Heritage of Fergana armourers


        Everyday life of the Uzbeks still incorporates centuries-long traditions and customs. Many of them many had arisen before spread of Islam in Central Asia. The knife pichok, a part of Uzbek men’s national dress, reminds of the custom the Sacae, ancestors of the Uzbeks, used to have: they would wear on the belt a short sword akinak – symbol of martial spirit. Yet a pichok knife, though coming from cold steel, is never double-edged, and is never a dagger.




 

        In the Middle Ages a richly decorated belt knife with a handle encrusted with precious stones was an indication of courage and nobleness of the military aristocracy. Bukhara arms and armour were of great value not only in Central Asia but also far beyond. According to ancient Russian archives, Khiva and Bukhara merchants used to bring them to Moscow rulers as gifts. Medieval miniatures and survived examples prove that ancient Bukhara and Samarkand knives had rather long and narrow blades with very sharp tips.

        One of the most ancient centers of metal works was situated in Fergana Valley. As far back as the 10th century an Arabian chronicler wrote that iron arms made in Fergana were commonly used from Khorasan to Baghdad. Later Fergana armourers started to specialize in making knives. And this craft is still practiced in Kokand, Andijan and other towns of Fergana Valley. But the most renowned centre of national knives making is in town of Chust – the famous center of blacksmith’s works.
 

        In the center of Chust there has been for a very long time a smith quarter called suzangaron, where in a small forges suzangar-masters have made knives. In order to make a pichok knife, a smith needs a furnace with bellows, big and small anvils, pincers, files, a set of hammers: from sledge-hammer to flatten red-hot steel bar to smaller hammers to forge blades, and other instruments. It takes a smith a few dozens of operations to forge a knife. Then its blade is tempered a couple of times. The smith’s experience and intuition should always help to know the proper temperature of the piece to be tempered: if it is too hot, it will get brittle. In almost ready but not yet chilled blade the smith then hammers a brass label. Such labels usually represent a crescent with stars, arrows, or Arabic monograms. By the label an experienced eye can always tell not only the place where the knife was made but also the name of the smith. Finally the blade is whetted on grindstones and on a rubber disc.

        Genuine Chust pichok- knife has always had the properties modern designers try to achieve: aesthetic quality and functionality. As a rule, a Chust knife’s tyg blade is straight, 3-4 centimeters in width and, depending on the purpose, from 10 to 20 centimeters in length. Only the knife tolbargi pichok has a narrower and a slightly curved blade that reminds of a willow leaf. The knife tugri pichok has a straight blade with a straight back. The blades of khisori pichok, kozoki pichok and bodomcha pichok have almond-shaped tips. The knives soilik pichok and kamalak pichok have kushkamalak flute on the blade, whereas kushsoilik pichok blade has two flutes. Knives with flutes are thought to be stronger.
 

        But a blade without a handle is just a half-stuff, not a knife. Handles are usually made in the way commanded by the smith’s inspiration. They vary in material and have either smooth or finned surface. Handles made of plastic or acrylic resin are usually impregnated with colored specks of glass. Made of hard species of wood, they seem to breathe and retain the warmth of the master’s hands. Of special value are the handles made of ivory, saiga or deer bone, which is then encrusted with semi-precious stones, mother-of-pearl and silver. Those made of metal are covered with engravings and embossing. The smiths from the village Urgut near Samarkand carve heads of animals or birds at the end of their handles. A handle will always have a little curve at the end to prevent the hand from slipping off. The place where the blade joins the handle is filled with lead, tin or white metal. Sometimes such a filling is covered with geometric patterns, sometimes with mineral dyes. Richly decorated knives like these are called guldor pichok.

        Each type of the traditional Uzbek knives serves its own purpose. Some are used for peeling and chopping carrots and onions for national dish plov, others are used for cutting meat. There are little elegant knives for peeling fruit, and special knives gardeners use for pruning. The knife khisori pichok with a little curved tip of the blade very well serves for cutting up carcasses and cleaning hides
 

        An Uzbek knife always comes with kinbok – scabbard. In some provinces scabbards are made of fabric and are decorated with embroidery. Yet more common are leather scabbards. The black background of such a scabbard is decorated with simple contrasting appliqué patterns or embossing. Sometimes leather scabbard has copper or brass plate decoration with chasings or engravings. There are also wooden scabbards with carved decoration. All scabbards are provided with leather ring to fix them on the belt.

        In Chust there still work the students and followers of the famous suzangar masters Ubaidulla Satarov and Miraziz Karabaev. Besides Chust, another center of metal works, the town of Shahrikhan in Fergana Valley, has recently become well-known. Here the ancient craft of knife making has been revived thanks to the fourth-generation master Rakhmatilla Eshon and masters Rakhmatkhoja Alikhojaev and Ibrokhimjon Aliev. In their workshops there are made over 15 types of knives: straight and curved, clasp knives and fancy ones. The scabbards for Shahrikhan knives are made of brass and copper. They are richly decorated with engraving and chasing, encrusted with semi-precious stones and stained glass. The handles and scabbards of most expensive knives are decorated with silver fretwork kumush sirpasta and chillikha.

        Decorative Khiva knives are also very popular. While Chust smiths concentrate their efforts on blade forging and finishing, Khiva masters are focused on aesthetic quality of the product, its opulent decoration, as a reminder of former luxury of Khiva khans’ court. Khiva knives are richly decorated with engraved fretted patterns covering both the handle and the whole blade. Their leather scabbards are usually covered with silver, copper and brass plates – all decorated with chasing and engraving. The thoroughness with which decoration on Khiva knives is made can be compared to that of jewelers. Khiva knife intricate patterns of intertwining stalks and spiral shoots resemble the traditional Khorezmian style oilanma islimi.
 

        There are always a lot of people near the counters where Uzbek knives are sold: at the bazaars and art shops in Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva, Bukhara, Andijan, Shakhrikhan… While choosing a knife, an experienced purchaser will evaluate not only its decorative quality. A connoisseur will prefer a knife with a light-gray blade and proportionality of the blade and the handle in length and weight. The handle should be “hand-friendly”. Well forged knife easily cuts a flying hair, its blade will serve for years and will be quickly sharpened against the bottom of a china drinking bowl when necessary.

        In Uzbekistan a pichok knife is not only a household stuff for everyday life or a part of the national dress. Since ancient times Central Asian peoples have believed that sharp objects have the power of a talisman protecting their owners from misfortunes. So, a pichok knife is believed to be also an amulet. It is an indispensable part of many national rituals. There are a lot of legends about it. The image of a pichok knife can be often seen in embroideries, on ceramics, in architectural decorations. The popular belief says that a knife put under the pillow of a baby protects him/her from diseases and other troubles, whereas a knife given to a friend as a gift helps him to defeat enemies. The Uzbeks seem to have every reason to sincerely believe that a pichok knife is a magic object that helps its owner in great many ways.