Just watched this documentary from the early 2000s about Bhutan featuring archer Tshering Choden, who competed for the Himalayan nation in the Olympics. It might be the only country in the world where archery is the national sport, but it takes serious dedication to be an archer in a region where the selection competition might be a terrifying 20-hour bus journey away.
Archery, luck, tradition and religion are closely intertwined in Bhutan. I’m willing to bet your local county tournament doesn’t involve specially composed songs sung by everyone’s wives, ritual magic involving menstrual blood, or a ban on sex the night before. The star of the film is really the extraordinary country and its culture, poised on the precipice of modernity – although it’s reassuring to see that rude jokes and playing cards for cash are cultural universals, amongst much else. Enjoy.
FYI: this seems to be a re-voiceovered version of a German documentary called Die Bogenschützin von Bhutan (The Archer Of Bhutan) – with a barely-edited English translation, and the credits stripped off for some reason. Anyway, enjoy.
I’m in Istanbul. The gateway between Europe and Asia, capital of four empires, the gleaming jewel straddling the Bosphorus. It’s an incredible place to visit, full of wonders, echoing with the adhan, smelling of the sea.
Founded as Byzantium by the Greeks in 660BC, it became a Christian city under Roman rule as Constantinople in 600AD, and began its best known era as the Islamic Ottoman Empire in 1453 before the founding of modern Turkey in the 1930s, when the city was renamed Istanbul. The tumultuous history has led to extraordinary places such as the Hagia Sophia; the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years, then a mosque for the next five hundred (it’s now a museum featuring both religions). The Sultans famously liked the finer things in life and the Topkapi Palace museum contains some gilded archery treasures. I’ve heard of ‘quiver bling’, but this is ridiculous:
Composite bow, Topkapi Palace.
Quiver, Topkapi Palace
Siper (used for overdrawing composite bows), Topkapi Palace
Another room in the palace contains some of the more sacred relics of Islam; parts of Prophet Mohammed’s beard, and various items handed down as his weaponry amongst much else. The ‘Bow Of The Prophet’ is made of bamboo and dates from around 615AD, its simplicity offset by a highly decorative ‘scabbard’ commissioned by a much later Sultan:
Archery is written firmly into Istanbul’s history. The Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet II, immediately ordered the purchase of land to to train archers in a region of the city now known as Okmeydanı – literally, “arrow field.” His son Beyazid apparently constructed a lodge toward the end of the 15th century to train the elite archers of the day. This lodge apparently opened on May 6th each year for six consecutive months of archery training, and was maintained by the Sultans of the day – a minaret was added by Ebubekir Ağa in 1771, and a major repair was undertaken in 1819 by Mahmud II. The training was as much mystical as physical: there is more detail from the fantastic Turkish Culture site:
“Okmeidan and tekke [lodges] were accepted to be holy places and were highly respected. The Islamic personal cleaning ritual called “abdest” which is a must prior to daily praying was performed before entering the Okmeidan as if this place was a temple… Although there was obvious discrimination among the social layers of Ottoman Empire, in Okmeidan all archers were accepted to be equitant like in any temple.
Another example for the mystic aspects of the education and application was the “Ya Hakk!” shouting of flight shooters which means “Hey God!”. This seems to be similar to the so-called “kiai” in Japanese martial arts and it makes sense to believe that they both have the same purpose.
The interesting symbolism in bow morphology is another point in the archery-related mysticism. The upper limb was symbolizing the “good” or “holy” while the lower limb stands for “evil”. The grip was accepted to bind these two polar tendencies of the universe and of the man himself. The middle of the grip where a small piece of ivory or bone plate (chelik) is inserted was the symbol of the so-called “vahdet-i vücûd”, a Sufi term meaning the common identity of all universe and creatures; a projection of God.
An earthquake did for the lodge in 1896, and after the founding of modern Turkey from the 1950s the lodge and the surrounding area became filled with shanties and illegally-built housing projects. In 2005, there was a major historical, political and architectural effort to return the lodge to its former glories. The work was completed in 2012, and officially re-opened by the Prime Minister himself in 2013. What they have built would make any national body or club drool:
From the architect of the project, Sinan Gemin: “Today’s Okmeydanı Okçular Tekkeri (‘Archery Lodge’) consists of five different sections spread over an area of approximately 5,000m2: the Sultan’s summer palace, a small mosque, a conference hall, a museum, and a library. The conference hall has a capacity for 200 people, the library contains collections focused on the history of archery, and the museum will exhibit arrows and arches (sic) brought from the Topkapi Palace Museum. Underneath the arrow shooting range there is an underground parking area for 300 cars, a cafeteria and changing and fitness rooms. The facility also boasts of an indoor archery range ready to be used for training in winter months.”
The facility has its own mosque and extensive wings.
There is a fully floodlit, 90m field and seating for 375 (by my count). There was even a very small archery shop (which was open).
Above: this being a ‘hard-court’, the mobile bosses are held in place by bags of ballast.
Maybe it was just the fact that it was Monday afternoon, but there was a slightly empty feel about the project when I visited: the library didn’t seem to have much about archery, the museum was closed, as was the cafeteria, and the field was completely deserted. The only busy part of the lodge was the mosque over lunchtime prayers, which seemed to be very popular with the locals.
There was an archery competition held a couple of days previously, which featured the Prime Minister’s son – a founder and board member of the project – shooting some arrows to kick things off. According to the official website, that is the only tournament scheduled. It would be a terrible shame if such an incredible facility in the fifth-most populous city on earth were to go to waste.
I wander the surrounding streets with a jerry-rigged treasure map, in search of target stones. Flight archery was immensely popular in the glory days of the Ottomans, and the Turkish composite bow was perfectly optimised for shooting shorter, lighter arrows immense distances. The great and the good would mark a new record with a ‘target’ or ‘medal’ stone on the shooting grounds of the day (there are sometimes corresponding ‘foot stones’ marking the launch point too), with script in Arabic showing the archer and the distance. There were once hundreds of these stones all over Istanbul, but the city’s rapid expansion in the 20th century has seen many of them re-used, stolen or bulldozed to make way for housing, despite their royal heritage – many were commissioned by some of the more famous Sultans of the empire.
Many stones, once proudly erect in rolling fields, now stand alone in unremarkable suburban surroundings. Amongst the drab, maze-like backstreets of Okmeydanı, I found a few:
This one above was apparently commissioned by Sultan Mahmud II himself.
This one is almost invisible, forced up against a concrete wall, its markings facing the ‘wrong’ way.
It’s a beautiful day, and in the northern quarter of the modern Kulaksiz cemetery I find another one, incongruous amongst the ordered graves:
I befriend a helpful gravedigger – he speaks no English, and I almost no Turkish, but the international language of drawing a bow seems to work – and he leads me to a couple more, and the Ottoman-style gravestone of who I think he is telling me is a famous archer:
A mile or two northeast in upmarket Nişantaşı (pronounced ni-shan-ti-shay – meaning “Target Stone”) a handful of markers still remain – on the intersection of Valikonagi & Tesvikiye streets:
outside Harbiye police station:
and a couple in what is now the car park of a mosque:
The stones came in various designs depending on the era: some looked like barley sugars twisted together. They are macho and often clearly phallic; kingly representations. These stones, consistently under threat from development, seem forgotten by modern Istanbul – a part of the street furniture, not part of a celebrated heritage. It’s a shame, but they are an extraordinary reminder of a time when archery was literally, the sport of kings.
Thanks to the Arch Museum. For pictures of the target stones when Istanbul was largely open fields, click here.