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Strelets

Set 120

Mamelukes

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All figures are supplied unpainted    (Numbers of each pose in brackets)
Stats
Date Released 2011
Contents 12 figures and 12 horses
Poses 12 poses, 6 horse poses
Material Plastic (Medium Consistency)
Colours Brown
Average Height 24 mm (= 1.73 m)

Review

At the end of the 18th century Egypt was still nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, but in reality much of the real local power lay in the hands of the Mamelukes. Mamelukes were not Egyptians, but instead mostly Georgians or Circassians from the Caucasus Mountains or Transcaucasia. They were imported into Egypt as slaves of around twelve to fourteen years of age and sold to Mameluke masters who then brought them up and trained them as superb cavalry. As adults they were granted their freedom and given wives and administrative posts, and in time would themselves import and train boys, thus perpetuating the system. This elite not only governed the country but were the backbone of the army such as it was. They had only one tactic; to charge at the enemy, firing their carbines, blunderbusses and pistols and throwing their javelins, then complete the rout with their sabre. It was terrifying and spectacular, but against trained and steady European infantry it proved ineffective, and when a French army under the young Napoleon Bonaparte invaded in 1798 the Mamelukes were defeated, particularly at the Battle of the Pyramids. This marked the end of their dominance in Egypt, and after the expulsion of the French the Ottoman sultan Selim III sent an army to regain control of the province. Second-in-command of that army was one Muhammed Ali, who eventually massacred the Mamelukes in 1811 and went on to dominate Egypt for decades.

The Mamelukes had no uniform, but instead wore traditional costume of as fine a cut and material as their rank and wealth could muster. They wore fine cottons, muslins and silks, and these shirts, gowns and cloaks were often richly embroidered and highly decorated. A girdle was usual, into which daggers and pistols might be thrust, particularly before a battle, while the voluminous trousers (Sirwal) were something of a trademark, although like much of their costume they were more practical when riding than when walking. Headgear could be a simple turban or even an antique helmet in battle, but many wore the cylindrical Qawuq hat over a small skull cap, and around this was wrapped a turban whose size and shape was said to indicate rank. On the feet they wore backless slippers, and naturally jewellery, shawls and other extras further promoted the display of wealth and taste. All this makes for a tremendously exotic and diverse costume, and it must be said Strelets have done a very fine job of representing all this on these figures. The variety is enormous (even extending to two figures wearing mail, which is quite reasonable), and everything looks appropriate. We were very impressed.

As we have said, the Mameluke favoured firearms and javelins when charging his enemy, and his light scimitar sword for close combat. The Mamelukes had adopted firearms relatively late, and many were again richly produced and sometimes virtual antiques, with again no particular consistency. Each Mameluke had at least one brace of pistols, but two or more were often reported, with one brace in holsters on man or horse and another tucked into the girdle. Many also had one of an assortment of carbines or blunderbusses, and even the occasional spear was noted. All would have carried at least one dagger as a matter of course, and equally universal would have been the curved scimitar. All these weapons apart from the javelins are in this set in just the right sort of numbers, and again while there is good variety in style everything looks to be entirely authentic. We would have liked to have seen more pistols, both in use and close at hand, although once each pistol was fired it was discarded (for collection by their servants following behind), so you could use that as a reason for their relative scarcity here. However we were disappointed to see that not one of the horses had even a single pistol holster, which we felt was definitely a mistake. Mamelukes are reported to have used sharpened palm branches as javelins, although whether that was a weapon of war or just for training is unclear. Either way there are no javelins here, which is a pity, although the spear could be cut down to stand in for this weapon. Finally one figure even carries a bow and quiver, which seems to fit with the basically medieval look of these men although we could find no absolute evidence for their use in battle.

The poses are all rather static. Every man has a good straight back, which does not give an impression of a charge, when any cavalryman would be leaning forward with sword or pistol out in front of him. Now that is true of just about all Strelets cavalry sets, and indeed of most cavalry from most manufacturers as the pose is hard to achieve, but for a subject that knew nothing else but a full charge the poses seem particularly unanimated. Those that are firing weapons are doing so to one side or the other, which is OK for regular light cavalry but does not fit well with the description of a Mameluke charge, and the first figure in the second row firing his carbine like a later repeater rifle seems a bit incongruous to us. Those with their sabres out are better, and the standard-bearer is quite nice. The poses are classic choices for this manufacturer and for many others, but we felt they failed to convey the flavour of the subject even more than usual (which we freely admit is a tough challenge for many sculptors).

Quality of pose is also an important factor when considering the horses. Here the first two horse poses pictured above are very poor but the rest are reasonable. The kit on these animals is very interesting, for it too was driven by tradition and the desire to demonstrate wealth. Saddles were much like those of medieval Europe in that they were heavy wood-framed with extremely high cantle and pommel. Those in this set are higher than normal Napoleonic saddles, although not really high enough, although this would have made sculpting the figures more tricky. The rest of the harness would have been richly decorated, as these are here, and certainly with something of a medieval feel once more, which is good. There is however one glaring mistake on all these figures, for they all seem to have a European-style stirrup rather than the very distinctive North African style with a broad plate supporting the whole foot and raised sides (which reportedly weighed 13 pounds each and were made of copper). Of course it is here that all these figures are attached to the sprue, but we felt that was no reason to avoid producing the proper device. One animal has a chanfron (face armour), for which we could find no supporting evidence although it cannot be ruled out, and none of the horses have the larger shabraque that some Mamelukes seem to have favoured.

The usual Strelets chunky style is less important on these figures thanks to their loose clothing, but those that already possess a Strelets set will find exactly the same style here. Such things as engraving on weapons is asking too much anyway, but generally the detail is reasonable is sometimes smaller items are exaggerated. The sculptor has made some nicely curved scimitars, but largely failed to make the scabbards equally curved, but there is no flash and the one separate item (the spear) fits well enough, while most of the men make an excellent fit with the horses, mostly not even needing any glue.

Our habitual pickiness has highlighted a number of small accuracy issues (the shortage of pistols, missing holsters on the horses and the wrong stirrups), but none of these impact greatly on the overall historical accuracy. The rather inactive poses gave us more concern although we recognise the difficulties in improving that, and Strelets could still improve one or two of their horse poses. However this varied set depicts a very colourful and fascinating subject that should particularly appeal to those that enjoy a painting challenge, and is a good first step into the history of Egypt in the later 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ratings

Historical Accuracy 9
Pose Quality 5
Pose Number 10
Sculpting 7
Mould 10

Further Reading
Books
"Gunpowder Armies" - Concord (Fighting Men Series No.6010) - Tim Newark - 9789623610889
"Importing the European Army" - University of Chicago - David Ralston - 9780226703190
"Napoleon's Campaign in Egypt Vol.2 - The British & Allies" - Partizan - Charles Grant - 9781858185521
"Napoleon's Egyptian Campaigns 1798-1801" - Osprey (Men-at-Arms Series No.79) - Michael Barthorp - 9780850451269
"Soldiers and Uniforms of the Napoleonic Wars" - Histoire & Collections - François-Guy Hourtoulle - 9782913903555
"The Napoleonic Source Book" - Guild - Philip Haythornthwaite - 9780853689690
"Uniforms of the French Revolutionary Wars" - Blandford - Philip Haythornthwaite - 9781854094452
Magazines
"Military Illustrated" - No.109
"Military Illustrated" - No.122

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