Ethnographic Arms & Armour

Ethnographic Arms & Armour (
-   Ethnographic Weapons (
-   -   Sboula for Comments (

TVV 5th March 2017 03:11 AM

Sboula for Comments
5 Attachment(s)
I acquired this sboula. Thanks to Jim's research and some photographic evidence, now we are in agreement on the geographic origin of these long daggers/short swords: the Maghreb.

However, it seems we know very little about their origin. The hilt is certainly unlike anything else in the Maghreb, or even in the Sahel. Tirri claims similarities with Beja daggers, but the hilt construction is entirely different: Beja hilts are of one piece of wood, whereas sboulas hilts are made of two pieces of horn riveted to the tang. Personally, I do not see a link.

I see a similarity with the baselard on the other hand. We know that Moroccan saifs had guards, influenced by southern European hilts from the Renaissance period, so European influence could have extended to other weapon forms as well.

The blade appears to have been made from that of a (most likely European) military sword. It has typical markings, which one can see on other sboulas that have been posted here for comment in the past. While they obviously are an illiterate copy, the symbols look like the Latin letters D, N & M - DOMINE? Whatever the case, this appears to be another trace of European influence.

The interesting thing about the blade is that it is not simply shortened, but the tip is shaped in a very particular way to a thin point. In a way, these blades are similar to flyssa blades, especially in the style of the tip. Morocco is quite a bit away from the Kabyle areas, but if these sboulas have showed up as far as Ethiopia and Zanzibar, then Algeria is not that much of a stretch at all.

I wonder if these daggers originated back in the 15-16th centuries from European influences, and then survived through the centuries as a form of a self-defense weapon similar to yataghans and bauerwehrs.


Kubur 5th March 2017 07:44 AM

Hi Teodor,

About the origin of your sboula, to me, this kind is from Tunisia/Libya. There is absolutly no link with the Beja or even Zanzibar, it's pure nonsense.
Look at the Tunisian swords already discussed.
Your model has a scabbard very Algerian/fyssa to me, it's interesting but not surprising between berber populations.

The cousin of the sboula is the Genoui in Morocco, another cousin is the Shula. All of them are stabbing weapons.

The blade appears to have been made from that of European military swords. Yes or Bayonet sometimes.

It has typical markings, obviously are an illiterate copy. This appears to be another trace of European influence. Yes - made on late 19th c. blades to imitate old and prestigious models.

I think the purpose of these daggers is so simple and basic they are probably
pre 15-16th centuries but the introduction of the Bayonet with the French army has probably accelerated the process...


kronckew 5th March 2017 08:09 AM

look a lot like a basilard or degen

Ibrahiim al Balooshi 5th March 2017 12:57 PM

It is a very interesting discussion since it reflects what happens when a fact is placed in a publication in this case "Book of the Sword" by Burton where the S'boula appears as a ZANZIBARI WEAPON spuriously as it turned out along with two other weapons equally wrongly placed on the same page...What Burton probably would have preferred to write was that weapons from other trading regions often appeared on the Zanzibar streets like this S'boula from North African shores...with traders from Morocco etc.

In fact it took decades before this myth was disproven and largely, I understand, owing to work from this Forum where the right attribution was noted.

Ibrahiim al Balooshi.

Jim McDougall 6th March 2017 12:32 AM

Thank you very much for the notation Teodor, it was kind of you to recall that research which took place from about 1998 until I wrote the paper on the 'Zanzibar Swords' in 2004.
This example is as you note a bit different in the wood hilt, but as you have also well noted, these 'H' style hilts are compellingly like European baselards in many cases. It has never been distinctly connected to this European form, but these 's'boula', which are distinctly from the Maghrebi regions, could certainly have been influenced by examples of these. The influence of European edged weapons is virtually indisputable in many cases of North African arms.

As Ibrahiim has kindly noted, the attribution of these was brought out in 2004 when I prepared research and a paper on the so called "Zanzibar sword' which had been so designated in "Book of the Sword" (Burton, 1885).
Actually my 'discovery' I soon after realized had been addressed in the "Catalogue de la Collection d' Armes Anciennes" (Charles Buttin, 1933).

In this reference, the author noted that Richard Burton had apparently picked up the 'Zanzibar' attribution from the work of Auguste Demmin (1877) and that these swords in this exact shape were actually Moroccan s'boula. I confirmed this by obtaining a copy of the Demmin work, which had the exact line drawings and classifications used by Burton. I further confirmed this when I handled personally the original manuscripts of the Burton book at the Huntington Museum in California.

Further confirmation was in the copy of "Les Poignards et les Sabres Morocains" by Charles Buttin, Hesperis, Tome XXVI, 1939. 1, given to me by his great grandson Dominique Buttin.
These references were published posthumously for Charles by his son Francois, and as Dominique explained Charles had lived in Morocco for many years, so knew these Maghrebi weapons quite well.

The Zanzibar presence of these distinct swords derives from their being brought via trade networks across the Sahara, into Ethiopian regions (where examples are recorded with Amharic inscriptions, see Lindert, 1967) and certainly where they may have been acquired by Beja tribesmen (there are many Beja in Ethiopian and Eritrean areas) . In these entrepots they were exchanged in trade situations with the caravans to and from Zanzibar.
I do not think these hilts however are related to the well known dagger hilts on Hadendoa and other Beja examples.

In these trans Saharan trade networks, the influences of various Berber tribes were of course diffused into the groupings of weapons being carried with the caravans......which may account for the flyssa like needle point.

Actually these needle like points are quite common on these, and many are repurposed bayonet blades, many French as would be expected in French West African and Sahelian areas.
The curious lettering on this blade suggests distinct European influence in many blades which had inscriptions cryptically placed, usually acrostics for various invocations, mottos etc. While it may have been copied by a native artisan is hard to say, as European examples are often as disconnected linguistically or semantically as these inscriptions were often meant to be 'coded'.

The single example I had of one of these was with the brass repousse covering wood on the hilt and the blade was the needle point.

TVV 6th March 2017 05:13 PM

1 Attachment(s)
Thank you for the comments gentlemen.

Kubur, I personally believed the sboulas to be from Morocco, based on a couple of things:
1. The ones in Tirri's book show Moroccan decorative motives.
2. The only picture of a native wearing one shows him with an afedali musket from the Sous valley.

I am not opposed to Tunis/Libya attribution, but I just want to know what it is based on. I do agree that on one of my sboulas the scabbard does indeed look similar in construction to flyssa scabbards.


Jim McDougall 9th March 2017 01:52 AM

These s'boula are Moroccan, but I will note here that there was confusion on them as early as 1870s.

Using the flyssa reference previously noted in this discussion:

Stone (1934,p.234, fig.291) describes the flyssa as "the national sword of the Kabyles of Morocco".
This venerable reference is of course, incorrect in the sense we now are aware of the history of these unique edged weapons.

We may consider that this misattribution may be explained as follows:
The Kabyles, of the Berber tribal confederations (Ar. gabail= the tribes) are typically most well known as of the Djurdjura range of the Little Atlas mountains in Algeria.
They are best known for the unique 'flyssa' sword, which takes its name from the Iflyssen tribal group who are said to have initiated this form.
The Kabyles Berbers seem to follow the Sunni Malakite Rite, whose aparant center was situated in Morocco.

Tenuously, this Moroccan connection to the Kabyles groups, as noted usually associated with Algeria, may have accounted for the Stone attribution to Morocco.

The point is that there were clearly connections tribally between Morocco and Algeria via the Kabyle and more broadly Berber contexts.
The diffusion of these similarities between the s'boula and flyssa seems to be understandable in these considerations.

As for the correct attribution of the s'boula to Morocco as its original region of development, as I have emphasized previously, these very same hilted and bladed forms are shown in "Catalogue de la Collection d'Armes Anciennes" , Charles Buttin (Rumilly, 1933) in fig, 1032 and 1033, both termed 'poignard des Berberes du Maroc', plate XXXI.
As described in my research through 1990s, paper 2004, and discussions since then, Buttin notes (p.270) the error of A,Demmin (1877) attributing these to Zanzibar, and the subsequent carrying of that forward by Richard Burton (1885).

These attributions led to the perceptions of arms writers that these were from Zanzibar, and the term 'Zanzibar swords'. It has been found however that these same hilted and bladed weapons did occur in degree in Ethiopia (Lindert, 1967) with a number of examples inscribed in Ge'ez (Amharic).
It does seem that these very same swords likely did gain travel to Zanzibar with Omani traders who networked through the African interior and did interact with traders from these Ethiopian entrepots.

Therefore, the misattribution by Stone, the similarity of some features of s'boula to flyssa, and the misattribution by Demmin and Burton to Zanzibar have all been actually somewhat explained.

As for Tunisian or Libyan attribution for the s'boula, it is possible that some of these might have ended up in their sphere....but only incidentally from interaction via trade networks eastward from Morocco. I have not found any evidence for these being indigenous for either of these regions in the many years I have researched them.

Ibrahiim al Balooshi 9th March 2017 02:45 PM

The written word can be a very dangerous thing. More so when a fact is put down on paper in a respected publication and allowed to become fact for generations...Perpetration of errors in print, however, are no reason to reel off these, at times, blistering errors as facts in our era; where fortunately here at Forum the case for the incorrect detail on S'boula has been dead and buried many times over and now at last finally it can vanish in the mist of time ...finally...I hope other researchers can show further examples of these often repeated mistakes so we can rid history of these errors..something a book cannot do but for which we can be instrumental in correcting.

Jim McDougall 9th March 2017 03:41 PM

Extremely well said Ibrahiim!
In rereading this thread, many of the entries all have made some very astute observations such as reference to the inscription on the blade. This does seem to be a native applied imitation of what was likely one of the 'magical' acrostics or letter groupings which seem to have had possible imbued values other than the letters themselves. These often appeared on various European blades and were on blades described in Oakeshott and others from quite early sword blades, so these woud have been prestigiously regarded indeed.

As also has been noted, many of these s'boula were indeed mounted with bayonets and typically from French colonial sources, well available in these Saharan and Sahelian regions.

Visual assessments of the features and character of weapon forms in determining regional placement are always of course well valued, but often compromised by the well known diffusion of influences and often weapons themselves through trade and other motivational factors. As I have often recalled, as noted by other arms researchers in many cases, weapon forms have no geographic boundaries.
The key is often to determine areas where the preponderance of the form exists, has been recorded and observed in accounts or iconographically in many cases.

TVV 9th March 2017 04:18 PM


Thank you for a very detailed answer explaining the Moroccan origin of these daggers and the history of their (mis)attribution to other areas in Africa.

A recurring theme through this thread seems to be the concept that many of the sboulas were made from European bayonets. I personally feel that most were either made from European sword blades or forged locally. Given the shape and geometry of sboula blades, I just cant think of many, or even any, bayonets that would fit without having to be reforged. These daggers are quite long, and both I have blades of approximately 21 inches. We can rule out all shorter bayonets, along with all spike bayonets. There were longer bayonets available in the 19th century of course, but the French Chassepot bayonet and other yataghan bayonets had a characteristic curve, and the sboula of course does not. The Gras bayonet has a straight back, but lacks the fuller structure we see on sboula blades, and I have not seen a sboula with a blade of a T-section yet.

I have seen janwi daggers with blades that most definitely started as French bayonets, but the fuller structure and shape of sboulas to me at least suggests sword blades (or local imitation thereof) and not bayonets.


ariel 9th March 2017 04:48 PM

Berbers are spread from Tunisia to Mali.
They view themselves as a nation separate from the Arabs and assert they are the native inhabitants of the area and that their ancestors were conquered by the Arabs and forcibly converted to Islam, to which they do not wish to belong.
They call themselves Amazigh. Their national hero is Queen Kahina, a contemporary of Muhammed, who managed to stall Arab advance and maintain an independent Berber state for 5 years.

Berbers are largely separated by clans concentrated roughly within different North African states. This probably explains the differences between their contemporary ethnic weapons. The sticky point in this explanation is the fact that we do not have examples of ancient Berber weapons, just the 19 century at the earliest. By that time, external influences, - Spanish, French, Italian and Ottoman,- likely obscured the inherent patterns and we have to resign ourselves to the fact that the original weapons of the Berbers will never be known to us.

Kubur 9th March 2017 07:10 PM

Originally Posted by TVV
Thank you for the comments gentlemen.

Kubur, I personally believed the sboulas to be from Morocco, based on a couple of things:
1. The ones in Tirri's book show Moroccan decorative motives.
2. The only picture of a native wearing one shows him with an afedali musket from the Sous valley.

Jim, Teodor, I checked in my books and you are right: Morroco.
Buttin called them sboula or sekkin, he admited that this kind of daggers has some Moroccan characteristics... As Arial said Berbers spread from Tunisia to Mali.

Jim McDougall 10th March 2017 01:29 AM

Thank you Kubur, and you are right, Buttin did indeed describe ornamentation etc. as distinctly Moroccan and would have been most familiar with the weapons of Morocco. As I was told by his great grandson Dominique, he lived much of his life in Morocco so was keenly aware of their arms.
Teodor, good points on the bayonet potential for these weapons as being somewhat questionable, and I admit from my own standpoint, it was more of a notion given the extremely thin, needle point nature of a number of these (case in point Buttin, #1033). This example is specifically termed 'sekkin' as opposed to s'boula, and perhaps this, 'extremely long poniard' was identified as such by that term.
I had thought this looked remarkably like either the M1874 Epee Gras or the M1886 Lebel bayonets.
Again, another free association assumption.

Ariel, good notes on the Berbers, and I recall years ago (actually I think in this particular research) reading the anthropological study on Moroccan Berber ancestry "Tribes of the Rif" (Carleton S. Coon, 1932) where they emphatically declared they were 'Caucasian' or 'white' and not negroid.

To try to estimate types of weapons by classifying them as 'Berber' would be as useless as trying to classify a weapon as 'Byzantine' . It does seem that such broad classification has transcended these kinds of vague terming in the case of 'Ottoman' in perhaps too many cases, but accompanying qualification seems to usually rectify these.

Kubur 12th March 2017 05:31 PM

I have a small problem now.
What are the differences between a sboula and a genoui?
I can't find genoui in the litterature, is it something from collectors only?

Jim McDougall 13th March 2017 03:40 AM

Originally Posted by Kubur
I have a small problem now.
What are the differences between a sboula and a genoui?
I can't find genoui in the litterature, is it something from collectors only?

Actually, as in so many cases of the 'name game' in ethnographic edged weapons, the term is actually 'djenoui' (or genouii; janwi) and is a loosely used colloquialism in primarily Berber (or Maghrebi) parlance for a straight bladed dagger. This has often been applied to the koummya with straight blade, or any similar North African dagger with straight blade (indeed most likely by collectors).

As these were often from repurposed European blades, and presumably recalling earlier imports from Genoan sources, thus 'Genouii' (=Genoan), obviously an explanation wide open to critique, but the one typically recalled in discussions here over the past 8-10 years.

The s'boula could be technically called this I suppose, but really it is a matter of semantics and local parlance. The term s'boula is associated with Moroccan edged weapon as discussed, where the genouii term is mostly a colloquial term for straight blade with far broader scope.

When we really get into these terms as far as local parlances, even the koummya is not known by that term is simply 'khanjhar', much the way sa'if is used for the so called 'nimcha' sword in Morocco.

Kubur 13th March 2017 11:59 AM

3 Attachment(s)
Thank you very much Jim. I agree.
In the past, you or another member compared the Genoui to the Algerian khodmi or Bou Saada.
I make sense but then if the genoui and the s'bula are the same then it's confusing...
Here are some classic s'bula. I will post later the Tunisian ones that I mentionned at the begining...

TVV 13th March 2017 05:38 PM

Jim brings up a good point: as collectors we have a need for classification, unlike the original users of the weapons. Therefore, we often get caught up in needless semantics discussions.

That being said, I believe the people who made and used these swords still made some differentiation - for example, to them a short dagger would not be the same as one with a 22 inches/55 cm blade, as the two would have served an entire different purpose. In various cultures, we see a similar trend of knives becoming longer to serve as a sort of a short sword: whether it is the yataghans in the Ottoman Empire, the bauerwehr (and in later times the hanger) in Europe, the Khyber knife in Afghanistan or the sboula, the concept is the same. Whether because of socio-economic restraints: a sword was an expensive weapon, and in many cultures restricted to only certain social classes, or simply because a full sized sword was impractical and something easier to carry around was necessary, long knives as side arms seem to have existed almost everywhere.

When looking at the picture of the warrior with the afedali musket, the sboula is thrust in his sash not dissimilar to how a yataghan would be thrust in the silyahlik, and while the gun is his main weapon, he probably wanted a side arm in case a hand to hand combat situation arose. So when looking at sboulas, I see them as that: a longer dagger for use in those situations where a normal sized dagger would not be enough, and where a full sized sword or sabre would be too much or simply unobtainable.

The janwi (djenoui, genoui) on the other hand seems to be of shorter, more regular dagger size proportions and hilted like a koummaya. Obviously, longer versions like the one Kubur posted from wodimi's site exist, and there are certainly shorter daggers with an H-shaped hilt. There is no clear line between the two sometimes, taking us back to Jim's post about the futility of trying to come up with a rigid classification system.

To sum it up, I use "sboula" to refer to a longer dagger (20 inches+ blade) with an H shaped hilt, and "genoui" to refer to a regular sized straight dagger with a koummaya type hilt, with the understanding that this terminology is imperfect and exceptions and in-between versions of both forms exist.


Kubur 13th March 2017 07:38 PM

1 Attachment(s)
Well Teodor I agree we like to put names on things.
But I'm not satisfied with the sbula with a H shaped hilt, neither completly satisfied by the Moroccan attribution. I agree that most of them are Moroccan but not only. If the genoui was inspired by the little Italian dagger, yes it should be under 40cm long. For the hilt I'm not sure...

Jim McDougall 13th March 2017 10:28 PM

Thanks guys!
As has been noted, collectors have a need for classification. This is because the items being collected have to be identified and categorized as they are being placed in a static situation. Here the are to be viewed and admired as objects of interest from various perspectives. That being the case, Collectors strive to find the most accurate and descriptive terms possible.

However, these weapons while in use during their working lives are in most cases referred to by local terms or colloquial words and nicknames.Those actually using the weapons do not care what they are called. In the struggle to discover the proper terms for weapons, those inquiring often ended up with semantically incorrect words, transliterations, and completely misapplied in many cases. Welcome to the world of 'collectors terms', a glossary of names for weapons which may or may not have anything to do with what these weapons are really called.

In many cases, efforts to find correct terms are regarded by native people of the regions of the weapons involved find these queries and the very notion of such efforts curious and often almost laughable.

The term kaskara, case in point. About 20 years ago, I began trying to discover the origin of the word, noticing that the first mention using the word in western literature was Burton (1885) but interestingly he made no reference to the etymology of scope of the term. For many years after, I tried to find more on the word from museum officials, authors, major collectors and dealers. None had the slightest idea of where the term came from, nor considered it of any importance. I even asked a friend who was an archaeologist in Sudanese regions, and prominent collector of Sudanese arms who was in Sudan, to check with the university in Khartoum. They had no answer for why the name 'kaskara' nor where it came from.
In interviewing people who had come from Sudan, Darfur and Eritrea.....none had ever heard the word kaskara, and when showed a photo of them....simply said sa'if.
It was not until our own Iain completed landmark research on tribes of the Sahara that he found the source for the word in one of the dialects. The term somehow became linked to the broadswords, probably through Burton, and then soundly and forever placed in the 'collectors glossary' as these Sudanese broadswords.

This goes on with so many ethnographic examples it would be impossible to cover all the examples and instances here. Even in European and other weapons, the same phenomenon takes place.
The only problem with the disparity between collectors terms, locally termed and broader terms for specific weapons is when one is researching a type as far as its history or development, and relying on contemporary narratives and accounts. Here the danger is that one weapon may be the actual item described, but semantically the researcher does not which weapon it really is.

As for regional attribution, there is nothing holding a weapon type within one region or another, they move freely with those carrying them or trading them. The Moroccan attribution of the H hilt s'boula is from reliable observation (Buttin), published sources and photographic evidence.
These show a preponderance of that characteristic hilt, which suggests this is the area they are likely from.

If there are countless examples in area A, but one or several turn up in area B, a region some distance away.....we are compelled to believe area A is the indigenous area, though some have diffused to area B and probably elsewhere.

TVV 13th March 2017 10:42 PM

Kubur, I believe you are correct. If we base the names on Buttin, then he refers to shorter (blade under 50 cm) versions as S'boula, regardless of hilt shape, and to longer ones as Sekkin.


Kubur 13th March 2017 11:08 PM

4 Attachment(s)
Here sold recently a very interesting s'boula from Tunisia.
Why Tunisia? Because the hilt is very different from the Moroccan ones made of one piece of rhino or cow horn. The Tunisian are made of two pieces separated by a metal brass disc...
For more infos please see

Kubur 13th March 2017 11:14 PM

2 Attachment(s)
and here is mine, ugly but cheap, old and Moroccan...

Jim McDougall 14th March 2017 01:39 AM

Very interesting perspective Kubur on these Tunisian examples! and thank you for pointing out characteristic differences. It is good to see how the 'Maghrebi' forms, which typically include Moroccan and Algerian littoral have extended into the Tunisian sphere. Thank you as well for the link to the earlier thread which was a remarkably informational discussion.

Kubur 14th March 2017 10:38 AM

Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
Very interesting perspective Kubur on these Tunisian examples! and thank you for pointing out characteristic differences. It is good to see how the 'Maghrebi' forms, which typically include Moroccan and Algerian littoral have extended into the Tunisian sphere. Thank you as well for the link to the earlier thread which was a remarkably informational discussion.

Thanks to you Jim for your wise and very informative messages. I wish i could write long messages like you. But I'm a short minded guy with short messages... If you remember our previous thread you mentioned the Albacete type piercing in the blade, seeming assortment of influences from Spanish colonies. I agree and I'll add Spanish colonies and strongholds in North Africa. It's funny because (the excellent) Lebedynsky said that these daggers could be Lebanese.

Kubur 15th March 2017 12:41 PM

1 Attachment(s)
Hi Teodor,

I will go a bit deeper and say that the Genoui, Janwi is the Moroccan version of the Corsican stiletto or the Genoese stiletto.
On this picture, the knife to the left is a Moroccan Genoui and not a s'bula or sboula.
For me the best version of the Genoese stiletto is the Algerian khodmi or Bu saidi knife: the same kind of hilt and same kind of blade...
And to come back to the beginning, your dagger is a Moroccan s'bula for sure.

TVV 15th March 2017 05:51 PM


Given all the evidence for European influence on Maghrebi arms, I believe you are onto something regarding the blade shape similarity between stilettos and genoi and khodmi daggers. It would make sense that the locals would call that blade style after Genoa, whose merchants dominated the Western Mediterranean trade at the time when the style made it to Morocco and Algeria.

Which book is the illustration from?


Kubur 16th March 2017 09:00 AM

Originally Posted by TVV

Given all the evidence for European influence on Maghrebi arms, I believe you are onto something regarding the blade shape similarity between stilettos and genoi and khodmi daggers. It would make sense that the locals would call that blade style after Genoa, whose merchants dominated the Western Mediterranean trade at the time when the style made it to Morocco and Algeria.

Which book is the illustration from?


Hi unfortunately I just picked up on Google images like a lot of members...

TVV 11th June 2017 10:22 PM

3 Attachment(s)
Here is another one, made from a European cavalry sword blade. The hilt is very crude and looks like the branches of the crossguard were removed on purpose. The tip has been reshaped as well.

I suspect that these daggers were made from European sword blades on purpose, and not necessarily from broken and recycled blades.

TVV 17th June 2017 02:59 AM

2 Attachment(s)
I obtained a copy of Lindert's booklet as I was curious about the Ethiopian connection. I am attaching scans of the photo where he shows a sboula with two swords from Ethiopia, as well as a scan of the text that refers to the sboula. It does not appear that the attribution was made based on Amharic text on the blade.

The entire booklet is riddled with wrong attributions, and I get the feeling that while Lindert travelled through Africa in search of arms and armor specimens to collect, the locals sold him anything they could, along with some embellished stories. I guess coming up with tales about a secretive group of black Jewish artisans is a better sales description than "unknown sword from somewhere else".

All times are GMT. The time now is 08:07 AM.

Powered by: vBulletin Version 3.0.3
Copyright ©2000 - 2018, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.