SABRE, DAGGER AND FAITHFUL HORSE
Turkmenistan has been putting greater effort into development of museums in recent years. This is an extremely important task, because the younger generation should know their past to ensure the historical links. And what can be better than museum exhibits to visually demonstrate and tell us about how our ancestors lived? It relates not only to the items of old ways of life and material culture but also to weapons with which they defended their freedom and independence. Preservation of ancient military traditions and heritage of material culture is our duty to the future generation. Many types of cold steel once possessed by Turkmen warriors are exhibited at the State Museum of Turkmenistan, the National Museum “Geokdepe Battle” and the museum of the Ashgabat Memorial Complex “People’s Memory.” They are a great rarity and authentic masterpieces of weapons art. The Turkmens moved around a lot at different times due to their nomadic way of life, and this invariably led to the interaction of cultures that found its reflection in weapons too. The neighboring countries such as Persia, Afghanistan, India, Bukhara and Khiva had a significant influence on the Turkmens’ way of manufacturing and use of cold steel. Curved sabers “shemshir” and “tulvar”, straight knives “kard” and “kayber”, daggers “peshkabzy” and “hanjar”, battle axes “taberzin” are only some of cold steel that were widely used in Turkmenistan.
Cold steel made by the Turkmen artisans was sometimes exported to neighboring states where it was in demand. Travelers noted good quality of cold steel made by local armorers.
Cold steel that circulated in the territory of Turkmenistan was not only imported and produced locally. It was often taken in battles as spoils of war. Quality of steel for production of weapons in Turkmenistan was excellent. Turkmenistan was once part of Khorasan, one of the centers of production of damask steel, and damask is an ideal raw material for manufacturing all types of cold steel.
Items made of damask steel included knives, sabers, daggers called “jovher” by Turkmens, meaning a diamond. This steel was highly valued! The ancient Turkmen craftsmen were familiar with metallurgy, blacksmithing and widely used damask to make cold steel. Every village had forge shops. A small mine with traces of activities of ancient miners remained in the area of Dushak-Erekdag mountain in Turkmenistan. Not far from it, there are the remains of a melting furnace, pieces of crucibles and slag. Coal for furnaces was made of logs of juniper, and the traces of tree cutting have been preserved to this day. According to the chemical analysis, the iron content in the ore reached 50–70 percent.
A saber was always the favorite type of cold steel of the Turkmens. The Turkmens defended their families and gained freedom with sabers. A horse rider with a saber by his side was called “nuker”, meaning that belonged to the military class. A sheathed saber would be placed in a prominent part of the yurt – a nomadic house. It adorned the yurt, hanging on the wall towards the sacred city of Mecca. A good saber was a subject of conversations, and it was the pride of its owner. No one had the right to touch a saber without purpose and permission of its owner. It was only the owner who could take it off the wall to present to his guests for viewing. In doing so, he would only partly unsheathe a sabre to demonstrate quality of steel and stamps.
The Turkmens always regarded cold steel, whose blades were made of high-quality steel, as amulets. The style of blades of daggers and sabers reflected the technology used in those days. Using a simple tool, master-engravers created masterpieces in small workshops. Intricate and very subtle engravings were applied on the blades. The handles and sheaths of sabers were richly decorated with semiprecious stones, silver and gold. The most expensive gift weapon for shahs, sultans and khans were also made this way.
The calligraphic Arabic texts were the most common technique of decorating the blades of cold steel. Such texts traditionally consisted of quotations from the Koran, religious formulas, as well as verses. In addition, the decoration included floral ornaments, mythological scenes and scenes from the royal life. Images of various animals and birds were also used. For example, a scene of a predator devouring a deer appears quite often. The scenes featuring one animal eating another one are a symbol of renewal of nature in the Persian mythology.
Other than its functional use, a sheath served as an ethno-marking element. In different regions of Turkmenistan, a sheath was decorated and worn in its own way. The Turkmens easily identified their compatriots’ affiliation to a certain region by their sheaths. The sheath decoration followed the canons and ideas of beauty of each locality. It was covered with leather or thin sheet metal. The outer part of the sheath was often decorated with engravings, gilding and semiprecious stones.
Carnelian was the most popular stone in the decoration of the Turkmen cold steel. Carnelian of dark red color, called “khakyk”, was considered the highest in quality. Carnelian was the favorite stone of the Prophet Muhammad, who wore a ring with cornelian on the little finger of his right hand. According to the popular beliefs, carnelian protects health and guards against the evil eye, averts a lightning and protects its owner from the stings of scorpions. Another popular stone is turquoise, which means victory in Persian. It is often used as a frame of small stones around a large carnelian. Turquoise was believed to be a stone helping a warrior, preventing his falling from the horse and bringing success in battles.
The Turkmen saber’s sheath was equipped with a smart device called “redzhe.” This is a small thin strap with one end tied to the saber’s cross. It served to prevent the sabre’s falling out of its sheath when a horse ran at full tilt. Another function was purely psychological. It prevented the sabre’s instant unsheathing by hotheads during quarrels, anger, verbal battles, when a hand tends to reach for a saber by itself. According to the etiquette, it was considered disgraceful for a male warrior to unsheathe a sabre without putting it to work.
The Khiva (Khorezm) Turkmens, who lived in Khiva as the military class, wore the most luxurious sheaths. Their sheaths were framed entirely with precious gold leaf, covered with velvet crimson of burgundy or green color decorated with turquoise.
There were two ways of wearing a saber by the Turkmens. In the first case, a band of the waist belt would be flung over the warrior’s right shoulder. In the second case, it would encircle his waist. In both cases, a saber would hang on his left side with its blade turned outward. The latter pattern was most common.
When ordering or buying a saber, every man chose a weapon for his height and size of his hands. Medium and longer sabers were better for battles on horses, while short ones, on the contrary, were intended for close combats on foot. Perfectly sharpened sabers were called “samsam.” The Turkmens never used straight Russian or Caucasian sabers that were designed for stabbing and chopping blows. A steeply curved Turkmen saber was designed for battles on horses. An ancient Turkmen warrior was a dashing rider with a saber in his hand.
A silk belt – gushak – was the traditional element of the Turkmen menswear. The belt would be wrapped around the waist two or three times and tied in a special way. A knife in a sheath would be invariably laid in the belt.
The blade’s quality, a lavishly decorated sheath and a knife handle were evidence of their owner’s wealth and emphasized his social status. Knives made of damask steel were mandatory items in the Turkmen house. They had a special mystical meaning. Like a saber, a knife was considered an amulet. The Turkmens believed that a knife guarded their houses, and they put it under the pillow of a sick man. A knife would be inherited from father to son. Passing it from hand to hand, the knife’s blade had to be turned inward. The knives used for performing blood vengeance were made only of damask steel. People’s memory keeps many proverbs about a knife. Here are some of them. “No matter how sharp the blade is, it will not shave its own handle”, “Two knives do not fit in one sheath”, “A dull knife will cut a hand”, “A knife will not cut its sheath,” “Licking a knife – desiring a war.”
The shape of the knife’s blade and handle preferred by the Turkmen tribes also serve as ethno-marking elements. A metal bush was an unalterable structural element of the knife. It was often decorated with engravings and gold notching. The Turkmen knife’s bush had a sacred meaning. If it was missing, the knife was considered unclean and could not be used for slaughtering animals. Meat of such animals was believed to be forbidden and not good for eating. After slaughtering an animal, blood would be thoroughly washed off the knife to a single drop, since the remnants of blood on the knife were considered a bad sign. Ivory, a walrus tusk, deer horns, as well as horns of mountain sheep – argali – were used as the material for the knife handle.
Unusual knives were used in the eastern part of Turkmenistan, in Lebab. They were a set of knives of different sizes, usually a pair, and rarely three knives. Each of them played a certain role. A larger knife was used for slaughtering animals; a small knife was used for cutting and skinning. They were worn in leather sheaths on straps attached to the wide suede or silk belt, decorated with embroidery made of beads. The straps had decorative brushes with turquoise beads. Sometimes this set included a chamois horn that was used to untie knots on the rope.
The Turkmen hunters also used folding knives. In their everyday life, the Turkmens used an original folding knife. Other than the blade, it had another device – a small spoon with notches for extracting the pulp of melons. Both the spoon and knife folded back on the same handle, forming a kind of prototype of modern knives used by tourists and travelers.
There were also the knives camouflaged for a whip. A small blade was hidden in the upper part of the handle. It was a secret weapon. Even unsheathed, the blade was hidden under a thick leather fringe. An armor-piercing knife called “kardy” is a great rarity. Such knives had a slight thickening on the blade’s tip for piercing a chain mail.
The Turkmens almost never used cold steel with two-sided sharpening. Although it was used in the territory of Turkmenistan, it was not very popular. If people wanted to accuse a person of falsity, they compared him to the two-edged dagger. Nevertheless, the Turkmen khans sometimes appear on the old photographs carrying the Caucasian daggers. It was either a service or a prize weapon. There were also gift daggers. The tsarist government presented them to the Turkmen khans and serdars at official meetings. The handles and sheaths of such daggers were made entirely of gilded ivory. It was a very beautiful ceremonial weapon.
An ax was another type of cold steel used by the Turkmens. In addition to axes for the household use, there were also purely battle axes similar to the pole ax. Their blades curved in the form of the crescent; hence, they were called “aypalta” – the moon-ax. The handle of such ax often continued into a spike. The blades of other types of axes were shorter, but their handle was larger, making it possible to fight at a longer distance. Sometimes, a knife blade was installed in the lower part of an ax blade.
A bow and arrows were the most common type of weapons used by the Turkmen hunters and warriors before the arrival of firearms. A bow carried a symbolic meaning for Turkmens. People have preserved many stories and legends associated with it. In Oguz Khan’s time, competitions in archery were part of the holidays. Pumpkins were put on high poles, and horse riders tried to shoot them at full gallop. Winners of the competition received generous gifts from the host of the holiday. People from the Turkmen tribe of Salor were the great manufacturers of bows and arrows.
The Turkmens used the Asian type of bows. They were smaller than the European ones, and this allowed riders to shoot freely at full gallop. Layers of resilient wood were glued together with boiled cervical tendon of deer and horns of gazelles under a strong press. Following rough processing, a bow was set aside to dry for several years. In this process, it was kept covered by leather for protection from moistness. In a state of rest, without a tight string, an arch of the Turkmen bow was curved inward. It made a bow extra elastic. A bow had to be bent in the opposite direction and a string had to be put on it to return it into the battle position.
An arrow shaft was made mainly of white poplar, sometimes of birch. Plumage for arrows was made of feathers of large birds of prey. Arrows were kept wrapped in cloth to protect them from moistness. Arrows and a blow were kept in a quiver.
The arrowheads were flat and trihedral. Such arrows would pierce a chain mail, and they were hard to extract from the body because of backward notches. In the old days, poison was used to strengthen the striking force of arrows. It was obtained from the remains of rotting snakes or toads. A slightest scratch made by such arrow resulted in death. Bows already disappeared from the arsenal of the Turkmen warriors and hunters in the second half of the XIX century.
A pike was used by the Turkmens in combat operations equally with a saber. A pike could be as long as 2.5 meters at times, and its shaft consisted of two detachable parts. When striking, the upper part of the pike remained in the enemy’s body, while riders held the lower part in their hands and could add an upper part again, if necessary. The stock of the pike’s upper parts either was with a rider or transported on a camel. In addition, the upper part could also be used as a missile weapon – a dart. The Turkmen pike was a reusable weapon, thus giving it an advantage over the European analogues that often stuck in armor, horse harness, broken, knocked out of hands, and they were simply left on a battlefield.
A pike stuck into the ground near the yurt signaled readiness to go to war. In this way, the pike’s owner announced military preparations, and warriors would ride a horse to this place and stick their spears in the ground, becoming members of the detachment.
In the cavalry, the Turkmen warriors used a kind of weapon that looked like a hog. This weapon was intended to knock the enemy rider off his horse during the battle. He would be stabbed with a straight thorn and thrown off the horse with a hook thorn.
The protective armor used by the Turkmens consisted primarily of the chain mail. Under the chain mail, they wore thick, quilted clothes to cushion the hits. They also wore shirts made of thick leather.
Four steel rectangular plates were one of the most common types of armor called “charayna” (four mirrors). Such plates were normally made of high-quality damask steel and decorated with golden inlays. The armor consisted of two rectangular plates, one of which covered a warrior’s abdomen, the other covered his back, and the remaining two covered his sides. The force of impact was cushioned with soft quilted pillows filled with cotton wool that were fixed on the inner side of the plates.
The warriors’ upper extremities were also covered by protective armor. Arms, for example, were protected by metal shields. Only one arm shield was normally used. A foot warrior wore it on his right arm, a horse rider – on the left. This was explained by the fact that a foot warrior held a shield in his left hand and a sabre in his right hand and this hand should be protected especially. A rider needed to protect his left arm with which he held the bridle. Legs were protected by plates, and the head was protected by a hemispherical helmet.
Such was cold steel used by the Turkmens, who were always excellent warriors, and a sabre, a dagger and a faithful horse were their permanent companions.