Volume 1  Number 4
November 1983

The 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:

"The 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)

The English 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:

"In 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)

"...and 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." (3)  

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." (4)

D�Allemagne photographed (most likely in 1907) several stones.

The remarks 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.

If briquettes 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.

Another fruitful 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 territory.

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.


  1. Olearius, Travels of the Ambassadors, London, 1668, p. 279.
  2. Foster, George, A Journey from Bengal to England, London, 1798, p.129/30.
  3. Sheil, Lady Mary L. W., Life and Manners in Persia, London, 1856, p. 246.
  4. d�Allemagne, Henri-Rene, Du Khorassan au Pays des Backhtiaris, Paris, 1911, Vol. II, p. 155/6. Research Report's translation.