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A nimcha sabre with a European-made scabbard

Number

6364

Origin

Ottoman Empire or Morocco (hilt and blade); England (scabbard)

Time

Late 16th or early 17th century (hilt and blade); last third of 18th or early 19th century (scabbard)

Technique

Forging, casting, chasing, gem-setting, polishing

Material

Steel, silver, emerald, wood, velvet

Dimensions

Overall length (without scabbard) 774 mm; blade length 648 mm; scabbard length 657 mm

The slightly curved, single-edged blade is made of plain steel with a thickened spine and a false edge. Subsequently, the blade was burnished. The silver-gilt hilt consists of down-turned short quillons and a straight grip integrated with the prominent pommel, which is probably a highly stylized dragon’s head. The hilt is finely chased overall with scrollwork combining small flower heads and serrated leaves called saz. The pommel is further inlaid with a single cabochon emerald on the obverse side and is fitted with a hanging small loop to which a knot is attached. The hilt is fixed on the tang with a silver-gilt nut cap consisting of a large hemispherical head and a long narrow tube with an internal thread. The wooden scabbard is covered with dark grey velvet and is encased in gilt sheet silver chased with small serrated leaves, scrolls, flowers, birds, geometric motifs, and oval medallions on both sides. The topmost medallion on the back side of the scabbard contains the engraved English inscription "Rich. Clarke & Sons, Cheapside, London". In addition, each side of the scabbard is pierced with three large cartouches two of which contain trophies of arms. The central cartouche is empty. The scabbard has two silver-gilt suspension rings each is shaped like Ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon devouring its own tail.

COMMENT. Nimcha is a most unusual and well recognizable type of Arabian sabre formed around the 16th century under European influence and not fundamentally changed for several centuries. The name derives from the Persian nimjah meaning "little half", which was borrowed by the Arabs to denote short sabres. The most characteristic part of the nimcha is the specific hilt with an elaborate guard and a large angled pommel. The guard consists of three down-turned quillons and a knuckle-bow, usually curved at right angles. The quillon ends can be pointed, but they are drop-shaped most frequently. The blades vary widely both in form and size. For the most part, they were either imported from Western Europe, or were manufactured locally in the European style. In fact, the early nimcha was the Arab equivalent of the European cutlass. The comparatively short blade, usually steeply curved and widening towards the tip, was effective in close combat on board ship, and the down-turned quillons were designed to parry and capture the enemy blade. The large influx of European-made blades into Northwest Africa subsequently facilitated the transformation of the nimcha into a full-length light sabre. Many of the surviving examples have much older blades.

The nimcha is closely related to those coastal areas of Northwest Africa that were known in Europe as the Barbary Coast, or Berber Coast, and are now part of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Since the time of the Arab conquest until the first half of the 19th century, the local Muslim population was actively engaged in maritime piracy and slave trade, causing great damage to the European states and forcing them to take retaliatory measures. Exotic weapons from the Barbary Coast were brought to Europe mainly as souvenir trophies captured in numerous battles with Muslim pirates. The old Moroccan and Algerian nimchas dating from the 17th and 18th centuries are stored, in particular, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (inv. no. 36.25.1550, see Alexander, D.G., Pyhrr, S.W., Kwiatkowski, W. Islamic Arms and Armor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. – New York, 2015. – P. 178-179, no. 67), in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (inv. no. 981-1884, see North, A. An Introduction to Islamic Arms. – London, 1985. – P. 29, fig. 22b), in the Wallace Collection in London (inv. no. OA1787, see Coe, M.D., Connolly, P., Harding, A., Harris, V., LaRocca, D.J., North, A., Richardson, T., Spring, C., Wilkinson, F. Swords and Hilt Weapons. – London, 1989. – P. 141), in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (inv. no. WPN1057), in the State Museum in Amsterdam (inv. nos. NG-NM-6095 and NG-NM-10412), and also in some other major collections (see Alexander, D.G., Pyhrr, S.W., Kwiatkowski, W. Op. cit. – P. 179). Several examples were published by Charles Buttin in the catalogue of his collection (see Buttin, F. Catalogue de la Collection d’Armes Anciennes Européennes et Orientales de Charles Buttin. – Rumilly, 1933. – P. 253-258, nos. 991-995, pl. XXX). Moreover, examples of similar sabres can be found in some European oil paintings of the 17th and first half of the 18th century. Particularly, a beautiful nimcha with gold or silver-gilt mounts is shown in the portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, ambassador for the Moroccan ruler Mulai Ahmad al-Mansur (r. 1578-1603) to Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1600 (University of Birmingham, Research and Cultural Collections, inv. no. BIRRC-A0427).

The presented sabre has great historical and cultural value, first of all, as a very rare and well-preserved example of antique blade weapons, which harmoniously combines the eastern and western elements. Unlike the "classic" sabres of this type, it has down-turned but shortened quillons and a loop on the pommel that is not characteristic of the nimcha. The hilt is decorated in so-called saz style, which was very popular in the Ottoman art since the reign of Suleiman I the Magnificent (1520-66). This suggests that the hilt could have been made by an Ottoman jeweler, possibly even in Istanbul, where the specific nimcha form it seems was well known. The closest analog is the luxurious hilt of the Ottoman sabre from the Art History Museum in Vienna (inv. no. C.180), which, however, has an elaborate guard typical of the nimcha. According to David Alexander, the mounts for this sabre could have been made by Mehmed ibn ‘Imad, the head of the Istanbul court jewelers, who worked during the late 16th and early 17th centuries for the sultans Murad III, Mehmed III and Ahmed II (see Alexander, D. The Silver Dragon and the Golden Fish: An Imperial Ottoman Symbol // Gladius. – Vol. 23 (2003). – P. 225 and fig. 7). The blade of the presented sabre was manufactured either in Turkey or in North Africa according to the Turkish model. Such blades were widely used in the Ottoman Empire from the late 16th to the late 17 centuries, usually in combination with karabela style hilts. A fine 17th-century Ottoman karabela with an almost identical blade are in the State Historical Museum in Moscow (see Аствацатурян Э.Г. Турецкое оружие в собрании Государственного Исторического музея. – Санкт-Петербург, 2002. – С. 90).

The expensive European scabbard was manufactured much later by Richard Clarke, a prominent jeweler who worked in London from about 1763 until his death in 1812. He has included the repeatedly recurring saz motive into the floral decoration of the scabbard in order that it corresponds to the hilt decorative style. The family firm Richard Clarke & Sons (aka Richard Clarke & Son) was specialized in a wide range of precious metal wares including expensive arms. Two magnificent small swords by Clarke’s firm can be seen in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (inv. nos. WPN1167 and WPN1168).

LITERATURE: 1) Hales, R. Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour: A Lifetime’s Passion. – London, 2013. – P. 235, no. 582; 2) Сиваченко Е. Сталь и Золото: Восточное оружие из собрания Feldman Family Museum = Steel and Gold: Eastern Weapons from the Feldman Family Museum Collection. – Киев, 2019. – С. 48-51, №1.