L. A. Mayer: Mamluk Playing Cards (1939)
The complete article is given at the page of the Institut, the common name of the source is BIFAO 38, p. 113-118. The article has specific fame in playing card research, as it strengthened the Orient hypothesis after various attempts
have considered earlier an European origin of Playing Cards.
- from Le Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale
In our personal context the important message lies in Mayer's description of the deck, from which it turns out, that the described Mamluk deck
has a 5x14-structure (which would be of importance for our favoured 5x14-theory.
"The pack consists of at least five suits: the cup, the coin, the sword, the polo-stick and the staff.
It is obvious that pl. XIV b (of which we have two specimens in this set) is only a variation of the staff, as
conceived by the other designer, a shape which became typical for the Italian cards. There is also an odd card, with a
crescent as its only figure. This may or may not have been the Islamic equivalent of the joker. The two best preserved suits
are those of the cup and the coin, and by puttinng them together, we can surmise that each suit originally consisted
of four court cards and ten numerals . The court cards represent a King (malik), a Governor (na'ib), a second Governor
(na'ib thani) and one of his Helpers (ahad al-arkan). They are indicated by actual drawings of these persons,
but by inscriptions which are placed, invariably, at the bottom of each court card. As a rule the mark of each suit
appears on the court cards only once and occupies practically all the space available, notably exceptions being the Governor
of the cups, displayed on a card showing 2 cups, and the Governor of the swords on a card showing nine swords, but the second
Governor is shown with one cup only. In the case of the King and the Helpers, the mark appears over an ornamental panel, identical
on all the cards before us; in the case of the Governor of swords, and Governor and Second Governor of polo-sticks, without
any distinguishing panel, in the case of the Governor and Second Governor of cups, with an ornamental band across the stalk.
In the top register of all court-cards as well as of some numerals, we find other inscriptions, warning, encouraging or exhorting.
We would have to know something substantial about Saracenic card games in order to understand the real meaning of these phrases. The pack of the Top
Kapu Saray Museum is obviously not complete; it is composed of 47 cards (including the crude secondary ones) and it is described as follows:
- Cup: G-2G-H 1-10
- Coin: K-2G 1,3,4,5,7,8
- Sword: K-G 1-3-4-5-6-7-8
- Polo-Stick: G-2G-H 1,4
- Staff: 7 numerals, showing between them only 3 numbers but different with regards to the ornamental dragon-heads, 3 cards with four,
six and eigth staffs, with one dragon head each; and one card showing eight staffs, with 2 dragon heads. Of the second type of
staffs there are only two cards, one with nine and one with 10 staffs.
The odd card is a crescent with two dragon heads, although it might be interpreted as a variation of the polo-stick."
Michael Dummett and Abu-Deeb looked at the cards again and came up with
a different explanation. Their research was published as M. Dummett
and K. Abu-Deeb, "Some remarks on Mamluk playing cards", _Journal of
the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes_, vol. XXXVI (1973), pp. 106-28.
The Journal is on-line for subscribing institutions, but not for
Here is what Dummett has to say about it in "Game of Tarot", p. 39 (shortened text):
"Mayer's own analysis of the pack was
faulty, but, when this is corrected, it proves to be an almost
complete pack originally containing 52 cards (of which 48 survive),
consisting of four suits, Swords, Polo-Sticks, Cups and Coins, each
composed of ten numeral cards and three court cards headed by the
King [M. Dummett and K. Abu-Deeb, "Some remarks on Mamluk playing
cards", _Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes_, vol.
XXXVI (1973), pp. 106-28]. Five of the surviving cards have been
borrowed from another pack (or perhaps from two others), to replace
lost cards; Mayer thought that these five secondary cards had been
specially painted for that purpose, but, if that were so, the artist
would surely have have tried, if not to imitate the general style,
at least to make the shapes of the suit-signs conform to those of
the original pack, which, particularly in the Swords suit, they do
not. The numeral cards are pip cards in the sense of showing the
number of suit-signs corresponding to their values. The Swords and
Polo-Sticks are very highly stylised, and their arrangement is
similar to that of the Italian Swords and Batons. In detail, the
Polo-Sticks intersect, forming, on the cards from 4 to 10, a kind of
trellis pattern. On the 4 to 10 of this suit, most fo the shafts of
the Polo-Sticks from an obtuse angle with the heads, but the sides
are otherwise straight; but on all the odd-numbered cards of the
suit the odd Polo-Stick is S-shaped, as are two of them on the 10,
and on all cards of the suit besides the 4 to 10 every Polo-Stick
has a curved head; except on the two cards of the suit which come
from the secondary pack, all curved heads end in a dragon's head
shape. The two cards of the Swords suit (the 9 and 10) from the
secondary pack show crescent-shaped swords, intersecting only once
on the 9 but twice, in the Italian fashion, on the 10 (on the 9 one
sword is straight). In the main pack, however, the Swords are S-
shaped, and are arranged side by side, extending for most of the
length of the card, but without intersecting: in this they resemble
the exceptional version of the Swords suit mentioned in the last
chapter as found in a few fifteenth-century Italian packs. On some
of the odd-numbered cards of the Swords suit in the Istanbul pack,
the odd sword is S-shaped, and on others it is straight."
Dummett with Abu-Deed contradict the hypotheses of Mayer (a 5x14-deck), he changes
(likely with good reason) the exspectation about these cards (now a common 4x13-deck).
From our current perspective (we haven't seen these cards and only incomplete informations)
we cannot add anything
worthful to the case.
(collected by Ross Caldwell / autorbis)