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ISLAMIC HERALDRY

Most 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.


This lion from the Aleppo citadel has a twin on the other side of the door.  Lions were long venerated in the Near East and were used by various rulers as symbols of Royal authority, much as they were in Europe.

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.


Roundel with heraldry on the Madrasa Jaqmaqiye, now the Calligraphy Museum, Damascus.  This structure was built in 1418-1420 by a Mamluke governor of Damascus.  In the top register of the roundel is the symbol of the scribe, pen and pen boxes, and the lower registers bear cups, a common symbol in Islamic heraldry.  Full descriptions of the charges (the symbols used in the coat of arms) are listed in the end of this section.

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.

The 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.


Decoration on door of Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Many of the decorative elements in this mosque are Mamluk in date.  The Main gate, the Bab al-Barid (the main gate on the Western side), is dated by inscriptions to 1416. This is an image from the gates to the North (Bab al-Amara). There are two cups in the lower registers.  The top bears the image of two ‘squares.’  These symbols suggest the bearer was a keeper of the palace storerooms, though some have argued that the symbol represents a table and suggests a role as a food taster.

Detail of decoration on doors on the East (Bab Jairun) of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Three cups are depicted, suggesting the bearer was a cup bearer.  While this suggests a mundane duty, it is likely that it signified direct access to the ruler.


Madrasa of Kunjale, Damascus. This structure dates to the 14th century.  The symbol of the key is very rare in Islamic heraldry.


Charges

The 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.

Cup

The number of cup-bearers was greater than any other group of pages in the palace, and not surprisingly occurs on a number of blazons. 


The Mosque of Tanabiye, also known as the Mosque of Yashbak, Damascus.  This grand structure was built in 1399 and contains the grave of the governor of Damascus.  The ornamentation on the outside of the structure is unusually ornate.  Closer examination reveals heraldry.

The main coloured panels on the Mosque of Tanabiye have the familiar cups and rhombs as designs. Coloured Islamic heraldry is very rare.


The inscription that runs around the facade of the Mosque of Tanabiye also has heraldry, though it is not in colour.  The arrangement of the designs suggests that the governor was both a cup bearer and perhaps a food taster.

Pen-Box

Denotes 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. 

Sword

Occurs 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.

Bow

This charge apparently signifies an armour bearer or a bowman, both of whom had the same rank. Arrows can accompany the device.

Napkin

This 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.

Table

Islamic tables are commonly round, with or without support.  The office could be that of taster.

Polo-sticks

The 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.

Saddle

The 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.

“Horns”

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.


The Great Mosque of Hama.  Although built by the Umayyads, it incorporates many elements of a pagan temple and more so of a Byzantine church.  The treasury is much like the one in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.  There is also some heraldry above an inscription near the North doorway.

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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