Ottoman prayer carpet with triple-arch design

This Muslim prayer carpet shares striking visual similarities to a Jewish carpet meant to cover the Torah ark.

Carpet with Triple-Arch Design, c. 1575–90, silk (warp and weft), wool (pile), cotton (pile), attributed to Turkey, possibly Istanbul, 172.7 x 127 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Speakers: Dr. Ariel Fein and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:04] We’re at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we’re looking at an Ottoman prayer carpet from the 16th century. And while we might be tempted to see this simply as a beautiful carpet used in prayer, this carpet actually reveals a far more complex story of cultural connections.

Dr. Ariel Fein: [0:22] This is a specific type of a prayer carpet called a sajjadah carpet, meaning a prostration carpet. It would have been used by a Muslim for worship.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:30] We’re seeing this detailed floral border framing paired columns with niches that are topped by arches.

Dr. Fein: [0:39] We see two different kinds of floral patterns. We have saz-style floral ornament as well as stylized flowers. But we also see more naturalistic style, the floral style, where can identify some of the flowers, carnations and tulips.

[0:56] Much of this imagery represents the gateway to paradise. At the center of the carpet, we see a hanging lamp. This recalls Qur’anic verses, which liken Allah, which liken God, to a glass lamp hanging in a niche.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:14] But when we consider why this carpet looks the way it does, a different facet of the story reveals itself to us.

Dr. Fein: [1:22] The slender paired columns are entirely absent from an Ottoman architectural vocabulary. These columns, in fact, are most closely related to the columns that we find in a 14th-century palace, the Alhambra.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:41] The Alhambra is in what is today Spain. In 1492, the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand defeat the Nasrids, and in the same year, you have them expelling Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.

Dr. Fein: [1:54] Some Jews chose to look south, towards North Africa. Others moved into Italy and other parts of Europe, while a large group of Spanish Jews opted to travel all the way across the Mediterranean to the Ottoman Empire, where they hoped they might find a better life and better opportunities under the new Muslim Ottoman dynasty.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:18] So Jewish carpet weavers who are now working, probably in Ottoman workshops, are emulating and adapting forms that they were already using from time in Spain.

Dr. Fein: [2:29] This carpet is, in fact, the earliest example of this motif that survives from the Ottoman Empire. This is really the prototype, the earliest example of this motif from which so many variations developed.

[2:43] The Jewish Museum has in its collection a carpet that is remarkably similar to this one that was made in 1608 to be donated to the Seville Synagogue in Istanbul. This carpet was not used on the floor for worship. It was used as a parokhet, a curtain that was placed before the Torah ark.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:07] We’re also seeing an inscription in Hebrew, which we do not see in the Ottoman carpet that we’re looking at here in the gallery.

Dr. Fein: [3:15] The inscription refers to the arch as a gate of the Lord, which is very similar to the arched niche as a gateway to paradise. The hanging lamp includes an inscribed name of God. It suggests an understanding of the Muslim use of the mosque lamp within a niche as a representation of Allah.

[3:40] It is equally a precious object that is used to create a sacred space.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:45] You have one carpet produced for a Muslim audience, another for a Jewish audience, and yet we’re seeing this visual conversation between the two of them.

Dr. Fein: [3:53] This carpet represents this unique moment in time when Ottoman court culture meets with Spanish traditions carried by Jewish intermediaries.

[4:03] [music]

The Ottoman prayer carpet at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Torah Ark Curtain at the Jewish Museum

Sumru Belger Krody, “Prayer Carpets,” Khamseen Islamic Art History Online, 11 May 2021.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Ariel Fein and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Ottoman prayer carpet with triple-arch design," in Smarthistory, October 11, 2022, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/ottoman-prayer-carpet-with-triple-arch-design/.