Brian Murphy wants you to understand that Persian carpets have soul. As bureau chief for The Associated Press in Athens, Greece, and The...

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“The Root of Wild Madder: Chasing the History, Mystery, and Lore of the Persian Carpet”
by Brian Murphy
Simon & Schuster, 297 pp., $25

Brian Murphy wants you to understand that Persian carpets have soul. As bureau chief for The Associated Press in Athens, Greece, and The AP’s international religion writer, Murphy covered the conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan, and has traveled extensively in surrounding areas.

Politics have affected the making of carpets — an important Middle East export. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 sent millions of refugees into Pakistan, many of them weavers, willing to work for rock-bottom pay.

“For decades,” Murphy writes in “The Root of Wild Madder,” “the economic center of gravity in the carpet world has been drifting east. Pakistan, India and China have emerged as new giants in hand-woven carpet exports. … For them, it’s mostly straight-up capitalism: a reasonable product for a competitive price.”

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Those carpets, he explains, are fine, but they lack the soul of traditional rugs. Hooked on the beauty of hand-woven rugs, Murphy set out to educate himself about what makes a carpet superlative or inferior, and why some rugs grow more beautiful with time.

Armed with a translation of the “Divan of Hafez,” a collection of poems by the 14th-century Persian writer whose work a rug merchant assures Murphy is essential to know for a true understanding of Persian rugs, he seeks out yarn dyers, weavers and rug markets in Iran, Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

His quest carries him across history. He begins to see weaving rugs as a “theology of the loom,” with carpets as one of the great crossroads of spiritual and creative yearnings. “The challenge for dedicated weavers,” he writes, “is the same that has taunted artists forever: trying to sense a divine power and represent this feeling in form and color.”

One of his guides explains, “The weaver — whether he knows it or not — is making a version of paradise: a perfect, self-contained world.”

The work that goes into such a creation is daunting. A carpet 4-by-6 feet with a good knot count can take up to two months for two weavers working eight hours a day. “Few tasks I can think of, apart from specialized work such as archaeology or delicate surgery,” Murphy writes, “require so much effort with such incremental progress.”

Many rugs are woven by children, whose small, flexible fingers are ideal for intricate weaving. One importer explained, “We don’t realize sometimes that if it weren’t for the 7-year-old weaving, his six-member family could be dying of hunger.”

Murphy learns how to assess a carpet by studying the back, and to see the differences between natural and chemical dyes. Rugs woven of yarns colored with vegetable dyes are made with the same precision as those done with chemical dyes, but subtleties are lost, Murphy insists. After 1868, when coal-tar dyes were developed that could be made for a fraction of the cost and trouble of growing madder, the weaving of madder-dyed carpets steadily declined. That trend is reversing. Murphy found the percentage of naturally dyed wool in Iranian carpets has steadily risen since the 1990s.

The heart of the matter is madder, a hardy plant whose roots contain a pigment so potent that it turns the teeth red of dyers who handle it. Animals who eat it have red bones. “There are thousands of species of madder,” he writes, “but only a small percentage contains sufficient quantities of the pigment alizarin and related components in its roots.” Dyers’ madder is Rubia tinctorum. Madder-dyed carpets grow more beautiful with time.