Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Iberia - part 5: The Umayyad Armies of al-Andalus

Originally published in Slingshot, issue 288, May/June 2013 - the magazine of the Society of Ancients

Mamlik soldiers


By the end of his reign in 788 AD, ‘Abd ar-Rahmān had built a professional army numbering 40,000 men and a body-guard consisting of Slavs, who had been sold to al-Andalus as slaves and had converted to Islam.  The bulk of the army consisted of Berbers and Andalusi converts, such as the daribat al-bu’ut, or Córdoba militia, which in the ninth century could provide thousands of cavalry men for major expeditions.  At the end of the Umayyad period, greater numbers of mam(e)lik (singular mam(e)luk) and mercenaries were recruited. Some of the latter came from the north, but the bulk were Berbers from North Africa. As did most other Muslim armies of the period, Andalusi armies attracted large numbers of religiously motivated volunteers.

The organisation of the Umayyad Córdoba armies remains a matter of debate. In the eighth century Andalusi cavalry were divided into squadrons, but nothing is known about the infantry.  In the ninth century Hakam I imposed a more regular structure which remained largely unchanged until the reign of Almanzor , Spanish for Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Abi ‘Amir al-Mansur (“The Victorious”), the first Amirid military dictator in the late tenth century.  In essence, there were three categories of soldiers:
  • the professionals, quartered in and around Córdoba
  • the provincial contingents, volunteers and those recruited for specific operations
  • the nuzara, or reserves, drawn from both Syrians and local forces.
Payment reflected status (and origins), and contingent commanders were responsible for informing the overall commander who had done well and deserved extra payment.  Rewards and “robes of honour” were given to the most deserving, but most troops relied on booty.  In the late tenth century, a separate officer, the sahib al-‘ard (“lord of the land”) was in charge of muster and review of the Berber troops.  Efforts were made to keep the newly recruited Berber troops from older formations.

The ruler would nominate two standard-bearers for each contingent, one of whom would go to war, while the other remained behind until he replaced the first standard-bearer at the end of three months.  There was a grand parade from Córdoba or the nearby palace city Medīnat az-Zahra, during which the ruler lived “in the field of the royal tent” for twenty to forty days and reviewed the army, together with his officers.

Most campaigns were fought in summer. On the Friday before the army set out on campaign, the main banners were brought from the Great Mosque in Córdoba to be fastened to their staffs in the presence of the army. The governors of the provinces were told to meet the main force with their provincial contingents. 

‘Abd ar-Rahmān I
The Syrian Army
The civilized Arab states of Syria had long despised those of Arabia, whose inhabitants they called “lizard and gerbil eaters”.  As the Umayyad Caliphate transferred its capital from Mādina to Damascus, the court consequently became more cultured and sophisticated.  Over time, Umayyad rule had become dependent on the support of the Syrian army, the ahl as-Shām, of which the overall leadership was concentrated in the hands of members of the Umayyad family.

The quality of the ahl as-Shām elite was undisputed.  The Syrians were considered very fierce and would campaign with minimal baggage and non-combatant support. In return, the caliph would pay them more highly than other forces.  He always rewarded soldiers who proved themselves in battle and regularly rotated and resupplied troops in isolated garrisons like the island of Rhodes.

Most of the ahl as-Shām was stationed in Syria or neighbouring provinces. Elsewhere the presence of such highly paid elite garrisons caused tension with local Arab troops, particularly in Iraq. However, unlike the subsequent ‘Abbāsid dynasty of caliphs, the Umayyads kept the entire Muslim territories united and crushed every rebellion.

The Umayyad Empire in the eighth century AD
Since the basic Arab tribal unit, or ashira, was too small to furnish a complete army, the Umayyads reshaped the tribes into four or five larger federations and created artificial tribes for those who did not fit into these new structures.  The non-Arab mawāli, whose relationship to their Arab patrons was similar to the late Roman system of family clientage, also increased in importance, though the Arabs retained military dominance to the end of the Umayyad rule. These mawāli, along with slave and former prisoners of war, staffed and defended many Umayyad palaces, or fought as a separate division, or as followers of individual Arab leaders.  There is little, if any evidence of tensions between tribal groups among the ahl as-Shām.  Though in political terms, the traditional rivalry between Qaysī and Yemeni seems to have been increasing during Hishām’s reign (d.743 AD), these rivalries did not cause overt division in the army.

When Caliph Marwān II (d.750 AD) attempted to re-establish the Umayyad regime on a new military base, he effectively destroyed the old Syrian army.  Having been governor of Armenia and Azerbaijan from 732-44 AD, he had built up an army largely recruited from Qaysī tribesmen from al-Jazīra (“the Island”, the northern part of Mesopotamia), not from the traditional junds of Syria.

His reform reduced many Yemeni commanders of the old ahl al-Shām to subject status. As a result, when in 749 AD the ‘Abbāsid revolution broke out, the Syrian army was broken and demoralized. Over time, it finally lost its identity completely. Under the second ‘Abbāsid caliph al-Mansūr (d.775 AD), the ahl as-Shām was deprived of the military stipends and reduced to the condition of peasants and tax-paying subjects.  Nevertheless, Syrians did continue to serve in the ‘Abbāsid armies on the Byzantine frontier, but they would always be marginalised in the ‘Abbāsid State. Only in Egypt did the descendants of the Umayyad jund continue to enjoy a privileged status, until they were replaced by Turkish and other professionals under Caliph al-Mu’tasim, who died in 842 AD.

Military Equipment and Organisation

The Mamlik

The ‘Abbāsid caliphs created a professional army, commanded by a sahib al-hashām (master of the militia), dependent on the emir and run by foreign mercenaries, including enslaved soldiers from elsewhere in Europe.  Because many of these soldiers were Slavs, their name became synonymous with slave – cf. the early mediaeval Latin word for their ethnic designation: Slav-Sclavus and French: esclave or German: Sklave.

Though slavery was common in the Islamic world, Muslims were not allowed to enslave Muslims (like Christians were not allowed to enslave Christians), only non-believers.  If slaves converted to Islam, however, they did not automatically become free, only eligible for manumission.  Enslaved women had duties that included household labour, nursing and acting as concubines.  Enslaved men were artisans, labourers or soldiers.  Young slaves were imported from Central and Eastern Europe and converted to Islam. They received military equestrian combat training, designed to instil in them complete loyalty to their commanders and their ruler.  Islamic rulers from Spain to Egypt made use of these loyal troops, who were legally freed at the end of their service and received a land tenure to support themselves. In the Early Middle Ages mamlik were often freed as they ascended in the ranks.

The cavalry was the dominant element in the Muslim army.  Like the infantry, cavalry units consist of 5,000 men, each commanded by an amir.  Each division of 5,000 men was subdivided into units of 1,000, led by a qa’id.  The ‘arif theoretically commanded one hundred men.  The smallest unit was a group of 8 men, commanded by a nazir.

Military dress

There were no military uniforms during the Andalusi Umayyad period, but white was generally recognised as the Umayyad colour, whereas in the other parts of the Muslim Empire, black tended to be the ‘Abbāsid colour.  In general, a soldier’s uniform was the same as that of a civilian, consisting of a waist- and shoulder-wrapping cloth (izar), loose-fitting trousers (sirwal), worn over a pair of drawers (tubban), both secured by a belt (mintaqa), typically of red-striped cloth.  Normally sandals (na’l) or soft boots (khuff) were worn.  On their heads soldiers had a turban (imama), often over a helmet or cap (qulansuwa).


When during the tenth century al-Andalus reached the pinnacle of its power, the arsenal of Córdoba was able to produce 13,000 shields, 12,000 bows and 20,000 arrows per month and 3,000 tents annually. For each of his campaign Almanzor was able to rely on 45,000 cavalry and over 25,000 infantry and could dispose of 2,000 pack-animals to carry the entire impedimenta. 

Salon rico (reception hall) at Medīnat az-Zahra

By the ‘Abbāsid period swords with a certain degree of decoration were reserved for people of a particular rank, as shown when the Caliph al-Mu’taşim rebuked a man for wearing a sword above his station. In ‘Abbāsid ceremonial and symbolism gilded weaponry was the mark of the senior servant, whereas simple silvered weaponry distinguished the ruler.

Weapons of men who were not the ruling elite, might well have had hilts decorated with inlays of what was known as “white copper” (al-nuhās al-abyad), an alloy of copper, zinc and arsenic, which was known at least as early as the beginning of the eleventh century. Tin was already being used to protect iron and copper from oxidation in Carolingian Europe.  Weaponry for the elite regiments was kept in government arsenals, the biggest being the khizanat as-sila in Córdoba and Medīnat az-Zahra, which could manufacture 3,000 tents, 13,000 shields and 12,000 bows per year, as well as 20,000 arrows per month.


The Mozarab community around Elvira (modern Granada) provided mounts for ‘Abd ar-Rahmān I’s mawāli guard. Two generations later, stables for 1,000 horses were built near Córdoba for Hakam I’s guard. By the end of the tenth century Almanzor had no fewer than 12,000 regular cavalry.  Huge stud farms were established near Seville, others were set up on islands near the mouth of the Guadalquivir.

According to Ibn Hawqal (died late 10th century), the horseman of the late tenth century still rode without stirrups, “because they fear that if they fall their foot will remain caught up”. He also commented that they rode their horses “naked”, i.e. without using the wood-framed saddles used in the Middle East.  ‘Isa bin Ahmad ar-Razi (died 989 AD), however, maintains that two types of saddle were used, the “European” and the Berber.  Horse armour was known, mostly of felt or quilted construction, though also mail horse armour was seen in the tenth century.

Military architecture

Trenches for defensive purposes (khandaq) almost carried an ideological message, as the Prophet himself had dug such a trench to defend Mādina against the attack of the Meccans.  In early Muslim warfare a khandaq denoted anything from a hastily dug obstacle to a marching camp, roughly rectangular in shape, with two or four gates and possibly towers as well. Some khandaqs were quite substantial structures.

Frontier castle of Gormaz, Castile and León, built around 900 AD

The walls were of earth and stones, not masonry, and the ramparts might be defended with shields, thorn-scrub or metal caltrops. Often these khandaqs were dug by the soldiers themselves, but some forces were accompanied by professional sappers for this purpose.  During the ninth century a distinctive style of military architecture started to appear, characterised by a circuit wall with numerous closely spaced towers of good quality stonework.  The main fortresses had permanent garrisons, whereas smaller fortifications, which were similarly rectangular in plan, might also serve to house garrisons of volunteers.  During the tenth century, a system of frontier and coastal fortifications, called sajra, began to appear, manned by religious volunteers. They were usually situated on hilltops and in passes where they might cut off raiders. Looking like fortified monasteries, they would have a major influence on the development of the Christian Military Orders in later years.  Sometimes fortifications were built of a type of practical but ugly concrete, consisting of earth, branches, straw, bones, lime and water, laid in rows of timber formers.  Finally there was a type of small round observation tower known as tal’iyya.

 Sources and further reading
  • Nicolle, David, Armies of the Muslim Conquest, Men-at-Arms 255, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 1993, 2008
  • Nicolle, David, The Moors - The Islamic West, 7th-15th Centuries AD, Men-at-Arms 348, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2001
  • Nicolle, David, Armies of the Caliphates 862-1098, Men-at-Arms 320, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 1998
  • Nicolle, David, Two Swords from the Foundation of Gibraltar, in GLADIUS XXII, 2002, pp. 147-200
  • Russell Robinson, H., Oriental Armour, Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, 1967, 1995
  • Slingshot No. 55, A Medieval Arab Military Manual, Phil Barker, pp. 13-16, September 1974
  • Slingshot No. 99, Origins of the Mamluk Military Institution, John Feilla, pp. 11-2, January 1982


  1. Dear Robert:
    It would be put a photo of the main entrance of the castle of Gormaz. The symbolic sense of this gate shows the power of the spanish umayyad dinasty against the christians on the north border and against the fatimids on the south border. Sorry for my bad english

  2. Dear Samuel,
    Thanks for your suggestion. I'll see if I can find a picture that I'm allowed to use.
    Take care