Enamored with Arabian Arms

Robert Elgood
The Arms and Armour of Arabia in the 18th-19th and 20th Centuries
Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1994, xii, 138 pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 37(1995):38-41

The British adventurer Bertram Thomas, one of the mad Englishmen who went out in the midday sun and tried to be the first to cross the Empty Quarter of Arabia, entitled an account of his exploits "Alarms and Excursion in Arabia." His was more than an excursion, hardly a Devonshire picnic, and he creates a sense of continual alarms from the individualistic Bedouin warriors who crossed his path. These were fierce armed men. But what of their arms &emdash; their knives, daggers, swords, lances and firearms? And what of their armour? So much has been spun in the travel literature on the raids and feuding of these descendants of Antar. But not until Robert Elgood's fascinating summation of the literature and examination of private collections have we had one source to answer these questions.

Fortunately, as Elgood notes (p. vii) a “considerable quantity of 'Arabian' arms have survived." But this presents a challenge to the historian, because such items in museums are generally poorly catalogued and analyzed. Modern craftsmen often repair old firearms into something completely different. Indeed, I find it hard to imagine any old weapon still in use in Yemen that has not been to the fix-it shop on several occasions. Given the lack of spare parts and technical knowhow, each piece quickly becomes an original creation. To add to the problem, there are relatively few detailed drawings or photographs of old weapons. It is a wonder that one can make any sense of the mishmash of old weapons to be found in the region. Elgood succeeds quite elegantly in this present volume.

I had not originally intended to review this book. The civil strife last summer kept the book from reaching David Warburton, our resident expert on the genre. There are not, as you might suspect, many individuals who have a habit of studying Arabian weapons of any age. In looking over the book at long last I began to see a number of familiar names. Mr. Elgood was guided through the Arab World by a most reputable raf£q, Bruce Ingham of SOAS. I had the pleasure of having a number of conversations, many in Arabicas it turns out, with Bruce in Qatar in 1990. Which brings us to a second contact I share with the author. Elgood catalogued the arms collection of H.E. Shaykh Hasan bin Muhammad Al Thani of Qatar. I was fortunate to meet Shaykh Hasan in Qatar and use his excellent library of rare imprints on the Arabian Peninsula as well as visit the family gazelle farm, one of the most extensive collections of gazelles anywhere in the world. The third link is with Sultan Ghalibal-Qu'ayti, now a resident of Saudi Arabia, who read the manuscript and is a collector himself. While I am not pleased with the sad events of last summer's fighting, I am at least consoled that I have this opportunity to read and review a very solid contribution to the field.

Details first. The book begins with a brief introduction to the political history &emdash; mostly tribal &emdash;of Arabia in the past few centuries. Elgood proceeds with a systematic description of various genres of arms: swords (10-33),clubs, axes and maces (34-35), firearms and accountrements (37-51),Arab gunpowder (52-53), cannon (54-57), modern firearms and ammunition (58-65), lances and spears (66-69), daggers and knives(70-95), and defensive arms (96-99). There are three appendices: weapons and justice (101-102), Damascus sword manufacture (103-109)and a method of renewing flowery grain of Damascus blades (111-112). Also included are a useful glossary by type of arm, bibliography and index. Lest the reader think this is a boring reference book, think again. Elgood draws much of his information from travelers and weaves elements of their adventures into the narrative with a splendid splattering of quotes. It would be difficult to be bored by this book, no matter what your personal views about the tools we use to harm ourselves and others.

This is a high quality picture book as well. Virtually every page of text has a photograph or illustration, modern and historic. The photographic reproduction quality is excellent. It is not unlike leafing through Aramco World orNational Geographic. Yemenophiles will be attracted first to the long chapter on daggers and knives. Here we find quite a few examples from Yemen and the Haramawt. It is worth noting that Yemenis not the only place where dagger hilts were carved from rhinoceros horn: an 18th century janbiyya from the Hejaz is shown (p.71). Of historical interest is the janbiyya purchased in Sanaa by Carsten Niebuhr in 1763 (p. 87). You can also see the Lee Enfield rifle used by T.E. Lawrence of Arabia (p. 62). As an anthropologist, my personal favorite is the 19th century janbiyyahilt with Indian "coins" depicting Radha and Krishna (p. 87), the archetypal love duet of Hindu folklore. Elgood notes that these coins were actually Indian substitutes for the Venetian gold ducat, with the local Hindu deities replacing the Christian saints. How fitting that such coins end up on a Muslim Yemeni's dagger. There are 7 photos of South Yemeni "tribal types" wearing daggers (pp.89-92); these were taken by the British government in 1943. For Yemen, there are also illustrations of Hadrami sabres (p. 13), as word given by the sultan of Shihr and Mukalla to King George V on his accession in 1911 (p. 14), a crescent axe from Sabban (p. 36), a matchlock presented to King George V by the Sultans of Lahj (p. 43), and crossbows from Wadi 'Amd (p. 49).

References to arms from Yemen are quite frequent in the text. We learn, for example, that Yemenis and Hadramis used to refer to a good sword as muhannad, meaning it was from India (p. 14). Mention is made of the Jewish silversmiths of Sanaa (p. 26), Yemeni crossbows (pp. 48-49), magical beliefs in Southern Arabia regarding guns (p. 53), arms manufacture in Yemen (p.63), spears and lances in Yemen (p. 69), much on Yemeni daggers(chapter 9), a truth ordeal involving a red-hot knife in South Yemen(p. 101) and so on. Among the travelers consulted specifically for information on Yemeni arms are Niebuhr, G. Wyman Bury, Harris, and Scott. Elgood also uses the work of the late R. B. Serjeant and received information on South Yemeni arms from Sultan Ghalibal-Qu'ayti. All in all, this is a very impressive survey of Western language sources. A few other relevant sources might also have been consulted, especially the work of Serjeant (in Serjeant and Lewcock,Sanaa: An Arabian Islamic City, London, 1983, pp.239-240) on daggers and Dostal (ibid, pp. 263-267) on the craft of dagger making in the Sanaa suq. There is also an excellent article by S. Camman ("The cult of the jambîya: dagger wearing in Yemen," Expedition 19/2:27-34, 1977). Of potential interest may be my own work on daggers and the rhino horn trade (in Oryx 32:4:215-219,1989).


Book Excerpt (pp.88-89)

In San'a a broad belt often embroidered with gold and silver thread holds the janbiyya which is worn by every man and boy; on the right side by sayyids, in the middle by other folk. It is worn under the belt, the scabbard being decorated with very fine pierced silver and, more rarely, gold decoration, often with inscriptions. These are for the wealthy. The hilts are realtively plain horn with either a rounded top, the sayyid type, or more like the plain Omani X shape (though without the Omani silver sheet decoration)... In some cases the hilt is believed to have magic powers derived from the maker, such as the ability to heal wounds...

The blade of the Yemeni janbiyya is usually broader than any other in the peninsula and is made in a number of centres, San'a and Sa'da, al-Juba, Nisab, Radaa' and in the Hadhramaut. Iron was produced locally and imported, particularly from India. The Prophet had a Hindi sword of Yemeni tempering and there are many references to Yemeni worked blades. Today the blades are often imported from Japan. Locally produced blades are much more highly regarded. When Harris was in San'a in 1892 he found that the Yemenis usually chose their blades first and only then decided on the hilt and scabbard pattern, the blade being sold separately. Antique blades were considered the best, the popular view being that the old art of hardening steel was lost. The 19th century blade was made of mild steel which received its original edge by hammering on an anvil. They were kept very sharp, especially the inner edge which 'will cut through the thickest clothes to the bone. When merely brawling, they slash at each other's forearms and shoulders, but when the fight is serious they close and deliver a round-armed stab in the back above the waist'...

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