A Brief History of Prayer Carpets
A prayer rug or prayer mat is a rug used by Muslims, placed between the ground and the worshipper for cleanliness during the various positions of Islamic prayer. Muslims are often seen kneeling and prostrating on these small embroidered rugs which look like small oriental carpets. Prayer rugs are not universally used by Muslims nor are they specifically required in Islam. However, prayer rugs have become a traditional way for many Muslims to ensure the cleanliness of their place of prayer, and to create an isolated space to concentrate in prayer. It all began with the Prophet Mohammed, who prayed on a 'khumrah,' a mat made of palm fronds. The five daily prayers must be conducted on a clean surface, and so the prayer mat served that purpose and was always kept clean itself. Appearing early in Islamic history, the most common and basic design looks like a door to heaven. The rug is in the shape of a vertical rectangle, with a woven arched doorway, a 'mihrab,' an ornamental niche in the wall of a mosque, which marks the direction of the qibla, which is the Kaaba in Mecca.
The Kaaba is a cuboid building at the center of Islam's most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. During prayer the supplicant kneels at the base of the rug and places his or her hands at either side of the niche at the top of the rug, his or her forehead touching the niche. From a pointed arch supported by columns on either side to a variation of a stylized 'tree of life' design, there have been many creative improvisations added over the decades by different artisans and weavers. A simple yet significant piece of cloth, the prayer mat started to intrigue influential Muslim leaders early on; they would commission their court's greatest artists to create mats fit for rulers and to be given out as gifts to other leaders. Under the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal dynasties, the industry flourished and carpets came to be considered as national treasures. They were traded to Europe and the Far east, often considered too precious to be prayed on and would end up being hung like a painting in a home or palace. Today, it is easy and affordable to buy a prayer mat. The mass-produced ones come in various colours with the most basic mihrab design on it. Most prayer rugs are long enough to allow someone to kneel above the fringe on one end and bend down and place the head on the other. They average about 3x5 feet individually. But, the more effort put into a rug, the more expensive it can be.
By looking at their patterns, the older prayer mats can tell you their origin, which tribe or village they were woven by, what message they tried to embody and whether they were regularly used or not from the wear and tear. While some recently produced versions are made in solid colors, one usually finds images of Islamic symbols and architecture. Decorations not only are important but also have a deep sense of value in the design of the prayer rug. The designs of these rugs are often geometric, floral, arabesque or depict Islamic landmarks. However, these mats are traditionally woven with a rectangular design, made asymmetrical by the niche at the head end. Many rugs show one or more mosque lamps, a reference to the Verse of Light in the Quran. Specific mosques are sometimes shown; some of the most popular examples include sacred mosques in Mecca, Medina and especially the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Decorations not only play a role in imagery but serve the worshipper as aids to memory. Some of the examples include a comb and pitcher, which is a reminder for Muslims to wash their hands and for men to comb their hair before performing prayer. Another important use for decorations is to aid newly converted Muslims by stitching decorative hands on the prayer mat where the hands should be placed when performing prayer.
The prayer rug has a very strong symbolic meaning and traditionally taken care of in a holy manner. It is disrespectful for one to place a prayer mat in a dirty location or throw it around in a disrespectful manner. Some countries produce textiles with prayer rug patterns for export. Many modern prayer rugs are strictly commercial pieces made in large numbers to sell on an international market or tourist trade. There are many prayer rugs in existence today that have been taken care of for more than 100 years. In most cases, they have been immediately and carefully rolled after each prayer. However, recent historical findings reveal that they were not only used by Muslims but also people of other faiths for different purposes. For example, the Saxon Lutheran Churches, parish storerooms and museums of Transylvania safeguard about four hundred Anatolian rugs, dating from the late-15th to the mid-18th century. They form the richest and best-preserved corpus of prayer-format rugs of Ottoman period outside Turkey. They served to confirm the social status of the owner, lending prestige on special occasions in the life of the community. Important events in the life of prominent citizens, such as weddings or births, were also honoured with a gift.