The Art Of Islam

Simone Fattal

Knights in the Islamic World:

Collection from the Furûssiya Art Foundation

Institut du Monde Arabe

The Al Furûsiyya exhibit took place in the summer and fall of 2007 at Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe. This first-of-its-kind exhibit, from the private collection of the Furûsiyya Art Foundation, focused on an important but often overlooked feature of Islamic art – namely aspects of knighthood, including archery, horsemanship, tournaments and war.

The collection has been meticulously gathered over the years. The exhibit spans a millennium, from the first centuries of the Islamic Empire to the 18th century. The pieces from the latter end of the period refute the claim that chivalry died with the introduction of firearms.

An extraordinary collection of swords are on display, each featuring a different curve, many intricately decorated with inlaid calligraphy of silver or gold. The accompanying sheaths are similarly varied, some simple and others ornate. The masterfully carved arcs of the swords are as artistic as the calligraphy they bear. Calligraphers inscribed verses from the Koran upon each of the blades, typically choosing the surahs known to provide protection. One of these swords was a zhu al fikar – a single blade which divides into two heads, similar to the famous sword that the Prophet Mohammad bore. Tradition holds that the Prophet seized it as his share of the spoils after the crucial battle of Badr and later presented it to Ali following the battle of Uhud, intoning “there is no knight (fata) except Ali and no sword except zhu al fikar.” It is not surprising, therefore, to see that a great number of Arab rulers possessed imitations. 

Visitors to the exhibit marveled at all the necessary accoutrements for the cavalier and his steed: coats of mail, helmets, metal armor for hands or feet, legs, and heads of horses and riders alike. The shields consist mostly of metal, but occasionally one is crafted of straw and fitted with a metal center, usually exquisitely decorated with any variety of colored flowers. Robes that once draped the horses were embroidered with gold and silver thread, helmets sometimes featured long feathers. Brass face shields offered another kind of protection. Despite all of this equipment, the Arab cavalier was much lighter than his European foe, which often accounted for his success in battle. Beneath this armor, the knights wore a simple shirt for spiritual protection, one inscribed with Koranic verses invoking God’s protection and proving the spiritual aspect of the duties the knight had toward his community.

Weapons of this era include maces, heavy mortars, bows and arrows, all in abundance. Quivers, many of them from the time of the Ottoman Empire, were crafted from leather and decorated with flower motifs embroidered with silver thread and made more comfortable with plush velvet linings. Of note is an especially intriguing detail – the handle of one hatchet features the image of a deer sticking out its tongue, perhaps adding insult to injury for any enemy unlucky enough to be on its receiving end. Visitors notice the infinite care that craftsmen took as they manufactured each of these objects, considered necessary for the protection of the community and lending to the magnificence of the ruler.

Over time, the sultan began wearing bejeweled swords and daggers as ornamentation for pleasure rather than defense. Grand robes for the sultan and his horse, as well as flags and banners, were woven from magnificent velvets and silks. One imagines that this costumery might have filled the heart of the enemy with awe, fear and admiration. Documents chronicling the reception of foreign ambassadors, whether in the courts of 10th century Baghdad or the court of the infamous Timur Leng, all record impressive pomp and circumstance.

The range of objects on display illustrates the evolution in the style of these arms and denotes the reigns of the various rulers. Many of the swords are dated, inscribed with the name of their owner, and the viewer can easily imagine them being bestowed upon some faithful servant. A rare broad sword dated 1761 belonged to a master butcher and was signed by Ashraf Isfahânî. Another object, this one on loan from the Louvre, is a metal meat hook from the Mamluk period, silver-plated and inscribed with gold lettering, “Umar, the Butcher.” Were these objects offered in the same way as the robes, as precious gifts to faithful servants or special honorees?

The exhibit also displayed beautiful archers’ rings, jewelry usually worn on the thumb for protection and decorated with precious stones. Gourds, once hung from the sides of horses, were specially crafted for people of high rank. One such gourd, made by Murad III and presented to Emperor Rodolphe II of Hapsburg in 1580, is in the shape of an elaborate crystal animal, inlaid rubies serving as its eyes. Were these gourds, tents and draperies of red silk and velvet the spoils of war seized on a long ago battlefield, hence their presence in a European museum?

While the artifacts on display demonstrate a remarkable consistency in style over the centuries, one can also distinguish regional differences. The Arab style is noticeably more austere than the Mamluk, Ottoman or Mogul styles, in which fragile materials attest to the skill of the artisans who favored working with jade, ivory, and precious stones.

The perfection of these objects and the masterful artistry of their creators leave us nostalgic for a time of extraordinary coherence. Islamic arts and crafts were created on the same design principles evident in other Islamic mediums such as architecture and calligraphy. Seldom have civilizations achieved such a completeness.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vols. 13/14, nos. 58/59 (2007/2008)

Copyright (c) 2007-2008 by Al Jadid

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