Early history outside Europe


Cards are made from paper, and paper is a material that does cot conserve easily. Paper hates humidity and without a proper protection, it deteriorates fast. So, it is no surprise that none of the oldest card decks did survive. Paper is invented in China, and for this reason, most experts think that the card game is also invented in this country. There are written texts from the Middle Ages describing some sort of card playing in Persia and China as far back as the 9th Century. Where did it all begin? I don’t know, and in any case, this is outside the scope of this website dealing with the Tarot game.

What is clear is that before the card game travelled to Europe, it became popular in India and in the Middle East. And here it becomes interesting for us because, it is in Egypt and Turkey that we find the nearest ancestors of the European card games. But let me be clear immediately. These early Middle Eastern cards have nothing to do with the trumps in the Tarot game, that are possibly a European invention.

The Mamlûk Sultanate (Arabic: سلطنة المماليك‎ Sulṭanat al-Mamālīk) ruled over Egypt from 1250 to 1517. And it is from this period that we know a card game that is very close in structure and symbolism to the oldest European cards. We call them the Mamlûk cards, and the most complete game is conserved in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. These cards date from the late 15th Century, but older single cards or fragments are known dating back to the 13th Century. High-resolution images of these cards can be found here.

From left to right the 5 of Coins (Darahim), the 3 of Cups (Tunan) the T of Swords (Suyuf) and the 10 of Polosticks (Jawkan). On the top row the Mamlûk cards and on the bottom row the corresponding Tarot cards of Jean Dodal. The resemblance of the suit symbols is striking. The Mamlûk decks had three court cards in each suit. For religious reasons they were all male: the King (Malik), the Viceroy (Na’ib) and the Second Viceroy (Na’ib thanin), and no pictures. In the following figure as an example, the court cards from the Mamlûk suit of Cups, ordered from the lowest to the highest card.

All the Malik (King, right most picture) cards share the same octal pattern on the base. On the bottom of the court cards a description of the value of the card, and on the upper part top of the cards, a text of which I ignore the significance. Mamlûk cards arrived in Europe around 1375. In Italy, they were brought by Venetian merchants, who were trading with the Mamlûk civilization.  The cards were called Saracen cards, or also Na'ibs (or Naips).

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