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Old 28th December 2023, 03:45 PM   #1
Join Date: Dec 2022
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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.

: 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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