The history of weapons manufacture in the Balkans during the Ottoman era is long and rich. Traditional weapons, namely firearms and blades, were held in high esteem and elaborately decorated with silverwork, along with, on rare occasions, ivory, coral and other precious materials.
Across the Balkans, unique styles developed in each region and town, and weapons became part of a man’s attire and status. The quality of the weapons, particularly the quantity of silver, indicated the status of the man, and its upkeep would reflect on his status as a warrior. Weapons would also be personalised by their owner and great pride was taken in the maintenance and appearance of arms.
Communication, movement and trade between different parts of the Ottoman empire saw the transferral of different styles of arms across the Balkan territories and beyond. The outbreak of the Greek War of Independence saw an even greater influx of arms into Greece. Not only were weapons smuggled, sold and donated, but large amounts were captured from defeated enemies. This exchange of arms worked both ways.
One particular story tells how the Turkish army of Mahmud Dramali Pasha had looted the fortress of Ali Pasha, who had revolted, but then lost the gold and silver weapons to the Greeks. The Greeks, in turn, lost the weapons when they were then defeated by the Egyptian army. Arms also replaced cash and were traded in bazaars for resources, thus making their way back to the Greeks. After the revolution, many were donated to museums across Greece.
A number of weapons from the Greek War of Independence are on display as part of the Gods, Myths & Mortals exhibition currently on loan from the Benaki Museum. These weapons showcase the variety of arms wielded in the revolution.
Sabres, or kilidj, were single blade curved swords that were of Ottoman origin. Only military personnel were allowed to carry swords, while civilians required a license. Swords were particularly esteemed during the revolution as they required being up close to an enemy, rather than shooting from a distance.
Kilidjs were suitable swords for fighting while on horseback as their curved blade made it easier to strike at the enemy. Towards the end of the revolution, the Turkish army put aside kilidjs in favour of more European sabres and smallswords.
Theodoros Kolokotronis owned at least one other sabre, and this one, of Turkish origin and taken as a war boon, was inscribed:
Help from God and victory is near
And to the believers, oh Muhammad
There is no warrior as valiant as Ali and no sword like Dhu’l-Fiqar.
Pistols were no exception to being ornately decorated. The pair shown above featured inlaid coral, a highly prized material since ancient times, and was a popular decoration on pistols in northern Albania. As you can see from the collection of weapons shown here, the silverwork present on Greek arms resembled the intricate work present on contemporary Greek jewellery.
Under the Ottoman Empire, large efforts were made to keep firearms inaccessible to peasants. Many paintings of the Greek War of Independence feature at least one, if not multiple, pistols sticking out of the waist sash of the Greek fighters.
Bichaqs, literally 'knife', were Ottoman knives or daggers that somewhat resembles smaller versions of the yataghan. They were made from steel with handles of bone, ivory, or silver. The example above would have once had a scabbard.
These weapons would have been used for closed quarter fighting and likely for daily use.
Like the sabre, the knife features an inscription, which reads:
[after you buy] this knife it will scatter all [your] enemies
[it will take] revenge from enemies all the unbelievers then this knife [will become] Dhu’l-Fiqar
The above muzzle-loaded rifle, with a miquelet lock, was manufactured in either Persia or the Ottoman Empire and is either is or is in the style of the shishana (literally 'long gun') type. Most rifles would have been made from walnut with inlaid silver or silvered tin, brass nails and ivory. Rifles like the one above would have been manufactured across the Balkans.
Rifles were used for long distance fighting and were particularly well-suited for ambushes by the Greek fighters on the Ottoman army. As the Greeks would utilise the mountainous terrain to their benefit, rifles could be used to pick off enemy soldiers from the Greek's advantageous position.
The Yataghan is a knife or short sword that was used across Ottoman Turkey, the Balkans and the Caucasus'. It features a single edged blade and curves forward. Regional variations can be noted based on the shape of the hilt. Balkan yataghans tend to have longer 'ears' made from ivory or bone, while Anatolian yataghans frequently exhibit smaller 'ears' of silver.
Weapons with eared hilts, like the yataghan itself, date back as far as 1300 BCE but lack a continuous link to it. Yataghans appear to not have been produced in Greece, but rather used and imported from Sarajevo in Bosnia.
They were almost always elaborately decorated and had great symbolic value. Most surviving yataghans date from the late 19th to mid 19th centuries, and would have usually been worn tucked in a waist sash.
While yataghans were status symbols, they also served a practical purpose and were used in warfare.