Weapons - Standard (alam)

Pierced steel plate with iron adjuncts
Size: 81.5 x 32.5 cm
Origin and time: Iran, late 16th century
Catalogue: Schätze des Aga Khan Museum, AKTC
Inv. No. AKM 000679

Under the Safavids, steel, though primarily used for weapons, was frequently also utilized for etchings and openwork standards. As documented by European travellers since the seventeenth century, standards used to be taken out during shi`ite processions. However, there is no handwritten proof that any such tradition was practiced any time before the sixteenth century.
The illustrated specimen, exhibited in the Aga Khan Museum, displays a pomegranate-shaped sheet of steel with two divergent extensions at its end. The latter allude to the Dhu’l-fiqar sword and its distinguishing two tips. 

The large open-worked area shows an inscription which stands out from a stylised, mirrored background of growing tendrils. Read from top to bottom, it says: “Ya Allah, ya Muhammad, ya 'Ali” (“O God, O Muhammad, O Ali”). Since the inscription is mirrored along the vertical axis, it can be read from both directions. At the bottom half of the open-worked area, the two invocations of “ 'Ali” ” form a stylised face as they meet on the axis. It might be Ali`s representative symbol – a lion: While the lam and the ya of the word “ 'Ali”” outline the contours of the animal, the 'ayn (not only the name of the first letter of `Ali, but also “eye” in Arabic) represent the eyes, and the two vocative particles ya are joined together to form the snout.

The steel sheet has three stylised dragon heads riveted onto each side (since the ornamentation is mirrored along the vertical axis). In fact, the dragon was a highly esteemed motif in the Islamic world. Miniatures dating from the Safavid period show pomegranate-shaped standards with dragon heads and the displayed scenes often allude to battles and sanctuaries. Consequently, standards played a role in religion as well as in warfare at that time. The dragons attached to this specimen might be a symbol of protection. CM