Friday, June 12, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘Allah is Great’ Inscribed on Helmet of Ivan the Terrible, Iranian Diplomat Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 12 – An Arabic inscription on the helmet worn by Ivan the Terrible reads “Allah Mohammed,” according to an Iranian diplomat, who told Russian journalists in Astrakhan this week that these words could be an abbreviated form of “well-known expression that ‘’Allah is Great and Mohammed is His Prophet.’”
Seid Holmarez Meyguni, Iran’s consul general in Astrakhan, noted that the Arab inscription on the upper portion of the tsar’s helmet now on display there comes from “a rare Arabic dialect” but that there is no doubt in his mind that the words should be translated as he suggested, according to a report in “Izvestiya” (
Russian experts are treating Meyguni’s suggestion with respect, but they are calling for further investigation not only of the translation but of what the appearance of such an inscription on the field crown of the Russian tsar who conquered a series of Muslim khanates including Astrakhan and Kazan could mean.
Elena Arutyunova, a senior specialist at the Astrakhan museum where Ivan’s helmet is now on display, told Itar-Tass that “we consider the translation of the Iranian consul as a version which behind doubt requires checking by linguists and orientalists,” who should also seek to determine why it was there.
One explanation, she suggested, is that this headgear was “given to the father of Ivan the Grozny by the Turkish sultan,” an interpretation that is suggested by another inscription, “already in the Slavic language, identifying this helmet as that of Prince Ivan Vasilyevich, the son of the Great Prince Vasiliy Ivanovich.”
The helmet itself has an interesting history. It currently belongs to the Royal Armament Chamber of the Swedish government but was specially loaned to Astrakhan for an exhibit in honor of the “forcible” incorporation of that khanate by Ivan. “Earlier,” the Moscow paper continued, “it has been displayed in the Armament Chamber of the Moscow Kremlin.”
According to the “Izvestiya” article, there are several possible explanations for how the helmet of Ivan the Terrible ended up in Stockholm. “It is possible,” the paper said, that “it was seized in Moscow during the Time of Troubles in 1611-1612 and along with other treasures was sent to Warsaw for King Sigismund.”
“Then, in 1665, when the Polish forces suffered defeat in a war with Sweden,” the crown could “have been carried off by the Swedes from Warsaw as their trophy,” an explanation that is supported by the appearance of Ivan’s helmet in the 1663 inventory of the Royal Armament Chamber in Stockholm.”
This report about a single exhibit is part of the larger and unsettled debates about the origins of Russia and the Russians that continue to resound among residents of that country even as people there mark its national day (For a discussion, see But it also serves as a reminder of two other and more important aspects of that history.
On the one hand, this report highlights the dangers of trying to impose a single “correct” reading on many issues in that complex history. And on the other, this story calls attention to something many Russian nationalists currently are reluctant to admit: the role that Islam and Islamic peoples have played not only as opponents of Russian statehood but as parts of it.

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