The Archers

The Archers, as in The Archers, is not ‘an everyday story of country folk’! Let me explain – Hurriyet Daily News recently published some terrific photos of young Turks keeping alive their traditional skills as archers on horseback. These Archers are probably the best light cavalry the world has ever seen! My village being called Okçular in Turkish or Archers in English and my now defunct blog being ‘Archers of Okçular’ why wouldn’t I be fascinated?

(salvaged from ‘Archers of Okçular and first posted October 2014)

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both images Hurriyet Daily News

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Skills that greased the explosive expansion of the Mongol Empire that by 1279 CE had it hammering on the doors of Western Europe. The storm troopers of this empire were the highly mobile and deadly efficient mounted bowmen with their small (by European and Chinese or Japanese standards), extremely powerful, recurved, laminated bows.

These images instantly transported me back in time to the Army Museum in Istanbul where I first saw the amazing craftsmanship that goes into the Turkish bow and began to get some inkling of how it delivers such terrific striking power to the arrow that it would penetrate European style plate-armour and have much-vaunted European armies fleeing the field of battle in total disarray.

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showing the lamination and final lacquering together with two thumb-rings
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another beautiful example

What also flashed into my mind’s eye was meeting the national champion archer of Mongolia and her husband and child on a visit to that country a few years ago. They were both using traditional recurved composite bows not dissimilar to those the Turkic archers used to aid Genghis Khan in his empire-building.

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National Champion of Mongolia
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and her husband – also a champion
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and their chavvy – a future champion

They were kind enough to let a few of us tourists have a go and so I promptly stepped up. I well remember the embarrassment when I failed to draw his heavy bow more than a few inches! His wife offered me the lighter bow that she was using and with much huffing and puffing I managed to flight the arrow about 15 feet and strip the skin off the inside of my arm! I realise that technique counts for a lot in archery, but so does a back like a barn door full of muscle tissue! That was when I realised just how powerful the Mongolian-Turkish laminated bow really was. By way of comparison with my 15 feet, in a 1910 archery contest held on the beach at Le Touquet, France, a chap by the name of Ingo Simon was able to shoot an arrow 434 mts using an old Turkish composite bow! Heavier Ottoman flight bows have reached distances of around 900 mts.

Back to the Ottoman archers’ ability to penetrate the plate-armour much favoured by European armies – with a direct, head-on strike the arrow would penetrate plate and heavy padding but if the plate was curved or angled away then the arrow would likely glance-off. To overcome this the Ottoman horse archer or Sipahi would affix a small ball of bee’s wax to the tip of the arrow. This would prevent the arrow glancing-off and concentrate all of the kinetic energy at one point – in many ways similar to the principle of the modern HEAT (High Explosive Anti Tank) round. The effects of a needle-sharp war arrow head weighing between a quarter and half a pound travelling at speeds in excess of 200mph can be imagined. That said, the mounted archer’s target was often the enemy’s horse as a heavily armoured fighter brought to ground would be near helpless against massed infantry.

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Ottoman mounted archer at full speed

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Ottoman arrowheads and fletching

The Turkish bow is a recurved composite bow that was brought to perfection in the time of the Ottoman Empire. The construction is similar to that of other classic Asiatic composite bows, with a wooden core (maple was most desirable), animal horn on the belly (the side facing the archer), and sinew on the front, with the layers secured together with Animal glue. However, several features of the Turkish bow are distinct. The curvature tends to be more extreme when the bow is unstrung, with the limbs curling forward into the shape of the letter “C”. With some bows, the rigid tips of the limbs (“kasan”) even touch. The grip area is not recessed like other Asiatic bows and is fairly flat on the belly, while the front of the grip bulges outwards.

comp-bowThe dramatic curvature of the bows makes stringing them very different from straighter bows found in Europe. There is an old saying in Turkey that there are “120 ways to string a bow,” though the most common methods involve sitting on the ground with one’s feet pressed against the grip. Heavier bows usually require the use of a long, looped strap called a “kemend” to pull the limbs back and hold them while the string is seated. Seasoning aside, these bows took more than a year to construct with much ‘resting’ between each lamination. Arrows would need even longer with seasoning and drying taking more than five years.

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Ottoman, Persian, and other Asiatic archers who all followed similar traditions would also extend the power of their weaponry by using a device called a majra or a siper. These devices are used to draw arrows past the bow’s front limb where the arrow would normally rest. The siper is a type of shelf strapped to the archer’s bow hand, which allows the archer to pull the bow back to extreme lengths in order to get the maximum amount of force behind the arrow. They are most commonly used to achieve the greatest distance.

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The Majra is a thin piece of wood with a channel cut in it and small loop for the archer’s bow hand. The device allows the archer to pull back arrows that are much shorter than were intended for the bow. It is believed that this device was designed to shoot arrows that were too short for the enemy to pick up and shoot back, or it may have been a way to reuse bolts fired from crossbows.

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Finally, there are the Zihgir or thumb-rings used by Mongol and Ottoman archers to draw and release the bowstring. Ottoman Sipahi were recruited exclusively from free-born Turks. They always fought on the flanks of the army with the Janissaries in the centre and were considered an elite that, unlike the Janissaries, never had their loyalty brought into question. The Zihgir was recognised as the mark or symbol of great distinction, rather like a masonic ring, and the horse-archer would tend to wear it at all times. Such was the prestige associated with it that it developed into a fashion statement and eventually some became so ornate that they were incapable of serving their original purpose.

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To cap things off, here’s Genghis Khan from the exhibition of the same name.

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Alan in Okçular (Archers) Köyü (Village)

Eye Of The Spiger

‘Eye of the what?’ I hear you say, ‘Spiger! What the hell is a Spiger?’

This is a Spiger! Complete with stripes, bloody-great jaws, a span the size of your hand, eight legs, a burst of speed that would give Usain Bolt a run for his money, it’s a carnivore that hunts by night or day and it has eight, yes, eight eyes! What would you call it?

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generally, this is your first sighting of your visitor
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getting better acquainted

They hail from the Sparassidae family of what are commonly called Huntsman Spiders. There are more than a thousand different species in this family and they range from the size of your palm to enormous! Not bulky enormous, but like twelve inches leg-span enormous! They also display some interesting methods of locomotion which I’ll come to later. They are spread all around the world in tropical and temperate zones and ‘Yes, that includes the soon to be Disunited Kingdom!’

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beautiful photo – wish it was mine (anon)

Spigers are built for speed and agility. Their legs are a bit ‘double-jointed’ which enables them to take off at speed in any direction. They have eight eyes in two rows which mostly point forward giving excellent vision for rushing around or laying in ambush.  Spigers mostly feast on insects but are quite capable of snaffling the odd gecko or two.

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with a female Brown Bush Cricket
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this really is interesting – if you look carefully you will see a smaller male with the  female Huntsman and a locust for lunch

huntsman-threatThey use venom through their considerable jaws to immobilise their victims and to aid the digestion process. That said, they are generally not aggressive towards humans and any bite, whilst painful, is not a hospital job unless there is an allergic reaction. When bites do occur it is usually as a result of handling. The exception to the ‘non-aggressive’ bit is the female when she has eggs or young – then, if you mess with her, she will generally give you warning by adopting a threat pose (see left) before giving you something else to think about!

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female with egg sack and young

Apart from their speed and agility, Spigers have developed some interesting escape and evasion techniques. Cebrennus rechenbergi, also known as the Moroccan flic-flac spider, when threatened can beat a hasty retreat by doubling its normal walking speed using forward or backward flips similar to acrobatic flic-flac movements used by gymnasts. Whilst Carparachne aureoflava aka the Golden Wheel Spider, from the Namib Desert, will literally cartwheel away from danger at up to 44 rotations per second and speeds of up to one metre per second! I find myself wondering how many failures and how many twists and turns there were along the evolutionary road before this little ruse was ‘discovered’.

We have Spigers in and around our home here in Okçular. They tend to lurk in dark places or the corners between wall and ceiling as well as inside J’s bath towel! From time-to-time they hatch out a brood and then we have hundreds of the little devils all over the ceiling. When that happens I’m ashamed to admit that the death spray comes out followed by the vacuum cleaner.

As a rule, J and I will attempt to capture the intruders and re-introduce them to the big out-doors. Jam jars are generally too small and you’ll end up injuring the creature or else it will see you coming and take evasive action which will only result in another sleepless night for you as your imagination works overtime! Use an old ice cream container and a sheet of card – if you use paper I guarantee that the Spiger will escape and head for the first dark place it sees – generally up a sleeve or down your collar. Always treat them with care because if they get handled or caught up in your clothing they have a tendency to display a ‘cling’ reflex which often then leads to bites and a broken neck at best or, at worst, a right ear-full for breaking the Tupperware as per the following bit of video.

I don’t have any good photos of a Huntsman with young but here is a wolf spider with her young on board taken in my garden. Spiders may give you the creeps but you have to admit they are fascinating creatures.

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Sweet dreams!

Alan in Okçular

A Candle In The Wind

end-of-daysAll I have, all you have, all we have, is the power to do good and right within reach of our arm. I can’t defeat ISIS, or suck the oil and oil clean-up contaminants out of the Gulf, or imprison the people who wrecked the economy and laughed all the way to the bank, or imprison the people who started wars based on lies and torture and also laughed all the way to the bank, or break the “defence” industry over my knee and redirect their engorged funding toward the greater good, or stop the seas from rising, or the polar caps from melting. I can’t end greed, or hunger, or hatred, or disease…I can try, and do every day, but it is the equivalent of yelling at a thunderstorm. No matter how loud I shout, I still get wet.

I can do the best I can within reach of my arm, one reach at a time.

Unashamedly taken from this article – I commend it to you.

Alan, up in the mountains growing things

Iran Life – One Lump, Or Two?

Iranians drink tea. ‘So what!’ I hear you say, ‘Doesn’t everyone?’ Probably, but in Iran they do things differently, there’s also good news and then there is bad news. I’ll start with the good news . .

Iranians have drunk tea or chai for around six hundred years. With China just up the Silk Road, tea proved to be cheaper and easier to obtain than coffee and soon surpassed coffee as the drink of choice. In 1899 Prince Mohammad Mirza did the dirty on the then Global Empire and smuggled 3000 saplings out of India under the noses of the Imperial British.

(rescued from Archers of Okcular and originally posted September 2014)

Camellia_sinensisHe planted them in his home province of Lahijan near the Caspian Sea where the climate and soil proved perfect for Camellia sinensis and so was born what has come to be accepted as the healthiest tea in the world. The terraced tea gardens of Lahijan have never been treated to the delights of pesticides or fungicides or any other ‘cides’. They have remained organic and free from any intervention from the day of their birth until the present. Now the bad news . .

A study carried out in Golistan Province in northern Iran and published in the British Medical Journal established a link between drinking very hot black tea (65*C or higher) within  2-3 minutes of pouring, a common practice in northern Iran, and a marked increase in the risk of developing oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma! Not many people know that! As someone who takes their tea drinking at a seriously leisurely pace I shall not be dwelling on the study.

So, what about the ‘differently’ bit? Well, there are the tea houses – châihâne or châi-khooneh that range from back street one-room affairs to some of the most elaborate and evocative that you can imagine. Then there is the amazing rock-sugar (qand) that was always served – sometimes loose, often on sticks that made dunking a childish, lollypop-sucking pleasure. Here are a few photos to let you see what you are missing:

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Azadegan Tea House, this amazing place is down a back-street in Esfahan

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J with her châi . . in the park . .
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. . in a ‘normal’ châihâne . .
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. . in a ‘posh’ châihâne . .

Finally, another view from the Azadegan Tea House of ‘sisters doing it for themselves’

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(from trekearth.com)

Alan in Okçular

Surprise! Surprise!

There is a tendency, fuelled by the media, to regard Iran as a rigid, unbending, theocratic Shia Islamic monopoly. Whilst I would be one of the first to stand up and say that, in my opinion, religion has no place in the governance of state or community, Iran, for all its overbearing theocracy, is far more religiously diverse than you might think.

As you may have read in an earlier post, Zoroastrian fire-worshippers, whilst small in numbers, approx 28,000, are free to follow their ancient rituals. Likewise, Iran has a Jewish population of around 35,000 that defies all entreaties from Israel to migrate from Persia where they have lived for thousands of years. After Zoroastrianism, Judaism is the second oldest religion in the country with references to the Persian Jews in the Book of Esther.

Larger by far than either of the above religious groups is the Armenian Orthodox community. After their deportation following the Ottoman War in the early 1600s, Shah Abbas I gave sanctuary and settled many Armenians in the New Julfa district of Isfahan. Edicts from Shah Abbas and his successors forbade any interference in the lives and customs of these new Christian citizens – they were even exempt from taxes on their churches!

The subject of this post, the Holy Saviour Cathedral aka Vank Cathedral or The Church of the Saintly Sisters, was commenced in 1606 and completed in 1665. It has remained in constant use ever since and is the site of worship and street procession as well as touristic gawping at the amazing interior ‘iconography’!

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Vank Cathedral courtyard
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Armenian Orthodox street procession – Isfahan
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from the amazing, iconic interior

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J and guide Feraidoon discuss the merits

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There is also a superb, little museum that chronicles the Armenian’s way of life and contributions to their adoptive country.

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edict of Shah Sulaiman not to interfere in religious and matrimonial affairs of Armenians
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Persia’s first printing press
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early printed bible
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illuminated bible
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at the third drip . .

Alan in Okçular

Iran Life – All Ceilinged Out

I guess you’ve cottoned on to the fact that J and I think that Iran is a pretty amazing place – so amazing that within a few days I was struck down by a mysterious malaise much akin to battle fatigue. It was a mixture of vertigo; aching neck muscles; blurred vision and a sort of cerebral numbness. Before you make any smart comment about being ‘at it again’, I wish to state that in Iran a request to a waiter for ‘a glass of malt’ gets you something that looks like beer and tastes like ‘Vimto’ – if you are lucky! If you are unlucky it tastes like peaches!

(another ‘rescue’ from the very broken Archers blog first posted August 2014)

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes – my mysterious malaise – Ceilingtoliosis. I’m pretty sure that the bug got me on our first day in Iran, here, at the Golistan Palace in Tehran as I stood open-mouthed in amazement.

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and ‘Yes’, that really is all crystal

What follows are just a few photos from part of one day in Esfahan. I’ve thrown in a couple of ‘other’ pics to reduce your chances of catching this incredulity-dulling infection – enjoy!

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by way of variety, a painted marquetry ceiling
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we’re lucky if they paint the concrete where I come from

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this is the amazing acoustic ceiling of the 6th floor music room, created from gypsum plaster, in the palace on Imam Square – mini-concerts take place here still

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a bit more painting and marquetry
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I feel myself slipping under
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so a quick whiff of smelling-salts
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even the famous bridge
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. . our hotel room (free-hand, not stencil)

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local restaurant – again, we are not talking transfers

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in the end, we were glad to jump a cable-car, head for the mountains  and photograph . .

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. . some mosses, lichens and liverworts!

Alan recovering in Okçular

Iran Life – Shãhrud Is Nice

Shãhrud is a little bit betwixt and between! It lies roughly halfway between the cities of Mashad, 500kms to the east, near the Afghanistan border and Tehran. As the crow flies, the Caspian Sea is a little over 100kms to the north west over the Arborz Mountains. South, as far as the imagination can imagine, lies the Dasht-e- Kavir, the mighty Salt Desert with the oasis cities and adobe fortresses of Yazd and Rãyen and Bam and the delightful Zein-o-din Caravanserai.

(rescued from Archers blog and first posted August 2014)

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these might give you a better feel for it

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After the disappointment surrounding our time in Mashad, J and I were drawn to Shãhrud from the moment we stepped from the train. It felt . . ordinary, nice! That feeling was reinforced by our taxi-driver, Mansour, who readily agreed to be our guide-cum-country chef for our forays into mountains and desert over the next couple of days. What a pleasure it was to be with him – quiet, dignified and a superb barbecue chef!

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guide Feraidoon and Masoud, the best chef-driver in Iran

So, what does Shãhrud have to recommend it apart from being . . nice . . and not being Mashad? Location! Drive out of town one way and you’re in the greenery of well-watered mountains – drive the other way and it’s sand and camels! There’s a very nice old Sufi mosque complex that’s been restored and a nice park with a man-made waterfall where J got taken over (in a very nice way) by a group of nice Turkmen ladies.

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The town has water everywhere which is really nice and would have pleased Charlie Dimmock no end. Our hotel was nice too, although they didn’t have much idea about dealing with customers. Tourism has been slow for a number of years and not many travellers stop by. As we dragged our bags and gazed up at the sweat-inducing steps to the entrance, the porter-cum-reception guy helpfully pointed out the long-winding footpath before wandering back into the air-conditioned lounge! Nice!

Anyway, enough of this chit-chat – let’s get on with a few of our impressions of Shãhrud. I don’t know if we’ll have the chance to wind down our flowers, mountains and village life trip here when we return to Iran next Spring. That would be extra nice.

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the restored Sufi shrine – before and after (or the other way round)

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You can read about the desert bit of our stay here, now for some mountains and flowers – but mostly flowers!

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yellow tulip
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red tulip
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white tulip

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fritillaria
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forest rangers arrive for tea
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Scarce Swallowtail
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white violet
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violet violets
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Anemone blanda
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southern Arborz Mountains in the distance

I could go on and on with flowers – finally, the very best little restaurant in Shãhrud – the ‘Ariatin’. Lamb shank, buttered rice, green salad, borani (yogurt with mint) and ayran – simple and utterly delicious!

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It’s easy to find, just look out for the Little Chef!

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Sometimes, ‘Nice!‘ is so much nicer than ‘Amazing!’ or ‘Fantastic!’

Alan in Okçular