Islamic Prayer Rugs
For most people the visual approach to the subject of prayer rugs will seem to be most logical, but the visual questions which they generate are inextricably related to the historical and liturgical implications. The Moslem civilization evolved, over a long period of time, certain characteristic design elements which form a common link among all prayer rugs. The principal diagnostic is the mihrab, the prayer arch of the mosque translated into the weaver’s design terms—a concept which will be seen to vary widely from area to area. Turkish and Caucasian varieties often incorporate the ibrik, or water pitcher, to permit the symbolic washing of hands by the faithful. Many other design features indicate the widely different ethnic experience and levels of sophistication to be found in Islam.
All the rug-producing areas of the Middle East and Central Asia gave us prayer rugs, but their employment as religious artifacts varied considerably with the level of local orthodoxy.
There is no doubt that for many Moslems there is an element of homeopathic magic in the daily act of pointing the mihrab towards Mecca, and a belief that by doing so the suppliant established a kind of ligature, a reviving and purifying contact with the source of belief. Yet other Moslems of less rigorous faith saw the mihrab largely as a decorative motif. Volumes have been written on the symbolism contained in these weavings, but there is abundant evidence that the sheer popularity of the design may have been a more forceful factor than devoutness, and such scholastic saws as “each knot tied is a prayer” may well be more romance than fact. It is true that a certain moss green, being the color of Mohammed’s banner, only uncommonly appears in the weavings of the relatively orthodox Sunnite Moslems of Turkey, and representations of human or animal forms are prohibited to them as well. The more relaxed Shiite Moslems of the Caucasus, on the other hand, often felt no such inhibition.
Though prayer rugs as a genre were circumscribed by religious strictures and function, they were made over a vast area and this displayed a variety of ethnic, social and personal expression. This redounds to the credit of the anonymous craftsmen. The rigid tribal design purity of the Turkoman rugs, the voluptuous intricacy of the Persians, the rhythmic, mosaic-like rectilinearity of the Caucasians, ad the range of design in Turkish pieces from the delicate and austere Koulas to the primitive and expressive Konia, taken together, eloquently illustrate the great range of inventiveness and expression apparent in this exhibition.
As to history, rugs of prayer conformation must have been made in the very early days of Islam, but of the examples which survive, some appear to greatly predate the early 17th century. Most of the best-known and popular types are of the 18th and 19th centuries, and those rugs are characterized by the ascendancy of design over what may be called theological function. As the theological imperative receded the mihrab decayed into an element of design sometimes so perfunctory as to be almost unrecognizable.
It was not until the last quarter of the 19th century that these and similar oriental weavings found an audience of scholars and collectors in the western world; and nearly a century of scholarship has left a residue of countless unanswered questions concerning the precise provenance of many types, the manner in which design systems developed and decayed, among other impenetrable difficulties. The list is endless, as is the speculation and available misinformation.
Social and political upheavals in the earlier years of the 20th century largely ended this cultural phenomenon. Relics are all that remain.
This text was originally published in the exhibition catalogue.