The history of the yatagan can be traced back to the Bronze Age in Luristan with an almost unbroken line. Its ancestor was the short bronze sword with ear-like projections at the top of the hilt.
The yatagan was extensively used in Turkey and in areas under Turkish influence, such as the Balkans. Its history and appearance in medieval times is not known since the earliest recorded examples, made from iron, date from the 16th century.
Yatagan was really a long knife and consisted of a single-edged blade with a marked forward curve and a hilt formed of plaques attached through the tang, the end of the hilt being shaped like large ears. The blade varies from 60 to 80 cm in length and is curved forward (like the Iberian falcata, or Greek kopis), sometimes reclining backwards again towards the very end. While the back of the blade is made of softer steel, the sharp edge is made of hard, tempered steel for durability.
The hilt has no guard, is typically made from bone, ivory or silver, spreading out in two wings to either side at the pommel (a feature which prevents the sword slipping out of the hand in battle). Sophisticated artwork on both the hilt and the blade can be seen on many yatagans displayed today, indicating considerable symbolic value. Having no guard, the yatagan fitted closely into the top of the scabbard; this was customarily worn thrust into a waist sash, retained by hook.
The majority of yatagans date from the period 1750-1860, and from the number of plain, wooden-hilted weapons they were honest fighting weapons as well as ornate parade weapons. Occasionally blades were cut down from broadswords or cavalry swords, but in general the forward-curving single-edged blade was used. Verses in gold or silver are often laid along the blade. Various hilt materials, such as wood, bone,ivory and silver, were used. Silver hilts mounted with filigree and coral, for example, are associated with Bosnia; many of these are dated around 1800. The most flamboyant scabbards are wood, mounted entirely with silver.
The yatagans used by janissaries and other infantry soldiers were smaller and lighter than ordinary swords so as not to hinder them when carried at the waist on the march. It is named after the town of Yatağan in southwest Turkey (now in Denizli province) which was conquered by a Seljuk commander and blacksmith named Osman Bey, whose cognomen was Yatağan Baba. Yatağan Baba later settled there, and gave his name not only to the town, but to the swords which were produced there. Later, however, yatagans were also made in all the major cities of the Ottoman Empire, particularly Istanbul, Bursa and Plovdiv.
The finest and one of the earliest examples of the type was the weapon made for Suleyman the Magnificent, who ruled over the Ottoman Empire from 1522 to 1566. This sword now lies in the treasury of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and is of particular interest since it is not only dated 1526/7, but also has the name of the artist who made it, Ahmed Tekelü, on the back of the blade. The hilt is of ivory overlaid with gold delicately carved with cloudbands and scrolls.