The prayer rug – a unity of symbol and ritual

Category: General

by Dr. Elmira Gyul.

Kum Kapi silk metal thread prayer rug. Photo courtesy Bonhams.

One example of the ritual aspect of worship in art is provided by the making of special carpets or embroidered coverlets for the namaz – the praise to Allah five times per day. At least once a week, on Fridays, Muslims use to pray in the mosque, but, on other days, the namaz could be accomplished individually in any chosen place. At such moments, there is a need for a microspace imitating the inside of a mosque and symbolically separating the believer from the outside world for communion with God. A small carpet, spread out for prayers, met this need perfectly. It’s size i determined by practical necessity and is calculated for a kneeling, prostrate figure. Each member of the family has his own prayer mat. Sometimes several such mats – from two to seven – can be combined to form a single, lengthwise carpet. Such “collective” prayer mats is often used in the women’s sections of the houses. Carpets intended compositionally for a simultaneous praying of 30-40 people are stretched out in mosques.

Anatolian Ushak prayer rug 18th century. Photo courtesy Nagel.

In the Middle Ages, the making of carpets for the namaz in Islamic countries was widespread, indicating the close link between religion and people’s everyday lives. The earliest examples of prayer mats can be seen in Iranian miniatures of the first half of the 14th and first half of the 15th century. Italian Renaissance artists of the second half of the 15th century as Giovanni Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio and Lorenzo Lotto depicted Turkish prayer mats on their canvases, giving rise to a curious cultural paradox: “the image of the Madonna in the artists’ pictures coexisted peacefully with a vital piece of Muslim religious ritual” (Y. Miller). The 16th and 17th centuries are represented by magnificent examples of Persian prayer mats. Prayer mats were produced both in large palace workshops from the patterns of decorative artists and in rural houses. But whoever created a prayer mat – a professional weaver or a needlewoman in the remote countryside – it always contained one detail that was compulsory: an arch was depicted – the mihrab niche, the central place in the mosque towards which the believer directed his prayers.

Mosques are always built so that the mihrab niche indicated the kibla, the direction of Mecca, the town that is sacred to all Muslims, where the main Muslim shrine, the Kaaba, is located. The prayer mat should be spread in the same direction. In this way, the worshipper is facing Mecca and is convinced that his prayer will be heard. The mihrab has a meaning as the divine gate, a zone of transition from the earthly, perishable world to the heavenly, divine world. This is the role that is assigned to the arch on the joynamaz (prayer mat, prayer rug) too, with the lower part of the carpet symbolising the earthly world, while the upper part, above the arch, is the heavenly world.

16th – 17th century Isfahan “palace” prayer rug. Photo courtesy Christies.

The so-called “palace” prayer rugs and carpets were marked by their magnificent decorative and technological qualities and by the richness of the material and the décor. They were woven of wool and silk, sometimes including gold and silver thread, and were made for the aristocracy. The whole decoration of the prayer rugs, executed from sketches made by artists, created an atmosphere of communion with God. This was assisted by inscriptions, usually quotations from the Koran, glorifying Allah and the prophet Mohammed. They were always to be found in the top part of the carpet, above the arch, in the “upper world”, since the word and its written form was sacred. The Arabic inscription performed the same function as icon representations in Christianity. There is a good reason for the Arabic script’s elegance of its lines: it embodied the beauty of God. The same meaning is invested in the exquisitely ornate leaf embellishment, which predominates in the décor of the “palace” prayer rugs. Abstract leaf motifs, as the islimi, provided associations connected with the idea of God, the world He created and the Garden of Eden.

Karabagh prayer rug. Photo courtesy Rippon Boswell.

The village prayer rugs fashioned by ordinary people were very different from those used by the wealthy. This group of carpets is mostly represented by items from the 19th and early 20th centuries (not many earlier examples have survived), but even so, owing to the traditional nature of folk art, they convey its most archaic features. Their décor is dominated by a different, geometrical style of design that is found in folk weaving as a whole and by different symbols, connected with ancient heathen folk beliefs and cults. Frequently, when making prayer rugs, the weavers drew on the traditional carpet designs that they knew well, only adding a representation of its main formal characteristic – the mihrab arch.

Among cattle-breeding tribes, the concept of a divine protective force was traditionally linked with totemic animals and birds, so that pictures of a ram’s horns or a bird’s claws could often be seen above the mihrab arch. The symbolic representation of totemic animals (“the whole through the part”) resulted from a belief in their sacred power. The concepts of prosperity and happiness were also linked with these motifs, which were traditional to the folk carpet. Throughout the centuries of its supremacy, Islam has been unable to eradicate from folk art the ancient symbols associated with the beliefs of a tribal society.

Shirvan prayer rug 1890. Photo courtesy Sothebys.

Quite often in village prayer rugs we come across pictures of male figures and horses, confirming the fact that religious bans on the depiction of living beings were largely ignored by the people even when making objects for religious worship. Sophisticated, realistically executed pictures of animals are also found in “palace” prayer rugs, in the lower part of the middle area, which related to the earthly world.

In Central Asia, the production of prayer rugs, became widespread in the towns and among tribes that were leading a settled way of life or had adopted it. This fact is quite revealing: settled tribes were more responsive to foreign influences, including religious ones, whereas nomads clung firmly to their own cultural traditions, seeking to maintain the tribe’s “purity”. Among

Beshir prayer rug. Photo courtesy Christies.

the Turkmen, prayer rugs are found mainly in the Ersari tribes living near the middle reaches of the Amudarya (the villages of Beshir, Kyzyl-ayak and Chakyr), which have always combined cattle breeding and agriculture. The mihrab niche in Turkmen prayer mats is always decorated with a picture of horns, and, despite the preponderance of leaf and floral décor, their style differs markedly from that of the décor of the “palace” carpets by the geometrical nature of the shapes.

The making of prayer rugs was also widespread in the 19th century among the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks of the Fergana Valley and nearby Kashgar and Xinjiang. Here one finds “collective” specimens, intended for the simultaneous praying of several people. Carpets of this type also feature the invariable mihrab arch, and leaf décor predominates, but the style of the picture and the motifs of the ornamentation are exclusively local in nature.

East Turkestan Khotan SAF 1800. Photo courtesy Rippon Boswell.

Embroidered prayer rugs are often found among the Uzbeks and Tajiks who were not engaged in weaving carpets with a pile.


The abundant information of the decoration of the prayer rugs and their connection with the spiritual and general outlook typical of the various periods and strata of society make this type of carpet an inexhaustible source that sheds light on the processes in cultural history that have taken place during the Islamic period.

Dr. Elmira Gyul, Fine Arts Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan

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