Mamluk Carpets Revisited

This year we are celebrating 135 years of confusion of the series on carpets currently known as “Mamluk” carpets. For the past 135 years of attempts to correctly classify these handwoven carpets there have been many articles, books and studies on this subject, that not only attempted to establish its’ origin but also created many sub-names for them; such as Chessboard, Para-Mamluk, Cairene, East Mediterranean, Simonetti, Compartment and Damascus and no doubt within the next 50 years many more names will be attributed to this style of carpets.

The purpose of this article is not to go into the technical aspects of making these carpets since there are many scholarly articles on the differences of carpets in this category, such as differences in the wool and cotton warps, whether they are symmetrically or a-symmetrically knotted, the analysis of the red dyes used in making them, the discussions on the development of the design and also the number of knots per square inch and the age and the exact date of making these carpets. For me the simplicity is the main tool to study these carpets and to simplify the facts, the history and the studies about them can lead us to a simple answer on this subject. When I look at the Chehel Sotun “Mamluk carpet (pictured here), which was found in the Chehel Sotun palace in Esfahan and later moved to the Tehran Museum of Carpets, the carpet has three main layers.

At the bottom of the main field of the carpet we have an octagon surrounded by some Cyprus trees and vases. In my opinion this design has roots in Persian architecture. Although we can trace its origin back to pre-Islamic Iranian Dynasties, I will focus on the ruling dynasties in Iran at the time of these carpets. For example, Timur (founder of the Timurid Khanate) had a palace in his birth city, Kesh (modern Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan), which was build in the shape of an octagon. He also built a mosque for his beloved wife, Bibi Khanoom, in Samarkand in 1375 which was shaped like an octagon and in addition had 8 minarets as well as an eight-point star on top of the roof. Many architectural scholars in Iran consider that building as Shirazi origin in design.

In the time of the Timurids there were two confederations of Turkmen tribes that were influential in the arts and architecture of Iran, they were the Aq Qoyunlu and Qara Qoyunlu and both tribes at some stage ruled large parts of Iran with Tabriz as their capital, towards the end of the Timurid era. There was a palace in Tabriz named Hasht Behest (which translates to "8 heavens"), that was built in 1483 by Sultan Yaqub, the son of Sultan Uzun Hasan (the ruler of the Aq Qoyunlu Dynasty). When the Venetian diplomat, Giosafat Barbaro, visited this palace he mentioned it in his writings as well as the fact that the main building was built in the shape of an octagon with an entrance at each angle and that it stood in the centre of a massive garden surrounded by Cyprus trees, flowers and shrubs and it also had a magnificent water feature. Later when the Safavids became the rulers of Iran, they copied this Hasht Behest palace design of the Aq Qoyunlu in their capital, Esfahan. If one studies that palace of the Safavids it gives us an idea of what the original palace in Tabriz looked like since it was destroyed entirely at some point in time. Another palace built by the Aq Qoyunlu in Tabriz is a called Shah Guli, which again was an octagon-shaped palace in the centre of a lake surrounded by Cyprus trees. Therefor, the bottom layer of these carpets represents a birds eye view of all the palaces and mosques built in this particular design in Iran.

In the second layer of these carpets we find two minbar on either side. A minbar is an elevated platform that serves as a staircased podium. These minbars were used by the kings and religious leaders to address the crowds inside the palaces and this part of the carpet represents these minbars as seen when one enters the palace. In order to connect these Mamluk carpets to Egypt, scholars connect the creation of the minbar with Sultan Qaitbay who was the Circassian ruler of the Burji Mamluks of Cairo in the 15th century; however, there are many minbars built in Iran in eras preceding this such as the ones in Esfahan, Sushtar and Nadushan where all of the minbars are hundreds of years older than those in Egypt. Even in Persepolis (the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Dynasty 500BC), the area where visitors to the palace were welcomed also contains a minbar shaped staircase. All the geometric decorative designs on the minbars are generally attributed to the Islamic interlace designs or Coptic textile designs, which can be seen in Egyptian inlaid arts and crafts, but again none of these are strangers to Iranian history of design, especially with the great example in the Goharshad Mosque that was built by order of Empress Goharshad, (the wife of Shah Rukh of the Timurid Dynasty in Mashhad) in 1418, and the architect was Ghavameddin Shirazi. Even older than that is the Ghasnavid Mosque in Esfahan with similar examples of the interlace designs. Up to today the Shirazi people are masters of working with wood carving and painted glass in the most mathematical and geometrical manner.

The third and top section of these carpets represent the Mihrab, which is the arch and the hanging candle lamps that one finds in the holiest part in a place of worship. The design of this Mihrab has roots in Mithraism which is one of the most ancient religions of the world that started in Iran, and with many sacred Mithraic worship sites surviving in Iran, its design was transferred to Islamic mosques centuries later.

Therefore, to understand these carpets one needs to understand the movement of the imagery. The movement of the carpets in this series is to first view the palace or place of worship from a bird’s eye view, then to enter the space seeing the minbars at ground level and then entering the holiest space of the palace or mosque and again uplifting one's eyes towards heaven. Although majority of Mamluk carpets have been linked to the Mamluk kingdoms of Egypt and around, especially the second Mamluk era of the Burji with Circassians as rulers, I have however not seen any objection to the claim that the design and weave of these carpets originated in Iran especially with two main cities as the origin, one being Tabriz (as capital of the Aq Qoyunlu and Qara Qoyunlu and origin of the older series of the Mamluk carpets with symmetrical knot, finer weave and the red dyed wool common in the Northwest of Iran like the Chehel Sotun carpet in this picture) and the other being Shiraz, (as the place of possible workshops to get orders to make carpets for the palaces of Egypt and Anatolia with these particular designs, there have been many Circassian migrants from 350 years ago to Shiraz and surrounds - especially Dezh Kord and Eastern Cherkes - with the latter named such to remind them of their Circassian home land. Cherkes is Circassian in Farsi. Shiraz and surrounds are in my opinion responsible for the later Mamluk series of carpets with corser weave, a-symmetrical knots and the red dyed wool common in Southwest Iran).

The fact that the geo-political relationship of Aq Qoyunlu and the Circassians and Kipchack rulers of the Mamluks in Egypt and Eastern Anatolia, especially Dyar Bekr and Damascus, are well documented (for example, many Aq Qoyunlu rulers married Circassian princesses and this tradition continued during the Safavid Dynasty and many Safavid rulers had Circassian mothers. Also, when a royal family member was exiled from Iran, they were sent to Egypt under Circassian Burji Mamluk rule), does not create any objection to the fact that these Mamluk carpets are in fact from Iranian origin and were later transferred to the Mamluk areas.

Maybe C Clarke - the curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London - was not wrong when he named the first two Mamluk carpets discovered, Iranian carpets (most probably from Southwest Iran), for my investigation led me to the same conclusion.