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Between Art and Religion – Turkish Prayer Rugs

Turkish prayer rugs are one of the wonderful relicts of the past. Their tradition survived until today and remains unspoilt. It is the heritage of Islamic art which still serves its function. At the same time, the rugs showcast an indisputable aesthetic value.

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The Purpose of Prayer Rugs

Prayer rug is a small, portable carpet that serves as an insulation from the ground during the Muslim prayer. This practise involves prostration, kneeling and sitting. Its name in Arabic, “sajada”, comes from the same root word, “SJD”, as mosque – “masjed”, and prostration – “sujud”. It is supposed to be a safe platform during this very special moment of connection with Allah. Also, it should ensure comfort and cleanness. Purity is an extremely important aspect of Islam, especially when performing religious rites. Before undertaking any religious activity, a Muslim must cleanse himself. He should also pray in a clean place. The prayer rug allows him to always fullfil this requirement. the main objective of this special rug. After the prayer the Muslim folds his rug and puts it away until the next use. People treat prayer rugs with care.

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The Features And Uses of Prayer Rugs

A devoted Muslim worships Allah five times a day at specific hours. As a way of showing respect to God one must wash himself and find a clean place to pray. This is where vintage Turkish rugs come in handy. The worshipper has to face Mecca, the alleged place of Muhammad’s birth. Also, during the ritual he turns the rug towards this direction. In the field of a prayer mat there is a niche symbolizing the mihrab in every mosque – a directional point to Mecca. This is the most characteristic element of a prayer rug, adopted from the mosque architecture. It introduces an asymmetric stir to the rectangular and orderly design.

Actually, the whole layout of a prayer rug centers around the niche. It lies in the main field surrounded by four spandrels, one in each corner. This symbol of mihrab is usually contains a hanging lamp or flowers inside. The niche marks the proper position for the believer so he can fit perfectly on the rug. The nomadic or village  prayer rugs the niche is geometric, simple and angular, whereas formal and city rugs have a more ornamental and rounded style.

The Design of Turkish Prayer Rugs

Prayer rug motifs vary depending on the region and the period of making. However they have one thing in common – no depiction of animals or humans. Aniconism, which is the name for this specific Islamic proscription, stands against such imagery. This rule has contributed to the evolution of iconic Arabic patterns. Among them we can find the intricate foliage or the arabesque. We can also spot them on Turkish prayer rugs. Muhammad, the central figure of Islam, was against the elaborate decoration of prayer rugs. He worried that it might distract the worshiper’s attention. However, no one has adhered to that. The imagery which we see nowadays on Turkish prayer rugs developed in the 9th century.

The Symbolism of Turkish Prayer Rugs

Some of the symbols are mosque lamps illustrating the Verse of Light from the Qur’an. There are also representations of famous mosques, like the ones in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Floral patterns and geometric figures also carry meanings. The cypress tree symbolizes the afterlife. It may also depict achieving immortality through death. Blessing and fulfillment come in the form of the palm tree and the coconut. In addition, the peony means wealth. The crescent moon, the most powerful symbol in Islam, signifies faith. The endless knot represents wisdom and immortality. Decorations are also a reminder. For example, a comb and a pitcher appear frequently to ensure the worshipper washes his hands and combs his hair before the prayer. There is also something for the newly converted Muslims – an emblem of handprints or sometimes even footprints. They help place palms and feet in the right position.

There are not anly small, but also large Turkish prayer rugs. These serve as decorative floor coverings in western households. The trend developed in the last 100 years but is becoming more and more popular. The only bigger type of prayer rugs created for religious use is called “saf” – a “family prayer rug”. They are long and comprise of any desired number of niches. They serve more than one person at a time.

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The Transylvanian Miracle: Islamic Rugs in Protestant Churches

Western houses are not the only unusual places where prayer rugs entered and perfectly fit into. Transylvania, which has never been under Turkish occupation, safeguards four hundred Anatolian rugs. How did it come about? With the advent of the Reformation in the 16th century, the were less figurative images in protestant churches. The main cause of that was the literal fulfillment of the Ten Commandments. One of them says: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…, you shall not bow down to them or serve them”.

The core of the revolution was other than in Islam, yet the outcome turned out the same. There were no more painting in the churches. People white-washed or destroyed frescos and removed many-segment altars. After the changes the temples seemed cold, vast and unwelcoming. To warm up and enliven them, people started hanging Anatolian prayer rugs on walls. It is outstanding, considering that the Ottoman Empire was largely dominated the adjacent regions at the time. It is also a perfect proof for the versatility of prayer rugs and their ability to bridge different cultures and religions. Thanks to that occurrence and the fact that they were hung on walls, balconies and pews instead of being walked on, a considerate number of Turkish prayer rugs was preserved in an excellent shape and may please us with their gracious presence until this day.