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Unlocking Locks
2002 / FEBRUARY

At one time there were doors with latches which opened from the outside. You might remember those wooden doors painted in bright colours. There was no need to knock. Instead you pulled on the string hanging through a hole, lifted the latch and went in. Those doors belonged to a time when visitors were admitted freely and unquestioningly. We never thought of them as symbols of hospitality and trust, but such they were. Doors like that were to be found everywhere, even in small marginal neighbourhoods of large cities where traditional ways of life were preserved, and as if in defiance of privacy and alienation, people kept their doors unlocked. But today such doors have become rarities preserved for remote and inaccessible places. When did locks begin to be fitted onto doors? It is no use trying to recall, because the endeavour to preserve property dates far back in history. The oldest surviving lock was made around four thousand years ago in Egypt. This was a primitive wooden lock with a simple mechanism, but this did not prevent it from fulfilling its function to perfection.

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Unlocking Locks
2002 / FEBRUARY

The principle on which it was based gave rise to many ingenious inventions over the millennia. It is thought that the first locks were made in Mesopotamia, according to evidence discovered in the palaces of Nineveh in Iraq. Writing was also invented in those lands, and it was in writing that locks found new expression: 'Nin-dada, the daughter of Lu-Ninurta, did not open her mouth, her lips remained locked.' This sentence is from the world's first recorded court judgment inscribed on a Sumerian clay tablet around 1850 BC. Nin-dada refused to tell the authorities the identity of the three people who killed her husband. In the ancient statutes of Mesopotamia a law uses the same metaphor: 'If a son should declare to his father, "You are not my father," he [the father] shall sever the locks of him [the son], make him a slave and sell him for money.' So begins the known story of locks and keys. Now let us go in search of these two fascinating inventions, which were not just symbols of security, but at the same time of power, authority and prestige.

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Unlocking Locks
2002 / FEBRUARY
In ancient Egypt the power and wealth of the master of a household was judged according to the number of keys he owned, which were so large and heavy that they were carried on the shoulders of slaves, one for each key. And that was not all. Over the ages it was believed that the rulers of countries were also guardians of the keys which opened the doors of the earth, sea and even immortality, and keys featured in the coats of arms and seals of emperors and noblemen, and were symbols of alliances between cities. Presenting the keys of cities, palaces and castles were ceremonial occasions, and this tradition still survives today. In medieval Madrid locks and keys were not considered sufficient security, however, and wealthy men employed doorkeepers who had charge of the keys of their mansions. When the master of the house came home or was going out he would beat on the door, at which the doorkeeper would come running to unlock the door for him, the idea being that the commotion would scare off potential thieves. Thieves themselves played an important role in the development of locks and keys.
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Unlocking Locks
2002 / FEBRUARY

Curses alone, inscribed on doors of buildings and tombs, could not be expected to keep robbers out. The ancient Greeks adopted the concept of locks from the Near East and developed keys with carefully carved shafts in the form of sickles, but these were still not sufficiently secure since a skeleton key was easily made that could do the work of the original key. The Romans went a step further, making metal locks that only the correct key could open. It was a skilful design, but robbers still managed to open them. Another Roman invention was keys so tiny that they could be worn on the finger as a ring, and they also developed the padlock, an invention thought to have originated in China, and subsequently used by merchants who travelled between Europe and Asia. Padlocks were always made with the greatest care and beautifully decorated with geometric motifs or animals such as dragons, horses, dogs, elephants or rhinoceroses. They were often presented as gifts. In the Middle Ages locks and keys underwent a transformation.

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Unlocking Locks
2002 / FEBRUARY
Gothic style locks and keys were works of art, more beautiful than any which had ever been made in the past. This was a time when metal working reach new heights, and smiths won international renown. Locksmiths were among the most respected craftsmen, and the best were invited to work at European courts or for noblemen, particularly in France and Germany. Here they had time to work painstakingly with cold metal, producing locks that were beaten into shape and intricately decorated with openwork, chasing, and engraving. Extremely elegant and sophisticated forms, often incorporating ornamental materials such as ivory, were created under the influence of Renaissance art until the 17th century. Such was the prestige attached to the art of making locks and keys, that even aristocrats sought to learn this craft. King Louis XVI of France, the husband of Marie Antoinette, was an expert locksmith.
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Unlocking Locks
2002 / FEBRUARY

He was far happier when busy working with metal and producing mechanical devices, above all locks, then he was when engaged in the affairs of state. He was proudest of all of the iron wall safe which he made and in which he kept his private documents. Unfortunately, however, its hiding place did not elude the revolutionaries for long. Having discovered it they used the contents to incriminate him. 'Poor Louis,' it was declared, 'was a fine locksmith but a bad king.' Ottoman locks and keys are equally fascinating, and if you happen to be in Üsküdar flea market, remember to visit the shop of Ridvan Üstat, who is happy to tell visitors about his remarkable collection of locks.


* Nebil Üster is a freelance writer

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