Kilij – The Sword of Vlad the Impaler

Also known as the Kilidj, Kilic, Kalig, Qillij.

What is it?

The Kilij is a Turkish sabre, its name comes from the Turkish Kilic, literally meaning sword.  The Kilij had a deeply curved, single edged blade with a flaring tip called a yelman.  It has a cruciform (cross-shaped) guard, with a curving hilt that ends with a downturned pommel.

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 slave-soldiers serving under the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates introduced “kilij” type sabres 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, takouba and kaskara.

Despite the Persians adopting the curved blade, the blade of the Kilij remained broader, shorter and less curved than that of the Persian Shamshire.  When the two swords are compared the most significant difference is the point as illustrated below.

Persian Shamshire and Ottoman Kilij
Persian Shamshire                                                                                     Ottoman Kilij

In the typical Persian Shamshire the back is a fairly curved nearly parallel to the edge, while in the Turkish Kilij, the curve of the back stops eight or ten inches from the point; the blade then widens out abruptly and extends to the point nearly in a straight line with a sharp edge on the back.  The Kilij is also often significantly shorter than the Shamshire.  The advantage over the Shamshire is that the Kilij sword can be used for the thrust, though not very effectively, while the Shamshire cannot.

The hilt is usually pistol-shaped and made of two pieces of horn, bone, ivory or stone fastened to the flat tang.  The guard is a straight, slim crossbar with balls or acorns on the ends.  The curve of the blade is such that the back of the scabbard at the top must be open in order to admit it.  The opening is often closed by a spring or hinged plate.  The sling loops are generally on opposite sides of the scabbard and it is hung in front of the wearer with the edge upwards, by a complicated harness of cords.  Sometimes it is hung edge down by two slings

The Kilij of the Ottoman Cavalry

The Kilij can be considered the grandfather of the modern cavalry sabre.  Unlike most other sabres, the Kilij had a special design that not only made it more dangerous than other sabres, but gave it an exotic appearance that fit well with the Turks who wielded it.  The sabre was not a sword designed for fighting on foot such as the longsword and broadsword, but was specifically designed for cavalry.  Sabres have curved blades that are sharp on only one side.  Their blades were forged to handle slicing without shattering.  The Kilij was one of the few sabres that was designed with thrusting as an option, but like all sabres, slashing at an opponent was still far more deadly.

The Kilij was a redesigned version of the Two warriorsTurko-Mongolian Sabre, which may have been the first sabre ever recorded in history.  The Mongolians were notorious cavalrymen and had a heavy influence on Turkish culture after the Mongols invasions of the Turkish and Arabic lands.  The difference between the Kilij and most other sabres is the tip.  It had a double edged tip that flared out making the tip stronger and heavier.  This added weight gave the Kilij an axe-like quality in that it was capable of cutting through bone with one swipe.

The popularity and effectiveness of the Kilij as a cavalry blade spread across Asia and Europe and people from all over the world came to the Turkish lands to find a swordsmith to make them a Kilij.  The blade was made from carbon steel which is very sturdy, but not brittle.  In early encounters, many Europeans confused the Kilij with the scimitar or shamshire, but the two blades were not the same at all.  The Scimitar’s extreme curvature does not allow for thrusting at opponents.  The Kilij may not be as effective as a longsword when thrusting, but it was still quite capable, making it more versatile than the scimitar.

Persian Scimitar 17th Century left, and late Ottoman Kilijs

Scimitars and Kilijs

Etymology

The Turkish root verb “kır-” means “to break” with the suffix “-inç” makes “kır-ınç” (instrument for breaking) becomes kılınç, then kılıç.

 

 

 

The kilij became the symbol of power and kingdom.  For example, Seljuk rulers carried the name Kilij Arslan (kılıç-arslan) means “sword-lion”.

Origins

This one-handed, single edged and moderately curved sabre was used by the Turks and related cultures throughout history starting from the late 3rd century BC Hsiung-nu period to the time of the Avar Empire and the Göktürk Khaganate, Uyghur Khaganate, Seljuk Empire, Timurid Empire, Mamluk Empire, Ottoman Empire, and the later Turkic Khanates of Central Asia and Eurasian steppes.  These blades evolved from Turko-Mongol sabres that had been used over all the lands invaded and/or influenced by the Turkic peoples.

This included the Carpathians and in particular Wallachia Vladthe home of Vlad III, known as Vlad the Impaler.  Historians agree that Kilij was the preferred close-Range weapon of Vlad the Impaler.

In more modern times Vlad is probably more famous for being the character upon which Bram Stoker based the famous novel Dracula.

Apart from inspiring Dracula, Vlad III was one of the most infamous men in Europe and known to have used a Kilij in combat, even when he wasn’t on horseback.  Most artists have drawn this notorious villain with broadswords or longswords which were more common in Europe at this time, but this was inaccurate.  However, the man is better known for impaling his prisoners on wooden poles and displaying them around the walls of his castle.  Vlad the Impaler was a huge fan of the Kilij, and he never lost a fight involving swords.  The lighter weighted sabre was faster than other European made blades, but with the weighted tip it was still capable of removing an opponent’s head just as easily.  This faster blade may have given Vlad a slight advantage, especially since he spent much of his youth traveling in the Turkish lands.  He trained with the Kilij for much of his youth from the same people who created these swords.

Even though Vlad III was indeed sadistic and cruel, he was not just a savage lunatic.  He was a great tactician, always taking advantage of the surroundings to full extent, because he was always outnumbered by his enemies (especially the Ottomans, about 7 to 1 on average).  He was also cunning and great at deceiving the enemy; and even known for going himself with a small contingent disguised as the enemy, slipping behind their lines and taking them out on several occasions.  Vlad was in real life the gatekeeper of Europe.  During his reign he stopped countless invasion attempts of the Ottoman Empire.

Various kilij from the Hellenic War Museum (Athens, Greece)
Various kilij from the Hellenic War Museum (Athens, Greece)

During İslamizaton of the Turks, the kilij became more and more popular in the İslamic 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 İranian shamshir was created during the Turkic Seljuk Empire period of İran.  After the invasion of Anatolia this sword type was carried by Turkomen tribes to the future seat of the Ottoman Empire.  During the Crusades, Turks of Anatolia were the first target to be attacked by the European armies, and their curved swords were misperceived by Europeans as the imaginative “scimitar of the Saracens”, the generic sword type for all “Orientals”.

Evolution of Ottoman kilij

The Kilij, as a specific type of sabre associated with the Ottoman Turks and the Mamelukes of Egypt, was recognisable by the late 15th century.  The oldest surviving examples sport a long blade, curving slightly from the hilt and more strongly in the distal half.  The width of the blade stays narrow (with a slight taper) up until the last 30% of its length, at which point it flares out and becomes wider.  This distinctive flaring tip is called a “yalman” (false edge) and it greatly adds to the cutting power of the sword.

Ottoman sabres of the next couple of centuries were often of the Selchuk variety, though the native kilij form was also found; Iranian blades (that did not have the yalman) were fitted with Ottoman hilts.  These hilts normally had slightly longer quillons to the guard, which was usually of brass or silver, and sported a rounded termination to the grips, usually made of horn, unlike that seen on Iranian swords (Iranian swords usually had iron guards and the grip terminated in a hook-shape often with a metal pommel sheathing).  The finest mechanical damascus and wootz steel were often used in making of these swords.  In the classical period of the Ottoman Empire, Bursa, Damascus and the Derbent regions became the most famous swordsmithing centres of the empire.  Turkish blades became a major export item to Europe and Asia.

In the late 18th century, though shamshires continued to be used, the kilij underwent an evolution: the blade was shortened, became much more acutely curved, and was wider with an even deeper yalman. In addition to the flared tip, these blades have a distinct “T-shaped” cross section to the back of the blade.  This allowed greater blade stiffness without an increase in weight.  Because of the shape of the tip of the blade and the nature of its curvature the kilij could be used to perform the thrust, in this it had an advantage over the shamshire whose extreme curvature did not allow the thrust.  Some of these shorter kilij are also referred to as pala, but there does not seem to be a clear-cut distinction in nomenclature.

After the Auspicious Incident (Mutiny of the Janissaries against Mahmud II in 1826, the Turkish army was modernized in the European fashion and kilijs were abandoned for western-type cavalry sabre (which was itself evolved from kilij)] and small swords.  This change, and the introduction of industrialized European steels to Ottoman market, created a great decline in traditional swordsmithing. Civilians in the provinces and county militia (zeibeks in Western Anatolia, bashibozuks in Balkan provinces), continued to carry hand-made kilijs as a part of their traditional dress. İn the late 19th century, Sultan Abdulhamid II‘s palace guards, the Ertuğrul Brigade (which was composed of nomadic Turkomans of Anatolia), carried traditional kilijs as a romantic-nationalistic revival of the earlier Ottoman Turkoman cavalry raiders. This sentiment continued after dethronement of the sultan by the nationalist Young Turks.  High-ranking officer dress sabres of early 20th century were a modern composite of traditional kilij, “Mameluke” and European cavalry sabres.

Adoption by Western Armed Forces

Following the Ottoman invasion of Balkans, European armies were introduced to the kilij, though Greeks, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, other Slavs and Hungarians were not strangers to this sword type from their earlier encounters with Turkic nomads such as Bulgars, Khazars, Pechenegs, Cumans and Tatars.  Russian Cossacks and the peoples of the Caucasus adopted a variation of nomadic Tatars’ kilij as the shashka.  The Kilij first became popular with the Balkan nations and the Hungarian hussar cavalry after 15th century, the sabre taking the name of szabla.  Around 1670, the karabela (from Turkish word karabela: black bane) was evolved, based on Janissary kilij sabres; it became the most popular sword-form in the Polish army.  During 17th and 18th centuries, curved sabres that evolved from Turkish kilij, were widespread throughout Europe.

The Ottomans’ historical dominance of the region ensured the use of the sword by other nations, notably the Mamelukes in Egypt.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the French conquest of Egypt brought these beautiful and functional swords to the attention of the Europeans.  This type of sabre became very popular for light cavalry officers, in both France and Britain, and became a fashionable sword for senior officers to wear. In 1831 the “Mameluke,” as the sword was now called, became a regulation pattern for British general officers (the 1831 Pattern, still in use today).  The American victory over the rebellious forces in the citadel of Tripoli in 1805 during the First Barbary War, led to the presentation of bejewelled examples of these swords to the senior officers of the US Marines. Officers of the US Marine Corps still use a Mameluke pattern dress sword.  Although some genuine Turkish kilij sabres were used by Westerners, most “Mameluke sabres” were manufactured in Europe; their hilts were very similar in form to the Ottoman prototype, however, their blades, even when an expanded yelman was incorporated, tended to be longer, narrower and less curved than those of the true kilij.

A British Hussar general with a scabbarded kilij of Turkish manufacture (1812).
A British Hussar general with a scabbarded kilij of Turkish manufacture (1812).
Topkaki
The upper sword appears to be an exaggerated parade piece or executioner’s sword, the second down is typical of a later kilij, the third has the characteristics of an earlier kilij and the lowest one possibly has a later European-style blade. Imperial Armoury Topkapi Istanbul.
Turkish Kilig
TURKISH Kilig, LATE 18TH/19TH CENTURY with reinforced watered blade of characteristic form, decorated on each side with a small panel of gold koftgari scrollwork towards the tip and a stylised calligraphic cartouche at the forte, plain cross-piece and formed with a pair of straight quillons with bud-shaped terminals, horn grip rising up to a bulbous pommel fitted with a silver tear-shaped washer on each side, and in its original wooden scabbard with large silvered mounts decorated with floral designs. (Collection of Cathey & Rex Brimage)

Various

Cathey Brimage,

Adelaide, South Australia

10th November 2017

References

Stone, G. C. and LaRocca, D. J. (1999). A glossary of the construction, decoration and use of arms and armor in all countries and in all times. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-40726-8.

ÖGEL, Bahaeddin, “Türk Kılıcının Menşe ve Tekamülü Hakkında”, A.Ü. DTCF Dergisi, 6, 1948

The Kilij and Shamshir. Turkish and Persian sabers

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