Under Auroral standards

Issue #3-4 • 1076

(to history of standards of Amir Temur and the Temurids)

Oriental miniature painting forms a perfect source for study of medieval material culture, including flags. The signs, symbols, blazons and emblems on banners laconically narrate fascinating history of the country. Flags are original codes, which humanity has left in a form of signs telling about the life, destiny of peoples and outstanding events, the key to which has been lost irrevocably in many cases. From their birth in the 3nd – 2rd millennia B.C. and till now, they play a significant role in the social life, especially in periods of wars. Having arisen as clan and tribal insignia, flags became attributes of power and honour of ancient kings and warriors, knights and commanders. In the course of time, they turned into a major instrument of visual communication in battles and on merchants’ ships. They were used to give signals, to distinguish friends from enemies and to identify a status and title of their owners. In the contemporary world, a flag is a symbol of state independence and reflects national features of the country and milestones of its history.

In Central Asia, the birth of flags relates to far antiquity. Standards are often mentioned in many medieval literary and graphic monuments. In the famous epos by Firdowsi “Shah-name”, under the standard from own apron, smith Qava spirited the people into rebellion against the tyrant Zohhak. Ancient heroes fought under banners of great shahs… At Alisher Navoi, brigades of Iskandar fought with Darius “under auroral standards”. The pictures of different standards are exposed in scenes of battles and sieges on ancient art pieces, for example, on so-called Anikov’s silver dish of the 7th – 8th centuries from Khorezm (Hermitage). The standards in the hands of standard-bearers in the scene of siege have a short staff. Their panels have different textures. Probably, they are made from leather with metal scales sewed on. Horsetails informing on war exploits were attached at the central panel, while a magnificent horsetail on a spear served an individual distinction.

In the course of time, a role of standards as distinctions was growing, especially in the Mongolian period. Standards became obligatory elements at mobilization of troops, in battles and oath taking. They marked general headquarters at halts and so forth. Mongolian standards of the 12th – 13th centuries have another form and texture. They are small and rectangular, on a long staff with a peak top. The central panel is applied with triangular tails made from a fabric of different colour.

The miniatures of the Temurid epoch give the evidence for a rich variety of standards.
We know that Amir Temur domesticated many Mongolian elements, modifying and improving them. In his army, standards played very important role in command, serving as a main mean of visual communication during a battle. Each brigade and corps had own distinctions – standards – alim and horsetails – tug. Advance guard, rearguard, the center and both flanks were marked by standards with pictures of astrological signs or tribal blazons – nishans. In battles, the standard of the commander-in-chief (alim) was a major orienting point and was installed at the headquarters on the hill. It was well seen from all around and served for command signaling. Thanks to movement of standards on the field of the battle, the commander-in-chief and commanders could follow the maneuvers of troops. Standard-bearers gave signals to attack or maneuvers. Each brigade had own colour of standards, each colour had own meaning. The army of Temur worked out a special language of coloured standards. The white standard, lifted highly, meant the victory or arrival of the help (1, p. 51). The standard of the commander, lifted highly, meant that he was in danger. To throw a standard meant defeat and capitulation. Capture of a a standard of enemy’s commander and its throwing was a sign of full victory (the Temurid miniatures frequently expose standards of defeated armies thrown on the ground with the broken staff). Shah’s standards (flags with vertical panels and his emblem) were hung on walls of conquered cities and fortresses. If some commander (emir) died, his standard was carried in front of the coffin and put in his tomb together with the weapon. The standard was a symbol of the supreme power. So, Amir Temur received the drum and stnadard from sheikh Bereke as a recognition of his power.

Banners and horsetails were given to emirs and commanders for their personal bravery. According to “Law” of Amir Temur, emir, besides lands, received a horsetail to his standard as a promotion, and his status was defined by a number of horsetails. Besides that, the commander-in-chief had two honourable signs – tuman-tug and cher-tug, representing a sort of standards, which staffs had tops with hung figurines, indicating a rank of its owner. Mingbashi also received the standard. Amir Temur widely used language of standards in his war tactics. For example, Ghiyassaddin Ali informed that in the battle at the Terek with Tokhtamish, the standard-bearer of the latter was bribed by Temur and threw the standard, what became a false signal to Tatar troops and so induced their defeat. Once Temur “handed his standard to Shahrisabz’s army” and misled Emir Hyzr, against whom he warred (1398). This maneuver helped him to win (1, p. 29). Once, “to frighten the enemy, Amir Temur ordered to put about a rumour that the Mongols had come and to expose the Mongolian standard. Malik-Bahadur’s warriors saw the Mongolian standard and flied in terror” (1, p. 56).

According to miniatures from Shiraz, Tabriz and Herat of the 14th – 15th centuries, at the Temurid time, the standards had various forms and texture. The standard of emir and commander-in-chief had a high staff, top – mahcha and rectangular or triangular panel, which was fixed vertically. Mahcha were figured or simple spear-shaped. In Shiraz of the 15th century, mahcha had a form of an open palm, which Shiites interpreted as a symbol of “five great persons” (Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husan). In Samarkand or Herat, it had a form of ornamented open or closed bud, or was made as a calligraphic inscription “Allah”. Mahcha was made of brass, gilt copper or tin. Sometimes, it was supplied with a horsetail – kutas – a sign on bravery and gallantry. For special merits, emir or some brave warrior could have several horsetails or panels on the standard. Emblems on standards bore the certain information. Attribution of standards is beside purposes of our article, as this problem requires special research. In this article, we shall confine to their general description.

The standards of Amir Temur has not been kept, but some information could found in written sources of that time. According to Clavijo, “blazon of Tamurbeg is three circles.., which mean that he is a king of three parts of the world.” (2, p. 301). According to some other versions, three rings with piles mean: “Sahibkiran – Master of Happy Constellations” (XX, p. 119); the stylized bull head only with eyes and a mouth or the Mongolian magic sign, meaning good luck. E. Rtveladze thinks that Hulaguid tamga of Argun-khan became a sample for Amir Temur’s blazon – he wanted to emphasize his ties with the Cninggisids. Probably, semantics of the blazon has multifunctional content (3, p. 63). Unfortunately, the standards on the miniatures, we have revealed, do not expose such blazon, unlike the coins of that time. Probably, it was the late blazon, when Temur had already achieved great successes. Besides that, Clavijo visited him just before his death. It is possible, that Temur and his successors used “the blazon of Samarkand Seigneur” – the lion on a background of the sun (2, p. 301).

The standard with such blazon is exposed on the double miniature with the scene “Hunting in mountains” from the manuscript of Djami, “Gold Chain”. The miniature exposes the standard on the high red staff. It is white and triangular. Its field is divided into two parts. In the center of the wide white part, there is a gold circle with the lion on a background of the sun with gold beams, similar to the picture on Sher-dor medreseh’s portal in Samarkand. The narrow part is gold with equal vertical rows of dark blue doable zigzags. Figured mahcha is crowned with a pike and magnificent horsetail. The white-blue standard, fluttering in the wind, look very beautiful. In cosmogony, the lion is a symbol of the Sun or its attribute, in the nature – the lion represents a tsar of animals, metaphorically – the king among powerful lords (4, p. 19). In Islam, it lost frightful features and, turning into an emblem (4, p. 21). In combination with the sun behind the back (shiru-hurshid) it became “allegory of terrestrial and heaven authority, protection and power” (5, p. 143). According to M. Masson, this combination was nishan of the Turkic-Mongolian governors, which the Temurids inherited (6, p. 121).

Another picture of this emblem on the standard is exposed in the battle scene on the miniature from Tebriz manuscript of Shah-name (1370 – 1380) from the collection of Topkapi. We have some information about the other standards of Temur. It is known, that in 1392, before the Iranian campaign, he had a black standard with a silver dragon, but later, planning the campaign to China, he ordered to change the silver dragon by the gold one to demonstrate the will to victory and legality of claims to China. However, we have not revealed such combination on the miniatures, though in the period of Shahruh and Baysonqur, the pictures of dragons on standards were frequent.

One of the most beautiful standards is represented on the Herat miniature “The battle of Iskandar with Darius” from “Khamsa” by Nizami (London). The standard is sewed from different fabrics, has richly ornamented mahcha and red horsetail. The panel is rectangular. Three sides of its central field within a bright green ornamental frame is surrounded by the wide border from dark blue brocaded fabric with embroidered floral ornament. The upper and lower edges are decorated with small triangular tags-tails with woven gold rosettes on a dark blue background. Such standard could belong to some person in high position.

Miniature “The battle of Temuchin with Emir Qatai” from the Shiraz manuscript (1398) exposes standards with gold embroidery on the monochromic background, representing magnificent phoenixes (on the right standard) and a dragon (on the left standard). Judging from pictures, regimental standards were sewed from thick and, at the same time, light fabrics, probably, from a thin velvet or silk, which, fluttering in the wind, produced characteristic sounds.

Sometimes, the high staff entwined by bands and with gilt or bronze top, could have a panel sewed from two or three pieces of different colours. Splendid is the standard in the miniature “Ali assaulting the fortress” (Herat manuscript “Qulliyat-i Tarihi” by Hafiz Abru, 818 – 819H/1415-1416 from Topkapi library, Istanbul). It has a bright red field, embroidered with gold and having the sun in the center. The coiling dragon, embroidered with gold, silver, dark blue and green threads, decorates the triangular panel from the red fabric of another texture. Pictures of such flags are more characteristic for Herat miniatures of the first third of the 15th century or for miniatures from Teheran manuscript of “Shah-name” (833/1430, made for Baysonqur), where brightly embroidered standards expose dragons, phoenixes or some other fantastic creatures on a bright red or white and blue background. Probably, fantastic birds and dragons had symbolical meaning. They might play a role of protection or were used as a deterrent. Equally, they might indicate to corps.

The other emblems on standards were lions, archangel and the sign, similar to ancient astrological sign marking the constellation of stars. Besides big regimental standards, in the miniatures there are pictures of small triangular flags of different colors. Probably, they were distinctive signs of small groups (hundreds). A group of ten lashkars had a mark in a form of a coloured band on a top of a spear. From the second half of the 15th century, decoration of helmets with small bannerettes came into practice. They also designated different groups of warriors.

In periods of peace, standards were carried in special covers, which were put so that mahcha and horsetail remained visible or a panel was rolled around a staff and fixed with a band at the lower part. Standards of another Temurid – Babur look very unusual. They are massive, on short thick staffs, with magnificent white horsetails from several tails joined together, and various tops – mahcha (some of them remind long necks of fantastic birds and animals). Long panels of yellow, red, blue, pistachio and other colors are packed in long covers reaching a base of a staff.

In the work on the art of war, Chinese commander U-Tzi noted that “drums and gongs frighten ears, and flags, banners and standards frighten eyes”. The troops in alignment, ready for fighting under standards fluttering in the wind represented affecting and frightening spectacle.

Author: Zuhra Rakhimova

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