Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 01-03-2003 08:56 AM:

Origin and use of design

Dear all,

Given the subject of this discussion, it would be useful to have the input of some Muslim followers (I think there are a few of them among our readers). So far there is none, what a pity.

During several years in the Middle East I do not recall having seen a Muslim pray on a prayer rug although I saw devotees praying on mats, large carpets, even on cardboard or newspaper on sidewalks.
Well, true, I could ask around, but the question "Do you pray on a prayer rug when you are at home?" sounds a little indelicate…
Even the Mosques I saw had the floor covered with mats or large machine-made carpets.

However, I never visited Turkey:

This is a scan from Jon Thompson’s "Carpets From the Tents, Cottages and Workshops of Asia". The picture is from a Mosque in Central Turkey, 1970’s.
Look at those rugs. They seem to have the right size but not all of them have the arch/mihrab design.

So, not all the Prayer Rugs present what we generally consider as a "definer" of the Prayer Rug design: the arch.

What about those who DO have an arch?

Let’s look at good old Gantzhorn’s book.

This is a reconstruction of a Coptic textile of the 6th century probably used to close a tabernacle in a church altar.

This is another interesting illustration:

a 16th century "Synagogue Rug" from TMW (size 186 x 155 cm)..

And this is Armenian:

the "Gorzi" rug, dated 1651. According to the inscription it was intended for closing the tabernacle or a niche in an Armenian Church.

So, we have arch rugs and textiles used for religious purposes in different faiths.

Let’s look now at another, very interesting, book: "Arabic Art After Monuments of Cairo" by the Frenchman Prisse d’ Avennes. He was an architect and engineer who spent several years in Egypt in the first half of the 19th century.
He studied Islamic culture and executed drawings concerning architecture and local customs, more or less in the same period of the more famous British painter David Roberts.

This is the interior of Ibn Tulun Mosque:

and the Ibn Quala’un one:

As you can see no rugs, only big mats, probably straw mats.

Here are two windows in stained glass from different Mosques:

Windows on Paradise?

But then, if we look at the interiors of a private house:

we see almost the same windows. And niches. And a 2 dimensional Mihrab.
(Notice also the nice lady’s décolleté - not a common sight in nowadays Cairo ).

So, the same architectural elements had both a sacred and profane use.
I guess it was the same for "Mihrab" rugs.


Posted by Ali R.Tuna on 01-03-2003 03:44 PM:

Dear Filiberto,
First an "a parte" - you should absolutely visit Turkey. This is missing in your rug culture and for your life enjoyment !

The prayer rug is a very personal item and the floor covering of mosques in general should not be mixed with the individual prayer rug.
This is why you can find all sorts of coverings in mosques , as long as it can be kept clean.

Especially, in a mosque the direction of the mosque's mihrab is clear so no need for special indication. The only help you might require in a mosque is the alignment of the prayer in "safs" (literaly rows) . So a pattern helping alignment of the fidels in a relatively compact manner is mostly used for mosque floor coverings.

This is not to say that the mosques will not have saf rugs with niches. The best knowns are the ones that were taken out of the SElimiye Mosque in Edirne after the occupation of the city during the Balkan war by non Turkish troops. Fragments of these are now in several private collections.
The current modern wall to wall coverings of the SElimiye mosque (Edirne) , the Sokollu Mehmet pacha (Istanbul) , Suleymaniye (istanbul) are all with safs with mihrabs.
I am posting a rare picture of the Alaeddin Mosque in Konya taken in 1913 (from Illustration magazine, by chance in colour) which shows the floor covering. You can see the diversity.

However, the detail from bigger scan shows two individual prayer rugs with mihrabs.

Individual prayer rugs in mosques will be found in the niche of imam and some for the muezzins(the callers to prayer) . The ones for the imams are particularly interesting. To match the rectangular format to the rounded form of the niche they are usually folded on the top corners . Some are even cut at the edges, or they got worn out and take a rounded form .

Most of the individual prayer rugs were made for muslims to pray at home . They were usually laid at one corner and most of the time stayed or just rolled to avoid the fold/unfold effort five times a day. A lot of them were not knotted carpets ( usually embroidered felt , silk or cotton in rather wealthy families). This was expensive and probably also not very practical. I tend to think that the knotted forms with mihrab were more for status for religious notabilities or more wealthy families.
This is also consistent with the families of prayer rugs we can observe : (i)the Topkapi silk prayer rugs family with niches and versets from the Coran , now dated to 16th century and attributed Persia , (ii) the corpus of prayer rugs from Mucur- Kirsehir found in the Konya Mevlana Sufi Shrine all have niches and clear mihrabs.

I post here another prayer rug picture from Mucur that for me carries a lot of the prayer symbolism and the religious journey. It is woven in reverse direction to the picture.

Whichever way the designs were originated they have gained a religious symbol from 16th century on. This said, there are a lot of prayer rugs without niches or gables around, but they are not identified as such. Especially the Bergama area produced a lot of them .
Ali R. Tuna

Posted by Steve Price on 01-03-2003 04:59 PM:

Hi Filiberto,

First, I completely endorse Ali's recommendation of Turkey as a tourist destination. It is endlessly interesting, with people who pamper visitors shamelessly.

The series of pictures you added really show the relationship of colonnades to columns on some prayer rugs very nicely, and there can be little doubt that this is the origin of that design element in the rugs. On the other hand, in later pieces - say, after the mid-19th century - the columns often look less architectural. I think this is another example of the degeneration of weaving art that occurred with the pressures of massive commercialization to the west that occurred after about 1850, with the weavers not understanding the traditional significance of what they were depicting. Hence, things like the Ballard rug (shown in another thread), with columns that look all wrong architecturally (they have points at one end, rather than the usual wide bases, for instance) and other motifs that are upside down relative to the direction the rug would take if the columns were supports for an arched ceiling.

I've done the "mosque tour" in every city I visited in Turkey, and, as Ali notes, these are not the places to look for individual prayer rugs on the floors. Most are covered with large machine made carpets or inexpensive, mass produced carpets from India or Pakistan.

Finally, we have had a number of Moslem graduate students in our institution (including several from Ammann, where Filiberto is), and most of them use small, machine made mercerized cotton rugs as clean places to pray within the laboratories and offices.


Steve Price

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 01-04-2003 03:20 AM:

Thank you Ali for your much needed contribution!

I have to add a note to my first posting on this thread.
When I wrote it I wad keeping an eye on Jeff Spurr’s introduction to NERS Online Exhibit "Prayer Rugs & Related Textiles"
and I forgot to clearly point out the similarity of iconography between the stained glass windows and rugs with niches and trees and/or vase design, thinking it was evident enough.

As you can see the Mosques to which the first two windows belong are respectively of the 14th and 15th century.
I do not know if the windows are that old (the stained glass could have been added later) but this demonstrates that such motives were around for some time in architectural form.

I’ll try to follow your (and Steve’s) advise to visit Turkey.
Best regards,