenian rugs. They noted the rugs’ vivid red color which was derived from a dye made from an insect called “Kermes” (Arabic “kirmiz”), found in the Mount Ararat valley. Marco Polo reports the following in his travel account as he passed through Cilician Armenia:
“The following can be said of Turkmenia: the Turkmenian population is divided into three groups. The Turkomans are Muslims characterized by a very simple way of life and extremely crude speech. They live in the mountainous regions and raise cattle. Their horses and their outstanding mules are held in especially high regard. The other two groups, Armenians and Greeks, live in cities and forts. They make their living primarily from trade and as craftsmen. In addition to the carpets, unsurpassed and more splendrous in color than anywhere else in the world, silks in all colors are also produced there.”
The word “carpet”, which Europeans used to refer to oriental rugs, is derived from the Armenian word “kapert”, meaning woven cloth. The Crusaders, many of whom passed through Armenia, most likely brought this term back to the West. Also, according to Arabic historical sources, the Middle Eastern word for rug, “khali” or “gali”, is an abbreviation of “Kalikala”, the Arabic name of the Armenian city Karnoy Kaghak. This city, strategically located on the route to the Black Sea port of Trabizond between Persia and Europe, was famous for its Armenian rugs which were prized by the Arabs.
Armenian rugs were considered to be parts of the furnishing of royal courts and palace houses in Europe and Middle East. According to Arab sources, Armenian rugs were highly sought after in the markets of Cairo. The 12th century Arab geographer As-Saalibi recorded that Armenian rugs were the most expensive in the Caliphate. The Armenian rugs were also highly appreciated in Central Asia, particularly in Khorasan and among the Bulgars of Volga. In 922 AD. Arab ambassador Ahmad ibn-Fadlan reached the capital of Bulgars of Volga and wrote from there that the floor of the king’s tent was completely covered with rugs many of which were of Armenian craftsmanship. In 911 AD. Yusuf Abu-Saj, the emir of neighboring Aterpatakan, in order to improve his relations with Muktadir Khalif, who treated him with animosity, presented him seven Armenian rugs among other gifts. Armenian rugs were estimated as valuable gifts also in the countries far from Armenia. Particularly, at the beginning of the 11th century sultan Mahmud of Ghaznevid presented an Armenian rug and other rugs to Kadr Khan, the leader of the Turkmen tribes.
Similar accounts are known from prominent European settlements. Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, a Florentine merchant, reported in his Pratica della mercatura that in the 13th and 14th centuries, much prized Armenian carpets were imported from the Armenian port cities like Ayas to different parts of Europe.
The Pazyryk carpet
The oldest surviving knotted carpet is the Pazyryk carpet, excavated miraculously in the frozen tombs of Siberia, dated from the 5th to the 3rd century B.C., now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. This square tufted carpet, almost perfectly intact, is considered by many experts to be of specifically Armenian, origin. 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”
When chemists and dye specialists of the Hermitage Museum examined the Pazyryk carpet for various substances, it has been concluded that the red threads used in the carpet were colored with a dye made from the Armenian cochineal, which was anciently found on the Ararat planes. Moreover the technique used to create the Pazyryk carpet is consistent with the Armenian double knot technique. This technique is particularly known as the “Armani baff”, that is “Armenian work” in several rug weaving centres of Iran.
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