A look at early Medieval Islamic swords
Today we’re going to start and exploration of a topic that sees little light; Medieval Islamic swords. With the exception of a public fascination with Damascus steel blades, these blades receives little academic notice.
The topic itself is somewhat nebulous, in that it focuses on weapons used by Islamic cultures, rather than being defined by simple geographic or ethnic boundaries. As such, at different time periods, it includes weapon types and styles used specifically by Arabs, but later included the weapon styles of Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, from nations along the Silk Road, India, parts of China, and southern Europe.
In the paper: Swords and Sabres during the early Islamic period, Mr. Alexander make it clear that, in the earliest days of Islam, straight swords — effectively, broadswords — were in common use:
“During the time of the Prophet the Arabs used swords, not sabers. This is confirmed by both textual evidence and material survivals. The earliest representations in sculpture and on coinage, always show Arabs with swords.”
According to Alexander, these straight swords appear as double-edged, pointed for thrusting, with a short cross-guard and ball pommels, as seen in the following image from a 11th century Islamic document:
In most cases, these weapons are shown being hung on baldrics slung across the shoulder, rather than being carried on a waist belt.
For further proof, Alexander discusses 36 period swords being kept int the Topkapı Sarayı Museum, originally kept in the Mamluke Dynasty treasury. These swords are supposed to be the original blades carried by the Prophet Muhammad, his brother, son-in-law, various companions, officers and servants, as well as a number of later Caliphs.
All but one of these 36 blades are straight. He also notes that these blades have idiosyncratic styles / appearances / decoration which match historical and traditional descriptions of the blades belonging to these individuals. He finds this an important point, as straight blades were the common weapon style of Islamic nobles and of ceremonial swords until a much later period; Alexander posits that this was due to warriors wanting to use the same style of weapon which the Prophet had.
Types of Straight Swords
A major source on the type of straight swords found comes from the work of al-Kindi, commonly known to Easterners as Kindi (full name: Abbasid Caliphs .
15th century ceremonial straight sword
At this time, some of the best sword-smiths in the Middle East were based in Yemen. According to al-Kindi, styles of blades produced there included:
“Old” style blades: Straight blades which were considered to be of the highest quality. Often described as having “a knot-like pattern zig-zagging over the blade” (the pattern sounds similar to effect created by pattern-welded forging). These blades “came in four lengths”, though the precise dimensions are not listed. al-Kindi reported that these blades “…have a white essence, green before throwing and red after”, which Alexander takes to mean that they:
“…looked white after polishing (see above) and were greenish before tempering, or green until a chemical compound was used to make the watering pattern (visible)”.
Qaljur swords: Light blades “three to four hand-spans long. These may have been sabres, but there is some scholastic debate as to the precise meaning of the Arabic words used to describe Qaljur swords, as per the following:
Two possibly related words were often used to describe early swords and sabers, these are qarachur and qaljuri. According to al-Kindi qaljuri was a sword made in the Yemen that is light in weight and about three handspans long. Allan (1979: 86 and 137) calls it a long curved sword. Al-Kindi’s use of the word in unclear as in the surviving manuscripts of his work it is variously called uri, quyuri, unuri and qubuzi, all of which were rendered by Zaki and described as curved.
Qarachur is defined by Nizam al-Mulk as a long sword given to a Turkish slave warrior at the Samanid court after his third year of service. However this might possibly refer to the belt from which the sword was suspended i.e., the black belt, and was therefore a reference to a form of investiture. Fakhr-i Mudabbir describes it as a long curved sword. Allan thinks this may be the long sword represented in miniature paintings. He does not regard it as the same as the qaljuri
Broadswords: Made from regional iron.
Sarandibi swords: Made from a mixture of sarandib (iron imported from Sri Lanka) and salmani (iron from Iran), which were thought to create better steel.
Samsam swords: A popular design which tradition says was created by a pre-Islamic poet / warrior. It is described as “…relatively broad and in the pre-Islamic period were distinguished by two holes at the end of the blade, and by two lines one of which was carved and looked like a river” (wavy).
al-Kindi goes on to mention the city of Basra (in present-day southern Iraq) as being an important weapon production area, famous for the quality of their steel: “…Blades of Basra, which loathe the scabbard; which grow not blunt nor buckle.”
He lists other sources of quality weapons, including:
Khorasan, Damascus, Egypt, Rum (Europe and Byzantium), Sri Lanka, and Qalah, probably Kedah in Malaysia.
However, in this time period, the best swords were reputed to come from India, it being the source of iron ore used to create Damascus steel, and center of highly developed iron refining and smelting techniques. Indian swords, noted for having wide blades, were treasured weapons often passed on as heirlooms.
The use of sword and baldric was consciously abandoned by the order of Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-861 CE) in favor of the saber and belt. But the use of sword and baldric seems to have retained a ceremonial purpose long past the time the sabre was adopted as the main combat weapon. Court and ceremonial weapons were of the straight variety right up to the 17th century.
Academics believe the curved sabre was introduced to this region by Turkish warriors who were bodyguards to Abbasid Caliph al-Mutasim (833-842). The Turks likely adopted the weapon from their eastern mounted steppe-nomad neighbours, for whom the sabre had been the weapon of choice for some time.
The earliest surviving Islamic sabre was found at Nishapur in modern Iran, dated to somewhere between 874-899 CE. The hilt was fragmentary and the blade itself badly corroded. The weapons is described as:
Its hilt, in excavated condition and now fragmentary, consists only of a pommel and guard, each of the elements retaining fragments of the original wooden (and probably leather-covered) grip. The pommel of flattened oval section is formed of two identical plates of cast and gilt bronze seamed along the edges; the sides are straight, the end of flattened ogee shape. Each face is decorated with raised trefoils facing inward. The guard is also of gilt bronze, formed of two identical halves, presumably once riveted together, that fit around the tang of the blade (a portion of which projects above the guard). The quillons are straight, of rectangular section, and taper toward the cinquefoil palmette-shaped tips. The faces of the guard have raised edges, with raised leaf forms in the center and within the tips. The heavily corroded iron blade, apparently straight and single-edged, is now obscured by the remains of the wooden scabbard lining that cling to it; the blade is broken into six pieces, but although it is very corroded traces of a sharpened back edged section remain. Portions of the two upper scabbard mounts remain, each consisting of two gilt-bronze sections with raised cutout trefoil decoration around their inner edges. The band at the mouth of the scabbard is shaped to accommodate the pointed quillon block and has riveted along its back edge a double-ogival bracket with matching trefoil decoration. Of the lower mount only a small portion remains attached to the blade, while a larger section, including the riveted-on bracket, is now broken away. Found with the sword was a ring held by a plate raised as a (gorgon’s?) face, which may have served as a mount at the end of the grip to secure a wrist strapp to secure a wrist strapard it as the same as the qaljuri.
I’ll go into detail on middle-to-late period Islamic sabres in my next article.