The first rug weavers were nomads, traveling and living in the Middle East. These people made rugs for decoration as well as for a vast number of practical uses.
Oriental rugs served as covers for door openings, saddlebags, rugs, curtains, wall hangings, and even crude blankets.
Fashioned by nomadic people, they contained designs and motifs that reflected their religious and social culture. These rugs were created on looms that had to be dismantled quickly, in cases of danger or regular migration, so the earliest rugs often have irregularities of color, selvage, weave, or thread that make them particularly interesting to modern collectors.
It is difficult to determine the exact time in history when Oriental rugs were first fashioned. The wool and the dyes used for the first rugs were more vulnerable to the elements and more likely to break down than today's rugs. As a result, very few rugs exist from before the 15th and 16th centuries. It is believed that Oriental rugs were used by many civilizations, ranging from Greece to Central Asia during the first millennium B.C., and were probably in existence some time before that. The earliest pile rugs were found in excavations of the Egyptian tombs of Akhim and Falyum. These rugs date back to between the 5th and 10th centuries B.C.
The most famous of early excavated rugs was found by a Russian archaeologist named S.J. Rudenko during his excavation of a Scythian tomb in the Altai mountain range of southern Siberia, between 1947 and 1949. This rug, known as the Pazyryk rug was preserved in a cave that had iced over, due to water seepage probably caused by a grave-robber. The rug covered a war horse that had been entombed. Rudenko believed the rug dated back to the 5th century B.C.
Nomadic tribes are credited for spreading the making and use of rugs across Asia and Africa, but it was Venetian merchants who introduced the Oriental rug to Europe and the western world. Italian merchants, trading with Anatolia during the 14th century, introduced the rugs to most of Europe. Exotic and expensive, these rugs were regarded as prized possessions and decorated the houses of the well to do, as well as castles and aristocratic homes.
By the 15th century, Italian merchants were importing a steady supply of Oriental rugs, and these rugs had made a permanent impression on the upper classes of European society. Western interest lessened between the 17th and 18th centuries, just when Iran was making its greatest advances in design and quality, but was renewed after an important exhibition held in Venice in 1891. It was during this time that North Americans also began to purchase and prize Oriental rugs. This interest inspired some structural changes in the rugs themselves, in order to make them more suitable for European and American needs. European importers requested modified dimensions, colors and designs to satisfy the tastes of Western consumers.
Today, the appeal of the Oriental rug continues to grow day by day.