Posted by Steve Price on 03-20-2004 03:05 PM:

The Matter of Prayer Rugs

Hi Dave

Your essay shows a photo of a mihrab that is well over a thousand years old, and you wonder why prayer rugs didn't appear until so much later. I think there are several considerations that relate to this:
1. A Muslim is required to pray five times daily, and to do so on a clean surface (that is, one undefiled by contact with earth). The use of a rug for that purpose is common, but not essential. Any uncontaminated material would do.
2. It's common for prayer rugs to include an arch in the design, but a rug can be used for prayer whether it has an arch or not (just as a rug with an arch can be used for purposes other than as a clean place to pray).
3. The existing prayer design rugs (that is, those with an arch) date back about as far as any other rugs that we have today, so the absence of prayer rugs that are 1000+ years old probably has the same explanation as the absence of other rugs that are more than 1000 years old - there are almost none because they wore out and nobody preserved them.

So, I think we can presume that the use of rugs with an arch design for Muslim prayer is probably nearly as old as the use of rugs as clean places to pray. I don't know when the practice started, but it was surely not within the past several centuries.


Steve Price

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 03-26-2004 06:43 PM:

Persian Influences?

All- Will be back with commentary shortly- Dave

Posted by Vincent Keers on 03-26-2004 09:19 PM:

Ooooh David,

All have prayer niches!
All my brothers and sisters,

I never noticed that!
On the left, on the right, left, right, left, right, left, right


Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 03-30-2004 02:44 PM:

Borders and Heritage

Steve, Vincent,and All- Row upon row, in a line, sort of like a saph?

These above images are of Tulinid and Fatimid mosque architecture respectively. Dr. Du Ry states:

"Their (the Mamluks) art greatly resembled that of their predecessors, and we notice only
a gradual change in style".

The Mamluks were of "Persian"Seljuk descent, and I suspect this may have been of some importance to the weavings of this period. For one, the Mamluk carpets are asymmetrically knotted, as opposed to Ottoman and earlier Turkish carpets which are symmetric. Also, I think it telling that the "cartouch" border which came to characterize the early Persian and later ottoman prayer rugs, as in the Hereke, is to be found in the Mamluk rugs yet seems absent from earlier Turkish rugs which instead sport the "Kufic" or script border in it's place .Yet the cartouch border is common in later Persian weavings. Perhaps due to the calamitous effects of the Mongol invasion and the loss of material artifacts?
In effect, what I am trying to say is that the Prayer rug could have been common to all the weaving areas,yet earlyexamples from eastern regions were destroyed by the Mongol conquest, and examples from the western regions pre date the Seljuks and have perished. But why is this "Kufic" border so in evidence in early Turkish and the presumedSeljuk carpets of the Ala-ed-din Mosque? - Dave

Posted by Vincent Keers on 03-30-2004 07:51 PM:

Hi David,

I'm lazy, so I just shoot at you without checking my library.
Mamluks. I learned Turkish slaves?
Don't think they knotted carpets. The carpets have been knotted for them. Textiles have been around in egypt before the Mamluks took over.
Koptic textiles in Hellenistic style all around.
Even piled structures.

Think Hereke production was founded by Atta Turk. 1920'ties?

Think living in Egypt with its Pyramids, cartouches aren't that out of the ordinary.

The Mongol conquest was so successful because they respected the cultures they conquered.

Thanks for giving Moroccan rugs some attention in this Salon.
Best regards,
(The fifth, from the left, last row)

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 03-30-2004 08:57 PM:

Going with the flow

Vincent and All- True egyptians the had the cartouche, but I believe these Mamluk borders rather more at Koran illumination.They might not have woven them, but would have called theshots in regards to design, appointment of artisans, ect.I suspect rather more Berber designs overseen by Persian management -nothing like making the facts fit the theory

I selected Hereke just as an example, here from Joyce C Ware's Price Guide:

"established in mid 19th cent., designs borrowed from Ottoman and Safavid court rugs, to 800 kpi.,often asymmetrical, all silk to all wool,dyes and workmanship impeccable"

The Mongols did make their contributions to art, but the consequences of their invasion are still with us, as Persia never fully recovered from the catastrophic ravaging of it's civilization.- Dave

Posted by R. John Howe on 03-31-2004 11:01 AM:

Dave -

On the point of who the Mamluks were, my informants have indicated something close to what Vincent has said above.

We had a Mamluk expert from Cleveland come speak to our rug club here in DC a few years ago and I drew the job of driving him to and from the session. When I picked him up, I confessed that I was not in fact very taken with Mamluk rugs, in part because of their narrow color spectrum, but also because the vagueness of their very controlled and minute designs. But I also acknowledged that I was interested in Turkmen weaving and some made similar complaints about them (i.e., that Turkmen pieces all look alike in a mechanically boring way).

He said, "I have a surprise for you," and in his lecture indicated that the Mamluk governing class was a "Mandarin-like" group composed primarily of Central Asian children who were bought or kidnapped there and then brought to Egypt and educated for this governing task. He was in short suggesting that they could well often have been Turkmen.

I also expect that this governing class did not weave much. But they may have expressed preferences about what they liked.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 03-31-2004 11:32 AM:

Hi John

Maybe there's lots more to this than meets they eye, but if I understand what the Mamluk expert told you, it's that the Egyptians kidnapped (captured) or bought children in Central Asia and then took them home and made them into a governing class. If it's true, this is probably a unique phenomenon in history. Just about every other culture that captured or bought members of some other culture made them into slaves, not into their own masters.

Do you know the details behind this remarkable system?


Steve Price

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 03-31-2004 12:06 PM:


Posted by Steve Price on 03-31-2004 12:33 PM:

Hi Filiberto

Thanks for the link - it's an interesting read. But I didn't find anything in it about Egyptians capturing kids and turning them into their own masters. The version in here is that they captured central Asian kids, turned them into soldiers, and used them to defend and expand their empire. The descendents of those kids eventually became Mamluk rulers, but that's a few centuries after the capture of their ancestors.


Steve Price

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 03-31-2004 10:51 PM:

Spartan Training

John and All- Here is what Dr. Du Ry has to say about these Mamluks.

"What happened was that the bodygaurd of Turkish slave mercenaries grew so powerful that they rebelled against the government and set up a new dynasty (the Bahri Mamluks) in Egypt (1250-1390). Later,descendants of the Circassian slaves of one of these Mamluk sultans,Qualawun,broke away in their
turn. The Circassian Mamluk dynasty, which was established in 1382 under their first sultan, Barquq,lasted untill the conquest of Egypt by the Ottomans in 1517. Their art greatly resembled that of their predeccessors, and we notice only a gradual change in style".

I believe this is the process by which youth are isolated from their parents and indoctrinated to confer all loyalties upon their leaders,in some respects only steps removed from modern military training and compulsary public education. Spartan style militarism serves as the classic example. A similar system was practiced by the Ottomans. A brief introduction to this system as practiced by the Turks is found in the filmIslam, Empire of Faith , which also includes some commentary by a certain Walter B. Denny and is an excellent introduction to the History of Islamic civilization. A movie worth seeing.

I really do believe much affinity between the Mamluk and Fatimid/Berber/Moroccan and will get back with some images, but something has come up and I have to go out of town for the weekend. Till Then- Dave

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 04-01-2004 01:25 AM:

Hi Steve,

But I didn't find anything in it about Egyptians capturing kids

They didn’t capture kids: they bought them from slave merchants. Exactly as Napoleon did - see last part of the article.

I wonder what happened to the slave merchants when their trade became out of fashion…
Maybe they recycled themselves as rug merchants?

Mmmmh… Yeah, I like the idea. There are families of rug dealers that are in the business since generations. That could explain somehow the MURKY side of their trade.
Maliciously yours,


Posted by Steve Price on 04-01-2004 06:10 AM:

Hi Filiberto

The person who lectured at the Washington rug club about the Mamluks evidently told the folks that the Egyptions did capture and buy Central Asian kids, bring them to Egypt, educate them and make them into the rulers of the Egyptians who caught and bought them. Here's the relevant part of John's report on the lecture: ... the Mamluk governing class was a "Mandarin-like" group composed primarily of Central Asian children who were bought or kidnapped there and then brought to Egypt and educated for this governing task. Does anyone have access to a source that explains (or confirms) that the Egyptians had this astonishing system - capturing and buying slave kids, educating them and positioning them as their own governors?


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 04-01-2004 06:49 AM:

Steve et al -

I only know what I reported. Wendel Swan may remember something because he heard this same presentation.

And the gentleman was older and may not be living but he lived in Cleveland and so we might be able to hunt him up. Ned Long would likely know if he is still accessible.

I agree the system described seems remarkable but it is not without at least some historical precedent. It is very tricky to base an argument on a N of 1, but you will recall that the biblical Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers and did in fact (if the old Testament is to be believed) rise to be one of the Egyptian Pharoh's chief officials. Now that's not a "class" but it suggests a possible process.

I'll write a note to Ned and see if the gentleman expert is still about.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 04-01-2004 07:09 AM:

Dear folks -

I have written to the Longs now and we will see what that yields.

Meanwhile I quickly poked about with a Google search and surfaced these two links which give a little more information on this point, but also indicate that "mamluk" means "owned" or "slave" in Arabic.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 04-01-2004 08:10 AM:

Hi Steve,

Perhaps this is the answer to your doubts:
at the beginning the Egyptian Sultans bought central Asian kids, turned them into elite soldiers, and used them to defend and expand their Sultanate.

Later, when the Mamluks themselves seized the power, they continued the practice.

Remember that the succession to power wasn’t hereditary, although I don’t understand very well how it worked. Must have been by a mixture of natural selection of the fittest and intrigues.
The second of John’s link states:
Under the Mamluks, indeed, it was the slave Mamluks who enjoyed the highest prestige and could aspire to the sultanate; their own children, including the sons even of sultans, being free in status, slipped back into the mass of free, second class soldiery, which suffered serious discrimination in terms of pay and equipment.
They saw their own children as "soft" and needed fresh recruits to keep the military standard high.

An odd system, but it worked. It produced also a remarkable artistic culture.
Which brings us back to the Mamluk carpets…


By the way, did you know why the word SLAVE is so similar to SLAV?
As my Webster’s says: SLAVE [1250-1300; Middle English sclave < Medieval Latin sclavus (masc.), sclava (fem.) slave, orig., SLAV; so called because Slavs were commonly enslaved in the early Middle Ages]

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 04-01-2004 04:07 PM:

A Remarkable Artistic Culture

John and All- Thank you for the Met link. As you scroll down, on the left side of the screen will appear photos of the Complex of Hassan and of the Complex of Qa'itbay, both of which illustrate a use of color and design similar to that of Moroccan architecture. Notice the prominence of the medallions as well. The following is what Dr. DuRy says about Mamluk ornaments.

"Care for the harmonious decoration of the interior and exterior of office buildings had been a pronounced feature of Fatimid architecture, and the Mamluks bestowed a great deal of attention on this matter. Quite apart from subsequent adornments, the buildings recieved a primary decoration by use of colored stone, yellow and red, to define it's various parts."

"Marble was put to many uses for adorning the interior. The Mihrab was a part of the architectural design as a whole, and if the color of marble of which it was made was not quite right, the required color effect was achieved by the addition of other stones. For this purpose,wood and stucco were supplanted, but not for the ceilings and certain other places which had formerly been decorated with tiles. Painted wood panels and gilded beams are new Mamluk features of ornamentation. The doors were given bronze fittings to match the main design of the wood. All this harmonious decoration was enhanced by the play of light falling upon it,a special jewel-like effect being given by glass covered stucco ornament."

All they needed were some carpets with light diffusing colors and patterns to complete the effect.

I remember seeing one of these copies of a mamluk carpet in a junk shop in Adams Morgan some years ago. I wasn't very expensive and I almost bought, but I didn't quite "get it" at the time and thought it a little strange- but interesting- Dave

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 04-01-2004 07:24 PM:

Examples From Three Periods

All- I found this link to examples ofArchitecture from the Fatimid, Bahri Mamluk and Circassian Mamluck periods- Dave

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 04-02-2004 09:14 AM:

Early Prayer Niche and Lamp

This niche with hanging lamp is from the Fatimid Al-Aqmar Mosque in Cairo and dates from 1125, and is just one of the many interesting photos to be found at the above architecture link. Also, notice that the prayer rug depicted in the minature seen below sports a similar scrolling vine border- and that the script resembles that of the wooden votive above.

Wooden votives are to be found in Morocco, some carved but many just painted upon arabesque or mihrab shaped boards. Many found in the souvenir trade were actually used to learn to teach writing to people in rural areas- sort of like a horn book-Dave

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 04-17-2004 08:28 AM:

Of Books, Mamluks,Ottomans and Mongols

All - Just a few additional comments . From the Art Of Islam:

Books and calligraphy went hand in hand, and calligraphers enjoyed an almost exclusive patronage. The Ottoman sultand proclaimed calligraphy as the lovliest and noblest of the arts, and it's practicioners formed a highly favored elite, able to extract numerous privliges for themselves. In the first place, it had obviously been important to provide enough copies of the Koran. At the beginning of their dynasty,the Ottomans edvidently allowed Korans to be brought in from elsewhere, and from the year 1400 almost certainly from Tabriz,a center which radiated an enourmous cultural influence. Possibly a number of calligraphers from Tabriz came to work in Istanbul, as in the case of ceramic artists; in any case, the Turks were copying the Persians well into the 17th century.


In a period of such religious awareness as this(Mamluk), the Koran naturally occupied an important place. The fine taste for decoration which we admire in art and architecture is also to be found in beautifully written Korans. The special style of script the Thuluth, was employed, and, in addition to the magnificent flowing text, a great deal of attention was paid to the initial capitals,the marginal decorations, and above all to the title page, which was liberally embellished with gold leaf. This costly mode of decoration resulted in greater care being given to the cover,and the craft of bookbinding came into existence.

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 04-17-2004 05:28 PM:

Mongol Invasion

All- A passage describing the Mongol invasion:

The Mongol invasion of the Islamic heartland had mixed effects. On one hand, the Islamic world never regained its previous power. Much of the six centuries of Islamic scholarship, culture, and infrastructure was destroyed as the invaders burned libraries, replaced mosques with Buddhist temples, and destroyed intricate irrigation systems. In fact, the irrigation equipment necessary for farming in the Mesopotamian desert was not rebuilt until the 20th century.

And the long version:

In the early years of the thirteenth century, a powerful Mongol leader named Temujin brought together a majority of the Mongol tribes and led them on a devastating sweep through China. At about this time, he changed his name to Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, meaning "World Conqueror." In 1219 he turned his force of 700,000 west and quickly devastated Bokhara, Samarkand, Balkh, Merv (all in what is now the Soviet Union), and Neyshabur (in present-day Iran), where he slaughtered every living thing. Before his death in 1227, Chinnggis Khan, pillaging and burning cities along the way, had reached western Azarbaijan in Iran. After Chinggis's death, the area enjoyed a brief respite that ended with the arrival of Hulagu Khan (1217-65), Chinggis's grandson. In 1258 he seized Baghdad and killed the last Abbasid caliph. While in Baghdad, Hulagu made a pyramid of the skulls of Baghdad's scholars, religious leaders, and poets, and he deliberately destroyed what remained of Iraq's canal headworks. The material and artistic production of centuries was swept away. Iraq became a neglected frontier province ruled from the Mongol capital of Tabriz in Iran.

After the death in 1335 of the last great Mongol khan, Abu Said (also known as Bahadur the Brave), a period of political confusion ensued in Iraq until a local petty dynasty, the Jalayirids, seized power. The Jalayirids ruled until the beginning of the fifteenth century. Jalayirid rule was abruptly checked by the rising power of a Mongol, Tamerlane (or Timur the Lame, 1336-1405), who had been atabeg of the reigning prince of Samarkand. In 1401 he sacked Baghdad and massacred many of its inhabitants. Tamerlane killed thousands of Iraqis and devastated hundreds of towns. Like Hulagu, Tamerlane had a penchant for building pyramids of skulls. Despite his showy display of Sunni piety, Tamerlane's rule virtually extinguished Islamic scholarship and Islamic arts everywhere except in his capital, Samarkand.

In Iraq, political chaos, severe economic depression, and social disintegration followed in the wake of the Mongol invasions. Baghdad, long a center of trade, rapidly lost its commercial importance. Basra, which had been a key transit point for seaborne commerce, was circumvented after the Portuguese discovered a shorter route around the Cape of Good Hope. In agriculture, Iraq's once-extensive irrigation system fell into disrepair, creating swamps and marshes at the edge of the delta and dry, uncultivated steppes farther out. The rapid deterioration of settled agriculture led to the growth of tribally based pastoral nomadism. By the end of the Mongol period, the focus of Iraqi history had shifted from the urbanbased Abbasid culture to the tribes of the river valleys, where it would remain until well into the twentieth century.

- Dave

Posted by Vincent Keers on 04-17-2004 07:19 PM:

Hi David,

All very normal, human behaviour.
And if you're trying to say that the Mongols where different then any other tribe in those days or on this day...I don't think so.
I have the book this passage comes from.
It's somewhere, but I never felt like reading it.
Now I know why.

Best regards,