Extremley Fine Antique Persian Rug Serapi, Hand Knotted, Circa 1890
Design: Floral Medalion
For hundreds of years, the weavers in villages and small towns of northwestern Iran have created some of the most cherished rugs in the world. Persian rugs of the 16th and 17th centuries are considered the height of rug weaving art, and most of those that survive are now in museums. When the English East India Company negotiated a trading license from Shah Abbas I of Persia in 1616, Oriental rugs became popular in homes, not only in the palaces and mosques of prior years.
One of the weaves from the northwestern district that is admired by Americans is the “Serapi.” However, the identification of Serapis has been the subject of much debate and controversy. The differentiation between Serapis and Herizes is particularly contested.
Even the source of the term “Serapi,” variously known as Sarab, Serabi, or Sirab, is not agreed upon. Rug dealers in Iran have never heard the term, so clearly the term is Western-born. Many feel it follows the usual custom of naming Persian rugs after the place (city, village, or rural area) in which, or the tribe by which, they were made. While some contend there is no such place as Serapi, most agree that Serapi is a Westernization of the name of the village and rural area of Sarab, located in northwest Iran by the Caspian Sea.
However, even if this is the origin of the term “Serapi,” it is not the place where these rugs were made. Fitting to the complicated nature of Serapis, these rugs were made in another area of Iran—the Heriz district near Tabriz. Heriz is one of four major rug weaving centers around Tabriz; the others are Gravan, Mehraban, and Bakhshayish. Rugs from these districts exhibit many similarities.
Serapi rugs always are constructed of a cotton warp and cotton weft, which is sometimes dyed. Only natural dyes were used, and they are generally excellent ones. The knots are usually Ghiordes, or Turkish, although the weavers sometimes employed Senneh, or Persian knots. For the most part, Serapis are more than a century old and are, consequently, antique rugs.
In the view of some experts, the designs of Serapis were heavily influenced by Tabriz rugs made during the late nineteenth century. If Tabriz and Serapi rugs made during that period are compared, a great deal of resemblance will be found. Tabriz is a large city with a longer history in rug weaving than ther Heriz district, and was also one of the most important rug export centers. Due to the geographic proximity and cultural contacts of the Heriz district and Tabriz, it is not surprising that the Heriz weavers were influenced by Tabriz patterns. Generally Tabriz rugs are floral and over all of a much finer weave than Heriz or Serapi rugs, because the Heriz weavers were simply not as skilled as those of Tabriz. Therefore, Heriz and Serapi rugs have simpler, more geometric designs and a coarser weave.
Newer rugs made in the Heriz district are not quite the same as the Serapi and generally are called Heriz. Although they follow similar geometric designs, they are more detailed in design than the Serapis. In other words, the newer rugs did not continue the simplicity and originality of the Serapis. It appears that every new generation added some motifs to the old ones. The center medallion is usually the outstanding feature in Serapis, and the surrounding background contains a few large motifs, or, sometimes, no motifs. Herizes, on the other hand, have more small, detailed motifs; in some cases, the center medaillion is even omitted. Therefore, the Heriz presents a more intricate design. While this shift from simple to more complex designs generally matches Persian tastes, this is not particularly true of non-Persian preferences.
Why, then are Serapis in good condition* so valuable? Serapis are legitimate antiques and authentic, unique works of art. One important aspect of the uniqueness of Serapis is the background of the weavers. These rugs are rural in origin. They were made by the wives and daughters of shepherds. Unlike urban rugs where the weavers follow the designs on the loom exactly and every knot is calculated, Serapis are done by eye alone. It is ironic that often the resulting lack of exactness enhances the value of this type of rug in the view of Americans.
Some of the new rugs made in Romania and India undertook to copy Serapi or Heriz rugs. In these, there have been conscious efforts to create imperfections in design, in order to create the same image and to resemble the old rugs.
To assure that a rug termed “Serapi” is genuine, the best approach is to work with reputable dealers who recognize and are knowledgeable about these one-of-a-kind rugs. Generally, Serapis are expensive and are considered good investments, while imitations are over-priced. There is no doubt that, due to the scarcity and uniqueness of these rugs, their prices will appreciate in the future as they have hundreds of times since they were made.
*Good condition means not being worn, no loss of border, no dry rot, and not being painted.