CARD GAMES (ganjafa-bāzī, waraq-bāzī). Card games were invented in China in the 7th-8th centuries and via India were brought to Persia, whence they reached the Arab world and Europe. The Persian game of ganjafa, like chess, spread to the Arab west and was popular around 800 (around 1400) among the Mamluk rulers in Egypt (where it was called kenjafa or kanjefa). From an Arabic chronicle we learn that about 802/1399 an amir paid 2,000 drachmas for a slave, an amount that he had just won in a game called kanjafa (Rosenfeld, p. 74). The existence of the eight-suited ganjafa game (8 x 12 = 96 cards) in the early Safavid period under Shah Esmāʿīl (907-30/1501-24) and Shah Ṭahmāsb (930-84/1524-76) and later under Shah ʿAbbās I (996-1038/1588-1629) is known from Persian literary references and European travel books (Taqī-Ḵānī, pp. 296-97). They prove that ganjafa was popular at the court and in the coffee houses of Isfahan under Shah ʿAbbās (Chardin, p. 62; Falsafī, I, p. 144; II, p. 331). Jean B. Tavernier writes: “Among the games of the Persians is one with cards called Gengefé. Our cards are four kind, theirs are of eight kind” (p. 273a). The poem “Ganjafa robāʿīyāt” of Ahlī Šīrāzī (see below) confirms Tavernier’s observation of the existence of the eight ganjafa suits at the time of the early Safavid kings. Mīrzā Moḥammad-Ṣādeq Mīnā Eṣfahānī’s (1018-61/1609-51) statement in his encyclopedic Šāhed-e ṣādeq that ganjafa was invented by Mīrzā Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn Manṣūr Šīrāzī (d. between 940/1534 and 949/1542; Roschanzamir, 1981, p. 38), can therefore not be correct. However, the fact that Mīrzā Moḥammad-Ṣādeq also suggests that Mīrzā Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn adopted the game from European card games shows that he had no reliable basis for his statement.

There is no substantial information about the nature of the original ganjafa. Mīrzā Moḥammad-Ṣādeq, himself the inventor of games (Taqīḵānī, pp. 298, 300 n.), preferred playing the game with four participants, though two to nine people could participate, depending on the kind of game. He names the varieties Ṣafdarḵānī (for two), Lab (?; for two or more), Farangī (lit. European; variable number of players), and Hamrang, in which the partners would drop out one by one. The author compares this game with chess because of the concentration it requires. Ahlī Šīrāzī (858-942/1444-1535), a court poet of Shah Esmāʿīl I, explains in the introduction of his ganjafa poem how he became induced to compose it when a nobleman showed a beautiful set of painted ganjafa cards intended as a gift for a prince and said that it would be wonderful if each card could also carry a poem in addition to the picture. Thus Ahlī Šīrāzī wrote a robāʿī for all 96 cards in each pack. The robāʿīs contain all the information concerning the value of the card. The suits named in the poem are: ḡolām (slave), tāj (crown), šamšīr (sword), zar-e sorḵ (red gold; ašrafī, gold coin, in Ahlī), čang (harp), barāt (bill of exchange), zar-e safīd (white gold; tanka, silver coin, in Ahlī), and qomāš (cloth, bales; Roschanzamir, 1981, pp. 30-36).

Original ganjafa cards from the time of the early Safavids and before had not been noted until 1981, when eight Persian lacquer paintings in the album of Morād III (Collection of Manuscripts and Incunabula of the Austrian National Library in Vienna, codex mixtus, fol. 313) were recognized as such by D. Duda (Duda, pp. 9-18). Persian ganjafa and ās (see Supplement) playing cards, like pen boxes (qalamdān), were hand-painted and heavily lacquered for protection against damage by constant playing. The backgrounds were of plain colors without landscape or architectural setting. All eight ganjafa cards are rectangular and framed at the upper end by a cusped festooned arch.

Under Shah ʿAbbās II (1052-77/1642-66) all kinds of games were prohibited. In the ʿEbrat-nāma of Ṭoḡrā Mašhadī (d. 1100/1689) the disappearance of the game is deplored (apud Monzawī). However, towards the end of the 11th/17th or the beginning of the 12th/18th century the game of ās became popular. A typical pack of cards for ās has five series consisting of five identical cards each. Often more series were added to accommodate more than five players. It was played like poker (see Roschanzamir, 1986, pp. 74-76). Many specimens of ās cards are known from the Qajar period (1210-1342/1796-1925) in numerous collections in Iran and elsewhere: for example, the Bielefelder Spielkarten, Charta lusonia, the collection of the Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde, and the author’s own collection. They display various qualities, from rare luxury sets painted on ivory by talented artists to numerous products on paper or papier mâché with folk art level. Their motives are taken from the epics and other literary sources. Some show historical, contemporary, or European costumes. There are many with erotic and some with floral illustrations. The flower cards were used by more devoted Muslims, whereas those with epic and literary motives have been used by the courtiers and the aristocracy.

The game of ās was popular during the 14th/20th century until about the end of World War II but then went out of fashion, and games like poker, rummy, belote, trump, bridge, became popular.



Ahlī Šīrāzī, ed. ʿA.-N. Monzawī, “Ganjafa-ye Šāhed-ṣādeq,” Dāneš 3, 1331 Š./1952, pp. 459-60.

Chardin, Les voyages du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient, Amsterdam, 1735, vol. 3.

D. Duda, “Die Lackbilder in Album Murad III aus kunsthistorischer Sicht,” in Spielkarten-Bilder in persischen Lackmalereien, Vienna, 1981, pp. 9-26.

N. Falsafī, Zendagānī-e Šāh ʿAbbās Awwal, 4 vols., 1332-44 Š./1953-65.

G. Hoffmann, Gemalte Spielkarten, Frankfurt am Main, 1985, pp. 5, 6, 13, 16.

R. von Leyden, Ganjefa. The Playing Cards of India. A General Survey with a Catalogue of the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection, London, 1982.

M. Roschanzamir, “Persische Lackmalerei auf As-Spielkarten,” Mitteilung aus dem Museum für Völkerkunde (Hamburg), N.S. 16, 1986, pp. 71-90.

Idem, “Ganjafa in der persischen Literatur,” in Spielkarten-Bilder in persischen Lackmalereien, Vienna, 1981, pp. 27-42.

H. Rosenfeld, “On the Morphogenesis of Games, Especially on Chess and Playing Cards,” Journal of the International Playing-card Society 9/3, 1981, pp. 69-99.

B. Taqīḵānī, “Ganjafa,” Yaḡmā 13/6, 1339 Š./1960, pp. 296-300 (quotes the description by Moḥammad-Ṣādeq).

J. B. Tavernier, tr. J. H. Wiederhold, Beschreibung der sechs Reisen des J. B. Tavernier, Geneva, 1681.

(Mahdi Roschanzamir)

Originally Published: December 15, 1990

Last Updated: December 15, 1990

This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 7, pp. 802-803