What do you mean, "It's a prayer rug?" by Steven Price

What is a prayer rug, anyway?

There's probably nobody reading this who doesn't think he[1] knows what a prayer rug is. More likely than not, every one of you is correct. Sort of. Let me explain.

A Moslem must pray five times every day. He can do this at a mosque, but that isn't a requirement. However, he must face Mecca (not necessarily east, as is often supposed) while doing so, and must have a clean place (not defiled by having been walked on with shoes or dirty feet) on which to kneel in prayer. Thus, any clean surface that can be placed on the floor is a prayer rug. A newspaper or a towel can meet the definition, although using a pile rug or kilim is more common.

There is a niche, or mihrab, in one wall of every mosque, representing the portal to heaven. A worshipper facing the mihrab is facing Mecca. The design of most prayer rugs includes an arch at one end, called the rug's mihrab. Indeed, having such a design has become one of the definitions of a prayer rug. For example, Peter Stone's book[2] (Rugdom's dictionary) defines a prayer rug as,

"A rug with a representation of a mihrab (prayer niche) or ‘gateway to paradise'.... A double prayer rug (a design taken from bookbinding) is one with a niche at each end as a mirror image...The prayer rug is not necessarily used for prayer, as any clean area is sufficient for this purpose."

Once we understand the significance of the rug's mihrab, the notion that a prayer rug can have two, one at each end, ought to make us a little suspicious. Anyway, we already have two definitions: a clean place to pray and a rug with an arch at one end.

There's a third. In the marketplace, it is customary to classify rugs of the same approximate size by names. For instance, around 2' x 3' is a "cushion" or "pillow". The size around 3' x 5' is a "prayer rug". The reason is that this is just about right for prayer rug use. Anything much smaller than 2'6" x 4' is too small; bigger than about 4' x 5'6" is unnecessarily clumsy and heavy.

So now we have 3 definitions. They aren't mutually exclusive, and some prayer rugs actually meet all three. That is, they are of prayer rug size, have a mihrab, and were used for Moslem devotions. However, this is true of very few of them. In fact, antique prayer rugs that were intended to be used for prayer by Moslems are extremely rare. Good quality rugs, the kind that present day collectors would like, would simply have been an extravagance for the overwhelming majority of the Moslem population. Even today, fairly well to do Moslems are most likely to use a machine made cotton rug for their devotions. In the middle east, these cost about $5.

Were "prayer rug" designs generally made for religious use? If not, then why?

Why would prayer design rugs have been made, if not for religious uses? One reason is that Europeans considered orientalia to be exotic during the 18th and 19th centuries, and anything reflecting oriental cultures was highly fashionable. Anyone who has visited a few palaces in western Europe has seen "Turkish" gardens on the grounds. The centerpiece of this area is usually a gazebo with a minaret. Music of the period also shows the popularity of oriental themes. Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the great choral/orchestral work, has a Turkish march, as does Haydn's "Military" symphony. Mozart wrote a series of Turkish marches. Then there is the orientalist school of painters. Prayer rugs were undoubtedly considered fashionable items in such an environment, and large numbers were produced in Iran, Turkey, the Caucasus and even by tribal peoples in Central Asia to meet the demand.

For example, consider the well known Belouch camel-ground prayer rugs. These were made in huge numbers by 19th century nomadic tribeswomen whose religion was usually animism. Perhaps some of these rugs were used for prayer by wealthy Iranians and Egyptians, but neither their size nor other properties suggest that the weavers had any market in mind except the west. In fact, there is not a single documented example of any 19th century Belouch-group prayer rug having been used in a religious context. Not one.

Questions have recently arisen about whether even the classical Turkish prayer rugs were really all intended for ritual use. Many of these pieces have rather realistic tulips in their design, and in some of them the tulips are upside down relative to the rug's orientation with the "mihrab" at the top. Perhaps the arch in those pieces isn't a mihrab at all, but some kind of a concavity or container that belongs at the bottom. This raises the next question.

Does an arch-like design at one end of a rug always represent a mihrab?

It is generally believed that a rug with a design that could reasonably be interpreted as being an arch is a prayer rug, even when there are arches at both ends. There seems little reason to accept this if the term "prayer rug" is to imply that it has something to do with Moslem worship.

Until about 20 years ago Turkoman tent doors were widely considered to be prayer rugs, and the best known published collection of prayer rugs[3] includes some of these. The basis for this is simply that the design often includes from one to three small pointed arches at the top. We now realize that the only documented use for these pieces was as tent doors, and that in many instances their sizes were far too big to make it likely that they would be used as prayer rugs.

Caucasian bagface, or one of the smallest prayer rugs in the world. 19th century.

For the hard core believers that an arch makes a piece a prayer rug, I offer the pile Caucasian weaving shown to the left. This piece is 1'5" x 1'8" (it was a little larger before it lost one side border). Despite the very clear arch in the design, I am convinced that it is a saddlebag face, not a prayer rug, and I doubt that anyone who knew its size would disagree. In addition to knowing its size, I have a firsthand report from the person who saw it separated from what was once its mate.

The point of all of this silliness is that not every arch-shaped object is a mihrab, and not every arch-shaped design on a rug represents one. We ought to look for other symbols of Islam, like a lamp hanging in the center of the arch, the image of a water ewer, or a koranic inscription, before calling a rug a prayer rug. And we ought to look for evidence that the rug was used in prayer.

How might we recognize a prayer rug that had been used for prayer?

The number of rugs that actually were used for prayer is a very small percentage of the hand knotted pile and kilim prayer design rugs. The reason, of course, is that so many were woven to satisfy the demands created by fashion in Europe and America from about the 17th century onward.

How could we tell if any particular one actually had been used that way? There are a number of clues that we could look for. One is the pattern of wear. A piece that had been used in prayer for many years would probably show much more wear at the lower end than at the upper, since the user got onto it at the lower end and rarely touched the top. We might also find the piece stretched a little in the horizontal direction about one-third or one-fourth of the way up from the bottom. This would be the result of the user putting all of his weight at that level when kneeling.

Lets look at an example. The rug below is a Shirvan prayer rug with a field of an ivory ground lattice of flowers, inscribed with a date corresponding to 1864 A.D. Was this rug used to pray?

It is likely a commissioned work woven for Moslems, not for the Western marketplace. Some prayer rugs are of much higher quality in terms of fineness of weave, use of expensive materials like silk, and workmanship than most others of nominally the same type. These "premium rugs"[4] clearly cost more to produce than the typical cottage industry product of the same area, and the weaver would have had to wait longer than usual to get paid for her work. For these reasons, it would seem more likely that the pieces were commissioned rather than being part of the usual output woven speculatively.

Shirvan prayer rug, dated 1864.

The Shirvan prayer rug above is probably such a piece. It has silk wefts, a property of Caucasian rugs that one writer has called so rare as to be almost mythical, and over 240 knots per square inch, about twice the average for a small Shirvan rug. The drawing and workmanship are superb[5], and it seems completely reasonable that someone seeking the most talented weaver for a commissioned piece would have chosen the person who did this one.

Rugs such as these may have been made for presentations to dignitaries or to imams, or as donations to mosques, all of which are practices in Moslem western Asia. This would increase the chance that the rug was used in prayer.

What about the other evidence? The piece is considerably shorter than most 19th century Shirvan prayer rugs, and is well within the range that might be expected for one intended to be used as a place to pray. Notice, too, the difference in the extent of wear between the fringe and kilim end at the top and that at the bottom, and the slight, but obvious stretching in the width about one-third of the way up from the bottom. This is exactly the level at which the knees of someone around 5'9" hit the rug when kneeling on it in the usual attitude of prayer.

Does all of this really prove that this was a piece woven on commission and used ritually? Of course not, but it certainly has the characteristics that we might expect such a rug to have.

Where does all this leave us?

This was intended to help remind us that the term, prayer rug, has several meanings, and that rather few prayer rugs were ever intended for use during religious observances. This does detract from the romantic notion that we are sort of vicariously sharing someone else's personal life when we handle one, but that shouldn't detract us from the fact that many of them are very beautiful works of the weaver's art, and dearly beloved by collectors for very good reasons.


[1.] I use the masculine pronoun in the gender-neutral sense that is customary in the English language.

[2.] P. F. Stone, THE ORIENTAL RUG LEXICON, University of Washington Press, 1997.

[3.] R. Ettinghausen, M. Dimand and L. Mackie, PRAYER RUGS, Textile Museum, 1974.

[4.] S. Price, Premium rugs: commercial or commissioned for presentations? Speculations on the history of a silk-wefted Caucasian. ORIENTAL RUG REVIEW 15(1): 36-37, 1994.

[5.] This is evident if one compares it to other published examples, paying attention to the variety of flowers, the fit of the lattice within the borders, and the artistic incorporation of the date into the design.

To comment on this article, you may e-mail Steven Price.


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