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Military History

The Seljuq Turks of the First Crusade

Perhaps the most interesting warriors to emerge from the First Crusade were the mounted ghulams, or “slave soldiers,” of the Seljuq Turks. Read more inside.

Perhaps the most interesting warriors to emerge from the First Crusade were the mounted ghulams, or “slave soldiers,” of the Seljuq Turks.

by John Murphy, Jr.

Perhaps the most interesting warriors to emerge from the First Crusade were the mounted ghulams of the Seljuq Turks. As early as the 9th century, the Seljuqs—like the Huns before them—had emerged from Central Asia to serve as mercenaries in the armies of both Islam and Byzantium. They were known as ghulams, or “slave soldiers,” because the first had apparently entered the service of the Muslim Caliphate of Baghdad as slaves taken captive in war. It was also around the 9th century that the Seljuqs began to convert to Islam—under the Muslim religious law, called the sharia, it was unlawful to hold another Muslim as a slave.

The ghulams readily adapted to wearing the dir, the mail armor the Arabs had copied from the Byzantines they had fought in the 7th century. But the ghulams improved upon the mail by wearing it under the cuirass, or jawshan, they had brought with them from their Central Asian homeland. The jawshan was made of hardened or boiled leather, known to the First Crusaders as cuir bouilli. With their armor as sturdy as that of Bohemund’s knights and men-at-arms, why could the ghulams not have made more of a difference at Dorylaeum and Antioch?

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The answer seems to be more a matter of weaponry and tactics than body armor. The ghulams were trained to use their javelins, called zupins, held high overhead as they charged. In this, they followed tactics not changed since the Numidian cavalry helped Hannibal defeat the Romans at Cannae in 216 bc. They would hurl their sheaf of zupins—perhaps two or three—at the foe and then gallop off. European knights, on the contrary, were securely mounted in their high saddles and galloped at their enemies with lances couched under their arms for maximum shock.

The shamshirs, or “scimitars,” that the ghulams used were lighter than the battle swords of the First Crusaders, giving the knights a distinct advantage. Moreover, the arrows of the Seljuqs’ composite bows lacked the penetrating power needed to pierce the armor of the knights (many chroniclers speak of how the knights looked like porcupines as they charged in to finish off the enemy horse archers). Even when some ghulams began to carry European-style swords, the knights still maintained the advantage. The ghulams carried the traditional short axes or maces of central Asia, but these were no match for the huge battle-axes the Europeans had used since the age of the Vikings.

Battle training was another factor. The Seljuqs were still wedded to the tactic of standing off and devastating their enemies with clouds of arrows. The European “iron men” of the First Crusade were trained from youth to rush into the middle of their enemy at such a close range that arrows were useless, and simply smash and hack all about them with their swords and axes. Here the simple fact that the Europeans were physically larger than most of the Turks was telling in such a melee. Add to this the fact that the European destrier was larger than the Arabian horse, once the First Crusaders came to close fighting with the ghulams the odds in the deadly game of war tilted heavily to the knights.

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