Mamluk Playing Cards

A break in the program: I hope regular readers will allow me to post something about a very old and rather fancy playing card deck that has inspired my latest project. Normal ballad service will be resumed shortly.

The origins of playing cards are hardly documented, and so have been the subject of much speculation. But it seems likely that they were first played with in China, and appeared in Europe by way of Persia and the middle east.

I find it fascinating to look at surviving ancient sets of playing cards, partly to see what has changed and what has remained the same in moving to the modern age. But partly also just to see the design and artwork that was used, some of which is quite spectacular.

A particularly interesting set of early playing cards was discovered at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, where it is now housed. These cards have been dated to the 15th century and  the Mamluk empire, which covered Egypt and the surrounding areas in the late-medieval period.

Three of the Mamluk cards in the myriads (cups) suit: 3, viceroy, and king. Public domain image from Wikimedia.

Although there are some missing cards, it seems that these Mamluk cards share the suit structure of modern playing cards, with four suits, each comprising ten number cards and three court cards. The suits of the Mamluk cards are not those that are commonly used in the English-speaking world, though modern Spanish card players may find them familiar. They are: swords, polo sticks, coins, and myriads (drawn in a shape resembling a goblet or cup). The fact that these cards share the structure and suits with Spanish and Italian decks makes them rather significant.

The court cards are unusual in that they do not show pictures of people. It has been hypothesised that this could be due to a religious ban on the depiction of people. It is also possible, though, that this was a stylistic choice: playing cards are hardly religious objects, and there are plenty of surviving Mamluk manuscripts in which people are depicted.

The court cards, then, are identified by labels: Arabic calligraphic inscriptions on blue backgrounds at the bottoms of the cards. These labels make the names of the four suits, and also of the three court ranks, unambiguous. The court cards are called the king (malik), the viceroy (or deputy, na'ib), and the second viceroy (second deputy, na'ib thani). So these cards are sometimes called the kings and viceroys. It is very interesting that the Arabic word for viceroy, na'ib, seems to have been used in European languages as a loan word for playing cards; playing cards are called naipes in Spain.

There are further blue panels with calligraphic inscriptions at the tops of the court cards, as well as some of the other cards. These are in verse, and seem to be good-luck maxims, indicating that the holder should be pleased to have such a high-value card.

But what makes the cards stand out is the way that they are beautifully decorated with floral patterns, surrounded by arched borders and scrollwork. The Mamluk cards are all individually hand-drawn and hand-painted, and decorated with gilding and, in some cases, calligraphy. The great majority of the Mamluk cards seem to have been made in the same style and at the same time. But they have been supplemented by a small number of cards drawn in a slightly simpler floral style, and one card decorated with geometric patterns. This was possibly done to replace missing or damaged cards from the original deck.

The great amount of work that was put into making the cards would obviously make them very expensive and very valuable. And their high value could well have contributed to their longevity; other cheaper and less well-regarded decks of playing cards were doubtless destroyed. The so-called Unger fragment is one small torn surviving piece of a rather older playing card in the cups/myriads suit, drawn in a similar but simpler style.

I have been creating a deck of cards based on the patterns and designs of the Mamluk cards, but with the more familiar French/international suits. You can read about my Viceroys project on Kickstarter here.


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Article on various aspects of the Mamluk cards, including corrected suit structure and Arabic inscriptions: M. Dummett, K. Abu-Deeb, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 1973, 36, 106–128

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