Posted by Steve Price on 12-28-2002 07:16 AM:

The Tobacco Design

Hi People,

The oldest photo of a Belouch group prayer rug is probably the one first published in 1901 and cited in an article by Robert Pittenger in HALI (No. 75, p. 65, 1994). It shows a mullah sitting on a rug while participating in a demonstration against the government's sale of the rights to sell tobacco in Iran to the British. The protest, known as the Tobacco Rebellion, lasted from 1890 to 1892, so the rug dates to at least that period and may very well have been made many years earlier. The Tobacco Rebellion was among the factors leading to the overthrow of the shah in 1896.

The rug was one of a well known design category within the Belouch group; here is an example that appeared in the HALI article:

I find the design attractive and it has historical significance as well as probably being the oldest documented Belouch group prayer rug design. Pittenger suggests that it be known as the "tobacco design", and I agree.

It is interesting to note that it is not being used for prayer in the photo, but simply as a place for the mullah to sit. It demonstrates that Moslems themselves sometimes used prayer rugs for purposes other than ritual in the 19th century. On the other hand, although the rug is not being used by the mullah for prayer, it is oriented with the mihrab in the usual place for prayer, he is kneeling on it, and shoes that are most likely his are on the ground next to it.


Steve Price

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 12-28-2002 07:59 PM:

Dear Steve Price and All- An attractive rug, and one of my alltime favorites, the Balouch prayer rug. Some have stated that the Balouch themselves are not Moslem and that the Balouch prayer format and prayer rug may well be a trade goods, and would lend credence to the assertions of some that the Balouch have only a brief history of pile weaving, and that pile production is exogenous . Could it be that the tree of life prayer design of the Balouch represents a mimicry of the Persian tree of life "prayer" rugs, executed in an exhuberent curvilinear stlye and contemporaneous with the Balouch production? As soon as our moderator is enabled we will have before us that which Wilhelm von Bode asserts, in his Antique Rugs from the Near East, the earliest example of a prayer rug in use as detailed in a Persian minature dating from 1436. P.R.J. Ford, in his Oriental Carpet Design , states that "Genuine prayer rugs are still made and used in many parts of the Orient, but they are rarely found in the carpet trade. Many weaving areas, however, have appreciated the purely decorative value of the prayer design and there is a large output of rugs of this type in all sizes made specificlly for export to the west. The use of the mihrab as a decorative rather than a strictly symbolic element is not new, nor is it restricted to the carpet trade, as architectural examples reveal." Unfortunately, Mr. Ford offers neither descriptions or images of these fore mentioned "Genuine prayer rugs", and to myself it seems reasonable to conclude that for the most part, and in exception to these mass produced prayer cloths, the defining characteristic of a prayer rug is that of actually being used in prayer, just as the ultimate value of a rug is that which someone is willing to pay, and thus utility.- Dave

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 12-29-2002 02:27 AM:

Genuine Prayer Rug


A Genuine Prayer Rug, by definition, would be a rug upon which one would pray.
Does, therefore, a prayer rug become not a prayer rug when a non-praying person buys it?
Were the rugs which were brought into the Western trade and designated as prayer rugs (by common use of the term) ever actually woven as prayer rugs to begin with?
Evidence seems to indicate that any clean fabric can be used for prayer. Is it possible that the ubiquitous arch/niche rugs fit the bill (the right size), just happened to be seen being prayed upon and therefore became designated by the trade as Prayer Rugs, to be used for preying upon their clientele?

I am not certain when the earliest Prayer Rug that had an arch in the design was woven, but I have seen 17th century Indian millefleurs arch carpets with obviously architectural arches and floral fields, which are of a large size not suitable for use as a Prayer Rug. (unless you are very, very large)
Some Melas "Prayer" rugs have been suggested to be representative of grave stones. The earlier Salon about Engsi's noted that they had been assumed to be Prayer Rugs because of the common arch in their design, too. Many Saph rugs ("Family Prayer Rugs") are so small that they could only have been used by babies for prayer. All of these seemingly "Prayer Rugs" are unlikely to have been use or even made as "Prayer Rugs".

I must conclude that the arch came before the prayer. The designation is a fanciful, convenient appellation which makes them more marketable. The fact that many have actually been used for praying upon does not mean that they were made as rugs for praying upon.

Patrick Weiler

Posted by Steve Price on 12-29-2002 07:34 AM:

Hi Patrick,

The notion that any rug with an arch at one end was made for use in Moslem prayer probably originated as a marketplace ploy to appeal to the western fantasy that owning one allows a person to vicariiously participate in an exotic culture. Almost every collector understands that the vast majority of extant 19th century oriental rugs were made for sale to the west, and there is no reason to believe that prayer rugs were an exception to this. As you note, a prayer design rug should be assumed to be made for export unless there is clear evidence that it was used in ritual prayer.


Steve Price

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 12-29-2002 10:33 AM:

Here is David's scan.

Thanks Dave,


Posted by Chuck Wagner on 12-29-2002 06:03 PM:



Your comment about a Western market focus for 19th century rugs is fine, but extending it to the prayer rug niche (heh heh) may be a little off the mark. I think it unlikely that the dominently Muslim 19th century weaving community would consider creating religious artifacts for consumption by Western infidels. On the other hand, I think it's quite reasonable to assume that a lot of prayer rugs were built for sale to other Muslims. I would want to see evidence of direct large scale export of prayer rugs to Europe before accepting your point. My guess is that they were marketed in the Islamic world, and later exported to Europe as a secondary measure by travelling buyers from outfits like OCM.


Posted by Steve Price on 12-29-2002 07:24 PM:

Hi Chuck,

Maybe, but there is no compelling reason to believe that 19th century Moslems would be reluctant to weave prayer rug designs for Europeans. These were sometimes used as religious appurtenances, but weren't necessary for religious ritual nor was their use restricted to it. The 1890-1892 photo of the mullah participating in a demonstration while upon a prayer design rug is clear evidence of this. Besides, the Belouch weren't Moslems, so they would not have been affected by whatever religious significance the objects had for their Moslem neighbors.


Steve Price

Posted by Yon Bard on 12-29-2002 10:44 PM:

Where did the idea that the Belouch are not Moslems come from? I am quite sure they were and are indeed Moslems.

Regards, Yon

Posted by Steve Price on 12-30-2002 07:07 AM:

Hi Yon,

Interesting point. My university is closed for another week, so I can't get to their library, and I'm unable to put my hands on anything with authoritative information on religion of 19th century Belouch here (at home). As you note, contemporary Belouch people are Sunni Moslems, so the question is, when did they adopt it? My guess (and that's all it is at the moment) is that the adoption of Islam occurred much earlier in the settled than in the nomadic populations.

Michael Craycraft is very knowledgable about Belouch culture, and I've sent him an e-mail message asking if he can clarify things.


Steve Price

Posted by Steve Price on 12-30-2002 07:26 AM:

Hi People,

David Hunt raised some interesting matters in his post, several messages above. He suggests that the term "prayer rug" be reserved for those that were actually used for ritual purposes. I sympathize with this idea, but the term is already in fairly widespread use as a name for rugs of a particular size and as a name for just about any rug with an arch form at one or both ends. Trying to convince the rest of the world to abandon those uses is not likely to succeed. Then, too, the problem of knowing whether a specific rug was used for prayer is formidable, and I'm sure if Ford provided photos of prayer rugs made for export they would look pretty much the same as the ones made for local religious use.

I don't know of any illustration showing someone praying on a prayer design rug that predates the one David posted; perhaps one of the readers does.


Steve Price


Steve Price

Posted by Steve Price on 12-31-2002 08:00 AM:

Hi People,

Michael Craycraft responded to me by e-mail. He is deeply involved in a project and doesn't have the time to participate in this discussion directly. However, he has graciously given me permission to share the information in his e-mail message to me.

He points out that the Tobacco design rug shown in this thread is not Belouch, sensu strictu, that the tribal people who wove it are nominally Sunni Moslems but actually know little of the religion or its practices, and he supports the idea that a rug that has not been used for prayer should not be called a prayer rug.

Here is an excerpt from his message:
"... the rugs under discussion are not Belouch. Far as I know Belouchis didn't weave prayer rugs and rarely wove pile rugs. Of the Khorassan tribes that did weave pile rugs the Arab tribes, Afshars, Karais, and Bayats either did not, or very rarely, wove prayer rugs. The tribes that did; the Hazarahs inclusive of the Jamshidis, Firoz Kohis, and Timuris plus the Aimaq tribes; the Taimainis, Aimaqs, Zuris, Berberis, and Moghuls, were all Sunnis. By the way, I thought that the point that was raised, is it a prayer rug if it is not prayed upon, to be valid. The people that wove these "prayer rugs" generally had almost no knowledge of Islam, did not practice the forms and customs of the religion, and certainly (except in rare cases) did not pray."

He added that although most Hazarahs were Shia, the western Hazarahs were Sunni and were responsible for most Hazarah weaving, probably for all of the Hazarah prayer rugs.

I thank Michael for helping us with this.


Steve Price