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Lee 10th June 2009 02:56 PM

Help requested on Islamic? inscriptions on a heavy axe
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The pictures below are of inscriptions on each side of a fairly heavy axe blade. I would appreciate any translation and also your impressions on where and when the axe may have originated. I liked the axe when I first saw it and I bought it. Later, I began to think I had made a mistake and I relegated it to decorator status (meaning I still liked it even if I had made a mistake). Just recently I saw a very similar example in a museum case, which has tended to reaffirm my first impression. :)

I will, in due course, show the whole blade and promise to share pictures of the one in the museum. But for now, I'd prefer not to prejudice you.

Dom 11th June 2009 04:49 PM

Originally Posted by Lee
I will, in due course, show the whole blade and promise to share pictures of the one in the museum. But for now, I'd prefer not to prejudice you.

1st pic;The Shahada, the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of God and acceptance of Muhammad as his prophet
"Lā ilaha illal-Lāh, Muhammadun rasūlula-Lāh"
either “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God"

2nd pic; "Al Fath" (The Victory) surate 48 verse 1
either; Verily We have granted thee a manifest Victory:

you get it :p

à +

Dom (temporary from Laurel - MA - USA)

Rick 11th June 2009 07:42 PM

Welcome to my home state Dom !
We have very nice beaches on Cape Cod . :)


Lee 11th June 2009 08:54 PM

Phase 2, zooming back
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My thanks, Dom, for your help with understanding the inscriptions. Does the style of the calligraphy give any suggestion of origin?

Below are the promised pictures of both faces of the axe. I apologize for leaving a scale out of the photographs, from the hammer head to the center edge measures 23.5 cm and from horn to horn in a straight line is 24 cm. The overall mass is 2.6 kg, including a plain wooden haft. The blade of the axe is surprisingly dull and about 1.5 mm thick. Also, I get the impression that the decoration was applied after and around the gash on the socket in the top picture and was similarly applied over a scraped depressed area on the blade face in the bottom picture.

Over the socket there is a representation of a live bird which appears to be standing over a dead bird. Do you know what this references?

I have e-mailed the department in the museum where I saw a very similar axe requesting any further information they can provide about the provenance of their example and I am awaiting their reply...

In the meantime, does anyone want to stick their neck out (no, not over the block) and propose an attribution before I share my museum observations?

Dom 11th June 2009 09:40 PM

the calligraphy don't give any information,

as far as is purely religious mentions,
it's obligatory in Arabic language,
even if the country of origin is not arabic speakers, e.i.; Persia, India

due to what is mentionned on above
no ideas from where it's could come from :shrug:

without to take a big risk (I'm ready to put one nail on the block under the blade)
it's Indo-Persian :p
even more Indo than Persan ;)

now I leave the place to my collegues, who could have their appreciations :D

Lee 13th June 2009 12:33 AM

Need to collect a few more nail trimmings
Dom, I appreciate your courage in stepping forward! Your conclusion of "Indo-Persian, even more Indo than Persian" is exactly what I had come to think about this axe, and like you, I was not really very comfortable with that attribution.

In due course I had consigned it in my mind as "eccentric Indian Raj-era souvenir." Of course, the considerable weight would be the opposite of what one would expect from this attribution and the decoration might also be a bit too restrained. And, of course, the very plain wooden handle would also not fit this scenario. Dull would be consistent, however.

I had also wondered about it being made as an executioner's axe - the mass would be good for that - but then dull becomes a big problem. And, of course, with the help of your translations, such a purpose would appear to be inconsistent with the inscriptions.

Needless to say, I suppose, is that the museum's attribution for their very similar axe is "none of those above." I am still waiting to hear back from them as to any information they might have on the provenance of their example and I will use that as an excuse to see if any other forum members develop the courage to put a fingernail forth...

RSWORD 13th June 2009 04:24 AM

I will "stick my neck" out and say that it is most probably Persian and you might want to have a close look to see if the steel is wootz. The bird imagery looked familiar to me and I was looking through "Persian Steel, The Tanavoli Collection" by James Allen and Brian Gilmour and ran across very similar imagery on a chiseled scabbard mount. On p. 222, they state "The image of a bird of prey attacking a water bird is found on 18th century Iranian saddle-axes. A.S. Melikian-Chirvani suggests that the depiction is of a hawk attacking a heron, and that it is an allegory of royal triumph." I don't know if this particular imagery carried over into India but I have also seen the bird of prey attacking a water bird chiseled at the forte of some khanjar which typically are Persian.

Lee 14th June 2009 03:45 PM

Thanks for your courage in extending your neck, Rsword, and for the insight into the images of the birds. Unfortunately, I have been relying on a friend's copy of Persian Steel, so I will suffer a delay before I can follow-up on that, though your suggestion did lead me to find a hawk attacking a heron on a saddle axe in figure 335 / plate 354 of Arms and Armor from Iran with some discussion on this theme on pp 265-266.

I do not see any trace that the steel is wootz.

Jeff Pringle 14th June 2009 07:02 PM

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I agree with RSword on the origin, the style of the carving and the way the chisels were used look very Persian to me – except for the ancillary scrollwork coming off the main cartouche, which has a strong European(?) influence.
Here is a Safavid piece with similar composition & technique, an illustration from the V & A’s “Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World. 8-18th centuries”

Lee 14th June 2009 09:08 PM

Hmmm... Islamic with a touch of European influence
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Thanks, Jeff. Below is a snapshot of the example in the museum's case. The inscription is different, but it also shares a lot with the inscription in the upper view in the pictures above. The brass inlay and overall design are most similar, including the 'ancillary scrollwork.' Also, a hawk and heron may be discerned over the socket. Both axes are similarly quite dull. I like the more robust cap over the end of the haft on theirs and the expanding geometry of the hammer-head better on the museum's example.

I promise a wider view of the museum display and their attribution soon...

Jeff Pringle 15th June 2009 07:33 AM

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Looks like you are keeping your axe in better shape than the museum, Lee! ;)
The question mark behind the European is because the first thing I free-associated with the scroll work on the axe was the engraving on an antique British shotgun I recently saw; but then I remembered Belgian and German examples as well; it was (and still is) a popular way to style engraved gun embellishments in Britain, Europe and America. I’ve noticed a few Indian scrolls that are decorated similarly, but the Indian scrolls are usually rendered more naturalistically, they look more ‘plant-like.’
Here is a good example of the variable line weight & other elements that make a scroll look Persian in my eyes:

Lee 15th June 2009 01:43 PM

Would you believe Ottoman?
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Hi Jeff, thanks for the additional insight into the scrollwork.

Seeing the axes 'live' gives much more of an impression that both axe heads are in very much the same state of preservation and condition and that they likely have shared a common history. I photographed the one I have under natural light on an ideal overcast day and the example in the museum was an oblique flash snapshot through glass that underwent quite a bit more fotofibbing in order to bring up the details. The nature and condition of the wooden hafts is also remarkably similar, except that the museum's example is much straighter, if I recall correctly.

The axe is in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on the 3rd floor Middle-East gallery, being held by an armoured figure, as shown below:

Lee 15th June 2009 01:58 PM

Yes, Ottoman.
The labeling attributes the figure and components as 'Ottoman 15th - 16th century'.

The accession number for the axe is 924.55.44; if I interpret the pattern correctly this implies it was acquired in 1924. Unfortunately, in my excitement, I did not record the numbers of the other parts of this presumably composite assemblage. There was a mark on the chest armour which, I believe, was that associated with the old Ottoman arsenal at St. Irene in Istanbul...

Jeff Pringle 16th June 2009 08:19 AM

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Of course, how could I have forgotten Constantinople? In the 1500s, the Ottomans were bumping up against both Europe and Persia in a big way. That axe wears its age well, you must be pleased to have found it already on your wall! :cool:
Here is a photo of a Persian axe from the 1700s, the carving has a similar composition & gestural quality but is executed (sorry :o ) with a bit more care…photo from James Allan’s “Persian Steel: Masterpieces of Iranian Art” (ISBN 1850437181), the pictorial volume of the Tanavoli collection.

Lee 16th June 2009 01:24 PM

Perhaps I am intoxicated with wishful thinking, but...
To recap, my first impression when I saw the axe in the Royal Ontario Museum was pretty much "What?!? ... Really???" because I too had not even thought of an Ottoman origin, let alone any dating before the 19th century, this latter restriction having been based more upon condition than anything else.

Then very quickly I recalled an early Ottoman matchlock rifle barrel (collected for a bold Damascus pattern) and I realized that there was very similar wire inlay of about the same width and color decorating the muzzle (this is not specific, I have seen Moro pieces with similar inlay too).

Then, I had what many here may regard as a crazy thought, which I have not yet succeeded in confirming or discrediting. I have been reeling this out slowly hoping someone else would replicate this thinking, but if this happened I have not heard about it.

Question: Where else had I encountered something in a 19th century militaria-like condition that was actually centuries earlier?
Answer: European medieval swords that had been in the Alexandria arsenal and later moved to the Ottoman armory at St. Irene in Istanbul, many of which were cleaned up and given new local-style rough wooden handle scales in order to be mounted on large panoplies in fashion at that time (the late 19th century), of which some ultimately showed up in the antiques market when the Republic of Turkey needed to raise some hard currency in the 1920s.

Question: Explain why two very similarly decorated axes have very plain handles that show some decent age, but not nearly enough to match the museum's dating.
Suspicion: The handles are exactly what they seem - not original - and were installed in the late 19th century in order to display the axes. Indeed the grain of the wood on a St. Irene medieval sword grip scale shows quite a similarity with the grain of the axe handle. A number of pictures of these displays at St. Irene have survived and I have gone through several that have been published, and I did not recognize any battleaxes of this style. Where axes were hung, they did have hafts. Also, many swords known to have been in the displays are not in the available pictures.

Speculation: The ROM had the foresight to acquire four of the European medieval swords coming out of St. Irene from a London dealer in 1930 and the chest armour displayed with the axe bears what I believe is the St. Irene arsenal mark. So we know that the ROM was acquiring things originating from St. Irene at the time. The accession number of the ROM's axe suggests acquisition in 1924. A dealer named Robinson in London was selling these not only to museums but to private collectors. For the little that this detail is worth, I bought my axe in London.

Ongoing Investigation: Manolo has kindly consented to note the accession numbers of the chest piece, helmet, etc. when he next visits the museum and I still hope to receive a reply from my inquiry to the museum concerning the provenance of their axe.

Emanuel 20th June 2009 12:46 AM

As promised...
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Here are the accession numbers for the "Ottoman" suit of armour. It appears that the armour was acquired in 1913. The axe could in this case not fit the suit of armour and not date from the same period.

I will post the other pictures I took in the Royal Ontario Museum thread.

Best regards,

Lee 14th August 2014 08:34 PM

Another axehead of this group has come to light!
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Another axehead from this group has come to light!

I remember also that Emanuel had followed up and sent me further information from the Royal Ontario Museum, but I just have not yet been able to find it in my archives...

Lee 14th August 2014 08:37 PM

More images and a side by side comparison
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More images and a side by side comparison

Emanuel 2nd September 2014 04:14 PM

Hi Lee,

Here is what the curator of that gallery had provided:

...this gallery and the labels in it were the responsibility of a curator who has now retired, and I cannot really vouch for them. The objects acquired in 1906, 1913 and 1924 were acquired from a dealer, the same dealer, in fact, and he supplied no verifiable provenance information about the objects.

The shirt and leggings of mail are from a completely unrelated armour, some centuries later than the plates, while the back-plate is from a different armour from the other plates. The plates are certainly of a type well known from the Ottoman period of around the 16th century, and these pieces have the mark of the armoury in Istanbul, so they are quite secure.

I have never researched the axe, but I was under the impression that this type was from Mamluk Egypt, where a number of these two-handed battle-axes are known. It is not a normal weapon for the predominantly cavalry-based fighting of the Middle East. I have never seen anything really like this from India, even things vaguely like it are much lighter.

I can send you the curator's contact information if you'd like to pursue further discussion with him.

Best regards,

Ibrahiim al Balooshi 3rd September 2014 09:17 AM

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For interest ~ I was searching Jewish Sufi and wandering dervish of Iran details and came up with a peculiar fact...that this type of axe which I presume may also be of the Qajari style ...was present in Persia in /up to the 1920s. Please see They can be seen in the back up documentation with several types of axe both single and double blades and saddle axes etc...I extracted a sketch from another source at below.

Ibrahiim al Balooshi.

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