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Sabel, shamshir, Egypten, 1800-talet%3F - Livrustkammaren - 60711.tif
Two Scimitar family swords: an Egyptian sword in the shamshir style, and an Ottoman kilij
Type Sword
Place of origin Central Asia [1]
Blade  typesingle-edged, curved blade
Arabs with scimitars from Boulanger's painting A Tale of 1001 Nights Boulanger Gustave Clarence Rodolphe A Tale of 1001 Nights.jpg
Arabs with scimitars from Boulanger's painting A Tale of 1001 Nights

In English the word scimitar ( /ˈsɪmɪtər/ or /ˈsɪmɪtɑːr/ ) [2] refers to a backsword or sabre with a curved blade. Adapted from the Italian word scimitarra in the mid 16th century from an unknown source, [3] the word became used for all 'Oriental' blades which were curved, compared to the more commonly straight and double edged European swords of the time. This is apparent in Thomas Page's The Use of the Broad Sword. Published: 1746:


"The Sword was of enormous length and breadth, heavy and unweildy, design'd only for right down chopping by the Force of a strong Arm; till Time and Experience discovering the Disadvantages, by Degrees contracted its Length and lighten'd its Weight in to the more handy Form of the Scymitar; which was first invented by the Eastern Nations, and has continued to be their principal Weapon to this Day:....""The Saracens, Turks and Persians, made use of but three different Throws with the Scymitar, and one of those, only on Horseback; the other two on Foot."

Thus did scimitar originally refer to a broad family of swords, of which there are now identified many individual types. Among modern sword collectors and historians the term is not frequently used, as it does not well describe a particular typology of blade, although the term was indeed used historically. Instead the word sabre covers all forms of curved blade regardless of their place of origin.

History of use

The curved sword or "scimitar" was widespread throughout the Middle East from at least the Ottoman period until the age of smokeless powder firearms relegated swords to dress and ceremonial function. Early swords in Islamic lands were typically straight and double edged, following the tradition of the weapons used by The Prophet Mohammad. [4]

"The Arabs during the time of the Prophet used swords, and not sabers." - David Alexander, Swords and Sabers During the Early Islamic Period (2001)

Though the famous double edged sword, Zulfiqar wielded by Ali was of a curved design, the curved design was probably introduced into central Islamic lands by Turkic warriors from central Asia who were employed as royal body-guards in the 9th century [4] and an Abbasid era blade has been discovered from Khurasan. [4] [5] These Turkic warriors sported an early type of sabre which had been used in central Asia since the 7th century, but failed to gain wider appeal initially in Islamic lands. There is a single surviving Seljuk saber from approximately the year 1200, which may indicate that under that empire curved blades saw some popularity. [6]

Following the Mongol invasions of the 13th century the curved swords favored by the Turkic cavalry, formed lasting impacts across much of the Middle East. The adoption of these swords was incremental, starting not long after Mongol conquest, and lasting well into the 15th century. [7]


The following are regional variations, that are within the scimitar family of swords. Note that while these loan-words are used in English to refer to specific sword designs, in many cases (at various stages in history) in their native languages they often will translate to the word "sword", of any design.

The English term scimitar is attested from the mid-16th century, derives from either the Middle French cimeterre (15th century) or from the Italian scimitarra. The ultimate source of these terms is unknown. Perhaps they are corruptions of the Persian shamshir , but the OED finds this explanation "unsatisfactory".

The Persian word shamshēr literally means “paw claw,” due to its long, curved design. The word has been translated through many languages to end at scimitar. In the Early Middle Ages, the Turkic people of Central Asia came into contact with Middle Eastern civilizations through their shared Islamic faith. Turkic Ghilman mamelukes serving under the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates introduced "kilij" type sabers to all of the other Middle Eastern cultures. Previously, Arabs and Persians used straight-bladed swords such as the earlier types of the Arab saif , takoba and kaskara .

During Islamization of the Turks, the kilij became more and more popular in the Islamic armies. When the Seljuk Empire invaded Persia and became the first Turkic Muslim political power in Western Asia, kilij became the dominant sword form. The Iranian shamshir was created during the Turkic Seljuk Empire period of Iran.

The term سَيْفsaif in Arabic can refer to any Middle Eastern (or North African, South Asian) sword, straight or curved. The Arabic word cognates with the ancient Greek xiphos . The Greek word may have been borrowed from a Semitic language, as both saif and xiphos go back to an old (Bronze Age) wanderwort of the eastern Mediterranean, of unknown ultimate origin. Richard F. Burton derives both words from the Egyptian sfet. [9]


The curved sword, the sabre, is called muhaddab in Arabia and came into use after the Turkish Seljuk migration from Central Asia to Anatolia in the 11th century.


The earliest known use of scimitars is from the 9th century, when it was used among Turkic and Tungusic soldiers in Central Asia. [5] [10]

Scimitars were used in horse warfare because of their relatively light weight when compared to larger swords and their curved design, good for slashing opponents while riding on a horse. Nomadic horsemen learned from experience that a curved edge is better for cutting strikes because the arc of the blade matches that of the sweep of the rider's arm as they slash the target while galloping. [7] Mongols, Rajputs and Sikhs used scimitars in warfare, among many other peoples.

Many Islamic traditions adopted scimitars, as attested by their symbolic occurrence, e.g., on the Coat of arms of Saudi Arabia.

The scimitar is also used in Saudi Arabia as an executioner's tool for beheading.


The flag of Saudi Arabia shows the shahada above a scimitar (design used during 1938-1973; the modern design shows the scimitar in a more stylized form) Flag of Saudi Arabia (1938-1973).svg
The flag of Saudi Arabia shows the shahada above a scimitar (design used during 1938–1973; the modern design shows the scimitar in a more stylized form)
Abbas I of Persia Shah Abbas Horse.jpg
Abbas I of Persia

The sword (or saif) is an important symbol in Arab cultures, and is used as a metaphor in many phrases in the Arabic language.

The word occurs also in various symbolic and status titles in Arabic (and adopted in other languages) used in Islamic states, notably:

Saif and Saif al Din "Sword of the religion" are also common masculine (and male) Islamic names.

The scimitar appears as a symbol of the Russian enemy in the Finnish coat of arms of the Province of Karelia, which depicts two armored arms fighting with swords. The dexter sword symbolizes Swedish forces and the West, while the sinister scimitar symbolizes Russians and the East. Karelia has been a battleground between the Swedish and Russian empires for centuries. From this context, the sword and scimitar have found their way into the coat of arms of Finland, which depicts a lion brandishing a sword and trampling a scimitar. During the period of Russian sovereignty over Finland (1809–1917), the scimitar was moved to the left paw of the lion, only to be returned to being trampled with the independence of Finland in 1917.

Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, with a scabbarded kilij of Turkish manufacture (1812). Thomas Lawrence, Charles William (Vane-)Stewart, Later 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, 1812, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London.jpg
Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, with a scabbarded kilij of Turkish manufacture (1812).
Field Marshal Sir Henry Evelyn Wood, circa 1900 Wood-evelyn.jpg
Field Marshal Sir Henry Evelyn Wood, circa 1900

Many swords are related to the scimitar

The scimitar is used in the popular game Old School RuneScape and is often associated with the game in popular and meme culture

The scimitar has also been featured in the Redwall franchise, usually being used by corsairs.

The scimitar has done appearances on the One Thousand and One Nights franchise including Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

The scimitar was the standard weapon for Azeem Edin Bashir Al Bakir on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

The scimitar was used by Calormen on C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia such as The Horse and his Boy and The Last Battle.

The scimitar was a standard weapons for the Easterlings from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

See also


  1. Lindsay, James E. (2005). [Greenwood Publishing Group Daily life in the medieval Islamic world] Check |url= value (help). Greenwood Press. p. 64. ISBN   0-313-32270-8.
  2. "Scimitar". Merriam-Webster Dictionary .
  3. "Scimitar or Cimitar?". English Language and Usage.
  4. 1 2 3 Alexander, David (2001). "SWORDS AND SABERS DURING THE EARLY ISLAMIC PERIOD". Gladius. XXI: 193–220. doi: 10.3989/gladius.2001.86 . S2CID   161188853.
  5. 1 2 James E. Lindsay (2005). Daily life in the medieval Islamic world. Greenwood Publishing Group. p.  64. ISBN   978-0-313-32270-9.
  6. Haase, Clause-Peter; et al. (1993). Oriental Splendour: Islamic Art from German Pvt. Collections. Hamburg : Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe. ISBN   3861085070.
  7. 1 2 "Military sabers of the Qing dynasty | Mandarin Mansion". Retrieved 2019-09-28.
  8. "The Culture of the Golden Horde". The State Hermitage Museum.
  9. Richard Francis Burton (1987). The Book Of The Sword. London, England: Dover. ISBN   978-0-486-25434-0.
  10. "Medieval 2: Total War Heaven: Mongol Weapons". Retrieved 2012-12-15.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

A sword is a bladed melee weapon intended for cutting or thrusting that is longer than a knife or dagger, consisting of a long blade attached to a hilt. The precise definition of the term varies with the historical epoch or the geographic region under consideration. The blade can be straight or curved. Thrusting swords have a pointed tip on the blade, and tend to be straighter; slashing swords have a sharpened cutting edge on one or both sides of the blade, and are more likely to be curved. Many swords are designed for both thrusting and slashing.

Falchion One-handed, single-edged sword

A falchion is a one-handed, single-edged sword of European origin, whose design is reminiscent of the modern machete. Falchions are found in different forms from around the 13th century up to and including the 16th century. In some versions the falchion looks rather like the seax and later the sabre, and in other versions the form is irregular or like a machete with a crossguard.

Sabre Type of sword used for combat on horseback

A sabre is a type of backsword with a curved blade associated with the light cavalry of the early modern and Napoleonic periods. Originally associated with Central European cavalry such as the hussars, the sabre became widespread in Western Europe in the Thirty Years' War. Lighter sabres also became popular with infantry of the early 17th century. In the 19th century, models with less curving blades became common and were also used by heavy cavalry.

This is a list of types of swords.

<i>Dao</i> (sword) Single-edged Chinese sword primarily used for slashing and chopping

Dao are single-edged Chinese swords, primarily used for slashing and chopping. The most common form is also known as the Chinese sabre, although those with wider blades are sometimes referred to as Chinese broadswords. In China, the dao is considered one of the four traditional weapons, along with the gun, qiang (spear), and the jian, called in this group “The General of Weapons".

Shamshir Type of Persian/Iranian curved sword

A shamshir is a type of Persian/Iranian sword with a radical curve. The name is derived from the shamshīr, which means "sword" in the Persian language. The curved "scimitar" sword family includes the shamshir, kilij, talwar, pulwar and nimcha.

Classification of swords

The English language terminology used in the classification of swords is imprecise and has varied widely over time. There is no historical dictionary for the universal names, classification or terminology of swords; A sword was simply a double edged knife.


The term kopis in Ancient Greece could describe a heavy knife with a forward-curving blade, primarily used as a tool for cutting meat, for ritual slaughter and animal sacrifice, or refer to a single edged cutting or "cut and thrust" sword with a similarly shaped blade.


A kilij is a type of one-handed, single-edged and moderately curved scimitar used by the Timurid Empire, Mamluk Empire, Ottoman Empire, and the later Turkic Khanates of Central Asia and Eurasian steppes. These blades developed from earlier Turko-Mongol sabers that were in use in lands invaded or influenced by the Turkic peoples.

Talwar Sword

The talwar, also spelled talwaar and tulwar, is a type of curved sword or sabre from the Indian subcontinent.


Szabla is the Polish word for sabre.

Zulfiqar The double bladed sword of Ali

Zulfaqar, also spelled Zu al-Faqar, Zulfiqar, Dhu al-Faqar, Dhulfaqar or Dhulfiqar, is the sword of Ali ibn Abi Talib. It was historically frequently depicted as a scissor-like double bladed sword on Muslim flags, and it is commonly shown in Shia depictions of Ali and in the form of jewelry functioning as talismans as a scimitar terminating in two points.


The pulwar or pulouar is a single-handed curved sword originating in Afghanistan.

Nimcha Type of sabre from North Africa

A Nimcha is a single-handed sword from north Africa, especially used in Morocco and Algeria, a type of scimitar or saif. Becoming popular in north Africa during the 16th century, surviving nimcha are usually from the late 18th century onward and are notable for often using older blades. Stylistically they often bore Arabian type handles with tugrah inscribed on the blade.

Mameluke sword Sword

A Mameluke sword is a cross-hilted, curved, scimitar-like sword historically derived from sabres used by Mamluk warriors of Mamluk Egypt after whom the sword is named. Egypt was, at least nominally, part of the Ottoman Empire and the sword most commonly used in Egypt was the same as used elsewhere in the empire, the kilij.

Seljuk dynasty Oghuz Turkic dynasty

The Seljuk dynasty, or Seljuks, also known as Seljuk Turks or Seljuk Turkomans, was an Oghuz Turkic Sunni Muslim dynasty that gradually became Persianate and contributed to the Turco-Persian tradition in the medieval Middle East and Central Asia. The Seljuks established both the Seljuk Empire and the Sultanate of Rum, which at their heights stretched from Iran to Anatolia, and were targets of the First Crusade.

The Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre is a sword that was used primarily by British light dragoons and hussars, and King's German Legion light cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. It was adopted by the Prussians and used by Portuguese and Spanish cavalry.

Arab sword

The Saif, sometimes simply called Arabian sword, has its origins in Arabia prior to the 7th century. Not much is known about this particular weapon, other than what Al-Kindi wrote in his treatise On Swords in the 9th century.

Turko-Mongol sabers Cavalry Sabre

These swords were used by the Turkic nomads of the Eurasian steppes primarily between the 8th and 14th centuries. One of the earliest recorded sabres of this type was recovered from an Avar grave in Romania dating to the mid 7th century. Although minor variations occur in size and hilt, they are common enough in design across 5 centuries that individual blades are difficult to date when discovered without other context.

The Pattern 1831 sabre for General Officers is a British army pattern sword prescribed for the use of officers of the rank of major-general and above. It has been in continuous use from 1831 to the present. It is an example of a type of sword described as a mameluke sabre.