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magic squares/swaney

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  • Barry Carroll
    Give Me Shelter--- This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Rolling Stone. It was reprinted in Shelter, a hastily organized soft cover large
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 3, 2002
      Give Me Shelter---

      This is a reprint of an article that originally
      appeared in Rolling Stone. It was reprinted
      in Shelter, a hastily organized soft cover
      large format design idea book and intro to
      vernacular architecture printed in 1973-and now suddenly
      back in print.

      During the 70's, it seemed that Shelter was
      on the coffee tables of virtually every hippie
      community in America

      there is an attached diagram that shows how
      magic squares convert to patterns. if you have
      never seen how this works. check it out

      Here goes:

      Decoding Arabic Design
      By David Saltzman

      The codes and exact methods of making these designs
      are jealously guarded. They stay within the family.
      You may be interested to know that one of the largest
      sects of Sufis, commonly called the "Naqshbandi School",
      is also called, among the Arabs, "The Designers." They
      are particularly occupied with this business of encoding
      information into rugs, calligraphy and architecture.
      I'm told that there is a certain mosque, in Central Asia,
      where anyone who enters, irrespective of race or culture,
      immediately bursts out crying! It has something to do
      with the architectural dimensions of the place, and their
      relationship to human physiology.

      The Sufis tell a story about a metal smith who was unjustly thrown into
      He pleaded with his captors, and they finally allowed him to receive a rug
      by his wife.

      Day after day the man said his prayers on the rug, prostrating himself in the
      direction of Mecca. After a time, he said to his jailers.
      "I am poor, and I have no chance in life any more. You yourselves are paid
      like slaves.
      But I happen to be a metalworker. If you bring me some tin and some tools,
      I can build some small trinkets which you can sell in the marketplace.
      In this way we may both benefit."

      The guards agreed, and pretty soon both the tinsmith and the jailers were
      a profit. They used the extra money to buy food and luxuries for themselves.

      But one day, when the guards went to the cell in their usual way, they found
      the door open. The man was gone.

      Many years later, the man's innocence was established. He happened to run
      one of the men who had imprisoned him. This man was burning with curiosity,
      and he asked the metalworker how he had managed to escape - what magic he
      had used.

      The tinsmith answered: "It is a matter of design, and the design within
      My wife had found the man who designed the jail locks. She wormed the design
      out of him. Since she is a weaver, she skillfully wove the design into the
      at the very spot my head touched five times a day when I was praying.

      "You know that I am a metalworker, and to me this design looked like the
      of a lock. So I designed the plan of the trinkets to allow me to store up
      necessary material to make the key - and I escaped!"


      Imagine a narrow North African passerelle, salmon-red walls and tall green
      swimming in the blue-blackness of twilight. We pass a peaked archway,
      which is
      a door into ancient magic. Inside, by the light of silver gas lamps,
      dozens of small
      children are assiduously hlding slender black threads looped around their
      tiny fingertips.
      The threads stretch in an intricate pattern from one cousin to another
      In one corner a wrinkled old grandmother works at a spinning wheel, and a
      girl is waiting to take her freshly spun yarn to the dye market.

      The men are performing an ancient dance, the dance of the rug makers, by
      in and out among the little children while knotting the warp threads. They
      according to a cadence which is sung by the women, who are sitting around the
      walls paying out measured lengths of colored wool, in a ritual drawn up
      from the deep well of time.

      Each district, each family has its own special song, and this gives each
      rug its unique
      design. With each change in rhythm comes a change in color; a new harmony
      makes a new pattern.

      There is a legend still very strong in the Middle East and North Africa
      that these
      rug designs were all, at one time, carefully constructed by the members of a
      learned society for the purpose of preserving certain fragments of esoteric

      The secret of the rug is hidden in the music. I remember one rug shop in
      where 16 blind girls worked at wooden looms, while a lively old woman sang to
      them and they hummed along with their fingers. I came in with a professional
      storyteller who regaled them with tales of Malta. The 16 girls all laughed
      in unison,
      like a moonlight minuet of mountain bells.

      As we leave the family rug shop and continue down the passarelle we come upon
      another lighted archway. We look in and see an old man with young eyes, bent
      over pages of calculations and peculiar diagrams. As we look in wonder, he
      beckons us in.
      He is not a scribe, it turns out, and not a scholar. He is a "designer"
      and is busy
      with the plans for the grillwork on a certain archway that will adorn the

      We inquire about the designs.

      "You know," he says finally, "that it is forbidden for a servant of Allah
      to make images."

      We nod.

      He takes up a drawing which looks like a very ornate stencil of leaves and

      "This," he says dramatically, "is the first sura from the Koran, in which
      Allah commands
      the Prophet: 'Read!' Mohammed protests that he does not know how to read.
      But Allah commands him again: 'Read!' "

      It dawns on us that he is telling the literal truth: That leafy pattern is
      actually an
      exquisitely ornate Arabic calligraphy. Those "gaudy" designs on the walls
      of mosques
      are actually lifelines from the inner nucleus of the Moslem world: This is
      the Koran,
      which even illiterates know by heart.

      "The Koran is a code, a mystery," he says in a voice full of emotion. "To
      solve it is to
      become enlightened." He takes us over to this table littered with number
      geometric designs and the ropework patterns of Islamic art.

      He shows us a piece of paper ruled off into small squares. In each square
      is a number.

      "This is a unique kind of 'magic square,' " he explains, "and it is the key
      to my work
      of designing. I have the task of designing this archway to transmit certain
      information and to give a certain feeling," he says with a gleam in his
      dark eyes.
      "Let us call the information and the feeling 'six.' "

      We watch closely as he abstracts from the magic square all the rows and
      which contain a "six." He comes up with a kind of number grid, which
      "six" and nothing else.

      Then he takes a fine pen and skillfully joins all the points of the squares
      of the
      "number six grid," forming a kind of net.

      He overlays several "number six nets" at different angles to one another,
      simplifies the design, and comes up with this:

      He looks at us triumphantly. 'And now, you see, it is a matter of building.
      I put one net onto another, until the lines grown thick…and Allah willing,
      we will end up with Alhambra Palace!"

      Depending on the particular code the designer is using, you could get
      within hexagons, octagons within octagons, or whatever.

      The method of simplification is really elegant, in my opinion. When you
      do this business of laying the nets over one another, you find that many of
      lines just coalesce into a black blob. The blobs stay in the final design.
      You also
      get the effect where a 20-sided figure. Sometimes everything withing one
      of these
      circles is erased, and the line segments left over are connected with one
      according to yet another numerical code, there are also certain geometric
      which are simply not used, for whatever esoteric reasons, and when one of
      turns up, the crucial lines are erased and the segments connected in some
      way. In this what they call "lawful otherwise", according to the legends,
      is hidden
      the real secret information these designs are supposed to convey.

      I had seen this kind of Islamic pattern often, but had found it impossible
      to follow.
      You trace out one line and it seems to meander and sashay along, like a
      dervish, with no particular order or meaning. But taken as a whole, all
      these seemingly
      random lines somehow work together. The result is startling, and a perfect
      map of
      the Arab mind.

      As I stood there in the Arabian twilight watching this designer work I got
      definite feeling that a message was being delivered, to us personally,
      through the
      thick fog of the past. This man was a codemaster, a telegrapher, an artist
      in an
      artificial language. "It is a matter of design, and design within design.…"

      If you are interested in buying an Oriental rug from the source - and
      saving several
      thousand dollars - it would be worthwhile to learn how to count in Arabic.
      In fact, the more Arabic or Persian you know, the cheaper your rug will be.

      The best introductory book on Arabic is called Arabic Made Easy by Mouncef
      The publisher is Mckay. All the other books on Arabic that I've seen are
      impossible to understand.

      An excellent introduction to Oriental rugs of all kinds is a little book
      Oriental Rugs in Colour by Preben Liebetrau.
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