Turkish And Persian Mounted Archery


by Murat Ozveri


Turkish Archery


Turkish traditional archery can be examined in three time intervals:  Archery of pre-Islamic Turkish and Turkic tribes, archery of Turks of Early Islamic era and Turkish Archery in the Islamic time frame.


Pre-Islamic Turkish archery has its roots in the first millenium BC, in the Scythian, Parthian, Hun and other early Asian archery tradition. The horseback archers of Central Asian steppes have used very similar archery tackle and fighting strategies throughout entire history and the nomadic life style avoids making a clear, distinctive categorisation of the tribes and nations. These people have lived on the same geography, shared many values and influenced each other’s religion, language, tradition and undoubtly genetic code. In this complex cultural and genetic pool of Central Asia the historians try to find their ways in chasing different linguistic tracks which however is not a reliable argument neither. Although there is a concensus about the relation between the tribes that speak Ural-Altaic and Finno-Ugrian languages, it is well-known that some “other” tribes that spoke Aryan or Indo-European languages lived here as a part of this common culture. This common culture consists of social life, religious beliefs, taboos, art, as well as hunting and fighting techniques. Numerous civilizations appeared and disappeared from the history scene throughout centuries and left behind a common thread –the Asian school of archery.  


No need to tell about the fact that history has been used (or misused) by various political foci and the truth was sometimes distorted by historians. If watched throughly it will be seen that many clicheé are the consequence of prejudices and malinformation. A good example is that the historians categorise nomadic armies according to the tribal identity of their warlords. Even in Genghis Khan’s army there were thousands of non-Mongol groups, including Turks and even Chinese. Although the ethnic continuity is questionnable, the Asian horseback archery tradition passed from Scythian to Parths, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Mongols, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks with a gradual development in the tackle.


Mounted Archers of Archaic Turks


Some authors believe that Turks originated from Huns, but the word “Turk” was first mentioned in Chinese sources in the 6th century for a Turkish nation called “Blue Turk Empire” (Gokturks). Although the archaic Turkish archery has not been very well documented specifically, the information about the steppe people gives an idea about it. Other than old Greek, Roman and Byzantian scripts, archaeological excavations made by the former USSR scientists enlightened many points of the nomadic life and culture. Despite the fact that there are different kinds of nomadism, in the current context, nomads are pastoralists who follow their animal herds, as they search for food and water. Nomadic steppe peoples were tribal or clan-based entities and their leaders achieved their status and political power by their personal abilities. The unification of tribes of different ethnic origins under the commandement of such leaders was not rare. Cultural, genetic and military interactions made it possible to talk about a “common mounted archery culture” which can easily be representative for early pre-Islamic Turkish horseback archery. This cultural complex, widely known as “Scythian Triad”, is typical with the content of their tombs: weapons made of bronze and iron, equipment of horsemanship and the so-called “animal-style” art. Warriors were burried with their weapons and horses, so the tombs offer great information. 


The earliest written sources of other cultures about the steppe folks were dated to the first millenium BC and these steppe people were referred as Scythians, as named by Herodotus or Saka, as called by Iranians. After the Scythians, historically we next encounter the Sarmatians who came as aggressors and finally occupied all Scythian land. Both groups of steppe people were speaking Iranian languages (at least their leaders were) and closely related to the Medes and Persians who themselves originated on the steppe. The Scythian culture became widespread among Altai people from which the Turks come from. This is quite important and may be the earliest example of the interactions between the Turkic and Persian cultures.   


The domestication of horse, riding and selective breeding appeared by 4000-2000 BC, in the steppe between today’s Ukraine and Russia. Horses were initially herded for meat, milk, hair and other animal products.  Horse breeding has been practised from very early in the history of horse domestication. Breeding for type would continue unabated as long as the horse was needed for specific tasks, and Iranian-speaking peoples are known to have breed as early as 1000 BC, as well as for size, big enough to carry a warrior to battle. By the time of Parthians, the region around the river Amu Darya in Central Asia was well known for horse breeding. Breeders were mixing the blood of the wider steppe horse with taller and faster horses of the oasis and desert fringe, such as the Karabair and the Akhal-Teke, the latter having been used as a fast cavalry horse for the last 3000 years.      


Riding arose probably with the needs of herding. The herders might have realised that it was easier to care the herds when mounted. The importance of the horse increased within time and the horse became a cult object as indicated by burial deposits. A good horse could make the difference between life and death on steppe and this culture gave the horse the status it deserved. It was the same for the main weapon of this culture. Other than being an important weapon combination, the bow and arrow have been ceremonial objects that sometimes became a sacred or religious item. Mounted archer figurines found in the archaeogical excavations are believed to have been used in shamanist rituals.


The most important developments in the time of Scythian were the ones that made the rider become more effective in a military sense: composite bow, the small and tough Przhewalski horses. Unlike the taller horses that could carry armored men but were unable to survive without stables and sufficient food, this breed could survive under the hard conditions of steppes. Especially Mongols who invaded all the Asia and a large part of the world under the reign of Genghis Khan rode these steppe ponnies whereas there is strong evidence that archaic Turks rode horses of different breed that was taller, had thinner legs and longer neck.


Scythians invented sofisticated saddlery as well as weapons made of bronze and iron. Higher saddles and stirrups enabled the rider sit more comfortable and handle the weapons, especially the bow and arrow.  Success on the battlefiled was the only way for being respected socially. As an extension of this cultural criteria, Turkish adolescents “deserved” and got their names by a heroic acomplishment in the battle or hunt. The social roles of men and women were discriminated but women did all the work men were doing, including fighting.


The retreat-and-attack strategy that pulls the enemy to its death, was another Scythian invention. This strategy was supported by the horseback archer’s amazing skill, turning back and shooting backwards in the saddle, known as the Parthian shot. In pre-Islamic Turks, only those warriors skilled at shooting both forward and backward among tarkan or “heros”, were permitted to put white falcon wings or feathers in their helmets, as a mark of rank. This technique has been adopted by Mongols and Turks in the following centuries but the given name proves that this technique was created by Indo-European-speaking tribes. Parths, the ancient owners of today’s Turkmenistan may not be remembered, but their influence on today’s English can still be seen in phrases like “parting shot”.  


After the appearence of Gokturks another story begun. Within time, the word “Turk” became a term undependend on ethnicity, a common name of tribal confederations. Later in Ottomans, it even bacame the name of a severely mixed population of one of the world’s greatest empires. The Turkish language widespread with the Turkish-speaking warriors to south and southwest, towards Anatolia with gradual “turkification” of the land and people. As a result of the Islamisation of Turkic tribes, this term gained another meaning associated with Islam, especially after the Ottoman sultans got the Khilafate from Maemluks in 16th century.


Wihin the social context of the typical nomadic life in which heroic behaviours were highly appreciated, hunting was the main and a very important activity.  It was not only a way to harvest the daily food but also a war-practice and a social activity with ceremonial aspects.  Hunting was also an opportunity to prove and improve the skills in riding and weaponary, especially on bow and arrow, a weapon combination prominantely and effectively used by all Central Asian tribes. Turks, like the other nomadic people, preferred drive hunt in which the game animals were driven on horses and killed mainly with sword and bow. This hunting method required great skill in riding and archery that could only be acquired with years of daily, hard training. Riding and archery training started at early childhood. Kids shot birds and rats from on sheepback. When they grew old they became skilled riders and hunted edible foxes and rabbits. As a result of this, all the young men were mounted archers in the battle. In the time of peace they lived of herding and hunting but when an economical crises arose they got armed and went for looting. They carried the famous composite bow as long range weaponary and preferred sword and lance for close-quarter fighting. 


In an 8th century Arabic text the mounted archery skills of Turks are well described. The skills of Turkish mounted archers, especially their ability of shooting to any direction from on horseback, at full gallop and with pinpoint accuracy, are explained in detail. Their dependence on their horses and bows were noticed as well and it was mentioned that the Turkish warriors always had a back-up bow and a horse. They were known not only for their skill in archery but also for their ability to make and repair their own equipment. The manufacturing of bows has been in the hands of the professional bowyers from Turkish times but the Muslims who first encountered Turkic horse archers were amazed at this ability of individual warriors. Gumilöv claims that there was no infantry class in Turkish armies, as the sculptures of Turkish warriors in Ermitaj Museum indicate. He also mentions that the warriors wore lamellar armors and carried a light lance as the major weapon. His thesis is supported by some Chinese sources which highlight “the Turkish mounted warriors with their lances and the Iranian with their horseback archers have become a nightmare for Chinese”.  Gumilöv also claims that horseback archers in Turkish armies were adopted from the tribes or nations defeated by Turks. Anyway, archaeological findings support the fact that in 7th century Turkish armed forces consisted of both heavy and light cavalry armed with bow and arrow. While heavy cavalry which were equipped, beside bow and arrow, with lance, sword and mace, the unarmored light cavalry were using a recurved composite bow with reflex grip. Other findings about the 8th century Blue Turk Empire (The Second Khaganate)  show that the Kaghan’s army had a small number of foot soldiers but the majority was mounted and their main weapon was the composite bow. 


Mounted archery is in some ways like any archery, but in critical ways it is quite distinct. The mounted archer has to be not only the best archer possible, but also a high-skilled horseman. When shooting from horseback, both hands are used in shooting, leaving control of the horse to leg pressure alone. Any competent rider will naturally learn to do this to some extent, but few could be comfortable with releasing the reins entirely while riding at full speed under battle conditions. For most cavalry, losing the reins could be disastrous but for the steppe archer, riding without reins was a practised skill needed in herding and hunting. Another theory/method of riding without the control of reins is training the horses not to “swerve aside” but remain running in a straight line until turned by a touch of the briddle.  


The most important written source that includes many details about the pre- and early post-Islamic stage of Turkish archery is “The Book of Dede Korkud”. This book, sometimes called “The Turkish Iliad” containing epic stories of 12th century Turks, probably written in 15th century but with roots hundreds of years before.  It covers the stories of recently Islamised Oghuz Turks who moved to Northeastern Anatolia in the early 13th century. However, many authors agree that the Islamic motifs have been put later in to these stories. Together with the characteristic of the language, social life and beliefs exhibited in the stories reveal a nomadic life style that is associated with a “passing phase” rather than an established Islamic life. The Islamisation of Turkish tribes occured in Maveraunnehir, as a result of 300 years of military, commercial and cultural interaction with the Islamic armies. The frontiersmen who lived in this region in 8th-11th centuries, created and adopted a mixed military culture that was severely differentiated from their native cultures. Dramatic changes occured in the life of Turkish nomads and herby Iranian mystics played the lead role through systematic missionary activity. Most probably there have been some further exchange in military tactics and strategies as well as the weaponary between two cultures, while Turks adopted Islam and the Arabic alphabet.


In The Book of Dede Korkud, the life is mainly based on hunting and war. In one of the hunting scenes a hunter “erects by pressing up on his stirrups prior to drawing his bow”, an action that emphasizes the importance of strirrups in horseback shooting. However, many enthusiasts believe that the stirrups are not essential for this purpose and that they played a more important role in the use of close-quarter weapons in the saddle. Still, stirrups provided a solid “stance” for shooting the bow and probably increased the ease and accuracy, especially when shooting to the rear. Like in all the epic narrations the actors in the stories are hard to beat, and it is noticable that the Oghuz heros could be defeated, killed or prisoned only when they are dismounted or at sleep. This is another indicator of how “unbeatable” the mounted warrior was from the point of view of the storyteller.


One of the secrets behind the military success of steppe people have been undoubtly their metalurgical know-how that enabled them to make metal equipment for horsemanship, like bridles and stirrups, as well as high quality of weapons like swords, daggers and arrowheads. But the most important invention of steppe people was certainly the composite bow. The amazing composite bow of steppe horseback archers was, as the name suggests,  made of several different materials. With the clever combination of wood (or bamboo) with horn and sinew, this bow acquires incredible physical specifications. These three materials are glued to each other by using collagen-based glues derived from animal tissues. Additional to the shorthened overall length of the bow that makes it more comfortable on horseback, this Asian invention provides some mechanical advantages over the “old standard” selfbow. First of all, the early draw weight is higher than that of straight-limbed bows. It results more stored energy in the same poundage and same draw length. Secondly, the leverage effect of the so-called “ears” avoids the stacking problem of shorter limbs and allows longer draw lengths. The typical all-wooden rigid tips, the “ear” of some earlier Asian-type composite bows was the common feature in Hun, Magyar and Mongolian bows.  In the later bows, like Ottoman and Persian, the all-wooden tips dissappeared as will be explained later in this chapter.


Turks encountered the Byzantian army in 9th and 10th centuries in that the Byzantian army was at its height. While in western Europe the fighting tactics were still based on the individual skill and ability of the heavily armored knights, the aristocrate warrior of eastern Europe did not satisfy with the proficiency in using weapons and added theoretical knowledge to their empirical accomplishments by reading the books of Mavrikios, Leon and Nikeforos about war strategy and philosophy. One of these books, the “Tactica” by Leon, included suggestions for fighting against Turks. According to Leon the Byzantian infantry must not get into an arrow-combat against Turkish mounted archers and should close up the distance between. The Turkish cavalry wore light armores but their horses was unarmored and the steppe warrior was totally helpless when he lost his horse.


The Turkish tactic was that of harassing the enemy by the hit-and-run action, dividing his forces by pretending retreat and enticing pursuit but then turning unexpectedly back and showering the enemy with deadly arrows, and, finally when he was reduced in number and courage, to surround him, and destroy him with volleys of arrows.


Post-Islamic era: Mounted Archers of Seljuk Sultanate


The first remarkable Islamic Turkish sultanate was that of Seljuks, a clan of the Oghuz Turks, who lived north of the Oxus River (present-day Amu Darya). The Turks must have noticed and admired that their new religion gives importance to archery, a martial art that already had priority in their lifestyle. There is one verse in Koran which orders “to feed horses and prepare force for a possible war, this “force” being “shooting arrows” as interpreted by the Prophet Muhammad himself. Additional to this verse there are 40 Hadiths in which Muslims encouraged to practise archery. In 11th century, Seljuks conquered the Iranian cities adjacent to their borders and invaded the country with no serious resistance. The Great Seljuk Sultanate in that Turkish invaders reigned the Iranian land with the co-operation and acquiescence of Persian bureucrats, has established a tax collection system called “iktâ”, which constituted the base of the feudal cavalry. This system continued and was improved in Ottomans.


The historians of that time described the Seljuk army as ”an effective and moving force with the long-ranged weaponry”. In 1071 Alp Arslan defeated the powerful Byzantian army under the commandement of Roman Diagones IV, in Manzikert (Malazgirt). The historians agree that it was the outstanding leadership of Alp Arslan as well as the fighting skills of his fast and lethal mounted archers that played an important role in the victory. Seljuk light cavalry were hesitating to “impact” the enemy and to get into close-quarter fighting. What they preferred was the lightning-fast “attack and retreat” strategy of steppe mounted archers. The Byzantians had known the enemy well and made some tactical modifications in its troops, including adopting horseback archers and equipping the infantry with long-ranged bows, but it did not help to defeat Alp Arslan. This battle started a process which led the Muslim Turks making Anatolia home. Another Seljuk Sultanate was etablished in Anatolia afterwards.


It’s documented that in Manzikert battle each warrior was carrying about 100 arrows, put in the quiver, the bowcase and even in the boots. In a battle against I. Crusade army the knights had to stand a 3 hours uninterrupted arrow attack of Seljuk army. It was Count Raymond who came to help with his army and saved them from a total destruction.


Easten Turk armies relied increasingly on heavily armored cavalry, though the bow remained as their main weapon. We know that Seljuk warriors have used recurve bows with “ears”, being identified as “East Turkmenistan type bows” by Yucel. It’s quite possible that other Asian style bows too were used by Seljuks. There is an old picture of a Seljuk atabeg Bedreddin Lulu in Kitâbü’l-Agânî, written in 1218-1219, showing the atabeg holding a shorter bow with “siyahs” (Siyah is the entire rigid end of the bow including “kasan” and “bash” in Turkish bow, different than the “ear”, the rigid all-wood extremity of the limb). But unfortunately there is no strong evidence like remained bows or other archaelogical findings. All the other pictures of the same time era prove that the rigid-tipped longer bows were more common.


Another document from Seljuks is a coin produced during Sultan Rukneddin’s (or Kılıçarslan IV) reign (Please note the Turkish and Islamic name of the Sultan). Here is a short, recurved horsebow and two more arrows in the drawing hand are to see, the latter indicating the typical thumb release of Seljuk archers.


Military Structure in Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Empire was supposedly founded in 1299 by an unsignificant tribal leader, Osman Bey, from the Kayı tribe of Oghuz Turks. Ottomans ended the Roman Empire and became an empire that ruled on three continents, also refined and developed the archery to unprecedented and yet unsurpassed levels.

The final stage in development of the composite bow was in the hands of Ottoman Turks who in the 15th and 16th centuries improved it by refining the shape and materials used.  Evolving from centuries old Turkish cavalry based military experience, Ottoman bows and arrows had been made with the minimal size and weight possible to provide a perfect manoeuvering capability to the warrior on the horse. Yet these slim, light, beautifully ornate tools were armor punching real weapons of the Hell.  

In spite of the strong influence of Islamic culture, Ottoman army and military life reveal their Asian origin in many aspects. The symbolic value of both the horse and the bow were maintained. The political executions, especially the ones within the dynasty have been held with a bowstring, an application that binds the “blood taboo” of Central Asian past with a “honorouble death” concept, similar to that of some other military cultures. The presence of a horse-related military symbolism was another link to Central Asian steppes: The so-called “tug”, a banner made of horsetail, was sticked up in the middle of barracks prior to warfare to make the soldiers aware of the sultan’s decision of war. Good example about what the “horse” meant to them. This symbolism originated from the archaic Turks in whom elaborate tug “tailed” banners or horsetails carried seperately or attached to the ruler’s great drums. Horsetail banners had indicated a leader’s status.    


Different than the Central Asian military structure, Ottoman army had infantry troops, the famous Janissaries. The attack-and-retreat tactic was unfavourable to close combat operation, and inefficient in laying siege to forts and walled towns; nor could the steppe warriors sustain long campaigns, especially in the winter months. The infantry and the logistics were the needs of a standing force which opened the way of conquering new land. In 14th century the Ottoman army was superior to the 11th-13th century armies of other Muslim countries. In this new structure, mounted archers were still the most dominant component. Additionally, there were timarlı sipahi, or “feudal cavalry”,  who were native-born Turks and armed not only with bow and arrow but also with close-fighting weapons like sword and lance. Feudal cavalry was the result of iktâ of Seljuks, as mentioned above. This tax collection system was based on excluding some of the taxes of local leaders, the so-called “beg” (or “bey”), and demanding them to feed and equip a certain number of mounted force. İktâ is completely different than the European feudal system in which the property belonged to feudal barons. In Seljuks and Ottomans the land was offered by the sultan in exchange for military service and its owners were changed time to time. In the second half of 14th century the army was consisted mainly of these timarlı sipahi. 


The advantages to a warrior being mounted is numerous. Mobility that is a part of the famous retreat-and-attack strategy is only one of them. Fighting the pedestrain oponent from a higher position; the physical and pschycological effects of the large and powerful animal itself; and the possiblity of the individiual warrior using the fighting tactic or the weapon that the situation demanded.  Sipahi warriors were typically developed and in charge as a cavalryman using a sword, spear, javelin, mace for close-quarter fighting and as a skilled horseback archer with their very dangerous composite bows. 

Beside the timarlı sipahi there was another mounted component of the army, the “Cavalry of Sublime Porte, that consisted of the specially educated and trained elite warriors of sultan. They were skilled in using many weapons including the famous Ottoman bow. They were graduates of the Palace School that was founded in 15th century.

Ottoman Sports Archery

Before taking a closer look at the Palace School, it is worth to remind that the most remarkable part of Ottoman archery is the well-established sports archery that begun in the early 15th century at an institutional base. Despite the classical Anglo-Saxon literature that claims the sports archery to have begun in 16th century England, Ottomans had Okmeydanı (lit. “Place of Arrow) and “tekye-i rumât” (lit. “tekke of shooters”) where systematic archery education was given and competitions were held, hundred years before the foundation of “The Guild of Saint George” with the order of Henry VIII. The three main disciplines in Ottoman sports archery were puta (target) shooting, darb (piercing hard objects) shooting and flight shooting. After the firearms became dominant on the battlefield the Ottoman kemankeş (cam-un-cash), or licensed archers, focused mainly on flight shooting and reached incredible distances over 800 metres. The war-related disciplines lost their popularity after the 17th century but they were not totally ignored.


Okmeydanı was like the modern sportsfields and the tekye was not too much different than a modern sportsclub. However, in spite of the closeness of riding and archery in Turkish culture, horses were not allowed to Okmeydans since these sportsfields were accepted to be holly places which cannot be “polluted”. Even for the archers the Islamic cleaning ritual was a must prior to entering these fields.


Naturally, there were other sportsfields dedicated to another archery discipline in which horses were involved: the “Kabak meydanı”. Kabak (qabak)  game was a “game” which in fact was a demonstration of skill, rather than a sport discipline. Although kabak is “gourd”, a vegetable set as target, many other objects like cups, balls etc. were used as target. The target was put on the top of a tall pole that the archer was approaching with full speed to. He was passing the pole, turning back in the saddle and shooting the target.


Kabak game was not only a war-related practice but also an occasion for demonstrating skill and for entertainment. It makes a peak in popularity in 15th-17th centuries but its tracks can be followed back to the steppes of Central Asia. This archery game was played in many other Middle Eastern countries and known under the same name, indicating the Turkic origin of it, since the word “kabak” is ethymologically Turkish. A very interesting clue about its origin can also be found in the Epic of Oghuz Khan. At the end of the text the alliance of Turkish tribes is declared and celebrated by an interesting “swearing ritual” which involves riding around tall poles and shooting live chickens put on the top of them.  


Kabak fields have dissapeared in time, probably because riding was the privilige of elites and of the members of Cavalry of Sublime Porte (Kapıkulu Sipahileri) in Istanbul. The need of finding proper land to feed the horses made many of the Kapıkulu sipahi move outside the city after 17th century. It may be one of the reasons that kabak game lost its popularity in the capital city after 17th century.

While horse was still in the centre of life in countryside where feudal cavalry (timarlı sipahi) was accommodated, in Ottoman capital riding was accepted to be a status symbol and restricted by law. But in the Palace there was a school, named Enderun-ı hümayûn, in that riding and other martial arts together with the sciences of the time were taught. The Palace School, founded by Mehmed II “The Conqueror”, deserves to be examined throughly to understand the professional horseback warriors of the sultan, the Cavalry of Sublime Porte (Kapıkulu sipahileri).  


Cavalry of Sublime Porte: Mounted Archers of the Palace


To understand the system of the education in the Palace School it must be kept constantly in mind that for more than three centuries the despotism of Ottoman dynasty was based almost exclusively upon a deliberate policy of government by a slave class. This method of government seems to have been developed by the Turkish rulers as a defensive mechanism designed to exclude native-born subjects from the government, to eliminate the rise of aristocracy of blood or of a hereditary official class.


It must be remembered also in considering this system of government by a slave class that slavery in Muslim lands was too much different than that in Europe and often proved the most direct road to fortune and honour. The teaching of the Prophet that slaves should be treated with kindness and generocity, that they should be fed and clothed in the same manner as the members of the master’s own familiy, in Muslim East slavery has never had the meaning that was attached to it in West. As an example, the Georgians and Circassians who found the slave trade with Constantinople so profitable and maintained slave farms to meet the demand, reared their own children, because they were considering the Palace service the best possible opening for a brilliant carrier.


During the centuries when the slave system of the government was at his height among the Ottoman Turks, the only posts for which native-born Turks were eligible were commissions in the timarlı sipahis and Kapıkulu Sipahis, to which latter only of the slaves of Christian origin, or Turks in the first generation were admitted.


Slaves for the Palace service were supplied through capture, purchase, gift and Law of Tribute Children or the Law of Draft (Devshirmeh). This law was about drafting the recruits for the army from the conquered European provinces. The law denied to the people of these provinces the usual right accorded Christians of payment of the capitation tax in lieu of military service, and instead exacted as tribute a stipulated number of male children every three or four years. By the same law these youths were required to serve novitiate of seven years in military schools, in the royal palaces provided for the purpose or in the household of provincial governors and of high officials in the capital, or upon the timarlı sipahis of Anatolia.


The second important source of supply for Palace slaves was prisoners of war. One-tenth of these became the property of Sultan and were usually attached to the Palace service. The most physically perfect, the most intelligent, and the most promising in every respect were set aside for the Palace service. The remainder who were distinguished mainly because of their physical strength and dexterity were asigned to the Janissary corps. Those who had been set aside for the Palace service were seperated in two classes. The cleverest, in whom, besides the accomplishment of the body, they discover also a genius, fit for a high education were designated as student pages (ich oghlanlar). The remainder who were classified as apprentices (ajemi oghlanlar) were put through a stiff training as gardeners or gatekeepers. The boys received instructions in the liberal arts, geography, mathematics, in the art of war and physical exercise, and in vocational training.


Physical training started with gymnastic exercises including lifting and carrying weights. The exercise progressed from these to sports of various kinds, especially cavalry exercises, and other “arts of war”. As a result of the systematic and long-continuing training which they received, the students of the Palace School are said to have developed amazing strength and agility of body, perfect health and unusual skill in arms. The high standard of physical development which they attained resulted the finest army in Europe during the centuries when the palace system of education was at the peak of its efficiency. Practically all the officers of the Sublime Porte, and many of the officers of the feodal cavalry, had been trained in the Palace School.


There are documents available about what kind of physical exercises the student pages have done and the extraordinary level they have reached. Initial weight lifting exercises for which a bag was lifted one-handed with the help of a pulley and a cord, reminds a modern fittness work out. Second exercise was lifting and carrying various kind of weights in the arms and upon the shoulders. From time to time the size of weights was increased until, the pages were frequently able to carry as much as 370 or even 380 oqas (470-482 kg), for a distance of 150 or 160 paces. Later iron weights of various kinds were substituted. It is said that pages were able with one arm to lift weights ranging from 40 to 100 pounds, and that those which they were able to raise above their heads were incredibly heavy.  


More advanced physical exercises were archery, wrestling, sword practice and cirit. Cirit (jirit) is another traditional horseback martial art/sport that still survives in modern Turkey. The members of two teams throw wooden darts per hand to the opponents. The darts have no points but the game is still too dangerous and therefore serious injuries, even death were not rare). 


Archery training started with bows of moderate draw weights. The draw weight was increased gradually. Yet even with the largest and the heaviest of these bows the record of two hundred draws without stopping is said to have been not infrequent in the schoolmatches and tournaments. To make the reader have sense, I would like to remind that in a recent research of Adam Karpowicz, the draw weights of many bows in Topkapi Palace Museum have been estimated well over 130 pounds. Heavier bows made for the purpose of improving or demonstrating strength might have been made too.  


Since the majority of the students were destined for the cavalry service, one of the main lines of physical training was fine horsemanship. Not only did the students become skilled cavalrymen,  but they also excelled in feats of horsemanship. While running their horses at full speed, they would unsaddle and resaddle them without slackening their pace; they would ride standing on the seat of the saddle; they would ride two horses at the same time with one foot on each saddle; two pages while riding at top speed would exchange horses with one another; and they would slide under the bellies of their horses and remount from the other side.


The literary education that the boys received consisted of the Arabic and Persian languages.

While the Arabic language was the key to Koran, the Persian language was the courtly language of the Near Orient and the key to the literature of chivalry and romance. It was the aim of the Turkish sultans to discover and to train youths of exceptional ability for leadership in the state. A part of their education was learning “some art and occupation according to the capacity of their spirit”. All Turks, except Janissaries were formerly accustomed to learn some art or science, by means of which he could earn a livelihood in case he should fall upon evil days. Sultans were no exception and many of them excelled in their choosen craft.


The student pages who completed their novitiate were promoted from the Palace to the reserve corps of the cavalry, a custom which was known as “the Deliverence” (Chiqmah). Some of the students became high ranking bureucrats, including vezeers but most of them left the Palace as professional elite mounted warriors. In the warfare they were in charge to protect the sultan, the royal standard, and the treasure. In time of peace they were accompanying the sultan, armed with sword and bow; only while going to the mosque with the sultan for Friday praying, they were armed with a sword. 


The majority of their horses were of tough and agile Anatolian breeds. They were breed in Cukurova in South Anatolia and their export was strictly prohibited. Other sources were Epir and Teselia in Greece, but after 17th century Arabian, Tatar and Magyar horses were adopted too. 


The Ottoman army had a crescent shape while moving. Sultan and the treasure were located in the centre, protected by Kapıkulu sipahis on the right and left sides. The “tips” of this crescent was constituted by timarlı sipahis. In the centre, in front of the sultan there were Janissaries who follow the Azaplar, the light infantry. Another component of the army, Akincilar,  was the light cavalry armed with the composite bow and moved as pioneers, a few days prior to the whole army. After 16th century, Akincilar were replaced with Crimean Tatars, another nomadic nation with deadly skills as mounted archers. Crimean Tatars were using bows that were longer than that of Ottomans but looked very similar to them. They kept using this weapon until the end of the 18th century, long after the Ottoman army has completely switched to firearms.


The Roots of Persian Mounted Archery


In Neolithic era Indo-European-speaking people of Central Asia started to migrate to south. The neolithic horse culture of steppes spread to the Iranian plateau with this immigrants. The reason that both Indians and Iranians name themselves “Aryan” would make one think that these two folks had been living as one unseperated nation in the steppes of South Russia and Siberia once upon a time.  


The well-maintained, dried bodies that were found in the graves in Tarom basin and dated back to 2000-400 BC with radiocarbon dating method, reveal the physical type of white race. These findings support that Indo-European people had lived in the land which is today a part of China’s Shin-giyang state. Among some artifacts found in these graves there are black, conical, “wizard” hats, similar to that worn by very early Iranians. In Iranian plateau it is possible to come across to some civilizations in the prehistoric era, by 7500 BC. But the first Indo-European-speaking immigrants supposedly came to this area by 2000 BC and contacted the Semetic and non-Semetic people of Mesopotomia, the natural geographical extension to west. The Median Empire was the first Iranian dynasty corresponding to the northeastern section of present-day Iran, Northern-Khvarvarana and Asuristan (now it is known as Iraq), and South and Eastern Anatolia. The inhabitants, who were known as Medes, and their neighbors, the Persians, spoke Median languages that were closely related to Aryan (Old Persian). Historians know very little about the Iranian culture under the Median dynasty. After Median and Achaemenid dynasties, the Parths ruled over the Iranian plateau by 284 BC-224 AD and intermittently controlled Mesopotamia.


Parthia, due to their invention of heavy cavalry was a serious enemy of Roman Empire in the east and it limited Rome’s expansion beyond Cappadocia. The Parthian Empire lasted five centuries, longer than most eastern empires. Experience had shown that light cavalry armed with a bow and arrows and probably also a sword was suitable for skirmishes that fought with the attack-and-retreat strategy, but could not sustain close combat. For the latter task, Parths formed heavy cavalry (cataphraoti), which wore steel helmets, a coat of mail reaching to the knees and made of rawhide covered with scales of iron or steel that enabled it to resist strong blows. For offensive weapons the cataphract had an unusual thick and long lance and a bow. The Parths were followed by the Sassanids whose mounted forces were formed under strong influence of Parthians. They retained Parthian cavalry, and employed new-style armor and siege-engines, thereby creating a standing army which served his successors for over four centuries, and defended Iran against Central Asiatic nomads and Roman armies. This army was called “spah”, where the “sipah” or “sipahi” in the Seljuk and Ottoman military structure originated from. The Sassanian army had two types of cavalry unit, Clibinarii and Cataphracts, the latter being composed of elite noblemen trained since youth for military service. The backbone of the spah was its heavy cavalry in which all the nobles and “men of rank” underwent hard training and became professional soldiers “through military training and discipline, through constant exercise in warfare and military manoeuvres”. The archery equipment of these elite warriors, also called “the Immortals”, consisted of a bowcase with two bows and two extra bowstrings, and a quiver with 30 arrows (please note the back-up bow concept that was the same in Scythians and archaic Turks). They had nearly all the close fighting weapons and a full body armor. Their horses were armored too. The Sassanians did not form light-armed cavalry but extensively employed troops of allied warriors or mercenaries from warlike tribes who fought under their own chiefs.


Islamic era in Iran


In 637 the Arab forces occupied the Sassanid capital and in 641-42 they defeated the Sassanid army at Nahavand. The Islam culture dominated Iranian land and all Middle Eastern culture for the next centuries. But the horseback fighting techniques, the composite bow and the thumb draw have been adopted by Arabs who were known to had used a four-finger release on their simple selfbows. Among the most important of these overlapping dynasties of Arabic origin in the following centuries were the Tahirids in Khorasan (820-872); the Saffarids in Sistan (867-903); and the Samanids (875-1005), originally at Bokhara. The Samanids eventually ruled an area from central Iran to India. In 962 a Turkish slave governor of the Samanids, Alptigin, conquered Ghazna and established the Ghaznavid Dynasty that lasted to 1186. Several Samanid cities had been lost to another Turkish group, the Seljuk, as explained above.  


Iran’s next ruling dynasties descended from nomadic, Turkic-speaking warriors who had been moving out of Central Asia for more than a millennium. They were enlisted as slave warriors in the armies of Abbasid khaliphs, as early as the ninth century. Shortly thereafter the real power of the Abbasid khaliphs began to diminish; eventually they became religious figureheads while the warrior slaves ruled.


The tradition of archery underwent some major tactical changes during the Sassanian period. The majority of Sassanian archers were infantry. It may be accepted that Sassanian archery was a shift away from the Central Asian horse archery. Archery, specifically horse archery, retained its importance until the Saffavid period (1502-1736 AD). Treatises written in this time period shows that systematic teaching of archery was thought to be important. They quoted that “the most important thing for a bowman is that he has to learn the art from a master since, without a master, no one can really learn and master this art no matter how much he practises on his own”. It is certain that archery was systematically trained in different eras. Saffavid Iran was an important center for bowshooting where the skill of the archers was demonstrated and tested. Archery training consisted of bending very heavy bows in various positions, even while jumping or running, pulling weaker bows to develop form, and finally target shooting and flight shooting.


Military and Cultural Relations


A historical record about an early Turkish attack to Iran shows how well-developed the Iranian archers were in 6th century. Young Souh, the younger son of Turkish Khagan Kara Churin invaded eastern part of Iran in August 589.  Behram Chubin, who was the provincial governor of Armenistan and Azerbaijan has been charged with stopping the Turks. A select army of 12000 experienced warriors whose ages were between 40 and 50, confronted Turks in the Herat valley. The reason that Behram preferred older warriors instead of young ones was mentioned to have been their skill in archery, because “acquiring the highest skill in archery was requiring 20 years of training”. Iranian archers reached at their peak in 6th century and had the reputation of “hitting the enemy not on the chest but on their ears”. Persian archers were renowned for their storm of arrows they could unleash on opposing forces. Their bows’ range was 700 metres and the arrow was capable of easily pierce the armors of highest quality. The destiny of the fight was going to made by the archers that were the dominant component in both armies. All Turkish warriors were mounted and the composite bow was their main weapon.


In this battle in which Turks used elephants, Iranian archers shot the elephants on their eyes and caused a big chaos that brought the victory to Sassanids. Turks were defeated and their leader was killed by an arrow shot by Behram himself.


Iranian land was ruled by Seljuk Turks between 1037-1194, as mentioned before. The Ilkhanates (1256-1353) and Timuride Empire (1370-1506) brought a late Central Asian nomadic touch to Iranian plateau. In Ottoman time political and religious conflicts have been the reasons of war between Turks and Iranians.  


After adopting Islam, Turks’ culture, especially the language was severely influenced by Arabian and Persian cultures. Although it is a fact that mutual interactions between these two cultures started thousands of years ago, many changes in archery terminology seem to have happened later. The thumbring is called zihgîr (zeh-geer; lit. “string holder”) or şast (shust; lit. “sixty”, referring to the form of the hand by locking) by Ottomans, both Persian words. For many other terms like “arrow”, “archer”, “quiver” Turkish archers have used Persian vocabulary, although etymologically Turkish synonymes were available and also in use.


The hunting and war secenes in Iranian and Turkish minatures are so similar that the only way to tell them is examining the style of the artist. The clothing, weapons and accesories like quivers and bowcases are almost the same in shape and style. Even the experts sometimes fail in distinguishing the military tackle like the helmets and chainmails of Ottomans and Iranians. The hunting techniques of shooting at running or flying game at full gallop indicate another common past, back to their ancestors in the steppes of Central Asia. Similar are the bows too.

In Iran there were various type of bows, even bamboo bows as a result of cultural interaction with India. Indian bows were not able to shoot far but they caused severe injuries in short distances. The Indian arrows were often poisonous, a feature which increased their fatality. Despite the variety of bows it is clear that the bows used in the 11th century AD were of a composite nature. The all-wooden rigid tips of earlier Asian composite bows have dissappeared and the thickened extend of the limb (“kasan” in Turkish), together with the tips (“bash” in Turkish) form the unbendable extremities –the so-called “siyahs”-  as the common feature of both bows. But there are some certain distinctions between them. The Iranian bow has a smaller grip and the limbs in “sal” and “kasan” sections are wider. This design does not allow to use one single horn laminate on the belly, so the Iranian bowyers glue several narrower horn strips which negatively effects the durability of the bow. Because of these features the Persian bows (Ajem yayi) are known to have dissatisfy the Turkish archers, although the high quality of their decorations were highly appreciated. 


Horseback archers of both nations used the thumbrelease but the Sassanians used a distinctive draw of their own. The so-called “Persian draw”, as reported by Byzantian sources, consisted of holding the bowstring with the lower three or middle two fingers, possibly locked by the thumb and laying the index finger along the arrow, as if pointing the flight direction. When using a “Turco-Mongolian” style thumb draw some twist is applied to the arrow, causing the large knuckle of the forefinger to apply side pressure to the arrow shaft, holding it in place on the string. The Persians used probably their forefingers to achieve the same result, securing the arrow from falling off the bow while riding. Sassanian archers wore fingertip guards as shown by archaelogical evidence. The fingertip guards were fastened via a small chain to the wrist to prevent them from falling in the chaos of battle. In some medieval object from Kashan in Iran, there are depictions of warriors holding two arrows in the drawing hand while shooting another. This is somewhat similar to the depiction of the Seljuk mounted archer on a coin, as mentioned before in this chapter. Holding the extra arrows in the drawing hand would make it impossible to use the lower three fingers to draw the string. We certainly know that Ottoman archers used the “conventional” version of thumb draw: The lock or “mandal” (mund-ull) was typically made by curling the thumb around the string, pressing the tip of it to the middle finger that is firmly closed together with the ring and little finger. The index finger was pressed on the nail of the thumb to reinforce the lock.  


The thumbrings were not too much different neither. They are of the typical teardrop shape, a common feature that many Asian thumbrings share, but Persian and Turkish thumbrings can easily be discriminated with their shorter thumbpad from Mongolian and Korean types. The thumbrings were made of ivory, various metals, semi-precious stones, bone or horn. Although it was mentioned that leather rings were common in the Turkish army there is no single sample left to these days.


There were common mounted games played in both countries. Other than the cirit game, as mentioned above, games like guy-ı çevgân (“gooy-i chevgan”, a game similar to polo) and kabak game were played in both countries. Kabak game was known as kabak bâzî (qabak-ba-zee) or kabak endâzî (qabak an-da-zee) in Iran and has been very popular in 16th-17th centuries.  These games were played for both entertainment and for practising the martial skills. 
















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Internet sources:

www.iranchamber.com (History of Iran)



This text is one of the chapters of the book titled “Mounted Archery in the Americas” edited by David Gray and Lucas Novotny.



The author would like to specially acknowledge the invaluable support of Dr. Mustafa Kacar and Mr. Adam Karpowicz.