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The Turks: The Medieval World’s Most Martial People

By Adam Ali

Al-Jahiz, the renowned ninth century Arab prose writer, wrote an essay entitled “The Virtues of the Turks.” In this essay al-Jahiz describes the various contingents that formed the Abbasid army and argues that the Turks were far superior to the other groups when it came to fighting, riding, discipline, and war.

He points out five main groups that served within the caliphate’s military: The Khurasanis (Iranians from the eastern province of Khurasan), Abna (Khurasanis who had settled in Iraq), Arabs, clients (usually freed slaves, many of Iranian origin but also Greeks, Slavs, Africans, Berbers, and Armenians), and the Turks. The Khurasanis are portrayed as excellent heavy cavalrymen who could overcome most foes with their formidable charge. The Abna operated as foot soldiers and were experts at conducting sieges, at urban warfare, and at fighting on broken terrain, in fields, and in narrow places such as alleys, bridges, and trenches. The clients are praised for their loyalty and devotion to their patrons. The Arabs had a long tradition of illustrious military service from the early days of Islam.

Al-Jahiz claims that despite the qualities outlined for the abovementioned groups, they also have their shortcomings. For example, the Abna lack mobility and speed, while the Arabs were often embroiled in tribal conflicts and were unreliable. He also found that the Khurasanis lacked speed and versatility, and were at a disadvantage if their initial attack failed at overwhelming the foe, which could force them to withdraw – the retreat often turning into a rout.

Al-Jahiz states that the Turks had more virtues than all the above mentioned groups combined. He writes:

I say that if the virtues of the Turks cannot be pointed out without mentioning the vices of the rest of the troops, then omitting mention of all would be more correct and forsaking this book more prudent.

To outline the virtues of the Turks, al-Jahiz compares them to the Kharijites. The Kharijites were fierce sectarian rebels who had fought against the central government of the caliphate since the mid-seventh century. They were few in number, but were regarded as the some of the fiercest warriors of the time and were feared by their opponents when they met them in battle. The writer states that the Kharijites were very mobile and travelled long distances in short periods of time (sometimes travelling through the night), which often gave them the element of surprise, striking fast and hard and then disappearing before proper resistance can be organized. Being egalitarian zealots, the Kharijites did not carry much with them to battle.  When met with an equal force, the Kharijites were almost always sure to prevail, and if the opposing army’s size and baggage train was increased, it became too slow to catch the fast moving Kharijites. Additionally, when it came to pitched battles, the Kharijites were famous for their fearless full frontal charges that could throw any defensive line into disarray.

The Turks, according to al-Jahiz, were a match to the Kharijites and the other groups mentioned earlier and excelled over them in their own ways. The Turks were as good as the Kharijites and the Khurasanis when it came to a frontal charge with spear and lance. However, the Turks had the advantage of being excellent at mounted archery, a skill that the Kharijites, Arabs, and Khurasanis lacked. The Turks could fire in every direction while riding a horse at full gallop. Al-Jahiz states that when one thousand Turk horsemen fired a single volley at the enemy they caused one thousand casualties. Mounted archery gave the Turks an advantage over almost all of their foes, they were able to either fully destroy their enemies with minimal contact, or weakened them to the point that they could not resist the charge that followed the arrow volleys. Furthermore, the Turks were as deadly when they retreated as they were when they attacked because they could fire their arrows just as accurately behind them when they were withdrawing from battle.

The Turks’ were also superbly equipped for war and skilled in the use of all of their weapons making them a versatile fighting force. In addition to carrying their powerful composite recurved bows (often carrying three with them to battle), they were also armed with spears, daggers, maces, and swords. The spear used by the Turks, according to al-Jahiz, was hollow and shorter than the one used by the Kharijites, making it lighter to carry, and according to this writer it was also “more penetrating.” A very interesting detail mentioned in this essay on the Turks is their use of the lasso in warfare, which they skillfully employed to ensnare their enemies or their mounts and to pull them to the ground or capture them. Regarding the elite Abna infantry of the Abbasid armies who were excellent infantrymen, al-Jahiz states that the Turks could easily dismount and operated as foot soldiers when the need arose. On the other hand, the Abna were limited in their capacities as infantrymen and lacked the skills to fight on horseback, which required a lot of training. Thus, these soldiers were at a marked disadvantage on the battlefield when it came to mobility and speed, especially if the army had to reform, quickly redeploy to a new location, or beat a hasty retreat.

13th century Middle Eastern manuscript showing two riders on horseback

Al-Jahiz also mentions that the Turks were excellent riders and had a special and intimate relationship with their horses. They were faster than the Kharijites and had a higher endurance for long rides. Their horses were well-trained for war and were easy to maneuver by their riders. In fact, the Turks raised their mounts themselves from foals and developed close relationships with them. They were excellent at caring for their horses and were more skilled than veterinarians when it came to treating their horses when they fell ill or got injured.  Additionally, when the Turkic Warriors hungered or thirsted they could sustain themselves through their horses by drinking their milk or their blood; this often negated the need for cumbersome baggage trains on campaign. When not at war the Turks continued to sharpen their skills by constantly riding and hunting game, which kept them in the best shape possible.

Based on the description given by al-Jahiz in his essay, the Turks were probably one of the best warriors of the medieval period. They were versatile and combined the roles of several different types of soldier into one. They were scouts, raiders, skirmishers, heavy cavalry, and shock cavalry all in one; and could operate as infantry as well if the need arose. One can argue that al-Jahiz’ description may not be very objective because he wrote his essay for one of his patrons, who happened to be a Turk officer in the Abbasid army. However, when examining the historical record and other sources one can see that al-Jahiz is not too far off in his analysis of the Turks. The Turks originated from the Altai Mountains of Western Mongolia and Northwestern China. By the Middle Ages they inhabited most of Central Asia, the steppes of Southern Russia, and had penetrated into the eastern parts of the caliphate. They were pastoralist nomads who depended on their animals for their livelihood. Their need for mobility also made them an equestrian people, skilled at riding and raising horses. The harsh environment in which they lived also forced them to be a very martial people. The various Turkic tribes and clans often warred with one another for the best pastures. They also raided each other for livestock and slaves and also attacked sedentary and agricultural communities to obtain goods that they did not produce (although they often traded with them too). This lifestyle honed the military skills of the Turks, who were riding and shooting from a very young age, and made them the first choice as recruits into the armies of the rulers of the Muslim world both as mercenaries and slave soldiers.

Head of a Central Asian Figure in a Pointed Cap, dating from the 12th-13th century – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Al-Jahiz is not the only medieval writer who viewed the Turks as the best soldiers. Nizam al-Mulk (the great Seljuk vizier) and Qay Qavus Ibn Iskandar (one of the last rulers of the North Iranian Ziyarid dynasty) both authored works of Persian advice literature or mirrors for princes, predating Machiavelli’s writing by about six centuries. Both of these authors extol the martial virtues of the Turks, stating that no group or race is more courageous, loyal, or skilled at war. They argue that a portion of the army must be composed of them, stating that thousands of young Turks must be recruited and trained in the ruler’s palace and promoted based on merit.

The great historian Ibn Khaldun also argues in his “Introduction to History” (or The Muqaddimah) that nomadic peoples, the Turks foremost among them, were the most energetic and martial of peoples and that imperial dynasties and regimes emerged from such groups until they became corrupted and softened by civilization and luxury, which resulted in a loss of martial energy and group solidarity. This analysis is very true because as the Abbasid caliphate started to lose its power and influence in the mid-ninth century most of the dynasties that emerged to control the various regions of the Muslim world were founded by Turks, either tribal nomads or former slave soldiers. Ibn Khaldun even attributes the victory of the Muslims over the Mongols to the martial power and energy of the Turks, who formed the elite ranks of the Mamluk armies that defeated the Mongols on several occasions as they attempted to advance into Syria and Egypt between 1260 and 1323.

A quick overview of the presence of Turks in the armies of the medieval Muslim world will also verify that they were seen as the best soldiers and every ruler sought to fill the ranks of his army with elite Turkic mercenaries or slave soldiers. The first Abbasid caliph to recruit Turks in large numbers was al-Mutasim (r. 833-842). Even before his ascension to the throne he commanded a private army of 4,000 Turks. After he became caliph this number rose to 10,000-70,000 (the lower estimate seems to be more accurate, they probably numbered anywhere between 10,000-30,000 troops in addition to the other contingents that formed the imperial army). The regional Muslim dynasties that emerged during the late ninth century after the decline of effective Abbasid power also almost always had a core of elite Turkic slave soldiers that formed the backbone of their militaries. The In the east, the Samanids and their Ghaznavid successors (the founder of the Ghaznavid Empire was himself a Turk and had started his career as a mamluk or slave soldier) both had thousands of Turkic soldiers in their armies. The Iranian Buyid (939-1062) and Saffarid (861-1002) dynasties both rose through the support of their fellow countrymen, but once in power they immediately created contingents of elite Turkic cavalry that supplanted their original supporters as the elites of their armies. The Seljuks (1037-1194) were themselves the leaders of a large Turkic tribal confederation and with their followers were able to conquer a vast Empire that covered a very large part of the Muslim world. In fact, after defeating the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, Turkic tribesmen flooded into Anatolia and effectively started to “Turkify” the region that had up to that point been dominated culturally by Greeks and Armenians.

In Egypt the Tulunids (868-905), the Ikhshidids (935-969), and the Fatimids (969-1171) all eagerly recruited Turks into their armies. At his death, Ahmad Ibn Tulun (the founder of the Tulunid regime of Egypt and a former Turk soldier of the Abbasids) had 24,000 Turks in his army in addition to 42,000 Africans. The Fatimids also attempted to recruit Turks, but their rivals to the east blocked the trade routes through which they could be acquired. The first significant unit of Turks entered the Fatimid army in 978 after the Battle of Tawahin. The Fatimids had defeated an Abbasid army at this battle and were more than happy to pardon the Turks they had captured and to enroll them as heavy cavalry into the ranks of their army. The Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty (1171-1250) similarly based its power on an elite force of Turkic mamluk soldiers. The Ayyubids were followed by the Mamluk sultanate (1250-1517), which was a military regime that was established by Turkic slave soldiers and ruled Egypt and Syria for over two centuries. The Mamluk army not only defeated the Mongols and halted their advance into the Middle East, but also eliminated the Crusader States by 1291. In fact, Egypt’s military was dominated by foreigners (mainly Turks) for a millennium until the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha who created the first conscript army composed of Egyptians since the Islamic conquest of the region in the seventh century.

Although al-Jahiz may have been trying to flatter his patron with his praise of the Turks as the best soldiers of the era, his description of their martial skills and merits are not too exaggerated. The Turks’ superiority as warriors and soldiers during the medieval period is attested to by multiple authors. Furthermore, their presence as the elite units of almost all medieval Muslim dynasties further corroborates al-Jahiz’s assertions regarding their military superiority vis-à-vis other groups. The Turks were not only the best warriors of the medieval Muslim world, but also proved their metal against outsiders such as the Mongols and European crusaders, besting both in most of their encounters. In fact, the Europeans would not emerge as militarily dominant against the Turks until the development of effective and accurate firearms and field artillery in the mid-seventeenth century.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from him.

Top Image: Illustration of four horsemen from a 14th century Mamluk military treatise – each one with a sword and a hide shield, and each one carrying his shield on his horse’s croup. British Library Add. MS 18866  fol.140r



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