Warrior kings: A look at the history of the Mamluks


The Mamluks, who descended from non-Arab slaves who were naturalised to serve and fight for ruling Arab dynasties, are revered as some of the greatest warriors the world has ever known. Although the word “mamluk” translates as “one who is owned”, the Mamluk soldiers proved otherwise, gaining a powerful military standing in various Muslim societies, particularly in Egypt. They would also go on to hold political power for several centuries during a period known as the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt.

While renowned for their strength, which was able to overpower the Mongols, the Mamluks also left behind a strong cultural and architectural legacy that can still be seen on the streets of Cairo today. As with many empires, initial stories of heroism and brilliance are tempered by later ones of decadence and corruption – but all complete the picture of a warrior history with few equals in the world.

ORIGINS & CULTURE: Before the Mamluks rose to power, there was a long history of slave soldiers in the Middle East, with many recruited into Arab armies by the Abbasid rulers of Baghdad in the ninth century. The tradition was continued by the dynasties that followed them, including the Fatimids and Ayyubids (it was the Fatimids who built the foundations of what is now Islamic Cairo).

For centuries, the rulers of the Arab world recruited men from the lands of the Caucasus and Central Asia. It is hard to discern the precise ethnic background of the Mamluks, given that they came from a number of ethnically mixed regions, but most are thought to have been Turkic (mainly Kipchak and Cuman) or from the Caucasus (predominantly Circassian, but also Armenian and Georgian).

The Mamluks were recruited forcibly to reinforce the armies of Arab rulers. As outsiders, they had no local loyalties, and would thus fight for whoever owned them, not unlike mercenaries. Furthermore, the Turks and Circassians had a ferocious reputation as warriors. The slaves were either purchased or abducted as boys, around the age of 13, and brought to the cities, most notably to Cairo and its Citadel.

Here they would be converted to Islam and would be put through a rigorous military training regime that focused particularly on horsemanship. A code of behaviour not too dissimilar to that of the European knights’ code of chivalry was also inculcated and was known as Furusiyya. As in many military establishments to this day the authorities sought to instil an esprit de corps and a sense of duty among the young men. The Mamluks would have to live separately from the local populations in their garrisons, which included the Citadel and Rhoda Island, also in Cairo. As the elite fighting corps of the Ayyubid Empire in Egypt, the Mamluks’ power started to grow.

SHAJAR AL DURR: While some Arab rulers may have been of Mamluk descent prior to 1250, most historians agree that it was in this year that the Mamluks really seized power. The story of their capture of the throne befits their history – full of exotic and brilliant characters, subterfuge and violence. It may come as a surprise to some that the person who ushered in the rule of this male military organisation (and some would say the first Mamluk ruler) was a woman: Shajar Al Durr, a Turkic slave girl who married Ayyubid Sultan Al Salih Ayyub. Having been imprisoned with him in Syria, she accompanied him to Cairo where he became sultan in 1240.

At that time, the Middle East was under pressure from the Mongol hordes of Hulegu Khan. But a more immediate threat came in 1249, with the invasion of Egypt by King Louis IX and his seventh crusade. Louis took the Delta city of Damietta and Cairo looked at risk, particularly after the death of Al Salih from ill health. But, with the Mamluks’ connivance, Al Durr disguised the news of her husband’s death and took power. The Mamluk forces were able to drive back the European knights, and capture and ransom Louis.

Meanwhile, Al Salih’s son, Turanshah, was installed as sultan, but is said to have proved unsatisfactory to the Mamluks, who assassinated him shortly thereafter. This allowed Al Durr to publically raise herself to power. However, the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad and the Ayyubids in Syria refused to recognise her as the legitimate monarch. As a compromise, she married Aybak, who is generally acknowledged as the first Mamluk ruler of the Bahri dynasty. “Bahri” means island, as this dynasty largely comprised Mamluks from Rhoda. Aybak reigned over Egypt for seven years, but Al Durr, a strong-willed woman who had held Egypt together during a time of crisis, also wanted power. A bloody ending was almost inevitable: in 1257, Aybak was killed by servants on his wife’s orders, and within weeks, his son revenged his murder and had Al Durr beaten to death with bath clogs, bringing an end to one of the most extraordinary women in medieval history.

POWER CEMENTED: Soon enough, Egypt was again seriously threatened by foreign invasion. The Mongols led by notorious ruler Hulegu had overrun Baghdad and seized much of Syria and parts of Anatolia. But in 1260, an army under Mamluk commander Baybars won a stunning victory against Hulegu during the Battle of Ayn Jalut, and the Mongol threat to Egypt was extinguished. Appropriately, Ayn Jalut translates as “Spring of Goliath”.

Following the battle, Baybars promptly returned to Cairo, had the sultan assassinated and installed himself in power. Under his rule, the Mamluks drove the Mongols out of Syria and took a number of cities held by the Crusaders and the fortresses of Outremer (France’s name for land beyond the sea). He also led an army into Little Armenia. Aside from being a military genius, Baybars also forged diplomatic relations with a number of foreign powers, including Norman Sicily and the Golden Horde in Russia, and established an efficient bureaucracy at home.

Under Baybar’s successor, Qalawun, the last Crusader-held towns on the Levantine coast fell, securing Syria for the Mamluks as a military buffer zone, as well as a strategic region on important trade routes. It also had an abundance of resources. Over the following centuries, the Mamluks would have to defend Syria from incursions by the Mongols, Timur (Tamerlane) and the Ottoman Turks.

CULTURAL LEGACY: Under Mamluk rule, Cairo flourished. Located along one of the major trade routes between the East and the West, it became one of the world’s great cities, a teeming mass of bazaars, public buildings, mosques and wikalas (luxurious merchants’ homes). The Mamluk rulers were also great patrons of the arts and sciences, not unlike their Umayyad predecessors in Syria. Few would dispute that their greatest creative achievements were in the field of architecture. Today, many of Cairo’s greatest monuments, which rank among the finest in the world, are of Mamluk provenance.

Each sultan was determined to leave behind an architectural legacy. The greatest constructed large religious complexes, usually including a mosque, a madrassa (religious school) and a mausoleum for the patron himself. These tend to vary considerably depending on the taste of the ruler, though there are unifying themes found in Mamluk architecture of certain periods. These include “pepperpot” domes (also found on top of minarets), minarets with three tiers, and stalactite motifs in archways and again on minarets. Surface design is also quite lavish: the Mamluks liked to identify their buildings through heraldic symbols, and inlaid marble and the use of calligraphy as decoration are also common motifs.

Mashrabiya – latticework screens of wood or stone – are also a strong feature of Mamluk architecture. Mashrabiya is thought to have derived from Abbasid Iraq, and is still used in Arab architecture to this day.

One of the most striking aspects of Mamluk design is ablaq, which involves alternating layers of white and coloured (usually red or black) stone. The cathedrals of Genoa and Pisa in Italy have intriguingly similar techniques. Like all good empires, the Mamluks were not afraid to borrow from elsewhere, and sometimes directly. The splendid portal of the complex of Al Nasir Mohammad (three-time sultan between 1293 and 1341), for example, is thought to have been taken from the cathedral at Acre in Palestine.

LIVING MEMORY: As was intended, each Mamluk building reminds us a little of its patron. One of the most spectacular is Qalawun’s complex, which comprises a mosque, hospital, madrassa and mausoleum. It is sometimes ranked with the Taj Mahal as one of the world’s most impressive and important funerary monuments. The complex stands on Bayn Al major thoroughfares, where once stood the Fatimid rulers’ residences. It features many typical Mamluk elements, including ablaq around the doorway (though the main structure is a harmonious and smooth reddish sandstone), stalactite designs in the door arch, and mashrabiya windows.

Next to Qalawun’s complex is the mausoleum of his son, Al Nasir Muhammad, the minaret of which is particularly striking. It is a solid, oblong structure intricately carved with meshing designs and calligraphy, topped with a small onion dome. Al Nasir was well known for his victorious battles against the Mongols, as well as his efforts to stamp out corruption at home and his extensive diplomatic relations.

Alongside the Qalawun and Al Nasir Muhammad buildings is the khanqah (monastery or lodge for the Sufi order) and mausoleum of Sultan Barquq, a truly monumental and remarkably varied line of structures in the district of Bayn Al Qasrayn. Barquq came to power in 1382, and was the first ruler of the Burji Mamluk dynasty. The Burjis followed the Bahris, and were so-called because of their base in the Citadel (burj in Arabic means “tower”). They were largely of Circassian descent. Barquq’s monument is perhaps most notable for its dome, decorated with a simple but eye-catching design.

A few hundred metres to the south, the Sultan Al Ghuri, who apparently preferred flowers to conflict, left a spectacular mosque, madrassa and mausoleum complex arching over one of Islamic Cairo’s main bazaar streets. The irregular shape of the buildings, as well as the striking ablaq and the use of blue tiling, make this one of the most remarkable structures in Cairo. It is a fitting legacy for Al Ghuri, who was the penultimate Mamluk sultan and who perished in battle with the Ottomans in the north of Syria in 1516. Six months later, Cairo fell to Ottoman Sultan Selim I and he became the first Ottoman sultan to become the caliph of Islam.

DOWNFALL: One of the most remarkable aspects of the Mamluk rule is its longevity, despite instability at the very top of the system. The average Mamluk sultan ruled for just seven years – the majority were murdered and few died in comfort. That Egypt held together despite this is perhaps testament to the Mamluk bureaucracy and to the tenacity of the merchant classes, who continued to trade with the world whilst intrigues raged inside the Citadel.

Nonetheless, the system had begun to atrophy. The regime’s military prowess was not what it was, and a reluctance to use firearms rendered their armies ineffective against the Ottomans and Portuguese. The plague also struck Cairo in repeated waves, on some occasions killing the majority of the population. Every time, the city would recover remarkably well, but this disease and others could not help but take their toll. The Portuguese discovery and exploitation of trade routes in Africa to Asia also undermined the Mamluks’ control of East-West trade.

With the Ottoman conquest, Cairo became a second city to Istanbul. Nonetheless, it remained crucial to the empire, and the new rulers in Istanbul found that they could not do without the Mamluk caste, which retained influence and power. On several occasions, the Mamluks attempted to overthrow their Ottoman rulers, and though they never quite succeeded, they remained perhaps the leading force in asserting Egyptian autonomy for several hundred years, acting as local nobility.

FINAL DAYS: It is testament to the Mamluks’ tenacity that they were still considered a force to be reckoned with in the early 19th century. Having fought against Napoleon’s forces and the Ottomans at the turn of that century, the warrior-nobles made their presence in the region felt. It took Muhammad Ali, the ethnic-Albanian Ottoman governor of Egypt and another of the country’s most remarkable figures, to finally destroy the Mamluks’ power once and for all, roughly a millennium after the first Mamluk soldier-slaves came to the Nile Valley. In March 1811 Muhammad Ali invited several hundred nobles to the Citadel, ostensibly for a celebration. But it was a trap, and all of them were slaughtered in an ambush – except for one, who, legend has it, leapt from the battlements on his horse and escaped.

The Mamluks were gone, but certainly not forgotten. Their prowess, military, administrative and particularly artistic legacy changed the face of Egypt and the Middle East, and it continues to live on.

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