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Matchlocks & miquelets … rifling through history

Dr Tim Stanley, senior curator for the Middle Eastern collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, shed light on the technology, status and ornament of firearms in the Ottoman Empire from the 16th to 18th century, at a lecture held at Yarmouk Cultural Center as part of the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 23rd cultural season.

During his lecture, Dr Stanley talked about a 17th century musket of a standard type, with a “miquelet” flint-based mechanism found in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. While his lecture did not provide a comprehensive overview of ornamentation in firearms, he explained that this was due to the poor understanding of the development and spread of this mechanism. But, he shared that the gun still had much to divulge. He provided contrary views to past beliefs and shared with the audience new discoveries.

Dr Stanley has been responsible for a number of projects at the Victoria and Albert Museum, including the Jameel Gallery, which is the Museum’s main display for the Islamic Middle East. He has curated travelling exhibitions, including Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum and Masterpieces of World Ceramics. He developed the Jameel Prize and has curated or co-curated four editions of the Prize and the accompanying exhibition of work by the finalists. He has published on a range of topics connected to Islamic art and Ottoman culture, from book collecting in the 15th century to the history of Ottoman hand-held guns.

The gun discussed was upgraded with silver mounts in the reign of Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730), and Dr Stanley stated that research has shown how these silver mounts reflect in a very precise way Ahmed III’s policy of modernising the Ottoman army in the aftermath of the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718. The gun is a product of a series of changes that began in the Long War between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans and were still progressing a century later.

He began his lecture sharing that it is certain that the Ottomans used firearms and people like to point to the fall of Constantinople and the conquering of Mehmed II with the help of large guns cast. He shared that one of these guns, The Dardanelles Gun (1464), is today found at Fort Nelson, Plymouth. It was 5.18m long and weighed 16.8 tonnes, firing stone balls up to 0.63m in diameter. It was last fired in 1807 and given to Queen Victoria by Sultan Abdülaziz to mark his State visit in 1867. He shared that these guns are the first famous Ottoman guns because they were so big and impressive.

While it is always said that the technology for these guns came from Central Europe, Hungarians and Germans being drafted into the Ottoman service to produce them, Dr Stanley pointed out that this shouldn’t be looked upon as an Ottoman or Middle East dependence on European technology, but rather a way that shared technology passed around the world. “The dominance of the idea that the Europeans invented everything is not true.”

He stated that the history of cannon was little understood as the history of hand-held guns until Gabor Agostan came out with his book ‘Guns for the Sultan’ which unravels a lot about the history of cannon in the Ottoman empire.

He presented a miniature of an Ottoman poet Hamse of Nev’i-zade Ata’i, the copy dated 1721 is now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. It shows the Ottomans with cannons, mortars and soldiers with handguns at the frontline, in a fight against their Polish enemies. Dr Stanley pointed out the miniatures were an Islamic idea ruled by many conventions, here conventions are broken down and contemporary reality breaks through to show that by the early 18th century, the Ottomans were using all sorts of firearms.

In another painting of Sultan Ahmed I, he is shown with a splendid sword and a beautiful horse with henna and jewelled ornamentation. Dr Stanley pointed out that while the Ottoman upper class wanted to portray themselves as being skilled with the sword and other edged weapons, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t using guns at this stage. In another illustration, the grandfather of the earlier subject is shown with two guards protecting him armed with muskets. The details of the musket shows a match holder and serpentine, a flash pan, and the guard holding a light in his right hand. The idea for this was to prevent any accidental shot and yet be always ready to defend the Sultan in case of danger and repel any attacks.

Dr Stanley then went on to discuss the Ottoman matchlock gun and its possible origins. He showed a modern, western match lock gun and described its features and firing mechanism. He then showed an illustration of an Ottoman match lock gun from 1732 which depicts the serpentine pointing the other way, a possibility in European guns. He shared that after spending time looking at the printed images by Count Marsigli from Bologna, who had spent time in captivity in the Ottoman empire, there is absolutely no connection between the illustration and how an Ottoman gun looked. He shared that a gun from the collection of Count Marsigli in Bologna shows the match holder always protrudes from the interior of the stock and not fixed to the exterior.

The prevalence of this gun can be traced from the Ottoman empire through the Arab lands, across India and back to China. A Chinese publication from 1598, from the Shen Qi Pu of Zhao Shizhen. Although the Chinese had invented types of firearms and went westward to India, the Middle East and Europe, they didn’t make the same advances that were made elsewhere. When the Portuguese arrived in the Far East in 1511, they introduced the match lock gun to Japan and eventually got into the hands of Japanese pirates who attacked the coast of China. The publication was a comparison of different guns as a consultation for the Mings.

He shared that Count Marsigli was convinced that the Christian Europeans had given the Ottomans firearms. He shared that this tradition has been constant in Western writing about firearms. V.J. Parry who wrote the part of the “Barud” article , Encyclopaedia of Islam (1960), wrote that “The arquebus … was taken over in about 1440-1443 during the Hungarian wars” and explained how its use was “much extended” in the reign of Mehmed II. He also noted, “A large share in the transmission of these new arms fell to the peoples of Serbia and Bosnia. Artillerists and arquebusiers were recruited in these countries and still retaining their Christian faith, are known to have been in the service of Mehmmed II.”

Dr Stanley refuted this claim and shared that immediately after the Mamluk-Ottoman war, the Ottomans had started to use new types of firearms at precisely this time. He shared that the upgrades of the muskets and better type of match lock muskets was transmitted from the Mamluk in the 1490s as it is the same type of technology found in the Islamic states and further East, showing progress coming from Asia.

This, he pointed out, goes against other theories about gun usage by the Mamluks. In David Ayalon, Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Kingdom, he puts forth the idea that the Mamluks began to use gunpowder and firearms only after the war of 1485-1491 and their failure to master these weapons led to their fall in 1516-1517. Dr Stanley contests this views and agrees with that of Robert Irwin, who in “Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Sultanate Reconsidered”, shared that the Mamluks had been using hand-held guns since at least the 1340s, the Mamluk sultanate was ahead of the Ottomans in the war of 1485-1491 and Sultan Qaytbay (r. 1468-1498) had an elite corps trained in the use of the arquebus, who “were equipped with camels and sent off to fight the Ottomans … in 1490. It was a remarkably successful campaign… and the following year Bayezid II sued for peace.”

He then discussed the Ottoman “miquelet” lock and its possible origin. This firearm shows a circulation of ideas as it came from Europe to the Ottomans. Count Marsigli’s book shows a gun with a flint mechanism, a group of mechanisms with a snaphaunce. Dr Stanley described its composition and firing mechanism. The name ‘Miquelet’ is a Catalan word meaning ‘little Michael’ used to mean an irregular soldier. As a result of this mechanism being widely used in Spain in the 17th century, it was given the name Miquelet.

He highlighted an Ottoman source of 1640 that describes the guns coming from Hungary, highlighting many mentions of this in the text. He revealed the firearms’ rise in status in relation to coinage, feats of archery and marksmanship and surprising links to calligraphy.

He ended his lecture by describing a gun with a miquelet lock, the wooden stock with ivory, mother of pearl, copper alloy and engraved silver; the rifled barrel of watered steel overlaid in gold from the Ottoman Empire made in the 17th century found in the Victoria and Albert Museum today. Dr Stanley shared that the silver mounts are dated to 1703-1730 and were added to distinguish it and raise its status.

He described the gun’s ornamentation, the miquelet lock with damascening in gold, the butt of the stock is ivory, and a band of crudely engraved brass is found between two bands of mother of pearl. The stock is inlaid with mosaic, and there are fine mounts of engraved silver stamped with the tuğra of Sultan Ahmed III. The rifled barrel of watered steel overlaid in gold with a couplet in Ottoman Turkish and the barrel bears the signature of the maker, Ahmed.

By Cinatra Fernandes – Arab Times Staff

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