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GALLERY INDEX
~~ Gallery 5 ~~
The Tarot and other Early Cards
· page V ·

THE MAMLÛK CARDS
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GALLERY INDEX


other pages

page I
classic
tarots
page II
regional
tarots
page III
trump card
arrangements
page IV
modern &
non-standard
page VI
the Visconti
Tarots
page VII
the tarots
of Ferrara
page VIII
the tarot
of Marseille
page IX
the Tarot
de Paris
page X
Viéville's
Tarot
page XI
the
Minchiate
page XII
Mitelli's
Tarocchino
page XIII
Mantegna's
Tarot
page XIV
the
Hofjagdspiel
page XV
the
Hofämsterspiel
page XVI
the deck by
Jost Amman
page XVII
the Italy 2
Moorish deck

NOTE
the Arabic words have been romanized, i.e. spelt in Western letters according to their original sound,
following the standard translitteration system; due to the absence of the macron
among the ASCII characters, the latter has been replaced
with the circumflex accent (e.g.  Â = long "A")




MULÛK WA-NUWWÂB


the illustrations shown in this page are taken from a faithful replica
of the original cards, manufactured by Aurelia-Carta Mundi (Belgium)




The so-called Mamlûk cards, also called Mulûk Wa-Nuwwâb ("kings and viceroys"), are three incomplete decks held in the Topkapi Museum of Istanbul (Turkey). They likely come from northern Africa, in particular from today's Egypt. These cards are vaguely reminiscent of the earliest Italian tarots, because of their large size (about 25 x 9.5 cm, or 10 x 3 3/4 in), their decoration technique, i.e. hand-painted on pasteboard, and their similar age, as they too were made sometime around the 15th century.
They are considered the most ancient decks of Arabic origin known, despite a few individual subjects in other collections are believed to be over two centuries older than these ones, thus dating back to the Ayyûbid period (1173-1250, see historical notes). Nevertheless, the design of all Arabic cards appears very similar, probably based on a common pattern.

Since apparently no early Arabic source mentions the decks nor the games played with them, and since their use did not outlive the Mamlûk dynasty, all we know about them comes from their observation and their comparison with other playing cards of Europe and Asia.



HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Mamlûk is a word of Arabic origin that means "subdued, owned", recalling the early history of these people.
In the 12th century, the rulers of the Ayyûbid sultanate (north-eastern Africa), in the constant fear of being overthrown by their own generals, began to entrust their slaves with low-rank military charges.

5 of Dirâhm
A slave corps was introduced by Salah ad-Dîn (Saladin), in addition to others formed by freemen of other ethnical groups (Turks, Arabs, Kurds). This may sound strange, but since the Islâm prescribes lenience towards servants, and that by using their own slaves the rulers could have exerted a stronger control upon their army, it became customary for the Mamlûks to undertake such career.
map of the Mamlûk empire
These people had been originally deported from Caucasian, southern Russian and central Asian areas, as shown in the map. Therefore, their ethnic group and language was Kipchak, but they had been fully Arabicized (i.e. converted to the Islâm and taught Arabic). Some sources describe them as mercenaries, rather than slaves.
Hower, generation after generation, they reached the highest military ranks, and grew strong enough to revolt against the last Ayyûbid sultan, as-Salih Ayyûb. In 1250 the latter was murdered, and Izz ad-Din Aibek became the first Mamlûk ruler, founding the Turkish branch of the dynasty, also known as Bahrî Mamlûks from the regiment they belonged to.

Being military people, they were able to prevent the Mongols from advancing any further towards the Islamic regions (see also the map shown in RELATIONS BETWEEN EASTERN AND WESTERN CARDS) and, on the opposite front, fiercely fought back the Christians during the last Crusades, thus preserving the Islâmic civilization from being swept away. Their empire comprised mainly Egypt and Syria, but they also spread the Islâm further south, towards Nubia, which had already been Christianized.
In 1382, with sultan Barqûq, the new Circassan dynasty (or Burjî Mamlûks) replaced the Turkish branch. Their rulers proved much weaker, and within a century or so lost control over their lands. In 1517 Egypt and Syria were taken by the Turks from Anatolia, and were turned into provinces of the newborn Ottoman empire. But the new sultan chose for these provinces Mamlûk viceroys. This enabled them to maintain a high social status, and slowly their control over the army and the administration in Egypt grew strong again, up to the point of almost founding an independent state, in the 18th century. But in 1811, Egypt's new viceroy Muhammad 'Alî Pasha hatched a massacre, in which most Mamlûk representatives were killed, putting an end to this dynasty.

1 (ace) of Tûmân


HOW DID PLAYING CARDS REACH THE MAMLÛKS?

1 (ace) of Swords
It is now out of any doubt that playing cards were not invented by the Mamlûks, nor by their Ayyûbid predecessors, but came from further east. Among the several issues in favour of this statement is the Chinese document mentioned by A.Lo in his article The Late Ming Game Of Ma Diao, according to which in the late 13th century playing cards were already well-known in the Chinese lands ruled by the Mongols, too far away from north-eastern Africa for claiming an Arabic origin.
Instead, both the Ayyûbid sultanate and the Mamlûk empire had plenty of contacts with central Asia. In the 11th century the Seldjuks, of Turkik origin, had stretched their rule from the Caucasus to Egypt, before their empire broke into smaller states, while the Mamlûks, two or three centuries later, were of Turkic origin themselves, and their empire also adjoined the western boundary of the Mongols. In particular, they neighbored the Persian part of the Mongol dominions, ruled by the Il-Khans. This is particularly important, because also in Persia a local variety of playing cards called Ganjifa was already in use. Therefore, it is very likely that the Ayyûbid and Mamlûk cards were modelled on a pattern that was handed down from central Asia, either via Persia or by-passing this country.

An interesting detail is that while the king (i.e. the sultan) and the viceroy were actual positions in the Mamlûk social system, there was no rank such as a "second viceroy". According to some scholars, this third rank was added to the aforesaid two. This would entail that the early Arabic decks only had two courts, a structure similar to the Persian Ganjifa cards, that had a king (or vizîr) and a minister.

An in-depth comparison between Oriental and Mamlûk playing cards, suggesting an origin from a common ancestor, may be found in RELATIONS BETWEEN EASTERN AND WESTERN CARDS.


THE STRUCTURE OF THE MAMLÛK DECK
Although the cards left do not complete a deck, it is easy to tell that its composition was very similar to that of the cards now used in Italy and Spain.
It had four suits, whose names are mentioned on the court cards:

 Darâhim, plural of Dirahm, a typical Arabic currency of ancient Greek origin, i.e. from Drachm, here featuring a very generic pattern (not a "real" coin), matching the suit of Coins of both northern Italian and Spanish traditions.

 Suyûf ("scimitars, swords, sabres"), whose sign is a black S-shaped pattern, at a closer look reveal at one end the presence of a long handle with a hilt, and golden bosses along the shaft, evidently referring to scimitars in their sheath.

 Jawkân, actually "polo sticks", whose shape is long and straight, with an L-shaped end (this part is oriented in upright position); their sections are coloured in gold and blue, with alternate colours in adjoining sticks. They clearly inspired the cudgel-shaped Batons of Spanish cards, and the mace-like ones of the north Italian patterns: neither the Spanish nor the Italians card players knew what polo was!

 Tûmân, a word borrowed from the Turkic language of the Kipchak people (but found with very little differences also in Mongolian, Manchu, and several other languages and dialects throughout central Asia). This word means "ten thousand, 10,000, myriad", but it is also used with a meaning of "a great many, a multitude".
5 of Polo-sticks and 7 of Swords
Therefore, the suit of Tûmân would have mismatched any Western type of cards, had the chosen sign not been golden chalices or cups. These shapes apparently have no relation at all with the name, though they bring a fourth element in common with Latin-suited cards. Instead, the name Tûmân matches in meaning the suit called Wan, i.e. "ten thousands, myriads", found in Chinese money cards (see the Chinese gallery for further details). Therefore, this suit acts a real pivot between Western and Oriental cards.

Despite the known decks of this kind are very few, in all of them the pattern seems to follow a precise scheme.
The main part of the illustration is framed by a rim, whose top part is curved, in the shape of a dome (see the enlarged details on the right). All the free spaces are filled with floral motifs, elegantly painted; the dominant shades of colour in all cards are yellow (or gold) and blue.
the dome-shaped top part of the rim


What appears to be a crucial detail for the relation with southern European cards is not only the similarity of their signs, but the way the pips of the long suits (Swords and Sticks) are arranged, crossing each other, with the intersecting points highlighted by means of colour changes and additional details.

king of Darâhim
Furthermore, the cards with odd values (3, 5, 7 and 9) have a different and more ornate pip than cuts vertically through the others in the center of the card. All this is also found in most tarots, in northern Italian patterns, and in the now extinct Portuguese pattern.

Each Arabic suit is composed of thirteen subjects, for a total of 52 cards, without any honours, extra subjects nor jokers. Ten card have pips from 1 to 10, variously arranged, while the last three cards are courts.
Due to the Islamic precept of not reproducing human figures, only the names of the personages, i.e. the ranks of the three cards, are spelt at the bottom in gold Arabic letters inside a blue rectangle, while their central illustration shows either one or two large suit signs.

malik ad-darãhim, "king of Darâhim"
(detail of the bottom text)
Their names are malik ("king", the highest), nâib ("viceroy"), nâib thanî ("second viceroy", the lowest). Due to the aforesaid Islamic precepts, a female personage among the courts would have never been possible.


The three ranks basically correspond to the ones found in all Latin-suited patterns (i.e. northern Italian, Spanish and Portuguese), and in German-suited ones (German and Swiss patterns):

Arabic cards
SECOND VICEROY

VICEROY

KING
Latin patterns
N. ITALY - SPAIN
PORTUGAL
KNAVE CAVALIER KING
German patterns
GERMANY
SWITZERLAND
LOWER KNAVE UPPER KNAVE KING

In particular, in all four kings the large suit sign rests on top of a square that encloses an 8-leaf floral pattern, likely a sign of distinction for the highest card of the suit.

At the top of the court cards, in a blue rectangle very similar to the bottom one, is a saying or aphorism (a different one is found in each card). Their meaning is often obscure, or highly idiomatic; for instance, the second viceroy of Tûmân says:


king of Tûmân
LET IT COME TO ME, BECAUSE
ACQUIRED GOOD IS DURABLE;
IT REJOYCES ME
WITH ALL ITS UTILITY

Only one of the subjects, the second viceroy of Polo-sticks, lacks the blue rectangle at the bottom, but still has the top one.


WHAT GAMES DID THE MAMLÛKS PLAY?
Since no source seems to mention these cards nor the games played with them, we may only make conjectures, though based upon a few facts.
In first place, the Islâm frowns upon any form of gambling, and the Mamlûks must have surely been aware of this. Furthermore, these cards are particularly ornate, comparable to the Italian princely decks of the same age, and their use was almost certainly restricted to high officers, or to members of the nobility, people who would have never played for money. Instead, we know that the Arabs were particularly keen on mathemathics and computation. Therefore the Mulûk wa-Nuwwâb too may have been used for "intellectual" games, in which the pip cards had to be combined according to their numeric value, while the three courts in each suit acted either as extensions of the pip series (i.e. 11, 12 and 13), or as trumps. Due to the geographical and chronologic vicinity of the Persian Ganjifa cards, the most likely hypothesis is that they were used for trick games very similar to the ones played with the tarot, which - it is important to remark this once again - owes its suit cards to the Mamlûk "kings and viceroys".

king of Swords (left) and
second viceroy of Polo-sticks (without a name)




page I
classic
tarots
page II
regional
tarots
page III
trump card
arrangements
page IV
modern &
non-standard
page VI
the Visconti
Tarots
page VII
the tarots
of Ferrara
page VIII
the tarot
of Marseille
page IX
the Tarot
de Paris
page X
Viéville's
Tarot
page XI
the
Minchiate
page XII
Mitelli's
Tarocchino
page XIII
Mantegna's
Tarot
page XIV
the
Hofjagdspiel
page XV
the
Hofämsterspiel
page XVI
the deck by
Jost Amman
page XVII
the Italy 2
Moorish deck



OTHER GALLERIES

non-standard patterns advertisement decks sizes, shapes and colours standard pattern variants non-suited cards Mercante in Fiera Uta Karuta, Iroha Karuta, Dôsai Karuta Âs nas
regional patterns: Italy regional patterns: Spain regional patterns: Germany regional patterns: Austria regional patterns: Switzerland regional patterns: France regional patterns: Sweden regional patterns: Portugal regional patterns: China regional patterns: South-Eastern Asia regional patterns: Japan regional patterns: India uncut sheets mottos and proverbs

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Introduction
INTRODUCTION
AND HISTORY

Multi-language Glossary
MULTI-LANGUAGE
GLOSSARY
the Fool and the Joker
THE FOOL &
THE JOKER
Index Table
INDEX
TABLE
Regional Games
REGIONAL
GAMES
Playing Card Links
PLAYING CARD
LINKS