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Volume 36, Number 1January/February 1985

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The Treasures of Henri Moser

Written by Rosalind Mazzawi
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

Hidden away in the cellars of the Berne Historical Museum is a fabulous collection of Turkic artifacts, the greater part of which was collected in Central Asia in the 1880's by Henri Moser, a Swiss citizen, son of a watch and clock maker who had settled in St. Petersburg to work for the Russian nobility. Born in Russia, Moser moved to Switzerland at the age of four with his parents, and was educated there. On returning to Russia, at 18, however, he soon found the clock business too restrictive, and set off on the first of four journeys to Central Asia. Initially, he visited Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, learned the local languages, and became friendly with the important citizens. This was the time of the Russian conquest of Central Asia, and Moser, being one of the first Europeans to know the area well, was in a privileged position.

Moser's knowledge of the area earned him a place, in 1882, in the suite of General Tchernaieff, who was going to Tashkent as the Czar's governor general. From Tashkent, Moser continued to Samarkand and Bukhara, sailed down the Amu Darya River on a boat to Khiva, crossed the Karakum Desert to Ashkabad, and then made his way via Bojnurd to Teheran, and across the Caspian to the Caucasus, the Black Sea and finally, in 1883, Istanbul. An account of his journey, Across Central Asia, gave a lively eye-witness account of the people and customs of these regions

As an influential foreigner on excellent terms with the Russian conquerors, Moser was given many treasures on his travels. Some he gave away, some he exchanged for different or better quality objects, and still others he purchased in the suq after lengthy bargaining. It is also quite possible that some of the finer pieces were direct bribes: his memoirs show that he certainly enjoyed the influence he possessed, and his 1882-83 journey was almost a royal progress after leaving Bukhara, with entertainment and gifts from all the local rulers. Many of the weapons, horse accoutrements, costumes, jewelry, metalwork and miscellaneous objects he acquired, Moser sent back to Europe.

Later, in 1888, he took his wife to Central Asia for a year, and enlarged his collection. Thereafter he lived for many years as a businessman in Paris, where he continued to purchase mostly Caucasian objects at sales. A large fortune he made by speculating in Siberian copper and gold mines, enabled Moser to return to Switzerland and arrange his collection in a mansion at Charlottenfels - where he lived until his death in 1923, at the age of 79. At the end of his life, he bequeathed his entire collection to the Museum in Berne, where the photographs accompanying this article were taken.

Extracts from his memoirs describe how Moser acquired objects in his collection - most frequent among them the khalat and shabraq. The first is a ceremonial coat, usually given as a present by the amir or khan to his ministers and friends on state occasions and holidays, or to visitors whom he wished to honor; often it was made of red velvet and gold brocade and quite magnificent. A shabraq is a saddlecloth for a horse, either laid on the top of a plain blanket, and as elaborate as the khalat, which it may match, or else - particularly amongst the Turkoman tribes - made of embroidered felt as part of their dowry by the girls of the tribe.

Moser describes in detail in his book the first meeting between General Tchemaieff and Rahmatullah, the amir of Bukhara's ambassador at Tashkent - an event naturally marked by an exchange of gifts similar to those in Moser's collection.

"Rahmatullah rises to his feet, opens his khalat, and extracts the amir's letter, a vast document encased in a piece of gold brocade, which he presents with both hands whilst bowing deeply. The general receives him standing; an aide then presents the general's gifts, a golden brocade robe and a magnificent silver bowl, both of the finest Russian craftsmanship. The ambassador puts on the garment over his clothes, and then, in turn, presents to the general, on behalf of the amir, swords with Khorasan blades, red velvet scabbards, and decorations of Oriental work in gold and precious stones. At the same time, the packages are being opened. There are 210 khalat made of Indian cloth of gold, Kashmiri shawls in many colored silks, turban material made of camel's hair with rich embroidery, which would delight any European lady, and finally, a series of Persian and Bukharan carpets of exceptional size and color. Then through a window giving on to the palace courtyard, are seen 16 Turkoman horses with elaborate saddles and bridles, the latter being gold covered with turquoise, and the saddles having shabraq embroidered with gold. The horses were paraded in front of the general, led by servants wearing rich Oriental costumes. The view is very impressive, and shows the Orient in all its glory.

Moser also gives a lively description of the Tashkent suq.

The suq is perhaps the largest in Central Asia, and the town dwellers spend most of their time there, talking and strolling about. The streets are covered with suspended reedmats, which prevent both heat and the direct rays of the sun from penetrating. The ground is continually watered and the atmosphere makes a delightful contrast to the heat and dust of the old city, through which the visitor must pass to reach the suq. The main street, an immense thoroughfare, swallows him up; around and behind him are long lines of camels laden with goods, led by Kirghiz in leather garments, and fur hats which give the impression of being part of the beasts of burden. A good many people are on horseback, for the people of Tashkent detest walking and the Kirghiz hardly know how. They ride little steppe ponies, with their coats standing on end and untidy manes; the town dwellers, according to their wealth, ride Argamaks -elegant coursers which resemble European thoroughbreds, with finely curved necks and delicate yet muscular legs, or else Karabeyrs - horses which are a cross between the Turkoman and Kirghiz breeds, and often extremely handsome."

From Tashkent, Moser continued to Samarkand, and then on to Bukhara, with Prince Ferdinand zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berlebourg, who was the Czar's ambassador to the amir of Bukhara. The escort of Prince Ferdinand was composed of Russian Cossacks and freelance warriors, known as "Djigits," who, wrote Moser, "adore bright colors, and wear turbans, embroidered leather trousers, and layers of colored khalat. Their waists are encircled with rainbow sashes which also serve as pockets, and they are armed with swords, pistols and often rifles as well."

The official reception by the Amir Mozaffar el Din of Bukhara, of the prince and his suite, which took place on October 19,1882, was described by Moser as follows:

"The inak, or assistant Vizir, came to escort us to the Palace. He was wearing a velvet khalat embroidered with golden suns as large as soup plates. His turban flecked in gold was shaped like a huge melon, and he was riding a splendid white stallion, caparisoned with a shabraq embroidered in gold and pearls, almost covering the animal. The bridle was of solid gold, enriched with precious stones",

The amir received the guests clad in a rather ill-designed uniform with all types of gold orders embellishing it. He had, however, a magnificent green cashmere turban. Once the reception was over the dastarkhan, or official feast, was served in a very drafty pavilion, and gifts of fur lined gold brocade and silk cloaks were sent to the visitors to keep them warm. Etiquette required them to thank the amir by indicating that the light of his presence was sufficient to banish all sentiments of cold, and leave the cloaks flung over a chair.

The Kush Begui, master of the household and the amir's treasurer, was the most powerful of all the Bukhara officials. He had been born a Persian slave, but had come a long way since then. His dress was incredibly rich; the vast melon-shaped turban was covered with emeralds and rubies embroidered on gold. His khalat, with a background of white satin, was embroidered with pearls on a relief of gold and silver brocade. Since Moser needed his help for his planned journey to Khiva, he brought him as a present an engraved golden bowl, weighing five pounds, and full of small treasures such as perfume bottles, sachets and cosmetics. Moser's gift from the Kush Begi were the same as those from the amir, 10 khalat and a horse accoutred in Bukharan style, "with the difference," wrote Moser "that the horse was a broken down old nag, and the khalat... motheaten."

Moser continued his journey to Khiva by going down the Amu Daria River on a boat large enough to carry his followers, possessions, and horses. In Khiva, Moser was again admirably received, and presents were heaped upon him, including a magnificent sword, a priceless carpet, and an old manuscript of the Turkoman poet Makhtum Kuli - probably the first collection of his works ever taken to Europe.

Upon leaving Khiva, Moser set off into the steppes to the south of the Aral Sea to meet Mat Murat, the Divan Begui - a minister almost as powerful as the khan himself and a skilled rider.

I can still see him leaning forward on his high saddle," wrote Moser, "looking behind him with a mocking smile, when an obstacle, which he had purposely directed us toward made me slow up. 'You don't trust our horses,' said he. 'Leave them alone and they will jump it without your help, you don't have to guide them.' Like all the Turkomans, he rode with his reins loose, and the horses flew over the obstacles. The bravest horses are trained for the alamane, a raid on rival tribes. The Yomud horse will travel 700 versts (a Russian linear measure equal to 1.06 kilometres) across the desert, and cross the territory of the Turkoman Tekes - with whom they are continually at war - to raid on the other side of the Atrek River, 1000 and 1200 versts from their tents, and return with a woman tied hand and foot, thrown across their crupper like a sack; with this double load, plus food and water for all three, he will cover 100 to 150 versts a day. This is hardly believable, but true; I can confirm it, having lived with these proud warriors.

Mat Murat chose the men who were to accompany Moser across the Karakum desert. The choice of horses, however, was more complicated.

Advised by Mat Murat, I finally decided upon a dark brown Yemrali horse, five years old, with clean legs, light as a bird, and energetic. I paid a good deal for him, but Mat Murat thought that no similar horse had ever been taken to Europe. He had a special reason for not letting me purchase a Yomud horse, for on the day I left, his favorite horse, an iron-grey stallion, was brought to me. I had in vain attempted to purchase him; this was a princely gift and offered most gracefully. En route, across the desert, my excellent Kirghiz could carry me no longer, and I entered Kizil Arvat on Mat Murat's grey Yomud horse, who arrived, after the long ordeal, as fresh as the day on which he set out."

After reaching Kizil Arvat, Moser continued through the Akhal Tekk country, as far as Askhabad, which was already a Russian outpost. From there he proceeded across the mountains to Mashad in Persia, and on to Teheran. Thereafter he continued to the Caspian, took a boat to the Russian city of Baku, made a further land journey, mostly on horseback, through the Caucasus and then by ship across the Black Sea to Istanbul, and on to Switzerland, more prosaically, by train.

Only a few of the treasures that Moser collected on this and his other journeys are displayed in the Berne Museum; the curator hopes, however, that in 1985 it will be possible to re-open to the public the original Moser Hall, built as an annex to the museum at the time that the collection was donated, with an elegant display of the rare items - well worth the attention of scholars, and of those anxious to learn enough to start searching for the undiscovered riches in this field.

Rosalind Mazzawi lived for 20 years in Lebanon, where she taught at the Arab University. She is the author of Traveller's Guide to the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 28-35 of the January/February 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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