Sports in the Ottoman State gained recognition as a form of “war training” which incorporated scientific methodology with theoretical and practical components. Sports training was performed in court schools as part of a system based on teaching which included practice specific to every kind of sports, and concentration on and comparison between their unique techniques. Every branch of training had its own regulations, working areas and competitive fields. In addition, knowledge, hard work and success in the field came to those deserving. The leading court sports were güreş (wrestling), cündîlik (binicilik/ riding), okçuluk (archery), cirit atıcılığı (javelin throwing), tüfekle atıcılık (range shooting), topuz atma and lobut fırlatma (club throwing) and mızrak (spear throwing). Furthermore, not only did the sultans encourage those who participated in the sports, they were also active participants.
There are two main types of sporting archery: field archery and range archery.1 In range archery, the goal is to shoot the arrow as far as possible. Within Ottoman State borders, there were arrow fields that served only this purpose and operated as a waqf. The oldest of these was in Bursa and Edirne, and it is presumed that they were founded in the early 15th century. After the foundation of the Istanbul arrow range –particularly during periods of Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512) and Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) – the interest in range archery gradually increased, and arrow arenas were established in all major cities of the state. The İstanbul arrow range was established after the conquest on the orders of Sultan Mehmed II (1451-1481) as an independent self-contained waqf “so that ghazis and subjects could shoot arrows and say prayers together during military campaigns.” Moreover, in historical works, there is information that other stations were used for range archery.
A person who took up range archery was expected to become an apprentice of a master. When the apprentice had properly learned how to shot under the tutelage of his master and had undergone steady training, reaching the level at which he could shoot pişrev arrows at least from a distance of 547 m (900 gez) and an azmayiş arrow from a distance of 486 m (800 gez), this achievement would be repeated in front of witnesses and the apprentice would earn the right kabza alma (take the grip). A pehlivan (sportsman) who received the grip at the end of the icazet (permission) ceremony, which was held according to certain formalities, would be recorded in the registry book at the Okçular Tekkesi (archers’ lodge) and would become a defterli (registered) archer.
Range shooting was carried out in the direction of the wind. Because of this, shots would be named after the wind which was prevalent at the time. Every archer’s desire was to have a record and token that would enable his name to be mentioned in the field – to earn a nişantaşı (milestone). However, for an archer who had received a grip to be able to open new ranges was dependent on the permission of the lodge. Also, the permission to open a new shooting range would not be given to anyone who could not shot an arrow from a distance of 547 m (900 gez). When such a request was made, several aspects of the shot would be evaluated before making a decision to the applicant: whether the distance was out of reach of current ranges, whether there was a need for a new range or not in the direction of the desired target, whether it could be confused with other ranges, and whether the range would cross the limits of the field.
The archer who was given permission to open a range first had an ayak taşı (foot-stone) erected on the point from where he was to shoot. These stones were often a few inches tall so that they would not be confused with the nişantaşı. The applicant archer shot from a point from which a favorable wind blew. If he shot the pişrev arrow further than 900 gez and the azmayiş arrow further than 800 gez, he had an ana taşı (basic stone) erected on the point of his shot. The basic stone determined the basic direction of the range and from this point on, the arrow would be shot in the direction of the basic stone.
Breaking a record by crossing a previously erected nişantaşı (by shooting further than that point) was known as menzil almak or menzil bozmak. The eager archer also was to ask for permission from the lodge to make the shot. Archers who asked for permission for the same range, would shoot arrows on a set day, using a particular uneven number of arrows. At least two ayak şahidi (foot-stone witnesses) would be present at the ayak taşı from where the shooting was performed. The arrow which was shot was not to digress more than 30 gez (18 m) further to the right or left from the ana taşı, thus allowing it to be properly evaluated. Nearby the ana taşı, at the point where it was thought that the arrows would hit, observers, called havacı were waiting. If the range was a skilled range, the point where the arrow fell would be slightly carved out and marked with pebbles and a nişantaşı would erected within six months. Nişantaşıs were mostly made of marble, in the shape of a pillar. The archer’s identity, occupation, the distance of the shot and date of the shot were written on the tablet, facing the range direction.
An ok koşusu (arrow contest) consisted of defterli archers gathering at a place other than Okmeydanı, usually at a recreation spot, where they competed to be the sole remaining archer. Here, the aim was to shoot the arrow the furthest and to win a reward. The term nişantaşı was generally used for milestones as well as to refer to the stone erected at the arrow’s final landing spot, ensuring that no important record was forgotten. Each nişantaşı erected for sultans, viziers and notables had the appearance of a monument and reflected the appreciation of the period.
Although generally the unit gez was used as a unit of measure for distance during shooting sports, in poetic epigraphs hatve and adım were also used at some points, due to matters of meter and rhythm. Sultan II. Mahmud Menzili (The Range of Sultan Mahmud II), which was opened by this sultan, has survived until today; the range was established as a result of measuring the distance between the ayak taşı and the ana taşı, thus producing a range of 1,215.5 gez (738.31 m). It has been determined that 1 gez was equivalent to 60.74 cm.
Usually a pot full of water was used for rifle contests, but sometimes shots were fired at chicken or ostrich eggs. Those shots were conducted in rural areas which had previously been picnic areas like Gülhane, Ihlamur, Yıldız, Levent, Ayasağa (Maslak), Kağıthane, Çamlıca and Göksu – thus ensuring that no harm would be given to the environment. Similar to shooting arrows, nişantaşı would be erected for those who broke a record during these events. Today, the nişantaşı are located for the most part in Okmeydanı and in nearby neighbourhoods. These shots were organized in two ways: In the first one, the target would be located at a certain distance; if the shot was achieved then the stone would be erected. In the second one, there was more than one archer and a competition would ensue. Similar to the first style, the target would be located at a certain distance; to eliminate between those who had hit the target, the target would be gradually drawn further away and the competition would continue. The one who hit the target from the furthest point won the competition. On the epigraph of the nişantaşı, all the competitors’ names and the longest distances would be mentioned, and dates would be given.
It is assumed from the nişantaşıs content that during rifle shots, chicken eggs from a distance of 454 gez (276 m), ostrich eggs from a distance of 1,155 gez (702 m) and pots from a distance of 1,361 gez (827) would be used as targets. It is not easy to break these records even with modern rifles of today. The consolation of the person who was not able to hit the target –if the marksman was a sultan – was mentioned in elegant verses; it is this aspect of the nişantaşı that has made them to be remarkable literary historical monuments. As a matter of fact, when a bullet shot by Mahmud II did not hit the pot, an important writer of the period wrote the following magnificent lines:
Padişahım sanma kim urmaz nişân-ı kurşunun
Mâhı çâk eyler tüfengin girse mihrin koynuna
Satvet-i şâhâneden bî-çâre desti havfedüp
Belki kurşun işlemez bir muska takmış boynuna
Apart from nişantaşıs for archery and rifle shooting, there are also singular nişantaşı for artillery shooting (in Kağıthane), club throwing (in Gülhane Square and Topkapı Palace). The number of nişantaşı had previously been 300 in Okmeydanı; of these, merely 40 nişantaşıs have survived until today.
Located in Okmeydanı, the Keçecipîrî Neighbourhood, Ufuk Street, the old and present status of the stone in the postcard printed at the end of the 19th century can be seen here. (Picture 3). Its base measuers 78x78 cm, while the body is 50x50 cm, and the height is 6.10 m. The head of the stone is embellished with a torch and quivers carved in the Baroque style.
Located in Okmeydanı Piyalepaşa Neighbourhood, between Okçular Çeşme Street and Şenay Street, the circumference of the stone is 33 cm, the height is 1.40 m and the overall circumference of the base is calibre is 3.80 m. (Picture 4).
The nişantaşı in Gülhane Square (Picture 5) that is located in southern side of Topkapı Palace was erected when the sultan’s shot a chicken egg from a distance of 434 gez (264 m) with a rifle. The body of the marble stone is 36x36 square and is 4.50 m tall. The raised surfaces tablet are embellished with relief rose branches and roses. On the top, a large cabbage placed on a plate has been carved. The stone, cut from a single piece, is remarkably aesthetic and exceptionally elegant.2
1 We will not discuss target archery both it is not relevant to the content of our article and it is reviewed in Kemalettin Kuzucu’s article, “Istanbul’s Sports History and Places,” also included in this work.
2 For further information on the subject, see: M. Şinasi Acar, Osmanlı’da Sportif Atıcılık ve Nişan Taşları, Istanbul: Yapı-Endüstri Merkezi,2013.