For a little under two centuries, from 1099 to 1291, Europe fought a series of wars and battles for control of the Holy places in the Middle East—the campaigns that today we call the crusades. Although the forces against which they fought over this period were many and varied, it is perhaps those of the great Muslim leader Saladin in the later twelfth century that had probably the greatest effect on the armies and tactics of Western Europe. Much like the armies of Western European, those of Saladin were composed of both horse and foot soldiers in which the cavalry, though fewer in number, were again dominant—not only in the tactics and strategy adopted but also in the minds and hearts of those that fought—it is the mounted soldiers who were remembered both then and today. And again though very different in detail, the arms and armor worn by the Middle Eastern troops was broadly similar to those used in the West—the mail shirt, helmet, sword, lance, and bow, for example.
Mail armor was the usual form of defense for the body as in the West but was often augmented by large iron plates over the chest area or by panels made from small rectangular plates of iron that were interwoven with the mail—sometimes called “mail and plate” construction. This type of defense was extensively used and continued far longer than in the West and can, probably, be explained by the desire for more flexible armor that reflected the tactical use of speed on the battlefield. The armor was very like the hauberk and covered the torso from the neck to the upper thighs and usually had integral short sleeves. A mail coif might also be worn, again sometimes augmented with small rectangular iron plates. Fabric armor, or quilted defenses, was also known, as was armor made where the plates were made from leather. Armor of a similar type, mail and plate, was also made for the arms and legs.
Helmet types and shield
A number of helmet types were used. The first was made from “mail and plate” as already described and covered the head and the back of the neck. The second type consisted of a simple one-piece iron helmet that just covered the top of the head with a simple mail defense hanging down to cover the sides and back of the head and neck. In more developed forms the helmet “bowl” was enlarged and covered the head down to the level of the ears. The sides of the face were protected with cheek-pieces and the back of the head with mail. On some examples a separate nose guard, a nasal, which could be raised and lowered was fitted to the front of the helmet. Muslim troops also carried circular shields, though the kite-shaped shield was also known as was a tall infantry type with a flat base.
The characteristic sword of the late-twelfth-century Muslim warrior was, like the older Arabic swords, straight and either single or double edged. It had a relatively simple cross guard and hilt, though highly decorated and ornate pieces were always produced for those who could afford them. At some stage, and just when is hard to pin down, the curved saber or scimitar was introduced from the East. Both, though especially the saber, were designed as cutting and slashing weapons and not thrusting weapons. Swords of both types were kept in a sheath attached to a waist belt or slung over one or other shoulder. The myth of the quality of Muslim swords and the confusion over the use of the terms “Damascus” or “damascene blade” has often confused writers. The confusion has arisen, perhaps, because the phrase is used to describe blades that have a surface pattern sometimes called a watered surface. There are, in fact, four ways patterns can be produced and four varieties of swords or, rather, steel to which this word has been applied. These are, using their modern terminology: pattern welded, inlaied, preferentially etched, and crucible. Pattern-welded blades are, as we have already seen, made by welding together several rods or bars of iron and these are forged into a blade which, when the surface is lightly etched, reveals a surface pattern. Inlayed steel, where different metals are inlayed into the surface, and preferentially etched steel, where a pattern is etched into the surface, are frequently referred to as “false damascene” or “artificial damascene.” True Damascus is made from crucible steel and is a much superior material from which to make blades. In the twelfth century this material was imported from India and much prized—for example, when Saladin wanted to secure the help of the Muslim West he sent them, among other things, a present of Indian sword blades. It should be noted that though the word “Damascus” or “damascene” is used, there is no evidence that swords were ever made in Damascus!
Whereas in the West the mace was not ever a popular weapon it was very common among the Muslim soldiers of Saladin’s army. It was described as an armor-breaking weapon and was usually short and often had a flanged or globular iron head.
The Muslim soldier’s primary weapon was, as in Western Europe, the lance, although it was used in a more flexible way—not just as a shock weapon. It is also clear that they used both the lance, couched under the right arm, and the spear, which was thrown. Other forms of polearms were also certainly used by Muslim infantry but, though it is clear that they were used, they are not easily identifiable.
The bow, the recurved or composite type, was also used, though to what extent is uncertain. It may have been used by the infantry, possibly in place of the throwing spear, but the evidence is somewhat contradictory. The axe, with a characteristic semicircular head, was also used by some sections of the army.
What really separated these two opposing sides
The two armies that faced each other, Muslim and Christian, during the late twelfth century were not, as is evident, armed or equipped that differently from each other. Although there were differences, these were in no way decisive. What was different were the strategy, tactics, leadership, morale, and discipline of the soldiers. Even before the first blow was delivered, Saladin and his army had a very positive advantage.