**The following fictional story was originally written as a gallery guide intended to engage children and adults in a dialogue regarding objects and their role in biography.
The short story is written from the perspective of Sultan Mahmud I (r. 1730- 1754). This anecdote is based on the legendary story of a competition initiatied by the Ottoman ruler, as told by the art and antiques dealer who sold collector Henry Walters a magnificent rifle set in 1903.
The rifle set can be seen as part of the international loan show, "Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts," curated by Dr. Amy Landau
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (November 8, 2015- January 31, 2016); Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (February 26- May 8, 2016)
The Legend of Sultan Mahmud I and the Magnificent Rifle Set
My name is Mahmud I and I am the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Sitting on the throne, I am living a dream I never could have imagined as a young child. Born with a hunchback and at the mercy of my uncle Ahmed III, I was condemned to living in the palace, where I was secluded from the rest of society. However, this was not so much a plight as a privilege, as I spent my youth reading the finest literature and learning the most elegant calligraphy. My childhood was a rich one, as I was surrounded by the women of the harem, all of whom were wonderful storytellers and smart debaters.
From a young age, I fell in love with music. I can remember the first time I sat on a cushion with the qanun on my lap. Gently, I let my fingers run over the strings and was astonished at the full, sweet sounds that came from the instrument. I dedicated myself to the study of music and soon began to write my own compositions.
However, my life would suddenly change in the year 1730 when the rebels overthrew my uncle’s court and named me sultan. They would never say it, but I knew of course, the rebels only made me sultan because based on my disability, they thought they could use me as a puppet behind which they would control the empire. At this time, I was already in my thirties, and though I had not spent much time outside the palace, I was well-read and well-aware of the needs of the Ottoman Empire, as well as what was happening in the French and Spanish Empires to the West and in the Safavid and Mughal Empires to the East.
I was secretly excited with the opportunity to make a change in my corner of the world. I immediately started building, not just palaces for myself, but also structures that improved Ottoman society, like fountains so people could have access to water, and libraries so citizens could learn the wonders of our world. I focused on trade with other empires and imported beautiful objects like porcelain tea cups from England and gold pocket watches from France. The people of my empire have enriched lives because they are surrounded by beautiful things and live in a time of peace.
Not too long ago, I announced a competition.
“My subjects, the good people of the Ottoman Empire, I, your Sultan am seeking a gun so that I may kill an animal without the gun and so that I can sign a decree with the gun when hunting.”
The idea behind my competition was one of curiosity, as well as a way to improve my public image. Ever since my uncle Sultan Ahmed III made a point of displaying his marksmanship in public, it has been expected the sultan always possess this talent, as evidence of the ruler’s abilities as a military leader. I have never been able to hunt on account of my hunchback, but I am very gifted in the art of calligraphy, which is also an important quality in a ruler. Both require a steady hand and foresight. Since ascending to the throne, I have tried to stress the importance of calligraphy over that of marksmanship. However, this has not been sufficient, and therefore I have long been thinking about how to excel at both hunting and calligraphy without actually having to hold and shoot a gun.
Every gun maker in Istanbul and beyond was very excited by the competition.
“My dear Sultan,” said a master gunsmith, “I bring you this weapon.”
“Your Honor, a gun clad in gold,” said another.
“Sultan Mahmud I, I present to you a weapon which serves as both gun and sword,” piped another.
All the arrogant masters and their eager apprentices from Istanbul to Aleppo brought me weapons, but each failed to satisfy my conditions. In fury, I broke the dissatisfactory guns and disgraced their creators. I was going to give up when a curious man asked permission to present his gun for my inspection. The gunsmith entered my court and held before me a long diamond and jewel-encrusted rifle. It was beautiful, I must admit, but it was not what I had requested. I ordered it be broken and discarded with the others when the gunsmith boldly asked me to examine the gun more closely. I hesitated for a moment, and then asked how his weapon could be a gun with which I could kill an animal without a gun
The clever gun maker opened a tiny drawer at the butt of the gun and took out a magnificently decorated dagger. I was pleasantly surprised, but not satisfied.
“But how can I sign a decree with this gun?” I asked.
“Come closer, my Sultan,” he replied with a sly smile.
I bent down, my nose nearly touching the diamond surface. Building anticipation, the gunsmith slowly opened another secret compartment, pausing before removing a writing case. I sat in silence as I watched the artist open the silver box and slowly pull out splendid pens, a shining ink well and an ornamented knife with which to sharpen the quills.
I was astonished at the brilliant mind of the man and his splendid treasure. I had not known it, but this was what I had requested, and exactly what I needed at this point in my sultanate. Shining and glorious, the gun would enter the Treasury as a testament to my power and sophistication as sultan.