Beautiful Collection of Muslim Antique Prayer Rugs

Antique Islamic and Muslim Prayer rugs represent a very special genre with the world of carpets. Technically any small carpet or rug can be used for the purpose of praying, so, by default, any small rug could be a prayer rug. Still, it seems that the prayer rug as a specific type or genre emerged relatively early in the history of Islamic carpet design. What distinguishes an antique prayer rug in terms of format is the use of an arched doorway, niche or “mihrab” design motif.

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This mihrab replicates the “qibla “or niche in the main wall of a mosque, which enables the faithful to orient themselves toward Mecca when in engaged in prayer or “namaz.” Some mihrabs on payer rugs look overtly architectural like this silk Tabriz prayer rug, with a pointed arch supported by columns to either side. Alternatively, they may simply approximate the shape of such an arched door, or the arch may become gable-like or stepped like this decorative geometric Turkish Milas prayer rug.

In time, the prayer rug became quite elaborate with additional panels above or below the mihrab, as well as several borders surrounding the whole composition. Without a doubt, however, the most interesting and complex elaboration format of the antique prayer design rugs is the multiple-niche payer carpet or “Saph.”

At first glance Saphs look like runners, at least in terms of their long proportions. But unlike runners, where the design is longitudinal, emphasizing the length of the runner, Saphs are oriented toward the edges, rather than the ends. Their décor consists of niches running form one long edge to the other and placed side by side in serial repetition. Practically, they appear to function as a series of prayer rugs connected side to side so that three or more people could simultaneously or communally pray.

The origin of this format is still not altogether clear. Some writers would see them as “family” prayer rugs, although there is no established format for family prayer in the Muslim world. Others would see them as serving the needs of a religious group or community of some kind, or simply as a means of facilitating group prayer. We simply do not know, but it seems likely that they were invented for use in mosques rather than at home.

Saphs are attested at least as early as the fifteenth century when they are depicted in the manuscript illumination of Timurid Persia. They appear to have been produced in all parts of the Muslim world where rugs were made – Persia, Turkey, Turkestan, and India, and the Caucasus. There are Ottoman Saphs, Mogul Saphs, and well as examples from nomadic Turkoman weaving and East Turkestan. They are even attested in the relatively humble or domestic genre of Anatolian kilims, which suggests that they were a well integrated cultural feature rather than something extraordinary.

Nevertheless, Saphs are not not common. Their relative rarity makes them a highly desirable type for collectors. The example from the Nazmiyal Collection illustrated by this silk Yarkand is an eighteenth century piece from East Turkestan. This does in fact seem to be a special commission since it is made with all silk pile.

But despite its luxurious material, the design is remarkably simple and reserved, with the various niches left as empty spaces in green, the special color of the Prophet Mohammed. The decoration is restricted to the borders and the spandrels or spaces above the mihrab. Interestingly, this example is quite similar to the one depicted in a Timurid manuscript, suggesting that Saph composition may be one of the most conservative and tradition types of rug design.

The Essence of Antique Prayer Rugs – From Muslim Prayer to Islamic Art

Introduction to the Islamic Prayer Rugs

In Islamic countries, prayer rugs are usually made locally and often named after the place of their origin. The patterns, motifs and colors may also vary from place to place. However, because of the image of the mihrab, each of these antique rugs is immediately recognizable as a prayer rug.

“This is the essence of prayer rugs”

Muslim Man Praying on an Islamic Prayer Rug by Nazmiyal
Muslim Man Praying on an Islamic Prayer Rug Mat

What are Muslim Prayer rugs?

A prayers rug mat is a rug that Muslims use when praying. Islamic prayer involves sitting and prostrating, with the hands and face repeatedly touching the ground; so they need a clean and dry place.

At each prayer time, which comes five times a day, they unroll the rug, place it on the ground and sit on it to pray.

Mihrab Design Islamic Antique Muslim Prayer Rugs Nazmiyal
Mihrab Design In Islamic Muslim Antique Prayer Rugs

How do Muslims use / pray with or on these rugs:

During the prayer, they bow several times offering “Salat” (homage) to Allah. After the prayer, they roll it up and place it in a clean place.

Are there specific attributes and / or design elements that are specific to Prayer rugs?

The prayer mat is traditionally woven with a rectangular design, with the size ranging from 2.5 ft × 4 ft to 4 ft × 6 ft, enough to kneel above the fringe at one end and bend down and place the head at the other. Within the rectangle area are beautiful patterns and motifs forming images of mosques, architecture and other Islamic symbols.

Decorations are not only for aesthetic purposes, but have a deep religious value. So, great care is given in the design of prayer rugs.

antique muslim prayer rug #43907 by nazmiyal
Antique Muslim Prayer Rug #43907

The most important feature of a prayer rug is the niche at one end representing the mihrab, which is a directional point that directs the worshiper towards Mecca. Every mosque has a mihrab to direct the congregation towards the general direction of the holy city; so does every prayer mat.

But in the case of the Muslim prayer rug itself, the worshiper has to determine the direction and place the rug with the mihrab pointing in the right direction.

antique tribal Caucasian Islamic Prayer Rugs. Nazmiyal Antique Carpets
Antique Caucasian Islamic Prayer Rug #47496

A mihrab is an arch-shaped form that occupies one end of the rug, often referred to as the top end. Some rugs may, however, have mihrab at both ends. Such rugs are called double-ended prayer rugs. Besides representing the actual mihrab of a mosque, it also represents the spiritual archway to paradise.

So, it is often flanked by the “Pillars of Wisdom”. The area below the mihrab known as the prayer field and symbolizes the floor of the mosque. This is where the worshiper kneels down when praying.

Some prayer rugs may have images of hands to tell the worshiper where to place his hands when praying, a comb to remind the worshiper to comb his hair or a pitcher to remind him to wash his hands before praying.

Antique Islamic Prayer Rug with hands nazmiyal
Antique Islamic Prayer Rug with hands

In addition to the mihrab, prayer rugs may also have images of mosque lamps in reference to the Verse of Light in the Quran. Some may also have images of famous mosques and Islamic architecture, especially of those in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, the three holiest cities of Islam.

How do Muslim people take care of their antique Islamic prayer rugs?

Because of the important role a prayer rug plays in a Muslim’s life, it has to be handled with the utmost care and respect. It is considered disrespectful to place it in a dirty place, throw it around or kick it.

It should be cleaned and washed regularly. It should be removed from the floor as soon as the prayer is over and neatly rolled up and placed in a clean location.

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View our collection of antique Prayer rugs below:

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