The Mamluk Faris

The following is a series of published articles highlighting the military training, tactics and strategies of the mamluks soldiers of Medieval Egypt.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Know your weapons, know your enemy: a mamluk training manual

David Nicolle

From the 8th century to the 16th mamluks formed the core of most Muslim armies. The Arabic word meant a soldier originally bought as a slave, educated and trained and finally released as a full-time professional. Mamluk tactics, organisation and weaponry were for the most part derived from those of the Mongols. The armies that took on the Crusaders were generally more effective, and better disciplined and organised than their European opponents. These qualities owed much to deep study and understanding of military theory and technique. The practical manuals that were required reading for mamluk soldiers in training came out of a long tradition of military writing amongst the Arabs and the Persians.

Complete Instructions in the Practices of the Military Art, in Arabic Nihayat al-Su'l wa'l Umniyaya fi Ta'lim A'mal al-Furusiyya, is one of the best known works of furusiyya cavalry training from the Islamic Middle East. It was compiled between 1250 and 1500 during the period of the Mamluk Sultanate, which was born out of the political concentration of mamluk military and administrative power. However, most of the book consists of material from earlier works. Some date back to the time of the 'Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad in the 9th or even late 8th century, though the chapter translated here seems to have been written in the later 13th or early 14th century. The Nihayat al-Su'l itself was compiled following an attack upon Alexandria by Crusader pirates operating from Cyprus in 1365. By that time, however, the Crusaders were a secondary threat as far as the Mamluks were concerned. The Mongols who occupied most of Asia beyond the Euphrates were much more serious.

Traditionally the Nihayat al-Su'l is attributed to Muhammad ibn 'Isa al-Hanafi al-Aqsara'i who is said to have died in Damascus in 1348 after spending most of his life in Syria. According to this version al-Aqsara'i checked his book with the best Mamluk military specialists in the Damascus Citadel garrison. As was usual in almost all Arab-Islamic technical books, a chain of authority was also provided from master to student and so on. In this case the chain went back through Najm al-Din al-Rammah al-Ahdab, a renowned Master of the Lance from the Crusader period who died in 1294. Most of Chapter Two of Lesson Seven of the Nihayat al-Su'l consists of original Mamluk military writing. It deals with the way these soldiers were trained to use, wear and maintain their arms, armour and harness. Chapter Two has seven Parts and extracts from the first four are translated into English for the first time here. The remaining three Parts will be included in a future article; they cover the drills for carrying weapons not in immediate use, and the techniques of river crossing and lasso fighting.

The detail and the systematic thoroughness of the writing give a striking sense of the qualities that made the mamluks such a formidable elite and at the same time give vivid glimpses of the experience of battle in this fascinating era.

Chapter Two: From the Seventh Lesson, Containing Seven Parts

Part One: the weapons which separate a man from his soul

Question: What weapons does a man use in enemy territory or when face to face with his enemy?

Answer: When you are visible keep your sword drawn at your right side, hilt downwards. Carry the mace or the dagger in the same way but not more than one weapon at a time.
Note A cavalryman is implied throughout the text unless specifically stated otherwise.

Question: What should be done if his sword is still sheathed?

Answer: It would then be on his left side and beneath his tassets. Turn to the hilt and withdraw it. In the same way take the mace from its holder and the dagger from its sheath.

Note: The tassets are the lower fringe of the lamellar cuirass or jawshan and may also mean the hem of a coat.

Question: What should be done if the sword is resting?
Answer That will be dangerous. Take it in your hands and unsheathe it. As with the sword from its scabbard, so with the mace and the dagger.

Note: 'Resting' probably means that the weapon is in its scabbard, holder or sheath but is not slung from a belt or otherwise in its proper place.

Question: What should be done with the lance?

Answer: This should be resting in your right arm, if it is not already held erect. Unless it is grasped firmly it will wobble, and that would be a disgrace. It is said that if the guard is sleeping it will be possible to steal anything from beneath him without his even knowing.

Question: What is to be done with the shield?

Answer: This is held on the left side. If it is put down on the ground it is vital that its grip is uppermost so that it can be picked up instantly if needed.

Note: Further questions and answers deal in similar prescriptive detail with the bow and arrows and are followed by meticulous instructions for laying out personal and horse armour etc to be ready to respond to a sudden attack, even in the dark, more likely when at war with the Mongols than Crusaders.

Question: What is the best way to overcome fear at night?

Answer: Keep your trousers on, and your coat and boots, and your sword girded on, and your horse saddled.

Part Two: War apparel, in twelve questions

Question: How does an infantryman put on a mail hauberk?

Answer: First he puts his hands into the sleeves of his hauberk, then grasps the edges of the garment with his fingers. Next he draws together the rest of the garment into his arms and pulls it over himself. Then he girds up his loins with the leather belt before tightening the neck. To avoid the weight of the hauberk on his chest, the soldier should carry it until it is needed.

Question: How does an infantryman remove his mail hauberk?

Answer: He grasps the opposite thighs and lifts them away from himself, then slides his head into the hauberk, lifts up the back part and pushes the garment away from himself.

Note: There may be an element of stating the obvious in the above, but the mail shirt would have been heavy and awkward to handle. The following instructions are more challenging and give an idea of the horsemanship of a mamluk cavalryman.

Question: How does a horseman put on a mail hauberk when his horse is moving fast?

Answer: First he puts his hand into one of the two sleeves and holds the edge of the garment's sleeve with his fingers. Next with the same hand he lifts both the breast and the lowest hem, and raises them up on to himself. Then he grasps the reins and the armour with this hand and slides the other hand into the other sleeve, grasping the edge of the sleeve as before.

Question: How does a horseman take off his mail hauberk while his horse is in motion?

Answer: First he must take his helmet off his head. Next he gathers up the two front hems and folds them together in a bunch. Next he suspends these from his sword or his saddle-bow. In the latter case they should be smoothed down across the saddle. Next he unfastens his belt and extracts the sword, if the first system is being used, and puts it back into its holder, then puts the belt across the front or rear of the saddle. Then he grasps the rear hem of the hauberk and holds it away from himself. With the helmet or mail coif or turban taken off his head, he pulls up the rear of the hauberk, leans his head forward, and draws the garment over his head.

Note: The word translated as 'holder' is normally used for a form of quiver. It might indicate a holder for the scabbard, or part of the scabbard hanging system, or an alternative place for keeping the sword, perhaps beneath the saddle-flap where a second 'saddle-sword' was sometimes carried.

Question: How does one put on the arm defenses when the sound of battle is near?

Answer: Start with the left one, and once this is put on do the same with the right, just as one puts on the leg defenses. Once both arm defenses are on, one is protected on both sides. The first concern is to stop the attacker from striking off a limb and the second to provide extra protection and cover for the face and head and even the rest of the body without the risk of losing a limb when, intentionally or not, one parries a blow with it.

Question: What shows that the owner of a jawshan has the mastery of its use and other such skills?

Answer: A man must dedicate himself to putting on his jawshan by himself, even if the sleeves and lower part are separate, until he can do this rapidly on his own.

Note: The flap-like sleeves of the jawshan (lamellar cuirass) hung from the shoulder but did not go fully around beneath the arm, nor did they cover the armpit. Instead they were normally secured by a strap around the arm above the elbow. The lower part of the jawshan, below the waist, normally consisted of two or more flaps, which protected the upper legs and buttocks like larger versions of the tassets and cullet, which formed part of 14th-century and later European armour.

Question: What else should the owner of a jawshan know about it?

Answer: He should know how the cuirass is made, and how it is laced together in case part of it is cut off; also how it hangs and how to stop it getting punctured.

Question: What shows that a man is not prepared?

Answer: First look at the leather of his saddle-strapping, next see if the silk cords of his jawshan are rotted or if the edges of his weapons are not sharpened. Finally, see if any part of his jawshan is torn with a hole in it or hanging loose.

Question: What shows that a man is accustomed to his his jawshan?

Answer: Every day he must train himself to dismount elegantly so that he does not break or damage it, and he must keep practising and improving this skill. If, during the winter, the cuirass gets wet or damp from rain, he must examine its leather straps and its connections carefully and wipe off any dampness or mud from its individual pieces and any wetness from its cords. If he fails to do this, the inside of it will rot and it will become out of shape. Such rotting shows negligence and carelessness.

Note: The emphasis here as elsewhere is on readiness for battle and care of valuable life-saving equipment.

Question: How does the owner of a jawshan shoot with the bow?

Answer: When shooting, he wears a small cuirass. The straps and individual pieces of this special jawshan do not damage the bow or snag the bowstring. Sometimes the hanging parts [of the cuirass] can be taken off without harming it. A superior type has crossing strings that secure the tops of the individual lamellae on the outside and no laces hanging off it. This type, however, is not so strong. It may be laced to the top of the arm protector or untied to hang down loose if one wishes to shoot. One can undo this sleeve and let it hang down on its straps as far as the hand and, once the shooting is over, it can be refastened. Alternatively a false sleeve made of silk brocade or soft leather or a mixture of both can be worn, fixed securely at both ends to the sleeve of the cuirass and the arm protector.

Note: The 'false sleeve' sounds like a form of smooth covering worn over armour to prevent it snagging the bowstring. The attention given to the particular requirements of armour for bowmen reflects the importance of archery in the mamluk's repertoire of military skills. He was expected to be able to hit a one metre (3.25 ft) target at a range of 75 metres (246 ft) and to loose three aimed shots in one and a half seconds, a much faster rate than achieved by the longbowmen of England. Mamluk tactics included the arrow shower, as the Crusaders learned to their cost at Gaza in 1244.

Question: What possesses even greater protective qualities than the jawshan?

Answer: A padded garment can be worn beneath the jawshan, as the Europeans wear beneath their iron cuirasses. This is the qarqal. It will protect the wearer from both heat and cold, and from the blows of maces and kafir kubat which soften the flesh and weaken the bones. If a mail hauberk is worn beneath it, then both protection and safety are found.

Note: The kafir kubat (literally 'infidel pestle') was another form of mace. A weapon with this name was reportedly used by a rebel leader in AD 685, and it is also mentioned in the hands of Arab-Khurasani troops in the ninth century. It is probable that this kind of mace was thought to be similar in shape to the uncircumcised male organs of non-Muslims.

Part Three: in which are the pairing of weapons, and all that concerns them, containing eight parts

Question: What weapon should a soldier carry with him at all times?

Answer: The khanjar should never be left behind, neither in war nor in peace. It has many advantages and can be used with all other weapons. It is useful with lances and with arrows, with swords and maces, and with javelins, and with all these together. So learn all there is to know about it.

Note: The khanjar was a large dagger or dirk, similar to the European hanger, very much an all-purpose weapon...

Question: What are the qualities of the khanjar?

Answer: One can strike with it as one does with the sword or dagger, thrust with it as one does with a spear, throw it like a javelin, or hurl it as far as an arrow, a sling-shot or a hand-thrown stone. All these things a warrior should be able to do.

Question: What other weapons should you have if you are already carrying a sword?

Answer: Either a weapon that thrusts from a distance like a spear or at close quarters like a khanjar, or which is hurled like both types of arrow, a javelin or a sling-shot, or a combination of these.

Note: The two types of arrow were light for long range or heavy for maximum penetration.

Question: What should be used with the spear?

Answer: Use something which strikes at close quarters, like the sword or mace, or that pierces at close quarters like the khanjar, or which is shot from afar like both sorts of arrow, the javelin or the hand-stone.

Question: What should be used with the javelin?

Answer: Take something which pierces at close quarters like the khanjar or which strikes from close quarters like the sword or mace, or which is thrown at close range like the hand-stone.
Question What should be used with the mace?

Answer: Preferably a weapon that pierces from a distance like the spear or at close quarters like the khanjar, or what is shot from afar like the arrows or sling-shot, or is thrown at close range like the hand-stone.

Part Four: concerning watchfulness and stopping an enemy attack, in eighteen parts

Question: What should a horseman use when attacking infantry?

Answer: It is best for a horseman to use a spear, javelin or arrows, and not to try to attack infantry armed with swords if he only carries a mace or large dagger.

Question: What should he use if he is among enemy infantry and separated from his fellow horsemen?

Answer: He should not get among the infantry in the first place unless he is armed with arrows, spear or javelin, and if he does he is likely to get killed.

Question: What is the best way for infantry to stop horsemen from getting amongst them, and to stampede the horses?

Answer: It is best for them to be armed with arrows, spears or javelins to stop sword-armed cavalry from entering their ranks. And to stampede the horses they should use maces or khanjars.

Question: What kind of infantry is best for attacking horsemen?

Answer: Infantry armed with mace or sword. One cannot stampede horses with arrows, javelins or spears. Rather one should try to get close to them and among them.

Question: Which is superior, cavalry or infantry?

Answer: In some ways cavalry is superior, in some ways infantry, and in some ways they are equal. Each has weaknesses and disadvantages. But for strength of weaponry, speed and striking power, if not for care and caution in feigned retreat or in pursuit, cavalry is more effective.

Question: What should a small company, an advance guard, a patrol, or a flying column do at night or how should it change its actions when night falls?

Answer: The men should kneel on the ground or lie on their faces and have no fear they are separated from their own people and do not know if they are facing cavalry or infantry. Or they may probe carefully or withdraw stealthily without being seen.

Question: How can one tell when danger is near if it is dark or in cloudy mists and one cannot see properly?

Answer: Take a quiver of the type in which the arrows-point upwards, such as that used by the Georgians, and empty it. Place it on the ground and lay your head against it, and thus you can hear the sound of hooves or of feet, if the air is still. And even if there is a wind you can still hear by turning the quiver into the direction of the wind.

Note: The type of quiver specified was presumably conical or trumpet-shaped, like a megaphone, and the wider end would have been placed on the ground or turned into the wind.

Question: What causes most damage to the structure of a wooden shield?

Answer: Exposure to fire, thrown stones or blows with the mace.

Question: What are the uses of the wooden shield?

Answer: Protection from arrows of both kinds, and javelins and spears.

Question: What most injures a leather shield?

Answer: Blows from swords or maces, thrown daggers and javelins, and being hit by pieces of wood.

Question: What are the uses of the iron shield?

Answer: Against the sprayer of fire, blows of the mace and sword, thrusts of lance or dagger, and javelins and both sorts of arrow.

Note: Iron shields did not appear in Europe until the 15th century but were known in the Islamic world much earlier. The remains of one made from riveted segments, perhaps originally with wooden backing, were found in the 12th–13th-century ruins of Beshtam-Kala in Transoxania. 'The sprayer of fire' used a piston-action syphon to squirt Greek Fire or naft in a jet 'as long as a lance'. Naft is generally believed to have dropped out of use by the mid-14th century and meanwhile gunpowder firearms were coming in. During these first decades the Arabic terminology for the new weapons overlapped with that for Greek Fire. The ingredients for Greek Fire included naphtha, burning pitch, sulphur, resin, quicklime, bitumen and distilled petroleum.

Question: How does the armed man protect himself from the sprayer of fire?

Answer: It is best to approach on foot, and attack with maces, swords, spears or daggers, and to wear specially coated clothing as protection from the terror and the burning of the fire weapons. But do not use this if it has been split by either sort of arrow or sling-shot. If you do not have this sort of protection, then use a metal shield rather than a wooden or leather one.

Note: Raw talc (mica or magnesium silicate) was used for fire-proofing cloth and leather.

Question: How should the sprayer of fire take precautions against armed men?

Answer: He should not get close to them on foot, and he must beware of both types of arrow and javelins, and grenadiers. If they try to reach him with these weapons he must move to where they cannot reach him.

Note: The word translated as 'grenadier' literally means 'thrower of projectiles'. These could include clay or glass pots of naft.

Question: Where is this method of fighting with fire used, and where is it not used?

Answer: It is used aboard ships, in towns and fortresses, against strong-points and in forests. But it is not used when the troops fight in organised ranks, nor in the middle of an army. Fighters with fire fight in many places with good reputation, if God wills it.

Note: Since 'Greek Fire' had largely dropped out of use by the mid-14th century, these questions reflect the military usage of earlier Islamic armies, while the pious phrase at the end suggests that the author is aware he is describing a tactic that is sanctioned by tradition but no longer very relevant.


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