Nov 27, 2011

Arrow to Turk, sword to Samurai

Defense, sports and poetry coming together and then disappearing in the period of the Turkish modernization? I am talking about the archery tradition in Turkey that developed very different than in the West. It was first used by Turks as an offensive weapon given the nomadic life on horseback in their homeland of Central Asia. With the advance of firearms, however, its offensive function faded away in the 17th century. Nevertheless, the Turks were the first in history that practiced recreational and sportive archery (flight shooting). For that purpose, they established okmeidans (literally meaning “square of arrow”) in Edirne and Bursa, the capitals of the Ottoman Empire in 15th century.

Urban "development" is endangering the remaining archery stones.

Fine example of an archery stone in Okmeydanı, Istanbul.

Notice the arrows on the top of the archery stone
built for the success of Mahmut II, Istanbul.
A postcard from 19th century showing the same stone of Mahmut II.
(Special thanks to TT.)

Turks' methods of archery were so advanced that in target shooting they could shoot as far as 165-250 meters while in distance shooting they reached 600 meters. If one bares in mind that today in the Olympics the distance shotting range is 70-90 meters, one can understand their sophistication. Indeed, archery was practiced on the basis of a guild system that required a license to shoot in certain ranges. For instance, in order to be able to shoot in Okmeydanı, a license had to be obtained first which would be issued only if someone could  already reach 594 m.

Another stone soon to fall victim to urban "development" in Istanbul.

Shooting was practiced in sects where Sufism, mystic principles in Islam, reigned. There were also other rituals. A record was commemorated with an archery stone erected in the name of the archer in the presence of witnesses. Further, the stone would include a poem reciting the weather conditions and other praise. Just like surfers wait for certain kinds of wind, archers also did. Golden Horn as a natural harbor allowed a micro climate to form around it, its hilltop district Okmeydani therefore become the location of choice for archers. The stones around the district thus erected contain pieces of poetry on them. While they can be seen as pieces of art they also document the history of sports visible also in previous Ottoman spheres of influence such as Cairo, Skopje, Belgrade, Sofia and Haleppo. For more: click here.

This archery stone built by Selim III is located in Aynalıkavak
and is overlooking the Golden Horn in Istanbul.

A poem by Sultan Selim III (using nickname Ilhami).

Examples of Turkish bows in Military Museum in Istanbul.

All these practices are documented in the reports of ambassadors as well as miniatures that depict archery skills such as Partian shot (done by turning back while riding a horse). In fact, Sultans themselves were archers: especially Mehmet the Conqueror and Mahmut II as evinced by many stones erected in his name. However, sultans also had to respect the guild tradition. In the 19th century, archery began to slowly fade out but its seal of death was the closing of all sects with the Republic.

The miniature depicting the famous Partian shot
done by turning back while riding a horse.

Today, no one is qualified enough to obtain a license let alone reach past glories of shooting over 800 meters. Okmeydanı, a square full of records, is under the threat of urban development. From the 300 or so stones today there are only 26 left. While the old sect building is being renovated and a museum dedicated to archery will be established in it, the remaining stones in the neighborhood will be removed to the museum to save them from further destruction. Meanwhile, the Military Museum in Istanbul and the Topkapı Palace Weapons collection seem to have a good collection  of arrows while the courtyard of the mosque in Teşvikiye houses stones of Selim III and Mahmut II in protected environments. The tradition lives only with street names in Istanbul such as "Kemankeş" (archer) or in the language with sayings such as: “dikili bir taşım yok” (I do not even have a stone erected on my name); “kemankeşe bir söz yeter” (one word is enough for the archer), “ok yaydan çıktı” (the arrow is out of the bow). Samurais wouldn’t approve of that.

Special thanks to Fest Turizm. For more on archery, click here.