Weapons and beauty are not two words commonly linked together, but no other adjective could be applied to a ceremonial 18th-century Mughal mace, rightly highlighted in The Knights of the Arab World exhibition in a case of its own. There’s all of the wealth of that great empire in its rich gold inlay, but there’s pure, perfect design in its form: an antelope gently resting its head on the handle, its back a perfect curve forming the head of the axe, its spiral horns balancing and contrasting in their perfect straight extension. Yet look again at that perfect piece of design and note the still razor-sharp edge of the beast’s back, and the sharp point of those horns, and realise that it could even today cleave through a human skull with ridiculous ease.
After a while, in this parade of swords and sabres, lances and daggers, I could not but wonder how many lives the weapons in the exhibition had taken, imagined each of the weapons dripping with blood in proportion. For there’s few pieces here still, even those many centuries old, for which you could not be arrested for carrying an offensive weapon were you to step outside with them.
Many of the older weapons here might well have been directed against the Crusaders, yet the first thing I learnt from this exhibition was that the two sides in this centuries-long, if spasmodic struggle for what both called the Holy Land were curiously alike – for the Islamic world had a tradition of knighthood astonishingly like that of the West – the knight had a solemn code of behaviour and code only be granted that status by a king or noble in a solemn investiture ceremony at which he would receive his sword.
Many of the tales of knightly derring-do seem also to have had much in common – a fine small painting from Qazwin in 16th-century Iran shows a mounted knight doing combat against a fire-breathing dragon. It might be an English St George, except that the dragon has a distinctly Chinese cast’ it was not so long ago, after all, that the Mongol hordes had been through, burning all before them.
There was also that feeling of belonging to a band of brothers so idealised in knightly tales: another painting from Shiraz a century or so earlier shows the end of a bout of single combat deciding a battle before two armies, from the Book of Kings of Firdawsi. The victor cradles his dying opponent with love and care, as the two armies – drawn in great, fine detail by the artist – look on.
Yet when you look at this exhibition, at its silent, clean but evocative edges, it is clear that the primary atmosphere in which they existed must have been one of fear. Everywhere around Paris now you’ll see the single image being used to advertise this exhibition, a spectacular, spooky gilt full face mask. It is dated to the 16th century, although it is unclear whether its origins are Iran, or the Tatars of the Crimea. The exhibition text notes that such masks were worn in battle for centuries, but the tradition died out soon after this was made. That’s surprising in a way, for it must have been terrifying to see that thundering down at you on a galloping horse.
So there are more than weapons in this exhibition – but it is undoubtedly they which dominate it. Another highlight is a yatagan from the royal workshop in Istanbul in the early 1500s with a handle of ivory and gold inlay on the blade showing yet another dragon being slain. Its spectacular scabard in silver and purple velvet has also survived in near-perfect condition, recording its ownership by Ahmed ibn Hersek Khan, many times grand vizier and a man instrumental, the exhibition says, in winning a vital battle against the Mamluks in 1517.
Against such blades a warrior no doubt needed all of the defence he could get, so there are also many fine (and still solid-looking) helmets here, plus several spectacularly preserved full suits of chain mail, their intricate detail a reminder of why only the wealthiest could afford such protection. One complete 14th-century gilt set here bears the name of Ibrahim Sultan ibn Shahrukh ibn Timur, who was governor of Shiraz from 1414 to 1434.
But worn underneath that would have been more mystical protection. There’s just one example here – what must have been a rare survival – a cotton vest – in simple bib form tied at the neck and sides, packed with tiny, carefully written and arranged Islamic verses. And perhaps if you couldn’t afford the armour you’d have to make do with such protection, and your prayers.
The exhibition continues until October 21, 2007. Labels and descriptions are only in French, but you could still entirely appreciate this exhibition without that language – the weapons mostly speak for themselves. (You can read more, in English, on the Institute’s architecture here.)