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, where cultural, military and commercial interactions occurred. The game of cards became established in most West European countries by c.1375, but was being banned by the authorities shortly afterwards which suggests their rapid popularity.
The cards shown below are from a reconstructed 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 (emblem of the most popular of the aristocratic sports in the Mamluk Empire) and there are 13 cards per suit: the numbers 1 to 10 plus 3 court cards, the King, the Lieutenant and the Second Lieutenant (all male). 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, and it may be noteworthy that early Italian and Spanish court-cards did not always contain queens, possibly due to their origin in the Islamic or Saracenic pack, which is also suggested by the very similar suit symbols.
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”.
The pack is incomplete and consists of 47 cards, divided into 4 suits, with 13 cards per suit, so that the complete pack would have contained 52 cards, with plain backs. The cards illustrated here are from a reconstructed facsimile edition published by Aurelia Books, Brussels and Louvain, 1972. The boxed set also contains a booklet produced by Jan Bauwens which contains the Arabic inscriptions on the cards translated by Prof. Tangi of the University of Istanbul. Unfortunately the scholarship in the analysis of the cards has been found to be inaccurate in that Bauwens mistakenly follows an earlier assessment by L.A. Mayer in thinking that the pack contained four, instead of only three, court cards per suit. Furthermore, some of the original cards have been replaced by reconstructed cards which conform to his faulty theory about which cards bore inscriptions.
Member since February 01, 1996
Founder and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.
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