Volume 5  Number 6
November 1987

16th and 17th century trade between Europe and the Near East took many merchants and diplomats to Constantinople. There is in consequence a literature rich in textiles observations.

Young Philippe du Fresne-Canaye was with French Ambassador Noailles during the first six months of 1573. He regularly noted textile types: "Alexandrin rugs" at an audience with the prime minister; "napkins painted in Cairene or Persian style"; and, "embroideries of Broussa" while being received by the Grand Seigneur himself. In the wake of a visit to the Suliman mosque, he remarked on "very fine mats of Alexandria and often rugs of Cairo". (1) The Fresne-Canaye original is lost; what survives is a copy written in Italian. Either an Italian or a French original is plausible. The author, however, was French and the writing is Gallic. The most accessible version today is a French translation of the Italian manuscript. Both languages are explicit in their Alexandria and Cairo references, and their diction specifies mats, tapestries, and rugs. (2)

Another source also pinpoints the presence in Constantinople of Egyptian and Persian textiles at the end of the 16th century: the will of Sieur Germigny, French ambassador to the Porte, 1579 -1583, (d. 1586) included the entry, "cairene and persian rugs". (3) It is unexceptionable that Ottoman Cairo would at this time have been a source of floor and other coverings for Constantinople. A rug manufactory was in operation in Cairo as late as 1656.

The Fresne-Canaye account echos that of the Italian merchant Joseph Barbaro of a century before (c. 1470), which contained a similar listing of textiles from Persia, Cairo, and Brussa. By "Persia" Barbaro meant Turkmen Tabriz, soon to become Safavid Tabriz. The l570's referent of the French diplomats for "Persia" -- capital still in North Persia -- is enigmatic but intriguing, as a region-specific design could well be indicated.

A century later (1672--73) the French Embassy included Antoine Gallaud, who regularly noted the presence of woven materials ("tapistries of embroidered satin", "tapistry design of imitation gold"). He also described a mosque complex:

"... carpeted on all sides with handsome rugs, but principally in the surrounding galleries and in the apartment of the Grand Seigneur ... where they are of excellent beauty and price which is not mediocre." (4)

This observation places rugs in and around, but not necessarily throughout, mosques.

Holland had a 17th century trade presence in the Near East, and its merchants also recorded the details of Eastern life, manners, and furnishings. Cornelis De Bruyne of Amsterdam made two trips. The first, 1692-93, was to Constantinople, and involved the usual sightseeing, with mosque visits which included the St. Sophia and Suliman complexes. He was a meticulous observer; his account has an interesting generalization in re mosque floor covering:

"The pavement of Mosques is covered with mats or pieces of fabric which have been sewn together and are spread out on the floor; for the most part these strips are a little separated from one another and the space in between serves as a passage for everyone going from one spot to another; and these mats are intended for those who are making their devotions and who, according to the customs of the Mahomadans, may sit, kneel or prostrate themselves on them." (5)

Here is a plausible notion involving mats and fabrics laid out so as to separate foot traffic from devotional space. It is not clear that De Bruyne observed mosque prayer; the passageway notion may be his inference. He undoubtedly saw the different covers and their spacing. The "sewn together" comment is an intriguing, but enigmatic, detail. Many travel accounts place mats in Ottoman mosques, and De Bruyne's mention is one of the later ones. In fact, one would expect that by this time the St. Sophia floor covering would have been rugs.

There is another religious application of mats, far older. The Safer Nameh recounts travel in Persia and the Levant in the years 1035 --1042. While the text is available in English, there is a convenient French translation by Chas. Schefer, bound with the original Persian. Three excerpts show the presence of prayer mats in the area at this time:

(of Beirut) "The principal mosque is handsome and it offers an altogether individual charm. The floor of it is entirely covered with mats [nattes/hasir] of varied designs [dessins varies/monaggash]" (at the town of Tiberiade) "They make at Thabarieh [sic] mats which are used as prayer rugs. They sell them at a price of five Maghreb dinars."

(in Jerusalem, at the sepulcher of Abraham and Isaac) "The walls and the ground of this funerial room are covered with rugs [tapis/farsh] of high price, and of mats of Maghreb more precious than brocade [brocart/diba]. I have seen there a mat which was serving as a prayer rug and which had been sent, they told me, by the emir el Djouiouch, slave of the sultan of Egypt. It had been bought at Misr (Old Cairo), for a price of thirty Maghreb dinars. A rug of the same size in the brocade of Greece [Rhum/Anatolia] would not cost so much: nowhere have I seen a mat as beautiful." (6)

The bracketed inserts show the key French/Persian word pairs; the term "mats" is used consistently throughout. Competent review of the underlying Persian (7) indicates that Schefer has produced a faithful text. Some things thus seem established: (1) regular use of reed prayer mats, (2) manufacture as a local economic specialty, and (3) decorated prayer mats. This last aspect is vaguely rendered. The best interpretation of the text is that a given mat has on it some variety of pattern. What to make of this in re the possible use of the mihrab image is not clear. One import, however, is that in the history of the prayer rug, the decorated mat used for prayer is definitely an early reality.

The Tiberiade mats -- but not their prayer application -- is echoed elsewhere, by the geographer, Idrisi, c. 1154. The Safer Nameh is not cited as one of his sources, and it is thus possible the reference is confirming; one mention certainly is:

(of Tiberiade) "They make mats of a type called sammie [sic], of a beauty which is difficult to surpass."

(of the shrine of the tomb of Aly, in Iraq six miles from the Euphrates) "It is completely covered with voiles or precious stuffs, and the ground is covered with Samanie [sic] mats." (8)

It appears that the Tiberiade mats either were exported or were well enough known so as to have become the generic term for mats of similar characteristics. These two old manuscripts, along with the many, many mosque floor covering descriptions of the early modern period, suggest that mats have a significant pedigree both in general and religous contexts.


  1. Schefer, C.M., editor, Le Voyage du Levant du Fresne-Canaye, Paris, 1897, p. 56, 69, 105, 106. Research Report translation.
  2. ibid., for the Italian, p. 233, 234, 236, 237, 239, 257, 297.
  3. ibid., p. 69.
  4. Journal d'Antoine Gallaud, ed. Chas. Schefer, Paris, 1881, Vol. I, p. 75, 79. Research Report translation.
  5. Reizen van Cornelis De Bruyne, Delft, 1698, p. 41. Translation, Joanna Moore.
  6. Relation du Voyage, C.M. Schefer, trans. and ed., Paris, 1881, p. 44, p. 54, p. 100/1. Research Report translation.
  7. Courtesy of John T. Wertime.
  8. Recueil de voyages et de memories, "Geographie D'Edrisi", trans. P. Amedee Jaubert, La Societe de Geographie, Paris, 1836, p. 347, p. 566.