Post-classical history

Baybars I (d. 1277)

Al-Malik al-Zāhir Baybars I al-Bunduqdārī, Mamlūk sultan of Egypt and Syria (1260-1277).

Baybars was by origin a Qipchâq Turk, born in the southern Russian steppe in the 1220s. As a fourteen-year-old boy, he was enslaved and sold to Aydakīn al-Bunduqdār, an emir of the Ayyûbidsultan al-Sālih Ayyūb, after whom he was called “al-Bunduqdārī.” In 1246 his master fell into disgrace, and Baybars became one of the mamlūks (military slaves) of al-Sālih Ayyūb. This personal regiment was originally garrisoned on an island in the Nile and known subsequently as the Bahriyya (from Arab. Bahr al-Nil, i.e., river Nile).

After the death of al-Sālih Ayyūb, the mamlūks of the Bahriyya killed his successor Tūrān-Shāh, and seized power in 1250, establishing the Mamlūk sultanate. The new Mamlūk sultan built up his own military household, so that from this point the history of the sultanate was marked by continuing power struggles of the different Mamlūk groups. When the Mongols invaded Syria in 1260, the Bahriyya had for some years been in exile in the service of the Ayyūbid lords of Kerak and Damascus. Now the leader of the regiment, Baybars, came to an agreement with the Mamlūk sultan Qutuz and returned to Egypt. After the victory of the Mamlūk regime over the Mongols at the battle of ‘Ayn Jālūt (1260), the old factional hostility between the Bahriyya and the mamlūks of Qutuz reemerged. Together with a group of conspirators, Baybars killed the sultan in the same year and was elected by the leading officers of the Bahriyya as the new sultan.

Having usurped the sultanate from the Ayyūbids, the Mamlūk regime suffered from a problem of legitimation from the beginning. Thus, when descendants of the ‘Abbāsid family arrived in Cairo in 1261, Baybars took the opportunity to revive the caliphate, which had been ended by the Mongols when they conquered Baghdad in 1258. The newly installed caliph, al-Mustansir Billāh, invested Baybars as the sole universal sultan of all Islamic territories and of lands yet to be conquered. This investiture not only served him as a means of legitimating his rule but was also the announcement and authorization of a program of expansion. The religious classes (Arab. ‘ulama) also tried to bolster Baybars’s authority by highlighting his services to Islam, since he supported them financially by the establishment of pious foundations for mosques and schools. Thus, the Turkish war leader was presented by his biographers as the spiritual heir of his former master, al-Sālih Ayyūb, and the ideal champion of jihad (holy war), who repelled the pagan Mongols and zealously continued the war against the Franks of Outremer. His legendary exploits lived on in the popular folk epic Sirat Baybars. The sultan supported especially the Sufi shaykh (leader) Khadir ibn Abī Bakr al-Mihrānī, who acted not only as his spiritual director but also as his personal adviser, until he was imprisoned in 1273 as a result of a conspiracy of leading emirs.

After the battle of ‘Ayn Jālūt, the Mongols had fled back across the river Euphrates, and Baybars’s predecessor Qutuz made the first arrangements for Mamlūk rule in Syria and Palestine. While the Ayyūbid emirs of Hama, Homs, and Kerak were confirmed in their principalities, governors were appointed for the two most important cities, Aleppo and Damascus. Yet since the Mongols had not given up their aspirations of conquering Syria, Baybars had to strengthen his regime internally and to integrate his conquests into his domains. Thus in 1263 he placed Homs and Kerak under direct Mamlûk control. He continued the Ayyûbid policy of destroying the fortifications of the conquered Frankish cities of Outremer on the coast to prevent their being used as bridgeheads by future crusades. Further inland he captured the Frankish strongholds one after another. The former Frankish or Ayyûbid fortresses served as fortified regional centers and were either intended to contain the Franks still on the coast (as in the case of Saphet) or to act as bulwarks against the Mongols (as in the case of Bira on the banks of the Euphrates).

The Mamlûk regime was based mainly on its powerful army, which had been built up by Baybars. During his reign the Egyptian army was greatly enlarged by the purchase of large numbers of slaves for the sultan’s military household (the so-called Royal Mamlûks) and the households of the emirs. Baybars also took care of the quality of the army, putting emphasis on military training and inspecting his troops regularly. By 1260-1261, Baybars had organized a postal system (Arab. band) with post stations set up at regular intervals along the routes between Egypt and Syria, where horses could be changed. This service was primarily meant for military purposes and was restricted to use by the sultan. Since the Mamlûk army was concentrated in Cairo when not on campaign, it was necessary to be informed quickly of any Mongol or Frankish attack in order to be able to react. Bay- bars also restored and built roads and bridges in Syria and Palestine to improve the infrastructure of his realm.

Another important means of consolidating his regime was Baybars’s far-reaching diplomatic activities. The Mamlûks were always on the lookout for allies and tried to create a second front in order to weaken their opponents. Baybars formed an alliance with Berke, the khan of the Golden Horde, against their mutual enemy, the Ilkhanate of Persia. He also established good relations with the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos in order to prevent any threat to the import of military slaves from the northern Caucasus.

In 1261, Mamlûk rule in Syria and Palestine was still unstable, so that the Franks at Acre tried to take advantage of this situation and set out to attack a group of Turcomans on the Golan. They were severely beaten and thereafter did not dare launch a major attack against the Mamlûks. Nevertheless, in the first years of his reign, Baybars had to come to some kind of understanding with the Franks in order to pursue his war against the Mongols. For this reason, a treaty was concluded in 1261 with the Franks of Acre. It was largely a renewal of the agreement of 1254 between the ruler of Damascus, al-Nāsir Yûsuf, and the Franks. According to this treaty, the lands extending to the river Jordan were tributary to the Franks. However, Baybars pursued a quite different policy toward the principality of Antioch. Prince Bohemund VI had remained a close ally of the Mongols even after the battle of ‘Ayn Jâlût, and so Baybars raided his territory regularly to punish him for his cooperation with the Mongols and to wear down his military strength.

In 1265, having repulsed another Mongol attack on Bira, Baybars had averted the danger from the Mongols for the time being, and he turned his attention to the Frankish states. He conquered Caesarea and Arsuf, destroying their fortifications and harbors. From that point on, Baybars launched attacks against the Franks nearly every year to systematically reduce their power and territory. In 1266, the Mamlûk army invaded Cilicia as a punishment for its support of the Mongols. They inflicted a heavy defeat on the Armenians, devastating their capital of Sis: this defeat marked the end of the political importance of the kingdom of Cilicia. In 1268 Antioch was conquered, and the Frankish states of Outremer were reduced to the county of Tripoli and the residual kingdom of Jerusalem around Acre.

In 1271 Baybars was now at the height of his power and undertook his last great campaign against the Frankish states. He conquered Krak des Chevaliers from the Hospitallers and was about to attack Tripoli (mod. Trâblous, Lebanon). At this moment, the last crusade army arrived in Palestine, led by Prince Edward of England, who had made plans with Abagha, the Ilkhan of Persia, for a joint attack against Baybars. However, Edward’s contingent consisted of only a few hundred men, and the force sent by Abagha was also modest in size. As soon as Baybars offered a truce to Bohemund VI of Antioch and sent an army against the Mongols, they withdrew from Syria. Thus ended the only attempt of Franks and Mongols to act together against the Mamlûks. Edward stayed in Outremer until 1272 without achieving anything, and left Acre after narrowly escaping the assault of an assassin sent by Baybars.

At the end of his reign, Baybars tried to gain a decisive advantage over the Ilkhanate by conquering the Saljûq sultanate of Rûm, which was a Mongol protectorate. He defeated the Mongols heavily in the battle of Elbistan (April 1277) and was enthroned as sultan of Rûm. However, lacking local support, he had to withdraw only a few days later. On 1 July 1277, he died in Damascus.

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