Historic Armenia has often been the battleground of contending empires. From the Roman-Persian wars, the Crusades, the Arab invasions, the Byzantine-Ottoman conflicts to the Russo-Turkish wars, Armenia has been at the heart of some of the worlds most fearsome conflicts. As such, the art of swordmaking and weapons crafting has become an inseparable part of Armenian tradition. Daggers in particular, due to their practicality, have become a beloved accessory, still used during ceremonies, dances or hunting. Traditional Armenian male costumes are rarely seen without a dagger or two.
A dagger in Armenian is called a “Dashuyn” (դաշույն). Although different regions would often produce different styles of daggers, most common features of Armenian daggers are their symmetrically shaped spear point double-edged blades with a central spine. These types of blades are produced in Armenian Highlands from times immemorial as the Armenian Highlands are known to have been one of the earliest sites of ancient metallurgy. Excavations at a Bronze Age archaeological settlement of Metsamor in central Armenia has revealed a very large metal industry including a foundry with 2 kinds of blast furnaces for processing gold, copper, and even iron. Archaeological excavations in Armenia and neighboring regions have revealed dozens of such daggers from the bronze age period.
During the occupation of Armenia by the Ottoman and the Persian empires, Armenians were often discouraged from producing arms, out of fear for rebellion and separatism. It was in fact forbidden for Armenians (as Christians) to carry weapons and ride on horses within the Ottoman empire. Nevertheless, Armenians managed to retain the tradition and the craft in rural areas. Therefore, the large scale production of Armenian cold arms really only blossomed within the Russian empire where such restrictions did not exist for Armenians. As the technology progressed over thousands of years so did the craft of forging. Traditional Armenian daggers are now usually made of steel and decorated with large stylized floral ornaments, sometimes containing Armenian inscriptions, inlaid with gold, silver and other precious materials.
The 19th century Transcaucasia
Armenian masters of cold arms have always been highly esteemed in the Russian empire. But maybe the most iconic period of large scale dagger production was the 19th century. Documented archives show that from a total of 454 weaponsmiths that operated in Transcaucasia between 1842 and 1917, 297 were Armenians. And from a total of 3404 silversmiths, 1579 were Armenians.  Armenian masters of cold arms have had a significant impact on the production and styles of daggers of the region. They didn’t only operate from cities and villages within Armenia, they could also be found in neighboring regions like Georgia. During the 19th century one of the major centers of dagger production was Tiflis (today known as Tbilisi, the capitol of Georgia). It suffices to say that between 1842 and 1866 there were 2840 registered daggers produced in Tiflis, which is about 1/3 of the true number if we considered all the unregistere once. Armenians at the time formed the majority population of Tiflis. In the course of the 19th century the largest ethnic group of Tbilisi were Armenians, who, at some point, formed 74.3% of the population.
The entire Caucasian region is famous for manufacturing different types of cold arms such as daggers. The Armenian daggers from the 19th. century differ from other Caucasian daggers only in details. Armenian daggers differ mostly in their style of decoration, such as their floral patterns (resembling decorations in medieval Armenian manuscripts), stylized hunting scenes, animals and inscriptions in the Armenian language. Generally two styles of engravings were distinguished by the masters and weapons experts of the time; the so called “Armenian” and the “Lezgin” style. The “Armenian style” was a shallow engraving method using niello decoration; such a technique was also called “sev-savat” (black work). A sizable amount of Transcaucasian daggers, sabres and belts were decorated in this fashion. The Lezgin (Dagestan) style of decoration is a type of deep engraving also known as “chigurt-ma” (white work).
The Armenian daggers were often marked with an elongated handle head in the shape of an eastern arch. The sides of the head are marked with several intercepting cuts. Rivet caps have tapered, slightly convex forms. Alternatively they can have high cylindrical or round, very low or slightly protruding shapes as well. Shims under these caps in Armenian daggers sometimes have a characteristic diamond shape. At the mouth of the scabbard there are small triangular protrusions with the edges cut like the eastern arch. The tops of these protrusions usually end in large festoons in the form of a tulip. The handle of the dagger could be made of various materials from wood to precious metals, horns and ivory.
Several types of daggers were particularly popular with Armenians. They can be distinguished into four groups:
- Normal Daggers – do not have the pronounced features, common also among other peoples of the Caucasus.
- Northeast Daggers – were produced by Armenians in Georgia (Tiflis), they were different in appearance from both the usual Armenian and Georgian daggers but very common to the northeastern Armenia and eastern Georgia.
- City Daggers – were often decorated with rich and fancy ornamentation, inlaid with various precious materials.
- Rural Daggers – were produced by the villagers and had distinctive features from other types of daggers. Were often characterized by simplicity, crudeness, rigor, austerity and the absence of fancy ornaments.
Armenian daggers of the 19th century therefore fall within the Transcaucasian (or South Caucasian) category of daggers. These daggers consist of a blade, a handle and the scabbard. Lets examine some of the features of these three main parts of Transcaucasian daggers.
The blades on Armenian daggers are made of steal and are usually quite sizable. They can vary everything from 40 to 62 centimeters in length (with an average of 50 cm) and from 3 to 5,7 centimeters in width. The weight of the dagger including the handle varies from 325 to 900 gram. They commonly exist in the following forms:
- With three central fullers on each side of the blade, the central of which is the deepest and most narrow. Near the handle there is often an engraved insignia (a symbol of the master) or the name of the master, sometimes decorated with floral motives.
- With two narrow fullers centered on each side. Left fullers begin right from the heel while the right fullers at some distance from it. Part of the blade is decorated with the name or a symbol of the master. Some blades are slightly lowered forming side wider fullers.
- With only one fuller centered on each side of the blade. An insignia or an ornament is engraved near the handle before the fuller.
- With only one fuller placed off-center on each side of the blade.
- Through the center of the blade runs a small facet.
- The blades are slightly curved, one side has the sharp edge, the other is the spine. In this case we are not dealing with a dagger but a knife. Under the spine there are usually two or three fullers. The insignia can usually be found close to the handle.
- The blades are slightly curved with two sharp edges. In this case we speak of a dagger and again the insignia can usually be found close to the handle but the blade is rarely decorated.
The handles can be crafted from various materials such as wood, metal, bone or ivory, but the most commonly used material is black horn. They can be made as a single piece or consist of two halves. The earlier daggers usually consisted of a single piece handle. The handle is attached to the blade with 2 or 3 metal rivets with silver caps on the right side. The outer rivets have a convex, hemispherical or conical shape, and the central rivet can have a flat, oval, diamond-shaped, drop-shaped, round or heart-shaped form. A typical Transcaucasian dagger common among Armenians and Georgians has three rivets with the middle rivet cap being flat. Silver rivet caps are decorated with ornaments such as rosettes, curls and leafs.
The pommel on the back of the handle is small and usually rounded. Pommels can also have various decorative shapes such as the shape of three leafs.
The handle made from bone is sometimes decorated with gold inlay or silver lining on the bottom and the head (the latter often teardrop-shaped). In rare cases, the lining covers the entire handle. In those cases they are decorated with various stylized floral ornaments consisting of stems, leaves and rosettes, similar to niello belt decoration.
The most common scabbards are made of wood and consist of two halves upholstered with leather (usually black) or red morocco. The mouth and the tip of the scabbard is made of metal distinguished with a prominent ball on the tip of the scabbard. The tip is sometimes entirely covered with leather where only the ball on the tip remains visible which is made either from metal, horn or a bone. In other cases the metal tip of the scabbard is kept uncovered. Usually the mouth of the scabbard as well as the tip are decorated with gold, silver or copper stylized floral ornaments. The mouth of the scabbard is sometimes also covered with silver plates, decorated with niello engravings.
The scabbard is often decorated with stylized Armenian letters, large flowers, flower buds, leafs or curls. Scabbards can also be made of other materials such as (precious) metals and decorated with ornaments and precious stones. There are also wide iron or silver tips with a metal band soldered to the mouth of the scabbard. Silver parts are decorated with fine niello and gold or copper surface is engraved with stylized floral ornaments. Sometimes the tip and the mouth of the scabbard are greatly extended towards the middle of the scabbard and have the form of an arch ending in an elongated round, teardrop or a lief tip. The decorations greatly resemble the the ornaments found in Armenian medieval manuscripts. On the reverse side of the scabbard there is often a holder for a smaller under-knife (or sometimes two).
The Royal Steel
Countless Armenian masters became renown for their excellent skills of manufacturing high quality cold steel within the Russian empire. Their products were often in demand at the highest levels of military and royal establishments of the time. As such, several Armenian masters became official suppliers of the Royal imperial court of Russia. Some of them elevated to legendary status and immortalized in Russian popular culture of the time. Geurk (Gevork) Sarkisovich Eliyarov was one of such masters highly praised by the Russian nobility. Geurk and his sons were at the time considered one of the best cold arms manufacturers from Tiflis. In a letter of the Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich of Russia to the Russian Imperial general Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov dated June 27, 1817, we read:
“Speaking as someone who’s honored to have received the Asian sword by the artist Geurk, my pleasant duty requires me to address you for the signified and the memory of an old friendship with my sincerest gratitude. I ask you… to thank for me the general Yermolov for the sword of Geurk”
Geurks name was also mentioned by Russia’s most important poet (after Pushkin’s death in 1837) and the greatest figure in Russian Romanticism Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov. One of his versions of the poem “Poet”, written in the year 1838, Lermantov mentions Geurk as follows:
“In the silver scabbard shines my dagger,
The old Geurk’s creation,
*Bulat keeps its mysterious temper,
A long forgotten potion!..
It served the rider in the mountains many years,
A weapon of mortal vengeance
And he listened alone to its midnight delirium
And to the proud heartbeat.”
Not to deprive you of the original masterpiece written in Russian (because of my butchered English translation above) read bellow:
В серебряных ножнах блистает мой кинжал,
Геурга старого изделье,
Булат его хранит таинственный закал, —
Давно утраченное зелье!..
Наезднику в горах служил он много лет
Орудьем гибельного мщенья,
И слушал он один его полночный бред
И сердца гордого биенье.
*Note: Bulat is a type of steel alloy known in Russia from medieval times and regularly mentioned in Russian legends as material of choice for cold steel. The secret of bulat manufacturing was lost by the beginning of the 19th century.
In another of Lermantov’s passages written in November 1837, he recounts:
“I took the dagger from the dead as evidence. We’ll take it to Geurk. He says he crafted it for a Russian officer.”
Geurk’s masterpieces are still highly priced artifacts and are kept in museums such as the the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Another very famous Armenian master in the Russian empire from Tiflis was Osip Popov (Joseph Papoyan) who was also a supplier of the Royal Russian imperial court. In the document of the Office of the Viceroy of the Caucasus, dated 1862, We read:
“Popov, a craftsman practicing the craft of his ancestral family since the Georgian kings, whose grandfather was the courts gunsmith, earned himself a reputation as a skilled master.”
In the writings of Prince Nikolai Sergeyevich Trubetzkoy of the Russian empire, we come across the following passage regarding Popov:
“The old Tiflis gunsmith, the Armenian Joseph Popov, was considered in the thirties of the last century to be the best of master of arms. It is said that Colonel Bezobrazov on his way through Tbilisi, ordered from him a model sward (shashka), which he subsequently sent to Emperor Nicholas “
It is well known that Popov had presented the emperor Nikolai with a sward and a dagger, for which he received 150 ruble. In 1861 the emperor Alexander II had chosen from Popov’s presented work 5 objects for which Popov received 350 ruble in Kutaisi. In 1862 Tiflis governor-general granted Popov the right to use the royal coat of arms on his products to distinguish them from those of other masters, because Popov: “had reached a level of perfection that was superior to other masters.” Popov received several medals and awards in the course of his career.
Bellow a list of some of the famous 19th century Armenian cold arms manufacturers of the Russian Empire.
See bellow some examples of different types of Armenian daggers from the 19th century:
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