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The Root of Wild Madder: Chasing the History, Mystery, and Lore of the Persian Carpetby Brian Murphy
Oh, you painters who ask for a technique of color — study carpets and there you will find all knowledge.
A Prologue: Madder and Bone
I came a long way to stand in a field of wild madder.
My driver stopped. I stepped off the one-lane road that pierced the dust bowl of central Iran. Then I walked down a path. It slithered atop a narrow ridge.
I liked that. It gives an idea of how I ended up here: definitely not a straight line and always struggling to keep some balance.
I had set out to write about carpets and the people who make them, sell them, cherish them, and, above all, see them with the same wonder that I do. At first, as a journalist, I poked around the edges of their lives on frequent assignments to Iran and Afghanistan, two important landmarks on the vast carpet map. But when I started to look more closely, I confronted the dilemma of any cartographer: what features to enhance and what details to omit. In other words, how do you find the right scale and relevance amid unlimited possibilities?
This is my attempt.
The things that intrigued me — handwoven carpets, the art of making dyes from nature and the expressions of beauty and faith they produce — already had an old and rich topography. There were imperial kings and swordsmen, folktales and cauldrons of steaming colors, lumbering caravans and cunning merchants. And — perhaps most delightful of all — mystic poets whose images dance in purple shadow and amber light. It could be rewarding enough just to explore the ground that others had covered and look for scraps and stories they had missed. But there was more out there if I searched harder. I had it on good authority.
A leafy little plant called madder told me so. I had been reading about its rich history as a dyestuff for carpets. Then I came across a quirky reference that is all but forgotten.
It can turn our bones red.
I first spotted this in a medical paper on skeletal development. It's now just an obscure footnote from nearly three centuries ago. But at the time — as the Enlightenment was driving away medieval phantoms — it caused a sensation and upended prevailing ideas about physiology. To me, this bit of historical flotsam was still impressive.
I decided madder would serve as my polestar. It would help me negotiate the noisy bazaars, musty workshops, distant villages, and other places I couldn't even yet imagine.
Madder seemed an ideal beacon to keep me on course. I could drift off on any detour in the carpet world and never really lose sight of madder's influence and the fiery palette held in its roots.
The bone story stayed my favorite. But I'd learn there were many others.
They flow generously from sources both illustrious and arcane. Madder's diary goes back as far as history's earliest written pages. And it most likely tumbles even further into the past.
The madder root — dried and ground into dyers' powder — was carried by Phoenician traders and mentioned in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Greek historian-wanderer Herodotus noted that it produced the striking vermilion shades on the goatskin cloaks of Libya's most elegant women. The Bible refers to madder as pu'ah, which some scholars believe was also a lullaby sound used to calm crying infants. To the Romans, it was rubia, which has endured as its scientific name. Pliny the Elder believed the most bountiful madder flourished in gardens near Rome.
Genus Rubia, family Rubiaceae, order Rubiales. The linguistic lineage fans out in many directions: ruby, rubric, rubella.
Alchemists pored over its properties in hopes of coaxing magic from nature. Artists made their canvases glow with madder-based glazes. As the Dutch master Jan Vermeer was finishing his famous Girl with a Red Hat in 1666, colonies were taking root across the Atlantic that would rebel a century later against the British crown. The soldiers of King George III sent to fight the American patriots wore madder-dyed red coats.
Healers, too, were drawn to the madder root's tentacles, which are full of swollen joints and crooked angles like those of an arthritic patient. The colors it bestowed must have seemed too powerful, too close to our own blood, to be medically benign. Extracts were prescribed — with little recorded success — for complaints ranging from jaundice to irregular menstruation to chronic bruising.
Then in about 1735 a British surgeon named John Belchier chronicled a remarkable observation. Animals fed madder leaves had red-tinged bones. And not everywhere. Only in the places where bones were growing and developing.
Belchier's research won him the prestigious Copley Medal and sharply redirected studies in anatomy. A prominent and ambitious London physiologist, John Hunter, led the pack toward the new frontiers in medicine. He extensively explored the use of madder in bone studies during a long career that included some unconventional offshoots. Hunter, according to some accounts, maintained dark alliances with grave robbers in order to get research cadavers. The stories claim he paid a substantial bribe in 1783 to obtain the body of the "Irish giant," Charles Byrne, who was more than eight feet tall and made a sad and meager living as a carnival freak. Byrne, shortly before his death, apparently caught wind of Hunter's plans. He reportedly tried to avoid Hunter's dissection table by requesting burial at sea inside a lead-lined coffin. But Hunter's resources and network were too strong. Byrne's skeleton remains in the collection of The Royal College of Surgeons of England along with other forensic oddities and relics of Hunter's age, such as a pig's skull stained a pinkish red from its madder diet.
Most may consider it all just an eccentric bit of pre-Victorian science. But I felt that Belchier's interplay of bone and madder was crying out for more attention. It seemed to me a rare convergence of the physical and mystical, a union, I believe, that also graces carpets. Madder — coveted and used for millennia — has this power to penetrate us so deeply and leave its mark so unmistakably. Carpets can do that, too, for those open to the possibilities.
I was lucky. I chose well. Madder led me — with confidence and eloquence — through the important first stages of my carpet education. It always had something important to say, and it tugged me along with one interesting connection after another: from texts on the craft of natural dye making, to the essential reds, peaches, and oranges produced by madder, then to its many guises throughout history, and on to Belchier's bones.
And, inevitably, to the madder plants at my feet.
Each step left sharp and perfectly formed footprints in the dry flatlands. In the distance, a jumble of low-slung buildings hugged the narrow road leading to the town of Ardakan, which sits on the southern fringe of an emptiness known as Dasht-e-Kavir, the Great Salt Desert.
It was early fall. There had been no rain for months. It's considered the best time to harvest madder. The mature plant is pulled up easily then. The roots hang in a jumble like a toddler's first scribbling. There are relatively few areas of wild madder left. Most growers prefer the cultivated Rubia tinctorum, known as the dyers' madder, which yields more powerful, color-rich powder. Wild madder is now more of a novelty or vestige of the plant's heyday that ended more than a century ago.
But it was something I needed to see. Wild madder is possibly the source for the shades of the earliest carpets. Red — with its connotations of birth and mortality and the mysteries and yearnings in between — has remained a fundamental color for carpet weavers. I felt it appropriate to pay my respects.
When I moved, clouds of tiny grasshoppers breached over the plants, then disappeared in the flame-shaped leaves with tiny barbs that grabbed at my ankles. I crouched low to give the illusion of the emerald green field rising up to swallow me, replacing the panorama of tan plains and the steel gray foothills.
The guide who brought me here grinds the dried madder root into coarse, rust-shaded powder. It's used by the wool and silk dyers who, for various reasons, still resist the easier and cheaper synthetic colors. This timeless process is under considerable pressure. Traditional dye masters were in steady decline until some carpet houses and other preservationists started efforts to revitalize the craft in the 1980s. Their interventions may have rescued natural dye making from becoming the stuff of hobbyists and concocted quaintness like the butter churners at country fairs.
In Iran, as recently as 2000, no more than 10 percent of new carpet production had naturally dyed material. Four years later, it was up to about 25 percent, said Majid Montazer, head of the dye division at the state-run Persian Carpet Research Center in Tehran.
"I would like to say it's because of some intellectual or cultural reawakening," he told me. "But it seems to be more about economics. This is what the customer wants. People are starting to understand that the natural dyes are just more attractive."
Considering the steamroller that calls itself progress, it's remarkable that the natural dyeing techniques were still around to save. Chemical colors have been commercially available since the mid-nineteenth century, constantly improving and supplanting the dye makers' livelihood and knowledge. Reds from the madder root. Yellows from pomegranate rind. Blues from the indigo plant. Browns from walnuts.
Chemical dyes may make sense from the perspective of the bottom line. Carpet making is, after all, a business, and businesses seek profits. But some wince at this equation. For them, something venerable and virtuous is being sacrificed. It's worth fighting back.
I sense a touch of this in Ali Akbari, who led me to the madder field. It's not sadness, exactly. But it's close. Maybe this was the look seen aboard clipper ships or in telegraph offices as the walls of the future began to close in. Akbari, a massive, moonfaced man constantly leaking sweat, wants to express it. He just can't find the words. He's silent for a long time. Then, finally:
"It's like this," he said. "Death comes. We leave this world for another. This is the cycle. We cannot change it. But I see other types of death around us, too. These are little deaths. I'm talking about losing the stories of our grandparents. I'm talking about how we feel distant from nature now. Will generations from now know the beautiful colors locked in this simple root? I often think the answer is no, and my heart breaks."
He looked at me hard.
"Tell this story," he urged. "Tell it well if you can."
I will try.
First, geographical boundaries were set. This book will not stray from the Persian realm: Iran and parts of Afghanistan linked by traditional culture and Dari, a language closely related to Farsi, or Persian. The precise origin of carpets is a question that may never be fully answered, but few places have nurtured the craft and artistry of carpets more than the Persian world. There are, of course, other important voices to be heard. Places such as Turkey, central Asia, the Caucasus, and elsewhere are, without doubt, essential to obtaining a full understanding of carpets. Others have written masterfully about these areas and will continue.
Next, intellectual frontiers were drawn. I am not an expert on carpets or the elements of their production. There are countless excellent sources for those seeking such detailed knowledge. I, too, learned much from these scholars and researchers. The only important attribute I possess is a true passion for the subject. For years, I struggled to define my fascination with carpets.
A crystallizing moment came during one of my visits to the Carpet Museum of Iran in Tehran. It occurred to me that almost all the masterworks on display are anonymous. The names of the weavers and designers are simply lost to history. I can think of no other art form, and one so widely known and appreciated, in which the creators are unknown and unheralded. Paintings are signed. Credits roll on films. Cornerstones bear the names of architects. Even graffiti artists make their personal mark.
Only a precious few carpets come with such birth certificates. The rest are, to me, gifts without a card.
I want to repay the present in my own way. Call it a scrapbook from a world that, if not yet vanishing, is certainly under threat.
I imagine my goal could seem too modest or lightweight compared with the immense body of literature on carpets and their history. I would reply by repeating a snippet from a Turkmen folk saying from central Asia: Carpets are our soul. I've heard this said in many different ways and voices by the common weavers, merchants, and others who are often ignored in carpet scholarship. I hope others will listen.
I like to think that, maybe, a few more people will skim their palms over a carpet's knots, marvel at the colors, and wonder: Who was here before? What dyer, with arms stained by madder, mixed these colors? What would the weaver want to say to me?
As Akbari, the madder grinder, urged: Tell the stories.
Copyright © 2005 by Brian Murphy
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