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Traditional Turkish Archery (Geleneksel)

Readers mail…
From Nick Gough….
Lambousa Archers….

On  15th August the Lambousa Archers attended an archery tournament at the Aphrodite Beach Front Complex at Gaziveren. The event was organised by the TRNC Okculuk Federation and we went to support our friend, Fatih Suicmez, who was a participant in the ‘Geleneksel’ or traditional Turkish archery event. As a result of this interesting discipline we researched further and found that it had its roots deep in the history, heritage and culture of the Turkish people.

Introduction

The bow (and associated paraphernalia) has long held cultural significance among the Turkish peoples. The early Khans would adopt the bow as a symbol of authority and would send messages to other rulers wrapped around an arrow bearing the Identification mark of the Khan.

History

Although the earliest documented evidence of bows in use by humans dates to approximately 20,000 B.C. in cave paintings in the Iberian Mediterranean basin, it was the Scythians (800 B.C.) who were among the first peoples to master warfare based on mounted archers. Their short composite bows were later adapted by the Huns, another Turkic people, who improved the design by including horn tips to the limbs of the bows making them stronger. Later, the main weapon of the Magyars, who swept through Eastern Europe, was the Asiatic recurve bow.  This type of bow, used by mounted archers, evolved into its most significant form under the Ottomans and is recognised today as the most important part of traditional Turkish archery.

Sport and Recreation

As gunpowder and firearms began to dominate warfare and the use of the bow as a military weapon began to decline, the Ottomans had begun to organise archery for sport and recreation at institutional level with the establishment of the ‘Ok Meidan’ (place of arrows) and the ‘tekke’ which was a place of teaching and learning, akin to a modern day sports club. Although the Anglo Saxon world recognises the first archery sports club as the ‘Guild of St George’ founded under Henry VIII, the first Ok Meidan was established at Edirne 100 years previously. The most famous Ok Meidan was established by Sultan Mehmet II, after he had captured the city. He purchased the property and gifted the place to archers, bidding them to build a tekke upon it. This tekke was granted holy status and protected by law.

Archer with a traditional bow

Archery training within the tekke was strictly organised with a hierarchy consisting of students, known as Talip, under instruction from the Masters, who were able to ‘graduate’ when they were able to shoot a pishrev arrow a distance of 594 metres, witnessed by four people to become Kemankes (archers). In the ceremony a bow was dropped into the hands of the newly appointed Kemankes to symbolise the gaining of knowledge and tradition.

Disciplines

Under the Ottomans archery was practiced under two main disciplines: flight archery and target archery (Puta), and also included the disciplines of  Qabaq and Darb.

Flight archery was the sport of distance shooting using heavy draw weight bows and specially designed arrows (the draw weight being the amount of force in lbs (UK) to draw the bow to 28 inches). The short arrows were carefully tapered to make them aerodynamically efficient and to lessen the possibility of breakage, and shorter to make them lighter, as a lighter arrow is likely to travel further. The use of shorter arrows which ‘drew’ beyond the handle of the bow was facilitated by the use of a unique device called the ‘sipher’. The sipher is essentially a grooved shelf firmly attached to the bow hand of the archer that enables the archer to fully draw the bow to exert maximum force while giving support to the arrow before release.

Incredible distances could be achieved with this equipment and up to 800 metres are said to have been recorded. The best archers became famous and stone markers called Menzil stones were erected for record shots, facing the direction the shot was fired from and inscribed with the date, distance and name of the archer. In 1795 the Turkish consulate, Mahmud Efendi, at a gathering hosted by the Toxopholite Society, shot a measured distance of 440 metres, which was 100 metres further than the longest distance of an English longbow. What’s more, he stated that he was out of practice, just an amateur and that his bow was not in the best of condition!

Target archery, known as ‘puta’, was the discipline of shooting arrows into a distinctive pear shaped target called a puta. The puta is traditionally made of a leather covering and stuffed with sawdust, shavings and seeds. The puta are often decorated and feature a circle as the target centre or ‘bullseye’. Modern puta are likely to maintain the traditional pear shape but be constructed of man- made material for longevity and economy. Quite incredible distances of 165-250 metres have been recorded for traditional puta, with the targets having been set at the distance that an enemy would have been engaged. However, in 2018, the puta were set at 60 and 70 metres at the sixth Annual Conquest Cup at Istanbul’s Okcular Vakfi (archery foundation).

Qabaq is a traditional discipline based on target shooting on horseback. This has obvious cultural significance, bearing in mind the heritage of the Turkish people and their martial history. Qabaq translates as ‘gourd’ and during Qabaq the archer aims to hit a disc or other target on top of a 50ft pole whilst at full gallop. To achieve this feat it is often necessary to lie upon the neck of the horse while shooting upwards at the target when passing under it. This discipline demonstrates a high level of horsemanship coupled with an exceptional skill in archery.

Darb is a minor traditional discipline based on target archery and the ability to pierce armour or metal plate. This ability has often been overlooked in comparison with the achievements of the English longbow against armoured knights, but it was well known to the Romans who lost seven legions under Crassus at the battle of Carrhae,  against the Parthian mounted archers. Later, the Romans noted that the Huns had no difficulty penetrating armour with their improved bows. As late as 1682 the Hapsburg army were advised that the breast plates of the Austrian curiassiers could be easily pierced by the Ottoman archers.

The bow

The Turkish or Ottoman bow is the evolutionary result of the bows developed by the Eurasian peoples over many centuries. They improved upon the short composite re curve bows by refining the construction materials and improving the basic design. They were among the shortest Asiatic bows, commonly measuring between 30 and 50 inches (for comparison, my Olympik recurve bow measures 70 inches) and so heavily reflexed that when unstrung, the limbs would wind back upon themselves almost to form a circle. The shorter and lighter limbs enabled heavy draw weights and maximum force, due to extensions on the re curved limbs and the materials used in their construction. These bows were made up of a laminate featuring a wood core of maple with horn for the belly (archers side) and sinews on the back (target side). These materials were held in place using glue derived from animal by-products and also fish glue. The horns from water buffalo were preferred to any others and the sinews from the achilles tendons of cattle. The sinews would be dried and then pounded with a wooden mallet, before being combed and saturated with glue as they were applied to the bow. All the separate wood components would be fish tail spliced and glued to form the basic skeleton shape of the bow. On completion, the bows were often finished with a layer of leather or birch bark and decorated, often with Koranic inscriptions. The addition of horn to the belly of the bow enabled the bow to withstand the great forces of compression when drawing the bow, and the stacked tendons on the back which experienced a lot of tension. All these features gave the Turkish bow  superiority against the ‘self’ (one piece) bows, for example, the English longbow. The manufacturing process was so involved, with each process involving adding material and gluing plus forming, that it could take up to three years to make a complete bow. However, bows from the old masters were said to be still be in use up to two hundred years later.

Bowstrings

The bowstrings, from the earliest times appear to have been made from horse hair and it is said that it got its name ‘kirish from ‘kir’ meaning horse. Eventually, they came to be made of up to 50 strands of unspun silk which were finished at each end with a loop called tundj.  They were fastened into the silk with a special knot. To protect the string from fraying where the arrows were nocked, a separate ‘serving’ known as meidanlyk was added – this was made of undyed raw silk. A thicker string was used for target (puta) and a thinner string for flight shooting.

Arrows

Up to ten types of arrow have been recorded as being in use traditionally for the different styles of shooting, with the points, fletchings and form of the arrow being dictated by the discipline. The arrows were almost always made from pine wood and the points made of ivory for the flight arrow (pishrev) which measured on average 24.5 inches. Metal was used for the ‘azmayish’ arrow (26 inches), which was used by seniors competing for prizes and the ‘puta’ arrow used for target practice. Two practice arrows without fletchings were the ‘hava gezi’ with no point and the ‘torba gezi’ with an iron tip, and shot into a practice sack. For the fletchings, the pinion and tail feathers of swans, eagles, cormorants and pigeons were used and the three feathers for the fletching all had to come from the same side of the bird, left or right and were glued at 120 degrees on the shaft. The nocks were made separately, spliced and glued and commonly made of horn or brazil wood.

Technique

An essential feature of traditional Turkish archery is the thumb ring or ‘Zyghyr’. Without this piece of unique equipment it would be almost impossible to practice archery consistently, safely and accurately. It is a fundamental difference between traditional archery and archery practised elsewhere as a recreational activity or sport, and involves the bow being drawn by the zyghyr on the drawing hand and locked (mandal, mandal being the Turkish for lock) by holding the forefinger over the thumb with the Zyghyr on it. The Zyghyr are often constructed of gold, silver or jade and many different types of horn are used. The best zyghyr are made of Ivory with walrus ivory being preferred because it polishes well and does not tarnish. Zyghyr are often worn around the neck of the archer when not in use, as a way of identifying participation in the sport with fellow archers.

The zyghyr, used in accordance with the mandal is essentially a trigger release mechanism. It spreads the load imposed by the bowstring, protects the thumb (as a recurve archer would protect their fingers by using a ‘tab’) and enables a clean release of the arrow. It is said that the use of the zyghyr enables a cleaner shot by preventing ‘rolling’ of the string on release and the combination of the zyghyr and the mandal gives excellent control of the shot process, especially when in motion.

Revival

To date there is a revival in traditional archery as more people of Turkish origin are becoming aware of Ottoman culture and their heritage, evidenced by popular television shows featuring the origins of the Ottomans. Traditional archery is being promoted by the government and the Annual Conquest Cup has been held at the Okcular Vakfi (archery foundation) in Istanbul since 2012. Held in late May, the Cup celebrates the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman forces and it features archers from various countries using traditional equipment, shooting at targets set at 60 and 70 metres. The Okcular Vakfi is the most famous archery complex in Turkey and was founded by Sultan Mehmet II, 565 years ago. The original stone pulpit (namazgagh) still stands. Here in the TRNC, traditional archery featured at a tournament in August this year held at the Aphrodite Beach Front Complex at Gaziveren by the TRNC Okcular Federasyonu and was well received with much interest from fellow archers. It is hoped that the numbers of traditional archers will increase in future years.

Traditional Turkish Archery was inscribed on the Unesco list of the Intangible Cultured Heritage of Humanity on behalf of Turkey in 2019.

References

  • Unesco
  • Paul E Klopsteg- Turkish Archery and the Composite Bow
  • Murat Osveri- Turkish Traditional Archery, parts 1 and 2
  • World Archery
  • T.R. Dergisi- Traditional Turkish Archery
  • Kemankesh- Turkish Traditional Archery
  • TRT News/Magazine-An Archery Contest Carries 500 years of Tradition

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