Middle-eastern mounted warfare

The Training of the Mamluk Faris

by Hassanein Rabie

The purpose of this paper is to throw some light on the military training of the mamluk faris in the tibaq (sing. tabaqa), the name given to the barracks of Cairo Citadel which housed the military school. According to al-Maqrizi, the sultan’s first action on purchasing young mamluks from abroad was to send them to one or other of the tibaq, the recruits being now distributed over the tibaq, each according to his race or place of origin. As Professor Ayalon points out, the tibaq were reserved exclusively for the training of the Royal Mamluks (al-mamalik al-sultaniyya) who constituted ‘the backbone of the Mamluk army’.

It would seem that the construction of the tibaq by the Mamluk Sultans goes back to the early years of their sultanate in Egypt. There is a reference in Ibn Taghri Birdi’s Nujum to the effect that Sultan Baybars built two or more barracks for his mamluks; and al-Maqrizi states that Sultan Qalawun used to visit the tibaq personally in order to investigate the morale and living conditions of his mamluks. When, in A.H. 715/A.D.1315, al-Burj al-Mansuri and the adjoining tibaq of the mamluks were partly destroyed by fire, Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun decided to have new ones built. A reference in al-Maqrizi to the demolition, in 729/1329, of a bat-infested prison in the Citadel, at the site of which al-Nasir had had some tibaq built, leads to the assumption that the construction of the new tibaq in question extended over a period exceeding ten years.

The available sources fail to provide data on the exact number of tibaq existing under individual sultans. Only Khalil ibn Shahin al-Zahiri supplies valuable information about their number in the fifteenth century. According to him, there were 12 tibaq, each one the size of a hara (side street) and capable of accommodating 1,000 mamluks.

Al-Maqrizi is the only known historian to provide information on the life of the mamluks in the tibaq during the heyday of the Mamluk Sultanate. In each tabaqa there was at least one faqih per group of young mamluks to teach them the Qur’an, the Arabic script, the Shari a, and the Muslim prayers. Al-Maqrizi stresses that the education of the mamluks was very strict at this stage. Under Sultan Khalil ibn Qalawun no mamluk was permitted to spend a night outside the tibaq. Al-Nasir Muhammad used to give them leave to frequent, by turns, the public bath in the city, in the company of their attendants, and to return to the tibaq by the end of the day. This happened roughly once a week. Punishment for transgression of the rules of discipline or religious conduct was fierce and was meted out by the faqih, the tawashi (eunuch), or the ra’s nawbat al-nuwab (the chief of the corps of mamluks), who was the amir in charge of the sultani mamluks,

In the later mamluk period everything changed. The sultans bought adult mamluks who had already acquired a skill or trade, e.g. as sailors or bakery attendants. They were permitted to live in town and to marry local women.

The actual military training in the tibaq began when the mamluk reached his majority. There was a mu’allim (a furusiyya master, instructor, or expert) to impart military training to each group of mamluks. The furusiyya exercises comprised equitation, the lance game, archery, and fencing. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya (d. 751/1356) says that a mamluk who attained skill in these four branches had completed his furusiyya training and become a fully-fledged faris.

Tuition in horsemanship lasted until the mamluk could sit firmly on a bareback horse (‘ala al-’ari). At first he practiced on horse models made of dry clay, stone, or wood. The mu’allim taught the mamluk how to jump over it correctly. Then a saddle was placed on the figure and the mamluk practiced jumping without and with full equipment. The training was completed by riding practice on a live horse.

The live horse was first covered with a horse-cloth called jull, made of wool or bristle. The mamluk had to stand on the left side of the horse, the whip in his left hand, placing his right thumb on the jull and his right palm on the horse’s neck behind the mane. When the mamluk jumped, he hit the horse with his right hand on the right side of the neck. This was followed by training on a saddle-less horse, first at a canter, then at a trot, and lastly at a gallop.

On a saddled horse the mamluk learnt, under the supervision of the riding¬-master, how to hold the reins correctly, how to sit in the saddle steadily, how to step into the stirrups, how to amble, and how to turn. Some technical treatises on furusiyya provide us with important information on the different methods of jumping, riding, sitting, dismounting from the horse, holding the equipment, and using the stirrups, the knowledge of which was obligatory for every faris. It is worth mentioning that each faris had to know how to treat his horse in case of sickness. Badr al-Din Baktut al-Rammah al-Khazindari (d. 711/1311) states that, if a faris could not attend to his sick horse, his furusiyya skill was not complete. The sources contain ample information on different kinds of horse diseases and their treatment.

Equally important was prowess in the lance game which, according to Muhammad ibn Ya’qub ibn Akhi Hizam (or Hazzam), represented the zenith of the furusiyya. Treatises on furusiyya contain the instructor’s advice about the lance exercises. Only perfectly fit horses were considered suitable for these exercises. The mamluk was advised to saddle the horse himself, and never to rely on anybody’s help. He was taught how to mount and dismount lance in hand, how to tilt the lance in attack and retreat and, especially, how to use it while holding the reins.

The lance-master taught the would-be faris how to vary his behaviour, when meeting his enemy: how to parry (al-tabtil), how to disengage from battle (al-tasrih), how to extricate himself from difficulties (al-nashl), how to join battle (al-dukhul) and how to leave it (al-khuruj), and how to thrust (al-ta’n).

The birjas figured prominently in mamluk training. It was a wooden target consisting of seven segments, one placed on the other with the seventh reaching the height of the horse, and topped by a metal ring fixed to a piece of wood. The horse-borne mamluk approached the birjas in order to hurl the spear¬head into the metal ring. If he succeeded, it was the piece of wood fixed to the metal ring that came down; if he failed, his lance would fall to the ground.

The birjas was not the only target in the lance game. Najm al-Din al-Ahdab al-Rammah (d. 694/1294) mentions cornets or cones which used to be scat¬tered on the ground, to be collected by the mounted mamluk with the spear¬head of his lance. The same author refers also to metal rings, twelve in number, fixed to a piece of metal, which had all to be caught in one attempt; to a ball placed on a person’s head and to be speared by the lance; and to many other procedures of a similar kinds.

Written instructions for the use of the lance were laid down by some furusiyya masters under the collective title bunud (sing. band), which here means ‘lance exercises’. Baktut says that these bunud gave strength to body and thigh and taught the faris how to place his foot in the stirrup and how to hold weapons of any kind. The author of the Nihayat al-Su’l wa ‘l-Umniya states that these bunud gave flexibility to the members of the body, enabling the faris to hurry, to attack, to circle, and to flee. Some furusiyya masters traced a number of these bunud back to the early Islamic era, attributing some of them to Ali ibn Abi Talib, Khalid ibn al-Walid, and others, after whom they were named. They said that there had been 150 of them in olden days. Najm al-Din al-Ahdab al-Rammah summarized the rules of attack in 72 bunud, in each of which he explains in detail how the lance should be held and tilted, when the opponent was attacked. These 72 bunud were reduced to 50 by an anony¬mous lance-master who hoped thus to shorten the period of training. Later on, Baktut reduced the total number of bunud to only seven. Lest something should be missed by the muta’allim (the mamluk under training), Baktut added further details to the instructions contained in al-Ahdab’s bunud.

The would-be faris, having mastered horsemanship and the lance game, was sent for further training in the hippodrome (maydan, pl. mayadin). The training in the hippodrome was cavalry training proper, i.e. coaching in team¬work. The mamluks did group exercises, learning how to enter, come out, turn right or left, advance or retreat together and to know, in any fight, their own place as well as that of their fellows. Lajin al-Husami al-Tarabulsi (d. 738/1337-8) compiled a furusiyya treatise on the different forms which the performance of the mamluk could take in the maydan. It seems that Lajin’s treatise was the original which later furusiyya masters utilized with some variations.

In entering the maydan, each mamluk had to hold his lance in the middle with his right hand, when riding behind his fellow. There were many ways of holding the lance on entering the maydan, but it had to be uniform for all the mamluks riding in a single formation. Lajin al-Husami gives full details of the exercises performed in the hippodrome. The mamluks entered the maydan in a broken line, each of the two groups headed by a muqaddam, who was the chief of the tibaq, so that two muqaddams were riding side by side in the centre (Plate II, a). Then the mamluks rode in different formations, e.g. , beginning in two straight parallel lines (Plate II, b-c) and then turning to form two concentric circles or two separate circles (Plate II, d-e), until they rode in two opposing lines for each pair of mamluks to engage in single combat (Plate III, a). The exercise over, they returned in a zigzag (Plate III, b) to reassume their original formation in the shape of a broken line. This was followed by a show of birjas (Plate III, c), after which the mamluks performed further riding exercises in varying formations (Plate IV).

The Bahri Mamluk Sultans constructed a considerable number of hippo¬dromes over and above al-maydan al-Salihi, which they had inherited from the Ayyubids. This maydan, built by Sultan al-Salih Ayyub in 643/1243, served the Mamluk Sultans during the first years of their rule in Egypt. The best-known mayddin of the Bahri Mamluk Sultans were al-maydan az-Zahiri and al-maydan al-qabaq, built by al-Zahir Baybars; al-maydan Birkat al-Fil, built by Sultan Kitbugha; and, finally, three hippodromes constructed by Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, i.e., al-maydan al-Nasiri, al-maydan al-mahari, and al-maydan Siryaqus. The hippodromes gradually deteriorated during the Circassian period, when hardly any addition was made to their number. Sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri is the only Circassian sultan said, in the available sources, to have constructed a maydan (in Cairo).

Beside the lance game a mamluk had to be proficient in archery. Taybugha al-Baklamishi al-Yunani (d. 797/1394) enjoins every archer to enter the archery training yard, as if he were entering a mosque, i.e., in veneration. For the worshipful mood to be complete Taybugha exhorts him to keep calm and, preferably, to pray two rak’as and only then to prepare his bow and arrows. When his turn came, the archer was to roll up his sleeves, tie the edges of his garment around his waist, and begin the training under the supervision of his master.

In teaching beginners, the archery master used to take two flexible bows of the kind called kabad, holding one himself and putting the other into the hands of the mamluk. The master began by teaching the mamluk how to get a firm grip of the bow. This took quite a long time. The aspiring archer was then taught how to measure the distances between the fingertips, when the fingers were outstretched, and how to lock the fingers on the string and arrow (‘aqd, pl. ‘uqud). The master let the mamluk handle the string of the bow first, without the arrow, for a few days. This exercise was followed by shooting with a featherless arrow. The bow was replaced by four others in succession, each heavier than the last; it was the fifth bow which could be used for actual fighting.

The final training was carried out in the desert; but, before it could be undertaken, the archer had to achieve a certain degree of skill by shooting at a target called al-buttiyya. The only known master of archery to describe a buttiyya is Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allah Muhibb al-Din al-Tabari (d. 694/1295). He says that the buttiyya was a fixed target supported by four legs. The height of the buttiyya was level with the archer’s chest and therefore variable. It was made of an un¬specified material, presumably leather, and filled with cotton. The archer was made to shoot at it from the distance of one dhira’ i.e. , 66. 5 cm. (Plate V). To facilitate the task of the marksman, Taybugha aI-Yunani compiled a poem of more than two hundred verses, containing all the instructions in archery. It seems that many of the mamluks in the tibaq learnt Taybugha’s poem by heart, to be recited and followed when training. The poem enumerates all the moves to be performed by a mamluk, explaining how to hold the bow, where to place the right leg and where the left, what distance to keep between them, when to stand and when to - sit, while taking aim. It teaches the grasp (qabda), the clench (qafla), the aim (i’timed), the nocking (tafwiq), and the release (iflat).

The treatises on furusiyya provide innumerable data about most things which were of interest to the mamluk archer. They informed him of the different kinds of bows and arrows, and of the function of each part. They taught him how to avoid the dangers threatening the archer, such as the trembling of the hand or the string hitting the left thumb, the forearm, the chin, or the ear of the archer. They also told him how to avoid or deal with the blisters and wounds caused by stringing, clenching, drawing, and releasing, at the same time suggesting appropriate remedies.

The use of the bow and arrow while riding a horse occupied much space in tibaq exercises. The practice consisted of two main movements: (a) shooting down at al-qiqaj (possibly a sand-filled basket), and (b) shooting up at al-qabaq. For the former, the archery master showed the mamluk how to hold the reins between the middle and the annular fingers, how to hold the bow with a firm grip, how to stand in the stirrups, while leaning forward, and how to shoot the arrow down without touching the horse’s ears.

As for the qabaq, its literal meaning is ‘gourd’. Al-Maqrizi says that it consisted of a very high wooden beam erected on an empty plain. A wooden circle was fixed to the head of the beam. Standing up on horseback, the archers shot their arrows through an opening in the circle, in order to hit a target placed behind it. The illustration in al-Tabari’s treatise which pictures two faris shooting at a qabaq confirms al-Maqrizi’s data. Al-Tabari exhorts the horseman to approach the qabaq from its right side, leaning somewhat towards his left side, and to beware of touching the wooden beam with his knees. He adds that the length of the beam topped by the wooden circle called al-’alama, should be ten dhira’s (Plate VI).

In an account of Sultan Khalil ibn Qalawun’s visit to a maydan on the outskirts of Cairo in 692/1293, in order to play qabaq, Ibn Taghri Birdi gives a different definition of the qabaq. He describes it as a high mast, to the head of which was fixed a gold or silver gourd (qar’a), inside which a pigeon was placed. The faris would advance towards the target and shoot at it, while he was in motion. The one who hit the target and sent the pigeon into flight would receive a robe of honour and the gourd as his prize. However, it seems that the qabaq described by Ibn Taghri Birdi was of the kind used on special occasions, in the presence of the sultan; while that referred to by al-Maqrizi was the one normally employed in the tibaq. Data as yet undiscovered in the Mamluk sources may one day confirm or refute this assumption.

More information on the qabaq is found in Taybugha al-Yunani, who advises the mamluks to look upwards when shooting at the qabaq, to shoot from a short distance after passing it, and to follow the arrow with the eyes, until it has passed the wooden circle. He states that, in both the qiqaj and the qabaq, the mamluk must not begin shooting, until the distance between him and his predecessor is great enough to avoid injury, should he fall off his horse. No arrows must be collected before the end of the exercise.

Fencing, at many stages, was also taught in the tibaq. First, the master brought out four different kinds of swords with different weights, varying from two to five pounds. Exercises began with light swords and ended with heavy ones. Clay was brought which, according to Baktut, had to mature like dough for three days and nights and was then kneaded until it became as soft as ointment (marham), according to specification. The clay was put on a small table, three dhira’s long, two dhira’s wide and one shibr (span) high. The mamluk, under the supervision of his master, approached the clay with the sword between his forefinger and thumb, bent down on his knees, and hit the clay (Plate VII).

In another version, the mamluk approached the clay on the table from the right and then, left leg forward and right leg back, raised the sword to his cheek and hit the clay, bending his right leg and crouching on his left knee. The mamluk hit the clay with his sword 25 times on the first day, 50 times on the second, 75 on the third, and continued increasing the number of blows until he reached 1,000 hits in one day in one posture a feat which was considered to be a proof of attainment. The following stage of practice was to put on the clay a layer of felt which the mamluk tried to cut inch by inch, until he got down to the clay. The thickness of the felt was increased from five layers on the first day, until it reached more than one hundred layers by the end of the trainings. The anonymous author of the Kitab Majmu’ fi al-Rumh says that the clay practice should be followed by hitting a bar of lead, until the sword cut right through it. Here the lead bar seems to have been an alternative to the felt in sword training.

To teach the mamluk under training how to be careful with his sword and how to assess and control the depth of the wound, according to whether he wanted to kill or only to injure his enemy, the fencing master made him cut sheets of paper which he placed on a cotton-filled pillow. Twenty reams of paper were then put on the pillow and the mamluk was required to cut through a certain number of reams at one blow. A sheet of iron was now placed underneath these reams, which were to be dealt with in the same way. The exercise was continued, until the mamluk could cut through a certain number of reams without the use of the iron sheet.

The horseman was trained in fencing in a completely different way. At first, a green reed the height of the faris was fixed in the ground. The horseman approached it from the right, riding very fast, and cut about a span from it. He repeated the exercise a number of times, until only one dhira’ was left from the length of the reed (Plate VIII). The next exercise consisted in fixing five reeds to the ground on the right hand side of the faris, the distance between each reed being ten dhira’s. The faris approached on horseback, cutting each reed, piece by piece, as in the preceding exercise. The last exercise of this kind involved the placing of five reeds on the right hand and five more on the left hand for the faris to cut through, piece by piece.

Only then did the master begin to teach the mamluk how to use the sword in battle when meeting the enemy, in case of attack and in case of retreat, and also how to use two swords at once. These skills were taught in consecutive exercises named al-muwashshah, al-mukhatif, al-mukhalif, etc., which led to full qualification in the art of fencing.

Such was the tuition to be undergone by every mamluk before he left the tibaq. After he had finished all the prescribed exercises and proved his efficiency as a fully qualified soldier, the mamluk was handed his liberation paper and given a horse and equipment. His connection with the old barracks was not severed here. As Prof. Ayalon explains in detail, it continued in many ways, one of them being the system of pay parades, at which the mamluks received their pay according to their tibaq.

It is worth mentioning that the level of military training in the tibaq declined in the course of time, especially under the Circassians. This decline was caused by internal economic factors running parallel with deterioration in the affairs of the Mamluk Sultanate. It also coincided with the slow but steady rise in the use of fire-arms.

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