Early Middle East Cards

[Persian lacquer card design]

By the thirteenth century, the concept of playing cards had travelled to the Middle East. The Islamic types are represented by a deck preserved in the Topkapi Museum, Istanbul. These hand-painted cards, potentially the world's oldest survivors, originated in Mamluke Egypt before 1500. The deck is fragmented but clearly consisted of 52 cards arranged in four suits, each with ten numeral cards and three court cards (Commander, Lt. Commander, Second Lieutenant). These courts are not figures but merely elaborate suit signs with labels declaring the ranks. Pictorial courts were probably already known in the Middle East, but no early examples have actually been found. The Islamic suit signs were coins (perhaps descendants of the Chinese Coins), Cups, Swords and Polosticks. Some experts see these signs as emblematic of four officers serving in the sultan's court: perhaps treasurer, cupbearer, swordbearer and polomaster.

Persian lacquer card design, c.1525 (reproduction deck by Piatnik, Vienna)


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