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


Volume 1



The medieval mace was almost certainly of Middle Eastern, Iranian or Indian origin. Sassanian asvārān armoured cavalry are believed to have used it extensively,1 and though a possible simple form of this weapon may appear on the mid-3rd century Roman "Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus" in the Musea Nazionale in Rome, far more sophisticated maces are seen in Parthian art (Fig. 47), the frescoes of Piandjikent (Fig. 438), and east-Iranian material from the 7th or 8th centuries (Figs. 333 and 442), while a possible mace-head may even survive from pre-Islamic Turkistān (Fig. 63). The dating of this latter item and even its function remain, however, dubious. Such maces were soon adopted by the early Muslims among whom two types, or at least two terms ʿamūd, and qurz being Arabic and Persian respectively, were known in Umayyad times.2 Much of the earliest illustrated material from the Islamic world, none of it strictly Muslim, seems to illustrate maces (Figs. 115, 136 and 441), though all of these appear simpler in style than those from Parthian and Sassanian sources.
     Such geographical limitations may be significant. The

1. Bivar, "Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier," pp. 275-276 and 291; al Ṭabarī, trans. Zotenberg, Chronique de Tibari, vol. II, p.228; Lombard, Les Métaux dans l'Ancien Monde du Ve au XIe siècle, pp. 33-34.
2. Al Ṭabarī, op. cit., pp. 966, 1869 and 1927-1928; Fries, op. cit., p. 51.


mace was, above all, an anti-armour and especially helmet-breaking weapon to be carried by armoured troops, and this it remained throughout its history.3 Thus one would naturally expect more often to find the mace among warriors who habitually used large amounts of armour. This is, in fact, what one does find. As will be discussed later, Iranian cavalry warriors seem to have worn heavier defences than, for example, their Romano-Byzantine foes. Eastern Iranians, and above all the warriors of Transoxania, may have worn perhaps the heaviest armour of the contemporary world. Similarly, the readiness with which various forms of mace were adopted by Umayyad warriors may prove to be yet another piece of evidence to support the thesis that a great many troops of the first Muslim empire were themselves heavily armoured. The high status in which these weapons were held may be indicated by their highly decorated appearance when, as so often happened, they were seen in the hands of élite guard units some years later.4 As already stated, the mace was apparently in widespread use in Umayyad times. In later centuries the weapon would seem to have been more common in the richer central and eastern regions, where heavier armour was also found. In the 10th century, for

3. Al Aqsarā'ī, op. cit., pp. 324, 336-337; Mubārakshāh, op. cit., p. 330; Firdawsī , op. cit., pp. 269-270, al Ṭabarī, op. cit., pp. 712, 912, 966 and 1889; Mayer, Mamluk Costume, pp, 36-48; Anon., Itinerarium Peregrinorum, pp. 131-132; Cahen, "Un Traité d'Armurarie composé pour Saladin. Supplément - Les Armes chez les Ghurides," p. 59.
4. Bosworth, "The Armies of the Ṣaffārids," p. 546; A. A. Kohzad, "Uniformes et Armes das Gardes des Sultans de Ghazna," Afghanistan, VI (1951), pp. 48-51; M. Canard, "Quelques Observations sur l'introduction géographique de la Bughyat at'-T'alab," p. 49.


example, maces are recorded in Egypt5 and Iraq.6 Islamic illustrations from this period are rare, though they do show two types of maces from Khurāsān or Turkistān (Fig. 447), two simple round-headed types, probably from Egypt (Figs. 148 and 677) and perhaps a comparable weapon in a scabbard on a horseman's right hip (Fig. 487) from Sind or eastern Iran. Maces remained popular, perhaps even increasingly so, in these and neighbouring regions until the Mongol conquest.
     A spiked type, or perhaps a stylized representation of a winged mace, appears in on Armenian Gospel dated 1057 AD (Fig. 244). In fact, an early mace of this winged type may survive from the 11th to 13th centuries (Fig. 366). This is likely to have been the ʿamūd, for although we have no specific confirmation there is evidence that the ʿamūd, or at least parts of it, could easily get bent in battle.7 A little later its presumably more jagged head was recorded as inflicting worse wounds than the simple dabbūs mace.8 The similarly named, 8th or 9th century, Indian amukta also came in a variety of forms, most of which were characterized by spikes or lumps on the mace-heads.9 The best-known illustration of 11th century Muslim maces is on a

5. S. Lane-Poole, The Story of Cairo, (London 1902). p. 94.
6. Al Tanūkhī, op. cit., pp. 152-154; al Khaitib al Baghdādī, in A. A. Vasiliev, Byzance et les Arabes, (Brussels 1950), vol. II/2, pp. 74 and 78; D. Sourdel, "Questions de Cérémonial ʿAbbaside," Revue des Etudes Islamiques, XXVIII (1960), p.141.
7. Firdawsī, op. cit., p. 489.
8. Al Ṭarsūsī, op. cit., 117.
9. Holstein, op. cit., p. 108.


damaged Ghaznawid fresco at Lashkar-i Bazar in Afghanistān (Fig. 364 ). Those weapons are incomplete but would seem to have been similar to other possible maces seen only in outline on the carved wooden panels of a Fāṭimid palace ceiling in Cairo (Fig. 153).
     The 12th century is more generous, both with its illustrations and in the variety of forms shown. The basic round-headed dabbūs mace is quite common (Figs. 153, 255, 260, 280 and 394 ), though clearly this type could also have iron tooth or even same sorts of blades added.10 Meanwhile, an asymmetrical mace, probably known as the qurz, and its more sophisticated animal-headed development seen to be restricted to Iran (Figs. 377, 378, 388, 394 and 399 ). Various knobbed or apparently spiked forms are illustrated (Figs. 166, 268, 279 and 394 ) while the genuine winged type is represented by a surviving miniature or symbolic mace from eastern Iran that is believed to date from between 1199 and 1220 AD (Fig. 449 ). Crusader chronicles seen to indicate that some of Islam's foes were quite impressed by these armour-smashing weapons, particularly those described as bristling with "sharp teeth".11 These may well correspond to the serrated latt maces of the late Fāṭimid and subsequent Ayyubid Middle East.12 These had earlier been recorded in the hands of ex-ʿAbbāsid ghulams operating in Syria late in the 10th century.13 All this evidence could suggest, if tentatively,

10. Al Ṭarsūsī, loc. cit.
11. Anon., Itinerarium Peregrinorum, pp. 64, 78, 93 and 131-132.
12. Canard, "La Procession du Nouvel An chez les Fatimides," pp. 367-359; ʿImād al Dīn, op. cit., pp. 273 and 307.
13. Ibn al Qālanisī, History of Damascus: Bi Dhayl Tārīkh Dimashq, H. F. Amedroz edit., (Beirut 1908), p. 15.


that these more sophisticated forms of mace reached the Fertile Crescent and Egypt from Iran or even further east.
     Much the same situation is to be found in the 13th century, with a similar variety of weapons being seen in similar regions of the Muslim world (Figs. 260, 273, 274, 296, 301, 319, 324E , 392, 408 and 651 ). The appearance of the mace in Europe seems to follow its widespread adoption in Islam. This occurred rapidly in Byzantium but for more slowly in western Europe. Byzantine heavy cavalry, and perhaps also come infantry, adopted the winged mace in the 10th century.14 A hundred years later it is reported to have been hung from the saddle,15 as was normal in some parts of Islam,16 and was still being used by Byzantine heavy cavalry in the 12th century.17 Maces appear similarly early in al Andalus where, however, they seem to have been regarded as infantry weapons in the 10th century.18 Although clubs were wielded by some 11th century European horsemen, including Normans,19 more complicated forms of mace such as the winged variety do not seem to have appeared until the later 12th or 13th centuries.20 An iron bludgeon,

14. Haldon, "Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology in the 6th to 10th centuries," p. 39.
15. Anna Comnena, B. Leib edit. and trans., Annà Comnène, Alexiade (Paris 1967), vol. I, pp. 34-35.
16. Mayer, Mamluk Costume, loc. cit.; Firdawsī, op. cit., pp. 106, 302 and 487.
17. Chalandon, Les Comnènes - Études sur l'Empire-Byzantin, vol. II, pp. 619-620.
18. Lévi-Provençal, Histoire de l'Espagne Musulmane, vol. III, p. 93.
19. Oakeshott, op. cit., p. 178.
20. Ibid., p. 258.


of a type known to the Arabs as the caṣā, was, however, used by some German Crusaders in the late 12th century.21 Yet it is still to Spain (Figs. 504, 507A-D, 516, 526, 533, 535, 538 and 543), Sicily (Figs. 604B, 606, 610E) and neighbouring areas of southern Italy (Figs. 559, 567, 575, 583 and 588) that one must go to find the bulk of European illustrations of maces from the 11th to 12th centuries.
     The weight of Muslim maces also seems to have been quite considerable, even allowing for the impossibility of accurately translating early medieval units of weight. One all-iron caṣā of the early Umayyad era was recorded as weighing twelve raṭl,22 perhaps six kilograms, while two Umayyad ʿamūd maces are described as weighing fifteen and eighteen raṭl, perhaps seven and nine kilograms respectively.23 Some centuries later the practice and the war qurz maces of a Ghaznawid ruler were described as weighing seven and four manī respectively, perhaps seven and four kilograms.24

21. ʿImād al Dīn, op. cit., p. 265.
22. Al Ṭabarī, op. cit., p. 927.
23. Ibid., pp. 966 and 1889.
24. Mubārakshāh, op. cit., p. 268.

from page 73 to page 79


       War-axes are generally agreed to have been of the single-bladed variety throughout Classical Islam,77 and with the exception of one somewhat unclear reference to double-edged Saracenic weapons in the late 12th century Itinerariun Peregrinorum,78 the written evidence would support this view.
       There is, however, pictorial evidence to the contrary. This could indicate that double-edged, symmetrical war-axes, some with such narrow hoods that they might better be regarded as armour-breaking war-hammers, were used in the troubled border regions of
77. Bosworth, "Armies of the Prophet", p. 208.
78. Anon., Itinerariun Peregrinorum, p. 64.


eastern Byzantium and Armenia from the 9th to 11th centuries (Figs. 205, 207, 216, 224 and 245). A possible Armenian origin, or at least connection, could explain the appearance of comparable weapons in 10th century Egypt (Fig. 145) at a time when Muslim Armenians were certainly serving in that country as mercenaries.79 Perhaps these distinctive weapons were variations of the siābiḥah a war-axe made by, and named after, Armenianized Magyar Siavordians in the mid-10th century.80
       In fact, the war-axe had a long pedigree in the medieval Middle East. It may have been used by Sassanian heavy cavalry,81 although pictorial sources show such weapons to have been more common in eastern Iran and Turkistān (Figs. 62, 442 and 452). Similarly, it was used by the early Byzantines, though the latter's cavalry appear largely to have abandoned war-axes in favour of maces by the mid-10th century.82 Single-bladed axes continued to be used by warriors of distant Slav extraction in the Taurus Mountains in the 11th century,83 The weapon's prestige was, of course, revived in Byzantium from the 11th century onwards with a large-scale recruitment of Scandinavian, Varangian, mercenaries
79. Beshir, op. cit., pp. 49-51; Bosworth, "Armies of the Prophets", p. 203; Canards "Notes sur les Armniens en Egypte l'epoque fatimite", p. 144.
80. Al Masʿūdī, op. cit., vol. II, p. 75; Minorsky, Studies in Caucasian History, p. 26.
81. Lombard, Les Métaux dans l'Ancien Mande du Ve au XIe Siècle, pp. 33-34.
82. Howard-Johnston, op. cit., p. 289.
83. Psellus, op. cit., p. 289.


as infantry guard troops.84 Their weapons, however stemmed from the traditional north European Danish axe.
       Throughout most of this period various forms of war-axe were being used by Muslim troops in the central and eastern regions. Although any apparent mention of the weapon in the 7th century may be an anachronistic insertion by a later copyists,85 there can be little doubt that axes had been widely adopted by ʿAbbāsid forces by the 9th and 10th centuries.86 It would, in fact, be particularly interesting to be able to date one Omani petraglyph that clearly shows a broad-bladed, short-hafted axe (Fig. 5), but although some work has been done on these sources no dating has yet been attempted.87 One of its nearest equivalents is to be seen in strongly Muslim influenced late 12th or early 13th century Sicily (Fig. 610G). Yet such axes are likely to have spread from Asia rather than from Byzantium. Two types may appear in 9th century eastern Islam a narrow-bladed axe with a spike at the back (Fig. 447) which was seen in this area around the time of the Muslim conquest (Fig. 442) and which may also be seen in a multitude of central Asian frescoes, and a broad-bladed weapon (Fig. 487) which may be of Indian origin88 and probably represents an early nāchakh.
84. Ibid., p. 139; Haldon, "Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology from the 6th to the10th centuries", p. 32; R. M. Dawkins, "The later history of the Varangian Guard, some notes", Journal of Roman Studies, XXXVII (1947), p. 41.
85. Hill, "The Mobility of the Arab Armies in the Early Conquests," p. 116.
86. Leo, op. cit., Inst. XVIII; Al Khāṭib al Bagdādī, in Vasiliev, Byzance et les Arabes, vol. II, p. 78; Hilal al Sabiʿ, in Sourdel, op. cit., p. 141; al Jāḥiẓ, Rasa'il al Jahiz, pp. 19-20.
87. R. Jäckli, Rock Art in Oman, (Zug 1980).
88. Mubārakshāh, op. cit,. p. 272.


An axe, whose shape has yet to be published, was also recovered from the 11th century Muslim Aegean shipwreck, but whether it was a weapon or primarily a more peaceful tool is unclear.89
       It is worth noting that the axe rose in prestige as a knightly weapon in western Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. It had been despised as a peasant weapon in most regions, with the perhaps significant exception of 11th century Spain (Figs. 512 and 515), only a century earlier.90 This change in European fashions is likely to have reflected developments in armour, helmets and shields as much as it did social prejudice. Yet it may also have been stimulated by contact with the Muslim world where war-axes, ṭabar, ṭabarzīn, nājikh and nāchakh, were for from despised in the 12th and 13th centuries. Indeed, the nājikh with its large, semi-circular single blade was regarded as an ideal cavalry weapon when used against infantry in late 12th century Egypt.91 A similar weapon was carried as a symbol of authority before the "Old Man of the Mountain", or Ismāʿīlī leader of Masyāf, in the mid-13th century,92 while a few decades earlier the nāchakh had been described as a noble and ceremonial weapon in Muslim northern India.93 Some illustrations certainly show long-hafted axes, often in a perhaps ceremonial context, that could well be described as having large "half moon" blades (Figs. 178A, 250, 294, 604F, 605 and 650D). 89. G. F. Bass, "A Medieval Islamic Merchant Venture", Archaeological News, VIII (1979), p. 92.
90. Oakeshott, op. cit., p. 257.
91. Al Ṭarsūsī, op. cit., p. 118.
92. J. de Joinville, Histoire de St. Louis, (Paris 1874), pp. 160-165.
93. Mubārakshāh, op. cit., p. 760.


       The ṭabar was apparently a simpler weapon, perhaps with a small or less extravagantly curved blade. It seems to have been wielded by infantry in both Muslim India and the Mamlūk Middle East in the 13th and 14th centuries,94 although there is little reason to suppose that it was not in use many centuries earlier. The presumably smaller and more specialized ṭabarzīn, or saddle-axe, was known in early 9th century Iraq,95 and was similarly popular with mamlūk cavalry in the Middle East96 and in northern India97 in the 13th and 14th centuries.
       There are many illustrations of a great variety of war-axes to be found in Muslim and neighbouring art from this period. Some are almost of the "half moon" nāchakh type while others have blades with very narrow cutting edges, perhaps designed to penetrate mail or lamellar. Most have long hafts and there is no very obvious difference between the weapons on infantry and those of cavalry, between ṭabar and ṭabarzīn if these are indeed the axes in question (Figs. 172, 177G, 247, 249, 250, 289, 294, 305, 394, 604G, 605 and 606).


from page 84 to page 85

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