The development of medieval art in Azerbaijan terminates in the 18th century, or, more precisely, in the first half of the 19th century when in 1828, in keeping with the Turkmenchay agreement signed with Iran, the northern areas of the country became part of Russia (1, p. 254). This period was not favourable for arts in general, and for jewellery-making in particular. Intensified feudal division and decentralization of power were aggravated by tensions in military and political situation. Fierce rivalry between Iran and Turkey, resulting in continuous clashes on the territory of Azerbaijan, as well as Russia military campaigns made complicated by ceaseless feuds among numerous small khanates, undermined the country’s economy, contributing to the decline of cities and urban life.
Yet, this complex historical period of political and cultural crisis was not without some developmental trends. Many traditional crafts never lost their former significance. Moreover, they continued to evolve. Slowly, but new sprouts were about to come through, especially in the second half of the 18th c.
In the natural economy environment, cottage industry played an important role in the economic life of Azerbaijan. Towns and villages had many workshops that manufactured tools, implements, arms, textiles, leather goods, household items, and jewellery.
Unfortunately, our museum collections do not have sufficient number of jewellery items dating to the 18th century, which poses a constraint to studying the art of jewellers of that period. Miniature painting that was in decline by that time, the absence of other kinds of fine art, except for murals represented primarily by battle scenes and ornamental decoration (the palace of Sheki khans, the Shekihanovs’ house, the Yerevan palace of Serdar, etc.) do not bring any clarity to the study of late feudalism jewellery either. However, the khanates had jewellery workshops that minted coins, decorated arms and manufactured metal-ware with artistic design (2, pp. 361-362). These workshops existed in Baku, Shirvan, and Khudat Khanates (3, p. 16).
Arms manufacturing was one of the common types of crafts in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani jewellers and gunsmiths create wonderful specimens of true art, distinct in their perfect technical workmanship and beauty of ornamental designs. “Dress” weapons – pistols, sheaths and hilts of daggers and swords were made of silver and gold-plate, with insets of ivory and gold.
Arms, especially daggers, were made in many towns and villages of Azerbaijan. However, Kubachi remained the largest centre of arms-making craft. Demand for Azerbaijani weapons was high. H. Fran wrote about Kubachi masters: “For articles of iron and steel they have the skill and taste, in which they are far superior to any other Caucasian nation. Armour, weapons, sabres and other weapons wrought by them are still considered superb in those countries and in Persia. They also excel in making gold and silver items” (4, pp. 54-55). In the second half of 19th century the entire Guard squadrons and detachments of the Russian army were equipped with Kubachi arms. In the Shirvan Khanate the centre for this industry was Lagich village. Gunsmiths from Lagich wrought daggers, cavalry swords and flintlock rifles (2, p. 361).
Items manufactured by Shirvan gunsmiths were in great demand. For instance, in the Azerbaijani collection of metal items kept in the museums of Budapest, the majority are the 18th-19th century sabres and daggers. Dating to this period are also some cold steel kept in Switzerland. Daggers, sabres, pistols and gunpowder-flasks were produced in Shemakha Geokchay, Gyanj, Sheki, Baku, Tabriz and Ardebil. A collection of Azerbaijani arms decorating the exposition of the Berne Historical Museum is associated with the Shirvan masters (5, pp. 112-113). According to some sources, artistic and technical quality of arms produced in Shirvan during that time was much higher compared to similar items manufactured not only in neighbouring cities, but also in the neighbouring countries. In the first half of the 19th century Russian officials proposed to introduce the practice of Shirvan masters at the Izhevsk weapons factory. Historical chronicles show that during the period in question, Armenia, Georgia, Dagestan, Iran and Turkey had a requirement for Azerbaijani arms, which were in big demand in overseas markets. Perhaps, this is how arms manufactured by Azerbaijani masters ended up in the museums of Western Europe, including Bern, having enriched the assets of the historical museum.
Sheaths for daggers and sabres were made of two wooden planks, exactly the size of the blade. Then these planks were upholstered in treated and dyed donkey or goat leather. Hilt was made of buffalo horn, and for ceremonial occasions – of a walrus task or ivory. When putting the sheath together, the master had to fix in the right places all appropriate metal parts and ornaments made by himself or by another master.
The richer the Azerbaijani man, the more resplendent were his arms and belt. The most expensive and dressy arms and belts were made to special order. Poorer people used more humbly decorated arms, without silver casing, gilding and other trimming. And ordinary Azerbaijani man chose his dagger primarily by the quality of blade. No self-respecting man would leave his house without a dagger.
Decorated using many artistic and technological jewellery-making techniques, Azerbaijani arms present a valuable source that gives a clear idea of the situation in the art of ornamentation. Weapons were decorated with a notch on bone, metal and horn, with deep engraving and blackening on silver.
The decoration of arms displayed in the museum shows not only vegetable, geometric, and zoomorphic designs, but also subject compositions. The items are characterized by compositional segmentation and a natural fitting of a complex ornament into the shape of the object. One could observe a clear tendency to completely cover the surface with designs.
It should be noted that arms decor often featured names and proverbs in Arabic ligature. Skilful hand of a master cleverly inscribed the characters amidst the designs and drawings, intertwining letters with rhythmic twists of ornamental lines, turning them into an integral part of the composition. Apart from being an aesthetic element, these inscriptions provided information. For example, a silver gunpowder-flask wrought in the technique of chasing and niello, retained information about the master who made it: “Shamahyly Seyidzade (Inv. No.832). A pistol decorated with niello and silver plates (Inv. No.766) has the inscription “emeli Ali” (made by Ali). A small dagger with ivory-decorated hilt and a vegetable design all over the blade preserved the inscription “emeli Mohammed Ardebili”. A half-meter long dagger with a curved tip preserved the names of its maker and owner. On the blade nearer the hilt, inscribed in ornamental medallions are the words “emeli Mohammed” and “Sahibi Gasym khan” (Inv. No.1277) (5, pp. 113-114).
Among the arms exhibited in the Bern Historical Museum one can find specimens with inscriptions “Baky”, “Guba”, “emeli Samed”, “Omar”, etc. Often, next to the names of people and cities, the arms feature the names of famous German, French, and Hungarian aristocrats written in Latin. It is clear that these inscriptions were made much later by European jewellers at the request of the owners.
Daggers wrought by Kubachi goldsmiths stood out for their beauty, d?cor complexity and variety of ornamentation techniques. The collection of the History Museum of Azerbaijan displays daggers with sheaths decorated with several materials: carved bone with gold-plate, carved silver with engraving, chasing, and niello. As specimens of complex and combination techniques, these items are the true masterpieces of decorative art. A typical example of Azerbaijani 18th c. sabre is kept under the inventory number 392 FNI. The sabre’s slightly curved blade is decorated with gold inlay with a vegetable pattern that consists of flowering rosettes, buds, palmettos and half-palmettos surrounded by waving shoots, leaves and tendrils with curls, which, in the lively rhythm, weave around crescent moon images. Engraving technique was used to produce a complex ligature of several lines, immaculately inscribed into the shape of two small medallions. Paleographer M. Neymatova decoded the content of the inscriptions as follows: “Belongs to Nasiraddin” (the first medallion) and “The work of master Misra” and the date – “1788″ (the second medallion). Of particular interest is a magical sign in the form of a square grid with Arabic numbers in each of the four sectors of the square, the content of which cannot be read (6, p. 14).
Azerbaijani firearms manufactured during this period were also distinct in their richness and ornamentation variety: barrels featured gold inlay; flint locks were engraved and inlaid, the gunstock, straight and narrow, was made of sycamore and walnut wood and inlaid with ivory, silver or different wood. Towards the end of 19th century, this array was complemented by the mother of pearl inlay (sadaf).
The decoration of flint-guns from the History Museum of Azerbaijan is mostly concentrated on the laid-on plates connecting the breech with the gunstock and “tying up” the barrel and gunstock along the entire length, as well as on wooden gunstock and butt. Laid-on rings are made of steel with a gold notch and floral design. The Caucasian butt often had an ivory element at the “heel”. Overall, the traditions of firearms decoration in Azerbaijan show good sense of form and ability to apply ornamental designs to the functional parts of rifles and pistols. Unlike Turkish and Iranian firearms, those of Azerbaijan has more reserved decoration, which usually appears on larger surfaces that allow creating wholesome and complete compositions.
Highly artful Azerbaijani arms constitute a unique page in the material culture and decorative/applied art of Azerbaijani people, which reflects the overall level of the country’s artistic culture.
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Sevil Sadykhova (Azerbaijan)