211. An Early Islamic Bronze Portable Cannon (Midfa)

Syria, circa 1300
Size: 30.5 cm length with tail; 11.5 cm maximum width
Kufic inscriptions: May God prolong its life…

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The cannon itself reflects the ‘International Fatimid’ style typical of objects made in Syria during the 12th century, of which the Kufic calligraphy of the inscriptions is equally characteristic. The long-eared hare was also popular, popping up more frequently in Fatimid-dominated areas than elsewhere. Best known is the figure in bronze that belonged to Cary Welch, accordingly dubbed the ‘Welch Rabbit’.

The bulbous breech-end and narrow barrel-mouth are essential for creating the pressure needed to expel pellets and fire with force. The vase-shaped cannon illustrated in Walter de Milemete’s De Nobilitatibus Sapientii Et Prudentiis Regum, from 1326, the earliest illustration of a European cannon, displays the same characteristics. As do early Chinese cannons from the Yuan and Ming periods, and the so-called ‘Phalanx-Charging Fire-Gourd’ illustrated in the early Ming treatise Huolongjing.

Portable cannons were not designed to expel heavy projectiles, but instead to shoot flames and pellets with a lot of noise. They were especially effective for frightening horses, and thus ideal against an enemy like the Mongols. The significant defeat of the Mongols at Ain Jalut in 1260 by the Mamluks is attributed to the explosive effect of hand cannons. Such devices were attached to wooden poles, and the unusual configuration of the legs of this Hare-Cannon, with its concave underside, are specifically designed for fixture to a pole.

In the West, including the Islamic Near-East in the 12th century, the portable cannon developed from the hand-held flame-throwers that were familiar from the 10th century in Byzantium. The discovery of the composition of gunpowder was made in China, and its military potential was already analysed there in the 10th century. The diffusion of this information took place when Yuan China was part of the vast Mongol Empire. The intense political competition that existed, initially between Islamic states and Christian Europe, but more importantly within the competing political entities of Europe, provided the impetus that drove the development of the ever-more sophisticated technology in firearms. This bronze portable cannon is the earliest example of an Islamic firearm so far known. According to Ibn Khaldun writing in 1377, heavy cannons were in use during the 12th century, notably at the siege of Sijilmas in the Maghreb by Sultan Abu Yusuf. Heavy cannons were used for sieges, whereas portable cannons were designed to frighten horses with noise, fire and pellets.

The report of the scientific examination by Striptwist Laboratory is available.