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TEXTILES AND RELIGION
Volume 7 Number
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:
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
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, "...in 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
The encyclopedic religious chapters also get into the matter of burial:
"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
- D'Ohsson, Chevalier
de, Tableau General de L'Empire Othoman, Paris, 1788, Vol. IV,
Part I, p. 226/7. Research Report translations throughout.
- ibid., p. 170,
Vol. II, p. 166.
- Per I. A. Bierman,
UCLA, in conversation.
- D'Ohsson, op.
cit., Vol. II, p. 139/40.
Vol. IV, Part I, p. 172.
Vol. II, p. 330/1.