Beautiful Antique Collection of Muslim Prayer Rugs
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 a prayer rug in terms of format is the use of an arched doorway, niche or “mihrab” design motif.
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 silkTabriz 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.