Volume 3  Number 2
March 1985

In spite of injunctions and severe penalties, travellers from the West got into mosques and jotted down, to greater or lesser extent, what they saw there. These visits started as early as Islam with Bishop Arculf in Jerusalem, c. 700, and several took place in the post-Crusades, religiously variegated Levant. Here is what Fescobaldi had to say, c. 1335: "There are the mosques....which have neither carvings nor paintings, nay, they are inside all white and plastered and pargeted [decorated plaster]. On their steeples they have no bells....and on the steeples stand their chaplains and clerics day and night, who shout when it is the hour, just as we ring....Early on Mondays they shout on the top of their mosques, that the people go to wash at their baths that their prayers may be heard in the sight of God and Mohammd. Having washed, about noon, they go to their mosques to make their prayers, which take about two hours. As said, their mosques are all white inside, with a big number of lighted lamps, and they all have a courtyard in the middle, and they do not wish any Christian to enter them; and who enters does so on pain of death, or renegs the faith." (1)

In this vein, three visits to a particular Constantinople mosque, the former St. Sophia church, are of note:

George Sandys, on visits to five mosques, including St. Sophia, c. 1610. "The floores of the Monuments [shrines] are spread with carpets...[and they]...on entering [mosques], sit crosse legged upon rews of Mats, one behind another, the poore and the rich promiscously." (2)

John Bell, on St. Sophia, c. 1720
. "Nevertheless, we were conducted up a pair of back stairs to the gallery, from whence we had a full view of the whole. The floor is laid with clean mats and carpets, having no seat, only one pulpit for the Mullah." (3)

Richard Pococke, on St. Sophia, c. 1737. " is hung with a great number of glass lamps, and the pavement is spread with the richest carpets, where the sophtis are always studying and repeating the alcoran..." (4)

One thing traveller reports have in common is opaqueness; the irony here is that waryness must be the watchword because the observations are a little too clear: in plain English, at the same place, and with distinction between mat and carpet. The message suggests a floor covering progression from mats to carpets. Too pat for a conclusion, but a good signpost to a likely transition period in the floor decor of a major metropolitan mosque, in turn, perhaps a clue to the evolution of prayer rugs.


  1. Fescobaldi, Niccolo, "Pilgrimage of...", in Visit to the Holy Places, trans.Theo. Bellorini, Franciscan Press, Jerusalem, 1948, p. 41.
  2. Sandys, George, "George Sandys Journey" in Purchas His Pilgrimes, Vol. 9, Ch. VIII, Glasgow reprint, 1905, p. 114, p. 132.
  3. Bell, John, "Travels from St. Petersburg to Various Parts of Asia", in Pinkerton, Voyages and Travel, 1811, Vol. 7, p. 611.