Horse-Armour and Caparisons by David Nicolle
An extract from The military technology of classical Islam by D Nicolle


       It has been suggested that horse-armour became rare in the Middle East from the Muslim conquest to the Mongol invasions,1 but this now seems to be an oversimplification. Such equipment was clearly widespread in the pre-Islamic era, although there may have been two contrasting styles in the Byzantine and Sassanian-dominated areas. Whereas in 6th century Byzantium a lighter horse-armour of Avar inspiration seems only to have protected the breast, neck and head of a horse,2 an older and more extensive form may have persisted in Iran (Figs. 33, 36, 37, 47, 49 and 50A). Whereas the former might be leather or iron lamellar, felt or leather, the latter was probably only of felt with perhaps a few scale armours. But, paradoxically, our best representation of the supposed Byzantine-Avar style appears on a Persian rock-cut statue (Fig. 330), which obviously shows that the limited Avar style was at least known in the late-Sassanian world.
       The earlier, all-covering, Iranian style was probably made of lighter materials such as felt. It may, in fact, have been the original that lay behind those widely used tijfāf bards of the Umayyad era. These were first reported in Arabia at the time of Muḥammad,3 but became more common in the late 7th and 8th

1. Robinson, Oriental Armour, pp. 47-51.
2. Aussaresses, op. cit., pp. 6 and 58; Brown, "Arms and Armour," pp. 446-447; Haldon, "Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology from the 6th to the 10th centuries," pp. 18-20 and 22.
3. Al Ṭabarī, op. cit., vol. I, p. 1541.


centuries. By this time, of course, the Persian influence on early Muslim cavalry, if not upon infantry, was already pronounced.4
       Early felt bards, which were so vulnerable to arrows,5 seem to have been widely replaced by more substantial horse-armours in the 10th century. During the 10th and 11th centuries the Byzantines used a variety of such bards. The limited Avar style was still apparent, while others that seen to have covered the entire horse, including its head, were now of metal, horn, cuir-bouilli hardened leather, or at least of doubled or trebled layers of laminated felt.6 Such armours often reached an animal's knees or even its fetlocks. Many aspects of this heavier style probably came to Byzantium from Central Asia via Byzantine contact with various Turkish nomadic peoples. Of course, the earlier Avar style came from the Eurasian steppes but in the intervening centuries heavier fashions seem to have reasserted themselves from China7 to the frontiers of Europe8 (Figs. 69 and 471-473). These heavier fashions seem to have included very pronounced and probably rigid chamfrons to protect a horse's head. This

4. Ibid., vol. II, passim; Fries, op. cit., p. 61, “Djaysh,” pp. 504-509.
5. Al Ṭabarī, op. cit., vol. II, p. 1407.
6. Canard, "Mutanabbi et la Guerre Byzantine-Arabe, Interêt Historique de ses poésies," p. 105; Haldon, "Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology from the 6th to the 10th centuries," p, 38; Howard-Johnson, op. cit., p. 292; Psellus, op. cit., p. 211; Mutanabbi, in Vasiliev, op. cit., vol, II, p. 333. 7. Laufer, op. cit., p, 308.
8. Leo, op. cit., Inst. XVIII.


was clearly a piece of armour primarily designed for use in close combat with maces and swords. It was, perhaps significantly, also the first certain item of horse-armour to be seen in Kievan Russia9 (Fig. 632). Similarly, heavy bards were still used by Mongol warriors in the 13th century.10
       Some evidence, unfortunately far from conclusive, does indicate that Muslim horse-armours had also grown heavier by the 10th and 11th centuries. These were, however, still known as tijfāf in Arabic-speaking areas and bargustuwān in Persian-speaking regions. The bards used by some Turkish ghulāms in Syria were at least partly of metal,11 being termed tijāfīf min marāyā, "bards of mirrors." Most of the many horse-armours mentioned in this context were, however, simply referred to as tijāfīf.12 Others used in Fāṭimid Egypt, following the adoption of such equipment from these some Turkish mamlūks were similarly partly of metal.13 Tijfāf bards were, in fact, manufactured in Tarşuş on the Byzantine frontier,14 which could indicate a Byzantine inspiration for these latter, heavier, horse-armours.

9. Kirpitchnikoff, The Equipment of Rider and Horse in Russia from the 9th to 13th centuries, pp. 138-139.
10. Stocklein, "Arms and Armour," p. 2558.
11. Ibn al Qalānisī, op. cit., p, 91; Mutanabbi, in Vasiliev, op. cit., vol. II, p. 321.
12. Ibn al Qalānisī, op. cit., pp. 15 and 18.
13. Lane-Poole, op. cit., p. 134.
14. Canard, "Quelques Observations sur l'introduction géographiquer de la Bughyat at'-T'aleb," p. 49.


Some of the bargustuwān bards of Persia, Transoxania and northern India may also have been partially or wholly of metal lamellar,15 though others would still seem to have been of felt or quilted construction.16 The fact that such a bargustuwān covered all of an animal's head except for its eyes17 might suggest the use of chamfrons, perhaps of the heavy type noted elsewhere. Certainly the term barāqī was known a little later in Mamlūk Egypt where it referred to a metal chamfron to be used with a barāsim horse-armour.18
       Pictorial evidence for horse-armour is extremely sparse in the Middle East at this time. The chamfron is, however, the most obvious single item and would sometimes clearly be used on its own without a bard (Figs. 237, 300, 609 I, 627 and 641). The bard does appear more frequently towards the end of the period under review, but even so it is rarely illustrated in sufficient detail to enable one to distinguish it clearly from a purely decorative caparison (Figs. 173, 173, 270, 287, 300, 309, 422, 447, 641 and 678). A recently discovered, and as yet unpublished, petraglyph in Oman quite clearly shows horse-armour (Figs. 6A, 6D and 6E). Despite its crude execution, I would venture to suggest that the vertical lines on these carvings indicate lamellar rather than felt caparisons. Unfortunately, no attempt

15. Firdawsī, op. cit., pp. 23 and 489; Ayalon, "Notes on the Furūsīyya Exercises and Games in the Mamlūk Sultanate," p. 48.
16. Firdawsī, op. cit., pp, 427, 489 and 819; Mubārakshāh, op. cit., pp. 242 and 425.
17. Firdawsī, op. cit., p. 106.
18. G. Douillet, "Furūsiyya," Encyclopedia of Islam, second edition, vol, II, pp. 952-954.


has yet been made to date this petraglyph.
       Horse-armours, and indeed caparisons, were certainly known in the Maghrib and in al Andalus in the 13th and 14th centuries.19 (Fig. 545). These, however, were almost certainly copied from similar styles that were appearing in Europe in the late 12th and 13th centuries20 (Fig. 595) and which were widely used by Spanish armies against their Muslim foes in the late 13th century.21

19. Al ʿUmarī, in Sauvaget, Historiens Arabes, p. 134; Canard, "Les Relations entre les Mérinides et les Mamelouks au XIVe Siècle," pp. 55-58; Ibn Sa'īd, in Lévi-Provençal, L'Espagne Musulmane au Xeme Siècle, pp. 144-146.
20. Norman, op. cit., p. 227; Oakeshott, op. cit., pp. 279-280.
21. Ibn Abī Zar, trans., A. Beaumier, Rūdh al Dartās: Histoire des Souverains du Maghreb, (Paris 1860), p. 454.

Illustrations referenced:
6A to 6E. Petraglyph of battle scene, figures not in their original relationship, undated, ʿOmānī, in situ, Wādī Aday, Oman (via Capt. C. Roe).
33. Graffito, Clibanarius, 2nd-3rd centuries AD, Dura-Europos, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven (Yale).
47. Restored clay frieze from Khaltchayana Reception Hall, 50 BC-50 AD, Parthian (ex-Pug).
50A to 50C. Rock-relief, Triumph of Ardashir I, early 3rd century AD, Sassanian, in situ, Fīrūzābād (Rob OA, Pope).
69. Petraglyph of a battle scene, figures not in their original relationship, 6th-7th centuries AD, East Turkish, in situ, Char Chad, Mongolia (Now).
287. Inlaid metal flask, early 13th century AD, Jazīrah, Freer Gallery of Art no. 41.10, Washington (Elg).
300. Inlaid metal candlestick-base, mid-13th century AD, Ayyūbid Jazīrah, Coll. of Dr. P. Costa (NC).
422K - 'Rabi ibn Adnan fights Varqa's Father' in Varka wa Gulshah
447. Silver dish, 9th-10th centuries AD, Transoxanian or Khurāsānī, Hermitage, Leningrad (Gor D, Knob).
545F F - 'Moors,' Cantigas of Alfonso X, late 13th century AD, Spanish, Escorial Lib. (Lov).
595. Fresco, Infidel 13th century AD, south French, in situ, Tour Ferrande, Pernes-les-Fontaines.
609A to 609I, Manuscript, A - 'Infantry weapons,' B - 'Byzantines besiege Mopsuastia,' C - 'Byzantines besiege Proslav,' D - 'Arabs attack Edessa,' E - 'Arabs defeat Procopius,' F - 'Arabs sack Salonika,' G - 'Emir defeated by Bardes,' H - 'Arabs,' I - 'Saracens,' Skylitzes, 12th-13th centuries AD, Siculo-Byzantine, Bib. Nac., Cod. 5-3. N. 2, ff. 151v, 166r, 208, 99v, 111v, 136v, 116v, 39v, 41r and 54v, Madrid (Grab, Sev).
641. Manuscript, Kitāb-i Samak ʿAyyār, early 14th century AD, west Iranian, Bodleian lib., Ms. Ous. 381, f. 39v [armoured horse in 'Battle between Jamshid and Khurshidshah'], Oxford (Elg).

See also a caparison and chamfron in 'Martyrdom of St. Pteleme', Egypt, 9th century-early 10th century, Pierpont Morgan Library MS. M.581, Folio 1v

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Index of Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers