This exquisite knife is made in a technique that was only used for a very small number of items, all of which have royal provenance. Dagger and knife hilts are known in a variety of hardstones, using a solid piece which is then engraved and inlaid with gold. A very good example was sold in these Rooms 29 April 2003, lot 85, with gold inlaid into black jade. Turquoise is however not available in that size, particularly turquoise of the rarest and best quality, without flaws, as is used here. The workshop has thus cut the pieces of turquoise so that it is in flat panels. The body of the handle will be of metal, onto which the gold outlines and motifs are worked. The turquoise is set into the interstices, therefore giving the appearance of a solid ground. This technique must be particularly difficult since turquoise is known to be a very temperamental stone, prone to losing its colour if mistreated. To work the metal around the turquoise without either discolouring it, or cracking it with the heat needed to work the gold, must be very difficult indeed.
As a result it is not surprising that there are very few other articles worked in this technique. There are only two other items which, as here, are completely fashioned using this technique, both in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. One is a small waisted cylindrical box (Soliman le Magnifique, no.235), the other a chess set (Topkapi, the Treasury, no.122(6), p.207). In addition to these there are six pieces which contrast large areas of this work with panels of worked gold. These are a mirror and two bookbindings in the Topkapi (Topkapi à Versailles, no,253; Topkapi, the Treasury, no.81; Earthly Beauty, Heavenly Art, no.294), a bottle formerly in the Mausoleum of Hazriti Halil, now in the Turk ve Islam Museum, in Istanbul (Topkapi à Versailles, no.254. The fifth item is the central boss of a shield that was given by an Iranian embassy to Tsar Michael Fedorovitch of Russia in 1644 which is now in the Kremlin (Armoury Chamber of the Russian Tsars, no.33, p.138). The last is a small hemispherical bowl formerly in the collection of Prince Louis, Le Grand Dauphin, the eldest son of King Louis XIV, and now in the Prado, Madrid (Iniguez, no.69, p.108). A penbox in the Topkapi, very possibly of Iranian workmanship, is the only piece that combines this technique with similarly inlaid mother-of-pearl (Topkapi, the Treasury, no.110). A mace in the Kremlin uses this technique for a small domed finial (Armoury Chamber of the Russian Tsars, no.56, p,195).In addition to these there is a small ebony box each of whose sides is inset with panels of this technique, within an ivory frame (Turks, no.391, pp.329 and 453). The box was made as a relic for a hair of the beard of the prophet, indicating that this technique was thought suitable for the most prestigious of all commissions.
A further group of objects, mostly weapons, employ smaller panels, mostly cusped oval form worked in this technique on the surface. These are a pencase and a further bookbinding in the Topkapi (Splendors of the Ottoman Sultans, pp.153 and 69), a dagger and a shield at Rosenborg Castle in Denmark (Hein, nos.881 and 883, pp.194-198), and a sword, and a mace of somewhat cruder workmanship than the others, both in the Kremlin (Armoury Chamber of the Russian Tsars no.39, pp.158-161 and no.51, pp.184-5). There are many other items inset with small rounded turquoises, but they do not employ this technique. With the single exception of the bottle in the Turk ve Islam Museum all the other items have remained in royal collections since the 17th century.
The various publications noted above attribute these works of art some to Turkey, some to Iran, with some published as "Turkey or Iran". Dates vary between "early 16th century" to "late 17th century", but this latter is for the second mace in the Kremlin which is manifestly of poorer workmanship than the others. It was given by Shah Sulayman Safavi to the Tsar in 1697. The other examples in the Kremlin were already given to the Tsar before the mid-17th century, and the two examples in Denmark were given by the Tsar in 1622, so he must have received them earlier. The earliest suggested date is for the chesspieces, since they have been tentatively linked with the record of a jewelled set of chessmen that was captured after the battle of Chaldiran in 1514, but that link is by no means certain. The majority, particularly those attributed to Turkey, are dated to the second half of the 16th century.
If the chess set was the one that was captured at Chaldiran, it was part of a massive booty that not only included all sorts of works of art, but also the craftsmen that made them. Their arrival from Iran is well documented in the Ottoman annals; the records of the Topkapi clearly indicate that a number of the workmen were from Tabriz, who were also among the highest paid of all, reflecting their importance (Rogers and Ward, p.120). It is notable that in 1526, according to a Topkapi payroll, the heads of both the goldsmiths' and the damasceners' guilds are recorded as being headed by Tabrizis (James Allan in Hunt for Paradise, pp.213-214). The influence of the imported Tabrizi workmen can clearly be observed, however it does at times make it hard to determine whether workmanship on a particular item is Ottoman or Safavid. The fact that the majority of surviving pieces in this technique are in the Topkapi reinforces an Ottoman origin, but does not make it certain. The form of the blade on the present knife is however one that is only known in an Ottoman context (see below) confirming thus that the hilt is also from the Ottoman court workshop.
All the other pieces worked in this technique are decorated with scrolling interlaced arabesques that enclose the turquoises. The decoration on our hilt is the only one that includes in the design any figural element, in this case the flying birds, each of which also serves to cover the pin that links the two sides. Birds among foliage are very well attested in Ottoman 16th century art, famously on the massive blue and white tile panels that adorn the Sünnet Odasi in the Topkapi Palace, and also in a series of pen and ink drawings in the Topkapi Library. Particularly close in design and concept are the doublures of the binding on a manuscript in the Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C. Attributed to late 15th or early 16th century Iran, the medallion and spandrels show animals on a ground of scrolling vine all worked in gold on a turquoise ground (Hunt for Paradise, no.6.4, p.159). The birds here, with wings outstretched, flying on a ground of scrolls, are also reminiscent of the silver and gold inlaid birds found on mediaeval bronzes which must have flooded into the Topkapi Palace after the conquests of Egypt and Syria. The pencase made for the Ilkhanid vizier Shams al-Din Muhammad Juwaini, and thus almost certainly of Tabrizi workmanship, is a very good example, the surface covered with flying gold and silver birds (Sotheby's Arts of the Islamic World, London 30 April 2003, lot 68).
A highly unusual feature of this knife is the shape of the blade, with almost dead straight blade, the spine curving down to meet it at the tip. This form is only found on two other knives, each dated to the mid-16th century, one sold in these Rooms and now in the David Collection, Copenhagen (26 April 2005, lot 152), the other a relatively recent acquisition by the British Museum, (inv.no. ME OA 1996 1-17.1, visible on the website). The knives have been made with a very specific purpose in mind, a sharp downwards single cut, onto a flat or near flat surface. In our catalogue entry for the knife now in the David Collection we suggested that it might have been made for a circumcision.
Any royal circumcision in the 16th century was the occasion for a huge amount of celebration and festivity. That of Prince Mehmet, the son of Sultan Murad III, in 1582, lasted fifty days and was "the longest and probably the most expensive and grandiose festival the Ottomans ever held" (erzioglu, p.84). Further hugely impressive formal circumcision ceremonies were held in 1539 when Bayezid and Jahangir, two sons of Sultan Suleyman, were circumcised. The festivities around the 1720 circumcision of four sons of Sultan Ahmad III were recorded in the copiously illustrated surname with miniatures painted by Levni (Esin Atil, Levni and the surname, Istanbul, 2000). The knife that was at the centre of the entire event would have been decorated in the most opulent way possible, to make it suitable.
Turquoise of this quality was also the sole property of the king. This is very clearly illustrated in an entry in the Tuzuk-i Jahangiri. The Emperor Jahangirs ambassador in Iran asked his brother Shah 'Abbas for some good turquoise and some bitumen (mumiya) from the mine in Isfahan. The Shah replied that these two articles were not to be bought [on the open market], but that he would send them for me (Tuzuk-i Jahangiri, p.238). Jahangir comments that the turquoise, when it arrived, was nothing like the quality that had been available in the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524-1576). Gold, too, was rare at this time. The best source of turquoise is to be found near Nishapur in North East Iran. From the earliest sources there is a distinction made of the different qualities of turquoise that were mined there, most of them dividing the mineral into two. Many sources, including Muhammad b. Mansur, refer to these as being from the old and new rock. Tavernier in the 17th century gives the same information (quoted in Pogue, p.19). The new rock was paler, lost its colour far easier, even just through contact with perspiration, and was not expensive. Turquoise from the old rock was much better in colour, was a considerably harder stone having to be cut by diamonds not just steel, and retained its colour far better. Not surprisingly this source was controlled by the shah, as is recorded by Olearius in 1637 (quoted in Pogue, p.19). The Iranian origin of the stone is confirmed by the name that is given to the technique used in this knife, firuzekari, a word of Farsi origin that was used in Ottoman Istanbul (Rogers and Ward, p.44). The name itself derives from a word in Farsi that means "victorious" (Pogue, p.111).
The use of turquoise is very appropriate for such a purpose, and would have been specifically chosen. Turquoise has various properties according to early Arab sources. Muhammad b. Mansur, writing in around 1300, noted that "The turquoise helps its owner to victory over his enemies, protects him against injury, and makes him liked by all men" (quoted by Pogue, p.112). Turquoise was believed to protect against the evil eye, and to fight against infection. Teifascite, a thirteenth century Arab mineralogist noted that "the stone possesses the property of removing from its wearer the danger of being killed" (quoted by Pogue, p.111). What better stone to be put to such a use, a very rare stone with powerful talismanic qualities, that was controlled by the Safavid shah, used in an exquisite knife at the heart of a highly significant ceremony of the Ottoman sultan.
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Diego Angulo Iniguez, Catalogo de las Alhajas del Delfin, Madrid, 1955
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Nurhan Atasoy and Tulay Artan, Splendors of the Ottoman Sultans, Memphis, 1992
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Derin Terzioglu, 'The Imperial Circumcision Festival of 1582: an interpretation', Muqarnas XII, Leiden, 1995
F. Aubaille, Topkapi à Versailles, Trésors de la Cour ottomane, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1999
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