How far were the most feared archers in ancient times able to launch their arrows, and hit their targets?
Or, a more pertinent question with regard to my part of the world, and my interests is: How far were the Mongols able to launch their arrows and hot their targets?
It was about ten years ago that I experienced using a traditional composite bow for the first time. The weapon was made by Yang Fuxi, whom I met in the course of making a TV documentary for Discovery Channel. At first I used the weapon in a clumsy manner. After just a few shots, my fingers ached. The bowstring sometimes grazed the inside surface of my arm.
Soon I acquired some specialist archery gear to go with the bow, namely three-fingered leather gloves and an arm-brace. After a few months my skill improved and I was able to hit a target about the size of an adult man from about 70 metres or so.
As a child, in England, our folk hero and top archery marksman was Robin Hood, famous for robbing the rich to give to the poor. But we, as boys, all knew that the best archers in the world were the Mongols. Over half a century or so they managed to conquer the main part of Asia. Their secrets of success were the horse and the bow and arrow.
Some insight into the strength and skill of the Mongol archer can be found, and found only, in St Petersburg, Russia. Ask any tour guide about the first place to see, look in any guidebook, and its the State Hermitage Museum that is always regarded as the top site in the city.
Actually, the State Hermitage Museum is a Tsar’s palace, an art gallery and museum rolled into one enormous site. Overall its a banquet of banquets, a feast for the eyes, an explosion of color, a palace of riches. Gold, white, deep red, turquoise colours show off the opulence of the new-style 18th century Russia that by idea, planning and design was, from the start, European.
Oddly though, when I visited the State Hermitage Museum for the first time a few days ago, I overlooked all the glitter, riches, colour, beauty and splendor and headed for something that most interested me. It was a stone, about two metres in height, that recorded how far a Mongol archer fired an arrow, and hit the target, more than 800 years ago.
While the stone’s content was interesting enough, it is the fact that the writing is about the earliest known Mongol writing that really makes the stone so special. Pre-12th century the Mongols had no written written script. Only when Genghis Khan rose to power was their an effort to create a script. And it’s on the stone that I was looking for…..but the question in the back of my mind was: Will it be on display?
Books said that the stone was at the museum. But no authors implied that they had seen it there. On the museum’s website, search for the ‘Genghis Khan Stone’ resulted in the message ‘nothing found to match this search’.
I wrote to the museum, three months ago, but didn’t receive any reply. I asked a Russian friend to write in Russian, and she received no reply. So, when I left Beijing I took a photo of a replica of the stone which Mongolian craftiness made about 12 years ago, thinking that an image to show to a member of the museum’s staff might come in useful.
So, once we’d left our heavy coats in the cloakroom we made our way to a section of the museum exhibiting Central Asian antiquities. The display halls were quiet, as all the other visitors focussed on the highlights. A lady sat on a seat, keeping watch over her room. I showed her the photo. Although she spoke Russian, her remark was definitely a Russian pronunciation of ‘Genghis Khan’. Off we went to the floor and room she pointed to on our museum map.
Five minutes later I stood at the stone’s side. The history of the stone is as follows.
In 1818, G. I. Spassky, a Russian scientist specialising in Siberian studies, published in the newspaper “Sibirskii Vestnik”, the first report about a stone with oriental inscriptions on it dating back to the early 13th Century. Spassky had found the stone in a factory of Nerchinsk in Eastern Siberia, but the stone was originally discovered near the Kharkhiraa River.
This stone stele is the most ancient monument known with the traditional Mongolian script. The stone is now known as Ghengis stone or the Yesüngge Inscription. The inscription is dedicated to Yesüngge, the son of Genghis Khan’s brother Jochi. It reads:
“In 1225, after his conquest of the Khwarazm Empire, Genghis Khan convened an assembly of dignitaries. Yesüngge took part in a warriors’ archery competition, hitting the target from a distance of 335 ‘ald’.”
The ‘ald’ was a nomadic unit of length equivalent to the length of a man’s outstretched arms, and is taken to equal about 1.60 metres. Therefore, it seems that the stone records the launch of an arrow across a distance of 335 x 1.60, which equals 536 metres.