This rare medieval sword belongs to a group of European swords gifted in the years following the Lusignan-Mamluk treaty of 1414, believed to have been diplomatic gifts from King Janus of Cyprus (r. 1398-1432) to the Mamluk Sultan Malik Mu’ayyad Abu’l-Nasr Shaykh of Alexandria.
The sword has been very finely preserved, largely due to the fact that it spent a considerable proportion of the last six centuries in the arid climates of Egypt and modern-day Turkey.
ORIGIN OF THE SWORD AND THE MAMLUK ARSENAL
This sword and the group gifted in the years following the 1414 treaty belong to a larger group of European swords, all of which were deposited in the Mamluk arsenal in Alexandria at the bequest of the ruling Sultans and Emirs and are believed to have originated from Cyprus. Most of the swords from the larger group bear an Arabic inscription naming the donor and the year of bequest. At least thirteen named bequests from the arsenal are known to have taken place between 1367-8 and 1436-7.
Some of these swords were given in tribute or taken as trophies of war, most notably those deposited after the Mamluk invasion of Cyprus in 1426, whilst others – such as the present example – were given as diplomatic gifts.
The European swords from Mamluk arsenal range in form and design and the present example is considered to be from the most handsome type of the entire group. The blade of this sword was supplied from Northern Italy (probably Milan) with the cross-guard, pommel and original grip possibly added in Cyprus to the local taste before being sent to Alexandria.
THE LUSIGNANS, THE MAMLUKS AND THE TREATY OF 1414
The intention of the Lusignan-Mamluk treaty of 1414 was to restrain Cypriot piracy and general aggression towards Mamluk Egypt after a period of conflict between these two kingdoms.
The Lusignans were a noble Crusader family from Poitou in western France, several of whom became Kings of Jerusalem, Cyprus and Lesser Armenia. Under King Pierre I (Pierre de Lusignan), the Cypriots had invaded the Muslim Mamluk Empire in 1365 in what became known as the Alexandria Crusade. A fleet had set out from Cyprus, victoriously taking and plundering the city of Alexandria and their occupation of the city lasted for days.
The origins of the Mamluk Sultanate are found in the practice of using slave soldiers as a significant component of Muslim armies, which began in the Middle Ages. The term Mamluk itself originates from an Arabic word for slave. In time, the Mamluks became a dominant military power and were able to exert considerable influence over their political masters to the extent of being able to depose, or in some cases murder, Sultans with impunity. The Mamluk generals established a dynasty that ruled Egypt, the Levant and Hejaz from 1250 until the invasion of Egypt by the Ottomans in 1517, which saw the Caliphate regain control over the region. The power of the Mamluks was not entirely broken by the invasion, though, and they remained an important political force throughout the Ottoman occupation of Egypt until the Napoleonic invasion of 1798.
MOVEMENT OF THE SWORD FROM THE MAMLUK ARSENAL
Sometime after the Ottoman invasion of Egypt, the inscribed items from the Alexandria arsenal – if not the entire contents – were removed and probably stored in the St. Irene Arsenal in Istanbul. By the mid-19th century much of St. Irene’s contents were relocated to the newly constructed Maçka Armoury (Grand Depot of Arms) and after the Second World War the remaining pieces of the collection were relocated to a former military gymnasium, which over time was rebuilt into the current military museum Askeri Müze.
The Ottomans sold many items from the Alexandria arsenal collection during the early decades of the 20th century, perhaps most famously to Dr. Bashford Dean, first curator of Arms & Armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, during his six-month acquisition tour of Europe and Turkey in 1919-20. Several of these Arabic inscribed swords also appeared for sale in London circa 1930 with the antiques dealer Hal Furmage, a number of which found their way into famous private collections.
It is thought that as many as 200 inscribed Alexandrian swords and blades of all types have survived, 102 of which remain in the collections of the military museum Askeri Müze in Istanbul (including 64 complete European swords). Around 21 swords conforming to the type of the present example are believed to be in existence, at least ten of which are still in the collection of the Askeri Müze. Of this distinct group, three are held in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Royal Armouries in Leeds. The remainder are privately owned or have been identified through old photographs. Thus, these rare swords are seldom offered for sale. Only four of this type having appeared in the last 45 years, a total which includes the appearance of the present example for sale in 1973 as well as the “Harriet Dean” sword sold at Christie’s, South Kensington, 17 December 2015, lot 335.
A very similar sword to the present example was bequeathed by Bashford Dean in 1928 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and now forms part of the Bashford Dean Memorial Collection (accession no. 29.150.143, on view in Gallery 370).
This sword, like others in the Alexandria group, bears an inscription in Arabic naming the Sultan and detailing the year in which he bequeathed it. The date is written out grammatically and as with other examples from this particular group (including both the Bashford Dean and the Harriet Dean swords) is noted as being erroneously dated as Sultan Malik Mu’ayyad Abu’l-Nasr Shaykh reigned from 815 AH (1412 AD) until 824 AH (1421 AD) and should be corrected to 822 AH (1419 AD) (1).
(1) E. Combe & A.F.C. de Cosson, European Swords with Arabic Inscriptions from the Armoury of Alexandria, Extrait de Bulletin de la Société Royale d’Archéologie d’Alexandrie, No. 31, 1937 and L. Kalus, Donations pieuses d’épées médiévales à l’Arsenal d’Alexandrie, Revue des Etudes Islamiques, Paris, 1982, cat. 58, p. 54.
We would like to thank Clive Thomas for his valuable assistance with this catalogue description.