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Old February 23rd, 2014, 07:09 AM   #1
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Medieval Arab-Berber warfare


Hi! I posted this on a couple of history-related forums, but didn't quite get all the answers I was looking for. I'm posting it again here in the hopes you can help me.

Quote:
I am very interested in the story of Al-Andalus and the Arab world in general, and as a player of medieval strategy videogames, I've always liked to play with Muslim factions. I made this thread because I would like to know more about the military strategies of the diverse Arab-Berber nations during the Middle Ages.

I am aware that as a general rule, Arab armies relied on light cavalry, ranged or not, and skirmished rather than engaging the ennemy up front. But I am specially interested in how their infantry fought and how well they fared against the infantry of other peoples (mainly Christians). For example:

- Did Arabs ever line heavy infantry that could go toe-to-toe with Christian knights?
- In general, how well did the Arabs do in battle as far as front-line infantries were concerned?
- The Arab infantry and cavalry in general were less heavily armoured than the European one. Did the fact that they tired less quickly and had more mobility make up for the lack of protection in close combat? In "European" kind of climates, I mean.
- Generally speaking, were they good at swordmanship? Who used to be better, Arabs or Europeans?
- What were the preferred weapons of the Arab infantry?
- What were the military differences between Arabs and Berbers? According to the Total War games, Berbers were mainly lightly armoured spearmen, archers, javelinmen and light cavalry skirmishers. Was there more than that? Did the Berber infantry fare well against their Spanish ennemies? Did they line "regular" infantries of swordmen as well?

I know these are very specific questions, but I will be grateful if only some of them are answered .
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 07:12 AM   #2
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These are the answers I got so far:

"Well, there's a quote from Wikipedia claiming "[The Almoravid dynasty's] main force was infantry, armed with javelins in the front ranks and pikes behind, which formed into a phalanx; and was supported by camelmen and horsemen on the flanks."

I've read that in the very first phases of Arab expansion, under Khalid ibn Al-Walid and such, Arab forces were primarily infantry (heavy infantry spearmen types and archers), but with some very good cavalry support (the Mobile Guard, and less renowned cavalry). At the Battle of Yarmouk, the Muslims allegedly had 36 infantry regiments and four cavalry regiments.

Later on, Arab warfare apparently became more cavalry focused, with an emphasis on heavy lancers. At the Battle of Tours, for instance, I think the Muslims likely had an entirely mounted force, although this could have been more because it was a raid than intended to be a real invasion. In the Great Berber revolt, we see a direct confrontation between the Arabs and Berbers. At least in the Battle of the Nobles, the Arabs were an entirely mounted force, while the Berbers were on foot -- although whether this was by choice or because the army was raised somewhat hastily in the circumstances of rebellion and hadn't time to be equipped with many horses is uncertain.

In the East, I think Turkish slave-soldiers (first Ghulams, then Mamluks) gained prominence in the Arab military establishment, bringing with them more of an emphasis on horse archery. In the West, I don't really know much of what was happening between the Battle of Tours and the little Wikipedia article on the Amoravid phalanx."

"Depends on how you define "heavy" infantry. Armies over the time period had differing definitions of what consisted of a "heavy" infantryman.
Just look at the Romans for example who all but ditched lorica segmata and went to leather, scale and mail armor and later quilted armor.
Islamic armies had similar combinations of armors, complemented by varying layers of fabric armor.
Heck, even most European armies in the Medieval period had "heavy" soldiers like archers and infantrymen primarily outfitted with layers of soft armor.

I would expect Medieval Berber armies to break down into a lot of light infantry with various amounts of light fabric.
Heavy infantry with more layers of fabric and soft quilted armor. Super Heavy, where the quilted armor was augmented with scale, leather or chain mail.
Basically the "heavy" armor basically consisted of more layers of various types of armor, which was often seen in Byzantine armies of the time.
And of course being that the Muslims had the wealth and trade there were many fancy textiles in their layers, especially for the elites.


To tell the truth it wasn't much different from later "knights", except that the Europeans were much more uniform in organization and equipment.
But "heavy" has always just meant more layers of armor of different types.

As to what percentage was heavy or light in Berber armies, it probably varied, but no doubt many of the early waves were heavy infantry and some
say this was the main core of the armies in Andalus. And then the makeup varied based on the political circumstances.
The early Caliphate in Andalus probably had a large number of heavy type cavalry, which broke up and then was diminished during the taifa period.
Then the later Almoravid and Almohad likely had a good number of heavier infantry, but by the end of the Islamic presence the armies were worn
down and a lot of the forces seem to be local militias as opposed to real troops..... so the presence of heavy forces of any sort is an open question."

"I would be inclined to say that North African and Near-Eastern kingdoms from the early to high Middle ages (up to about 1300) wouldn't have heavy infantry simply because the Europeans didn't have them either. Even the English handn't really begun dismounting their knights and so the bulk of the infantry was still spearmen with low-to-middling amounts of protection. I would assume the more cavalry and skirmisher-oriented Eastern traditions would mean they would have less foot-swordsmen, if any at all. This would give European infantry an edge against their counterparts.

Based on what I've read, when the crusaders would win when it came to pitched battle most of the time when they were fresh. The conquest of Spain was against a disorganised and almost entirely foot-based Visigoth kingdom. The battle of Manzikert was a product of a time when the Seljuk tribes were almost entirely mounted, which meant they could essentially kite the Byzantine army eternally while they were plagued with internal struggles. The Crusades to the Holy Land were a cycle of initially strong crusading armies breaking the Saracens, only for them to take their land back once the Christians were bogged down. To sum up an answer to the third point: having light or non-existant armor was not really an advantage in battle so much as a strategic one that could have effect over the course of a campaign.

I couldn't really tell you who was better at fighting with swords, but I don't think it's super relevant given the answer the question after is that they preferred the bow or spear.

Finally, the difference between Arabs and and Berbers isn't super clear. The thing is that the Muslim armies during the time of the Caliphate was very diverse as a result of continually accepting converts into their ranks. That meant that by the time Berbers were intergrated the army wasn't exactly "Arabic" to begin with. Famously they fielded archers mounted on camels, which isn't in game. Apart from that I would tend to believe CA: lightly armored spearmen like everyone else. As for the results, I can't really say, since their invasion of the Visigoth Kingdom isn't very well documented as far as I can tell, although that was probably mostly a result of cavalry and numbers. I also can't say how much of the longevity of the Moorish kindoms in Spain are a result of the quality of their army compared to the Christian kingdoms just not trying."
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Old February 23rd, 2014, 08:57 AM   #3

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If you play MTW2 look at Rolling Waves mod or Broken Crescent. Otherwise some of the answers you got so far were pretty good as Arab armies did start with more infantry emphasis while the idea that east wore less armor than west has been disproven at least up to the advent of full plate.

Arab armies that reached Visigoth Spain were heavily suplemented with Berbers and even many local chiefs who sided with them vs regional rivals.
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Old February 24th, 2014, 12:11 AM   #4

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Conrad82 View Post
Hi! I posted this on a couple of history-related forums, but didn't quite get all the answers I was looking for. I'm posting it again here in the hopes you can help me.
I am very interested in the story of Al-Andalus and the Arab world in general, and as a player of medieval strategy videogames, I've always liked to play with Muslim factions. I made this thread because I would like to know more about the military strategies of the diverse Arab-Berber nations during the Middle Ages.

I am aware that as a general rule, Arab armies relied on light cavalry, ranged or not, and skirmished rather than engaging the ennemy up front. But I am specially interested in how their infantry fought and how well they fared against the infantry of other peoples (mainly Christians). For example:

""""
- Did Arabs ever line heavy infantry that could go toe-to-toe with Christian knights?
- In general, how well did the Arabs do in battle as far as front-line infantries were concerned?
- The Arab infantry and cavalry in general were less heavily armoured than the European one. Did the fact that they tired less quickly and had more mobility make up for the lack of protection in close combat? In "European" kind of climates, I mean.
- Generally speaking, were they good at swordmanship? Who used to be better, Arabs or Europeans?
- What were the preferred weapons of the Arab infantry?
- What were the military differences between Arabs and Berbers? According to the Total War games, Berbers were mainly lightly armoured spearmen, archers, javelinmen and light cavalry skirmishers. Was there more than that? Did the Berber infantry fare well against their Spanish ennemies? Did they line "regular" infantries of swordmen as well?

I know these are very specific questions, but I will be grateful if only some of them are answered .

""""

- Yes, Arabs did have infantry that engaged Roman/Persian/Christian heavy infantry, but they weren't as heavy as all those and in some occassions they were supplemented by camels....for example, Battles that involved Saladdin and Richard were considered a draw by many...

- Front line infantry were generally of lesser quality than the the middle or final rank, yet due to their mobility, they formed an important skirmish and maneuver element....Yet they can endure long battles....In Yarmuk for example, Arabs withstood a Roman momentum for 3-4 days, almost routed in the 4th day, but consequently rallied and maintained position...

- Mobility of the Arab armies was an advantage in every place....this ability is due to two factors: (a) unique quality of the Arab horse, (b) Aspects of Arab warfare include continuous rides upon the enemy, Arabs call it "الكر والفر"...which means attack-retire-attack again, continuously...

- Its difficult to ascertain who were better swordmen....but its not so to determine who had better swords !....Arabs used a mix of swords besides their usual curved one....Arabs has (to my knowledge) 3-4 households of sword making, that is Yemeni swords, Iraqi, Damascus swords (well known through the Damascus steel), and Hejazi ones.....Also, Arabs since long time had access to Indian blades, also considered of better quality than European ones.....an example of the confrontation between Saladdin and Richard, with each testing his sword is an example...

In major battles during the conquests of Persian and Roman Levant, engagements that involve warriors of the two opposing armies before the battle are mostly won by Arabs....therefore we could assume that both sides of the comparison here are of close quality....but that remains a non-significant factor in the comparison overall...

- The preferred weapon would always be the sword.....as its highly placed in Arab tradition....but the actual use evolved with time and the different armies faced....Armies of Muawiya I for example was said to take similar Byzantine formations, which means more use of spears....

- Differences among Arabs and Berbers are almost none to me.....both hailed from the same environment and have similar approaches of warfare...and Yes, Berber infantry are of excellent quality....The first army that entered Spain with Tariq Ibn Ziyad had more Berbers than Arabs and they were able to defeat a much larger force....some confrontations that took place between Umayyads and Berbers were so fierce that the Caliphate had to put large armies in place...


One thing to note that Arab armies that fought the Romans and Sassanids had a battalion/division that served as a special force....namely the one led by "Al-Queqaa Ibn Amr Al-Tamimi".....that battalion took part in major engagements Yarmuk, Qadissiya, and Jalula (amoong others) and was decisive.....they did that in Yarmuk, they dealt with the elephants in Qadissiya and made a penetration behind Sassanid lines in Jalula after their main line were provoked into battle by Arabs....this regiment were made of no more than 1,000 men...
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Old February 24th, 2014, 04:01 AM   #5

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Conrad you mention 'Alandalus', it is such a vast subject that it is difficult to fill you with all this knowledge in one thread! Concept-wise you use the word 'arab', which would certainly have been true around the early 8th century when arab-led conquests were the vogue. But the make-up of muslim peoples in Spain varied greatly. As did their armies. Syrians, yemenis, berbers, arabs, slavs, not forgetting peoples who were originally (and converted) visigothic, vandal, bizantine, roman, hispanic etc.

Then you have the fact that north African society and armies evolved differently to Spanish society and armies. You have specifically said Alandalus, which refers to Spanish muslim territory in 'Hispania'. African invaders such as the Almoravids and Almohads were somewhat different in outlook and the make-up of troops. Plus over the nearly 800 years of muslim existence the different clans, racial groups and taifas spent at least as much time fighting each other and North African dynasties than they did each other. As did the christians of course.

The Caliphate period and specifically Almanzor used vast amounts of (African, not settled) berber mercenaries, mainly to ensure ultimate loyalty free of racial, political and regional plots.

But let me have a go at your questions:

- Did Arabs ever line heavy infantry that could go toe-to-toe with Christian knights?
Remember this is an 800-year period nearly. I think in the early years there wouldn't be too much to choose between them (after all there are Bizantine roots all over), but I suspect you may be thinking about the Almoravid and Almohad invasions in the 11th and 12th centuries when, of course, the African troops were much 'lighter' as detailed by people above. Andalusian troops were heavier in general, because of their regular combat with the christian north and they lived in Europe, where it was fashionable. Spanish (muslim) against Spanish(christian) the line-up was quite similar

- In general, how well did the Arabs do in battle as far as front-line infantries were concerned? Lets look at the Almoravid and Almohad armies. Their very successful tactics involved using fanatical jihadists in the front line to face the inevitable heavy cavalry charge, often not even armed or armoured and very expendable. Behind them were the front line infantry and finally the 'main body'/zaga and on the flanks the light cavalry - a tactic not seen by the christians before Zalaca/Sagrajas - it was such a shock that it suggests that all-Spanish contests in the preceeding 300 years were very much toe to toe. At Sagrajas Ben Yusuf also used the Andalucian troops of Seville, Granada and Malaga, people he had no time for, in the front line to get decimated.

- The Arab infantry and cavalry in general were less heavily armoured than the European one. Did the fact that they tired less quickly and had more mobility make up for the lack of protection in close combat? In "European" kind of climates, I mean. As stated above, the Andalusian troops were similarly equipped to the christians. You are forgetting that native muslims of whatever origen were Spanish and therefore 'European' and you are only considering 'invaders'. And there is absolutely nothing kind about Spain's climate - read any account of Las Navas.

- Generally speaking, were they good at swordmanship? Who used to be better, Arabs or Europeans? Experts on both sides I would imagine, as well as less experienced troops. During sieges it was known for champions to challenge each other - much like Achilles and Hector. Until King Ferdinand El Catolico banned the practice as a waste of good men.

- What were the preferred weapons of the Arab infantry? Once again 711 to 1492 is a long time - different periods, different peoples, different weapons. The obvious one is the curved sword as against the straighter, saxon/visigothic-type sword

- What were the military differences between Arabs and Berbers? According to the Total War games, Berbers were mainly lightly armoured spearmen, archers, javelinmen and light cavalry skirmishers. Was there more than that? Did the Berber infantry fare well against their Spanish enemies? Did they line "regular" infantries of swordmen as well? There were many racial types as I've said. Also if. as he did, Almanzor hired tens of thousands of berber troops in the late 10th century, he would equip them much the same as the rest of his army. Dont forget the horse archers of the African armies!




I much admire your interest and hope I haven't confused you too much with a volley of info. Maybe you mean to stick with the early years of invasion/migration after 711? In that case, before Alandalus and Spanish muslim society developed, it is simply a question of using the expertise on the arabs from the chaps above, compared to the visigothic and roman styles of the then-locals. After that it is much more complex.

Last edited by johnincornwall; February 24th, 2014 at 04:03 AM.
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Old March 1st, 2014, 08:01 AM   #6
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Thanks! I now know much more about the topic than before.

The answer to the question "what would you like to know about exactly" would be, well, everything! But this is already a lot of information.

I just have one specific question left: what was the advantages of the curved sword over the straight sword? (or vice-versa)
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Old March 1st, 2014, 09:11 PM   #7

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Conrad82 View Post
Thanks! I now know much more about the topic than before.

The answer to the question "what would you like to know about exactly" would be, well, everything! But this is already a lot of information.

I just have one specific question left: what was the advantages of the curved sword over the straight sword? (or vice-versa)
It depends on usage....

Curved swords would be suitable for slash attacks or cavalry attacks, while a straight swords would be suitable for infantry engagements....

The degree of curvature makes a difference....a deeply curved sword would more reliant on the slash while the straight one would provide an accurate thrust....

Given their style of warfare, the curved swords made sense for Arabs and Turks...From what I've seen, some Arab swords were not deeply curved and so this resolved to some degree the accuracy of the thrust issue while maintaining the same advantages of the curvature....Turkish swords are sometimes more deeply curved compared to Arab ones, but the thrust issue was resolved through adding a cross section at the back of the blade....

There was a thread some time ago on swords....you can look into that for more discussions....
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Old March 2nd, 2014, 02:41 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by Essa View Post
It depends on usage....

Curved swords would be suitable for slash attacks or cavalry attacks, while a straight swords would be suitable for infantry engagements....

The degree of curvature makes a difference....a deeply curved sword would more reliant on the slash while the straight one would provide an accurate thrust....

Given their style of warfare, the curved swords made sense for Arabs and Turks...From what I've seen, some Arab swords were not deeply curved and so this resolved to some degree the accuracy of the thrust issue while maintaining the same advantages of the curvature....Turkish swords are sometimes more deeply curved compared to Arab ones, but the thrust issue was resolved through adding a cross section at the back of the blade....

There was a thread some time ago on swords....you can look into that for more discussions....
i have Comment about the Curved sword(scimitar) its not popular in the early Years of the Islamic world,Curved sword appears in the late 13 Century and early 14 Century,after (unfriendly) contact with the Mongols.

In fact even during the times of the crusades the arabs were armed with straight swords, not Scimitars (a fact that Hollywood in its wisdom often likes to ignore!).

and about Al-Andalus idont think they have Curved sword, and the Proof of this is the sword of the last Sultan of Granada (Muhammad XII) its straight double-edged sword

Click the image to open in full size.
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Old March 2nd, 2014, 05:29 AM   #9

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One thing to remember about the composition of armies throughout history is that they are almost universally infantry based.

This is due to several reason:
1. Infantry are less expensive than cavalry.
2. A spear and a few hours training imparted a degree of adequacy to a peasant. Capable horseman require light years more training for a peasant.
3. Cavalry requires remounts to maintain effectiveness. The typical Mongol soldier had 3 or 4 horses on campaign.
4. A force of 20,000 cavalry requires a lot of supplies and a good number of people to care for the remounts. It adds up quickly.
5. Horses are expensive by themselves.
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Old March 3rd, 2014, 03:12 AM   #10

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Originally Posted by Edratman View Post
One thing to remember about the composition of armies throughout history is that they are almost universally infantry based.

This is due to several reason:
1. Infantry are less expensive than cavalry.
2. A spear and a few hours training imparted a degree of adequacy to a peasant. Capable horseman require light years more training for a peasant.
3. Cavalry requires remounts to maintain effectiveness. The typical Mongol soldier had 3 or 4 horses on campaign.
4. A force of 20,000 cavalry requires a lot of supplies and a good number of people to care for the remounts. It adds up quickly.
5. Horses are expensive by themselves.
Good points but our OP is talking about Alandalus, where cavalry features heavily in most campaigns, consider:
1) Knights/feudal nobles made up a large part of the main force in all Spanish kingdoms and the standard first attack of the christians was the heavy cavalry in major battles
2) Cavalry forces could move rapidly and therefore quite unexpectedly - the Cordoba-led raid that ended up at Poitiers was all cavalry, the raids of Almanzor were often cavalry-based.
3) Related to the supply point - central Spain was not awash with resources. Slow-moving infantry forces soon ate up the supplies around them, whereas cavalry could move on to a new supply area every day.
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