people are familiar with “coats of arms” in Europe. The term
refers to a unique symbol used for identification, which is
passed to heirs. Coats of arms, also known as arms or
blazons, were also used in the Islamic world. Clothing that
would have armorial bearings has largely perished, as have
coloured shields. Yet hidden in many structures there are
symbols that commemorate those who built them.
The Muslim author Ahmad al-Qalqashandi notes in his Subh al-Asha (Advice to Civil Servants) of 1412 that it was customary for every amir to have a symbol according to his preference applied in colour above the doors of his buildings, as well as on cloths used on his personal objects and animals. The most common form this symbol could take is in a roundel, which requires little imagination to appreciate as a simplified shield. In other cases arms are simply placed in geometric figures - that are not convincing shield shapes - or simply directly on the object itself.
There are apparently no Islamic illuminated manuscripts that preserve images of heraldic shields, but this may relate more to the spotty nature of what has survived rather than what in fact existed. There is good evidence that some symbols were hereditary. At the same time the structure of Mamluk society factored against sons following in the footsteps of their fathers, as the children of amirs usually received religious-administrative education and not military training. As a result they did not bear arms. This presents a stark contrast to the situation in the West, where a military aristocracy - or those who claimed to be from this group - continued to exert political influence for generations. In short, unlike in Europe, where arms became symbolic of a wide class, the same was apparently not the case in the Near East. Blazons were the prerogative of the amir, or military dignitary, in Ayyubid and Mamluk society. No one but a sultan or emir are known to have used these devices, and of those with a religious or administrative post who used arms, they almost certainly occupied positions reserved for amirs.
In keeping with Medieval European practice, there is no doubt that there were laws relating to clothing (and symbolism) that stated what could be used by various persons depending upon rank. The Arab historian Abu’l-Fida records how his cousin al-Muzaffar Mahmud was confirmed as the lord of Hamah in 1284 by Sultan Qalaun and notes that the Sultan sent him his sultanic insignia in keeping with his rank. These consisted of a flag decorated with the streamers and various cloths for horses.
evidence above supports several contentions. The first is that a blazon
was granted by the sultan, at least in the earlier period. As a
text by Ahmad al-Qalqashandi of 1412 (noted above) mentions, at a later
time it seems that blazons were assumed by choice. Neither
statement suggests that arms were not also granted, or assumed, as a
routine right of office, or perhaps to a class as a whole (such as
warriors). Human nature being as it is, without firm legal controls -
particularly in out of the way areas - individuals likely designed and
assumed arms themselves. The material evidence attests to a wealth of
symbolism, but was it supposed to be heraldry? Powerful families who
would be widely recognized as rulers would adopt symbols that reflect
their power, and would not feel ashamed at placing it upon their table
wares, which survive today. This does not suggest a central
authority such as a group of heralds, but it is almost certain that
there would have been social pressure that discouraged those from
assuming arms or symbols to which they were not entitled. This shows
that the situation in the East is quite distinctive from the West, and
point to some larger social differences. Several authors have
noted that in Medieval Europe, the helmet with the vizier made the face
of the warrior invisible in tournament and warfare. Eastern armour
was of a totally different design, which given the potential for hot
days, in hardly surprising. The other social factor operative in
Europe, that of hereditary land tenure with military service due as a
‘rent’ to a feudal lord, did not exist in the Near East. The result
is that while Islamic heraldry could be hereditary among amirs, sons who
chose an ecclesiastic or administrative career had no right to
arms. Heraldry in the Islamic world did not reach the importance it
attained in the West. The importance of the Arabic language should
not be underestimated. Arabic is the language of the prophet, and
the Koran is still read in Arabic by many Muslims. Calligraphy, and
designing personal symbols for clients, is still regarded as a
significant art form.
Another reason why heraldry was not as significant in the East may relate to origins. The development of heraldry in Islamic lands may have been related to the crusades, a period of intense contact between East and West. Arms were used in Europe by the first half of the 12th century, and adopted by the Ayyubids of Hamah about a hundred and fifty years later. There is a short flowering, but a rapid development of symbols. Up to about 1300 there were single element blazons, and to 1400 there was the introduction of chiefs and fesses. 1400-70 is defined as the period of tripartite insignia, each part charged, and 1470-1517 witnessed the composite blazons for scribes and warriors.
earliest evidence suggests that early insignia consisted of one element.
Some were influenced by European models. The rosette with a varying
number of petals was perhaps the most common charge, and there is
evidence to suspect that it travelled from East to West. The
fleur-de-lys, felines, and eagles with one or two heads are also
encountered, though they were not nearly so common as in the West.
It is interesting to speculate on the origin of these three charges, and
many depictions suggest that they were adapted from Western coins.
Perhaps the most interesting, and common charges, are those if not unique to, then are characteristic of, Islamic heraldry. These have more or less solid evidence that links them with the occupation of the first bearer. It is significant to note that even after ascending to a higher rank, evidence of one’s origins was apparently retained. In the vast majority of cases they are only schematically drawn.
number of cup-bearers was greater than any other group of pages in the
palace, and not surprisingly occurs on a number of blazons.
a secretary of a lower rank, and does not appear on early blazons. A
number of variants preserve the same general pattern: an inkwell, sand
pot and starch paste pot, thread holder, and receptacles for reeds. The
symbol seems to indicate that the bearer was not born a slave.
in a variety of forms, from a double edged weapon to a scimitar (or even
a dagger), either singly or in pairs. Signifies the armour bearer.
charge apparently signifies an armour bearer or a bowman, both of whom
had the same rank. Arrows can accompany the device.
is a piece of cloth that was used to wrap clothes, deeds etc. The
normal shape would be square or oblong. When written sources are
compared with blazons the rhomb seems a likely candidate for the napkin.
tables are commonly round, with or without support. The office
could be that of taster.
polo master was a court functionary. For a horse riding people,
with need to practice for warfare, the game would take on particular
significance. The blazon does not appear on later arms.
blazon looks like a dome, and could be a target or a tent, though
neither of these are a sign of office. It is most likely a saddle.
These charges always appear in pairs, and they seem to be hollow. There is considerable difficulty in interpretation as there are no clear references to them in literature. Earlier writers suggested that they are horns of plenty derived from the Byzantines. Others suggest that they are likely to be trousers that signify nobility. Most recent scholarship suggests that they may represent flags and horns (important for controlling troops in the field) that are given by the sultan to make an amir. The symbol emerges during their third stage of armorial insignia.
This design from the Great Mosque of Hama represents the last phase of Islamic heraldry. The design is very complex. The top register is a rhomb, while the bottom is two rhombs and a cup. The middle register is dominated by a cup that contains a pen box, with two ‘horns’ on either side. Horns were critical in controlling troops in battle, and were no doubt symbols of command. The question is if they are portrayed here.
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