218. A Rare Ak-Koyyonlu Iron War Mask

Azerbaijan or Eastern Anatolia, 2nd half 15th century
Size: 24 cm high

Download PDF

The reason for dating this mask to the second half of the 15th century, and more specifically to the reign of Uzun Hasan (r. 1453–78), is that it was he who expanded the realm of the Ak-Koyunlu, the White Sheep Turcoman federation, from Baghdad to Khorasan after his defeat of the Black Sheep Turcoman leader Jahan Shah in 1467. He reigned supreme for six years and then had his own comeuppance at the hands of the Ottomans under Mehmet II, later the Conqueror, at the battle of Otlukbeli in 1473. A large quantity of Ak-Koyunlu armour, helmets, body-armour, leg and arm guards were transported to Constantinople and dumped in the St Irene basilica that was in use as the Ottoman armoury, available for equipping the army whenever the need arose. Each piece of armour was stamped with the St Irene arsenal mark when it entered; this is why the Ak-Koyyunlu armour, which in fact forms a distinct group of its own, has long been deemed Ottoman.

In the later 19th century, when such armour was no longer needed, the arsenal of St Irene was cleared out and its contents dumped of the quayside to be sold as scrap metal. A Genoese ship delivering grain arrived just as there was an outbreak of plague, and the crew, desperate to leave quickly, bought a quantity of the armour as ballast for the ship’s return journey. Once safely back home, the ballast was dumped in Genoa harbour as soon as the ship had moored.

Lord Curzon passed through Genoa on his way back from India. He noticed a local woman cooking in a pot made from an Ottoman helmet to which a handle had been riveted. Making enquiries, he learned about the mound of Ottoman armour submerged in the port. An ‘Italian’ had already lifted a quantity and made off with it; I suspect it was Mr Stibbert. Curzon organized a dredger, took the rest back to London, and donated it to our Royal Armouries at the Tower of London. Alas, now it is all in Leeds, whence in the name of regionalization it has been dispersed. I have nothing against the City of Leeds, but the result is that nobody ever sees a very significant collection of arms and armour. Most of those Curzon pieces have the St Irene Arsenal mark; this mask does not, and is therefore a later rescue from a battlefield.

Seven masks of this type are known. The 1910 Munich Catalogue describes the example in the Imperial Armoury in Moscow (now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg), as 16th century. Interestingly, it is still attached to a helmet by its hinge. The example in the Khalili Collection was once nailed up at the back of a carpet shop in Tehran. The Mask now in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, was acquired at Christie’s, London, in 1997. The other four came from excavations near Kiev. I suspect that when someone pays attention to armour of the Ottoman Empire, the different groups will be better differentiated; Imperial from Constantinople; trophies from battles, including Mamluk Egypian; Black and White Sheep federations; Persians. The army was the defining institution of the Ottoman Empire during four hundred years, and therefore the way it looked was extremely important.

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