Mamluk Playing Cards
Nã'ib, the game of lieutenants...
The early history of cards in Western Europe was related to the invasion of North Africa, Spain and Sicily by Islamic forces during the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt which ended in 1517. This coincided with the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada in Andalusia (13th - 15th century), the last Islamic stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula. Spain was the point of contact with the Arab world, via the Strait of Gibraltar, where the cultural, military and commercial interactions occurred. The game of cards became established in most West European countries by c.1375, and was being banned by the authorities shortly afterwards which suggests their rapid popularity. See: Early References.
In the Muslim world of the Near East, and in India, where card playing was a pastime of the high born, hand painted cards, usually the products of court workshops, were the norm. In Europe, on the other hand, with the development of paper manufacturing and the invention of printing, cards were produced for a mass market and all classes were able to play cards. Printed cards were common but hand painted cards were much rarer.
The cards shown below are from a XV or early XVI century Mamluk pack, hand-drawn and hand-painted, probably belonging to a wealthy or illustrious owner. They are a beautiful example of the important and often overlooked cultural, technical and artistic influence which Islam has bestowed upon the Western world, evident in the many artistic, architectural and archæological treasures displaying their characteristic geometric construction. In this case we are looking at the ancestor of our humble playing card. The underlying design is very simple but the surface has been ornamented. The border of some cards is in the shape of a horseshoe arch as seen in Islamic doorways, windows, friezes and gravestone decorations. The suits are coins, cups, swords and polo-sticks and there are 14 cards per suit: the numbers 1 to 10 plus 4 court cards, the King, the Lieutenant, the Second Lieutenant and the Assistant. The ranks of the court cards are given in the blue inscription areas at the bottom of the cards. In European packs the court cards were of course represented pictorially.
The calligraphic texts along the tops of the cards consist of rhyming aphorisms which are often very enchanting, sometimes strange, but always interesting: “With the sword of happiness I shall redeem a beloved who will afterwards take my life“ - “O thou who hast possessions, remain happy and thou shalt have a pleasant life.” - “Let it come to me, because acquired good is durable; it rejoices me with all its utility” - “Pleasures for the soul and agreeable things, in my colours there are all kinds” - “Look how wonderful my game is and my dress extraordinarily beautiful” - “I am as a garden, the like of which will never exist” - “O my heart, for thee the good news that rejoices” - “Rejoice in the happiness that returns, as a bird that sings its joy”.
“As for the present that rejoices, thy heart will soon open up“ - “I will, as pearls on a string, be lifted in the hands of kings” - “May God give thee prosperity; then thou will already have achieved thy aim” - “Rejoice for thy lasting happiness” - “Rejoice in the pleasant things and the success of the objects” - “I am as a flower, a string of pearls is my soil?” - “The alif rejoices and fulfils your wishes” - “Whosoever will call me to his happiness, he will only see joyful looks”.