Skip to main content

Object Title

Handgun

Handgun

Date

late 15th century

Object Number

XXVIF.245

Provenance

Purchased at auction from Christie's, London, on 10th October 2013: sale 1148, Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds, lot 65. Last sold at an auction in Essen, Germany, in 1995, as an 'early bronze fire-weapon', seemingly as an object of curiosity in a sale largely devoted to Islamic coins.

Physical Description

The handgun is made of bronze. The cylindrical shaft/barrel has a pronounced ridge encircling either end, a slightly flared base beneath the touch hole, and widens to a cup-shaped upper barrel. The upper barrel has an outwards turned rim and the outer surface is encircled with pronounced ridges and pairs of cleanly incised lines, giving a ribbed appearance. The base still contains the remains of a square-section iron rod which would have been inserted into a wooden tiller for aiming and bracing the weapon.The shaft bears a bold naskh inscription running along its length, which reads ‘mimma ‘amala bi-rasm al-maqarr al-‘ali Kertbay al-Ahmar’, declaring that it was produced on the order of his highness Amir Kertbay al-Ahmar. (‘Al-maqarr al-‘ali’ was a form of title frequently used to refer to high-ranking emirs and viziers of the Mamluk sultanate.)

Featured in

Materials

Dimensions

OverallLength240 mm

Inscriptions and Marks

The shaft bears a bold naskh inscription running along its length, which reads ‘mimma ‘amala bi-rasm al-maqarr al-‘ali Kertbay al-Ahmar’, declaring that it was produced on the order of his highness Amir Kertbay al-Ahmar.

Associations

Places Syria/Asia

Notes

All early firearms are scarce objects, but this piece is particularly rare. It is the only known surviving handgun of this early type which seems to have been made specifically under Mamluk instruction. (The only other gun known to remain in existence that can be identified as Mamluk in origin is a 15th-century cannon with an inscription dedicated to Sultan Qaitbay (r.873-901 AH/AD 1468-1495). [Held in the collection of the Military Museum (Askeri Müze) in Istanbul, see D. Ayalon, Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Kingdom: A Challenge to Medieval Society, iii-iv, 135] In form and manner of operation, this small gun strongly resembles a firearm illustrated in a Mamluk military manual known as the ‘St Petersburg Furusiyya’, dated 1474. [Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg.] It would have been easily used by individual infantrymen. The base contains the remains of a metal rod, which in turn was probably inserted into a wooden tiller held to aim and brace the weapon during firing. The gunpowder and shot would have been loaded into the short barrel, and the charge ignited by hand with a piece of lit matchcord applied to the touchhole.

The inscription on the side of this handgun reads ‘mimma ‘amala bi-rasm al-maqarr al-‘ali Kertbay al-Ahmar’, declaring that it was made under the auspices of his highness Amir Kertbay al-Ahmar. A Kertbay al-Ahmar is mentioned in sources as prefect of Cairo under Sultan Qaitbay, and then as silahdar (master of the training of troops) under Qaitbay’s successor, the ill-fated Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad (r.1496-1498). This teenage ruler was assassinated, partly because his enthusiasm for firearms aroused horror and derision amongst the Mamluk nobility, who forced him to disband his favoured units of black slave soldiers whom he had equipped with guns. Amir Kertbay was one individual who may have supported measures to develop Mamluk proficiency in firearms though; he was made Viceroy of Syria and apparently continued the unpopular attempts to modernise the Mamluk army by establishing four firearms battalions in Damascus, where this gun was probably made. Unfortunately Kertbay then died in 1498.