Arms and Weapons

The weaponry used by the Ottoman army was manufactured in various workshops and stored in armories called “cebehâne” where their maintenance and repairs would also be done. The first Ottoman “cebehâne” was established in Edirne. Following the conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II converted the Church of Hagia Eirene in Topkapı Palace’s First Courtyard into a cebehâne, for which purpose this building would continue to be used until the late 19th century. In 1846, at the initiative of Fethi Ahmed Pasha, the Commander of the Cannon Foundry (Tophâne), the Church of Hagia Eirene was reorganized so as to form Turkey’s first museum, “The Collection of Ancient Weapons and the Collection of Antiquities” (Mecma`-ı Esliha-ı `Atîka ve Mecma`-ı Âsâr-ı `Atîka). The museum’s weaponry was kept here until Topkapı Palace began to be used as a museum in the early 20th century. These weapons would later form the basis of the Military Museum’s collection, which is among the richest such collections in the world. Covering 1,300 years and consisting of 52,000 weapons of Arab, Umayyad, Abbasid, Mamluk, Persian, Turkish, Crimean Tatar, Indian, European and Japanese origins, the Topkapı Palace Museum’s weaponry collection is also among the world’s premier weapons collections. The collection is made up in part of weapons transferred from the “cebehâne” and those used by the palace guards; however, the collection’s most noteworthy section consists of those weapons ordered by the sultan personally or specially made as gifts for him.

These weapons are a part of the palace’s private collection. This collection includes weaponry owned by such sultans as Mehmed II, Bayezid II, Selim the Grim, Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, Mehmed II, and Ahmed I as well as the weapons of such high-level dignitaries as grand viziers, pashas, and palace chamberlains; all of these weapons are eye-catching with their fine craftsmanship and decorations. An additional factor that contributed to the diversification of the collection’s highly artistic weaponry was the tradition of bringing the weapons of important figures that were obtained through plunder to the palace. The collection’s earliest pieces are the swords of Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries, and Mamluk weapons of the 14th to 16th centuries, such as swords, helmets, armor, banners, and halberds. Among the weapons brought to the palace as plunder following Sultan Selim the Grim’s conquest of Egypt in 1517 are weapons that had been owned by such Mamluk sultans as Qaitbay (r. 1468-96) and Qansuh al-Ghawri (r. 1501-16). These are weapons that not only reflect the technology of their time, but that also have a very high artistic value. The Persian weapons that were brought to the palace consists of bows, swords, halberds, lances, banners, armor, and helmets. While these Mamluk and Persian weapons reflect the diversity, fine craftsmanship, and decorative taste of Islamic metalworking, the collection also contains various examples of European weaponry obtained by plunder, as well as Crimean Tartar, Indian, and Japanese weapons presented as gifts. The richest part of the collection, both in number and variety, is the Ottoman weaponry. The bow and arrow was the most characteristic weapon of the Ottoman army, and continued to be used after the introduction of firearms. From the 16th century to the end of the 19th century, the bow and arrow were also used as a sport. The collection also contains bows made by Sultan Bayezid II. Other Ottoman weapons in the collection include piercing weapons such as lances and javelins which are known to have been used since the very earliest times. Cutting weapons such as swords, yataghans (a type of curved sword), rapiers, scimitars, daggers, stilettos, Yemeni daggers, battle axes, and halberds and items designed to protect against piercing and cutting weapons, such as helmets, shields, armour, and horse armour are also to be found. Armour was not much used by the Ottoman army, owing to the fact that it restricted movement. Unlike the knights of Europe, Ottoman soldiers would not wear armor from head to toe, preferring to cover only those parts of the body that were most vulnerable.

Another important part of the weaponry collection consists of firearms, including rifles from the 16th century onwards and pistols from the 18th century onwards. These weapons reflect the historical development of firearms with their fuse-, flint-, or capsule-based firing mechanisms, as well as being reflective of the decorative styles of their particular period and of the regional patterns and tastes of such places as Istanbul, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. Apart from piercing weapons, cutting weapons, defensive items and firearms, the palace collection also includes blunt instruments such as maces, war-clubs and such symbols of sovereignty as horsetail plumes, regimental colours and banners and wooden shields with metal centres (söğüt kalkan).

Nearly all of the weapons used in the Ottoman Empire were fine examples of craftsmanship and ornamentation. The metal parts of such weapons as swords, daggers, rapiers, shields, helmets, armor, rifles, and pistols would very often be worked with floral-patterned gold and silver inlays, reliefs, or engravings, within which would be inscribed verses from the Qur’an, poetic inscriptions or the name of the piece’s craftsman or owner. The wooden parts of bows and arrows would be decorated with drawings or lacquered while the wooden parts of such weapons as swords, rifles, and pistols would be embellished by bone, ivory, gold, or silver appliqué or inlay; such decorative touches would also at times have the added flourish of precious or semi-precious stones.