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A people's culture. Rugs of Armenia

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This is the second article highlighting Armenian culture. The series was prompted by the exhibit ``Weavers, Merchants, and Kings -- The Inscribed Rugs of Armenia,'' which is on its way to Washington, D.C. (Oct. 27-Jan. 25), and Fresno, Calif. (Feb. 15-April 8). Tomorrow: Armenian dance.

The close association of Armenians with the trade, commission, and distribution of Oriental carpets leaves no room for argument. But did they actually dye the yarns, set the looms, and most important, sit and weave these fascinating, exotic coverings? That's been a question.

In the harsh, rugged land of Armenia, exquisitely woven carpets have brought color and warmth to even the most humble of homes for literally hundreds of years.

They were used to dine upon and sleep upon, for floor coverings and wall hangings. They were collected as tax tribute, bestowed as gifts, and sometimes offered as part of a woman's dowry.

Sophisticated carpets, sometimes woven of silk with gold and silver threads and encrusted with sparkling jewels, were draped over the thrones of kings and emperors, spread before sultans and princes, presented to churches, and in the worst of times, carried off as spoils of war.

For centuries travelers, merchants, missionaries, even Crusaders passing through Armenia returned to the West with these treasured carpets and all sorts of romantic tales about them.

Rugs brought from the East were instrumental in changing Western floor coverings from simple animal skins and woven rush and grasses to the colorfully designed woolen carpets of the Orient.

These weavings dazzled the imagination of artists like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Holbein, Memling, and van Eyck, who included them in many of their portraits and still-life paintings. And some 14th-century Armenian churches are embellished with stone carvings of the Virgin and Child sitting on richly designed tasseled rugs.

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