The Mongols have used bows and arrows for milennia: as a sport between tribes, weapons on the battlefield, or equipment for hunting. Archery remains an integral part of Mongolian cultural identity to this day, being one of the 3 traditional sports of the annual Naadam Festival. We send our traditionally hand- crafted Mongolian bows and arrows on most of our trips and you are likely to have a number of opportunities during your trip to try your hand at archery. In this month’s blog we take a look at how archery has shaped the history of the Mongol Empire and we delve into some of the rules of the modern day sporting contests that you are likely to see at any Naadam Festival during your stay, so read on to discover how to know your Khana from your Khasaa!
Archery has weaved its way through the rich tapestry of Mongolian history, and is integral to their success on the world stage. The Secret History of the Mongols recounts the story of Queen Alungoo, part of the Golden Lineage and ancestor of Chinggis Khan, who despaired of her 5 feuding sons. One day, she called them into her ger and gave an arrow to each of them, telling them to snap it. Of course, they could do that easily. Then she gave each of them a bundle of five arrows and asked them to break it, but none of them was able to. She said: “My sons, you are like these arrows. If you are on your own, you might break. But when you are all together, you are invincible”. This is how the Mongolian people first learned about strength through unity.
Mongolian children were taught archery from a young age – by age five, they began shooting arrows from horseback and hunting small game. There is an expression in Mongolia ‘If you can see it, you can shoot it’. Hunting has always been an integral part of the training for Mongolian archers and warriors. Archery was also practiced as a sport with tournaments being held regularly in the nomadic camps and at the courts of the Khans. A legend describes how one of Chinggis Khan’s nephews, Yesüngge, won an archery competition by shooting a dinner plate from a distance of 546 metres. He is considered to be the greatest Mongolian archer of all time.
In the 13th century, the Mongolian bow was one of the most advanced weapons on the battlefield. Under the leadership of Chinggis Khan and his descendants, archery was instrumental in building one of the largest empires the world has ever seen as they swept away most who faced them. A story from a chronical known as the Blue Sutra from the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) in China, demonstrates just how prolific the Mongol warriors were with a bow. Chinggis’ progress was barred one day by Magnagt, ruler of the Merkits, who stated “Even though you are viewed as the son of the heavens, I am still not convinced about the abilities of your soldiers. If any one of them hits with a single arrow a small red flag from a distance of 150 metres, I will become your ally and friend – if not, we will be enemies”. On hearing Magnagt’s challenge, Taitsuu, one of the Khan’s generals, laughed and said “You offer us the warrior’s standard exercise.” He then ordered one of his men, Chuu Mergen, to comply with the challenge, who hardly needed to aim. Another of the Mongol marksmen, Khavt Khasar, then stepped forward proclaiming “It’s no challenge to hit a motionless target”, whereupon he raised his bow and with a single arrow pierced the neck of a drake flying overhead. As the slain bird hit the ground, he hit it with another arrow. Needless to say, Magnagt was impressed by this, so much so that he not only let the Mongols pass without a fight but also enlisted nine thousand of his own men to Chinggis’ cause.
Each warrior would carry two bows, one for long range shooting and one for fighting at close range. The design of the longer-range bow allowed them to fight at a distance while maintaining accuracy. This meant they could hit opposing forces with salvos of arrows while themselves being out of range from enemy fire, even against militia on fortress walls. While shooting arrows on horseback, a Mongol archer would dramatically increase his accuracy by timing the release of the arrow to the moment when his horses’ hooves were all off the ground which would prevent the motion caused by them hitting the floor disrupting his aim. The most powerful arrows were capable of piercing thick armour and their metal tips could measure 15 cm long and 3.5 cm wide. Amongst their most inventive were whistling arrows, which had holes in the tips that made a whistling sound while in flight which would intimidate forces that faced them. They were also useful in hunting as the whistling sound of the arrow shot high in the air could distract the animal, making it look up with curiosity and giving the hunter time to shoot a more powerful arrow to bring down the stationary prey.
In ancient times, the Mongol archers wore short sleeves in summer. They also wore two layers of clothing, with the outer one decorated in such a fashion to show the status or the rank of the wearer. The armpits of the outer garment had holes in them so they could pull their arm through, shoot and then put it back in. They wore a tight girdle wrapped around their midsection to protect their internal organs while bouncing on the horse and possibly to help if they were shot or stabbed. Over the outside of their deel (traditional dress) they had plate armour, similar to European chain mail. It was lighter than a full suit of armour and would allow for greater flexibility and freedom of movement. A Mongolian in chain mail could easily mount and dismount his horse without assistance. The hat for riding a horse had no visor, so it ddid not get in the way of the bow.
In 1860, the Manchu rulers handed down a proclamation that all of their subjects had to dress the same way. The boots became looser, and leather straps had to be tied around the tops to keep them closed. The sleeves became longer and also had to be tied up so that they did not interfere with bow shooting. In modern day horseback archery, this loose-fitting costume remains the norm, whereas standing archers wear ceremonial deels (traditional Mongol robes).
The traditional Mongolian composite bow is handmade from ten different materials – birch wood, leather, horn, birch bark, fish glue, bamboo, deer antlers, natural silk threads and animal tendons, all of which can be found within Mongolia. First up is the the birch frame, then the layer of horn, and birch bark. Add to this a layer of sinew, which is traditionally taken from the tendons of wild animals like deer, moose and mountain sheep as they are believed to be the strongest and best, although domestic animals such as horses are also used. The bow then has to be stuck together, preferably with fish glue; proven through millennia to be highly capable of resisting moisture. It is durable and lasts longer than modern epoxy resins, which are prone to molecular fatigue.
Typically a bow would be just over 170cm long, and may have a pull of between 70 and 80 pounds, although it is said that a Mongol battle archer’s bow’s draw weight was as high as 166 pounds. The bow fits in a leather scabbard which, along with the quiver, hangs loosely from the belt, free to bounce or move while riding.
Arrows are made of birch, and measure between 80-100cm, with a shaft around 1cm thick, tapered – fatter in the middle and skinnier at the two ends – so it flies straighter. As for fletchings, tail feathers of crane or eagles are preferred, but tail feathers of all birds are usable. The arrowheads could be anything from wide metal blades used for big game (or in war), to bone and wooden points which are used for hunting birds and small animals. Whistling arrows – made by cutting holes in the heads – are useful during hunting, because the sound makes animals stop, curious to see what is in the air. This gives the hunter time to launch a second arrow, this time with a game head to kill the animal.
Traditional Mongol bowstrings are made from stretched and twisted animal hide. Although the skin of many fur-bearing animals can be used, horse skin is often preferred since it is said that this material maintains suppleness in the exceedingly low winter temperatures. It is also possible to use the intestines of animals as string material, but such strings are not water resistant and thus only suited for use in dry and hot weather. Silk and cotton, and mixes of these, can also be used. Modern archers generally use dacron and other man-made materials that require high technology to produce and therefore cannot possibly be made by the archer himself. Here we see another example that the use of primitive materials, although demanding in terms of individual skills and work, is the more reliable and sustainable strategy. To string the bow, the archer usually sits down, using both feet or knees to press against the bow as the limbs are bent towards the body. The loop at each end of the string is slipped over the ends of the bow and tucked into hollow ridges which hold it in place when the bow is released. Rather than drawing the string with three fingers, the Mongol grip is done with one thumb only, which they believe results in better accuracy. They also have a special way they had of rotating the bow, after a shot, to absorb the tremendous hand shock.
Archery forms an integral part of Mongolia’s Naadam Festival, being one of the 3 kingly sports. There are three main archery styles in Mongolia – Buriat, Uriankhai and Khalkh – the latter being the most common, and the other 2 being more heritage styles. You’re most likely just to come across the khalkh archery, so let’s not over-complicate things by going into the finer details of the other 2!
When you think of an archery competition, you probably imagine a round coloured target with a bullseye. Mongolians do it slightly differently; participants instead fire at small leather cylinders – called hasaa – that sit on the ground. In the centre of the stack of hasaa are red hasaa, which act as the central target. The idea was that the row of baskets on the ground represented a man lying on the ground. The red baskets were his head, and you had to get a head shot. Hitting even one red hasaa is good enough to be considered a success – although there’s no special high-score hasaa.
Teams of 12 archers compete in Naadam competitions – the shooting distance is 75 metres for men and 60 metres for women. Archers with the highest rank go first – you can tell by the number of ribbons in their hat! There are two stages of target shooting: ‘Khana’ and ‘Khasaa’. Each archer gets 40 shots – 20 arrows at the Khana target, which is four metres long and 48 cm high, with 60 cylinders quite spaced out. Then they shoot 20 arrows at the Khasaa target, which contains 30 cylinders very tightly packed together. You can see the arrangement of the targets in the illustration above. A scorer called a Surchid stands near the target and calls out the results of each shot together with certain hand gestures and body movements which are easier for the archers to understand rather than by sound alone (due to the distance between them). The different gestures can indicate whether the arrow has hit, overshot, fallen short, gone wide or bounced before the target and jumped over it. For instance, if an arrow hits a khasaa well, all surchid raise their two hands with the palms up and say “uukhai” loudly. For a hit to count the hasaa must move 8cm out of position (which is its width). An arrow which passes between 2 cylinders still scores, although this won’t happen with the Khasaa target because the cylinders are stacked too close together. The winning team is the one that scores the highest number of points.
Got it? Great. Now let the games begin!