Friday, 13 February 2015

Saladin's army

If the crusades are mentioned people think immediately of the eternal fight of the Arabs and Christians and of course Saladin. Presumably the present map of the Middle East with all the Arab states and of course Hollywood create this thinking.
What fosters this as well is that in all films about Saladin or the Crusades, Saladin and his army are portrayed like Arabs, with turbans, Arabic culture etc.

So was this really an eternal battle between Arabs and the West? Who did the crusaders have to fight? Who were the men in Saladin Ayyubi's armies?
Let's have a look at literature instead of movies.
Anne-Marie Edde has researched the biographies of 122 of the emirs of the time and has written an academic article: ''Kurds and Turks in the army of North Syria''. The first page is below:

I translate freely:
"The ethnic composition of the Ayyubid soldiers is much debated topic. For a long time people have thought the Ayyubid armies had a large number of Kurdes because of the origin of the dynasty. David Ayalon has shown especially starting from the Egyptian examples that the army of Saladin and the successor armies were in fact Turkish. Even more, he confirms that the Kurds made up only a limited power in the army and some were even discriminated under Saladin. So for D Ayalon there is a number of similarities and a continuity between the Ayyubid and Mamluk armies. I found it interesting to analyse the situation of the Ayyoubid army of North Syria which has always recognised the suzerainity of Cairo.[...]"
(David Ayalon was a renowned historian specializing in Middle Eastern dynasties especially the Mamluks)
Another source mentions that the majority of Saladin's army consisted of Turks (Carl F. Petry "The Cambridge History of Egypt" p. 226)

So not only is there no mention of Arabs, but the research shows that Saladin's army was a mixed Turkish / Kurdish army with the majority being of Turkish origin. So why is this important?
By knowing the ethnic composition of the army we will be able to have a better idea of their military equipment, weapons, their fighting style, what language they spoke and even how they looked like (which may surprise many).

The below picture gives us an idea of how the Turks looked like at that time. Some would say "Chinese" or Asian, which will be a big surprise to many to imagine Asian people fight against the crusaders. The Turks of the time spoke a Kipchak dialect of Turkish, the same language as the famous Golden Horde would have spoken. And it is written that Saladin spoke Turkish with his commanders (John France: "The Crusades and their Sources" p.84).
Varqa and Gulshah, 13. century Seljuk / Turkish
The Turks had a totally different fighting style than the Arabs. The latter relied traditionally on lances, straight swords and fought on camels. The Arabs preferred shock tactics with frontal lance attacks. The Turks were horse archers instead. Their main weapon was the Central Asian composite bow which they mastered formidably. They had light and fast sabres instead of a straight swords. They rode strong, tall, fast and enduring horses brought from Central Asia. The Asian Bactrian Camel was merely used to carry supplies. The special horses enabled them to use Central Asian style strategies like e.g. hit and run tactics, feigned retreat. The Turk's armour consisted of light but reliable lamellar armour. Instead of Arabian style clothing, the Turks preferred Asian, Kimono-style outfits. Instead of Arab/Bedouin style turbans, the Turks preferred Central Asian style hats e.g. felt hats called "Börk" or other hats called "Serpus" / "Tarbush".

The main force the Crusaders had to face were the Turkish horse archers. Based on historical accounts, they poured down arrows on the Crusaders for hours and days inflicting heavy casualties. When the Crusaders decided to confront the attackers with a cavalry attack, the Turks retreated with their faster horses, The Crusaders never caught them with their slower horses (only at the end of the 17th century will the West capture some Turkish war horses, breed them and "create" the fast English Thoroughbred horse and use the blood in the breeding of countless other breeds.) The pursuit lasted hours, sometimes days and at the end the retreating exhausted Crusader army was defeated easily. Alternatively the retreating Turkish army lured the pursuers into a trap with a larger Turkish army waiting e.g. behind a hill.

Seljuk bowl, 12.-13. century