SUR, Oman — Over the years, the khanjar dagger — once a weapon for self-defense — has become a symbol of national pride in Oman. It appears on the country’s flag and currency, and is a fashionable accessory for men dressed in traditional attire.
The khanjar also is one of Oman’s most intricately crafted items, with its curved steel blade and elaborate handles in wood, camel bone, plastic or, in the past, ivory and rhinoceros horn. The dagger usually is housed in a silver sheath and held against the owner’s body by an elaborately embroidered belt.
And here in this port city along the Gulf of Oman — as well as about 175 miles away in Nizwa, which sits in the shadow of the mountains that cut across the north of Oman — the khanjar is king.
Many artisans in these two cities learned to make the daggers from their fathers or grandfathers and have passed the skills along to their children and to the many immigrants who have flocked to Oman over the past several decades as the country’s wealth exploded with the discovery of oil and natural gas. Like the traditional dishdasha outfits and the kuma and massar headdresses worn by Omani men, a large percentage of new khanjars are being made by Oman’s immigrant population.
At Al Sayegh Silversmithing in Sur, the khanjar has been crafted by one family for more than 100 years. The business now also has more than a dozen employees, including nine immigrants from India.
“We grew up watching our great-grandfather make the khanjar, and we even have one from our great-great grandfather who stamped it 1885, the year it was created,” said Marwa Al Farsi, 32, an owner of Al Sayegh, who began studying the craftsmanship of the khanjar when she was in the sixth grade. “We are teaching the children in our family, and the youngest one right now is in third grade,” she said. “We are trying to maintain this legacy. For us it’s our identity.”
The khanjar has several parts. There is the hilt, or handle, usually made of wood and often covered with a palm-size piece of metal, usually silver, which has been intricately molded and shaped with filigree work or adorned with hundreds of indentations from nails tapped by a jewelry hammer, sometimes in rosette shapes.
Below that is the tooq, where the hilt and the blade attach. This is crafted almost identically to the sheath of the khanjar, and both almost always made of silver.
“The scabbard is made of two pieces of silver, which are decorated the same on each outer side,” said Abdullah Al Farsi, 40, Ms. Al Farsi’s brother and another owner of the business, who is involved in the day-to-day creation of the khanjar. “They form a rectangular shape that is hollow on the inside.”
Beneath that is the blade, or naslah, as it is called locally.
“We have this hammer-ironed and shaped as a crescent,” he said. Typically the blade is only slightly curved at the bottom, near the point, but its sheath is sharply curved, shaped like the letter J. This distinguishes the Omani dagger from those of neighboring Arab countries, where similar daggers and their sheaths can be either straight or curved, but few quite as dramatically as the khanjar.
That sheath of the khanjar is made of two pieces of either cow or goat leather hand-stitched together using thread made of soft silver or gold. Its surface is often decorated with patterns like the geometric stitching on the kuma headdress, the round flattop cap seen on men everywhere in Oman. And the tip of the sheath often has a silver cap, something like the silver toe of a cowboy boot.
Side straps on the sheath are called tams, woven of threadlike silver wires. They run through silver rings — which can range in number from two to seven, and typically denote the status of the wearer — some of which attach the khanjar to a specially handcrafted belt, most often made of leather.
“We use no machines at all,” Ms. Al Farsi said. “We are using the same type of tools our grandfather used. In fact, we sometimes use his actual tools.”
Most of the pieces of the khanjar are made on-site in the workshop. The one exception is the blade, which they buy from local makers.
“My family comes from a neighborhood in Sur where many families worked together for decades to make the khanjar, but many families did not keep up the legacy of the blade,” Ms. Al Farsi said. “Now we must purchase the blades from blacksmiths in other parts of Oman.”
The exact origins of the khanjar are unknown, but there are examples from as early as the 16th century, when the country was expanding (the Omani empire once stretched as far south as Zanzibar).
Before 1970, when Sultan Qaboos bin Said overthrew his father in a bloodless coup, it was almost exclusively worn by members of the royal family and dignitaries, and parts often were made of gold to indicate their wealth.
The democratization of the khanjar — and the arrival of souvenir-seeking tourists in Oman — has created a huge market in the last 50 or so years. Now the khanjar adorns many belts at important family gatherings as well as public events like performances at the Royal Opera House Muscat and ceremonial events throughout the country. It is a particularly popular accessory during both of the annual Eid holidays, and for Omani men who make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Last week, UNESCO, the United Nations’ heritage agency, declared the khanjar worthy of preservation, adding it to the agency’s “intangible cultural heritage” list.
A recent stroll through the Nizwa souk is a study in khanjar history. Small shops display khanjars from the 19th century almost desperately in need of polishing alongside gleaming new ones. Small ones designed for young boys hang alongside larger ones, and even brass and copper models from decades past, before Oman’s acquisition of wealth.
“I started learning how to make the khanjar in 1994 when I was 16 years old, but I began watching when I was five or six years old,” said Khalid Nasser Saif Al-Tiwani, 46, owner of Heritage Oasis Antiques and Gifts in the Nizwa souk. “My father had a shop in the village, and I began selling them, too. Even my maternal grandmother made khanjars.”
Mr. Al-Tiwani said the cheapest khanjar at his shop is 130 Oman rial (or about $337), though most buyers spend about 200 to 1,000 rial. But khanjar with rhinoceros horns and a vintage blade can be as much as 5,000 to 20,000 rial.
He said that he does not believe the khanjar is considered as much of a display of wealth or status for most Omani men any more, but now is more of a symbol of national pride. That national pride extends to the immigrants, many of whom have called Oman home for decades.
Among Al Sayegh Silversmithing’s nine immigrant employees, one straddles both sides of the business. Tonoy Banik, 31, who was born in Bangladesh and holds a college degree from ASA University in Dhaka, joined the company eight years ago as an accountant to work at the same company alongside his father who came to Oman 35 years ago to work as a silversmith.
“My father has been in Oman 35 years, and I came here in 2014, and I have watched him every day,” Mr. Banik said. “When he works, I work with him.”
By learning the craft of making khanjars, Mr. Banik feels that he has a full understanding of the history — and the future — of the craft in a country that his family now calls home (his mother and sisters also immigrated).
In many ways, he is the future of this skilled craft in his adopted country.
“My father designs a lot of the khanjar,” Mr. Banik said. “I’m still learning from my father and working with the tools more and more. After my father retires, I hope to continue his trade.”