A set of playing cards forms part of the collection in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum, in Istanbul. The cards are large (25.5 x 9.5 cm) and hand-painted with gold details. There are indications that these could have been a gift from the Mamluk ruler of Egypt to the Ottoman sultan in the mid-fifteenth century.
Fearing Mongol invasions from the east and the Christian Crusaders from Europe, the Arabs of the Ayyubid dynasty, who ruled Egypt in the thirteenth century, sought to form a well-trained professional army, acquiring the Mamluk caste in the slave market. They consisted primarily of Turks defeated in wars. Although sold as slaves, after their acquisition they did not suffer from subhuman living conditions: they received regular payment and maintained a formal chain of command, choosing their commanders (sultans) among their own peers and living in very comfortable conditions. Their strength was such that they took power in Egypt in 1258, ending Ayyubid rule in the country. The Mamluks ruled the region until 1517, when they were overcome by the Ottomans. During the time in which they ruled over the country, they had a significant influence on its culture. Much of the art and architecture in the city of Cairo today was formed in the Mamluk era.
With examples dating back to the thirteenth century, the Mamluk cards gave rise to the modern deck.
While studying these cards in 1938, L. A. Meyer, a leading researcher of Arab influence in Europe, concluded that the model could have been a precursor to the European decks. Although missing the traditional figurative cards (kings, queens, jacks and knights, common in older decks of the region), the structural similarity of symbols identifying the suits is striking. The absence of figures relates to the Arab tradition of avoiding figurative representations of people, explained by some as a formal ban on religious grounds and by others to be simply considered bad taste. However, cards in the deck were identified as representing kings, first viceroys and second viceroys; exactly three "royal figures", as in most European decks. The deck consisted of 52 cards, as is still found in various types of decks, especially in the most popular version of modern playing cards.
The discovery of other cards with smaller dimensions and less luxurious presentation than those found in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum, probably produced in the twelfth century, demonstrated consistent evidence that our current decks almost certainly originated from this Mamluk game. Studies and analyses completed in the 1970s, primarily by members of the International Playing Card Society (IPCS), such as Prof. Sir Michael Dummett from Oxford University, consolidated idea of the Mamluk origin of the European deck.
Esta conclusão reforça descrições como a de Giovanni di Covelluzzo, nas Crônicas de Viterbo: “No ano de 1379 chegou a Viterbo um jogo de cartas proveniente do país dos sarracenos, chamado naib”. Citações e baralhos de origem árabe com características semelhantes também foram encontrados na península ibérica. Não por coincidência, Itália e Espanha foram os principais pontos de contato entre mamelucos e europeus, durante o século XIV. Não é por outra razão que ‘baralhos’ são designados até hoje na Espanha como naipes.
Another important reference was left by a Dominican friar from the city of Basel, Switzerland, in his Treatise on the ethics and discipline of human life. Written in 1377, Johannes of Rheinfelden describes, in detail, a game of cards with a similar structure to the games attributed to the Mamluks.
In addition to these two important references, various others start to appear in Europe in the second half of the fourteenth century. Most of these were sermons against playing games with cards or governments from various regions prohibiting the practice of such games: Florence, Paris, Siena, in 1377; Bern (1379); Barcelona, Nuremberg, Perpignan, in 1380; Zurich and the Netherlands, in 1390, to name only those most frequently mentioned in articles on the subject.
All these references demonstrate the rapid development of card games in Europe after 1370. Italy and Spain provide the unmistakable points of contact with the Mamluk cards. The similarity between primitive decks from these regions and the Mamluk decks is more than evident.