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Old 28th December 2023, 03:45 PM   #1
AvtoGaz
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Default Weapons of the Lake Van Highlands

This is a presentation/discussion on my research about a specific region of Eastern Turkey and its weapons. There are some gaps in the resources I have, as my main area of knowledge is Caucasian weaponry rather than Ottoman/Kurdish. I will note whenever these gaps come up, and if anyone more specialized in these areas can contribute I would greatly appreciate it!
I will largely be relying on period photographs and information contained in the book, "The Ethnography of Sasun" by Vardan Petoyan, as these are the main sources that remain accessible to me. From my attempts to find any, sources in Turkish or Kurdish seem very limited.

Context: The Lake Van Highlands are a series of historical districts located to the south of Lake Van in Turkey, namely the districts of Sasun, Shatakh, and Moks. They all shared quite a similar culture, which is why I will be grouping them. Assyrian Hakkari and parts of northern Iraq to the south also shared many similar customs. These three regions were primarily inhabited by ethnic Armenians since ancient times, although after the Ottoman invasions various Kurdish tribes made their way in and made up a substantial amount of the population. These highland districts were all extremely isolated, for example, Sasun (the main one I will be focusing on) was so isolated that its roads were completely blocked off for the whole winter and residents had to rely on makeshift skis and snow glare googles to get around. Even in the summer, travel to the nearby Mush Plain was still very limited. This factor allowed the native population (Both Armenians and Kurds) to live in virtual independence of Ottoman control, where customary law took precedence over state law. Notably, this was one of the very few areas in the Ottoman Empire where Armenians heavily bore arms, traditionally forbidden for Christian minorities under Ottoman rule. Traditionally, the native Armenians of this region had organized themselves under elected princes, who still ruled over some remote villages up until the 20th century. Save for these few exceptions, by the end of the 19th century, most Armenian villages had been subordinated to Kurdish Aghas and Beys of various tribes. With that said, the Armenians still kept the right to bear arms and heavily participated in the frequent armed conflicts between rival regional Kurdish tribes.

Even before the entrance of the Kurds, the local Armenians, perceived since ancient times by other Armenians as fierce and courageous warriors, had long upheld a military tradition to preserve their semi-independent status. Customary law mandated that anyone who ratted out an Armenian to the Turks or compromised their status be hunted down and killed, among other customs such as honor killing of family members and a 1-level system of blood revenge. Throughout the centuries the Armenians upheld armed units of footmen and cavalry, who were able to successfully fend off many Turkish assaults in the 1894 Sasun rebellion before succumbing due to their inferior numbers and antiquated weaponry. Sword and buckler duels were frequently held between these warriors at pilgrimage sites on the foothills of Sasun's mountains, with the fight representing a folk tale about a fight between Sasun's two highest peaks. The hunting of big and dangerous game, particularly with Axes, was considered another way to show one's bravery. For their part, the rival Kurdish tribes would frequently clash with each other, in conflicts that would commonly involve help from the Armenians.

The Weapons: These appeared to be mostly of local production, except for firearms which Petoyan noted were not produced locally. Practically all of such production seemed to have been handled by ethnic Armenians, as the Kurds apparently did not have any blacksmiths of their own. The following weapons were used.

Khanjar: A dagger, a basic element of every man's dress, of a familiar Turkish-Kurdish form. The most prestigious was considered to be one with a white horn or tusk handle.

Najakh
: An axe, which as far as I can tell seems to have been unique to this region. I have tried to look, but have not found any other pictures of Kurdish warriors from elsewhere wielding such a weapon, at least not in the 19th century. In form, it seems to be similar to Persian tabars of the period. It was carried on the back of the belt and served as a sidearm, particularly while hunting.

Martal/Mertal: A buckler, of a form typical of Ottoman Kalkans although with a seemingly more pronounced boss. This weapon seems to have been widely wielded by foot soldiers and used in the aforementioned form of ritualistic dueling.

Sword (No specific name, Tur in Armenian and Shur in Kurdish): Of a typical shamshir form as one might expect. This is where my knowledge fails me, I encourage anyone with more expertise to take a look at the pictures down below and offer more commentary if there is any that can be offered.

Chakhmakhli: A flintlock rifle. Again, this is where my lack of knowledge of Ottoman weaponry fails me. The rifle in picture 1 seems to be an Ottoman miquelet as one might expect, yet the rifle depicted in picture two looks like a European hunting rifle with a European lock. Despite saying that firearms were not locally produced, the book claims that this is a "local weapon". I take it that as far as firearms went people just used whatever they could get their hands on, as this weapon was clearly not produced locally.


Tezik: A priming flask. One of which depicted below is clearly of Caucasian manufacture.


Some pictures of local warriors wielding these weapons down below.

1: A fully-armed Armenian warrior from Sasun, showcasing all local weapons.

2: A Sasun Armenian (already long after the Armenian genocide, living far away from his homeland as a refugee in modern Armenia) in his traditional hunting kit (from Petoyan's book)

3: A local Kurd wielding a Mertal shield

4: Armenians from Moks

5: (On the right) Armenian painter Panos Terlemezian from Van in local dress

6: A diagram showing metalworks produced in Sasun, the form of local daggers, knives, and war axes. (From Petoyan's book)

Let me know what you think, any further insight is greatly appreciated.
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Old 30th December 2023, 06:18 AM   #2
Ian
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AvtoGaz,

Welcome to the Forum.

Thank you for posting your research on this area and the weapons found there. I found the information very interesting and I hope you will have more to share here about your work.

Please don't feel discouraged by the lack of responses so far. You have opened up an area in which many of us have little direct experience, and it takes time for people to absorb what you have presented and formulate a response. There are several people here who are familiar with firearms of the period, for example, who could contribute to your findings. Please feel free to use the Personal Messaging (PM) function that allows members to communicate directly with each other if you wish to contact a member whose specific expertise you would like to discuss.

Regards,

Ian
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Old 30th December 2023, 01:00 PM   #3
Jim McDougall
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This is absolutely fascinating and most thorough research on remarkably arcane topic, and truly adds a great deal of perspective on the arms and ethnic situations that were so dynamic in these regions.

It seems the case of the 'Black Sea' yataghan which was the topic of much consternation and debate is one example of the kinds of arms that might have connections here.
While these were finally determined to be 'Laz' bicagi, and regarded as 'transcaucasian' it seems they were found well into the Caucusus as well, and I recall contacts in Tblisi saying they were well known there. Most of the examples from reference material (Triikman & Jacobsen, 1941; Vichy, 1897) seem to have been from Erzerum and Trebizon.

Seifert (1962) describes these as Kurdish-Armenian yataghans, and it seems that description categorically aligns somewhat with the material here.

Also note the dueling with sword and buckler practiced even in these late times resembles that of the Khevsur tribes high in Caucusus regions of Georgia into 1930s. It seems influences in these atavistic 'ritualistic' kinds of warfare and weaponry traveled far and wide through these regions, and the dark circumstances resulting in the diasporas of these people may have played a key part in such diffusion.
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Old 30th December 2023, 03:31 PM   #4
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Thank you Ian and Jim, I am very grateful to hear that you found my research interesting!

In terms of the Kurdish-Armenian yatagans, although I doubt that they hail from this region in particular im sure they come from somewhere nearby in Anatolia that undoubtedly had a very similar social situation. It's clear much more research is needed to finally seal the deal on those, but as I understand it this forum was instrumental in finding the true origins of Laz Bichaqs, so hopefully, if there is enough interest that case can finally be closed someday in the future!

Although Khevsur martial culture and their system of Parikaoba dueling was far more robust, I nonetheless agree that there are some striking parallels. This could also just be due to their very similar circumstances, being extremely isolated mountain folk who carefully preserved ancient traditions and always were quick to defend their traditional autonomy. In the case of the Khevsurs, they were constantly being attacked by the neighboring Kist people, which explains why their martial culture was much more developed.


Although they are more related to the ethnographic side of this presentation rather than the discussion on the weapons themselves, I wanted to bring up two other extremely important elements of the local martial culture. The traditional epic "Daredevils of Sasun" and the local ancient war dance "Yarkhushta".

"Daredevils of Sasun" is an epic poem, that was transmitted entirely through oral tradition. It tells tales of the resistance of the local Armenian population to the Arab invaders during the Middle Ages, so its oral tradition is centuries upon centuries old. As this poem was very well known in many regions of Armenia, it is part of what gave the residents of these highlands such a reputation as fierce warriors quick to resist injustice and oppression. As their customs detailed above and their revolts against Ottoman rule proved, this reputation was certainly deserved to the bitter end of their existence.

"Yarkhushta", for its part, is a local martial dance. I will leave a link where you can check it out below, but it is essentially a representation of the clash between two armies. Two opposing groups of armed men, consisting of equally sized teams where each opponent would be paired up with one other, would approach each other while clapping and singing. Then, they would strike their hands together extremely hard, then withdraw and repeat the process until one side deemed that it had "won". Often, this was repeated until some of the participant's hands had been injured. Given the etymology of this word, which is something like "Friend of the weapon", it seems likely that at some point this dance was a military training exercise and was perhaps performed with real weapons.

Click here to see a performance of Yarkhushta by the Karin ensemble.
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Old 30th December 2023, 11:52 PM   #5
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I think the geography, history and ethnicity of these regions is likely among the most challenging to adequately understand, at least for me of course as a complete stranger to this colorful history.
I see what you mean on the regional locations you are discussing as opposed to the areas of the Kurdish-Armenian yataghans (Laz bichagi, a term that of course has its own challenges as noted) which are to the northwest, closer to the Black Sea.

Also confusing as far as weaponry are the 'T' handle yataghans which are attributed primarily to the 'Zeybeks' who were it seems largely of the Yoruk tribes I understand and situated in the Pontic regions. While the Zeybek term is apparently seen as meaning 'outlaw, bandit' etc. these men served as auxiliary, guerilla forces during the Greek invasions into Anatolia in 1919. While these T handle yataghans are claimed to be attributed to Zeybek use, other claims are they are simply later version of the well known eared yataghans which were easier to make with simpler pommel.

While realizing I am stretching the scope of what you are focused on here, it is pretty exciting to see this topic addressed with someone very personally involved and well versed of course so better understanding can be achieved.
For example, I admit I have always been confused by the term 'Anatolia' as well as 'transcaucusus' used often in referring to weapons from these areas.
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Old 24th February 2024, 07:49 AM   #6
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For those interested, I have completed a larger body of research linked below which greatly fleshes out a lot of the information I discussed here. Thanks!

Photos below: Chaldean Men with Khanjars, one with a Sword, and Chakhmakhlis. A local Kurdish or Armenian nobleman (The titles would have been Agha or Bey for Kurds, Res or Ishkhan for Armenians) with his bodyguard. These images really illustrate the form of the swords used in this region.

https://medium.com/@raznavraziya/mar...n-ae291fa44b8a
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