Published: April 1, 2003
WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Mamluk Rugs from Egypt: Jewels of The Textile Museum’s Collection” will be on view through September 7 at the museum.
Mamluk rugs are extremely rare and are considered to be the finest carpets ever produced. The museum’s collection of Mamluk rugs, dating from the last quarter of the Fifteenth Century, is considered the largest and most important collection in the world.
“Mamluk Rugs from Egypt” is curated by Carol Bier, research associate, Islamic textiles, The Textile Museum.
Comprising a cohesive design group for which there is no carpet-weaving precedent or antecedent, Mamluk rugs are executed in a three-color palette of jewel-tone reds, blues and greens. They feature a carefully controlled repertory of designs based on geometric shapes and stylized leaf forms. The use of simple geometric forms, repeated within circles and squares, relates Mamluk rugs to architectural decoration and other art forms, such as metalwork, enameled glass, inlaid stone, and illuminated manuscripts, that were the principal forms of artistic expression in Mamluk Egypt.
The compositional scheme of Mamluk rugs often features a central square set within a rectangular format. Within the central square there is generally a central geometric motif. Repeated geometric shapes and floral motifs radiate outward from this center. The effect is similar to so-called astral compositions found in other Mamluk arts. The leaf forms, in clusters and undulating vines, define the borders and ground, and relate these rugs compositionally to Koran frontispieces.
The rugs exhibit excellent craftsmanship and quality of materials. The equal number of knots in both horizontal and vertical directions enabled weavers to render perfect circles and squares. A striking interplay of color and sheen is the result of exceptionally lustrous wool and saturated dyes.
While Mamluk rugs are regarded as among the most striking of all Islamic rugs, they are also perhaps the least understood. The emergence of Mamluk rugs rests upon no known development of pile rug-weaving traditions, nor is their influence felt in later traditions. After the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, rug-weaving traditions shared technical characteristics with Mamluk predecessors, but motifs reflected the newly emerging Ottoman Imperial style, distinguished by stylized and ornate floral forms. Many questions about Mamluk rugs remain unanswered.
Mamluk derives from the Arabic word “to own” and refers to persons purchased as bodyguards to the Sultan. The Mamluks, of military slave origin, wrested power from the Ayyubid dynasty in 1250 and ruled until their defeat by the Ottomans in 1517. The Mamluks were great warriors; during their reign they checked the Western aggression of the Mongols and finally defeated the crusaders. They were also generous patrons of the arts and devoted to Islam.
The age of the Mamluks is often referred to as a renaissance of Islamic art — works created during the reign of the Mamluk sultans represent the pinnacle of medieval Islamic art in Egypt. In addition to enameled glass and inlaid metalwork, textiles played a major role in the economy of the Mamluk Empire. As there was a great demand for Mamluk goods in Europe, rugs were produced for domestic use and for export. Mamluk silks were sought by European aristocracy and clergymen, and remain today in the holdings of European churches and museums.
The museum is at 2320 S Street, NW. For information, 202-667-0441.
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