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Nicolle David, Late Mamlûk Military Equipment, IFPO, Damas, 2011, 396 p.

Stéphane Pradines

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1This monograph is the first of a series on the excavation of the citadel of Damascus, directed by Sophie Berthier and Edmond al-Ajji. Like most excavations, the publication of the citadel of Damascus starts with the finds! Most of the time, the publication of the finds is ready to be published before the monograph of the site itself. The excavations of the citadel of Damascus do not escape to this rule and the first volume (quoted as the third in the series) starts with the finds – here the military objects. The archaeological pieces, presented in this book, were discovered between 2001 and 2002. The arms and armors were found on the first floor building located to the south-west of the citadel. They were thrown away as rubbish in an old skylight on the first floor. This skylight was later blocked, first in the vault of the ground floor, then backfilled with rubbish on the first floor as a garbage pit. Finally the pit was recapped to create a new beaten floor. The objects were sealed in this pit during centuries and stayed in an exceptional state of preservation. This hoard of military equipment from the late medieval period was not considered by the Mamluk as something precious. The appearance of composite armor made of perishable materials probably looked like garbage and was considered as such by the people who threw them away. Unfortunately no photos were ever published of the place where the objects were found and how they looked at that time. We have just one plan and a section of the building, page 16. The rubbish found was considered a treasure for archaeologists but it’s important to note that the arms and amours of Damascus are not a classic treasure that people hide to protect. It is not like the hoard of the late medieval arms and armours of Xalkis in Greece (p. 58). These weapons had a real value of their owners and it’s the reason why they were deliberately hidden from the Turks in 1470.

2Most of the finds found in Damascus consist of pieces of armor, archery and accessories for firearms and daggers. The idea of ​​the corpus presented in table at the end of each section could be seen as an odd choice and would be more useful as endnotes or annexes at the end of the book. Plus the landscape format used for the tables is difficult to read. The tables in portrait format would have been more appropriate. Nevertheless, theses tables represent a huge amount of work and needed to be published. The book contains 196 fine illustrations and colour photographs. The archaeological drawings are extremely precise and exquisite. All the illustrations are presented at the end of the book. Again, this presentation of data can be seen as a strange choice. The pictures in the text and the corpus at the end of the book would have been a better idea.

3This book is not a history book on weapons; it is not indeed a book of art history with a descriptive type catalog. It is really a beautiful work of archeology, with references to the sources and all the archaeological material, from Europe to Central Asia and beyond. As Sophie Berthier said: the methodology used and the knowledge of the author made this book absolutely unique. Divided in eight parts, the book starts with the military and historical context. Nicolle analyses and describes the belligerents and their weapons. This vibrant and colorful chapter emphasizes the importance of Turks in the Mamluk army and the Mongol influence even after 1260 ad. The change in the organization of the Mamluk army is certainly an Asian influence, often credited to Mongols but Nicolle shows us that the reality was more complex, for example the Islamic heavy cavalry is an ancient tradition of the use of armors for the horses. The role of the colors, emblems and heraldic in the Mamluk army is crucial. It’s interesting to note that these Eastern practices were not so different to the ones used by our knights in Europe. The Furusiya of the Mamluks goes back to very old traditions, at least to the Abbasid period. Nicolle insist on the military exercises and military parades, well know between the 10 and 12th century. It is important to point out this Fatimid legacy too. Finally, Nicolle gave us a complete History of the weapons in the Muslim lands. These arms were very often captured on the battlefields and reused by the winners. The case of the arsenal of Alexandria is one of the most famous examples. Nicolle also describes the commerce and trade of the weapons and he examines the influences and the technology transfer between regions and populations. The data is examined through their archaeological and historical values.

4Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are devoted to the armours, respective scale, soft armor, hardened leather and laminated armor. This topic is the central part of the book of Nicolle because the armours are well represented in the finds of the citadel of Damascus and probably because the costume and corporal protections represented an important and underestimated part of the Mamluk military technology. We all know the mail armour, but we are less familiars with the scale armour. For Nicolle, the scale lined armour or Qarqal is the best armor found in Damascus. This spectacular and master piece is represented in the photograph on the front cover of the book. It’s a short jacket of scales with plates inside the cloth and covered outside with striped red velvet. Nicolle uses this object to give us an amazing history of the scale armour, through ages and regions. The history of laminar armor brings us from the Byzantine Empire to Charavines in the 11th century (p. 47-48). It is the main strength of this book; the author uses his wide knowledge to cover all periods and regions. The drawings associated to the colour photographs complete the text and help us to understand the rivets and making of the armours.

5Chapter 5 is devoted to horse armour. Nicolle displays his huge knowledge of horse and horseman traditions. Of course, these armouries were intensely used during all the middle age and were not limited to the earlier Islamic periods or the later periods as we can read frequently. Special attention was paid to protect the front of the horse with chanfron and peytral. Chapter 6 concerns archery, which remains one of the largest group of objects found in the citadel of Damascus. Nicolle draws a history of archery, arrows, crossbow and bolt shafts. He did a good comparison of the objects found in Damascus with Poland and Eastern Europe. It is quite logic as these countries were under Turkish influence. Nicolle insists on the use and importance of the crossbow by the Muslims, called the “Frankish bow” (p. 146). Finally, he presents us with some preserved bowcases and publishes a short and very useful typology of arrowheads (p. 303-305). Chapter 7 on firearms deals mainly with powder horns and bullets. The objects presented here are several leather pouch, some lead bullets and wooden caps of powder horns. First, it’s important to remember that the Mamluk used guns and hand canons. Even if the Mamluk were reluctant to use gunpowder, they did it, but unfortunately for them not as much as the Ottomans. The last chapter deals with miscellaneous items, belts, buckles and daggers. The designs, the motives and the shapes of these belts are quite similar to those of the Seljuks. Some unidentified iron tools with wooden handles are presented in figure 194 (p. 360). We think that they could be used as gun supports for muskets or Tufeks. The wooden part was stuck in the ground and the metallic bifid part served as a stand for sight firing.

6There is no conclusion to this book. This is really unusual after a monumental introduction and a fascinating first chapter and the reader stays a little bit disappointed by the absence of a final conclusion. This might be due to the fact that it was still an on-going project as we mentioned earlier with the publications of the helmets and the saddles… Unfortunately, the glossary is missing too and it’s a little bit confusing to find a name in the huge amount of places, rulers, authors and dynasties mentioned by Nicolle. Some important objects of the Muslim warfare are absent, where are the swords, shields, helmets, mass, axes and firearms? Of course, it’s easy to answer that the swords and sabers were not thrown in the rubbish, as they were precious and it was very common to reuse the good blades with new handles. Probably, the main problem of this book is that some of the objects found in the citadel of Damascus haven’t been published here, as the helmets and the saddles are. There were presented separately in different colloquiums between 2011 and 2012 (Nicolle, 2011 and 2012). We think its a great loss for the author and the readers that these objects were not added and described in the present book.

7What a contrast between the objects published by David Nicolle and the arms and armours of the Museums, in the last ones, we can see only highly decorated pieces linked to a wealthy part of the medieval society. As usual, the museums’ collections provide us with a very restricted vision of the society, mainly the ruling élites. Most of the time, the books about Islamic weapons are always presented like an Art catalog of collections in Museums or in private collections (Bashir, 2008). This approach linked to the artistic value of the objects is due to the nature of the objects, which are presented without any archaeological context and most of the arms and armors published recently come from collections created during the 19th century. The second reason is more methodological, somehow Islamic archaeology is still balanced between professional practices and hazardous excavations directed by Historians or Art historians. This book is more than an archaeological catalogue; it is a compilation of an incredible knowledge on the war and the weapons of the Muslim lands. This excellent book should be a reference in the library of any specialist of arms and armours, from the East or from the West of the Mediterranean…

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Bashir Mohamed, 2008, The Art of the Muslim Knight, The Furusiyya Art Foundation Collection, Skira-IMA, Milan, 416 p.

Nicolle David, Thursday 10 May 2012, “Mamluk Saddles. Some Surviving Examples From Damascus and the Euphrates Valley”, in the 21st Colloquium on the History of Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Eras, Gent.

Nicolle David, 16 December 2011, “Helmets or hard-hats?  Some wood-lined headgear from Mamlūk Syria”, In the Second colloquium « Guerre et paix dans le Proche-Orient médiéval », IFAO, Cairo.

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Stéphane Pradines, « Nicolle David, Late Mamlûk Military Equipment, IFPO, Damas, 2011, 396 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 135 | juillet 2014, mis en ligne le 30 mai 2013, consulté le 25 septembre 2018. URL :

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Stéphane Pradines

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