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Heavy Cavalry Under the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates
by David Nicolle

An extract from The military technology of classical Islam by D Nicolle

Part Three - Tactical Developments and the Military Technology of Islam.




       While it is generally agreed that heavy cavalry took an increasingly important part in the wars of Islam, it is also maintained that this process did not go as far in the Muslim world as it did in Europe.1 Yet such a viewpoint might be an oversimplification and thus misleading. The Middle East certainly never produced iron-clad cavalry weighed down in full-plate armour as would be seen in mid-14th to 16th century Europe. The equipment of such supposedly "typical" Christian knights was, however, itself an admission that cavalry armour was failing against infantry weapons such as arrows, crossbow-bolts and ultimately bullets. It might, in fact, be regarded as an aberration, an extreme reaction or a dead-end in the long history of armour, and not as its finest flowering. Islam clearly preferred to maintain a balance between protection and mobility, yet this fact must not obscure the existence, at various times and in various places, of Muslim cavalry who were, in comparison to their comrades and foes, very heavily armoured. In tactical terms it is precisely this comparison that matters, for a heavy cavalryman is simply a horseman who is relatively easy to escape from, because of his limited speed, but who is correspondingly difficult to stop because of his increased protection.
       Thus, as one would expect, the role of heavy cavalry in early Islam was primarily to fight those who could not, or would not, escape. Under the Umayyads this normally meant enemy infantry, and any discussion of cavalry operations in this period cannot ignore the
1. Cahen: "Djaysh", loc. cit.


question of stirrups which were then coming into widespread use.
       The stirrup clearly first developed in the Far East, though whether the Chinese, the Koreans or one of various Central Asian nomadic peoples actually invented it is still open to dispute.2 Although one highly respected scholar has suggested that the Muslim Arabs first learned of stirrups from their Byzantine rather than their Iranian or Turkish foes,3 most authorities believe that they adopted the device, even if they had known of it earlier, during their conflicts with Turks or Turkified Iranians in eastern Iran or Transoxania.4 That would be during the late 7th or early 8th centuries. The illustrative evidence makes it abundantly clear that stirrups were a normal item equipment in much, if not all, of immediately pre-Islamic Turkistān5 (Figs. 429, 430, 434, 436, 437, 451, 456, 459 and 473). Unfortunately, the legs of the Ṭāq-i Bustān horseman are so damaged that it is impossible to see whether or not this invaluable source originally portrayed stirrups (Fig. 330F).
       Al Jāḥiẓ of Baṣra, writing perhaps less than a century and a half after the event, states quite categorically that the Arabs
2. Bivar, "Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier", p. 286; A. D. H. Bivar, "The Stirrup and its Origins", Oriental Art, I (1955), p. 62; Haldon, "Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology" p. 22; R. H. Hilton and P. H. Sawyer, "Technical Determinism: The Stirrup and the Plough", Past and Present, XXIV (1963), p. 92; E. Oakeshott, The Archaeology of Weapons (London 1960), pp. 85-86; O. J. Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns, (London 1973), p. 206.
3. Bivar, "Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontiers" p. 290.
4. Cahen, "Les Changements techniques militaires", pp. 114-115; V. J. Perry and M. E. Yapp, "Introduction", War. Technology and Society in the Middle East. (London 1975), p. 8; L. White Jr. "The Crusades and the Technological Thrust of the West", in War Technology And Society in the Middle East, V. J. Parry and M. E. Yapp edits., (London 1975), p. 99. 5. G. Frumkin, Archaeology, Soviet Central Asia, (Leiden 1970), p. 76.


knew of iron stirrups in the late 7th century but consciously chose not to adopt them, believing that their use weakened a rider.6 He even went on to suggest that the decline of Arab military and political dominance within Islam coincided with their final adoption of these aids to riding.7 Al Jāḥiẓ further reported a tradition that those of the original anṣār, Muḥammad's helpers in Madīnah, who had taken up various Persian habits including the use of stirrups, were persuaded to abandon them when they adopted Islam.8 These statements by al Jāḥiẓ were made in reply to the shuʿūbī criticism of the Arabs' original lack of stirrups and their habit of riding either bareback or with a frameless flat saddle, hardly more than a padded saddle-cloth, that provided the rider with no support.9 The editor of this vital text states in a note that it was the Umayyad governor of, at various times, Khurāsān, Fārs and Baṣra, al Muḥalab ibn Abī Sūfra, who, late in the 7th century, ordered the troops under his command to use iron stirrups, though unfortunately without quoting his source.10 Such a story would certainly fit the normally accepted theory that it was contact with the Turks and Turkified Iranians of Transoxania and their cultural cousins in Khurāsān that inspired the Muslim Arabs to adopt the stirrup.
       Of perhaps even greater interest is the statement by al Jāḥiẓ that stirrups not of iron were known to the early Muslims and perhaps even pre-Islamic Arabs.11 For too little attention has been
6. Al Jāḥiẓ, Al Bayān waʾl Tabyīn. pp. 19-20.
7. Ibid., p. 21.
8. Ibid., p. 20.
9. Ibid., pp. 13-14.
10. Ibid., p. 20 note 1.
11. Ibid., pp. 19-20.


paid to such loop-stirrups of rope or leather, which naturally left no archaeological traces, in the entire question of the history and spread of the stirrup. Its existence has-been suggested in early India,12 among the Sarmatians and even possibly the migration-period Goths,13 the Huns, Parthians and Scythians.14 Its continued use in 12th century Byzantine Cyprus is clearly recorded15 and has even been suggested for post-Saljūq Daghestān.16 The pictorial information is equally interesting, ranging as it does from ancient India (Fig. 71), Egypt around the time of the Muslim conquest (Figs. 134 and 137), 9th century Christian Iberia (Fig. 502), possibly early 11th century al Andalus (Fig. 497), late 12th or early 13th century Iran (Saljūq bowl, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, no. 57.21), late 13th century Moorish Spain or North Africa as exceptionally accurately illustrated in southern France (carved capital, in situ south side of the cloisters, St. Trophima, Arles), to late 13th or 14th century Mongolia (Fig. 483). Although most of these later representations of the loop-stirrup are in a peaceful, non-warlike context such as hunting or travelling, this alone does not rule out the possibility of such primitive forms of stirrup being used in war in earlier centuries, by the Arabs as well as by others. Taken together, such diverse evidence
12. Digby, op. cit., pp. 13-14; Oakeshott, op. cit., pp. 85-86; "An Indian Copper Lotā in the British Museum", the editor, Rupam (1926). p. 79.
13. Hilton and Sawyer, op. cit., p. 92; Oakeshott, loc. cit.
14. Maenchen-Helfen, op. cit., p. 206.
15. Anon., trans. K, Fenwick, Itinerarium Peregrinorum. The Third Crusade, (London 1958), p. 47.
16. A. Salmony, "Daghestan Sculptures", Ars Islamica, X (1943), p. 162.


would seem to make al Jāḥiẓ's statement far from unlikely.
       Throughout the first part of the 8th century, the latter part of the Umayyad era, Muslim cavalry was divided into those who wore armour and those who did not,17 with the former apparently gathered together in a special élite unit of shock-troops. Perhaps this relatively heavily armoured élite also formed that minority of Muslim horsemen who now adopted the stirrup. The role of cavalry remained, however, the destruction of already disorganized or broken infantry.18 Marwān II's military reforms at the very end of Umayyad rule changed this. By that time the bulk of Muslim cavalry seem to have been armoured, with light horsemen relegated to skirmishing and reconnaissance. Under the new system an Umayyad force would ideally be divided into small units, each including heavy infantry, bowmen and heavy cavalry. The latter's role was to make rapid, but selective and repeated, charges upon the enemy foot from behind the security of its own infantry ranks. In turn this infantry would seek to halt enemy cavalry attacks.19
       Muslim heavy cavalry was thus now expected to attack prepared infantry, which meant using shock tactics rather than merely relying on greater speed and weight to further terrorize and disperse an already beaten foe. These new tactics have been said to reflect Byzantine influence,20 but while this might be true it should also be remembered that it was at precisely this period that such tactics were abandoned by the constantly defeated Byzantine forces
17. Al Ṭabarī, op. cit., II, pp. 1076, 1406, 1534 and 1704.
18. Ibid., vol. II, p. 591.
19. C. Cahan, "Harb", Encyclopedia of Islam, second edition, III, pp. 181-184.
20. Ibid.


of the east.
       The question of cavalry "shock" has been gravely misunderstood, perhaps since the demise of cavalry itself. All too often scholars have failed to differentiate between the realities of a suicidally violent accident, as shown in so much medieval and later art, and the presumed intentions of those commanders and horsemen involved.
       The question has been admirably analyzed by J. D. P. Keegan21 and he shows, in my opinion convincingly, that the "shock" cavalry sought to inflict was primarily moral rather than physical. Much the same seems to have been the case whether cavalry met infantry or other cavalry. If such an analysis is correct, then the armour of such shock cavalry, heavy or otherwise, was primarily to protect it from missiles shot or thrown by infantry as they tried to break up a cavalry charge before it delivered its shock. If such cavalry were seeking to close with horse-archers, then the same purpose would be served.
       Umayyad cavalry at the time of ʿAbd al Malik had not reached the degree of specialization, or indeed élitism, that would prevent them from dismounting and drawing-themselves up defensively with their spears used as pikes, should the need arise.22 Nor would this be reached for many centuries in the Middle East. When it eventually did occur, it was a product of nomad Turkish habit rather than feudal class-consciousness.
       Those tactical changes introduced or, perhaps more accurately, regularized by Marwān II reflected yet another tilt in the perpetual see-saw between offensive weapons and defensive armour. The same
21. J. D. P. Keegan, The Face of Battle, (London 1976), pp. 87 and 94-97.
22. Al Ṭabarī, op. cit., vol. II, p. 959.


process had earlier been at work in the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. In these latter cases solid formations of heavy cavalry had proved ineffective against Central Asian horse-archers who, by keeping their distance, had merely worn down their more cumbersome foes. In neither case, however, had this led to an abandonment of heavy cavalry. Instead the Byzantines evolved mutually supporting smaller units of heavy cavalry and horse-archers who could thus hope to be as tactically flexible, manoeuverable and adaptable as their Central Asian foes.23
       When faced by strategically more mobile and primarily infantry Arab armies, these forces again failed. The Muslims, however, now found themselves facing the same tactical problems vis-á-vis Central Asian horse-archers as their predecessors had done. This is likely to have been the main reason why later Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid armies apparently copied their defeated Byzantine and Sassanian foes. Byzantine, Sassanian and Muslim armies sought a solution to this problem by recruiting a number of Asiatic horse-archers into their own ranks. Yet the equipment of domestic forces also reflected the challenge, and one particular item of equipment, namely horse-armour, may be taken to illustrate this fact. Bard, chamfron and other armour for a mount were, of course, not only protection against horse-archers, but also against infantry missiles. In Byzantium the heavy scale bard of the clibanarius had apparently been largely abandoned by the time of Justinian.24 Subsequently, the Avar threat forced the reintroduction of horse-armour, though in a much smaller form that only covered heads, neck and forequarters.
23. Bivar, "Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier", pp. 280-290.
24. Haldon, "Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology from the 6th to the 10th centuries", pp. 18-19.


Such Byzantino-Avar horse-armour, or kentouklon, was generally of felt which resisted most arrows, though iron lamellar of the type seen at Ṭāq-i Bustān (Fig. 330) was also used.25 Such horse-armours were perhaps the origin of the Muslim tijfāf rather than the earlier types seen at Fīrūzābād (Fig. 50A). Sassanian heavy cavalry in Iraq were described by al Balādhurv as mudajjaj,26 but unfortunately this merely indicates that they were slow-moving and probably used horse-armour, without shedding any light on such bards.
       Horse-armour of felt was common in Umayyad times. It was light, effective and was constructed from readily available materials. Confusion can, however, arise from the fact that men, cavalry or infantry, also wore felt armour known as tijfāf while the term mujaffafah also referred both to men so protected and to armoured horses. More often than not, the context makes it clear that a bard is intended,27 both in Umayyad and in later periods. Towards the end of the Umayyad era a mujaffafah cavalryman was further described as armed with a sword and wearing full iron armour, apparently covering his face, plus a mighfar or coif.28 Nor was horse-armour limited to the regular troops of the Umayyad Caliphate. It is recorded in use by fundamentalist Khārijī rebels in 696/7 AD, some of whom were dressed in dirʿ hauberk, mighfar coif, sāʿadanī arm-defences, and carried rumḥ
25. Brown, "Arms and Armour", pp, 445-446; Aussaresses, op. cit., pp. 6 and 58; Haldon, "Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology from the 6th to 10th centuries", p. 22.
26. Al Balādhurī, op. cit., p. 351.
27. Fries, op. cit., pp. 42 and 61; al Ṭabarī, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 1406-1407, 1025, 1517, 1537 and 1704.
28. Al Ṭabarī, op. cit., vol.II, p. 1704.


lances.29 Such warriors were largely Arabs, as also were most Umayyad regular troops. This widespread use of felt horse armour, although it does not appear in art, might have contributed to the Arab and Persian horsemen's reputation for being heavier than their Turkish foes in Transoxania.30
       The limited available art (Fig. 339) does not show early Muslim cavalry in Iran to have been very heavily armoured. In the case of this particular illustration we do not, of course, know whether the horse-archer is an Arab or, more probably, a local Khurāsānī. A small number of the latter fought for the Muslims even before Qutayba ibn Muslim reorganized the eastern armies.31 Heavier armour is worn by men on foot (Figs. 335 and 340), and seems similar to a clearer representation of a full hauberk, in this case of scale, that was illustrated in Syria (Fig. 123). Heavy or otherwise, a horseman still fought first with his rumḥ spear when facing another cavalryman, only later drawing his sword,32 as would remain the fashion for many centuries.
       Traditional Muslim accounts of Umayyad heroes tend to portray them as horsemen armed with lance, mace and, in some cases, two swords.33 This latter feature probably recalls the wearing of a large khanjar in addition to a standard sword. More specific references by such historians as al Ṭabarī describe early 8th century Umayyad horsemen wearing bayḍah helmets and-or mighfar
29. Ibid., vol. ll, pp. 958 and 998.
30. Gibb, The Arab Conquests in Central Asia, pp. 65 and 70.
31. Ibid., p. 40.
32. Al Ṭabarī, op. cit., vol. II, p. 1909.
33. M. Canard, "Les Expéditions des Arabes contre Constantinople dans l'histoire et dans la legende", Journal Asiatique, CCVIII (1928), pp. 70 and 101,


coifs, their swords slung from baldrics and their lancers in their hands while their bows could, if necessary, be laid aside.34
       Such a diversity of equipment is also portrayed in Umayyad art. Most of the heavy armour is shown on infantry in such sources (Figs. 122, 123, 124, 127, 141, 339 and 340). Yet this need not be a major difficulty, as at that time there appears to have been little specialization of equipment and hardly much more of military function. In one case (Fig. 122) warriors are represented with long-bladed spears of a type that will later be associated with cavalry. They are, in fact, probably horsemen as they stand in iconographic balance with apparently infantry warriors (Fig. 122) on the walls on either side of an enthroned ruler or prince at Quṣayr ʿAmr.
       Other definite or presumed Umayyad sources show horse-archers (Figs. 119, 120, 121, 122, 338 and 339), most of whom wear no visible armour except for helmets.
       Finally, one may note a slight preference for baldrics, as already suggested by the written sources (Figs. 116, 122 and 124).

       Paradoxically, less pictorial evidence survives from the Iraqi heartland of the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate than from its short-lived
34. Al Ṭabarī, op. cit., vol. II, p. 1278.


Umayyad predecessor in Syria. This problem is only partially overcome by the use of material from neighbouring areas, despite the fact that the ʿAbbāsid army was rapidly becoming more cosmopolitan as it recruited from just such peripheral provinces. Of course, this did not happen immediately the ʿAbbāsid dynasty seized power. Arab troops seem to have played a dominant role in overthrowing the Umayyads, although some indigenous Khurāsānī troops were also involved even at this early stage.35
       Most of these Arab ʿAbbasid troops came from the east and eastern jund forces had probably already adopted many Iranian traditions. Thus, by the late 8th century, there may well have been little difference between Arab-speaking and more strictly Kurāsānī warriors from those regions. Our best available illustration of a Muslim warrior from eastern Iran, whose name of Pur-i Vahman may be an Arabic construction, appears on a silver-gilt plate now in the Hermitage (Fig. 341). His equipment is, in most respects, almost identical to that of the late Umayyad horse-archer at Qaṣr al Ḥayr al Gharbī in Syria (Fig. 120).
       Nor was there any major change in tactics. Early ʿAbbāsid cavalry still cooperated with their infantry in the same manner as had the lost Umayyad forces. Again cavalry was quite prepared to dismount and fight defensively as infantry.36 Even as late as the early 9th century, al Jāḥiẓ of Baṣra quoted an Arab military leader as advising that cavalry be trained to fight on foot in case of emergency.37 Western Arab troops from Syria and the Byzantine frontier are, in these early ʿAbbāsid decades, described as fighting
35. Ayalon, "The military Reforms of the Caliph al Muʾtaṣim", p. 5.
36. Al Ṭabarī, op. cit., vol. III, p. 40.
37. Al Jāḥiẓ, Rasāil al Jāḥiẓ, p. 53.


with spear and shield,38 or in one specific case with spear, sword and daraqah shield of either Tibetan leather or Tibetan style. This latter defence was, however, given to the Arab frontier warrior by the Caliph Hārūn al Rashīd. It proved most ineffective against the sword of his Byzantine foeman39 who, by contrast, had a strong if noisy iron-covered daraqah shield.
       Although the prestige of Arab troops slowly declined at the centre of power in Iraq, they and their traditions persisted on the Anatolian frontier and among the highly effective Khārijī rebels of the Fertile Crescent, Arabia and western Iran. Such warriors, who were regarded as distinct from the almost as troublesome bedouin, relied primarily on their lances, though occasionally they would also use the bow.40 Above all, they retained the original strategic mobility of early Muslim armies by leading their horses from mules and only riding them fresh in battle.41
       On the East Roman frontier there was already a blurring of identities between Byzantine and Arab marcher lords and emirs and their followers. Although this was the land of the Greek hero Digenes Akritas, most changes of faith and allegiance were from Christianity towards Islam.42 This blurring is also seen in art of the area and era, with turbans and head-cloths appearing
38. Ayalon, "The Military Reforms or the Caliph Muʾtaṣim", pp. 17-18.
39. Al Masʿūdī, op. cit., vol. II- pp. 345-349.
40. Al Jāḥiẓ, Rasāil al Jāḥiẓ, p. 45.
41. Al Jāḥiẓ, "Jāḥiẓ of Baṣra to Al-Fatḥ ibn Khāqan on the Exploits of the Turks and the Army of the Khalifat in General", C. T. Harley Walker trans., Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, (Oct. 1915) p. 663.
42. R. J. H. Jenkins, "The 'Flight' of Samonas", Speculum, XXIIII (1948), pp. 223-224.


on "enemy" troops in Byzantine biblical illustrations (Figs. 196 and 202). From the comparable, though more northern, border regions of Georgia comes the finest available contemporary picture of a warrior in probably Muslim equipment. It is generally regarded as 6th or 7th century, but the distinctly Muslim-Iranian harness, saddle and stirrups of the rider in question (Fig. 412) almost certainly place him in the 9th or 10th centuries. His turban and baldric make him look like an Arab, while he might also be wearing a mail hauberk.
       This was an era when Byzantium was definitely on the defensive. As such, the Empire evolved a system of guerrilla tactics known as Shadowing Warfare to cope with constant Muslim incursions.43 These were generally on a minor scale, but being more frequent and originating from a wider stretch of the border than earlier and more ambitious Muslim assaults they were even more difficult to contain. Essentially, such Shadowing tactics involved large forces of light cavalry strategically placed behind a frontier screen of local infantry levies. Horse-archers played an important role in these defensive forces, but unlike those of Central Asia they normally shot at command and by ranks while their horses stood still (Fig. 203).44 Given the evidence for Umayyad heavy cavalry and the rise of similarly equipped Turkish ghulāms in the later 9th century, plus the fact that Islam was now on the offensive, it seems unlikely, as has been suggested,45 that the Arabs had fewer heavy cavalry than the Byzantines. Unfortunately,
43. Howard-Johnston, op. cit., pp. 100-101.
44. Leo VI, Tactica, M. Joly de Maizeroi trans. (Paris 1771), Inst. 6.
45. Haldon, "Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology from the 6th to 10th Centuries", p. 27.


pictorial evidence from the Muslim side of the Anatolian frontier seems only to be available from Georgia (Fig. 412) and Armenia (Fig. 241). Further south, however, the Coptic art of Egypt also suggests that heavy cavalry, armoured in a local variation of Byzantine style, was known and may indeed have been widespread (Fig. 142).
       When Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn became governor of Egypt in 868 AD, he found the original Arab jund army of this province to have been largely replaced by Turkish ghulāms, and its survivors and their descendants largely civilianized.46 Further west, however, this had not occurred and the Arab militia of Ifrīqiā still formed the core of Aghlabid power in North Africa, Sicily and beyond, through the 9th century.47 Berber warriors may, at this time, have still largely been infantry. Berber horsemen probably still fought with javelins or large-bladed spears bareback as their ancestors had done in ancient times. Such a style seems to be shown in some early Nubian art (Fig. 184).
       Despite the maritime orientation of Aghlabid ambitions, cavalry still played an important part in their military calculations. When the Muslims attacked Spain early in the 8th century, they had to rely on ships provided by Spanish or Byzantine rebels. Hence they found difficulty in transporting sufficient cavalry, even supposing that they had this available. By the early 9th century the Muslims had their own fleet, and so the Aghlabid army that invaded Sicily could include a small corps of seven hundred horsemen. Nevertheless, they still accompanied ten thousand infantry, largely
46. Hassan, op. cit., p. 165.
47. Ibid.


from the Berber Huwwārah tribe.48 Some Spanish Muslims, negroes and ʿAbbāsid Khurāsānīs also took part.49 This desire to transport horses in relatively large numbers during operations overseas also applied to raids as well as major invasions. In 846 AD, for example, seventy-three Muslim ships gathered off the mouth of the Tiber and when they descended upon the coast on 23rd August they proved to have no less than five hundred cavalry on board.50 Naturally, this made such raids far harder. for the Italians to contain. It must also have indicated a generally more important role for cavalry in the Muslim Maghrib than had been the case at the time or the Arab conquest.
       Those few Khurāsānīs who took part in the conquest of Sicily might have been the first of a new wave of Persian troops that was to change the military balance in Baghdad during the time of the Caliph al Maʾmūn. On the other-hand, they could have been abnāʾ, representatives of a force which, descended from those Khurāsānīs brought west during the original ʿAbbāsid revolution, was defeated in al Maʾmūn's coup. If abnāʾ they would probably have been infantry, but if they were the new Khurāsānīs of al Maʾmūn they would almost certainly have been cavalry.
       Al Maʾmūn's victory over his brother Amīn in the ʿAbbāsid civil war of 811-813 AD, set in motion a series of major military changes. The victory itself was largely the work of eastern troops, generally referred to as Khurāsānīs, but apparently consisting
48. A. Ahmad, A History of Islamic Sicily, (Edinburgh 1975), p. 22; Amari, Storin dei Fusulmani di Sicilia, vol. I, pp. 394-395.
49. Ibid.
50. P. Llewellyn, Rome of the Dark Ages (London 1971), p. 262.


largely of Bukhārīs, Khwārazmīs and Turks from Mā Warāʾ al Nahr, or Transoxania.51 Although some Arabs fought for al Maʾmūn, the majority supported al Amīn. During the final siege of Baghdād these Khurāsānīs played a slightly less prominent role, perhaps for political reasons. Nevertheless, they and their equipment are still fully described on this occasion as well-mounted cavalry, fully armed in jawshan cuirass, dirʿ hauberk, tijfāf bard or gambeson, and sāʿidah arm-defences, carrying rumḥ lances and Tibetan daraqah shields.52 During the same siege a leading Khurāsānī horse-archer was reportedly also equipped with a sword and wore a bayḍah helmet.53 Mangonels are, not surprisingly, mentioned in al Maʾmūn's attack on Baghdād, although Khurāsānī infantry are not listed as such. Yet the true east Iranian Khurāsānīs and the abnāʾ in Baghdād, are known to have been excellent infantry and siege engineers.
       From now on cavalry clearly played a dominant role in ʿAbbāsid armies, which they might in fact have been doing for some decades. Nevertheless, they still operated in conjunction with infantry whose defensive role, even in open battle, seems to have remained vital, although it was on its cavalry that an army now relied when advancing or retreating.54 Persians of various sorts, generically referred to as ʿajamī formed a major part of these new forces, but earlier Arab and abnāʾ units did not disappear, nor did they readily abandon their privileges. In addition, the
51. Ayalon, "The military Reforms of the Caliph al Muʾtaṣim", p. 5.
52. Al Masʿūdī, op. cit., vol. VI, p. 453.
53. Ibid., vol. VI, pp. 461-462.
54. Al Jāḥiẓ, Rasāil al Jāḥiẓ, pp. 52-53.


recruitment of eastern troops by the central government was severely curtailed once al Maʾmūn's leading general, Ṭāhir Dhūʾl Yamīnayn, became governor of Khurāsān in 820 AD.55 In the meantime Khurāsānīs enjoyed a brief period of prestige and superiority in Iraq before both they and their predecessors were relegated to a second-class status by a newly recruited force of Turkish mamlūks.
       Unfortunately, there are very few pictorial references for this period. On the other hand al Jāḥiẓ gives some excellent descriptions, stating that the Khurāsānīs were better equipped than other troops, wore clothing similar to that of eastern Christian monks, had beards and wore their hair long.56 Among the fragmented frescoes of the Jawsaq al Khāgānī at Sāmarrā (836-839 AD) there are two figures who could fit this description. One apparently has a full hauberk of vertically-linked scales, while the other grasps a sword and wears a distinctive belt with pendants of typically Central Asian origin (Fig. 314).
       While these Khurāsānī warriors are described as, in various ways, identical to the Turks, both being of "eastern" culture and both practising horse-archery,57 they are also distinguished by other characteristics of equipment and tactics. The fact that Khurāsānīs "swerve aside" during a charge58 may reflect their reliance on the sword rather than the bow or lance,59 or their preference for Arab-style karr wa farr tactics. Their probable
55. Montgomery Watt, The Majesty that was Islam, pp. 101-102.
56. Al Jāḥiẓ, Rasāil al Jāḥiẓ, p. 16.
57. Ibid., pp. 9 and 15.
58. Ibid., p. 45.
59. Ayalon, "The military Reforms of the Caliph al Muʾtaṣim", pp. 33-34.


use of the heavy Iranian horse60 could be reflected in their heavy equipment, both for man and beast. In the writings of al Jāḥiẓ they themselves claim to use tijfāf horse-armour and jaras bells. These might have formed part of the horse's harness, as seen in some Coptic art (Figs. 22, 134, 137, 143 and 145). I would, however, consider an eastern Turkistānī parallel more likely. Objects that have tentatively been identified as bells61 appear an the spear-shafts of 6th or 7th century armoured horsemen of the Eastern Turkish khānate at Char Chad (Fig. 69) and on an earlier representation of armoured cavalrymen from Kizil (Fig. 61B), An even more obscure item of Khurāsānī equipment has variously been rendered as bāzīkand or bāzfakand, it could perhaps refer to a form of horse-armour for neck and forequarters only, bāz meaning upper-arm or shoulder in Persian, or could be an Arabic-speaker's misunderstood rendering of the term bāzūband a vambrace. If it was, however, a piece of horse-armour, it would be of a type already seen in 7th and 8th century Byzantium and 7th century Sassanian Iran. These Khurāsānīs also claimed to use long felt armour which they made themselves, though whether for man or horse is unclear. To those they added curved swords, or at least curved scabbards, the kāfir kūbāt maces the ṭabarzīn battle-axes, the khanjar single-edged short sword and the dirʿ hauberk. They also stressed their use of stirrups, which might indicate that some of their Arab rivals had not yet adopted this device.62
       Art from 9th century Iraq, with the exception of those fragmentary Sāmarrā frescoes, is inadequate and unhelpful (Fig. 313).
60. Lombard, The Golden Age of Islam, pp. 169-170.
61. Nowgorodowa, op. cit., p. 215.
62. Al Jāḥiẓ, Rasāil al Jāḥiẓ, pp. 19-20.


From Byzantium, however, there is some evidence that the increasing Iranianization, not to say Turkification, of their eastern foes had been noted. One magnificent 9th century Psalter shows various "enemy" troops, such as Jewish soldiers guarding the Tomb of Christ, wearing helmets and armour and carrying weapons all of which show strong Transoxanian characteristics (Fig. 201). Earlier styles, including the baldric, also appear in this manuscript. It is, however, possible that a strong Central Asian influence, either direct or via the Caliphate, was already being felt in 9th century Byzantine military equipment.

From the same source: Daylamī by David Nicolle, extracts from The military technology of classical Islam
Chapter 2. Maces and Axes by David Nicolle, an extract from The military technology of classical Islam
Pole-Arms for cut and thrust by David Nicolle, an extract from The military technology of classical Islam
Chapter 4. Archery by David Nicolle, an extract from The military technology of classical Islam
Chapter 6. Body Armour by David Nicolle, an extract from The military technology of classical Islam
Chapter 8. Helmets by David Nicolle, an extract from The military technology of classical Islam
Chapter 10. Horse-Armour and Caparisons by David Nicolle, an extract from The military technology of classical Islam
Vol II, Chapter 8. Nomad horse archery by David Nicolle, an extract from The military technology of classical Islam

Index of Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers

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