Ottoman Empire Dirilis Ertugrul Archer`s Thumb ring Zighir

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Ottoman Archer's Thumb Ring


    The Dual Role of Zighirs and Archery in the Ottoman Empire



    If you had to fight for your life, and could only bring one object into battle, what would it be? From giant swords to automatic rifles, plenty of weapons exist that can attack opponents with ease. Yet ask many millennials, and they might go with a bow-and-arrow. One of the oldest forms of weaponry and sport, archery takes a back seat to more modern weapons and games. Because of the wild popularity of The Hunger Games—and its main character, Katniss Everdeen—archery has seen a resurgence, though not for use in war. Once thought of only as a weapon, archery has become a popular recreational sport across the globe. Throughout the history of the Ottoman Empire, however, archery never has lost its importance, both as an instrument of war and as a national sport.

    That love of archery originated from long before the foundation of the Ottoman Empire, and has continued since the Ottomans fell almost a century ago. Despite a lack of familiarity with the land, the Turks overran Anatolia in the 11th century by using arrows they could shoot from a safe distance [1]. The Ottomans’ foundation in archery made the bow-and-arrow a go-to weapon throughout the empire’s history, particularly in the era of Suleyman the Magnificent; even with the introduction of firearms, archery acted as a supplement. In the present day, with modern advances in weaponry and the presence of internationally played sports like soccer, archery has lost its glisten as the most important pastime in the Republic of Turkey. Still, it remains Turkey’s national sport (with oil wrestling) and possesses a strong cultural significance [2]. While a distinct line now exists between its traditional usage in war to its modern use in recreation, both purposes coexisted in the Ottoman Empire. As such, the versatility of archery in both a military and sporting capacity makes it a valuable topic to explore in order to understand the people of Ottoman Turkey.

    For this project, we will examine an archer’s thumb ring that is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York City [3]. The ring, no larger than 7.85 centimeters in circumference, may have been created between the 16th and 17th century—the MET does not know its exact date. The thumb ring, often called a zihgir, has a gold-leafed pattern around it, with one ruby, one jade, and two emeralds on one side while the other curves up to contour with the wearers’ digit. The zihgir would allow the archer to firmly grip the bowstring while protecting his or her knuckles from callusing [4]. Sometimes, rings signified status as a warrior; in other cases, nobles and those of an elevated social status wore the rings hung upon strings on their belt. Suleyman the Magnificent and those in his high court became associated with such rings [5]. Unfortunately, viewers have no way of knowing if this ring bearer used this for pleasure or battle. Nevertheless, it represents a key in a discussion of both war and sport in the Ottoman Empire. If we are to narrow down the timeframe to when Suleyman the Magnificent ruled, as the ring’s MET description suggests, we can also learn how it may have impacted policy and life during his tenure in the 16th century.

    Before examining the broader topics, we must analyze the purpose of the structure of thumb ring itself and its place within archery. The thumb ring has been considered “the most important accessory by [sic] the Turkish archer” because of Turks’ particular style of shooting, which requires the bow-and-arrow to be mounted upon the thumb [6]. Unlike other archers from across the globe, Turks rarely used bracers or armguards. Thus, the ring acted as one of the only protections of the archer’s hand. The Ottoman bow was known as a short-reflex or short-recurved bow, which meant that the limb of the bow bent in the opposite direction—the arrows were also slender, light, and short, allowing them to travel long in the air and at long distances [7]. It was possible to make the rings with leather, which “interfere less with accuracy in shooting than do hard materials” because of their softness and elasticity, and because the leather can cushion the thumb and add protection [8]. Leather rings were used in shorter-distance target shooting, a somewhat common discipline in sport but more often used in war. Using the famous Ottoman short-recurved bows, arrows directed by these leather thumb rings could more accurately target opponents from horseback. Many of the events in target shooting competitions were “derived from traditional exercises … designed to improve accuracy while shooting hunting animals or the enemy” [9]. For a variety of reasons, these leather rings proved valuable to the Ottoman archer.


    The leather rings, however, required a lot of practice time to get the bows in a stable position, meaning that, despite the accuracy of the final shots, archers made more mistakes in loading arrows and in quickly mounted bows [10]. In addition, non-leather rings became “more suitable for competitive shooting;” the most common Ottoman discipline was flight shooting—a less accurate but long distance form of competition. Most shooting grounds built by sultans for recreation accommodated distance shooting, such as the okmeydani, or arrow field, which Mehmed II commissioned in Istanbul [11]. To this day, a neighborhood with the same name still has many streets marked by those targeting stones. Rings for flight shooters required “thick, arched, and acute-angled lips,” which only hard materials could provide [12]. Because of that, the rings used for sport in the Ottoman Empire tended to be made from gold, silver, ivory, jasper, or other various kinds of horns—according to researcher Paul Klopsteg, the strongest material came from walrus tusk, while the most widely used was buffalo horn [13]. The process by which craftsmen made these hard-material rings took a long time. It required several coats of wax, softening in water, molding, and gluing, with countless hours of filing to get it down to the right size. Craftsmen took intense care, not only to make sure its ornate designs came out flawlessly, but also to make sure the ring protected the archer [14].

    Because of the thumb ring, the bow-and-arrow became “the most effective weapon used by the army” during the early Ottoman period and helped establish the empire as the world’s premier military power [15]. As stated earlier, the Ottomans revived their love of archery in the 11th century following the Turkish conquest of Anatolia. Their reputation became so well known that the Mamluks of Egypt, prior to Ottoman conquest, hired out Turks from the Qipchak steppe region to fight for them, becoming “unrivalled [sic] mounted warriors at the apex of a socio-military hierarchy” [16]. Many boys learned how to use a bow-and-arrow at an early age, both on foot and while on horseback. This training period, known as the acemi ocagi, lasted four to six years, usually during the teenage years, and was used to create elite Janissary infantry so that vacancies in the Ottoman army could be filled with fully trained soldiers [17]. With the unique style of short-recurved shooting, the thumb ring, and early training, the Ottomans became Europe’s most-feared warriors. Behind an army led by archers, Murad I led his troops into Asia Minor in 1387 to defeat the Karamanids, one of the strongest contenders for supremacy in the area. This victory helped Murad I cultivate a unit of vassals that could perform dangerous archery-related duties in combat while Ottoman forces could come up from behind and finish off their foes. That remained “a keystone of the Ottoman system” for many years, and helped Murad I fend off the Serbians in the Battle of Kosovo, a decisive victory for Ottoman expansion [18]. With these minor victories due to the strength of their archery-trained corps, the Ottomans built up supremacy on Asia Minor, leading to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

    Because of these origins in war, archery became a popular activity among the people of Ottoman Turkey. Many soldiers took brought the practice of archery back home for recreation, and the sport “was viewed as the most important sport in the Ottoman domains” throughout the span of the empire’s history [19]. Keeping with the tradition of flight shooting, many athletic competitions in the 13th century revolved around long-distance target shooting on horseback. Yet, when Mehmed II took over in 1333, he designed an archery field in Istanbul specifically for recreational use [20]. Mehmed II and other sultans influenced hundreds of manufacturers to begin making archery-related products in Istanbul; many of them created thumb rings similar to the one featured in this project. Like the Romans in the Coliseum, all who possessed the means to attend would watch the city’s best archers compete for an “embroidered towel” and the chance to have his name erected with golden lettering in a marble monument in the center of the Beyoglu district of Istanbul. Often, these competitors would be chosen as soldiers to fight directly in the sultan’s personal cavalry. Many sultans practiced archery regularly, purchasing ornate rings for their thumbs to show their high status in society—they are considered “the founders, protectors, and supporters” of archery as a sport” [21] Some sultans created dergahs, which were clubs that the wealthy could go to for archery [22]. The sport remained immensely popular in the Ottoman Empire through the 19th century, largely thanks to Mahmud II [23]. He is considered “one of the greatest archers in the history of Turkish archery” [24]. He took classes in archery, opened many new targets and courses, and commissioned books by kemankeshs, or archery masters, to keep records of the art [25]. Though they do not engage in archery as regularly as they once did, Turks still maintain that archery represents an important piece of their society to this day.

    Both the military and sporting aspects of archery relate to Suleyman the Magnificent's reign as sultan from 1520 to 1566. He became introduced to archery in his early adolescence, when Bayezid II, his grandfather, presented it as his primary form of physical exercise [26]. Many notable events in Suleyman’s personal life involved archery, such as the festival after Suleyman appointed Pargali Ibrahim Pasha as his first Grand Vizier [27]. The celebration included numerous archery contests and decadent foods such as julep and sherbet, as well as countless onlookers who wanted a chance to see the sultan himself take aim at a target [28]. As sultan, Suleyman often travelled with an army of about 150 Janissaries who carried bows “ready for instant use” [29]. These events showed that Suleyman reveled in flaunting the wealth of the Empire. Yet his love of archery also carried over into how he operated as a commander-in-chief. Advances in arms were not lost on the Ottomans despite their traditional love of the sport. As researchers Mesut Uyar and Edward J. Erickson noted, Janissaries assumed the weapons of many of their adversaries, such as the Mamluk sword or the Damascene knife [30]. Additionally, the Ottomans did not fear adopting firearms upon their creation in the early 1400s. Other European nations, however, “discontinued the old missile weapons” because of the rigorous and lengthy training that accompanied learning to use a bow-and-arrow [31]. Suleyman, however, insisted on keeping archery as a supplementary weapon. First, he “had great faith in the capability” of his archers given how long they had trained and the loyalty they had built up because of it. These early firearms had many shortcomings; “a well-trained archer” could hit a target 300 meters away, “whereas hitting a target with a firearm farther than 70 meters was pure coincidence” [32]. This strategy proved crucial, considering that Suleyman embarked on 13 distinct military campaigns during his 44-year tenure, ones that helped his reputation as “the greatest sultan of all-time” [33]. The first of these campaigns was the Siege of Belgrade in 1521. The three-month battle helped Suleyman establish a strong base in Eastern Europe [34]. In 1526, led by his strong staff of archers and over 100,000 men, Suleyman embarked to Hungary in what was “the greatest victory of his career:” the Battle of Mohacs [35]. Suleyman took advantage of an ill-prepared Hungarian army led by King Louis II. According to many accounts, Louis II did not use archers, only these primitive firearms. Meanwhile, Suleyman understood that firearms alone could not topple the Hungarians; he needed to supplement his new technology with archery, the classical force to which he had grown accustomed. Because the Ottomans’ skill in long-distance archery supported their ground sword and firearm powers so well, and because Louis II had no answer to those forces, Suleyman overran Hungary. Furthermore, it led to the beginning of the Ottoman feud with the Habsburgs and solidified the empire’s place within the continent as the premier military power of the East [36].

    Archery has long since been replaced in Turkey as a weapon for obvious reasons, and has lost its luster as one of the most common means of entertainment. Turkey has won 91 medals in today’s indicator for international sporting excellence, the Olympic Games; however, the vast majority have come in wrestling, Turkey’s other major sport, while none have ever come in archery—rather, the United States and South Korea have dominated archery [37]. Nevertheless, remnants still exist of the foundation built by Suleyman and fellow sultans of Turkish archery supremacy. For example, the World Archery Federation still holds its annual tournament in Antalya, Turkey because of its historical connection to the sport, despite the fact that only six Turks have ever medaled in the World Cup’s 11-year history [38]. It is for this reason that we must study these traditions of ancient times. Though it likely seemed of little historical importance to its contemporaries, archery holds a strong connection to Turkish culture to this day. It remains fascinating that a sport loved more than 700 years ago can still make such a huge impact on today’s society.

    Michael Sullivan, Communication and History, Junior, BC 2018.


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