Mamluk cards, ca. 1500

The deck known as Mulūk wa-nuwwāb (kings and viceroys) contains 41 out of originally 52 cards and is located at the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul. Some cards were lost at an early date, and were replaced by cards from two contemporary decks with cruder designs, 5 of which now remains along with the original cards. At that time several of the cards from the primary deck were also altered.

The deck has the exact same structure as the earliest European decks. The suit symbols of coins, polo-sticks, cups and swords are the same as those still used in traditional Italian and Spanish decks, with the exception that the polo-sticks there quickly became reinterpreted as ceremonial batons or rough cudgels. In each suit there are ten numeral cards and three courts: king, viceroy and second viceroy. The arabic term for viceroy, nāʾib, became the first European name for playing cards, which are still called naipes in Spanish.

Second Viceroy
Nāʾib thanī

Several cards have blue panels with golden writing at the top or both the top and bottom. None of these are original, but rather modifications made when some lost cards had to be replaced by cards from other decks.

The top panels were present from the beginning, though in a smaller form. The current panels cover these, their broad meander-patterned borders and in most cards also part of the outer border enclosing the entire card, making their area double that of the original ones. They are found on all court cards, and also on 1–3 of coins and polo-sticks, and 8–10 of swords (1 of coins and 10 of swords are merely assumed, as these are missing) – but oddly enough on no pip cards in the suit of cups. This distribution shows that the suits of coins and polo-sticks had inverted rankings – lower numbers beating higher, but still being beaten by the court cards – just like coins and cups in early tarot. The text in these panels are encouraging lines of verse, with no particular relevance to cards, but it is impossible to tell what the contents of the obliterated original panels were. These panels closely parallel the red stamps at the top of the highest cards of each suit in many types of Chinese money-suited cards.

The bottom panels were not present in the original cards, but were added to all court cards, and denote the rank of the card in writing. This was necessary because the mix of original and replacement cards, and the promotion of original pip cards to the rank of viceroys made it difficult to tell the rank of the viceroys from the iconography alone. In addition, the replacement cards (taken from two other decks) already had such panels on the viceroys.

Of the eight viceroys and second viceroys, only three originals survive. One is missing from the preseved modified deck, two are from another deck, and two are repurposed cards from the primary deck. These promoted cards are the ace of polo-sticks and the nine of swords; the reason for choosing a low-numbered card for one and a high-numbered for the other is the reversed ranking of some suits; cards with an original top panel were much more suited to replace a court card than ones without. The choice of 9 rather than 10 of swords might be that the latter was already lost and replaced by a cruder card from another deck. Alternatively the original 9 and the 10 were promoted to first and second viceroy at the same time, and the latter was subsequently lost.

Following the preference for using original cards for the viceroys, the original second viceroy of coins was promoted to viceroy, and its rank was filled by a replacement card.

The five replacement cards are the second viceroy of coins, the second viceroy of polo-sticks, the ace of polo-sticks, the nine of swords and the ten of swords. The first, third and fourth of these replace surviving cards from the original deck, which were all promoted to the rank of viceroy in their respective suits.