EAA Research Consultant
Join Date: Dec 2004
Location: Route 66
Its great to have you posting on this! and your work on these sa'if has been one of my best resources for research. It has been a long time ago, but represents some of the best research compiled on these swords to date outside the standard references, i.e. Elgood and Buttin.
I agree that this example with stout, short blade of hanger/cutlass type blade would suggest maritime use as you have well pointed out. The hilt form is really interesting and seems to derive, or at least compare to quillon arrangements and in degree, hilt styles of North Italy as early as the end of the 16th century. The earliest example of this style hilt seems to be found in a sword of stated North African style from the period of Murid III (1574-95), well placing it in the Ottoman sphere ("The Silver Dragon and the Golden Fish", David Alexander, p.235, fig. 7).
As appears in Buttin ("Catalogue de la Collection d'Armes: Europiennes et Orientales of Charles Buttin", 1933, #1004) the exact hilt style and motif is seen as well as apparantly in ivory, shown as 'Arab, 17th century". The interesting highly stylized and blockish quillon terminals are also present.
It appears that this hilt style must have become highly favored and like many ethnographic hilt forms, perpetuated over long periods. Even in cases where other hilt forms intercede, often revivalist inclinations result in returning to the much revered old styles. This makes it difficult of course in establishing reliable chronological development patterns in many of these sword forms.
The term nim'sha, as has often been pointed out, by its alluded etymology to an Arabic term referring to 'short sword', has often, actually most typically, been misapplied to most of these sa'if from the Maghrebi versions to many of these hilt forms which have full size blades, yet still called 'nimsha'. It seems that the term itself, like many of the terms referring to many sword forms (katar, kaskara, kilij, tulwar, paluouar et al) falls into the colloquial 'collectors' glossary, in which they have apparantly been derived from unclear misinterpretations or broad assumptions. Some of these seem purely contrived, such as with the fanciful term 'scimitar' which appears more the product of literary convention than any reliable etymology.
Returning to this sword, the reference to it being of Zanzibar production brings it in parallel to the familiar sa'ifs of similar hilt form, but with the extended 'D' type ring projecting from the crossguard, presents an interesting conundrum. I have yet been unable to find any reference that unequivocally designates these sa'if with open ringed crossguard extensions or traverse bar to Zanzibar. I have only heard this conjecturally aside from in "Islamic Weapons:Maghreb to Moghul" (A. Tirri, 2003) in which Tirri claims on p.79, "...in Zanzibar, documentary evidence identifies an extensive edged weapon manufacturing center during the 19th and early 20th centuries".
In the Buttin catalog (op. cit. examples 996-1004) of the entire array of these ringed guard sa'ifs are designated as "Arab' and to the 17th and 18th centuries. It is clearly noted that thier characteristic rings also derived from North Italian hilt systems.
Unfortunately Mr. Tirri does not cite the source for the 'documentary evidence' which would have been most helpful. Another dilemma involving 'Zanzibar' weapons are the 'H' shaped (baselard form) short swords termed 'Zanzibar swords' , which designation derives from Sir Richard Burton's 1885 "Book of the Sword". In this case Burton (p.166, fig.183) actually perpetuated an original error in Auguste Demmens 1877 reference where he misidentifies the weapon as a Zanzibar weapon (p.416, #100). Charles Buttin (op.cit, p.270) cites this error in detail, and clarifies that the weapon is in reality the Moroccan form known as s'boula and these seem to have traversed the trade routes via Sekkin and into Zanzibar.
The diffusion of these weapon forms through these trade routes, both maritime as well as trans-Saharan caravans in indisputable. The broad identification as 'Arab' is probably most applicable in most cases where sound provenance is not attainable in my opinion.
I would very much like to know if anyone knows of any documented evidence assigning the ring hilted sa'if form to Zanzibar in specific, and to thier production there. In the case of Muscat (this coastal region of Oman was the actual trade operation), thier connection to thier Sultanate in Zanzibar offers more tangible assessment of 'Zanzibar' to this cutlass as it is hard to say which location actually produced the weapons...both were ports of call receiving large quantities of trade blades.
As earlier mentioned, there are potential cases for Hyderabad in India, via the Malabar trade route also plied by these dhows. These type hilts are known in India as well, in what degree unclear, but it is known that here swords were produced for Hadhramaut in the Yemen. The so called Zanzibar sa'if, while unclear if actually produced in Zanzibar were indeed destined for Yemen, so it would appear these hilts may have been produced at several locations, while it remains certain that they were present throughout the Arab trade sphere.
All best regards,