On our last posting in the Anatomy series, we talked about the Japanese Katana, and the educational benefits of saying the words, ‘differentially tempered.’ Today, we’re going to stay in the East, although slightly more westward. Yes, we’re talking about the Middle East. Considering the current political and social climate of today, I think it rather topical, no?
There is a great deal of strife in Syria at the moment, and an enormous amount of anger toward terrorists who may be hiding there. But that was not always the case. The Middle East, at several points in history, was the center of science and economics. And when it came to swords, very few could match the skill of Syrian blacksmiths. In fact, even today we use the name of Syria’s capital to define a beautifully-tempered blade. Damascus.
As always, I digress. I’m not here to talk about differential tempering or Damascus steel. I’m here to talk about those crazy, curving swords known as scimitars.
What exactly is a scimitar? I think that’s probably the best place to start. The word scimitar means “crazy curving sword” in some unknown language. Okay, I made that up, but my guess is as good as anyone else’s. The truth is, no one really knows where the term scimitar came from. There are really bad theories about how it might have come from the word Shamshir (which means crazy curving sword in Persian)(scratch that. I was looking at the wrong notes. It means curved claw). But even the people who came up with this theory admit that it’s kind of lame.
The word scimitar, whatever its origin, has come to mean a Middle-eastern sword that is curved and has a single edge. The curve of these swords allowed for fantastic speed when wielded by a master. They were used almost exclusively for slashing, and were especially appreciated by horsemen, who could slash from one side of their horse to the other quickly and without accidentally chopping off bits of their steed’s head.
Many people tend to group all of these swords into one lump, there are probably more variations of these types of swords than there are of their European counterparts. To make things simple, I’m going to talk about the four most common scimitars found throughout history.
Slender, steeply curved, graceful and long. Her name was Nicole and I had a raging crush on her since my freshman year. But we’re not here to talk about my romantic failures. We’re here to talk about the Shamshir, which, like Nicole, was slender, steeply curved, graceful and long. The Shamshir was a Persian sword, first used around 1000 A.D. It’s a gently curving blade that was worn sideways on the belt, similar to the way Japanese Katanas were worn.
If Shamshirs were like swift, elegant dancers, than the Kilij were squat, powerful soldiers. Kilij blades were shorter and thicker than that of the Shamshirs, and they flared at the bottom third of the blade, near the tip. This flare is called the Yalman, which, in Turkish, means ‘ow, that really, really hurt, dude.’ And if it doesn’t mean that, it should. Because the yalman gives the sword extra weight past the center of balance, allowing for crushing blows. The kilij is oddly curved—kind of like it wasn’t meant to be curved but someone stepped on the blade during a fight and it stayed that way. This scimitar was used by many generations of Turks to unleash misery on their enemies (particularly during the Crusades).
This sword was the happy middle ground between shamshirs and kilijes (kilijs? Kilijises? Kili? No idea). The blade was thicker than a shamshir, but thinner than a kilij, and the curve was also somewhere between the curve of the other two scimitars. Sometimes the talwar had a flaring tip (yalman), like the kilij, and sometimes it did not. These swords were used mostly around India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And while most of the other scimitar classes tended to have a bit of variation in thickness, hilts and length, most talwars tended to be fairly similar. The most easily identifiable part of this sword is the hilt, which features a disc-shaped pommel, short guards and, often, a full knucklebow guard.
Afghanistan has always marched to its own unique rhythm. The Afghanis were happy with the talwar, but they decided to refine it to suit their tastes. The result of their tinkering was a sword that was similar to the original talwar, but had a thicker blade, a greater curve, and a completely different hilt. The guards on the pulwar face forward, to better trap an opponent’s blade, and the pommel is shaped more like a cup, or one of those fancy dip bowls that your mom used to put out with chips during football games and then she would get upset with you if you let the thing fall on the ground when it was empty and you would tell her that she shouldn’t have brought out a fancy metal bowl for a football game and she would say that you should always put out your best for company and you would say, mom, they’re just my friends and… um…. Yeah. So… a cuplike hilt.
There you have it. A quick, easy guide to appreciating scimitars.
Next time on Anatomy, we’ll head back toward the West for a discussion on perhaps the most misunderstood weapons in history—the polearms.