Mamluk Cards

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Mamluk cards and their role in playing card history

The main source of these historical notes is the excellent website abyout playing cards by Andy Pollack. Other sources will be quoted directly.

The origin of playing cards

Playing cards were invented in China in the 9th century (Wikipedia). They are thought to have developed from domino tiles. It is difficult to distinguish the mentioning of paper cards and domino tiles in many early sources, since the Chinese word pi was used for both. Therefore it is hard to tell when the first paper cards were printed, although it seems to be sure that it was no later than in the late 13th century. Also see The Late Ming Game of Ma Diao by Andrew Lo and Chinese Origin of Playing Cards by William Henry Wilkinson, as well as many other sources given by Wikipedia.

Money suited Chinese cards

So-called money suited decks are the most important of severeal patterns of Chinese playing cards. This pattern probably is also one of th earliest of them. Like the other patterns it didn't change much during history.

Mamluk cards

Mamluk cards have been present in the area of today's Egypt from the 13th century. However only a few single cards exist that are thought to be that old. Instead most surviving mamluk cards are part of the so-called Topkapi deck from the late 15th century. This deck has four suits with three court cards and ten pip cards per suit. The card images are mostly abstract.

Suit connections of money suited and mamluk cards

There are striking similarities between the suit systems of money suited cards from China and the Tokapi deck of Mamluk cards that make it very likely that the Mamluk pattern originates directly from Chinese cards.

wen and darhim: The Chinese suit Wen means 'coins' or 'cash' in Chinese. There is a suit of coins in the Mamluk pattern as well, that in the Topkapi deck is called darhim, meaning 'coins' or 'money'. The suit symbols are coins.

suo and jawkn: The Chinese suit Suo means 'string'. The suit symbol depicted on Chinese money cards looks very similar to the suit symbol for the suit of Jawkn, meaning polo sticks, in the Mamluk cards, while the meaning and background of the symbol is different in both patterns. The chinese suit symbol apparently refers to a stack of 10 coins. The look of the suit symbol probably reminded the mamluk people of a polo mallet from the game polo that already was a popular game at the time (see Wikipedia).

wan and tmn: The chinese suit Wan means 'myriad' and refers to the number 10000. In the Turkic, the Mongolian, and the Manchu groups of languages the word for 10000 is almost identically tuman, tmen or toman respectively. A Persian coin introduced in 1240 AD worth 10000 Dinar was also called toman. The word was borrowed shortly after Persia's invasion by the Mongols and does not exist in the Persian language. There is a suit of Tmn, 'multitudes' in the Mamluk deck as well, although it depicts a cup. The Arabic spelling of the Mamluk suit and the Persian coin are identical, differences are only due to different transliteration, and Tmn also isn't a native Arabic word.

Having a foreign word for one of the suits in the Mamluk deck may sound a bit strange. However the Mamluk people orignially came from southern Russia or Kazakhstan, their native language back then, Kipchank, belongs to the group of Turkic languages. So the word Tmn would have been a heritage of their own language rather than an entirely unknown term.

There is another connection between The Chinese Wan suit and the Mamluk's Tmn suit. The Chinese charakter for Wan with the help of some imagination looks like a cup when looking at it upside down. This may well explain why the mamluk cards depict cups although the suit is named "myriads".

shi and suyf: The connection between the Chinese suit of Shi for ten, actually ten myriads, and the Mamluk suit of Suyf for scimitars is less clear. It has been suggested though that the chinese symbol for the word Shi, a simple cross, might have reminded the Mamluk people of a sword.

Mamluk cards as the origin of all European playing cards

The link between Mamluk cards and European playing cards can be shown by looking at the Moorish Deck, an uncut sheet of simple playing cards from the early 15th century, described here. The deck is thought to have been produced in Spain. The design shows striking similarites in general design with the mamluk deck. Other decks similar to the Moorish deck show the development towards the Italian and Spanish cards patterns. The following graph shows the inheritance of card patterns.

All the European playing card patterns go back to the Mamluk pattern.

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Last change: 15-May-2016

Created: Sep 2015