One of the most famous sajjada (for prostration) prayer carpets in the world, the Ballard Ottoman prayer rug, with its design of a triple-arched gateway to paradise, was probably created in or near Istanbul in the later part of the sixteenth century. Woven in a technique that originated in Ottoman Cairo and was later transplanted to Istanbul, it was made with a silk warp and weft and an asymmetrically knotted pile of wool with accents in white cotton. Its perfect corner articulation, exquisite draftsmanship, fine weave, and expensive materials clearly indicate its origins in a workshop under court control, where luxury objects for royal consumption or royal gifts were made, following designs first created with pen on paper by artists in the royal Ottoman design workshop. Both size and design indicate that the carpet may have had two functions: first, as a wall hanging indicating the qibla, or direction of prayer toward Mecca in a palace or private residence; and, second, as a ritually clean place for the daily Islamic prayers, during which Muslims first stand, then bow, kneel, and briefly touch their foreheads to the ground in a gesture of humility before God.
The carpet’s design, which in the ensuing four centuries served as a prototype for countless hundreds if not thousands of Anatolian carpets, presents a number of intriguing questions. Depicted is a triple-arched gateway to paradise, with pairs of slender columns with faceted bases and foliated capitals separating the three portals. A lamp symbolizing divine light hangs from the central arch, and small Ottoman domes are clearly portrayed on the parapet above, while flowers at the base of the central arch also indicate that paradise awaits the pious Muslim who discharges the religious duties that include praying five times a day. Such slim coupled or paired columns that here separate the three portals do not occur in Ottoman architecture, and their origin has long been considered obscure. Recent scholarship suggests that the design of coupled columns may have originated in Islamic Spain and traveled east to Cairo and Istanbul along with the emigration of Sephardic Jews. These refugees from Spain, invited by the Ottoman sultan, settled in large numbers in Istanbul in the early sixteenth century and almost certainly used similar designs for parokhet (Torah curtains) employed as furnishings in Iberian synagogues.
Although the Ballard prayer rug is the sole surviving example of a sixteenth-century carpet from the royal Ottoman manufactory that utilizes this design, several other carpets from the royal workshop with different designs are known in various museums. The triple-arched design, here appearing in a knotted-pile carpet for the first time, later enjoyed enormous popularity in carpets woven in towns, villages, and even in nomadic encampments throughout Anatolia. The Metropolitan also possesses a large number of these descendants of the Ballard rug, which from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries show the evolution of the triple-arched design as it was passed from mother to daughter through many generations.
Walter B. Denny in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
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