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The earliest cards ever made in Europe used the four suits of Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons. They were surely inspired by the Arabic (Mamlûk) signs, which were Coins, Cups, Swords and Polo-sticks.
According to a common hypothesis, the four suits may have represented the main social classes of those times:
Coins = merchantsSwords = soldiers
Cups = clergyBatons = peasants

the suit signs in the Mamlûk cards

This scheme may be accepted only in their Spanish version, in which Batons are featured as rough cudgels, while in the original tarot, and in the northern Italian patterns that directly sprang from this deck, this suit sign is shaped as elegant cerimonial staff, symbol of command: any relation with lower classes would appear very unlikely.

In the second half of the 19th century, when some Western anthropologists began to investigate the traditional cards of the Far East, their studies also conceived the idea that such patterns, so different at first sight, and those used in the West may have been somehow related, thus that playing cards may have reached Europe from China.
The first author to deal with this subject in a specific way was sinologist W.H. Wilkinson. Living in China as a diplomat, he had the opportunity of collecting several varieties of cards used by those days, and to study in depth the suit systems adopted by the local patterns, the so-called "money-suited" system (further details are given in the Chinese gallery, page 1).
A theory had already been suggested, according to which the earliest cards had been brought to Italy around the mid 12th century by the Polos, Venetian merchants, who had brought them back from their travels in China. But in the famous account of their voyage, Il Milione, such cards are never mentioned, and none of the many Chinese crafts taken back to their own homeland seemed to be consistent with a deck of playing cards.
This hypothesis was altered during the 20th century, following some new historical evidence; in particular, the Arabic origin of the earliest Italian and Spanish decks was proven.
But had the Arabs invented the cards themselves, or had they learned these games from another civilization, and which one?
The answer, despite a complete lack of specific sources, probably lies in the geographical relations of the Islamic world during the Middle Ages, not too different from today's.

In the 11th century, the Seljuks, a Turkic-speaking nomadic tribe coming from the present Kazakhstan area, who had converted to the Islâm, had conquered Persia, a part of Asia Minor and north-western Africa.
Then, in the 13th century, the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and his grandnephew Kubilai Khan had pursued a much greater project: coming from further east, i.e. Central Asia, they had spread the Mongol empire, taking hold of an incredibly vast area, that crossed the whole Asia, from Persia and the Caucasus to the Chinese coast.
Seljuks and Mongols
Through this civilization, that certainly had relations with the Chinese world, Oriental playing cards may have likely reached Persia (Iran). This is one of the regions of the Middle East where early cards are known to have been played with, in particular, Persia is the homeland of the ancient game of Ganjifa.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to define the origins of Ganjifa cards (see the Indian gallery); according to some scholars they were born in Persia, from where later on they reached India, by the time of the Moghuls (16th century), but others maintain that they may have been an Indian creation, at a much earlier stage, thus suggesting a possible relation with China, to whom India was already linked by ancient cultural and religious bonds (Buddhism).

Seeking for graphic similarities, the details shared by the suits of the Chinese patterns (still used today) and those of the late medieval Arabic cards, (see the Mamlûk cards gallery), whose pattern is obsolete although its suits survived in tarot decks and regional playing cards from Italy and Spain, are too numerous for being merely incidental.
  • The suit of Coins or Cash in Chinese decks, called  Wen ("coin, money"), is basically identical in shape and meaning to the one of the Mamlûk cards,  Darhim ("coins, money"). A small picture of an Arabic Coins card is shown at the top of page 1.

  • The Chinese suit of Strings,  Suo ("string"), features signs not too different from those of the Arabic polo-stick suit, the  Jawkn, especially for the angle-shaped look of the latter, maybe inspired by the pattern of the 2 of Strings. If this was true, only the shape of the signs would have been maintained, not their original meaning.

  • The Chinese suit of Myriads is called  Wan, meaning "10,000", apparently without any specific relation with the Arabic suits. However, on linguistic grounds, links do exist, and they are rather close.
    From Central Asia to the Far East, the languages spoken are Altaic, i.e. the ones that belong to one of three groups, namely Turkic, Mongolian and Manchu. In all of these languages, the word for 10,000 is almost identical: tuman, or tümen, or toman (the differences are very small).
2 of Strings from a Chinese
money-suited deck, and 10 of Polo-sticks
from the Mamlûk deck (15 century)
The early people of Manchuria, in north-eastern China, used the word tuman spelling it . This glyph is the same one used to represent the suit of Myriads in Chinese money-suited decks (see the Chinese gallery).
Another detail of some interest is that a golden Persian coin worth 10,000 Dinar was called Toman. It was introduced in AD 1240, which means shortly after Persia's invasion by the Mongols; this word was borrowed, as it does not exist in Persian, while in Mongolian the word for 10,000 is tümen (almost identical).

Persian Toman
Therefore, the suit called  Tmn in the Mamlûk deck matches by the name the Oriental suit of Myriads (i.e. "Tens of thousands"), despite in the Arabic deck the Tmn cards feature chalices or cups.

It is useful to remark that Toman (the Persian gold coin) and the Arabic suit of Tmn are both spelt in the same way, , and that the apparent discrepancy between the two terms depends on the different translitteration, or romanization, used for Arabic and Persian: both of them were borrowed words, that did not belong to the native language, but were certainly imported from an Altaic language.

Another question is why the suit of chalices was called Tmn; since this word was not even native, for an Arabic player this name would have sounded a bit strange, as if in English the name of the suits were "Spades, Clubs, Hearts and Tmn".
This too may be explained.
Despite living in northern Africa (dominion of the Arabs), and using Arabic as an official language, the Mamlûks were an ethnic group with ancient Turkic origins.
In fact they had come from the present territories of southern Russia or Kazakhstan, from where they had been deported as slaves centuries earlier, and their native language was Kipchak (the westernmost among the Turkic language subgroups). For historical notes and more pictures see the Mamlûk cards gallery, in the ancient cards section.
map of the Mamlûk Empire
map of the Mamlûk Empire, showing the origin
of these people (red dotted line)
Very likely, the Mamlûks had retained the word tmn as a heritage of their own native language; this may explain the choice of a term completely new to Arabic speakers for labelling one suit of their cards. The equivalent of this term, as previously mentioned, was also found in Persia, where it was used for a gold coin, and the Mamlûks, now arabicized, shared with the Persians the writing system, and certainly had commercial relations with them.

(above) two cards of Myriads, with the suit sign
marked in red, king of Cups from the Mamlûk deck
    But why the signs of the suit of Tmn were chalices, or cups?
    Wilkinson suggested that the choice of cups as the suit's distinctive sign might have sprung from a misinterpretation of the Chinese and Manchu character  which, turned upside down (), has indeed the shape of a chalice. A detail matching this theory is the position of these signs, always in the top part of the cards in Chinese patterns, while in Arabic courts they are featured below, as in a Chinese card turned upside down. Many scholars rejected Wilkinson's theory; however, in the case it was true, we should think that the earliest decks that reached the Arabs still had suits spelt with Chinese glyphs (not clearly understood by the Arabic players), thus the cards would have not come from Persia, but likely from a region further east.

Since all the suits of the Oriental system are related to money or coins, the symbolic meaning of Tmn may have a similar relation, as well. For instance, more than the shape of a chalice, the meaning may be the metal which the cups featured in Mamlûk cards are likely made of, i.e. gold. It is probably not a coincidence that also the Persian Toman was a golden piece.

  • Also for the Chinese suit of Tens, Shi, only found in 4-suited patterns (see the Chinese gallery), it is impossible not to see this cross-shaped character as a stylized sword with its hilt. In fact the corresponding suit in the Arabic deck bears the name of  Suyf, whose meaning is "swords" or "scimitars".

A further coincidence seems to concern the three "special" cards of the money-suited packs, also called honours, and named Old Thousand, Red Flower and White Flower (see the Chinese gallery, page 1); they may have a relation with the three courts of the Arabic deck (king, deputy and second deputy).
Among the aforesaid Chinese subjects, two of them usually feature stylized personages from a well-known 14th century novel called Shui-hu Chuan ("The Water Margin"); one of them in particular, the Red Flower card, often shows a male figure bearing the character  Wang, which means "king" (either a monarch, or a common Chinese surname).

Finally, the same proportions of the Arabic cards seems closer to the Chinese ones (i.e. long and rather thin) than to the Western ones.

The Arabic suits were adopted also in Europe, with a slight alteration: the polo-sticks, not among the objects of daily use, were generically renamed.
In Spanish they became Bastos, i.e. rough sticks, cudgels. In the north of Italy, instead, they were seen as ceremonial batons, whence the shape of royal maces with rich details and knobs at their ends, found in most early tarots and, still nowadays, in regional patterns such as the Trevigiane, Bergamasche, Primiera Bolognese, and others.

samples of "Red Flower"
with the Wang character,
from different editions
(courtesy of MaiJianHua)

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