Turquoise. 25 x 20 cm. Nishapur, Iran. 1915.
This instantly recognizable piece worked in magnificent turquoise was a gift to Emperor Franz Joseph I from a Persian turquoise cutter.
ARABIAN NIGHTS IN VIENNA
On the occasion of his 85th birthday, Emperor Franz Joseph I was given an unusual talisman by Mehdi Gassem, a Persian turquoise cutter living in Vienna: an enormous piece of carved turquoise in a gold setting decorated with the imperial crown and the initials of the emperor, the national coat of arms and the dates 1914 (beginning of the First World War) and 1915 (the year in which the gift was presented).
“Oh Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary. Protector of the Law, may God protect you! From the bottom of our hearts, we Muslims pray to the Creator: Give him Succour and give him Victory!” reads the melodramatic dedication in Persian. It was not translated in the annual report of the NHM, where the talisman ended up in 1915, but described rather cynically as “A little poem in Persian written by the artist that eloquently expresses the Mohammedans’ affection for our emperor in simple, but heartfelt words”.
The turquoise comes from the world-famous deposit in Nishapur in present-day Iran. The site was already being mined in Ancient Egypt and is also mentioned in the account of Marco Polo’s travels in the 13th century: “In the mountains of this country they find precious stones which we call turquoise …”
Although the imperial talisman is a unique piece, the idea was implemented several times. At an auction in the year 2008, the Natural History Museum purchased a second turquoise talisman from Mehdi Gassem’s workshop. This one is only half the size, but was also made with a much less celebrated owner in mind: it was a gift to the owner of the Vienna tailor shop where Mehdi Gassem had his shirts made.