The Nişan Taşı of Istanbul

Jun 11, 2024 0 comments

Scattered throughout the old neighborhoods of Istanbul, particularly in an area known as Okmeydanı, are several stone steles erected in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Ottoman era. These stone memorials, known as nişan taşı or "aiming stones," were established to commemorate remarkable feats in archery and later, records in rifle shooting.

During the Ottoman Empire, archery was a highly developed sport. The Turks were renowned for their ability to conduct warfare on horseback using bows and arrows. The Turkish bow, despite its slender appearance, was one of the most feared weapons until the age of gunpowder, capable of sending arrows over distances of more than 400 meters.

An archer in the garb of an ancient Ottoman Empire archer soldier shoots at archery competition while riding horse in Istanbul. Photo credit: Depositphotos

One of the first archery fields was established in Bursa in the 14th century, after it became the capital of the early Ottoman Empire following its capture from the Byzantines in 1326. A similar target area was later set up by Sultan Bayezid I in Gallipoli.

After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, a lodge was set up in Okmeydanı for equestrian and archery sports, and for six months every year, participants were taught the skills of horse riding and archery. At some point, the Okmeydanı area was also used for military exercises and even as an army camp. It is thought that Fatih Sultan Mehmed may have established his army headquarters here and even constructed the ships that he launched on the Golden Horn during the siege of Constantinople. Over time, Okmeydanı also became the preferred location for festivities and celebrations. In 1720, Sultan Ahmed III threw a lavish party at Okmeydanı to celebrate the circumcisions of his four sons.

However, Okmeydanı was foremost an archery range, as evidenced by its name—“ok” means arrow, and “meydanı” means open space. After the founding of this shooting range, the popularity of this sport, which was particularly prestigious among the military, increased, especially during the reigns of Sultans Bayezid II and Suleiman the Magnificent.

Photo credit: SALT Research, Ali Saim Ülgen Archive

Under the Ottomans, there were two main types of sporting archery—field archery and range archery. The goal of the latter was to shoot an arrow as far as possible. This activity was practiced in specially designated shooting ranges, such as Okmeydanı, which were administered by a foundation called waqf.

A person who wished to try their hand at this discipline first had to become the apprentice of a master archer. The purpose of the training was to learn how to shoot arrows of the pişrev type at 900 gez (547 m) and arrows of the azmayiş type at 800 gez (486 m) distance. Only when an archer had passed these hurdles was he allowed to attempt a distance record in the range, a record that would be commemorated with a nişan taşı.

Archers who sought permission for a record attempt would shoot arrows on a set day, using a specified uneven number of arrows. The shots were taken in the direction of the prevailing wind that day. However, the archer was not free to shoot wherever he wanted; the lodge administration would decide whether shooting in that direction could be permitted. The presence of an old nişan taşı in the same direction, the proximity to the boundaries of the ground, and the possibility of confusion with other records were all conditions that could cause the attempt to be prohibited.

Photo credit: SALT Research, Ali Saim Ülgen Archive

Once permission was obtained, the archer would gather a low pile of stones called ayak taşı, or "foot stone," on the spot from where he would shoot the arrow. At this point, he first had to shoot beyond the minimum distances of 800 and 900 gez with the two types of arrows allowed. Once this was done, an ana taşı was erected at the place where one of the arrows had landed, and that was the direction in which the archer would shoot to seek the record. For the record to be validated, the presence of four people was required: two witnesses at the ayak taşı and two observers at the ana taşı. To be valid, the arrow that was shot was not to digress more than 30 gez (18 m) further to the right or left from the ana taşı. If all these conditions were met, and the distance traveled set a record for that direction, a pile of stones would be erected at the site of the arrow drop, which would be replaced within six months by a new nişan taşı.

Nişan taşı were mostly made of marble and shaped like pillars. The archer’s identity, occupation, the distance of the shot, and the date of the shot were inscribed on the tablet, facing the range direction. Over time, archery competitions were joined by rifle shooting competitions. In these events, chicken eggs, ostrich eggs, and jars filled with water were used as targets. Nişan taşı were also erected to celebrate records obtained with the rifle. By the end of the Ottoman era, there were 300 nişan taşı in Istanbul's shooting range, but only 40 have survived.

One of the two archery stones in the courtyard of Teşvikiye Mosque in Teşvikiye neighbourhood of Şişli district in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo credit: Chapultepec/Wikimedia Commons

A notable nişan taşı still preserved today is in the Keçecipiri mahalle of the Beyoğlu district. It was erected by Sultan Mahmud II. The foot stone of this shooting stone also remains and is located in the Piyalepaşa mahalle. The distance between the two stones is 1,215.5 gez, or 738.31 meters.

Another nişan taşı in Cephane Square was erected to commemorate a rifle shot by Sultan Selim III, which hit a hen's egg 264 meters (434 gez) away. This aiming stone is topped by a large stone cauliflower carved on a tray, earning it the nickname "Cabbage Monument."

These nişan taşı serve as historical artifacts, reflecting the rich tradition of archery and the high level of skill achieved by Ottoman archers. Each nişan taşı represents a story of dedication, precision, and achievement, preserving the legacy of a sport that was both a crucial military skill and a respected art form. The surviving nişan taşı continue to be a testament to the cultural and historical significance of archery in Ottoman society, marking the feats of individuals who mastered this ancient discipline.

Aiming Stone of Sultan Mahmud II at Okmeydani, Istanbul. Photo credit: Nicolas Andriomenos/Wikimedia Commons

Nişan Taşı of Mahmud II, Doğancı Street, Acıbadem, Üsküdar, Istanbul. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

# Istanbul’s nişan taşı, History of Istanbul
# Right on target in Okmeydanı, the field of archery, Hürriyet Daily News


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