Contrary to popular belief, the scimitar is not a specific type of sword. It’s in fact a general term used to refer to any type of related curved sword historically introduced by Turkic slave soldiers (ghilmān) to the Muslim world during the Abbasid era of the 9th century AD. Traditionally, the Arabs had always used straight swords when fighting unmounted. On horseback, the preference was given to light and loose equipment, the spear and lance being the weapons of preference in addition to knives and daggers. The nomadic peoples of the Central Asian steppes, however, lived and died on their saddles and therefore needed weaponry and equipment adapted to their specific lifestyle. Besides the bow and arrow for mounted archery, Turkic and Mongol warriors developed light, double-edged and agile curved swords designed for slashing down on their enemies from above. Requiring only a single hand, the other hand able to control the horse’s reins.
The popularity of the scimitar sword knew a definitive breakthrough in the entire Middle East after the devastating Mongol invasions of the 13th century. In the 14th century, the art of furūsiyya (knightly martial exercise) reached its peak in Mamluk Egypt. The scimitar was happily adopted by the rather horse-oriented Muslim armies, becoming a popular weapon among the numerous mounted Muslim knights (fursān), like the Mamluks and the Ottoman Sipahi. Because of the revered status of the so-called furūsiyya (mounted knighthood) among Medieval Muslim armies, the scimitar was initially associated with the elites. From at least the Ottoman period, however, distinctively curved swords became widespread among all layers of Muslim soldiers, as mentioned by Robert Elgood in his Islamic Arms And Armour (1979).
Despite being the actual ancestor of the Napoleonic era short cavalry sabers, the scimitar was throughout its history generally associated with Islam and Muslim armies, and more specifically associated with the Ottoman Turks. Charlotte Colding Smith writes in her Images of Islam, 1453–1600 (2014) how the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were often depicted with Ottoman dress and wearing scimitars by 15th century Christian artists in order to intensify the fear of the Turk. This association, however, isn’t only cross-religious, but also made by Muslim themselves. In the same way Europeans think of broadswords when imagining European Medieval culture and history, the scimitar comes to mind among Middle Eastern Muslims.
As described in Weapon (2008) by Richard Holmes (ed.), curved blades weren’t actually that rare at all (think of the katana, dadao or falchion for example). However, like earlier said, the scimitar umbrella specifically covers a limited set of historically related swords, the main types being the Ottoman kilij, the Persian shamshīr, the Mughal talwar, the Afghan pulwar and the Maghrebi nimcha.
The scimitar is featured on a wide array of different emblems and banners, from the Saudi Arabian national flag to the royal shield of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen to the banner of the Regency of Algiers.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.