Volume 1 Number
plain of Karbala was sacred to Shiah Islam. Locus of the massacre
of Husein's small band and of his martyrdom, the site subsequently
became a major shrine. Karbala stones were fully described for
Westerners early on (1639) by the man from Holstein, Adam Olearius:
Persians have a stone, wherewith they often touch their forehead,
while they are at their Prayers; or haply they lay the stone upon
the ground, and touch it with their foreheads. It is made of a
greyish Earth, which is to be had about Metzef and Kufa, where
Hossein was kill'd, and interr'd, near Aly, and thence it is that
the said stone derives all its vertue. The Figure of it is Octogonal
and it is somewhat above three inches in Diameter, and contains,
with the names of their twelve Saints, that of Fatima, their common
Mother. They are made by the Arabians, who bring them into Persia
to be sold." (1)
visitors, George Foster (1783/84) and Lady Mary Sheil, (1849-1853),
are two other competent Middle East observers, with this to say,
respectively, about the tablets:
contradistinction to the Soonis, who in their prayers cross the
hands on the lower part of the breast, the Schiahs drop their
arms in straight lines; and as the Soonis at certain periods of
the prayer press their forehead on the ground or a carpet, the
sectaries of Ali lay on the spot which the head reaches, a small
tile of white clay, impressed with characters sacred to the memory
of Ali." (2)
unwrapping a stone that had been brought from Kerbella, placing
it carefully towards Mecca, they went through the usual form of
prostration and prayer; this they repeated three times every day."
An early 20th
century mention of the stones appears in d’Allemagne’s extensive
work: "...embroidered pieces of linen are used for making little
portable prayer rugs, which all good pilgrims put in the bottom
of their sacks when they leave on a long trip of sanctification
which often lasts several months. In these little portable chapels,
there is always a geometric design indicating the direction in which
one must put the fabric on the ground, and in the upper part there
is a space reserved on which to put the little lump of clay from
Kerbala, which all good believers must touch several times with
their foreheads when begging Allah for help in their great misery."
photographed (most likely in 1907) several stones.
of these four observers link the briquettes with foreheads, give
them Mecca directionality, put them on the niche end of prayer rugs,
and suggest that there is a spot reserved for their placement. Given
these data it seems valid to speculate that representations of the
"stones" could appear on prayer rugs. A sound use of this
speculation might be to view as a possible tile of Karbala any geometric
form, within or above a mihrab, which differs from the other decorative
motifs on the rug.
are a prayer rug icon, they may be used in establishing provenance,
especially in Azerbaijan rugs, for the Azeri population was mixed
Shiah and Sunni, with Shiahs in the majority and located principally
in areas relatively proximate to what is now Persia, and in the
large towns and cities. The Sunnis were both more rural and closer
to Turkey. The motif, of course, could have lost its significance
with time and thus be no indicator, but with this caveat, some sorting
of Caucasian rugs may be possible based on prayer rug analysis.
area may be the Baluch-type prayer rugs which occasionally bear
what could be an image of a Karbala briquette. Tribes, Baluch or
otherwise, weaving these rugs are likely to have resided in Persian
A related speculation
has to do with the hands appearing in the spandrels of prayer rugs.
There are many symbolic possibilities for hands, but when they appear
with a putative Karbala stone, the urge to consider them the hands
of the martyred Husein is very strong indeed.
Travels of the Ambassadors, London, 1668, p. 279.
George, A Journey from Bengal to England, London, 1798,
- Sheil, Lady
Mary L. W., Life and Manners in Persia, London, 1856, p.
Henri-Rene, Du Khorassan au Pays des Backhtiaris, Paris,
1911, Vol. II, p. 155/6. Research Report's translation.