121 • A Bejewelled Dagger

Central Asia, possibly Merv, circa 77 ah /696–7 AD
Length: 43.5 cm
Scabbard: 29.75 cm

The earliest personal object that can be associated with a ruling family in the Muslim world.

This magnificent straight dagger was found with a hoard of gold and silver coins, of which forty-eight silver coins, dating from 60–115 Hijra, remain with the dagger. They have been lightly brush cleaned.

The dagger hilt and scabbard are overlaid with sheet gold over wood, elaborately decorated with a scrolling vine pattern with bunches of grapes, vine leaves and blossoms.  The vine leaves curl symmetrically around the fruit and leaves aligning the blossoms down the centre.  This closely resembles the design on a fragment of ivory dating from the 8th century, now in the Benaki Museum, Athens (inv.no.10411).

Both the hilt and the scabbard are enhanced with precious stones.  The hilt is set in a descending line with an oval pink cabochon spinel and four pale blue oval cabochon sapphires.  The vine design on the scabbard is between two plain bands edged with gold wire, which would have originally been covered by leather ribbon strips.  The decoration is separated into two narrow bands, one at the top and the other at the centre, with two substantially wider bands below.  The jewels, two pink cabochon spinels and two pale blue cabochon sapphires are set in a central line down the lowest band.  The tip of the scabbard is similarly set with four cabochon sapphires framed by two lines of nine turquoises.  None of the precious stones are missing.  The reverse of both hilt and scabbard have visible seams where the gold edges meet.  Two belt loops are affixed to the back of the scabbard corresponding to the narrow bands.

The quillon has two steel bosses.  These have degraded during the time the dagger lay buried.  The blade, which is likewise made of steel, has also corroded but can still be removed.  The lower half of the scabbard can be partly separated, revealing the perished wood within.  Samples of this wood have been carbon dated.  The hilt has worked loose from the central steel backbone pin within, allowing it to be lifted free from the quillon.  A fragment of the steel from the quillon has undergone metallurgical analysis.  The report shows that the steel used for the blade is the only known example from the period, of a type first described by al-Biruni over 300 years later.

The gold and niello have also been tested and analysed.  They are consistent with the period at which the dagger was made.

The finial at the top of the hilt is set with a domed nephrite amulet, 2.5 cm in diameter, light green-grey in colour of a type that comes from Khotan.  This talismanic stone has been ‘orange-peel’ polished and engraved with a wheel-cut inscription partly in fine Kufic script and partly in Pahlavi script.  The Kufic inscription gives the pious proclamation al-‘izza lillah (‘The Glory is for God’); the Pahlavi inscription gives the name ‘Abd-Allah bin Umayya.  Below the nephrite amulet, the top band of the hilt is inscribed with deeply inlaid niello on a plain background in Kufic script, giving the name al-Amir ‘Abd-Allah bin Umayya.  All but a small part of this niello inlay is intact.

This dagger, therefore, belonged to ‘Abd-Allah bin Umayya, son of Umayya bin ‘Abd-Allah bin Khalid who was appointed Governor of Khurasan and Sistan in 74/693-694 by the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik.  ‘Abd-Allah bin Umayya was subsequently appointed Governor of Sistan by his father.

The Coins:

48 silver coins from the hoard excavated along with the dagger include a drachm struck in Sistan in the name of ‘Abd-Allah bin Umayya and dated 77 AH.  The inscription gives his name in Pahlavi script, while the pious saying al-‘izza lillah is written in Kufic.  This latter appears to have been the family motto of the Asid clan.

121 Bejwelled Dagger
‘Abd Allah bin Umayya’ Obverse: Name in Kufic Reverse: mint name Merv AH 77
121 Bejwelled Dagger
‘Abd Allah bin Umayya’ Obverse: in Pahlawi APDWLA Y/AWMYYAN Margin: ’In the name of God/ glory is to God’ Reverse: Pahlawi ‘Sijistan’ AH 76

8th May 2018.  Dr. Julian Raby examined the Dagger:

Dr. Raby stated that there are several reasons for attributing it’s manufacture to Central Asia:

  1. Production sites for crucible steel, dating as early as the 9th century, have now been found in Uzbekistan.
  2. The pommel is of Khotanese jade.
  3. It is partly inscribed in Pahlavi.
  4. `Abd-Allah bin Umayya’s father was governor of Khurasan, and he himself conducted military expeditions for his father in Sistan.

These arguments can be supported by formal, decorative and technical aspects of the scabbard. First, the closest comparisons for the shape of dagger can be found in seventh and eighth-century Sogdian paintings from Panjikent and Afrasyab. Second, the decoration of grape clusters, vine leaves and scrolls is closely related to a long-standing tradition in Sasanian silver, and the closest comparisons are with items traditionally attributed to the seventh century.  Although there is little surviving Sasanian goldsmithing, a late Sasanian sword with a gold hilt and scabbard provides a very close analogy for the scrolls.

An attribution to Khurasan in the 690s is therefore highly probable. We can perhaps attribute it more specifically to Merv.  It was the seat of the Umayyad governor, as it had been of the Sasanian governors of Khurasan; it was famous for its sword-making, and production of crucible steel; and Boris Marshak also credited it as a centre of Sasanian silversmithing.

The picture is even more complex and interesting:

The Kufic calligraphy of the niello inscription around the top of the handle is noticeably different from the calligraphy on the jade talisman, and the difference cannot be put down solely to the hardness of the stone. It is also quite different from the Arabic script used on coins minted in the name of `Abd-Allah bin Umayya.

In broad terms it echoes changes in royal epigraphy in Syria and the Levant under Umayyad caliph `Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (r. 65–96/686–705), examples of which can be found in the Dome of the Rock and on `Abd al-Malik’s reform coinage. But a very precise counterpart can be found on an inscription in the name of `Abd al-Malik, and datable to the 690s.

Arrival of Islam

Before the advent of Islam the two dominant powers in the world were the Persian and the Roman empires which had competed with each other for centuries.  A new power emerged from the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century.

The first major victory for the Arabs came with the crushing defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius at the battle of Yarmuk in 636 by the Muslim commander Khalid bin Walid under the second Caliph of Islam, Umar ibn al-Khattab.  A similar destiny awaited the Persians when the Arabs conquered Yazdegerd III in 642.   The new Islamic Caliphate then extended its rule over important areas of Central Asia and Transoxiana.

Early Islamic art is a combination of Byzantine and Sasanian art.  At the beginning of the 8th century all of the Middle East, Khurasan, India, North Africa and Spain were under the direct rule of the Umayyad dynasty, who founded the first Islamic Caliphate.  Later the Abbasids expanded the empire and supported culture, arts and crafts.  The Golden Age of the Islamic rule lasted until the arrival of the Mongols when Hulagu Khan laid siege to the city of Baghdad in 1258.

The Mongols

The Mongols had a history of supporting merchants and trade and Genghis Khan had encouraged foreign merchants early in his career, even before uniting the Mongols.  Merchants provided information about neighbouring cultures, served as diplomats and official traders for the Mongols, and were essential for many goods, since the Mongols produced little of their own.  In 1218, Genghis Khan sent a trade mission to the Khwarezmid state, but at the town of Otrar the governor, suspecting the Khan’s ambassadors to be spies, confiscated their goods and executed them.  Genghis Khan demanded reparations, which the Shah refused to pay, and Genghis retaliated with a force of 200,000 men, launching a multi-pronged invasion.  In 1220 the Mongolian army crossed the Syr Darya and stormed Bukhara, Gurganj and the Khwarezmid capital Samarkand.

The Mongols destroyed the whole infrastructure of Central Asia, especially around Merv which was the most important city.  Before Genghis Khan died in 1227 he assigned Ögedei Khan as his successor, and later his grandsons split his empire into khanates.  His further descendants extended the Mongol Empire across most of Eurasia by conquering or creating vassal states in all of modern-day China, Korea, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and substantial portions of Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia.  Genghis Khan is also credited with bringing the Silk Road under one cohesive political environment. This brought communication and trade from Northeast Asia into Muslim Southwest Asia and Christian Europe, thus expanding the horizons of all three cultural areas.

Some Turko-Mongol Khanates lasted into recent centuries: the Crimean Khanate lasted until 1783; the Khanate of Bukhara until 1920; the Kazakh Khanate until 1847; the Khanate of Kokand until 1876; and the Khanate of Khiva survived as a Russian protectorate until 1917.