DR. MURRAY LEE EILAND
ARCHAEOLOGIST
UNIVERSITY OF DAMASCUS

 

 










Problems of Islamic Heraldry (cont.) BACK

 

Birds of Prey

In Figure 1, a bird is standing on a cup from a potsherd2 in the National Museum of Arab Art, Cairo (drawn after Mayer 1933, pl. III: 12). The cup may be a symbol of office, but first attention should be given to the bird. The beak is clearly

Figure 1
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accentuated, and barring its being a parrot, it seems that the bird is predatory.  Without being able to see the feet this attribution hinges on a number of other birds that occur in other blazons. Figure 2 is of a bird with wings and legs outstretched, clearly showing powerful feet with long claws (also from a potsherd in the National Museum of Arab Art, Cairo, drawn after Mayer 1933, pl. III:13). The beak is clear, and one has no reservation in assuming it is a bird of prey. Before the introduction of firearms nomadic peoples had two basic ways of capturing birds for meat.  The first, using a net, is perhaps the least sporting, and involved long hours waiting for prey.  A far more romantic pastime is hunting with predatory birds. Falcons, essentially the only bird of prey used by Gulf Arabs (Remple & Gross 1993, 58), were long held in great esteem, and even today meat captured by a falcon is regarded as more pure than that obtained by firearms. Perhaps the most important aspect of the hunt is the process itself, as the

Figure 2
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predatory bird will engage in various manoeuvres to capture prey.  Perhaps also indicating that the owner has spare time as well as money, falconry has long held an association with aristocratic leisure, and today is very popular in the Gulf states. This is a tradition that has a long history that is unfortunately not preserved in the archaeological record beyond a few representations on minor arts, such as ceramicslike the Islamic blazons hereand coins.

A 'cup' is also portrayed on the second blazonas in Figure1suggesting there could be a link between birds and cups. The first question to address is whether the symbol is indeed a cup, as appears on other Islamic blazons, or is some object associated with falconry. In both blazons shown here it appears that the bird is using the cup as a stand, particularly in the first example. Such portable perches are known as 'wakir' in Arabic, and are a standard part of a falconer's kit.  They are often ornate lathe turned pieces of wood that allow the bird to stand flat footed on a platform while remaining anchored to the ground.  This stand was of prime importance to the sport:

    Traditionally the nomadic falconer, perched atop a camel had to carry not only the falcon but the bare necessities of her furniture.  While the falcon was perched on the falconer's hand, she was also attached, by means of the mursil [secure line], to the wakir, which in turn was tucked under the falconer's arm
    (Remple & Gross 1993, 23).

While the portrayals of the 'cup' in the two blazons seem to represent a cup, it also appears that it functions like a wakir. The line that attached the bird to the perch is clearly lacking, as well as the spike that would anchor the perch to the ground.  The artist—familiar with falconry—could be associating the cup with the wakir.  Yet assuming that a cup is just a cup, there are reasons why this symbol carries with it powerful connotations. It was commonly used on Byzantine churches to refer to the 'cup that never empties,' which has clear spiritual overtones. This imagery is familiar to both Christian and Muslim thought, and perhaps is particularly understandable in a region where water is a precious resource.  Today in many parts of the Arab world water—now also appreciated as something to drink such as tea or a soft drink—is an important aspect of basic hospitality. A cup would be considered a basic utensil for personal use as well as a courtesy to others. 
In the Book of the Jihâd (Chapter 91) we read that:

    What has been said regarding the armour of the Prophet, his staff, sword, cup and ring.  The introduction goes on to state that the utensils of the Prophet were 'considered blessed things'
    The Translation of the Meanings of Summarized Sahîh Al-Bukhâri: Arabic-English.  Translated by M.M. Khân.  Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1994. p. 625

It would be instructive here to have a statistical analysis of Islamic blazons and their charges, but such a study is beyond the confines of this paper. Whatever the case, the

Figure 3
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use of birds in Islamic blazons is clearly an indigenous phenomenon and not transplanted from the West.  But there are other blazons that have a less certain parentage.  (Figure 3) (potsherd in the National Museum of Arab Art, Cairo, drawn after Mayer 1933, pl. III:3) is of a totally different character. The double headed eagle is of a broadly European design, represented most particularly by the Russian state symbol, though many Central European statues used variants of the theme (Figure 4). Yet before we progress with this discussion, it may be opportune to digress somewhat. Birds of prey—in this case labelled 'eagles'— were so highly regarded in antiquity that they found a place among the constellations. Interestingly they are associated with swans, as the eagle rises in the eastern sky immediately after the swan, but sets before it.  This has been taken by some to

Figure 4
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suggest that in the trial by combat, the swan (located closer to the circumpolar zone) eventually wins. It is generally a summer constellation.  In any case the eagle is found as a cosmological symbol in ancient Mesopotamia, and was known to the Greeks and Romans as the Bird of Zeus. It was known to the Turks as the ‘Hunting Eagle’. The Arabs had no less veneration for the bird, and the modern name for the main star in this constellation is taken from Arabic.  Al Nasr Altair (The Flying Eagle) is commonly known as Altair, the star at the junction between the neck and the wing (Motz & Nathanson 1998, 269). When compared to arms with a bird and cup, what can one suggest about the double headed eagle? Was it assumed without any authority or was this very Western looking blazon granted by a Islamic ruler?

To previous scholars, the origins of the Russian and Eastern European double headed eagle are to be found in the Byzantine empire. The Byzantines adopted the double headed eagle to symbolize the union of Eastern and Western empires. There is some question if it was introduced by Constantine I (306–337), but it is clear that the symbol was used shortly afterwards. It is well known that Byzantine power extended into the Balkans and across Anatolia. Political alliances—often involving the gift of Imperial titles with gifts—to allies and potential allies—led to the wide-scale adoption of Byzantine symbols. Russia was eager to adopt this symbol. During the empire the eagle was commonly portrayed black, with red eyes and tongues, and golden claws and beaks. The first ruler of a united Russia, Ivan III, had a state Seal with a double headed eagle and crowns on both heads commemorating his marriage to the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI.  The device was taken from a throne she brought with her. A seal from his reign survives affixed to a charter of 1497.   The other side bore a representation of St. George killing a dragon. Given the trade between these client states and Byzantium, it is no surprise that there is extensive material evidence that supports close cultural contact between East and West (Rothery 1994, 47–50). After the fall of Constantinople, there is no doubt that Russia saw itself as the legitimate successor, yet other nations could claim this as well.  This aspect, clearly a political aim, was often cloaked under the guise of asserting the spiritual protection of all Christian minorities in Ottoman lands, which was an issue as recently as World War I. Is the blazon to be seen in this light? Would this blazon be approved by a Muslim ruler? 

The true origin of the design explains why it was used in Islamic heraldry.  The motif of the double headed eagle is very ancient, appearing in Mesopotamia at Ur (III dynasty, before 2000 BC) and in ancient Greece. It is difficult to define where the design originated, but it was in continuous use throughout Anatolia. It appears in sculpture from Alaja Hüyük dating to about 2000 BC and in several Hittite sites in Cappodocia (1400–1200 BC). The Byzantine empire used it preeminently since the 10th century, and perhaps from there the double headed eagles make appearances in English tokens in 1260–1290 and in Italian coins of the 13th century that imitated Sicilian coins in an Arab style. Other non-Byzantine groups used the double eagle in the Near East, as a coin minted in Baghdad in the 10th century demonstrates. Seljuq Turks also used this device from earlier cultures, and the symbol may have been assumed by them as an emblem of the dynasty.  There is a tile from a Seljuq palace at Kubadabad which depicts a two headed eagle and an inscription: "al-Sultan." The palace dates to 1220–1230, and a coin of 'Imad al-Din Zengi struck in Sinjar in 1187 suggests that it was more than simply decoration (Spengler & Sayles 1992, 44). It also occurs on everyday items from a variety of contexts throughout the Near East.  It is difficult to suggest that the double headed eagle was spread West by the Crusades, though it is clearly of Eastern origin.  The symbol was strongly linked to ancient astrology:

    In the late Middle Ages, the two-headed eagle represented the active and passive principles in the alchemical operation of transmutation...the mutable and transforming principle [of the planet Mercury] which affects the affairs of mankind.  Mercury is depicted within its day house Gemeni—symbolized by the [double headed] eagle. These powerful astrological beliefs originated in the very region where Artuqid coins were struck, and their popularity spread from there throughout northern Europe. 

(Spengler & Sayles, 1992, 46). The symbol survives to the present day, and as Béresniak (2000, 82) notes, the symbol of the double headed eagle is of great significance to some Masons:

    Once the traveller has reached the camp of the Kadosh, the bicephalous eagle will always remain with him. At this degree, it is black and white.  At the thirty-third degree, it becomes completely black, while the traveller is decked in white.  During the final degrees of the rite, the double-headed eagle becomes more and more a symbol of power.

    2. There is no solid dating evidence available for this—or the other Islamic blazons in this paperas they are all from potsherds without a context. Hopefully in the future archaeological evidence with full data will become available, though the field of Islamic archaeology is still just beginning.

 

 

 


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