This article originally appeared on the 19th of April 2020 on the website of Silah Report written by yours truly.
One of the peculiarities of a front line soldier’s life throughout the history of increasingly intense warfare is the heightened susceptibility to superstition and the supernatural, expressed through a plethora of different talismans, charms and other curious oddities. One might think of the strange British Touch Wud [wood] charms of World War I, the lucky rabbit feet worn by American soldiers in Vietnam or Japanese charm pouches worn during World War II. It is a common occurrence across all civilizations to feel shielded by the pretense of spiritual protection, as fleeting and illusory as it may seem. When the flesh is at its most vulnerable, man seeks different ways to somewhat dampen the fear for the imminent threat of death and disfigurement.
The Ottoman soldier of the 19th century was no exception. In this first article of two, we will focus on the common soldier’s standard service rifle, the Mauser bolt-action rifle, and the occurrence of star-shaped markings said to be of an apotropaic nature, i.e. protecting the wearer against evil. The Ottoman foot soldier hails from a culture which was well-known for its profound superstitious beliefs and apprehension for magical spells and curses shared by all layers of its people, a trend present among all ethnicities of the Ottoman Empire. John Covel (1638-1722) chaplain to the English ambassador in Istanbul, wrote in his early 18th century diary, as quoted by Zur Shalev in Knowledge and Religion in Early Modern Europe (2013):
“You can’t imagine the strange superstitions that are commonly found among the people of this country. Be they Turks, Jews, Greeks or Armenians, all have their amulets and talismans about themselves, but especially about their children, their horses, their houses… The Turks have commonly their talismans engraved on silver or gold.”
American Ottoman expert Fanny Davis writes in The Ottoman Lady: A Social History from 1718 to 1918 (1986):
“The belief in spells, both good and bad, was widespread. A Turkish lady, however high her position, invariably attributed to the influence of magic the neglect she experienced from her husband, or the bestowal of his favour on other wives. (…) Probably nothing was more feared by the women of the Ottoman Empire than the evil eye. The means used to nullify its effects were numerous and ran the gamut of fumigations, incantations and charms. A great variety of objects were considered efficacious, among them garlic, wild thyme, boars’ tusks, (…) eggs and written amulets.”
She mentions how it was believed that the eccentricities of Sultan Abdülaziz (1830-1876) could be attributed to magic spells that intriguers had cast on him. Abdülaziz ruled from 1861 to 1876, so these beliefs were present well into the 19th century.
Like other utensils and objects of everyday life, the rifle played a major role in Ottoman culture, especially the centuries-old military tradition still in part present during the 19th century. The Mauser bolt-action rifle was by far the most popular firearm during the second half of that period, starting with the Mauser Model 1887, a further refinement of the German Model 1871 and the first of a series of rifles contractually purchased by the Ottoman Army from Waffenfabrik Mauser. Even with ordering an amount of 500,000 rifles, only about 270,000 of these M1887 rifles were eventually accepted, the remainder of the contract being filled with the Model 1890 after the switch was made to smokeless powder. Despite being produced in the German weapon factory of Oberndorf, these contract rifles were all distinctly engraved in the Ottoman Turkish script and marked with Turkish inspection marks including the imperial tughra calligraphic monogram. Being the first in the series, the Model 1887 had an impressive amount of revision markings absent on the later Turkish models and even considered uncommon with regard to other contemporary rifles in the international military scene of that time.
As explained by a blueprint schematic of the M1887, each of these inspection marks represents a single stage in the testing process of the rifle. They are named both in German and in Ottoman Turkish and are from top to bottom:
– Glatte Lauf fertig (barrel boring is complete)
– Gewehrbeschuß (barrel pressure test)
– Fertiger Lauf mit Patronenlager (barrel rifled and chamber completed)
– Lauf mit Visier und Korn (front and rear sight mounted)
– Systembeschuß (test fired)
– Systeminspektion (system inspection)
Assisted by professional instructor Ottoman Turkish and researcher on Medieval and Early Modern Turkic history Nicholas D. Kontovas, currently associated with Leiden University, I was able to reconstruct the Ottoman inscriptions corresponding to each symbol as seen on this blueprint schematic. Part of the exclusive content Silah Report aims to offer, these Ottoman Turkish inscriptions were also provided with their corresponding translation and romanization. Feel free to check it out in the chart below. I would also like to thank our own AnalystMick for the German translations.
To my knowledge, there exists no explanation as to why exactly these symbols were chosen to represent the processes. They seem to be a rather random choice of familiar Ottoman icons, like the crescent, and Arabic-script monograms with no obvious meaning. However, an attentive eye might have discerned a star currently not really associated with the Ottoman Empire or even Islam at all, the hexagram, representing the test firing ‘Systembeschuß’ stage on the M1887.
Later Mauser models like the M1890 and M1893 destined for the Ottoman army look rather sober in comparison to the M1887 with regard to noticeable revision markings. However, two symbols used on the previous M1887 are reused in addition to the distinctive tughra. Small crescents and hexagram stars are kept as marks and can be found engraved on random places all over the rifle, the bayonet and its scabbard. It is likely that these marks kept the same meaning as was the case on the M1887, i.e. the crescent as a inspection mark for pressure tests and the hexagram as an inspection mark for test firings.
The most distinctive symbol by far is that six-pointed star, the hexagram. In addition to its quasi random appearances across the rifle, one, or in some cases two, six-pointed stars consistently appear as part of the fixed attributive inscription ʾūberndūrf – mawzer silāḥ fabrīkasī and the year in Ottoman Turkish script found on the side of the receiver. The choice for a hexagram star and its visual prominence on Ottoman Mausers, especially the M1890 and M1893, isn’t a coincidence. Despite some rifle enthusiasts erroneously considering it a Star of David, the six-pointed star is actually much older and part of the rich heritage of Muslim religious visual symbolism and imagery, in which it is known as Khātim Sulaymān, the Seal of Solomon.
Several Medieval Muslim exegetes of the Quranic corpus believed that the Israelite prophet and King Solomon, son of David (r. circa 970–931 BC) was given a powerful signet ring by God with which he was able to command men, Jinn and animals alike, holding power over all living beings. He wore the ring to uphold his kingship, contain demons and carry out God’s will on earth. Within this narrative, it’s very likely that Solomon’s ring would have featured an engraved seal, as was customary among the kings and statesmen of ancient times. There is, however, little to no evidence at all to point out what engraving was exactly featured on Solomon’s signet ring’s seal.
The exact image of the seal was left to the imagination, and it shouldn’t surprise that such a powerful magical relic became a popular subject of Abrahamic lore and symbolism. It’s completely unclear where it actually developed into its current hexagram form, other than that it appeared as such as early as the 9th century in a religious apotropaic context in the Abbasid Caliphate.
The hexagram served in some cases as a symbolic association with Islam similar to the star and crescent today, especially during the formative centuries of Islamic art and imagery. It was used on a vast and quasi ubiquitous scale, appearing on armour, shields, houses of prayer, on coins, on banners, on drinking cups and on wooden panels alike. As early as the 11th century, however, the Seal of Solomon became a common talisman and amulet in occultist and mysticist circles and incidentally in popular belief, as it was believed that Solomon could contain the evil spirits and demons with his signet ring. It was used as a warden against evil or as a connection to the world of spirits in order to summon them and command them. Numerous Ottoman objects, dated to the 18th or 19th century, with a Seal of Solomon engraved on them, such as brass drinking cups, a gunman’s patch box and religious prayer books have been preserved.
With this in mind, the choice for six-pointed stars as military markings and decorative elements on popular service rifles could be interpreted in two respects: it serves primarily as a figurative symbol with significant apotropaic connotations hailing from a vast visual religious heritage, and as a result of this precedent it is further upheld as part of the Ottoman collective mind and cultural framework. Compare it to the clover leaf stamp on French-produced Walther P38 9×19mm pistols for example.
An additional attestation to the six-pointed star’s original religious connotation on Ottoman Mausers can ironically be found after the fall of the Ottoman Empire during the 1920’s and the subsequent intense secularization of Turkey led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). In an expected move, the hexagram inspection marks disappeared from the modern Republic’s arms and fell victim together with other religious visuals to the secularist purge of the 1930’s. Obsolete Ottoman rifles converted by the Turkish Army from 1933 onward and henceforth collectively known as the M1938 were no longer marked with six-pointed Seals of Solomon, but with ordinary five-pointed stars. This policy was also applied to the locally manufactured so-called K.Kale-marked rifles. The hexagram was no longer to be seen, only to publicly resurface again in 1948, in a completely different context, in another part of the MENA region.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.