Mameluke Sword: The Exotic Blade of the East

With its sweeping curve and elegantly intricate design, the Mameluke sword evoked a sense of mystery and adventure. Originating in Central Asia, it’s a distinctive yet formidable weapon that became a popular choice in the nineteenth century of the armies of the British, French, Italians and even the US Marines. This is the story of the Mamluk sabre.

Military History
14 May 2024

The renowned Mamluk sword stands as a formidable emblem of the Mamluk Sultanate, a dynasty that dominated expansive territories of the Islamic world for nearly three centuries. Its distinctive hilt, often adorned with intricate designs, and the scimitar-like blade, has become a symbol of an era when cavalry charges and sword fighting decided the fates of soldiers, battles and indeed, empires.

Yet the famous Mamluk curved sword was more than just a weapon. It was a testament to craftsmanship, an embodiment of martial prestige, and a favoured armament of the elite warriors who wielded it.

Let’s take a trip back in time to discover the origins of the Mameluke sword, its role on the battlefield, its adoption by some of the world’s great armies, and why the US Marine Corps added it to its official dress uniform.

What is the Mameluke Sword?

Ottoman Turkish scimitar (Credit: serikbaib via Getty Images)

Often referred to as the ‘Mameluke’ or ‘Mamluk’ sabre, or the Mamluk scimitar, this formidable weapon is a cross-hilted, curved sword. Its origins can ostensibly be traced back to the Turkic and Circassian slave-soldiers known as the Mamelukes, who first served the Islamic caliphs before founding their own sultanate in Egypt. These warriors, renowned for their fierce combat skills, played a pivotal role in Middle Eastern history from from the mid-thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries before being conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1517.

Similar to the shamshir sword used by the horsemen of Arabia, Moghul India and Persia, the Mamluk sword, designed to cut and slash, was often made from high quality Damascus or wootz steel, with some of the hilts – or handles – of swords owned by high-ranking officials carved from exotic materials such as ivory or rhino horn.

They were highly prized status symbols and many were decorated with intricate designs including floral motifs, geometric patterns or calligraphy, often inlaid with gold or silver, adding to the sword’s grandeur and beauty. These embellishments showcased the craftsmanship of the swordsmiths and the wealth and status of the owner.

Inscriptions frequently included religious verses, the names and titles of the bearer, or prayers invoking divine protection.

While the adornments on Mamluk sabres served a decorative purpose, they also reflected the cultural and religious values of the society that created them.

After they conquered the Mamluk Sultanate, the Ottoman Empire integrated this design into their own military, contributing to the development of their traditional sword known as the “kilij,” which shared similarities with the Mamluk sword in terms of its curved blade and overall design.

Napoleon and the Mameluke

19th century illustration of Napoleon in Egypt (Credit: clu via Getty Images)

During Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt during the French Revolutionary Wars, French troops came into direct contact with the local forces whose swords made a strong impression on Napoleon and his men. They admired the distinctive aesthetics of the Mamluk scimitar and the martial prowess of the Mamluk warriors.

After their encounter with the Mamluks, Napoleon and his officers brought the design of the Mamluk sabre back to France, where it was quickly adopted, especially within the cavalry and Imperial Guard. Indeed Napoleon was so impressed with the Mamluk soldiers he recruited hundreds of them. Many fought at Waterloo and a select few became part of his personal bodyguard.

The Mamluk sword became symbolic of the French campaigns in the East and was soon incorporated into the ceremonial dress of French military officers, enduring well into the nineteenth century.

First Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon

Dress sword of the US Marine Corps (Credit: alancrosthwaite via Getty Images)

One of the most fascinating stories surrounding the Mamluk curved sword is that of First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon of the US Marine Corps during the Battle of Derna in 1805.

During the First Barbary War fought between the United States and Tripolitania, part of the Ottoman Empire in modern-day Libya, O’Bannon and his men marched over 800 kilometres across the scorching Libyan desert from Alexandria in Egypt to the Libyan port city of Derna. The Americans captured the heavily fortified city and as a token of appreciation for his valour and the victory, Prince Hamet Karamanli, the deposed ruler of the region who had aligned with the Americans, presented O’Bannon with a Mameluke sword.

The Marine Corps adopted the sword as a part of its dress uniform in 1825, and it’s believed to be one of the oldest ceremonial swords still in use by the US military.

Global Appeal

The Duke of Wellington with his Mameluke sword (Credit: peterhowell via Getty Images)

The Mamluk sabre was also adopted by the Royal Sardinian Army, the Royal Italian Army and the British Army. Even the famous Duke of Wellington carried a Mameluke sword, and from 1822, they became regulated dress swords for the lancer regiments and were later adopted by various other light cavalry and heavy cavalry regiments. The regulation sword that today’s generals wear, the 1831 Pattern, is a derivative of the Mamluk scimitar. The sword also remains in use today by the Australian Army and is carried on ceremonial occasions by rank of Major General and above.

The Mameluke Sword: A Legacy Curved in Steel

Mamluk soldier with sword (Credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

The Mamluk scimitar is a timeless symbol of martial artistry and historical significance, notable for its unique design, versatile function, and profound impact on both the battlefield and as a ceremonial element, as well as leaving a lasting impression on Middle Eastern and European military swords for centuries.


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