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Archery Equipment of the Islamic Crescent

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Turkish arrows

Turkish Arrows
Turkey, 18th-19th centuries
Grayson Archery Collection, MAC1994-0644B

From medieval times through the nineteenth century, archers of the Islamic crescent, stretching from Turkey eastward to India, were renowned for both their exceptional skills and superior weapons. As a necessary means of advancing the spread of Islam, weapons traditionally held a religious association in Muslim cultures. The bow and arrow, which are extolled in many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, held a special place above all others. Training in archery was seen as a religious duty and a sign of status, and the craftmanship of archery equipment was highly esteemed. The legacy of Islamic archery is exemplified by the archery traditions and equipment of Ottoman Turkey (1453–1922), of Iran during the Safavid–Qajar periods (1502–1925), and of the Indian subcontinent throughout the Mughal era (1526–1857), which blended Islamic and Hindu cultural elements.

The bows used by Islamic archers are among the finest of the Asiatic composites. Made with a wood core, sinew backing, and horn belly, they are often fairly short and strongly reflexed. Ideally suited to horseback archery, the bow design emphasizes speed of cast and distance of shot using relatively light arrows. The sinew backing is covered with thin bark or leather and varnished to make it waterproof. On Persian and Mughal bows the horn belly is covered as well. Painted decoration is common and typically quite elaborate. Arrows are made of wood or reed, with bulbous nocks, low fletching, and an assortment of tanged metal heads. Nocks are often colored inside the notches, and shafts are decorated with paint, metallic foil, or other materials. Flat, open quivers of leather or cloth were worn by horse archers on a belt at the waist. Cylindrical and box-like cases were also used for arrow storage.

Use of the bow and arrow continued across the region well after the introduction of firearms. The bow was used alongside guns in hunting and warfare, and was preferred for its familiarity, speed of use, and suitability to horseback. Sport archery also was widespread, and flight archery (shooting for distance) was a particularly favorite pastime of Islamic archers. Flight archery reached its zenith among the Ottoman Turks, who used specialized bows and arrows to achieve distance records of 800–900 meters that remained unsurpassed until the middle of the twentieth century. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the bow and arrow was in decline in the Middle East, and today traditional archery craftmanship and customs are no longer practiced. The legacy of Middle Eastern archery endures through extant equipment and the substantial corpus of traditional Islamic literature on the subject.

This online exhibit presents traditional Turkish, Persian, and Mughal archery equipment from the Museum’s Grayson Archery Collection. Included are military and ceremonial items, flight archery equipment, and artworks depicting traditional archery gear.

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References and Related Links

Latham, J.D. and W.F. Paterson. 1979. Archery in the lands of Eastern Islam. In Islamic arms and armour, ed. R. Elgood, 78-88. London: Scolar Press.

Yücel, U. 1970. Thirteen centuries of Islamic arms. Apollo 92:46–49.

Text prepared by Mary French, Charles E. Grayson, and Michael J. O’Brien, winter 2006.
Photos by Daniel S. Glover and Mary French.

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