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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

More on the Jambiya, the Arab Dagger

This magnificent replica of a 13th-century Moroccan-style jambiya and its sheath were made by master craftsman Chuck Burrows. See more about it here.

In my files I have a number of 19th-century references to the curved Arab dagger, the jambiya, and in the interest of taking a glance at other cultures in which the carrying of a large knife is traditional, I thought I’d pass them along. More to come tomorrow.

From Narrative of Voyages to Explore the Shores of Africa, Arabia and Madagascar (1833), by W. F. W. Owen:
Poor, indeed, must an Arab be, who is seen without a sabre hung over his shoulder and a dagger by his side. In richly embellishing the handles of these, he considers the few dollars he can manage to scrape together by painful self-denial, even of necessaries, well laid out.
From An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig "Commerce" (1847), by James Riley:
The Moors . . . . were armed with daggers, or scimitars, suspended from their necks by a cord of red woolen yarn thrown over the left shoulder: the scabbards were such as I have before described. The dagger is worn outside of the haick [robe]; its handle is made of wood, handsomely wrought. The point of the dagger hooks inward like a pruning knife : when they have occasion to use it, they seize it with their right hand, the lower side of the hand being next to the blade, and strike after raising it above their heads, ripping open their adversary: they never attempt to parry a stroke with their daggers.
From Zanzibar, vol 1, (1872) by Sir Richard Francis Burton:
None but women and slaves leave the house unarmed. The lowest Arab sticks an old dagger in his belt, handles a rusty spear, or shoulders a cheap firelock. . . .  Jambiyahs, Khanjars, or daggers, worn strapped and buckled round the waist, are curved till the point forms almost a right angle with the hilt. It is a silly construction; but anything will serve to stab the enemy's back above the shoulders. The dudgeon of black or white rhinoceros or buffalo horn is adorned with a profusion of filigree-work, and silver or gold knobs; the blade, sharp on both sides, is nearly three inches broad at the base. The sheath ('Alá) is similarly ornamented  upon a ground of leather, cloth, or brocade, dark or scarlet, with the usual metal rings and 'fixings.' The Khanjar often costs $200, and a handsome dagger is a sign of rank.
A Khanjar

Antoine Barthelemy Clot (1793–1868) was a French physician who taught anatomy to medical students in early 19th-century Egypt--one of the first Europeans to do so. He was given the honorary title “Bey” and so was known as “Clot Bey.” One of the difficulties he had to overcome was the Muslim abhorrence of dissection of human remains. When Clot-Bey laid out a cadaver before his class and began opening it up, one fanatical student attacked him with his jambiya, slashing downward at his chest. According to his obituary in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal:
The blade glanced upon the ribs. Clot-Bey felt that he was not seriously hurt. He drew a bandage from his case, and while adjusting it upon the wound, thus addressed the students: - "We were about to speak of the relations of the sternum and the ribs. I will now, however, explain to you why a blow from above, downward, is not likely to penetrate."

This proof of presence of mind gave him unlimited ascendancy over his pupils. He continued his course, and raised many students worthy of their master.

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