Mamluk cards, ca. 1500

The cards known as Mulūk wa-nuwwāb (kings and deputies) contains 43 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 packs with cruder designs, 5 of which now remains along with the original cards. At that time several of the cards from the primary pack were also altered.

The pack has the exact same structure as the earliest European packs. The suit symbols of coins, polo-sticks, cups and swords are the same as those still used in traditional Italian and Spanish packs, 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, deputy and second deputy. The arabic term for deputy, nāʾib, became the first European name for playing cards, which are still called naipes in Spanish.

In the table below, the cards are placed according to their presumed original values, not the values they were given when the replacement cards were incorporated into the pack. Due to the lack of high-resolution colour images of most of the cards, some of the images below are imperfect colourisations of high-resolution black and white images.

Second deputy
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 packs.

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 (on 10 of swords this is merely assumed, as the original of this card is 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, as well as similarly distributed markings on some Ganjifa 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 deputies made it difficult to tell the rank of the deputies from the iconography alone. In addition, the replacement cards (taken from two other packs) already had such panels on the deputies.

Of the eight deputies and second deputies, only two originals survive. One is missing from the preserved modified pack, two are from another pack, and three are repurposed cards from the primary pack. These promoted cards are the aces of coins and polo-sticks and the nine of swords; the reason for choosing a low-numbered card for the former two and a high-numbered for the latter 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 pack, or alternatively that the original 9 and the 10 were promoted to first and second deputy at the same time, and the latter was subsequently lost.

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