Monday, 20 December 2021

Archery Strength training in the Topkapi Palace

The following text was written by Albert Bobovius (or his Turkish name: 'Santuri Ali Ufki Bey', or Wojciech in Polish) in about 1665. He was a Polish man born in 1610 in the city of Lviv (in today's East Ukraine). His life changed when he was abducted by Crimean Tatars and brought to Istanbul. He became Muslim, learned Turkish, spent 8 years in the Edirne palace and 19 years in the Topkapi palace (from which the Ottoman Empire was ruled). He completed his education in the famous 'Enderun' school in Topkapi palace. I am copying the archery related part and I will add some thoughts at the end. I hope this will give some insights on strength training. Enjoy!


These strong 'icoglan' (people who were brought to the palace as kids to be educated) deal with mostly with archery and they master it by going through all the training stages. To achieve this, the first tool they use is a pulley attached to a wall. There is a bag, filled with stones weighing 10 okka (= about 12,83 kg = 113 lbs) attached to a cord. The cord, which goes through the pulley, is pulled with their right hand as much as their strength allows. The left hand is held against the wall. When they gain strength in this way they add more stones to the bag every day. In the end the weight of the bag can be 40 okka (about 51 kg). After they trained enough in this manner and their arms have developed, they are given soft and easy to bend bows, but with chains instead of a bowstring. They don’t use this bow to shoot, but to develop their arms at each training by pulling it with their right and left arms until their arms are tired. After that, softer or harder bows are given to each according to their level. These they use without shooting, just pulling the arrow, until the tip touches the grip (full draw). They make bets on who pulls the bow more times without a break. Many of them are strong enough to do this 200 times. They train their arms with this training such, that some are given the title ‘kemankes’, which is only given to people who can pull iron bows. Actually this bow is not made from iron, but from such a strong horn, that an untrained person, can’t pull the bow as much, so that a coin would fall out, which was put under the string and string bridge. They make shots with this strong bow as a strength or mastership demonstration e.g. either pierce a horse shoe, or put an arrow through glass, without cracking or breaking it, just making a hole as big as the arrow. They shoot at glass with slim arrows from reed without arrow tips. In terms of marksmanship, they hit a coin between their friend’s 2 fingers. About these brave archers I heard fairytale-like, hard to believe things. They told me there were people strong enough to pierce a 3 finger thick copper plate.


  • First thing you notice is that they did not care about the different FD curves between a real bow and the pulley (- the pulley has a flat FD curve vs a gradually increasing weight of the bow). I tried this a lot in the past and found it challenging and reverted to elastic bands attached to the wall, to replicate the bows FD curve. 
  • Increasing the weight by small increments (putting extra stones every day in the bag) will get you quicker to your goal and reduce risk of injury. One of the biggest problems these days for heavy bow archers is the limited number of bows you have (as they are expensive), so you have to jump e.g. from 80 lbs to 100lbs, which might cause injury. Imagine it like 'benchpress' in the gym, where you can add or remove small weights to fit your training.
  • 40 okka is about 51 kg/113 lbs (assuming the conversion is right (1 okka = 1,283 kg)). 
  • 1665, the year this was written seems 'late' for archery. One might have thought during those years, archery might have lost it's importance in the battlefield due to gun powder advancements. Yet it is nice to see such professional training description, which means, archery was not dead at all during that time. 
  • Interesting to read they pull the bow with an arrow nocked until the tip touches the grip (=full draw). This creates also muscle memory to achieve full draw. Without the arrow e.g. with Kepaze training or with elastic bands, it is harder.
  • And here again you see that they trained both arms, which is often mentioned in other sources.
  • This is one glimpse of how they were training in the palace. There is different Ottoman historic texts with different methods. It is good to know the context. E.g. they might have trained differently in the Okmeydani (for flight archery) vs in the Timars (counties that needed to provide warriors at any time for the Sultan) 

Suleiman the Magnificent's Culus (Enthronement) Ceremony in the Topkapi Palace by Matrakci Nasuh

Albert Bobovius / Wojciech / Santuri Ali Ufki Bey