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Blue Salamander

Mamluke Cards

Click on this link to get a copy of Joel's SCA documentation for his first attempt at this project.

While the precise history of playing cards isn't known, it is generally accepted that the concept started in China with dominoes (whose games like Pai Gow were played like cards, not at all like modern western dominoes) as early as the Tang Dynasty. These types of games eventually made their way around to the middle/near east and north Africa, probably by way of India, turning solely into games played with slips of paper along the way. The Europeans soon enough got ahold of these games, likely through Moorish Spain or Italian merchant ships, sometime before the mid 13th century. From there, this historical record becomes a bit clearer, with quite a bit of documentation by way of prohibitionary laws, artwork, etc, although few decks of cards survive from that time period.

When looking into the history of playing cards during this time period, you cannot help but encounter references to the so-called "Mamluke Cards". This deck was discovered in the Topkapi Palace in 1936. Having been discovered amongst five centuries of accumulated artifacts in the old palace, the exact origin and age of these cards is not known. Most historians agree however that this set of cards was made sometime after 1400 and is the earliest, most complete example of western-style playing cards1.

Having gotten a look at the main resource2 for these fascinating cards (short of going to see them one's self), I noticed a couple of things, besides how beautiful the cards are:

The author, L.A. Mayer, asserts that of the 46 existing cards (23 missing and one damaged beyond recognition3), there are 5 suits (coins, cups, sword, polo-stick and staff), each consisting of 4 'face' cards and 10 numerals, with one additional joker.

By my eye, there are in fact 4 suits. Due to certain stylistic elements ('dragon-heads' on some of the polo sticks), the author has mistaken several of the polo stick cards as a separate suit. I beleive it is simply an artistic device used on certain (mostly odd-numbered) polo stick cards. If you count the dragon-head sticks as polo sticks, there aren't any duplicates in the polo stick suit; I find that telling.


4 of Polo Sticks

5 of Polo Sticks or 4 of Staves?
I also think the author is mistaken regarding the face cards: there are only three per suit and he has mistaken several king cards as 'helpers'. Looking at his card list, no suite has both a king and a helper. Additionally, both cards look distinctively similar, especially with the 8-pointed star design at the bottom. No other kinds of cards have this, not even the other face cards. Why would an artist make a point of linking the king so closely to the helper (called 'slave' by some)? The author may have made this determination based on the translation of some of the arabic on the cards...Which means I may be entirely wrong, the author may have a bad translation or the text on the card is wrong (see item five, below...
King of Swords

Helper of Polo Sticks?
Looks like a King in disguise!
Five of the cards are drawn noticably different than the others, and appear to be replacements from either another deck or purpose-made by an artisan not as skilled as the original. The author and I agree completely on this point.
One of these cards is not like the other (Hint: it's the one on the left!)
Taking a good, close look at those face cards...What the... Hey! Someone's been drawing on these cards!! Yep. The blue panels with arabic script at the bottoms of the king cards is NOT original to the cards, someone added it later; you can see the original floral designs underneath the blue. Looking at the blue panels at the top of the cards, it's not as evident. However, due to the inconsistant border work and the fact that that bright blue paint seems to only be used at the text border, I conclude that all the blue panels with script are later additions. So what's underneath, then? Well, the bottom panels clearly show at least a portion of the original floral design. The top panels appear to be covering an original bordered panel, possibly with text denoting the 'face value' of the card.

So this gives us 41 of 52 original cards. 11 cards are missing or damaged beyond regonition, 2 are damaged and 11 have been 'defaced'. Sounds like a project to 'put it right' and re-create the lost, damaged and defaced cards! Also, a very long-term endeavor. Each card is an impressive 252mmx92mm and entirely covered with hand-painted floral designs. Not only will I need to reproduce 41 cards, but fabricate another 11 more based on the styles depicted on the extant cards! Well, tough projects haven't scared me off before. I'm starting to wonder if they make me more interested than the easier ones...

Update: April 2009
After having discovered these cards back in 2004, I've been slowly working on this project on-and-off. Currently I've gotten about halfway through tracing out full-size linework for each card onto vellum. After that, I need to start transferring the linework onto the final media, then start painting and gilding them. The final result will be too fragile to actually play with, but that's what modern reprographics are for! This project has been stalled for a while as I concentrate on other things, I will get back to it. Eventually.


Joel's first attempt at reproduction. Note lack of gilding.

Original card

1 : The clubs-spades-hearts-diamonds suits were originally 15th century French, although they have since become the standard set worldwide. After being introduced to Europe, many cultures and countries soon started making up their own suites, replacing foreign symbols with ones familiar to them (such as hearts, bells, leaves and acorns in Germany), adding additional suites (five was popuplar) or even entirely new groups of cards, such as the additional trump cards in tarot decks. The earliest European (primarily Italian and Spanish) cards were swords, wands, coins and cups; it is believed that the polo sticks, being unknown to western European players, were simply mistaken for wands.

2 : Mayer, L.A. MAMLUK PLAYING CARDS E.J. Brille, Leiden, Netherlands, 1971

3 : The author states that there was one more card too seriously damaged to even identify and wasn't included in his book.; Still, I'd have liked to see it.


Copyright Joel & Angela Cropley 2009
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