Horse Armor and Warfare in the Medieval Islamic Middle East

Examining the available evidence for the use of horses and armor for them in medieval Islam warfare, with particular reference to the Arabian Peninsula and neighboring regions.

By Dr. David Nicolle / 06.30.2017
Visiting Research Fellow
University of Nottingham


The widely held view that horse armour was not used in the early Islamic Middle East is incorrect. Whereas horse armour is clearly mentioned in the documentary record, but is almost absent from iconographic sources, it may be also present in the archaeological record. However, this latter field remains enigmatic and barely studied. It is also often difficult to distinguish between coverings with a protective function and those without. This article seeks to present and interpret the available evidence, with particular reference to the Arabian Peninsula and neighbouring regions.


The subject of horse armour in the Islamic world requires an in‑depth study, not least in order to differentiate between decorative coverings indicating status, and coverings with a primarily protective purpose. Furthermore, it is still widely but wrongly assumed that horse armour dropped out of use in the early medieval Middle East, and that Islamic armies did not make use of it until the later Middle Ages when it supposedly reappeared as a result of Mongol and European influence. While written evidence is relatively straightforward, the pictorial record remains tantalizingly inadequate until the early 13th century. Nevertheless, it does support the documentary evidence that horse armour was used, though not widespread. Meanwhile some possible fragments in the Islamic archaeological record remain barely studied.

The Pre-Islamic Background


[LEFT]: Photograph 1. Ceramic cavalrymen from a tomb at Luoyang, Northern Wei period, late 4th–early 6th centuries AD, Chinese (Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; author’s photograph).
[RIGHT]: Photograph 2. Ceramic cavalrymen from a tomb, T’ang period, early 7th–early 9th centuries AD (Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; author’s photographs).

The earliest widespread use of horse armour appears to have been in Inner Asia, perhaps more specifically in Khwarazm.[1] Thereafter horse armour became notably characteristic of Central and Inner Asia, not only amongst nomadic tribes but also amongst settled peoples such as the Turkish Uighurs of what is now called the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang (Shinjāng) where it was called kedımli.[2] Horse armour then spread, along with many other advances in horse harness, to neighbouring China (photographs 1‑2), Iran and beyond, eventually including the Middle East.


[LEFT]: Fig. 1. Battle scene, pre‑Islamic petroglyph (in situ Wādī ‘Aday, Oman).
[RIGHT]: Fig. 2. Graffito on plaster wall, Arab, 2nd century AD (from Avdat, Negev, Israel; present location unknown).

Horse armour was not, however, associated with pre‑Islamic Arabs. The only areas where it might appear in primitive art associated with Arabic‑speaking pre‑Islamic peoples are those where there was an undeniable external military influence; namely in the Syrian borderlands of the Roman Empire (figure 2), and in both Oman and Yemen which were for many years under Sassanian Iranian domination (figure 1).

Photograph 3. Carved plaque of armoured man on armoured horse, late Antique probably late 6th–early 7th century AD, from the region of Shabwa in Yemen (British Museum).

Very recently I have been made aware of a remarkable stone plaque from the region of Shabwa in Yemen (photograph 3), now in the British Museum and described as Late Antique. It shows a fully armoured man riding upon a fully armoured horse. The style of carving suggests a late pre‑Islamic date and the presence of such a heavily armoured cavalryman surely points to the period of the Sassanian occupation of Yemen immediately prior to the coming of Islam (c. 570–630 AD). A particularly interesting feature is the fact that the horseman is riding with his legs largely inside the horse armour. Indeed his horse armour is almost identical to that on otherwise seemingly unique Hoysala carvings from 12th–13th century south‑western India (figures 40‑44). I would therefore like to suggest that the man shown on the Shabwa carving was one of the asvārān (asāwira) who, having been sent by the Sassanian ruler to garrison Yemen, became the first known “heavy” or fully armoured cavalry in the Muslim army even before the expansion of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Furthermore, it seems likely that the very unusual style of horse armour shown in the Hoysala carvings also owed its origins to the late Sassanian Empire, or to early Muslim armies which, having overrun the Sassanian Empire, adopted many aspects of Sassanian Iranian cavalry technology, before introducing these to early medieval India.

Fig. 3. Painted stucco panel from Reception Hall, Khaltchayan, Parthian 50 BC–AD 50: a ‑ reconstruction; b ‑ detail (after G.A. Pugachenkova, Skulptura Khaltchayana, Moscow 1971).


[LEFT]: Fig. 4. Carved rock relief of a cavalryman on an armoured horse, Parthian, late 2nd–early 3rd centuries AD (in situ Tang‑i Sarvak, Iran). / Fig. 5. Graffiti of cavalrymen on armoured horses, on wall plaster from buildings at Dura Europos, Syria, probably Sassanian, 3rd century AD (Yale University Art Gallery, Newhaven, USA).
[RIGHT]: Fig. 6. Carved rock relief of Bahram II’s army in combat, Sassanian, AD 276–293 (in situ Naqsh‑i Rustam, Iran). / Fig. 7. Graffito, Sassanian, 3rd–6th centuries AD, (in situ Harem area, Persepolis, Iran). / Fig. 8. Seals of late Sassanian spahbeds; text of 8a reads, “… Khusro, the son of Ādurmāhān …. K Khusro, the grandee of Iranians, at the quarter of the southeast, General” (Barakat Gallery, London; after P.N. Skupniewicz, in Daryaee, T., & K. Safdari, “Spāhbed Bullae: The Barakat Collection”, e‑Sasanika, 7, 2010).


[LEFT]: Photographs 4. Horse armour of bronze scales, Syro‑Roman or Parthian, from Dura Europos, 3rd century AD (National Museum, Damascus; author’s photographs).
[RIGHT]: Photographs 5. Horse armour of iron scales, Syro‑Roman or Parthian, from Dura Europos, 3rd century AD (ex‑Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, now Yale University Art Gallery Store, Newhaven; author’s photographs).

Fig. 9. Fragment of fabric backing for a scale‑lined armour, probably horse armour, with leather edging and lacing, from Dura Europos, Syria, Syro‑Roman, Parthian or Sassanian, 3rd century AD (Yale University Art Gallery, Newhaven, USA).
Fig. 10a‑f. Rawhide lamellae showing five styles of lacing holes (Yale University Art Gallery store, Newhaven, USA).
Fig. 11. Warrior saint on an armoured horse, fragment of sgraffito‑ware ceramic from Iznik [Nicea], Byzantine c. AD 1200 (Archaeological Museum, Iznik, Turkey).
Fig. 12. Fleeing Saracen, 
Skylitzes Chronicle, Siculo‑Byzantine, late 12th–early 13th century AD (Biblioteca Nacional, Cod/5‑3. N2, f.54v, Madrid).
Fig. 13a‑c. Petroglyph of horsemen in combat, 3
rd–2nd centuries BC (in situAltai area, Mongolia; ex‑V.D. Kubarev, “Kriegsthema und Waffenkult in Felsenzeichnungen des Altaigebirges”, in M. Mode & J. Tubach (eds.) Arms and Armour as Indicators of Cultural Transfer, Wiesbaden 2006).


[LEFT]: Photographs 6a‑b. Rawhide lamellar armour, either for a horse’s neck or a rider’s legs, Syro‑Roman or Parthian, from Dura Europos, 3rd century AD (Yale University Art Gallery Store, Newhaven; author’s photographs).
[RIGHT]: Photograph 7. Rawhide lamellar armour, either for a horse’s neck or a rider’s legs, Syro‑Roman or Parthian, from Dura Europos, 3rd century AD (Yale University Art Gallery Store, Newhaven; author’s photographs).

According to Persian‑Iranian tradition, iron horse armour was first made by the ancient hero‑ruler Jamshid. It was nevertheless still called bargustuwān, a term also used for other forms of horse armour including that of quilted, felt, rawhide or hardened leather construction.[3] It is clear that horse armour had been a common feature in pre‑Islamic Iranian armies (figures 3‑8).[4] Two complete, and perhaps a third very fragmentary, metallic scale‑covered horse armours of essentially the same shape were found in the ruined Roman frontier fortress at Dura Europos in eastern Syria (photographs 4‑5), plus possible fragments of yet another (figure 9). Also found in the same context were two sheets of rawhide lamellae which are usually described as armour for a horseman’s legs,[5] but which may actually have formed a neck piece for horse armour (photographs 6‑7; figures 10a‑f). This element is missing from the scale horse armours from Dura Europos, although neck protections are shown in relevant pictorial sources (figures 3a‑b & 5a‑c). These Dura horse armours are in Iranian rather than Roman style and may have belonged to Parthian refugees or to Arab frontier auxiliaries who were themselves clearly under strong Iranian influence.

Photographs 8. Almost free‑standing rock‑cut statue of an armoured horseman, Sassanian, probably early 7th century AD (in situ Ṭāq‑i Bustān, Iran; author’s photographs).

The most detailed representation of pre‑Islamic horse armour is at Ṭāq‑i Bustān in south‑western Iran (photographs 8), on an almost free‑standing rock‑cut statue which dates to within a few decades of the Arab‑Islamic conquest of the Sassanian Empire. Although the horse armour shown here is fundamentally different from that seen in earlier Parthian or Sassanian art, or at Dura Europos, we can assume with reasonable confidence that the armoured cavalry elites of the final years of the Sassanian Empire —and those of the first decades of Arab‑Islamic rule— had a great deal in common in terms of their equipment. In some cases they were actually the same men, as some members of the previous Sassanian armoured cavalry elite transferred their allegiance to their new rulers —old asvārān becoming new asāwira.

The horse at Ṭāq‑i Bustān wears what, judging by roughly contemporaneous Romano‑Byzantine sources, might be described as an Avar style of horse armour which only protected the animal from the saddle to the neck and head. Furthermore, the Ṭāq‑i Bustān carving is so fine and well preserved that one can state with confidence that the body and neck armour would have been made of metal rather than rawhide or hardened leather lamellae. The complex three‑piece chamfron protecting the horse’s head was a laminated structure, probably also metallic though perhaps of hardened leather. I believe that the Ṭāq‑i Bustān armoured horseman reflects a wave of Central Asian military influence which was also felt in the Romano‑Byzantine Empire, where a new style of comparably limited horse armour was described as being in Avar style.[6]

Of course, an earlier style which covered both the front and the rear of the animal remained in use and would become the most common form in both the medieval Islamic world and later medieval Western Europe. It is this complete form of horse armour which appears on little‑known rock drawings or petroglyphs at Wādī ʿAday in Oman (figure 1) which, though undatable, are probably pre‑Islamic, though they might also be from the very early Islamic period before “orthodox” Islamic iconoclasm was accepted throughout the Arabian Peninsula.[7]

Direct written evidence from the late Sassanian period is extremely limited. Nevertheless it is perhaps significant that fully armoured cavalrymen on horses which are also fully armoured, though in the old rather than new “Avar” style, feature on the seals of several late Sassanian frontier governors or Spāhbads (figures 8a‑b).[8] The text on one of these very important seals reads:

“…Khusro, the son of Ādurmāhān … K Khusro, the grandee of Iranians, AT the quarter of the southeast, General”.[9]

Horse armour had generally not been favoured by early Byzantine commanders in, for example, the 6th century when it was thought to slow down the cavalry. Horse armour of hardened leather and perhaps horn lamellae may then have been adopted or become more widespread during the 9th and 10th centuries when notably well‑equipped Byzantine armies were on the offensive against the Muslims of eastern Anatolia and northern Syria.[10] The Byzantine Emperor Leo VI (AD 886–912), in Constitution [Chapter] 18 of the Taktika book of military advice which is attributed to him, recorded that amongst the Turks:

“the horses of their illustrious men are covered in front with iron or quilted material”.[11]

Leo may have been conflating the Magyars of Eastern Europe and the Turks of the western steppes; while the horse armour he describes seems to be the front‑only form, previously associated with the Avars and also seen on the Ṭāq‑i Bustān statue.

Nevertheless, felt and quilted horse armour probably remained the most common form,[12] although by the 10th and mid‑11th century some Byzantine cavalry were riding fully mailed horses. Such protection finally appears in Byzantine art at the end of the 12th century (figure 11),[13] but by that time similar horse armour was being adopted by Western and Central European knightly cavalry and in the Crusader States of the Middle East.


[LEFT]: Fig. 14. Terracotta fragment from Khoumbouz‑Tepe, Khwarazm, Saka or Massgete, 5th–4th century BC or Kangoi period, 3rd–1st century BC (present location unknown). / Fig. 15. Fragment of terracotta figurine from Ak‑Terek, Khotan, 1st century AD (British Museum, London). / Fig. 16. Graffito, 1st–5th century AD, Tasktyk, Siberia (after Y.S. Khudyakov & S.G. Skobeleva, Voennoe delo Nomadov Tsentralnoye Azii v Svanyeliskuyu Epokhu, Novosibirsk 2005). / Fig. 17a‑c. Petroglyphs, Altai region, early Turkish (after L.N. Ermolenko, “Ancient Turkic peoples’ notions on war”, Batvir. Traditional Military Culture of the Peoples of Eurasia, 1, 2011).
[RIGHT]: Fig. 18a‑d. Petroglyphs, East Turk Khaganate, 6th–7th centuries AD (in situChar Chad, Mongolia; after E. Nowgorodowa, Alte Kunst der Mongolei, Leipzig 1980). / Fig. 19a‑b. Uigurs paying homage to Guo Zui, scroll painting by Li Gonglin, 11th–12th centuries AD (National Palace Museum, No. 29 [SV.4.6], Taiwan). / Fig. 20. Carved relief, Uighur 11th–12th centuries AD (after M.V. Gorelik, in correspondence 2005).

Fig. 21. Fragmentary wall painting, 5th century AD (in situ Ajanta cave temples, India).
Fig. 22. Carved relief, Armenia, 7
th–12th centuries AD (in situ Monastery Church of Surb Bartlolomeus, Turkey).
Fig. 23a‑i. Fragments of an iron chamfron from Soba, Nubia 8
th–14th centuries AD (National Museum, Khartoum, Sudan).

Illustrations from Central and Inner Asia include simple petroglyphs (figures 13a‑c, 16, 17a‑c & 18a‑d), several of which are remarkably similar to those at Wādī ʿAday in Oman.[14] Magnificent Indian wall paintings in the 5th or 6th century cave temple complex at Ajanta probably include a damaged illustration of horse armour, perhaps of scale construction and perhaps only protecting the front of the animal (figure 21). Several centuries would then pass before horse armour again appeared in Indian art, by which time the military situation had altered dramatically with the arrival and establishment of Islamic power. Although this was confined to the lower Indus plain for a prolonged period, the challenge posed by the Islamic armies remained considerable, not least because Islamic military systems, equipment and tactics themselves went through profound changes from the 8th to 11th centuries. It should therefore be no surprise that many of the Hindu warriors shown in temple carvings from the Hoysala empire and realms use military equipment very different from that shown in earlier Indian art.

Fig. 40a‑b. Stone relief carvings of cavalrymen, Hoysala south‑west Indian, 12th–13th centuries AD (in situ Halebidu, India).
Fig. 40c‑e. Stone relief carvings of cavalrymen, Hoysala south‑west Indian, 12
th–13th centuries AD (in situ Halebidu, India; ex‑J. Deloche, Military Technology in Hoysala Sculpture (Twelfth and Thirteenth Century), New Delhi 1989).
Fig. 41a. Stone relief carving of cavalrymen, Hoysala south‑west Indian, 12
th–13th centuries AD (in situ Somanathapura, India).
Fig. 41b. Stone relief carving of cavalrymen, Hoysala south‑west Indian, 12
th–13th centuries AD (in situ Somanathapura, India; ex‑J. Deloche, Military Technology in Hoysala Sculpture (Twelfth and Thirteenth Century, New Delhi 1989).
Fig. 42a‑b. Stone relief carvings of cavalrymen, Hoysala south‑west Indian, 12
th–13th centuries AD (in situ Hosaholahu, India; ex‑J. Deloche, Military Technology in Hoysala Sculpture (Twelfth and Thirteenth Century, New Delhi 1989).
Fig. 43. Stone relief carving of cavalrymen, Hoysala south‑west Indian, 12
th–13th centuries AD (in situ Nagalapura, India; ex‑J. Deloche, Military Technology in Hoysala Sculpture (Twelfth and Thirteenth Century, New Delhi 1989).
Fig. 44. Stone relief carving of cavalrymen, Hoysala south‑west Indian, 12
th–13th centuries AD (in situ Nuggihalli, India; ex‑J. Deloche, Military Technology in Hoysala Sculpture (Twelfth and Thirteenth Century, New Delhi 1989).

Hoysala sculptures dating from the 12th and 13th centuries (figures 40‑44) clearly illustrate several different kinds of horse coverings being used in Hindu India prior to the next waves of Islamic conquests which led to the establishment of Turco‑Mongol and culturally Iranian states across most of the subcontinent.[15] Several of these horse armours, like the elephant armours, seem to be quilted and at least one —at Halebidu— appears to be of scale or lamellar construction. Of particular interest is another distinctive feature, once thought to be confined to India, and which has recently also be found in Yemen (see above). This is the fact that some of the riders thrust their legs inside the horse armour, presumably to better control their horses. This reinforces the impression that such horse armours consisted of substantial sheets covering at least one entire side of the horse’s body. In other words they did not consist of separate front and back sheets divided beneath the saddle,[16] as was traditional in Central Asia and China.

This might indicate a significant but as yet unexplained connection with an early medieval tradition of horse armour in the Islamic World where armours or coverings were generally not divided beneath the saddles. On the other hand, such Islamic but pre‑Mongol horse armours and caparisons usually had cut‑outs rather than holes which enabled a rider’s feet to make contact with his animal’s flanks. The only Hoysala horsemen who ride with their legs fully outside the armour are themselves the apparently armoured cavalrymen on the Somanathapura temple carvings.

The Khiljīs (Khaljīs) had been a minor vassal dynasty on the eastern frontier of the Mamlūk Sultanate of Delhi before taking control of the Sultanate in the late 13th century. In the Tabaqāt‑i Nāṣirī, which was written in the mid‑13th century Delhi Sultanate, the author Minhāj‑i Sirāj‑i Jūzjānī described an unsuccessful campaign by the Muslim army of Muammad‑i Bakhtiyār, the Khaljī ruler of Lakhanawtī north of Bengal, against a populous part of what he referred to as Tibbat (Tibet).[17] This event took place in 1205–6 AD and the enemies were the inhabitants of the Nepal valley. The author also based his account upon a first‑hand description of this campaign which he heard thirty‑nine years later when visiting the area from which the Muslim army had set out.[18] Jūzjānīdescribed Nepalese (Tibbati) military equipment in detail and, according to Raverty’s translation, their defensive elements were made of bamboo. Unfortunately Raverty mistranslated bargustuwān as “body armour”. So the text should read as follows:

“The whole of the defensive arms of that host (the Nepalese) were of pieces of the spear bāmbū, namely, their cuirasses (jawshan) and horse armour (bargustuwān), shields and helmets, which were all slips of it, crudely fastened and stitched, overlapping [each other]; and all the people were Turks, archers, and [furnished with] long bows”.

In a note relating to the term “spear bamboo, Raverty stated that he had gone back to a number of original manuscript texts and then explained that:

“The bāmbū referred to in the text is the male bāmbū —the young shoots, probably, used for spear shafts— for which the hollow bāmbū is not adapted… therefore, their armour, shields, etc., must have been of pieces of the male bāmbū overlapping each other”.

It thus appears that the armour, including the Nepalese horse armour, was a form of lamellar or scale protection and was clearly made of the same organic material used for the shafts of traditional Arab and, to a lesser extent, Persian spears rather than being made of metal or leather.

The Central Islamic Lands (7th to Early-13th Centuries)

The renowned French scholar Claude Cahen categorically stated that horse armour was very common in the early Islamic period.[19] The position certainly becomes clearer during the Umayyad period from the mid‑7th to mid‑8th centuries.[20] Tijfāf soft armour, presumably for men and horses, was worn by khayl mujaffafa cavalry but, when worn by a man on foot, was considered cumbersome as well as vulnerable to arrows shot from close range.[21] The largely Arab, Kharajī rebels who caused such problems for the Umayyads and their successors could field numerous such mujaffafa or tijfāfwearing armoured cavalry, even in the late 7th century.[22]

By the early 8th century, sources make it clear that this form of soft armour was for horses rather than their riders;[23] one reference specifically states that mujaffaf cavalry feared infantry archers who were shooting heavy nablarmour‑piercing arrows.[24] An indication of the tactical role of mujaffafarmoured Muslim cavalry on armoured horses was seen in 704 AD when such troops made a sortie in defence of Tirmidh (Termez in Uzbekistan), suddenly emerging from the fortress to strike the flanks of an enemy who was attacking a breach in a fortified wall of Tirmidh.[25] Another interesting reference dates from the mid‑8th century and described “gilded” tijfāf on a light coloured horse.[26] This must surely indicate that the horse armour in question, even if it still incorporated some “soft” element of felt or quilting, also had a harder surface which would be gilded. Perhaps it was of lamellae as at Ṭāq‑i Bustān, or scales as at Dura Europos, either of metal, rawhide or hardened leather.

Thereafter an abundance of sometimes specific terminology indicates that horse armours, as well as other forms of non‑protective horse‑coverings, were far from unusual in the medieval Islamic world. It is certainly stronger evidence than the infrequent pictorial representations and the even more uncertain archaeological record. All this begs the question of where, when and why horse armour was adopted by Muslim cavalry but not by western European mounted warriors until significantly later.

Given the growing wealth and military sophistication of Islamic armies under the Abbasid Caliphate, it is no surprise to find references to 500 horses parading with what seems to be long horse armour as well as brocade saddle cloths in the early 10th century.[27] Around the same time, Persian sources in the eastern regions of the Islamic world use the term bargustuwān for horse armour, most notably by Abū ʿAlī Muḥammad in his translation of al‑Ṭabarī’s massive history.[28] References to horse armour continued throughout the 10th and 11th centuries, despite a decline of the central power and military might of the Abbasid Caliphate. They were nevertheless more characteristic of some areas than others, while some provinces seem to have abandoned horse armour almost entirely.

Evidence from the Arab‑Islamic heartlands of the 10th–11th century Middle East is again written rather than pictorial. While Leo VI, ruler of the Byzantine Empire from AD 886 to 912, made no mention of horse armour amongst the neighbouring Muslims, a generation later the elite ghulām‑s or mamlūk‑s of the Hamdanid ruler of northern Syria, Sayf al‑Dawla (AD 944–67) clearly rode armoured horses which appeared to be similar to those of their Byzantine opponents.[29]

Meanwhile Ibn al‑ʿAdīm, writing later in the 13th century but drawing upon earlier sources, noted that armour for men and for horses was being made in the fortified Muslim frontier city of Tarsus immediately prior to its conquest by the Byzantines in AD 965.[30] He stated that the Tarsus was famous for arms manufacturing, its products including armour for both men and horses which was stored in one of the city’s wall‑towers.[31] It is therefore worth noting that there had been a substantial eastern Islamic military influence in Cilicia, presumably including the main town and fortress of Tarsus, which stemmed from Iraq, Iran and perhaps even Transoxiana. This military influx reflected the later Abbasid Caliphs’ attempts to strengthen a vulnerable frontier zone at a time when the Byzantine Empire was on the offensive. Unfortunately there is insufficient evidence to indicate whether the arms production of 10th century Tarsus was in an Iranian‑Islamic tradition, or whether it still reflected Syrian Arab‑Islamic fashions, it may even have shared military technology with its Byzantine foes.

Ibn al‑Qalānisī, writing two centuries later but drawing upon more contemporary sources, attested to the effectiveness of professional ghulām cavalry armed with spears, swords or maces and riding horses with tijfāarmour in late 10th century Syria.[32] Such equipment, plus proper training, enabled these largely Turkish soldiers to ride down opposing Fatimid infantry and break their formations.[33] It is probably safe to assume that the horse armours used by the Turkish ex‑ghulām or mamlūk slave soldiers and freebooter led by Alptegīn (Alftakīn) in late 10th century Syria were in keeping with Abbasid Iraqi or Iranian tradition, though given the Arabic name of tijfāf.[34] Most of his heavy cavalry followers may have used simple and undecorated horse armours, except for that of Alptegīn himself, described as tajāfīf min marāya, “made of tijfāf with mirrors”, which surely suggests a metallic scale‑covered or lamellar construction.[35] These varied horse armours were significant and abundant enough for Alptegīn to give twenty armoured or caparison horses to the Byzantine Emperor as part of a peace agreement.[36]

In Iran, the easternmost provinces of the early medieval Islamic world and Transoxiana in the 10th–11th century the Persian word bargustuwān[37] was used instead of the Arabic term tijfāf.[38] This does not, however, prove that tijfāf and bargustuwān horse armour were the same. Indeed there is evidence to suggest that there were already two, or perhaps more, military technological traditions feeding into the development of horse armours across the Islamic world. Tijfāf is clearly a descriptive term, reflecting the way the basic or more common form of “Arab” horse armour was made of felt or quilting. Bargustuwān is less obviously descriptive, and might merely indicate something “spread across” the animal. Nevertheless the word barg, meaning a leaf, might hark back to early, scale‑covered horse armours like those found at Dura Europos.


[LEFT]: Photograph 9. Silver‑gilt plate found at Malo‑Amkovskaya near Perm, probably Sughdian, perhaps made in Semirechye, 9th–10th century AD (Hermitage Museum, inv. S‑46, photograph via A. Matveev).
[RIGHT]: Fig. 24. Detail of a silver‑gilt plate found at Malo‑Amkovskaya near Perm, probably Sughdian, perhaps made in Semirechye, 9th–10th century AD (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia). / Fig. 25. St. Ptolomeus of Nikentori on a horse with a caparison and apparent chamfron [shaded grey], Coptic Synaxary, Egypt, 9th–11th centuries AD (Pierpont Morgan Library, M.581, f.1v, New York). / Fig. 26. Bronze perfume sprinkler, Khurasan 10th–11th centuries AD (Dar al‑Athar al‑Islamiyah, Kuwait). / Fig. 27. Ceramic fragment from Sabra, Tunisia, Fatimid, 10th–11th centuries AD (Benaki Mus., inv. 11762, Athens).

The only illustration of horse armour that I know of from this early period of eastern Islamic history is of debatable provenance. It is a silvered plate found at Malo‑Amkovskaya near Perm in Siberia (photograph 9; figure 24). Judging by the details of its abundant military figures and horse harnesses, the plate was probably made in the 9th or 10th centuries, either in Transoxiana or more likely just beyond the Islamic frontier in the region of Zhetysu (ex‑Russian Semireche) between Lake Balkash and the Tien Shan Mountains. Only one of the horses on this superb piece of metalwork has horse armour or a non‑protective fabric caparison, its chequered surface pattern maybe indicating a quilted construction. Although the armour or caparison extends from the animal’s rump to its shoulders, it does not extend much below the lower edge of the saddle.

The most abundant source of information about horse armour in the eastern Islamic regions during this period is the Shāhnāmah. Firdawsī’s epic Persian poem, which was completed between the late 10th and very early 11th centuries, and makes frequent mention of bargustuwān horse armours being used by its heroes, both Iranian and Turanian. However, the term is also used, slightly confusingly, for an elephant armour. Meanwhile the Shāhnāmahoffers many additional details concerning the appearance, structure and usage of the equipment, as well as how it was stored and then distributed in time of need. In a desperate situation, a cavalryman might then cut the straps which secured a bargustuwān, allowing it to fall to the ground so that his horse could run faster and tire less. Thus, according to the Shāhnāmah, the later Sassanian monarch Khusraw II escaped from the usurper Bahram Chubin in this way:

“Glancing behind him Khusraw saw that it was not Bahram alone that came but four cavaliers. To save himself from the foe and escape, he cut away his horse’s armour, and then saw that of the vengeful enemies at his back three were now left, far behind.[39]

During this period the contrast between an abundance of references to horse armour in the eastern Islamic regions and the Fertile Crescent, and a dearth of such references in Egypt and the Maghreb, is striking. For example, the armies of the wealthy, vast, powerful and expanding Fatimid Caliphate do not seem to have used horse armour during the early conquests in the 10th century of this Shi’a caliphal dynasty. They then came up against Alptegīn and his freebooting ghulām‑s in late 10th century Syria (see above), though with embarrassing rather than devastating consequences.

Shortly afterwards mention was made of gilded horse armours adopted by the Fatimid Caliph al‑ʿAzīz (975–996 AD), perhaps primarily for parade purposes.[40] Even so, almost a generation passed before tijfāf quilted or felted horse armours were adopted by a small, heavily armoured elite of Fatimid cavalry after 991 AD.[41] The remains of a three‑piece bronze or copper chamfron made to protect a horse’s head was actually found during archaeological excavations at the southern Nubian capital of Soba (figures 23a‑i).[42] The pattern of holes across its surface and the remains of some lacing show that it would have been decorated, perhaps covered in colourful cloth or fine leather and thus would probably have been for parade purposes. However, it is very unlikely this chamfron was made in medieval Nubia and although it may have been an ancient relic preserved since Roman or early Byzantine times, it seems more likely that this unique piece of horse‑armour came originally from neighbouring medieval Egypt. A number of medieval Islamic and Middle Eastern Christian illustrated sources show such a chamfron (figures 12), though the early medieval Egyptian example can be disputed (figure 25), while a little known but potentially very important Armenian carved relief might show complete horse armour (figure 22).

Fig. 28. Ceramic fragment from Sabra, Fatimid, possibly 11th century AD (Musée des Arts Islamiques, Dar Hussayn, no. 10, Tunis).
Fig. 29. Sicilian ivory box, 11
th century AD (Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin).

By the mid‑11th century horse armour was more common in Fatimid armies, though still reserved for an elite cavalry force and perhaps more significant when on parade rather than on the battlefield. In 1047 AD —if the Shi’a Muslim Persian traveller Nāṣir‑i Khusraw is to be taken literally— the Fatimid Caliph was followed by 10,000 armoured horses during the ceremonial cutting of the canal, each covered with zirhī mail or jawshanī lamellar armour. Meanwhile a helmet was “put on the pommel of every saddle”, the latter perhaps being a confused reference to the neck‑protecting crinet or head‑protecting chamfron.[43] Even if the enthusiastic Persian was exaggerating, it is most probably true that the Fatimid army could field a substantial elite of heavily armoured cavalry. What is more: these troops used mail or lamellar horse armour rather than merely quilted or felt protections. Horse armours were certainly amongst a huge hoard of military equipment looted from the Fatimid Caliphal arsenal in Cairo just nineteen years later. These were called tijfāf, which perhaps suggests that the latter term was used in a general sense.[44] Given such losses in 1066 AD, it is unsurprising that horse armour is not mentioned by Ibn al‑Ṭuwayr in his description of the Fatimid Caliphate’s New Year parade in the late 11th or early 12th century.[45] Meanwhile an apparently quilted horse armour appears in an albeit stylized image on fragments of 10th or 11th century ceramic from the Fatimid palace at Sabra in Tunisia (figure 27), and large but probably non‑protective horse cloths appear elsewhere in Tunisia and Sicily (figures 28‑29).

Given the abundance of references to horse armour in the Shāhnāmah, which had been intended for the last Sāmānid and first Ghaznavid rulers of Transoxiana, it is not surprising that the armies of their Seljuq Turkish successors included an elite of professional, armoured cavalry riding armoured horses. At the same time it remains important to distinguish between true horse armour and the textile horse or saddle covers which were often used as a sign of rank amongst Turkic peoples. According to the 11th century Turkish lexicographer Maḥmūd al‑Kashgarī, who wrote for the Qarā‑Khānid Khanate which dominated a huge region east of the Sāmānid and Seljuq realms, the simple fabric saddle‑cover was called an al in Turkish Central Asia.[46] Armoured cavalry on armoured horses may have been a smaller proportion of the total in the Seljuq military structure than had been seen previously, but they were significant and would increase in numbers and importance over the decades. Indeed the First Crusaders were astonished when they came up against the heavily armoured ghulām slave‑recruited elite troops of the Seljuq Sultanate outside the walls of Antioch. Although the Christian invaders won this battle, the Gesta Francorum drew particular attention to those enemy Agulani (ghulām‑s) with their iron lamellar or scale armours for both men and horses:

“…quia omnes errant undique cooperti ferro et equi eorum…”.[47]

Fig. 30. Ceramic fragment possibly showing caparison or horse armour, probably Egypt, 12th century AD (Benaki Mus., inv. 423, Athens).
Fig. 31a‑b. Quilted materials from Ṣadr castle, Sinai, late 12
th–early 13th centuries AD (after A. Zouache, in J‑M. Mouton et al [eds.], Ṣadr. une forteresse de Saladin dans le Sinai, Paris 2007).
Fig. 32. Damaged wall painting of an armoured man and perhaps a horse with caparison, late 12
th–early 13th centuries AD (private collection, destroyed in World War Two).
Fig. 33. Horseman on a possibly armoured horse, gilden bronze harness decoration, Atabeg Syria or Seljuqid Anatolia, 12
th–13th centuries AD (Furusiyya Art Foundation, inv. RR‑943, London).

Thereafter, written references to Middle Eastern Islamic cavalry using horse armour become increasingly common but unfortunately the pictorial record was almost non‑existent for almost a century, except for a few uncertain illustrations (figure 32). One interesting Turkish style gilded bronze harness decoration from Syria or Anatolia might show horse armour or a decorative caparison, the pattern used being almost the same as that on the silver‑gilt plate from Malo‑Amkovkaya, mentioned above. It also covers precisely the same amount of the animals’ body and neck (figure 33).

Fig. 37a‑b. Saddled horses from the rear, Maqāmāt of al‑Ḥarīrī, Iraq, AD 1237 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. Arabe 5847, f.59, Paris).
Fig. 38. Man riding a mule with an apparent sheepskin caparison or oversized saddle‑cloth, 
Maqāmāt of al‑Ḥarīrī, Iraq or Syria, early–mid‑13th century AD (Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. Arabe 3929, f. 117, Paris).
Fig. 39a‑b. Wall painting of Sts. Sergius & Bacchus, 13
th century AD (in situMartyrium, Church of the Monastery of St. Anthony in the Desert, Eastern Desert, Egypt).

The fragmented and somewhat fluid Atabeg states, which emerged out of the fragmentation of the Great Seljuq Sultanate from the late 11th century onwards, attempted to base their own sometimes tiny armies upon the model provided by their Great Seljuq predecessors. Consequently many of them could field an albeit small elite of heavy cavalry, sometimes clearly riding either armoured or caparisoned horses or horses distinguished by sometimes large and elaborately decorated saddlecloth (figures 30, 37‑39).





Photographs 10a. Inlaid candlestick‑base, Mosul, c. AD 1218, Mosul (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; author’s photographs while in the possession of Prof. P. Costa). / Photograph 10b. Inlaid candlestick‑base, Mosul, c. AD 1218, Mosul (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; author’s photographs while in the possession of Prof. P. Costa). / Photograph 10c. Inlaid candlestick‑base, Mosul, c. AD 1218, Mosul (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; author’s photographs while in the possession of Prof. P. Costa). / Photograph 10d. Inlaid candlestick‑base, Mosul, c. AD 1218, Mosul (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; author’s photographs while in the possession of Prof. P. Costa). / Photograph 10e. Inlaid candlestick‑base, Mosul, c. AD 1218, Mosul (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; author’s photographs while in the possession of Prof. P. Costa). / Photograph 10f. Inlaid candlestick‑base, Mosul, c. AD 1218, Mosul (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; author’s photographs while in the possession of Prof. P. Costa). / Photograph 10g. Inlaid candlestick‑base, Mosul, c. AD 1218, Mosul (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; author’s photographs while in the possession of Prof. P. Costa). Note that the visual damage is to the photographic negative, not to the candle-stick base. / Photograph 10h. Inlaid candlestick‑base, Mosul, c. AD 1218, Mosul (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; author’s photographs while in the possession of Prof. P. Costa).

Fig. 34a‑h. Inlaid candlestick‑base, Mosul, c. AD 1218, Mosul (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar).

This brings us to a remarkably detailed, but as yet little known, representation of Islamic horse armours from the late 12th or very early 13th century. It is a silver‑inlaid bronze candlestick base decorated with a running frieze of nine vigorously illustrated cavalrymen in combat (photograph 10a‑h; figure 34). While working as an archaeologist in the Yemen in the early 1970s, Professor Paolo Costa purchased this battered medieval inlaid brass candlestick base.[48] The tube or holder for the candle itself was missing but the base was abundantly decorated with abstract patterns, inscriptions and the frieze of horsemen.

I have discussed this superb piece of medieval Islamic metalwork elsewhere, along with its place of origin, date and dedicatee; suggesting that the likely dedicatee was a minor ruler of Mosul named Maʿsūd Ibn Arslan Shāh al‑Malik al‑Qāhir ʿIzz al‑Dīn (Maʿsūd II), eldest son of Arslan Shāh of Mosul, who reigned, at least nominally, from AD 1211 to 1218.[49] What is clear is that the frieze of horsemen is emphatically warlike, though perhaps illustrating training rather than fighting. No less than eight of their horses have some sort of horse armour, covering, caparison or notably large saddle blanket. Three also have head covering chamfrons, these being amongst the five animals which are most certainly armoured. Looking just at these five, we can see three different shapes where the horse armours go beneath the saddles. One is made in a single piece with an unbroken lower edge from the front to the rear of the horse. Another has a partial slit or cut‑out at this point, enabling the rider’s feet, stirrups or spurs to make contact with the animal. A third clearly seems to be made in two separate front and rear pieces which do not quite meet beneath the saddle. The two remaining horse armours may also consist of two such pieces, or might have slit sides which extend as far as the lower edges of the saddles. All these horse armours, and the other coverings or possible horse armours on the candlestick base, have highly decorated outer surfaces which are clearly intended to indicate rich textiles. In no case are their presumed protective elements visible.

Fig. 35a‑d. Inlaid brass bottle, probably made in northern Iraq, early 13th century AD (Freer Gall. no. 41.10, Washington).

Better known, but inferior in artistic quality and probably of a slightly later date,[50] is the so‑called Freer Gallery Canteen (figures 35). Its circular running frieze of horsemen included some with horse armour and close combat weapons while other men ride unarmoured horses and are armed with crossbows. The presence of horse armour and crossbows, both of which have been wrongly regarded as European or Crusader rather than Islamic military characteristics, has led to the incorrect assumption that the cavalrymen on the Freer Canteen, and indeed on the Costa candlestick, represent Crusaders. This is wrong for a variety of reasons: Muslims used crossbows and horse armour, they did so around the time that both the Canteen and the candlestick were made, and all other aspects of the clothing, arms, armour and horse harness on these objects is typical of the 12th–early 13th century Islamic Middle East.


[LEFT]: Photograph 11. Leather cover of a chamfron, probably from the castle of al‑Raḥba, north‑eastern Syria, Ayyūbid or early Mamlūk, 13th or 14th centuries AD (Qatar Museum Authorities, Doha, Qatar; author’s photograph while in the possession of R. Hales).
[RIGHT]: Photographs 12. Scale armour, probably from the castle of al‑Raḥba, north‑eastern Syria, Ayyūbid or early Mamlūk, 13th or 14th centuries AD (Qatar Museum Authorities, Doha, Qatar; author’s photograph while in the possession of R. Hales).


[LEFT]: Photograph 13. Quilted textile, perhaps from soft armour, probably from the castle of al‑Raḥba, north‑eastern Syria, Ayyūbid or early Mamlūk, 13th or 14th centuries AD (Qatar Museum Authorities, Doha, Qatar; author’s photograph while in the possession of R. Hales).
[RIGHT]: Photograph 14. Fragment of quilted material, perhaps of soft armour, from Damascus Citadel, late Mamlūk, 15th or very early 16th century AD (Syrian National Museum Conservation Department, Damascus, CD5.2.400[13]06b, Damascus; author’s photographs).

A few years before the candlestick and the Canteen were made in northern Iraq, Saladin rose to power in Egypt, Syria and eventually in parts of northern Iraq as well. Armoured cavalry formed part of his armies, albeit a small elite as usual, and probably operated in a military environment which owed much to both the Seljuq Turkish and the Fatimid Egyptian heritages. For example, in the late 12th century some of the cavalry whom Saladin sent to raid the Saffūrīyah region of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem were described as mudajjaj, which is normally translated as “heavily armoured” or “slow walking”.[51] Archaeological evidence from this period is extremely limited, but the leather cover of a presumed chamfron was found close to the Euphrates in north‑eastern Syria (photograph 11), along with fragments of what might be scale horse armour (photograph 12) and quilted material which might have been from a protection for a man or horse (photograph 13). Very similar pieces have also been found in Sinai (figures 31a‑b) and from a later date in Damascus (photograph 14).

These trends may have spread far beyond the Turkish‑dominated regions of Iran, Anatolia, the Fertile Crescent and Egypt to Yemen. In fact the Arabic gashī, a large textile horse or saddle cloth placed over the saddle as a sign of rank or status in late 12th and 13th century southern Arabia, was either introduced from Ayyūbid Egypt and Syria, or reflected an earlier tradition which had survived in Yemen since much earlier times.[52] The famous Warqa wa Gulshāh manuscript is now believed to be from the Seljuq Sultanate of Rūm (Anatolia), rather than north‑western Iran or the Islamic Caucasus. It contains a few excellent and detailed illustrations of horse armour (figure 36). All are covered in fabric, and although two of them only cover the horse’s body, the third also encloses the animal’s neck and head. All have decorative tassels dotted about their surfaces; these perhaps being attached to rivets or stitching to secure more rigid internal elements.[53] There is, incidentally, no mention of horse armour in the Persian text of Warqa wa Gulshāh which itself is thought to have been written in a Turkish dominated region of north‑western Iran.


[LEFT]: Fig. 53a‑b. Shāhnāmah page, Tabrīz, c. AD 1370 (Topkapi Library, Ms. Haz 2153, ff. 52b‑53a, Istanbul). / Fig. 54. Manuscript page showing a battle in front of city, Tabrīz, c. AD 1370 (Staatsbibliothek Orientalabteilung, inv. Diez A, fol. 70, s2, Berlin). / Fig. 55a‑b. Shāhnāmah page, Tabrīz, c. AD 1370–80 (Topkapi Library, Ms. Haz 2153, f. 102a, Istanbul).
[RIGHT]: Fig. 56. Shāhnāmah page, Tabrīz, c. AD 1370–80 (Topkapi Library, Ms. Haz 2153, f.22b, Istanbul). / Fig. 57. Shāhnāmah, Shīrāz, c. AD 1397 (Chester Beatty Library, MS 114, f.38, Dublin). / Fig. 58a‑b. Khwajū Kirmānī, Baghdad, c. AD 1396 (Brit. Lib., Ms Add. 18113, f. 31v, London).


[LEFT]: Fig. 59. Fragment of ceramic, Mamlūk Syria, 14th century AD (Museum für Islamische Kunst, inv. N.I, 4930, Berlin).
[RIGHT]: Fig. 60. Chamfron (simplified), partially gilded, Mamlūk Egypt or Syria 14th century AD (Furusiyya Art Foundation, inv. R‑173, London). / Fig. 61. Chamfron (simplified), Qarā Qūyūnlū, Anatolia AD 1388–1419 (Furusiyya Art Foundation, inv. R‑157, London). / Fig. 62. Chamfron (simplified) with name of Mamlūk Sultan Muʿayyad Shaykh AD 1412–21 (Musée des Beaux Arts, inv. D.377‑1, Paris).


[LEFT]: Fig. 63. Shāhnāmah, Shīrāz, AD 1420–30 (British Museum, inv. 1948‑10‑9‑50, London).
[RIGHT]: Fig. 64. Shāhnāmah, Shīrāz, AD 1431–35 (Bodleian Library, ms. Ouseley 176, f. 63v, Oxford). / Fig. 65. Mongols attack Alamut, Tarīkh‑i Jahāngushā, Shīrāz, AD 1438 (Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. Suppl. Pers. 206, f.149r, Paris).


[LEFT]: Fig. 66. Chamfron (simplified), Mamlūk Egypt or Syria, 15th century AD (Askeri Muzesi, inv. 5710, Istanbul).
[RIGHT]: Fig. 67. Ẓafarnāmah, Shīrāz, AD 1463 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund 1967. 55.121.16, New York).


[LEFT]: Fig. 68a‑c. Shāhnāmah, second half of the 15th century AD, north Indian Sultanate style (Berlin, Museum für Indische Kunst, ms. 15968, f.89v, Berlin).
[RIGHT]: Fig. 69. Chamfron (simplified), Mamlūk Egypt or Syria, AD 1468–95 (Askeri Muzesi, inv. 178/2, Istanbul).


[LEFT]: Fig. 70a‑b. Manuscript illustration attributed to Darvīsh Muḥammad, Tabrīz AD 1478–90 (Topkapi Library, Ms. Haz. 2153, f. 97b, Istanbul).
[RIGHT]: Fig. 71. Shāhnāmah, Gīlān, AD 1493/4 (Museum of Turkish & Islamic Art, inv. 1978, Istanbul).
Fig. 72 Mail and plate armour for horse and man, Mamlūk or Ottoman 15
th–16th centuries AD (Historisches Museum, Bern).

The Mongol states, which accepted Islam gradually, became part of the mainstream of Islamic civilization. However, the story of horse armour in the later medieval Islamic Middle East remains unclear and the written evidence is uneven, though the pictorial record is rich in regions such as Iran and Iraq (figures 53‑58, 63‑65, 67, 70‑71). Separate terms naturally continued to be used for non‑protective, usually decorative caparisons and the large horse cloths used to denote a rider’s high status. These included kabūsh which is usually translated simply as horse cloth,[54] but which was almost certainly the same as the kanbūsh as known in the 13th–14th century Mamlūk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria, which normally translated as a caparison or larger non‑protective covering for a horse.[55] Barāqi’ almost certainly meant chamfron, while barāsim meant horse armour or caparison and shalīl, meant as a horse‑cloth.[56]

What seems certain is that horse armour remained an essential piece of heavy cavalry equipment in Iran and neighbouring regions long after the collapse of the Mongol states. Venetian ambassadors who witnessed military parades by the best of the Āq Qūyūnlū army in western Iran in the 1470s provide remarkably specific information. To quote Joseph Barbaro:

“Of the which (horses of service) there were ij ml (2,000) covered with certain armure of yron, made in little squares and wrought with gold and syuer, tacked togither with small mayle, which hanged downe in maner to the grounde, and under the golde it had a frynge”.[57]

42In other words the horse armour was of mail and plate, just like armour worn by the riders. A Persian source, describing a comparable parade two years later in 1476 AD, noted horses which were:

“covered in plates of iron (gharg‑i āhan) from the tops of their heads to the hooves of their horses”.[58]


[LEFT]: Photograph 15. Laminated leather possible element of horse armour, from Damascus Citadel, late Mamlūk, 15th or very early 16th century AD (Syrian National Museum Conservation Department, CD5.2.401[14]66, Damascus; author’s photographs).
[RIGHT]: Photographs 16a‑b. Laminated leather possible element of horse armour, from Damascus Citadel, late Mamlūk, 15th or very early 16th century AD (Syrian National Museum Conservation Department, CD5.2.401[14]67a‑b, Damascus; author’s photographs).

Photographs 17a‑b. Laminated leather possible element of horse armour, from Damascus Citadel, late Mamlūk, 15th or very early 16th century AD (Syrian National Museum Conservation Department, CD5.2.401[14]64a‑b, Damascus; author’s photographs).

The Mamlūk Sultanate emerged in Egypt and then in Syria at a time when the heartlands of the medieval Islamic world were under both mortal threat and considerable military influence from the invading Mongols. The degree to which these factors led to an apparent increase in the use of horse armour by Mamlūk armies remains uncertain. But around the period of Sultan Baybars I, several sources emphasised the importance of bargustuwān horse armour made of jawshan; in other words a lamellar construction. These were for elite cavalry, but one must be cautious because later terminology was sometimes inserted into traditional sources such as the Sīrat al‑Malik al‑Ẓāhir.[59] If correct, however, they indicate that the term bargustuwān now referred to horse‑armour in general rather than indicating a specifically felt or quilted construction. There were occasional references to horse armours being murā’a or “mirrored” which by this time surely indicated an iron lamellar construction rather than the more common, and cheaper, lamellae of rawhide or hardened leather, or indeed of laminated leather construction (photographs 15‑17).[60] It also brings to mind the tajāfif min marāya of the 10th century (see above).

When Baybars ordered his troops to prepare for a major campaign there was frenetic activity in Cairo’s arms bazaars where craftsmen made or repaired barkustuwānāt horse armours and juwah al‑khayl “faces” or presumed chamfrons for horses.[61] It is also interesting to note that this later medieval Arabic source uses the Persian rather than Arabic word for horse armour, and uses a descriptive rather than technical term for the chamfron.

In contrast to the Sīrat al‑Malik al‑Ẓāhir the Nihāyat al‑Suʾl military manual is a highly reliable and dateable source. Here horse armour is still called tijfāf,[62] perhaps reflecting the fact that the Nihāyat, like most other furūsiyya military manuals of this period, was substantially based upon earlier texts from the Abbasid period. Furthermore, the Nihāyat al‑Suʾl is a practical manual for soldiers and their leaders, and assumes considerable knowledge on the part of its reader. For example, this early Mamlūfurūsiyya text uses the otherwise unknown Arabic word b‑r‑dh‑n‑b (written without short vowels) in the context of horse armour. This is presumably from the Persian pār dum meaning the crupper of a horse armour.[63] Elsewhere, in answer to the question:

“What about the horse armours [tajāfīf, plural of tijfāf] and the way in which the horse is facing and the bells [ajrās, plural of jaras]”

when such items of horse harness are not in use but are liable to be needed at short notice, the Nihāyat answered:

“The horse armour should be [kept] under the [horse’s] saddle, and placed in front of the horse with its bridle, and the bells hanging by its mouth”.[64]

The precise meaning of jaras “bells” in this context is unclear although al‑Jāhiẓ of Basra associated them with Khūrāsānī troops from eastern Iran way back in the 9th century.[65]

During the 14th century the once Persian term barkustuwān became commonplace in the 14th century Mamlūk Sultanate and is often, though not always correctly, translated as a “steel caparison”.[66] Yet even as late at the 15th century a barely updated Mamlūk version of a 9th or 10th century Abbasid furūsiyya text continued to use traditional terms for horse armour, caparisons and large saddle cloths, including barāqi’ and sarī.[67] European observers based in Cyprus confirmed that late 13th century Mamlūk armies made abundant use of horse armour, this observation was probably based on accurate if not necessarily first‑hand accounts. For example the Gestes des Chiprois said of a Mamlūk army that was defeated by an Ilkhanid Mongol force at the battle of Ḥimṣ in AD 1299, that it:

“venent armes sur chevaus covers a curases et a chapiaus de fer”.[68]

These were above all a protection against Mongol archery. But the fact that the Italian pilgrim Giacomo di Verona made no mention of horse armour in his description of the Mamlūk garrison of Cairo in AD 1335 might indicate that such equipment was only used on active service or on special occasions, or perhaps that it went out of favour during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Photograph 18. Textile applique Mamlūk heraldic symbol, perhaps from a caparison, late 15th century AD (Syrian National Museum Conservation Department, Damascus, CD5.2.401[14]63; author’s photograph).

On the other hand a little‑known illustration of Mamlūk horse armour on a ceramic fragment from later in the 14th century shows a fully armoured but riderless horse (figure 59). The animal’s covering is more like some of those on inlaid metalwork from late 12th or early 13th century northern Iraq (figures 34‑35) and an illustration of 11th century Uighurs by the Chinese artist Li Gonglin (figures 19a‑b) than it is to lamellar horse armours seen in 14th–15th century Iranian art.[69] A further feature which makes this fragment so interesting is a Mamlūk heraldic motif on the cloth covering of the horse armour which brings to mind the applique textile Mamluk disc found in the citadel of Damascus (photograph 18).

The next unambiguous references to widespread use of horse armour by Mamlūk armies are in the writings of Muḥammad Ibn Iyās, a civilian of Cairo in the first half of the 16th century who wrote an invaluable account of the Ottoman conquest of the Mamlūk Sultanate. Six hundred sets of horse armour were issued to members of the Sultan’s own élite guards regiment during the final crisis of AD 1513–15, the said sets having been returned to store after their previous owners had died of plague.[70] Ibn Iyās described them as consisting of steel and coloured velvet, barkustuwānāt mā bayn mukhmal mulawwan wa fūlādh. He also made the interesting observation that such things had not been seen by the public for a long time, which suggests that an old style of equipment was being reintroduced. But why? In earlier centuries the purpose of horse armour was primarily as a defence against arrows. Perhaps its reappearance, particularly of horse armours incorporating steel elements, was to protect the Mamlūks’ horses against the Ottomans’ widespread adoption of hand‑held firearms. If so it would fail.

Elsewhere Ibn Iyās listed current “complete equipment” for a Mamlūk cavalryman as helmet, armour and horse armour.[71] His description of the Mamlūk Sultan reviewing the troops encamped outside Cairo in January and February 1515, listed:

“The Sultan’s squadron of around eighty horses, sixty having caparisons (horse armours) of coloured velvet and steel armour encrusted with gold and silver, twenty having gilded saddles and shabraques…. Fifty horses had chamfrons on their heads and saddles and “covers” (saddle blankets or caparisons) of yellow silk, and drums. Also twenty mares with Bedouin saddles, Bedouin stirrups and “head covers” of Maghrebi make”.[72]

52The following year the last Mamlūk army to parade through Cairo set out to confront the Ottoman invaders in Syria. Again Ibn Iyās provides colourful details and makes interesting observations concerning the use of horse armour.

“On Tuesday the 10th of Rabī‘ al‑Ākhir (922 AH), the Sultan’s military cortège was ordered to set out from the Maydān before sunrise…. It consisted of fifteen led dromedaries and gold‑embroidered numnahs, three hundred horses, of which a hundred had caparisons of steel chased with gold. And some (of the horses) with velvet of different colours…”.

Some observers thought there were not enough horses and one old person recalled that Sultan Barsbāy (1422–38) had many more caparisons with steel and velvet.[73] In fact, Ibn Iyās specifically stated that, in this emergency, all the equipment used by the troops of previous rulers had been taken from the arsenals, including perhaps now rather old‑fashioned “embossed sets of horse‑armour”.[74] Whether any of these horse armours included old‑fashioned types made of hardened leather is unknown. The Mamlūk army that bravely paraded through Cairo was catastrophically defeated at Marj Dābiq, and Ibn Iyās’ description of the battlefield was presumably based upon the words of eyewitnesses. Again horse armours feature prominently in the narrative:

“Marj Dābiq was strewn with corpses and headless bodies, and faces covered with dust and grown hideous. Dead horses lay everywhere, saddles were scattered about, also swords inlaid with gold, steel sets of horse armour inlaid with gold, helmets, armour and bundles of clothing”.[75]

Photograph 19. Chamfron, late Mamlūk or Ottoman, early 16th century AD (Worcester Art Museum, John Woodman Higgins Coll. 2014.28; author’s photograph).

In the wake of their victory the Ottoman soldiers found further “sets of painted steel horse armour” in the Citadel of Aleppo.[76] A few surviving chamfrons date, or might date, from this period (photograph 19; figures 60‑62).

Photographs 20a‑b. Shāhnāmah, Mamlūk Egypt, early 16th century AD (Topkapi, Ms. 1519, ff. 82b & 160a, Istanbul).

An edition of the Turkish translation of the Shāhnāmah made for the Mamlūk Sultan Qānṣawh al‑Ghawrī would be useful in this context.[77] The horse armours shown in its miniatures are certainly old fashioned when compared to the armour worn by the men (photographs 20a‑b). Most are covered with cloth, though in different patterns, and one is laminated.

Aftermath and Conclusions

Ottoman armies had not made much use of horse armour in the 14th and 15th centuries. For example, in a mid‑15th century version of the Düsturnameit is the Christian Crusaders who use bürüme çuqal horse armour,[78] though the Turkish leader Umur Pasha does sometimes ride a horse with çuqalarmour. Bertrandon de la Broquière, also writing in the mid‑15th century, similarly made no mention of the Ottoman Turks using horse armour. Horse armour would then become relatively typical of the best equipped Ottoman sipahi cavalry in the 16th and 17th centuries. Hence, a copy of the Shāhnāmah, which may have been made in early 16th century Turkey, gives horse armour long blue strips with what look like large red stitches along their lengths.[79] Similarly “striped” horse armour is used by both armies in an illustration of “Iskander fighting the ruler of Kashmir” in a late 15th century Ottoman Iskender‑Name manuscript which is otherwise full of pictorial references to Ottoman costume.[80] Meanwhile cloth‑covered horse armours are used by both the Ottoman and the Safavid armies in an illustration of the battle of Çaldiran in the Ottoman Selimname manuscript made around AD 1525.[81]


[LEFT]: Photograph 21. Horse armours and riders, Ottoman, Indian and Japanese (Stibbert Collection displayed in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence 1938; James Mann photograph).
[RIGHT]: Photograph 22. Chamfron, Ottoman early 16th century AD (Worcester Art Museum, John Woodman Higgins Coll. 2014.24; author’s photograph).


[LEFT]: Photograph 23. Ottoman horse armour (Stibbert Museum, nos. 3503 & 3507, Florence; James Mann photograph).
[RIGHT]: Photograph 24. Gilded brass or copper chamfron, Ottoman 17th century AD (private collection, Massachusetts; author’s photograph).

Some very fine Ottoman horse armours of the following period survive, though they are of mail and plate rather than hardened leather construction (photographs 21 & 23; figure 72), and include chamfrons (photographs 22 & 24). A more basic, often repaired and perhaps even “rebuilt” Ottoman mail‑and‑laminate horse armour is held in the Military Museum in Brussels (photograph 25). Thereafter horse armour virtually disappeared from Christian Europe but remained in use, at least for ceremonial purposes, in the Ottoman Empire. A remarkably late description dates from AD 1682, when a European visitor to Istanbul witnessed the departure of the Ottoman army at the start of the Vienna campaign. He recalled that a senior officer called the Basa Olakrode a horse covered with gilded steel plates.[82] Several of these late Ottoman horse armours were captured by their Western foes and can now be seen in Museums in several European countries. As an interesting aside one might note that the modern Turcoman word for a large horse‑cloth or caparison made of felt is gezermen.[83] Might this word stem from the earlier term gustuwān, itself from bargustuwān?[84]

It is perhaps more remarkable to find that horse armour was still being used by some Arab warriors in AD 1830. According to Burckhardt it was called “lebs” (libs meaning covering or clothing) and:

“It is made only in Aleppo, and consists of seven pieces of thick pasteboard of various sizes, covered with red cloth; two pieces hang on either side of the horse, two on its hinder parts, and one on the breast (making a total of only five pieces?). The two side pieces are sewn together under the stirrups, and connected with the breast and hind pieces with steel buttons. Some men who affect elegance have the lebs embroidered: a paste‑board horse covering of this kind costs from one hundred and fifty to two hundred piasters. It wards off the feeble thrust of a lance.”

Elsewhere Burckhardt described horse armours used by the bodyguard of the Saudi ruler of central Arabia, consisting of:

“a sort of quilted woollen stuff, impenetrable to lances or swords”.[85]

This latter form of quilted horse armour was comparable to that used in some 18th–19th century sub‑Saharan Islamic states such as the Mahdist Sudan, Bornu, and in northern Nigeria.

Photograph 25. Ottoman horse‑armour (Royal Museum of Armed Forces store, Brussels; author’s photographs).

In conclusion it is clear that horse armour was used in the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East and further east, throughout the early medieval period. This was notably earlier than in Europe apart from the Byzantine Empire. The history of horse armour in western and central Europe, and the clear increase in its use from the 13th century onwards, has been quite well published, though a dedicated modern study would be welcome.[86] I believe that, from the 7th to mid‑12th century, horse armour was more common in the Islamic world than in western, central and even Mediterranean Europe. In the later medieval Islamic world, horse armour was used even more widely, especially following the Mongol invasions. Even so it is important, though not always entirely possible, to differentiate between the terminologies of true horse armour, non‑protective caparisons and merely oversized saddle cloths. Terms which undoubtedly referred to horse armour, though of varying methods of construction including padded, quilted or simply felt “soft armour”, include the commonly used Arab word tijfāf which originally referred to a method of construction employing felt, but became effectively synonymous with the Persian bargustuwān.



  1. Eadie, 1967, p. 161‑162.
  2. Esin, 1965, p. 198.
  3. Firdawsī/Vullers, 1877, vol. 1, p. 23; Firdawsī/Warner, 1905, vol. 1, p. 132.
  4. Scale horse‑armour is illustrated on a painted clay panel in the Parthian palace at Khaltchayan, 50 BC to AD 50 (Pugachenkova, 1971); lamellar or scale horse‑armour is illustrated on one of the Parthian carved rock‑reliefs at Tang‑i Sarvak 3, c. AD 200; it is even more common in early Sassanian carved rock‑reliefs, most notably those at Naqsh‑i Rustam, 3rd–4th centuries AD.
  5. James, 2004, p. 122‑125.
  6. It is possible that the “front only” style, while having an advantage in terms of weight and partially avoiding the problem of horses overheating, was suitable for the static shower‑shooting horse‑archery tactics whose development has sometimes been attributed to the Sassanian Iranians, as distinct from the mobile harassment and repeated “charge, wheel and retire” horse‑archery tactics associated with Turco‑Mongol armies from the steppes.
  7. The fact that the riders on the armoured horses at Wādī ʿAday, about 8 kms south of Maṭṭraḥ, are armed with spears and in one case a sword, but not bows, tends to identify them as Arabs. Furthermore, all carry small round shields which might suggest a date after the adoption of stirrups; Nicolle, 1999, p. 171‑2, figs. 411a‑411d.
  8. Daryaee & Safdari, 2010, p. 1‑15.
  9. Ibid., p. 5, 15.
  10. Haldon, 1975, p. 38.
  11. Leo VI/Dennis, 2010, p. 455.
  12. Kollias, 1980, p. 65.
  13. Vasiliev, 1950, vol. 2, p. 333; Ibrahim, 1965, p. 152, 208, 210, 448‑450; Psellus, 1966, p. 211.
  14. At Char Chad in Mongolia, attributed to Eastern Turks of the 6th or 7th centuries (Nowgorodowa, 1980: passim).
  15. Deloche, 1989, p. 31.
  16. One apparent exception at Halebidu seems to have separate sheets for the front and rear parts of the horse.
  17. Jūzjānī/Ḥabībī, 1963, p. 429; Raverty, 1881, p. 566.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Cahen, 1965, p. 504.
  20. Ṭabarī/De Goeje, 1879–1901, vol. 2, p. 1025.
  21. Fries, 1921, p. 42, 61.
  22. Ṭabarī/De Goeje, 1879–1901, vol. 2, p. 958.
  23. Ibid., p. 1406, 1517 & 1704.
  24. Ibid., p. 1407.
  25. Dunlop, 1973, p. 304.
  26. Ṭabarī/De Goeje, 1879–1901, vol. 2, p. 1537.
  27. Vasiliev, 1950, vol. 2, p. 76.
  28. Bivar, 1972, p. 291.
  29. Vasiliev, 1950, vol. 2, p. 321, 333.
  30. Canard, 1957, p. 49.
  31. Bosworth, 1993, p. 191.
  32. Ibn al‑Qalānisī/Amedroz, 1908, p. 14‑15.
  33. Ibn al‑Qalānisī/Sauvaget, 1946, p. 86‑87.
  34. Ibid., p. 85‑87; Ibn al‑Qalānisī/Amedroz, 1908.
  35. Ibn al‑Qalānisī/Sauvaget, 1946, p. 91; Ibn al‑Qalānisī/Amedroz, 1908, p. 18.
  36. Canard, 1964, p. 55.
  37. Wolff, 1965: passimFirdawsī/Vullers, 1877: passimFirdawsī/Warner,1905: passimFirdawsī/Levy, 1967: passim.
  38. Bivar, 1972, p. 291.
  39. Firdawsi/Levy, 1967, p. 362 (translated from edition by Naficy [Tehran 1936]).
  40. LanePoole, 1902, p. 134.
  41. Beshir, 1970, p. 71.
  42. AllasonJones, 1992.
  43. Nāṣir‑i Khusraw/Shefer, 1881, p. 137 (transl.), 46 (farsi); Beshir, 1970, p. 67‑70; Sanders 1984, p. 180.
  44. Hamblin, 1984, p. 144‑146.
  45. Canard, 1952, p. 364‑398.
  46. Esin, 1965, p. 199‑200.
  47. Anon/Hill, 1962, p. 49.
  48. Information provided by Prof. Costa’s wife, Prof. Germana Graziosi (email, 10 Oct. 2012).
  49. Nicolle, 2015, p. 57‑89.
  50. Ibid., p. 62‑63.
  51. Al‑Işfahānī/Massé, 1972, p. 15; al‑Işfahānī/C. de Landberg, 1888, p. 14.
  52. Ibn Ḥatīm/Smith, 1978, p. 126.
  53. Warqa wa Gulshāh (Topkapi Library, Ms. Haz. 841, ff. 15a, 18a & 18b, Istanbul).
  54. Douillet, 1965, p. 952‑954.
  55. Mayer, 1956, p. 15, 58 & 76.
  56. Douillet, 1965.
  57. Stocklein, 1939, p. 2560.
  58. Minorsky, 1939, p. 154.
  59. Abd al‑Ẓāhir/Sadeque, 1956: passim.
  60. Ibid., p. 226‑227.
  61. Ibid., p. 215.
  62. Al‑Aqsarāʾī/Lutful‑Huq, 1956, p. 319.
  63. Ibid., p. 143.
  64. Ibid., p. 13 & 319; Nicolle, 1994, p. 80.
  65. Nicolle, 1994.
  66. Ayalon, 1961, p. 48.
  67. Douillet, 1965; Scanlon, 1961, p. 128.
  68. Martinez, 1988, p. 173.
  69. Now in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, inv. N.I, 4930, Berlin.
  70. Ibn Iyās/Wiet, 1955, p. 334‑335, 338; Ibn Iyās/Kahle & Mustafa, 1931, p. 359‑360; Ayalon, 1946, p. 73.
  71. Ibn Iyās/Wiet, 1955, p. 338.
  72. Ibid., p. 386‑387.
  73. Ibn Iyās/Salmon, 1921, p. 9‑10.
  74. Ibid., p. 15.
  75. Ibid., p. 45.
  76. Ibid., p. 48.
  77. In the Topkapi Library (Ms. Haz. 1519), Istanbul; Atasoy, 1968.
  78. Enveri/Mélikoff‑Sayar, 1954, p. 115 n. 2.
  79. In the Collection of Cheryf Sabri Pasha, Cairo (Wiet, 1943, p. 7‑8, pl. 4).
  80. Ms. C.133, f.119b, Institute of Oriental Studies, St. Petersburg.
  81. Ms. Haz. 1597‑8, f. 113a, Topkapi Library, Istanbul.
  82. Ricault, 1694–1700, p. 224‑5. I am indebted to A. Ulrich Koch for bringing this reference to my attention.
  83. Anderson, P., in conversation about Turkish horse cloths (1982).
  84. Cahen, 1947–48, p. 60; Fakhr al‑Dīn Mubārakshāh/Khwānsārī, 1969, p. 425.
  85. Elgood, 1994, p. 97.
  86. Dillon, 1901, p. 67‑92; Buttin, 1929.


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Originally published by Arabian Humanities 8 (2017), DOI:10.4000/cy.3293, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.