The Renaissance of Islamic Art. From the time of the Prophet Muhammad until today, Islam has represented a way of life, an all-encompassing approach to life itself. The era's dedication to the philosophy and message of Islam is mirrored in its art, predominantly ordered, symmetrical, and geometric in conception and execution.
Mamluk lancers, early 16th century (etching by Daniel Hopfer)
Why is it that a society blossoms out in a bouquet of artistry at a given moment in time? Such a moment occurred when the Mamluk sultans, based in Cairo, ruled the East from the mountains of Turkey to the sands of Nubia, from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea.
By Western reckoning, the period was that of the Middle Ages. For the world of Islam, the two hundred and fifty years of Mamluk rule marked a rebirth, a renaissance. Yet there were parallels between the West and East in terms of human goals and achievements. As the workers, peasants, and merchants of medieval Europe thrust their Gothic spires toward heaven, the craftsmen of the Arab East gave expression to their faith and their societal concepts with achievements of architecture, religious manuscripts, metalwork, and glass, which form a legacy of opulence and beauty.
The design of the rugs is unique to the Mamluk world, consisting of a square that is transformed into a rectangle by the addition of two oblong panels. This rectangular component is either single and framed by a wide border or triple, in which case the central square is more prominent and all three units are enclosed by a border. The only exception is the celebrated five-partite rug owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The decoration of the central square utilizes geometric units radiating from the center. The core is often a multipetaled rosette enclosed by a star, which is in turn placed within a medallion. The encircling zones grow larger as they open out from the core, forming a series of stars, hexagons, octagons, and polygons, each subdivided and decorated in contrasting colors with alternating motifs. The overall kaleidoscopic effect is similar to the astral compositions of manuscript illumination, woodwork, and inlaid stone. The oblong panels flanking the central square are either tripartite, their components echoing the central design, or contain rows of stylized cypresses, palm trees, papyrus sprays, abstracted florals, and arabesques. The border often consists of medallions alternating with oval cartouches; some later examples have overall floral patterns in the borders.
The Last Supper, 16th century, by Ambrosius Francken. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
The Mamluk rug is perhaps the most striking of all Islamic carpets, woven in jewellike tones of red, green, and blue, with an almost silky iridescence.
With their limited colour palette, the Mamluk carpet colours could easily have been dyed onto natural coloured light brown, beige, or grey wools. Even a decent yellow can be produced on beige wool if the pigment is intense enough. To dye yellow, both Luteolin(Weld) and Isparek(Delphinium semibarbatum) were employed, often combined with Dyers Sumach(Fisetin) for added durability. The Persian Isparek may have been grown locally. Mamluks controlled the Spice Route. Indigo was cultivated in Egypt. The Mamluke carpet remains a tricolour production, consistent in wool, dyes and weaves for at least a hundred years.
Weaving and Production
A new carpet genre instigated a hybrid structure, crossing the Persian knot with depressed warp and three weft shoots with the all-woolen build of Anatolia. Why they employed woolen warps, not cotton, is a mystery: only these carpets employ a 4-ply woolen warp. The weft is also eccentric: a multiple, non-plied yarn, sometimes used in Turkmen carpets. In general, the Mamluk carpets have a square weave, facilitating the transfer of geometric designs. So characteristic is the S (and SZ) spinning that it must be considered integral to a design concept of exorbitant symmetry.
Photo: Mamlouk Rug Weaving, 2020 Diyarbakir