Volume 7  Number 1
January 1989

Ignatius Mouradgra d'Ohsson was born in Constantinople and was a resident until March 1784. Not long thereafter he published one of his major works, the multi-volume Tableau General..., a compendium of Ottoman governmental, religious, and secular practices. These observations offer a detailed picture of the well-to-do of Constantinople in the second half of the 18th century. The first, folio, edition has the added attraction of many illustrations. Here is one of the rare instances of etchings which have good chance of being accurate, for the drawings in the d'Ohsson volumes were made on the spot by both Greek and European artists, particularly J. M. Moreau.

While the "mechanical arts" are among the treated topics, their discussion is summary only, but not without an item or two of interest. Muslins are made in Constantinople and Brussa; serges and camelots in Angora, Tossia [?], and Cairo; "sedjeades" (prayer rugs) and skull caps ("fess") in Barbary; and, at Smyrna and Salonica, lace of silk with gold or silver, rugs, and muslins. (1)

Smyrna as an 18th century rug source is to be expected; the similar role of Salonica, the capital of Macedonia, is not. Identification of prayer rugs from Barbary suggests that they were in trade. Given the context, the association of Brussa with muslins and not rugs represents decent but hardly conclusive negative evidence that carpets were not made there at this time.

Commerce also enters the section of the text having to do with home furnishings: (2)

"The floor of all the house is covered in summer with mats of Egypt, and in winter, with rugs made in the country itself, at Smyrne, at Salonioa, etc.: those of Persia are the most esteemed for fineness and the beauty of [their] designs."

It is also the case that window curtains always come from India, mirrors always come from Venice, and that "tanndours" (braziers) are covered with satin, gold cloth or silver cloth, or other richly embroidered fabric. One interior scene -- a diplomatic reception -- is illustrated, and the rug pattern is distinctive. Others writing at this time note the presence of both Egyptian mats and Persian carpets, and d'Ohsson's mention adds weight to the probability of their 18th century import. One can speculate that the mats no longer survive; but such is not inevitable for the much esteemed Persian carpets, and the survival of 18th century Persian carpets in Turkey is a possibility.

It is in matters religious rather than home furnishings, however, that the d'Ohsson account is strong. The prayer rug regularly appears, for example, " order to place [oneself] on the rug, Sedjeade, and to pray..." (3) And, best of all, these prayer rugs are illustrated, showing a pointed arch with superior panel. No columns, hanging lamps, or ogee arch. It is these three design details which are commonly attributed to Ottoman court art. The pointed arches of d'Ohsson are often assigned to Central Anatolia. Yet the illustrations were composed in Constantinople.

Another aspect of interest is the fact that the rugs being used by women show no niche at all. Although the same artist is involved in all cases, the differences could stem from the artist and not the artifact. The tilt of interpretation, however, should be in the direction of use for prayer in Constantinople of rugs both with and without mihrab representation.

Once, in a discussion of venerated relics, there is a reference to an old prayer textile -- " ...a prayer rug, Sedjeade, of Kaliphe Ebn' Bekir" [Abn Bakr]. (4) It is difficult to tell if d'Ohsson actually saw this particular object, for it appears amid an impersonal listing of icons in a stretch of text written in the third person. Relics of this sort -- although more frequently associated with Omar -- have an established place in Islam. (5)

The prayer rug discourse includes etiquette: "It is equally very offensive to pass before one [of the] faithful involved in his prayer, especially if one places a foot on the part of the rug on which [another] one must place the head when lying prone." Also touched upon is a matter of design, in a digression contained in a discussion of the relatively lax adherence to the ban on art which portrays animals and humans: "The same holds true of figures of a rug on which the Musulman makes his prayer, provided that they are not found on the part on which he places his head when prostrate." (6) In general, the ban is less serious if the animals are small, or only heads are involved.

There is also discussion of mosque prayer: "Grand and petty, all seat themselves indeterminately on rugs or on mats with which mosques are furnished in all seasons of the year... " (7) It would be difficult indeed to name a book about Constantinople which does not describe a visit to the St. Sophia mosque and D'Ohsson runs true to form. His contribution on this subject, however, is special, for he illustrates the interior and thereby shows its floor furnishings. While materials of manufacture are not knowable, that the rugs and mats bear a melange of secular designs is evident.

The encyclopedic religious chapters also get into the matter of burial: (8)

"Coffins are always covered with a simple fabric, and ordinarily lined half-way up to the top, with a piece of the veil dedicated to the Keabe [sic] of Meque. This is a silk cloth, black grounded, completely embroidered in letters which portray different passages from the Cour'ann. This practice is yet more general for women and children. A number do not permit it for themselves, because all silk materials is prohibited to men. They are, on this point, more scrupulous in their death than during their life. A great number of families are careful to acquire at a price in gold these fabrics revered as relics and employed in this sole use. Mosques furnish them to those who lack them. This is the only item which they furnish to burials."

And a shroud in a burial procession is depicted. Verbally described only is the closely related practice having to do with sarcophagus covers: ". ..a type of catafalque [tomb] or of baldachin [canopy], SANNDOUCA, of simple wood, covered with a rich fabric embroidered in gold, with verses of the COUR'ANN, and usually decorated, on the side of the top, with a large strip of old cloths from the KEABE of MEQUE, or the tomb of the Prophet at MEDINA." (9)

Thus the old practice -- recounted in all its history -- of an annual gift of this cover to Mecca, initially from Ottoman Cairo and subsequently from Ottoman Constantinople, is still firmly entrenched in the 18th century. That the tradition was, so to speak, a two-way street, is nicely brought out by d'Ohsson's particulars.

None of the above is earth shaking. D'Ohsson's "sedjeade" is no more than the term's proper meaning: a clean space on which to pray. He nowhere writes of the niche other than as an architectural detail. But in context, that is, Constantinople's better social circles, several things do seem to be the case. Coffin and sarcophagus covers are fabric and not a piled or flatwoven carpet, with no indication of a representation of a mihrab as design. Prayer carpets are in sufficient use to draw comment and, indeed, some may be being imported from North Africa. This situation differs to a considerable extent from the Constantinople portrayed 100 years earlier in the 17th century by such other encyclopedists as Chardin and Tavernier, where there is rare mention of prayer rugs and frequent notation of other textiles in prayer use. It is tempting to speculate that d'Ohsson's illustrations of prayer carpets with and without mihrab may be significant in showing the beginning phase of the prayer rug as common item. But the speculation must be a gentle one, for there is possibility of error.


  1. D'Ohsson, Chevalier de, Tableau General de L'Empire Othoman, Paris, 1788, Vol. IV, Part I, p. 226/7. Research Report translations throughout.
  2. ibid., p. 170, p. 172/3.
  3. ibid., Vol. II, p. 166.
  4. ibid., p. 396.
  5. Per I. A. Bierman, UCLA, in conversation.
  6. D'Ohsson, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 139/40.
  7. ibid., Vol. IV, Part I, p. 172.
  8. ibid., Vol. II, p. 330/1.
  9. ibid., p. 510.