NEW BOOK: Lines of Defence
A new, beautifully-produced book containing eighteenth-century plans and elevations of the fortifications built and projected by the Hospitaller Knights of St. John in the Maltese islands has recent...
Sipahis were Anatolian timariot warriors employed mainly as light cavalry in Turkish armies.
Sipahis were the Turkish equivalent of the European armoured knights. These troops were largely accustomed to fighting on horseback and their strength lay in their mobility as mounted archers. Their light weapons and armour were designed for hit-and-run tactics and were not suited at all for static siege warfare as they provided little or no protection whatsoever against firearms, crossbow bolts, and the heavy steel swords of Christian soldiers. Obliged to serve as foot soldiers, they fought at a great tactical disadvantage to the more heavily armed and armoured Hospitaller knights and men-at-arms.
Nearly none of the eyewitness accounts of the Great Siege of 1565 sought to give any detailed descriptions of the appearance of Turkish soldiers. Cirni describes them simply as wearing padded surcoats with turbans or heavy feat caps. Only Fra Vincenzo Anastagi mentions the fact that a large number of Turks were armed with corselets. He classifies the Turkish soldiers into those equipped with corselets, those armed with arquebuses, and the Janissaries.
The main components of Sipahi armour were the char-aina, zirh, and shishak. For body protection the Sipahis wore the char-aina, a type of body armour widely used between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries in Turkey, Persia, India, and Russia, and consisted of a corselet of four plates hung from the shoulders on straps and connected to one another by straps and buckles. These plates were not very big and often left exposed as much of the wearer's protective underclothing as they covered. They were slightly convex to fit the body and were cut away near the armpits to allow for freedom of movement. A large round plate worn in the centre of the breast was flanked by several rectangular or triangular pieces. The back was constructed in the same manner. A few examples can be seen in the Palace Armoury in Valletta, possibly dating from this period. The Turkish char-aina (a Persian word, meaning four mirrors) was sometimes covered in velvet and was worn over a zirh, a mail tunic extending down to the knees and itself worn over a quilted kaftan. A singular example, which can be seen in the Palace Armoury collection is very heavily formed from thousands of interlocking metal rings, each ring being riveted and usually having four others linked to it.
For head protection the Sipahis used the characteristic shishak, a pointed conical helmet with cheek pieces, a neck guard, and a fixed peak with an adjustable nasal guard secured by a staple and spring catch or wing. Most of the Turks in D'Matteo Perez d'Aleccio's frescoes narrating the Great Siege at the Grand Master's Palace in Valletta, Malta, are shown wearing a 'turban' helmet, a sort of shishak without cheek pieces, avantail, and noseguard, but with a small turban wrapped around it.
The Sipahis were also equipped with shields, either circular, convex kalkan of gilded copper or the pointed 'Hungarian'-type shield, a rare example of which can be found in the armoury of the castle of Churburg, Tyrol. Many of the latter were painted over on the exterior surface with armorial patterns, some, according to D'Aleccio, with the double-sword of the Prophet. For weapons the Sipahis carried short lances, light sabres (kilij, yataghan, nimcha and sajf) and small composite bows and quivers.
Source of illustration and historical information: The Great Siege, mdlxv – Anatomy of a Hospitaller Victory (Malta, 2005) by Stephen C Spiteri. - MilitaryArchitecture.com (C) 2011
You can purchase the Turkish Sipahis poster by clicking on the image below