“Chessboard” Carpet from Doha

The briefest history of the pseudo-Kufic style

The “Chessboard” сarpet. Timurid or Delhi Sultanates, Central Asia or India, 1400–1425 CE
CA.19.1997 / Museum of Islamic Art

The museum’s description asserts that this is the earliest surviving pile-woven silk carpet in the world. It was made in the early XV century somewhere in Central Asia, Iran, or in the area of ​​the Indian Deccan Plateau. Manuscripts, metalwork, and other decorative objects of a similar style were produced in these politically and commercially connected regions. The carpet has distinctive, vibrant colors and a unique gaming board motif. The board intended for playing chess or some other game can be traced in the design of carpets made in the XV—XVI centuries, in the central part of the composition it matches an octahedral medallion inscribed in the square—a motif common in Anatolian rugs of a slightly earlier period. The main field element—a repeating pattern of green, blue, yellow, and white flowers and leaves—refers to XIV century Chinese silks

The border of the carpet is decorated with a pattern that can be found on miniatures in illustrated manuscripts of the Timurid dynasty era—they were Tamerlane’s descendants who ruled from 1370 to 1507 on the territories of Iran, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, most of Central Asia, as well as parts of what is today Pakistan and Syria. This is a so-called Pseudo-Kufic script, or Kufesque, ornamental patterns imitating Kufic—a style of Arabic script characterized by geometric rigor and calligraphic complexity. Kufic script can be recognized by its horizontal emphasis and vertical angular profile. It was used in copying important texts, primarily the Quran, from the late VIII to the early XI centuries, and can also be found on architectural structures and various items where Quran quotes written in this manner stress the sacredness of the object.

Left: Variations of writing the Basmala: "In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful!" (بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم — Bi-smi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm) in Kufic script

Right: Kufic writing "All power belongs to Allah" (الملك لله — Al-mulk lillah) on textile

Over time, in everyday life, the ceremonial script turned into an ornament, an unreadable decorative element. Researchers have shared careful remarks as to how and why it actually happened, but there are still a few different opinions regarding the appearance of some of the key elements of Pseudo-Kufic patterns. Thus, some scholars claim that attention should be paid to the spelling of the name of Allah in the Basmala—a formula that each surah of the Quran (except for the ninth one) begins with, “In the Name of Allah, The Beneficent, The Merciful!” (بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم — Bi-smi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm). In the Kufic script, elements resembling an arch or a dome often appear between the two letters “lām” in the name of Allah (الله — Allāh). The combination bears a lot of resemblance to one of the most common Pseudo-Kufic patterns. Others believe that the name of Allah, even in patterns that lost their initial meaning, would not be placed on a surface that people walked on (a rug), even as a part of some unreadable ornament, so they look for a different explanations, decoding it from another formula—“Power belongs to Allah” (الملك لله — Al-mulk lillah). They assume that the word “power” (الملك — al-mulk) remained in the ornaments emphasizing the status of the owner of the item that the pattern can be seen in.

Left: Lotto сarpet with a closed kufesque border. Anatolia, Turkey, early 16th century
101:1929 / Saint Louis Art Museum

Right: Gentile da Fabriano. Madonna and Child Enthroned, circa 1420
1939.1.255 / National Gallery of Art

Along with the appearance of Pseudo-Kufic in carpet ornaments, Kufesque was also becoming common in Christian art. Such patterns have been found in churches erected in the areas where there was close cultural contact: from Crete, for example, a place that pilgrims traveled past on their way to the Holy Land, to some of the territories of southern Spain that were reclaimed from the Arabs. Objects with Pseudo-Kufic patterns were in demand in the west as part of the high culture of the Islamic world. Evidence can be seen in carpets depicted by Hans Holbein or Lorenzo Lotto in their paintings (they were not the only ones to add those to their compositions, but several types of carpets started being named after these artists specifically) and in the way many European painters used Kufesque in the decoration of biblical characters’ clothes—especially if events in the Holy Land were shown. It was believed that during the Crusades, Europeans could mistake the Kufic script for the writings from the New and Old Testament period. And since Islamic culture in the late Middle Ages was perceived as advanced, for a Western consumer who could not read Arabic the indistinguishable Kufic and Pseudo-Kufic letters were associated with wealth, mysticism, science, and other signs of the East, in general.

The carpet is preserved at the Museum of Islamic Art, which opened in Doha in 2008. It houses a collection of the House of Al Thani, a ruling dynasty of Qatar. The collection includes artifacts created over 1,400 years in the Islamic world: textiles, metal, ceramics, glass, and manuscripts. The permanent and temporary exhibitions take up four floors of a building designed by Ieoh Ming Pei—one of the first five Pritzker Prize winners, the designer of the Louvre glass pyramid, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Massachusetts, and the Bank of China building in Hong Kong. At the age of 90, he embarked on a six month journey to study Islamic architecture and was inspired by the sabil (fountain) of the Sultan Lajin in the courtyard of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo and Tunisian fortresses, both of which helped shape the design of the exterior of the museum.

Translated from Russian by Olga Bubich

Vladimir Lyashchenko
Video essayist and film critic, teacher at the Moscow Film School. Graduated from the Department of Philosophy of Moscow State University.