Part 18 - Persians and other easterners

by George Gush


UPPER CLASS Persians were scarcely ever seen on foot, so it is hardly surprising that their army was based upon the mailed cavalryman, armed with light lance, composite bow and sword. References to 'Curats of shelles' suggest possibly scale armour too, and, like Indians, Persians could wear the 'coat of a thousand eyes', a padded velvet garment covered with metal studs. Mail was supplemented with plate defences - a corselet, the 'Char Aina' (Four Mirrors), arm-protection called 'Bazuband' - mail mitten, splinted armour round wrist and plate vambrace - and plate knee and foot defences. Round shields with four bosses, 24 to 30 inches in diameter and made of steel or hardened leather, were also carried. Additional weapons included maces, and a pair of short steel javelins carried in a case. The horses could have leather or metal protection, usually covered by decorated cloth barding.
    These cavalry, very like Turkish Spahis, though described as better-armed and better mounted (on 'big, brave horses'), were, during the 16th Century, raised in the same way, by the grant of small fiefs in return for military service, mainly from the religio-military order of the 'Quizilbashes' of which the Safavid 'King of Kings' was the head.
    There were also light horse-archers, probably representing slaves and servants as well as mercenary Kurds, Tartars or Georgians, but they seem to have been less numerous than the heavies', who could make up some 60 per cent of a Persian army.
    About one-third of Persian armies consisted of infantry, but in the 16th Century these seem to have been mainly poor-quality levies, often of subject races. Notable among the latter were the Armenians, who wore long Turkish-style robes, and blue turbans 'mixed with red and white'. Armed chiefly with the bow, they protected themselves against cavalry with 'a long rowe of darts' (javelins) fixed in the ground.
    Probably because of relative lack of discipline, effective infantry, and firearms, Persian enveloping tactics proved unsuccessful against the Turks in the 16th Century, but the great Shah Abbas (1587- 1629) reversed this situation and regained Persia's lost territory. Apart from the decline of Turkey, his success rested on his reorganisation of the Persian forces.
    Firstly, he caught up with the Turks by establishing a body of artillery - the 'topchis' - equipped with 500 Persian-cast brass cannon, and a force of 6,000 disciplined 'Tufangchis' or musketeers, drawn from Georgian and Armenian converts, equipped with muskets rather longer than European ones, and probably trained by Europeans including the English Sir Robert Sherley. (Firearms had been introduced to Persia in the late 15th Century by the Turkoman 'People of the White Sheep' and the first crude cannon cast, but as late as the 1570s the Shah was said to have 'No great ordinance or gunnes or harquebusses'.)
    The cavalry, who remained the chief force, were also strengthened. Even at the beginning of our period there had been, a standing Royal bodyguard of 500 men, but Shah Abbas got rid of half the 60,000 feudal 'Quizilbashes', replacing them not only with his pseudo-Janissary infantry, but also with a paid regular corps of 10,000 'Qullar' or 'slaves'. They were probably so-called because mainly drawn from Christians of the Caucasus, from whom Persian slaves also came, but some of them may have actually been captured or purchased slaves. To overcome the divisive effects of tribal loyalties, Shah Abbas is said to have founded a special tribe of 'King's Friends' made up of those who joined his service, but this appears to have been a later development.


    A 'mamluk' was a white slave, purchased or captured, and employed as a soldier. There had been mamluks in Moslem Spain, but by our period they existed only in Egypt and Syria, where they had become a military ruling caste. They were probably the finest exponents of the lance and bow tactics of the Eastern mailed cavalryman, though they had an aristocratic preference for the shock weapon, and their armies were even more cavalry-orientated than those of Turkey and Persia. The Mamelukes were armed and equipped like the Turkish and Persian heavy cavalry, though according to Oman given to wearing very large turbans (decorated with ostrich plumes for the leaders) in place of helmets. Their mail was often converted into a sort of brigantine by the addition of rich cloth coverings inside and out.
    They were commanded by 'Amirs of a Thousand' which probably gives an indication of their organisation. If this followed that of the mamluks of Moorish Spain, 'regiments' of 1,000 would be subdivided into five companies, each of five 40-man troops. An elite was provided by the 'Royal Mamelukes' of the Sultan's guard (also those of the previous Sultan, who would remain together as a separate unit).
    The Mamelukes themselves were supported by 'Korsans' - Abyssinian and other mercenaries, similarly equipped but presumably of lesser quality - and some Arab light cavalry. These latter, if equipped like their compatriots across the Red Sea, would have a 15-foot cane lance, a small round hide shield, javelin, and a sling kept wound turbanwise round the head.
    The Mamelukes actually had artillery before the Turks did, in the 14th Century, but, like European chivalry, regarded firearms as a challenge to their traditional military skills and the social order based on them, so reserved cannon for the attack and defence of forts. However, in their wars with the Turks in the early 16th Century they brought numerous cannon into the field at al-Raydaniya (1517). Being of immobile type, these were used to defend a field-work and proved ineffective. By this time small firearms had also appeared, but were confined to low-status infantry (sometimes camel-borne) and negro slave soldiers. In 1510 the first complete arquebus-armed unit (at-tabaga al-Khamisia) was formed, but this 'patched-up army' was a badly-paid mixed bag of Turkomans, Persians, etc, used mainly for garrison and marine duties.
    Under their last Sultan, Tumanbey, a late attempt to get some mobile firepower was the mounting of arquebusiers and light artillery in ox-carts, and the production of camel-guns (heavy arquebusses fired from the unfortunate beasts' humps).
    The Mamelukes were defeated by the Turks in 1516-17, and did not regain their independence from the Ottoman Empire until after the close of our period.


    These descendants of the dreaded Mongol hordes retained their forbears' methods of warfare, with much of their organisation and ferocity, but their lack of unity, and the improved organisation and weaponry of their settled neighbours, made them no longer the terror they had once been. Nonetheless they were still given to slave-raiding forays against their Russian and Polish neighbours, and though most often allied with their Turkish co-religionists they could also be found allied with Cossacks, Muscovites and Poles and fought against all these and the Turks too.
    The Tartar armies, at least in Western Asia, were entirely cavalry, except that the largest khanate, that of the Crim Tartars in the Crimea, could call upon 800 musketeers from the Volga Germans when required.
    Tartar dress was most often of black sheepskin (wool outward), with hats of the same, or shirts and ankle-length kaftans like the Russians, but buttoned on the left instead of the right, probably with linen breeches and half calf length red or yellow boots. However, they were anything but uniform in dress (save in general grubbiness, if European witnesses are to be believed!). Though fur-trimmed hats were common, many wore white cotton turbans, and indeed officers and leaders usually imitated Turkish dress, often including helmet and mail of Turkish, Persian, or Indian make. The protection of their followers, however, was usually limited to a round or semi-rectangular shield.
    They were horse-archers first and fore- most, all carrying the composite bow. By no means all had sabres; other weapons included lassooes, and spears like European boar-spears; a very few had pistols, but in general they lacked firearms, even in the 17th Century. In tactics they were 'irregulars', using deep but loose formations, and relying on mobility and envelopment, their horsemanship allowing them to fire accurately when fleeing, or when galloping in circles, a tactic often adopted. Like Red Indians they would sometimes evade return fire by hanging down the side of their mounts by one hand and one leg!
    However, their armies were far from disorganised mobs. The full army or 'orda' was divided into corps of several thousand, known as 'Czawul', which in turn were sub-divided into groups of 20 standards (a total of 800 men). An Aga commanded the Czawul, a Bey the smaller group, and the different sections of the army were kept in communication by despatch riders and directed by pipe and horn signals, each officer being accompanied by a piper. The traditional horsetail standards were also used for signalling orders, and the Tartars are said to have kept very good order so long as their unit commanders survived.

Wallachians etc

    After the battle of Mohacs (1526), most of Hungary fell into Turkish hands, but Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia (today making up Roumania) were left as semi-independent states in a 'no-man's-land' between Turks, Poles and Austrians. Wallachia was generally a Turkish satellite, but 20 standards of Wallachians served in the Polish forces, and their princes or Voivodes sometimes fought the Turks - Michael the Brave winning a notable victory over them at Calugareni (1595). Wallachian armies of this period were entirely of cavalry, mainly nobles, lightly equipped, with spear, shield, sabre and often bow, occasionally replaced with pistols. A Polish source says they were very brave, but great looters!
    At Calugareni the Wallachians had the aid of Cossack and Transylvanian contingents, and Christopher Lee fans in the wargames fraternity might fancy having a Transylvanian army! The Princes of Transylvania fought for and against most of their neighbours at one time or another and were involved in the early stages of the 30 Years' War. Unusually for the area, the Transylvanian nobility got on fairly well with the peasantry (apart from Count Dracula, I presume) so that their army included infantry as well as the traditional levy of mobile cavalry. After 1606, the Princes established landless wanderers - 'Haiduks' - on holdings along the Turkish frontier, on military service terms like the Austrian 'Grenzers'.
    By the 30 Years' War, Bethlen Gabor had a small standing army of infantry with firearms (and possibly pikemen also). Cavalry would probably have included mailed lancers and light horse-archers, but apparently not the plate-armoured men-at-arms who had formed the spearhead of the old Hungarian army, up to Mohacs.
    Hungarian costumes of the period have been illustrated in earlier articles (Imperialists, Poles) and those in the Polish army were actually Transylvanians, introduced by Stephen Bathory, Voivode in 1571, who got himself elected king of Poland. By the early 17th Century, Hungarians already used red, white and green flags, but I don't know of what pattern.

I would like to acknowledge with thanks the assistance of Roman Olejniczak in the preparation of part of this article.


a Persian light cavalryman, 17th Century (could be Turcoman, Tartar or similar). Shows shape of usual quiver. This one has green cap, trimmed with brown fur; scarlet coat with gold frogging; green sash; black boots (note high heels which seem to be usual with Persian horsemen). Harness red with gilt fittings. Saddle cloth green with red fringe and decoration. Quiver black with gold patterns and purple edge. Girth yellow. b Persian 16th Century trumpeter. Wears a common Persian white turban, with one red and two grey plumes, plus decorated clothing which was not exclusive to musicians. The trumpet could also have a sharp 'step' in the middle. A kettle-drummer would be similar. c Persian 'halberdier', 17th Century. He might well be some kind of guardsman. He has a felt hat and carries an axe of very characteristic shape. Hat red, crown grey, plumes black; black and white shirt; purple coat with black frogging; tight green trousers; white 'socks'; brown shoes; red sash. d Persian artillery, early 17th Century. Gun looks rather primitive, but this may be due to the original eastern artist. The pioneer is of interest with his typical felt hat and 'entrenching tool'. The other gunner wears a type of lagging which could replace 'puttees' on other Persian foot. e and f Persian musketeers, 17th Century. Felt hats again of types often worn by Persian foot throughout our period, as are the grey-white 'puttees', white socks and black shoes. Persian musketeers replaced the bandolier of Westerners with the envelope-shaped pouches shown. Musketeer on left (e) has black hat, crimson coat, red and silver waist sash, grey breeches, red strip at top of 'puttees', black powder horn on gold cord, black scabbards with gilt fittings, and gilt buttons. Royal Guard on right (f) has grey-brown hat with crimson binding and yellow feathers in gilt holder; light green coat, crimson shirt, and scarlet trousers. Trim on upper jacket is brown with red edges (could be fur). Gun may be flintlock as Shah Abbas had some 'fusiliers'. Other colours as for 'a'. g Persian musketeer, late 16th or early 17th Century. Elaborate turban. Sabre slung very high from shoulder belt, with one strap at front and rear. Usual 'envelope' pouch below powder horn. Stripes on musket butt, which are white, seem to be characteristic of Persians. h Persian cavalryman, 16th Century. Likely to have full mail under his long kaftan, though only vambraces show. He is using a short javelin, the case for which can be seen beneath his quiver. His Scottish-looking headgear may be associated with the Quizilbashes, as it is often seen on the Shahs of this period and their followers. It consists of a red turban (purple for Shah Abbas) with a protruding piece and plume, and a white cloth with red lines, tied tightly round it. The large saddle cloth, round saddleflap and two cords across horse's chest are typical. He would also carry light lance and shield, and could have helmet and aventail like 'i'. i Persian cavalryman with typical spiked helmet with two plumes and adjustable nasal plus mail aventail, cut in points at bottom. He (rather unusually) wears his mail uncovered, allowing us to see the 'Char Aina'. His mail leggings with knee and foot protections are also unusual, though authentic. He carries light lance, sabre, bow in case, quiver on other side, mace at his saddlebow, and typical convex shield with pronounced rim and four bosses. Horse bard covered with cloth; plate head defence.
[a, c, e and f are based on Dr. Kaempfer's Album of Persian Costumes and Animals]
[g is based on Emperor Timur’s Ambassador in the Presence of Sultan Bayezid Yıldırım (‘the Thunderbolt’). British Library. Ms. Or. 5736, folio 172b]

Persians, early 16th Century. The tall pointed helmets were later supplanted by the type shown on drawing 'i' in previous illustration (British Museum).

Shah Abbas' own helmet - typical of Persian 16th Century and later helmets. Note spike, two plume holders, adjustable nasal and mail aventail cut in points.

Key to drawings j, o and p are Tartars, 'p' has a turban, probably white, and carries a spear and broad sabre (note suspension cords, usual for easterners). The flag is from a contemporary print, though Tartars normally used horsetails. 'o' is probably a chief (note long plaits) and wears a fur-trimmed hat. His long kaftan has its skirts tucked back, showing tight hose and boots. He has a horseman's war hammer and a Turkish-type shield (note ring and cord for slinging it on back). 'j' has a sheepskin cap and another sheepskin tucked through his sash, plus sheepskin boots. Horsetail seems to be pushed through a sort of 'woggle' but may be knotted. k and l are Mamelukes, based on later drawings but probably giving a fair idea of them during our period. 'l' has blue and white clothing, yellow shoes and red and white sash. His brown beehive-cum-coconut hat may be rawhide, and was also worn by Moors and Stradiots. Plumes white. 'k' is dressed in white with a red cap in his turban and red stripes on cloth trapper on horse's hindquarters. The lance pennon is blue with a white crescent. Both 'k' and 'l' have Turkish-style shields of the near-rectangular type, and are likely to have worn mail under their outer clothing. m Transylvanian/Roumanian peasant infantryman, early 17th Century. Cap is probably sheepskin, cloak could be fur. Note sandals and binding round ankles. n Arab light horseman from a 17th Century picture, but could be 16th Century too as costume did not change in the east as quickly as in the west. The rather peculiar headdress or hood is black, robe black and white, harness and breast-strap brown leather, fringe on lance red.
[k & l appear in the Mamluk section of Recueil de tous les costumes des ordres religieux et militaires by Jacques Charles Bar, Paris, 1778 except for the trapper. Sourced from: for k Illustrations de Diversarum gentium armatura equestris, Abraham de Bruyn, 1577; for l Hopfer & ultimately Mamelukes in 'Süleyman and his cortege', by Jan Swart van Groningen, 1526]

Top Persian Bazabund or arm protection. Shah Abbas' period, possibly even his! Note mail 'mitten' and splinted armour for wrist (British Museum).
Left Mameluke shield. Right 15th Century Mameluke helmet, designed to be worn over a turban (Tower of London Armouries).
Persian flags (horsetails also used). a is purple with gold 'lion' and foliage (early 17th Century). b many possible patterns including green with gold centre or purple with silver centre. Gilt ribbon. Mid-17th Century. c 15th Century. Colours include green/red, blue/red, blue/yellow. Stripes on staff red or blue and white.
Tartar tactics 1 main Orda at rear, four Czawuls out in front. 2 enemy attack, Czawuls give way, wheeling to flanks. 3 enemy penetrates, centre gives way, wings encircle enemy, advance Czawuls return to attack enemy flanks and rear (Roman Olejniczak).

Transylvanian standard. This device was used by Stephen Bathory (who became King of Hungary). Colour of device was white on blue ground.

Previous: Part 17 - the Imperialists
Next: Part 19 - the Dutch army

Return to Contents of Renaissance Warfare by George Gush (Airfix Magazine Articles)

See also:
Illustrations of Hungarian (including Transylvanian) Costume & Soldiers
Persian Musketeers of the Chehel Sotoun frescoes
Persian Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers
Ivan the Great and his 1499-1503 Campaigns - Part Three - The Tartar Wars
Illustrations of Arab Costume & Soldiers