Swords are cool for many reasons. They are combative tools that require great skill to master as much as they are works of art and masterpieces of metallurgy. Writers all over the world for centuries have celebrated swords for these reasons and beyond. Given the nature of premodern warfare, it is not surprising that swords have become associated with heroism and bravery: practically since their invention, they have represented courageous acts during close combat. The association of the sword with heroism has taken root in many cultures to the point of swords becoming staples of heroics in mythology, history, and religious symbolism.
A Safavid Persian miniature depicting swordmakers and sword nerds of the past.
In the Islamicate world, swords have been lauded for these same reasons. In Islamicate poetry in particular, swords have become objects of praise. The Prophets, heroes, and great generals used magic or special swords in their endeavors. Swords bore names (moreso than other weapons), were described as being made of magic materials, and even a few emerged from plants, sticks, or rocks. Authors even developed an elaborate vocabulary to describe the steel of the blade, how swords behaved in battle, and how swords served the combatant.
A shashka that we made as a custom piece. The shashka has its roots among the Muslim Circassian peoples of the Caucasus.
The most pervasive theme in this poetry about swords is one that depicts swords as dependable. In close combat, swords are a “trustworthy companion” when other armaments fail. This notion has its roots in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, and seems to have persisted thanks to a long geneaology of combat manuals particularly in the Middle East (see: .W. Schwarzlose’s “The Weapons of the ancient Arabs and presented in their poetry,” in Medieval Islamic Swords and Swordmaking). Beyond this, a good example can be found in “The End of Questioning and Desiring Further Knowledge: Learning Different Exercises of Chivalry” (Ar. Nihayat al-su’l wa-l-umniya fi-ta’allum a’mal al-furusiyah) by Mamluk cavalier and author Muhammad ibn ‘Isa al-Aqsarai (c. 1348 CE):
Some of the knights who are skilled in war, and those familiar with the ways in which battle is fought, say: Knights should approach their arsenal with the knowledge that:
Bows and crossbows are primary weapons
The shield is a defense
The spear is a battle trench
The sword is a guardian
The dagger is an ambush.
If you know this ranking, then learning can begin.
(Author’s translation, Source, folio 14b)
In this blog post, we will give a few examples that we particularly enjoy from Arabic and Turkish texts celebrating swords.
The famed Arabic poetry compiler and author Abu Tammam (c. 850) had much to say in praise of chivalrous exploits and the arms associated with them. One of his more well-known poems describes what many swordfighters have experience in combat or training:
The sword is more trustworthy in giving information than books.
Upon its edge is the divide between seriousness and play.
It is by the bright flashing of wrought steel, and not the black ink of pages,
That the mind’s vacillation between doubt and uncertainty is finally put to rest.
For any fencer that has had their perfectly crafted plan of attack gained from a swordfighting manual foiled mercilessly in a bout, fewer words make more sense! Without any direct link between them, it is striking how similar this poem - and those explored below - are similar to discussions found in historical swordfighting treatises in Western Europe.
Our next favorite is from the Arabic work of Ibn Hudhayl (c. 1362) entitled “Finery of the Knights and Emblem of the Brave” (Ar. hilyat al-fursan wa-shi’ar al-shuj’an). The author lived during the twilight of the Granadan kingdom in what is now Southern Spain. His works on martial arts, veterenary science, and tacts are replete with excellent poems and anecdotes about weapons. The following poem is from the Andalusian poet Ibn al-Zaqqaq (c. 1134) that he cites in his advice on good swordfighting on horseback:
Thirsty steel that drinks from a spring of necks,
Without ever being able to quench its thirst
We brandish it ourselves, shining, leading the way like a star, like a flaming torch.
Just as a burning brand given to one, in war,
[The sword is given] to the brave champion to stoke the spirits.
Its blade rivals crystal clear water,
And like fire, calcines in each cut.
Because of its brightness, it appears crowned with pearls.
It steals lives – without letting itself be stolen.
Even the sheath of its blade flees,
Like water – it drains from a weft of algae.
A custom dussack that we have made as a custom piece. The relationship between the dussack and dussack fencing, and later saber and saber fencing, with historical fencing of the Middle East is a topic that is still hotly debated.
The primary focus of the author is reconstructing the fighting arts described in the Turkish and Arabic work “The Treatise Dedicated to the Holy Warriors” (Ar. Tuhfat al-ghuzat) written by Nasuh ibn Karagoz al-Wisokavi al-Bosnavi, otherwise known as Matrakçı Nesühi (d. 1564 CE). Nesuhi was born in modern day Bosnia to a Muslim family and was a famed polymath and Janissary. A renaissance man of his times, Nesühi is celebrated for his innovative mathematical treatises, miniature paintings, maps, travelogues, translations of Arabic histories into Turkish, and his martial arts manual, among other things. It is reported that Nesuhi was an unparalleld swordsman, to the extent that he bested the Mamluks after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 – after which his beaten foes petitioned for a warrant for his arrest! His treatsie has several poems that praise the various weapons and techniques he discusses. Concerning the sword, Nesuhi has the following to say:
It is the lowly dust of the earth that makes one corrupt.
This same dust of the earth, made into swords, can render one pure.
For within the sword is found: We sent down Iron (Qur’an 57:25)
About the sword God said: It has mighty power (Qur’an 57:25)
It is the sword that foils all enemies.
The sword upsets foes. Like a falcon, it rips apart ranks of troops.
Whatever I say of the sword, in sum: it is the Sultan of weapons.
Whatever is said about other weapons (like the spear) is vain boasting.
For the roses of the sword are the shield of Heaven’s Garden.
The sword’s hyacinths descend from Paradise’s lilies.
Of all manner of armament that exists,
the greatest is the sword.
With a sword, one cannot be overcome
Even if one’s state seems beyond salvation!
When a sword is drawn for combat, it is an act of glory.
It is the sword that guides the fine perfume of blood upward to Heaven.
(Author’s translation, Source, folios 16b and 17b respectively)
All in all, people in the past thought swords were cool, and we still think they’re cool today! Beyond the Islamicate world, the descriptive language of the poems above is reminiscent of the description of swords in the Kennings of Nordic Cultures. It’s why Arms and Armor is dedicated to living this sentiment in their craftsmanship. Likewise, the above is only a small sampling of verses that celebrate swords in languages such as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and beyond. Follow us at the Oakeshott Institute for more information on Islamicate literature on swords and swordfighting, and ways you can access history in your hands, including historical swords from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and beyond.
Guest Author Hamilton Parker Cook, PhD
"Do not follow in the footsteps of the ancients; seek what they sought."
-Matsuo Basho (d. 1694 CE). David Landis Barnhill trans.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985