Nujeymah’s Archers

Logo_smallBlack female archers fighting against El Cid? What sounds like the hare-brained idea of a Hollywood screenwriter actually happened according to chronicles. In 1094, a huge Almoravid army was besieging Valencia, which was held by Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid. The capture of Valencia had been Rodrigo’s final stroke on his way to becoming an independent warlord. However, he now faced the problem of keeping the city, which lay far in enemy territory and was removed from the help of his allies.

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The Almoravids started out as a religious movement that united the Berber tribes of Northern Africa. They came to Spain answering the call for help by the Andalusian Muslim Kingdoms, which were hard pressed because of the expansionist politics of Alfonso VI, King of León and Castile. Their army consisted mainly of Berber tribesmen but was often, and also in this case, augmented by contingents from the Andalusian Kingdoms.

And, if we may believe the sources, there were also female warriors present. A chronicler describes the arrival of the Almoravid commander and continues:

“[…] he brought with him a black Moorish woman, who had 300 black Moorish women with her, and they all of them had their heads shaved, apart from a tuft which each of them had on the top of her head. This was because they came as if on a pilgrimage and to seek pardon. They were well armed with cuirasses and with Turkish bows.” [1]

Who were these women? Elena Lourie, the scholar who has studied this episode in depth, concludes that they most likely came from the Kingdom of Ghana (geographically not identical with the area of today’s Republic of Ghana), whose king converted to Islam at the end of the 11th century and regularly supplied the Almoravids with auxiliary troops. According to her, the reference to ‘Turkish bows’ is an error from transcription: By changing one Arabic letter, the ‘Turkish bow’ becomes a ‘sharki bow’, and ‘sharki’ refers to an African reed used to make bows and arrows.

Lourie has combined a masterly command of sources with careful argumentation to show that it is very probable that a contingent of black female archers were indeed present at the siege of Valencia. I’m not pursuing her deliberations further and will refer the interested reader to her article.

When I first read about those troops I immediately wanted to field them in my Almoravid army. However, I couldn’t find any fitting figures, so I decided to venture an experiment and have them sculpted and cast. I contacted the very talented Phil Murphy of Company D Miniatures, who agreed to do the job. However, I had to give him a specific description of what I wanted.

The figures being sculpted.
The figures being sculpted.

This research turned out to be a very interesting object lesson. For my purpose, it wasn’t sufficient to prove that those warrior women actually existed. I had to settle on a specific look for them.

In the sources, it is described how Rodrigo’s knights, who sallied out of the city and charged them, surprised the women. After several of the archers were slain, their commander Nujeymah mounted her horse and rallied her companions. However, when Nujeymah was killed, her troops routed and caused considerable disorder in the Almoravid’s camp.

“The first charge was against the tents of that black Moorish woman, who was in the van, and so hard was the charge that they killed a good hundred of those Moorish women, before they had time to take arms and mount. But the History says that that Moorish woman was so shrewd a master archer with the Turkish [sharki] bow, that it was a wonder to behold, and for that reason, it says that the Moors called her in Arabic Nugeymath Turkuia which means ‘star of the archers of Turkey [sharki bow]’; and she was the first to ride forth, and the other hundred Moorish women, her companions, with her, and they wrought some harm in the Cid’s company.”

Lourie implicitly understands the wording of the source to mean that the women were horse archers. But is this probable? Genuine horse archers were a rare phenomenon, mainly to be found among the peoples of the Central Asian steppe. We have no evidence of African troops fielding horse archers [2]. While it’s not impossible, I decided against that option. There is no doubt that they would have had mounts for the campaign in Andalusia and that they would be able to fight on horseback if the situation demanded it. But I was hesitant to believe that they were genuine horse archers, trained in the special tactics characteristic of the steppe peoples.

So I went for infantry figures. Concerning the clothing, I also decided in favour of what we know about African armour of the time and gave them protective quilt. Add bow, a quiver and the typical African ida sword and I had a clear image of how the figures should look like.

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Phil made four figures: Three poses of archers shooting and reloading and one of Nujeymah in a command pose. He worked very reliable and diligent and I’m extremely happy with the results. The greens were then sent to Griffin Moulds for mould making and casting. The late Stewart Griffin was very friendly and patient with a beginner like me and I was shocked to hear of his sudden passing in December 2014.

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So I’ve now got a full contingent of black female archers for my Almoravid army. In fact, I’ve got more than I need myself, so if anyone wants to field his or her own black female archers, packs are available for purchase here. I’m looking forward to having a first game with them and will keep you posted on scenarios!

Bibliography

[1] Lourie, Elena: “Black Women Warriors in the Muslim Army Besieging Valencia and the Cid’s Victory: A Problem of Interpretation,” Traditio 55 (2000), 181-209.

[2] Smith, Robert S.: Warfare and Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial West Africa, Madison (Wisc.): The University of Wisconsin Press 1989.

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3 thoughts on “Nujeymah’s Archers

  1. Michael January 23, 2015 / 1:04 pm

    A very scholarly and interesting launch to your project. I am quite in awe of the fact that you commissioned figures for this. Bravo. They look terrific,

  2. Jim January 24, 2015 / 8:18 am

    I think the use of ‘black’ might be a touch misleading, as it conjures up ideas of sub-Saharan peoples. Might it be possible that it was ‘dark’ that was meant, as is the case with people like the Touareg, Songhai and others from the rim of the Sahara?

    Certainly the Ghana Kingdom had cavalry, but so did the semi-nomads of the Sahara, along with ‘Turkish’ bows and steel swords. ‘Cuirasses’ of leather were also common. I don’t know about the Songhai, but amongst the Touareg women have high status (descent is also matrilinear) and their foundation myth features a queen who led them South into the desert.

    Still I certainly wouldn’t rule out them coming from the Ghana Kingdom in a general sense either way and I suspect you are right and they were not horse archers, but ‘cavalry’ fighting with spear and sword when mounted, but also capable of dismounting to use their bows. That’s certainly how the Touareg fought the French in the 19th/20th Century, albeit their bows had been replaced by muskets and rifles.

    Nice post!

    • cptshandy January 24, 2015 / 10:23 am

      Thanks! Concerning their origin, I’m pretty much convinced by Lourie’s research. There is also circumstantial evidence in the stone images of Esie (today’s Nigeria), where armed women are portrayed with a similar hairstyle. And of course the Dahomey ‘Amazons’ (more on them in a later post).

      The thing is, why would the chronicler single them out by saying ‘black’ if they were Berbers? In this case, they wouldn’t differ from the other Almoravids operating in Andalusia. The high status of women among the Berber in general (they wore no veils and moved around freely, as the Almohads later complained) may have helped to make the idea of an auxiliary contingent of women less problematic for them.

      And there I had a whole long argument prepared why I think they were not horse archers, but as you already agree I’ll spare you this 🙂

      Thanks for your knowledgeable feedback!

      EDIT: To be sure, Lourie’s argumentation is also based on circumstantial evidence, so she might be completely wrong. There is just so little we know about this period for sure, most of the rest is – more or less substantiated – speculation. 🙂

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