Post-classical history


General term for a slave soldier, usually of Turkish origin, in the Islamic world. The Arabic word mamluk (pl. mamālīk) literally means “owned.” Turkish mamlûk units played a decisive role in the military efforts of Muslim rulers against the Franks from the beginning of the latter’s presence in the Levant, and many of the famous commanders and rulers who fought the Franks were of mamlûkorigin.

Military slavery emerged in the Muslim world in the early ninth century, although its antecedents go back earlier. It can be connected with the ‘Abbāsid caliph al-Mu‘tasim (833-842), although some credit should be accorded to his brother and predecessor, al-Ma’mûn (813-833), who abetted the former’s activities in this direction while he was still a prince. Several factors explain the emergence of military slavery at this time: the gradual withdrawal or removal of the Arabs, both nomadic and settled, from military life; the question of the loyalty of the soldiers from northeastern Persia, hitherto the mainstays of the ‘Abbāsid regime; and the final Muslim conquest of Transoxania, which brought the Muslims into contact with the Turks then nomadizing in the steppes to the north.

The Arabic sources note with appreciation the military qualities of the Turks: excellent horsemanship, first-rate archery, discipline, and hardiness, all resulting from their nomadic-pastoral lifestyle and steppe environment. Turks, at first mainly known as ghilmān (pl. of ghulām, “a youth”), were recruited into what was originally conceived as a guard corps, but the corps soon took on duties as a field army, fighting in the yearly campaigns against the Byzantines. These Turks were enrolled as slaves and separated as much as possible from other units and the civilian population. They were thus cut off from both their lands of origin and local society. The hope, largely fulfilled at the beginning at least, was that they would prove to be unequivocally loyal to their patron—that is, the caliph who bought, raised, and maintained them—as well as to each other. This system thus involved a patron-client relationship on a large scale, institutionalized through slavery. Although military slavery in the Muslim countries continued to develop and change over the centuries, the principle of loyalty to both patron and comrades had been established.

Loyalty, however, was not necessarily something that could be transferred to the successor (even the son) of the royal patron, who might be busy trying to build up his own unit of slave soldiers or another military body. Here, too, there are hints of a pattern that became common later during the time of the Mamlûk sultanate. In 861 Turkish officers of slave origin murdered the ‘Abbāsidcaliph al- Mutawakkil, fearing that he was going to undermine their position. Although Turkish military slaves often continued to contribute to political instability, they also became the predominant military element in the eastern Islamic lands, in both the caliphal armies and the forces of the all-but-independent provincial rulers. It appears that the combination of their military advantages and the theoretical loyalty commended them to Muslim rulers from Egypt to the edges of central Asia.

The Saljûq Turks who arrived in eastern Persia in the early eleventh century soon built themselves a large Turkish slave- soldier formation, shunting the Turcoman tribesmen who accompanied and hitherto supported them into a secondary position. It was some of the mamlûk troops who played a decisive role in the Saljûq victory over the Byzantines at Mantzikert in 1071. Mamlûk units were found in the service of the various Muslim princes and strongmen in Syria who fought the Franks after their arrival in the course of the First Crusade (1096-1099). Some of these Turkish rulers were themselves of slave origin, having served the Saljûqs or their successors. The Fātimids also employed units of Turkish slave soldiers, also as cavalry, but these played a less prominent role compared to that in the Muslim countries to the east.

In the initial centuries of military slavery, young ghufôms/mamlûks were imported into the Muslim world from the area beyond the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River or via the Caucasus. Later on, the steppe region north of the Black Sea became an important source of mamlûks. Importation was carried out by professional Muslim slave traders, who usually enjoyed the cooperation of local Turkish princes in the countries of origin, and often of the families of the youngsters themselves.

Mamlûk units formed the backbone of the armies of various Muslim rulers whose lands bordered the Frankish states of Outremer in the twelfth century and who were often at war with them: Zangī;his son Nûr al-Dīn; and the latter’s representative, Saladin, who eventually became the ruler of Egypt and Muslim Syria and the nemesis of the Franks. Perhaps because of Saladin’s Kurdish origins, some scholars did not accord the Turkish slave soldiers much importance in his reign, but the research of the late David Ayalon has put that matter to rest. The mamlûks, whether of Saladin, his kinsmen, or other commanders and allies, were a key element, for example, in the Muslim victory at Hattin in 1187.

Later Ayyûbid princes in Egypt, Syria, Upper Mesopotamia (Arab. al-Jazira), and beyond continued the tradition of buying Turkish slaves of steppe origin and employing them in formations of mounted archers. Generally, the units were not large: al-Kāmil Muhammad ibn al-‘Ādil Abû Bakr, the ruler of Egypt (1218-1238) and the most important Ayyûbid of his generation, was credited with some 10,000 mounted troops, of which mamlûks were only a part, but they enjoyed political and military prominence. While the mamlûk presence was significant in the early thirteenth century, it was to become even stronger under the rule of al-Sālih Ayyûb(1238-1249). During one of the civil wars that often characterized inter-Ayyûbid relations, and in which al-Sālih Ayyûb briefly lost control of the throne, he found himself abandoned by much of the army. He came to the conclusion that only a force of his own mamlûks would give him the security he needed. He therefore arrested or dismissed many of the officers who had served his father and brother and formed a relatively large corps known as the Salihiyya from his own mamlûks. One large component within it was a regiment that served as his elite troops. It was known as Bahriyya, from its quarters in the fortress of al- Rawda on the Nile (Arab. bahr al-Nil, literally “the sea of the Nile”).

This desire to create a large corps of Turkish slave soldiers was facilitated by the appearance of the Mongols in the steppes north of the Black Sea. Al-Nuwayrī (d. 1333) writes: “The [Mongols] fell upon [the Turkish tribesmen of this area] and brought upon most of them death, slavery and captivity. At this time, merchants bought [these captives] and brought them to the [various] countries and cities. The first who demanded many of them, and made them lofty and advanced them in the army was al-Malik al-Sālih Najm al- Dīn Ayyûb” [Nihayat al-Arab, 33 vols. (El-Qâhira: Dāral- Kutub al-Misriyya, 1923-1984), 29:417]. Thus a desire for mamlûks was accompanied by the relative ease with which they could be acquired. Ironically, it may be noted that the Mongols active in southern Russia inadvertently created a situation that later led to the defeat of their kinsmen in Palestine and Syria.

Al-Sālih‘s efforts to create a new formation were to prove themselves posthumously during the invasion of Egypt by a crusade led by King Louis IX of France. During the standoff at Mansurah (1249-1250) in the Nile Delta, the sultan had died (although an attempt was made to keep this secret). At some point, the Franks launched a surprise attack against the Muslim camp that almost led to a Muslim rout. Only with the appearance and resolution of the Bahriyya, who included the future sultan Baybars I, was the situation saved. Ibn al-Furāt (d. 1405) writes of this battle: “This was the first encounter in which the polytheist dogs were defeated by means of the Turkish lions” [Ayyubids, Mamlukes and Crusaders: Selections from the Tārikh al-Duwal wa’l-Mulûk of Ibn al-Furāt, trans. U. Lyons and M. C. Lyons, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Heffer, 1971), 2:22-23].

Soon after this victory, Tūrān Shāh, the son and heir of al- Sālih, arrived at the scene, but he rapidly succeeded in alienating much of his father’s military elite, not the least the Bahriyya. On 1 May 1250 Tūrān Shāh was assassinated by a group of mamlūk officers, who seized control of the Egyptian state. The regime they established, known as the Mamlūk sultanate, ruled Egypt and Syriauntil its overthrow by the Ottoman Empire in 1517.

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