Have you have ever tried to learn about the origins of martial arts? If so, you will appreciate how difficult it is to find a single source that covers the development of martial arts around the world. There are so many forms and styles of martial arts that have evolved over time. It is quite a feet to describe everything.
To make it even more challenging not all historical records that might give us an accurate picture have survived. However, we do have enough evidence of specific forms of martial arts use going back a long way. It is enough information to give us some interesting snapshots in time.
What we do know is that Martial arts have been around as long as the human race has had organised fighting armies. This article describes the early history of these martial arts specifically in the connected regions of Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Also see ‘Origins of Martial Arts in Asia‘, which makes a truly interesting read.
If we are going to go way back in time to the earliest known practice of martial arts we need to start with Africa.
The reason for this is Egypt. Specifically the region along the Nile that extended into Nubia, which is present day southern Egypt and northern Sudan.
Tahtib is a form fighting using wicker or bamboo sticks to attack an opponent’s head. It is probably the oldest martial art used for military training. Graphic records dating 5,000 years ago give evidence to this form of fighting.
A form of Tahbit is practiced today. Although it is now more of a performance with hypnotic rhythm of drums that the performers/fighters match with their body movements.
Wrestling/grappling has been around as long as humans have walked the earth. The earliest recording of wrestling as a form of fighting can be found on Egyptian depictions dating to 2,000 BCE and beyond.
Today there are individual styles attributed to different regions across the African continent. It is impossible to say when then originated, but to name a few:
Iran (when it was Persia)
Wrestling was a skill expected of Persian warriors. By the time that Iran became a Persian empire in 550 BCE its warriors were trained in wrestling to defeat neighboring tribes and nations.
Wrestling continued as a sport when they were not using it in battle. During this time there was cross-pollination of wrestling techniques from Turkey and Greece. The countries would send their best to challenge each other.
At its height of power the Persian Empire covered parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. The Persians set about building roads to connect all the regions, improving communications and encouraging trade. It is no wonder that sports such as Wrestling spread across these continents.
Varzesh-e Pahlavani became the established system for training Persian soldiers to wrestle as a martial art.
Later Iran developed its own brand of wrestling for both sport and combat called Koshti. During the Islamic invasion of the 8th and 9th century ‘pagan’ practices such as Koshti were frowned upon and eventually no longer practiced.
In time there was a resurgence of Varzesh-e Pahlavani within Iran and neighboring countries. However, it evolved into a sport of calisthenic type exercises and whirling dancing to drums, gongs and bells. They also practice with a pair of oversized wooden clubs, heavy shields and a symbolic bow with a string of small cymbals.
The exercise is almost like a ceremony. There is singing from passages of the Shahnama, a book of poems written during the days of the Persian Empire. It said to reflect the spiritual and moral values of Iranian Culture. It is on UNESCO‘s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Koshti-Pahlavani is a considerably more aggressive continuation of Iranian wrestling. It involves grappling for submission and some hard take-downs. Today it is a popular competitive sport. Because it is still practiced today in its combative form Pahlavani is widely recognized as the longest running martial art in the world
Sumeria (was located in modern southern Iraq)
Boxing with bare knuckles has been around since man first interacted and got moody. The earliest known depiction of boxing was found on a relief dating back to the 3rd Millennium BCE.
Yagli-Gures is a wrestling sport. Wrestling first came to Turkey as a result of contact with other cultures such as the Huns and the Tatars. The use of oil by the Turks was first recorded in the 10th century CE.
Today Competitors completely cover themselves in olive oil and wear no shoes. Competitors are referred to as ‘pehlivans’. There are close ties between Turkish wrestling and Iranian Koshti.
Furusiyya is a martial art that combines equestrian skills with the use of archery, lances and swords. It was developed during the Golden Age of Islam (8th to 14th Century). It peaked in Mamluk Egypt in the 14th century.
Pankration is a form of combined boxing, kicking and grappling. It also included holds, joint locks, and choking. It was known to have been a sport in the 7th century BCE. It was also used by the Spartan hoplites and Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Phalanx in battles. Pankration was introduced to the 33rd Olympics in 648 BCE.
Even as a sport Pankration was brutal. Contests would continue until someone submitted, rendered unconscious or died. Stories about Hercules said he used it to fight the Nemean Lion and Theseus used it to fight the Minotaur.
The sport had two phases. The first was Upper Pankration. Contestants fought upright. The goal was to knock down the opponents by nearly any means. The second phase was called Lower Pankration. This involved grappling on the ground. Pankration has many similarities of today’s mixed martial arts (MMA).
Boxing was a popular sport early on in Greece. A fresco dating back to 1650 BCE was discovered preserved on the Greek island of Santorini. The fresco shows two young boys sparring and it is the earliest record of gloves or some form of hand protection being used.
The earliest forms of martial arts are wrestling/grappling and boxing. Other forms of martial arts developed as warfare and weapons became more sophisticated. Or as spectators demanded greater entertainment.
It is difficult to trace how and when some martial arts styles spread to different parts of the world. And which ones were developed in isolation (probably very few). We can still connect enough dots to surmise how circumstances and necessity played a role in the creation and advancement of martial arts.
We have some pretty interesting snapshots in time of martial arts in use. In some cases it is difficult to know which came first: martial arts for sport and entertainment or martial arts for warfare and survival.
One thing that is safe to assume is that during dangerous times of soldiers and threat of war the use of martial arts would have had one primary purpose. To fight better and defeat the enemy.