by Neil Payne
I recently travelled to both Poland and Turkey to meet with our partners in horseback archery. A write up of the weekend in Poland at the “Żurawiejki”meeting will follow but as Istanbul is fresh in my mind, I will start there.
A few of us particularly interested in Turkish/Ottoman archery have long been aware of the group out in Turkey trying to revive traditional archery based upon Ottoman sources and guidance. The ‘Kemankeṣ’ group in Istanbul have been working tirelessly over the past few years to translate old texts from Ottoman into modern day Turkish and to try and rediscover the lost art of archery that was once so part of Ottoman society and culture. As part of the research into old texts they have also been able to bring back to life the techniques, styles, practices, etc that were used by the archers of old.
After many years of us watching them and them watching us it was high time we got together so I made my way over to Istanbul for 4 days. My host, Metin Ates, and his colleagues took me on a wonderful adventure back into the past and left me with a lot more notes on my to-do list for the future.
After some rest and food on the Friday, Saturday was all about history. We visited the area known in Turkish as Okmeydanı (literally “arrow arena”) which is still known by the same name but unfortunately covered in roads and houses!
This huge area of land was given as a trust by Fatih Sultan Mehmed to archers just after the conquest of Istanbul in A.D. 1453. The purpose of the land were set clearly by the Sultan’s ‘firman’ (royal decree) in order to preserve it solely for archery; for example burial of the dead, construction of houses, agricultural activities, etc were all banned. (An interesting article about this period is available > here.) We started the tour of the area with a quick visit to what was the prayer area of the Okmeydanı. This was set up for archers as well as their fans. Check out the photo below of what it used to look like and then compare it to today’s ruins in the You Tube video. Metin also gives a small commentary.
50 years ago (est.)
We then proceeded to the area where the centre of operations was for the archers. You can view the short introduction to the area by Metin in the You Tube video below.
This was essentially the space where the archers congregated, where the Sheikh of the archers was based, where archers received formal initiation into the guild, where equipment was kept and were prayers were said. It now seems someone in government has finally clocked onto what they have laying in ruins and plans are afoot for the site to be redeveloped into a 90m archery range (however this will be for composite and compound archers!).I thoroughly recommend anyone interested in archery who happens to be visiting Istanbul to invest half a day in looking around the area. It may make you feel like an archery nerd but it is certainly worth it.
Our next port of call was to visit the Nişan Taşı. These are essentially monuments marking the points at which arrows landed when flight shooting took place (you can see them in the first pic of this article dotted about). There were once said to be well over 300 of these monuments but today little of 30 survive (some in very bizarre places tucked behind fruit and vegetable stands or in front of mechanics! An example of one is just above this paragraph). We visited some of the most prominent ones and I marvelled at some of the distances these monuments recorded, i.e. 700 metres and more. Below are some URLs to some of monuments I came across on the day. Although for some it may be a bit of stone in the ground for me it really brought home the importance of archery in the days of old in the Ottoman state. The money that must have been spent to design, carve and erect these stones was considerable and would only have been spent if it was worth it. Demonstrating your archery prowess clearly was worth it! Let’s hope the remaining stones get some sort of heritage status and remain as they should be.
The evening was spent going through some presentations on traditional archery. One on the different techniques of drawing, release, etc and one on pre-Islamic Turkish archery. Not only were both fascinating information-wise but both clearly demonstrated the amount of time, energy, money and passion these people are putting into their (and our) history. The research that has gone into pre-Islamic Turks and archery has required the principle researcher to trawl books in Russian and spend many a long night writing away. We hope this will continue and that we will be able to ready their findings in English one day too.
Sunday was about horseback archery. The group are also keen to revive this part of archery and have some “cirit” players in Sivas practising hard. We took a small drive out of Istanbul to At Koyü (horse village) where we had arranged to try out a couple of their horses. I was joined by Gökmen Altinkalp who is currently training on horseback. One horse was no good – he took to the arrows fine but then just wanted to fight if you tried to break him out of a walk. So we finally managed to get two mares working well in a circle shooting at a Turkish target known as a “puta”. The day went well hopefully inspiring some of the onlookers to take riding lessons and move forward with the sport.
On the whole things look bright in Turkey. With a small yet passionate team of people all specialising in certain skill or knowledge sets I see the group really developing. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that they succeed and that we soon see the School of Turkish horseback archery take its place next to the widely known “Hungarian” and Korean schools.I would again like to extend a huge thanks to Metin, Adnan, Ali, Gökmen and everyone else who helped me over the weekend. I am sure this is the start of a really close working relationship between the BHAA and Turkey. We hope to see you all next year in the UK for our competition.