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01 October 2020
close-up of the sword covered with gold Arabic letter inscriptions
The Yatagan is an Ottoman sword fashioned from crucible steel. This sword is one of four known examples made in the royal workshops of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512).

Quick! Your small boat is sinking fast whilst the storm rages and the waves crash down around you, what would you grab to take with you as you swim to that nearby desert island? 

Welcome to the third part of our Cast Away Series, where we ask our guests this question and graciously give them the luxury of picking their three essential objects from a museum’s collection. This month we have Dr Tara Desjardins, Curator of South Asia at the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), she has a keen eye for jewels and great interest in storytelling through objects. 

Join us as we explore Tara’s top picks for the desert island in the third edition of our series, Cast Away: The Museum Edition. 

“If I were stranded on a desert island, I would probably bring three objects that were both practical and pleasing. As MIA's collection of jewelled objects is particularly strong, I would immediately start with a jewel. And, what better practical choice to make should I ever need to exchange the jewel for safe return passage back to Doha!”


A glass-like translucent rectangular emerald jewel
Inscribed Emerald, Mughal, India, 17th century from the South Asian collection at MIA

Inscribed Emerald  (17th century) 

“Jewels represent a common currency that have for centuries been traded across the globe. Historically, the Indian subcontinent was abundantly rich in jewels, but during the seventeenth century – with the establishment of new European trade routes – different jewels entered into the Mughal courts. These included deep green emeralds which were sourced from Columbia, in South America. 

MIA's large, rectangular emerald is a fantastic example of this global trade. What makes this gem unique is that it is the only known emerald with an inscription of the fourth Mughal emperor Jahangir (r. 1605–1627). In India, emeralds were believed to possess healing properties, or to ward off evil. As such, they were collected in the treasuries of the Mughals, or mounted into jewellery and worn. As an exceptional example of a precious gem, this emerald could easily be admired by all. In order to best appreciate the quality of this stone, I would display it in a manner that allows light to shine through it, as this would not only highlight the stone's remarkable colour, but also showcase its nearly flawless quality. However, as a lady it would also be equally fabulous mounted into a necklace.”


A steel sword with the narrow blade inscribed with gold Arabic lettering
Steel Sword with Gold Inlay, Ottoman, Turkey, 15th–16th century signed Mustafa ibn Kemal al-Akshehri

Yatagan (15th–16th century)

“Another object I would take would be a type of sword known in Ottoman Turkish as a yatagan. Once again, the practical purposes of having a sword whilst stranded on a deserted island are obvious: it could be effective in defending myself against possible attackers; and, it could be used for salvaging food. The long straight-edged blade on this yatagan perfectly suits both purposes. In addition, the yatagan is also accompanied by a scabbard (a case), which helps to protect the sword (and myself) when carried around the island. However, this yatagan is also of great historical importance. It is one of four known examples made in the royal workshops of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512). Fashioned from crucible steel, the blade is incised with fine gold inscriptions that tell us who it was made for, and by whom. Probably made as a ceremonial sword gifted to Bayezid's son-in-law – also a distinguished general in the Ottoman military – this yatagan displays the high quality of sixteenth century imperial craftsmanship. This yatagan would best be displayed separate from, but next to, its scabbard in order to highlight the fine work of the blade.”


An interior shot of the cup. It is delicate in appearance and engraved with green and burgundy jewels and has leaf-shaped handle.
Jade cup, 16th–18th century from Mughal India

Jade Cup (16th–18th century) 

“The last object I would bring is a small cup carved from jade and set with finely sliced emeralds and rubies. This delicate cup, although fragile, fits perfectly into the palm of one's hand. Fashioned in the form of a flower, this cup is both beautiful and practical. The high quality of craftsmanship connects this cup with the imperial workshops of Mughal India. Admired for its technical and aesthetic achievement, this cup is a personal favourite from MIA's collection. The best way to display this object would be to have a soft light shining through the jade in order to highlight its translucent quality; the beautiful unfolding flower at its base should also be shown, perhaps with the aid of a mirror.” 

From jewels with healing powers to extravagant gold swords and lavish crockery, Tara’s top picks for the desert island showcase some of the most liked and well-known items from the South Asian Collection at MIA. Besides these objects, MIA also shelters a range of rare and precious possessions from the past, not only from South Asia but from all around the world. 

Head on over to the website and check out MIA’s online exhibitions and for museum visits, you can now book admission tickets prior to visiting MIA. 

Want to know more about MIA’s current exhibition? Visit our blog to read a special feature about the ongoing exhibition, A Falcons Eye: Tribute to Shaikh Saoud Al Thani

Stay tuned for more posts from our series, Cast Away: The Museum Edition

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