Published under the general editorship of Dr.P.A. Azizbekova, Full Member of the Academy of Sciences of the Azerbaijan Republic
The collection of armoury of the Museum of the History of Azerbaijan. Academy of Sciences of the Azerbaijan SSR, is quite a significant assemblage of monuments of material culture, outstanding not only among the stocks of this Museum, but also among the major collections of armoury owned by other museums of the Soviet Union. Started when the Museum was established in 1920. the collection today has more than 600 items of arms and armour belonging to different periods and different peoples, many of them remarkable masterpieces of applied art in general and armoury decoration in particular. Many of the objects in the collection, in addition to their artistic value, are of great historical interest.
Oriental arms, which make up nearly a half of the collection, arc represented by some 300 pieces of defensive and offensive cold steel and firearm pieces from various parts of the Near and Middle East, the best items of which are in the Museum’s permanent exhibition. The collection comprises also occasional arms from South-East Asia and the Far East, which are of great interest for the ingenuity of their constructional design and superb artistic qualities.
A place of pride in the collection goes to the cold steel and firearms of the Caucasus, for the variety and splendid attributes of the objects exhibited, it is also one of the largest collections of Caucasian weaponry anywhere to be seen. Caucasian arms and armour embody the centuries-long experience and skills of oriental armourers, enriched, as it is, by long-standing traditions of outstanding craftsmanship. Adorned with most varied decorations, artistically and technically superbly accomplished, Caucasian weaponry constitutes a truly unique phenomenon in the history of the material and esthetic culture of oriental peoples.
The cold steel and firearms on display are dated in the main to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with some parade and ceremonial pieces belonging to the early twentieth century. The bulk of the Caucasian sector is represented by the famous Caucasian daggers whose excellent workmanship and combat merits have won them universal renown. The dagger’s broad blade, with a cutting edge on both sides, gradually tapers off towards the point. The dagger had always been an object of pride to the
Caucasian hillman, his reliable weapon and beautiful adornment, never to be parted with, worn at all times on his belt, next to the buckle. Little differing structurally from place to place, the dagger, throughout the centuries, has been the principal personal male attribute among the different Caucasian peoples. The shape of the Caucasian dagger was borrowed also by the peoples dwelling in the south of Russia and in Turkey.
But when it comes to the hilts and scabbards, the lavish decor and shape of Caucasian daggers are of the greatest diversity possible. The hilts of the North Caucasian daggers were often faced with black horn, those of Southern Caucasus – with white bone, and frequently adorned with carving. The most widespread material used for the adornment of weaponry was silver, highly valued by Caucasian craftsmen. Quite a number of daggers on display are decorated with damascened silver, engraved, embossed, nielloed silver, granulations and filigree silver, virtually with all the different kinds of working silver, mastered so well by Caucasian silversmiths. Yet the most sophisticated ornamentation, both in beauty of design and workmanship distinguishes the daggers coming from the hands of the silversmiths of Daghestan; and foremost among them are the craftsmen of the village of Kubachi. The collection includes daggers with scabbards adorned with a variety of materials -carved bone and gold-plating, fretted silver and engraving, chasing and nielloing, constituting not merely specimens of complex, varied and combined techniques, but true masterpieces of decorative and applied art.
Caucasian pistols and guns, despite the simple technology of their manufacture, were of excellent constructional design and high firing power. Organized in the seventeenth century, the manufacture of firearms attained a high degree of perfection already by the end of the eighteenth, with Caucasian pistols and rifles gaining well-earned fame and popularity throughout the Orient. Light and handy, Caucasus-made flintlocks with breeches of the Spanish-Moorish type, long-barreled and with high-quality rifling, they offered a close shooting pattern and a long firing range. Their barrels were made of high-quality grades of steel and ensured a long service life without deterioration of performance. Many flintlocks made in the eighteenth century
were still being used by hunters in the twentieth.
Caucasian firearms, too, were sumptuously and lavishly decorated: the barrels were adorned with gold damascening, the flintlocks – with engraving and embossing, the gunslocks. straight and narrow, were made of plane-tree an nut-tree wood, were inlaid with bone, silver, or woods of different species. The bands, used to secure the barrel and stock together, were often made of solide silver with engraving and nielloing. The inscribed names of the gunsmith and/or owner of the weapon, enclosed in decorative cartouches, served as an elegant addition to the artistic ornamentation of the piece.
In (he late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Caucasian armourers produced a special kind of cavalry sword, the so-called “shashka”, or “long knife”, resembling a sabre but with the blade only slightly curved and without a cross-guard, for protecting the hand. Apart from the peoples of the Caucasus, this cavalry sword became very popular among the Cossaks of the Don. The collection has several unique pieces of this kind of weapon remarkable for their combat and decorative quantities. Pride of place among them goes to a cavalry sword that belonged to the Soviet General M.G. Yefremov; its hilt and scabbard are completely covered with an intricate plant ornament, executed in the technique of ivory carving, engraving on silver, damascening and polychrome enameling. Another parade sword, which also belonged to Yefremov. its hilt and scabbard faced in silver, is a masterpiece of Caucasian jewellery art.
Quite varied is the collected armour belonging to the period of the late Middle Ages: hauberks, breastplates, armlets, leggings and greaves, shields and sabres, all kinds of halberts and helmets, most of them arms and armour of the Persian type. Used by Caucasian warriors, such weaponry was both imported and made in the Caucasus itself on Persian models, yet differing from the latter in design and ornamentation. The tabar/in (battle-axe) was a weapon favoured by oriental hero-warriors, who liked it for its mighty blow which would crush through any armour and smote an enemy at a single stroke. The collection includes field (abar/ins of damask steel, as well as tabarzins made after old models to serve just as heraldic symbols.
Round shields of different size, adorned with scenes from popular oriental literary works, and also with plant and geometric patterns, along with light sabres curving more steeply towards the tip. were the main weapons of Caucasian and Persian warriors. Among the many pieces of this kind there are weapons made in Iran at different periods, yet all characterized by a single type of design. Their ornamentation, executed in the technique of gold damascening, in addition to plant and geometric patterns contains a great number of inscriptions -examples of the art of calligraphy at its very best.
The collection’s Turkish weapons are dated mainly to the late eighteenth -early nineteenth centuries, including sabres and yataghans, flintlock guns and
Turkish sabres with a broad blade ending in a special broadening out with a cutting edge on both sides, are made of Damask steel of the highest quality, adorned with gold damascened plant ornament and inscriptions. The nineteenth century sabres are very light and richly decorated. Some of the scabbards arc entirely covered with ornamentation and include insets of semiprecious stones, mainly coral, to which Turkish armourers were so partial. Turkish eighteenth-century yataghans are fine examples of artistic decoration: their wavy blades have near the hilt embossed plates with protruding coral insets.
The faceted barrels of Turkish guns, made of weld steel, are covered with damascened gold in an intricate plant design incorporating cartouches enclosing the name of the gunsmith. The large flintlocks of Turkish guns were silver plated, their stocks were inlaid with mother-of-pearl and silver plaques with geometric ornamentation in the shape of stars and crescents. In the nineteenth century Turkish pistols began to display flintlocks of the European type, thus reflecting the growing influence of European technology of the manufacture of weapons in Turkey.
The weapons of Central Asia are represented in the Museum’s collection by sabres and daggers, and eighteenth-nineteenth century matchlock firearms.
Central Asian sabres with their slightly curving blades are distinguished for their moderate ornamentation; Central-Asian armourers were reluctant to interfere with the stern elegance of the blade made of superb damask steel, whose very surface at times presented a graceful ornament of fancifully entwined lines. But the scabbards of the pieces were covered entirely with chased silver plating with gill, and displayed turquoise and ruby insets.
The heavy, wrought-steel barrels of Central Asian guns were fitted right up to modern times with matchlock breeches. They are practically free of decor, with only the name of the maker or owner enclosed in a rather simply ornamented cartouche engraved on the barrel.
The arms and armour collection of the Museum of the History of Azerbaijan includes also some cold steel from South -East Asia and the Far East; worth mentioning among them are Indian and Nepalese sabres, as well as two-pronged Japanese lances and a battle-axe belonging to the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries.
Text: S. Jangirova Photography: G. Guseinzadeh