Post-classical history

Mamluk Sultanate

A state ruled by slave soldiers of predominantly Turkish, and later Circassian, origin from 1250 to 1517. The Mamlūk sultanate was originally established in Egypt but soon came to control Palestine and Syria. It was responsible for the attenuation of the Frankish presence in Outremer and its final elimination with the taking of the city of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) in 1291.

The Sultan rendering justice. Miniature from The Fables of Bidpai: The Book of Kalila and Dimna, fourteenth century. (Giraudon/Art Resource)

The Sultan rendering justice. Miniature from The Fables of Bidpai: The Book of Kalila and Dimna, fourteenth century. (Giraudon/Art Resource)


The Mamlūk state emerged during the Crusade of Louis IX of France to the East (1248-1254). The Ayyūbid sultan al- Sālih Najm al-Dīn Ayyūb died in late 1249 while the crusade army was holding a position opposite the town of Mansurah (mod. El-Mansûra, Egypt). An attack by the crusaders on the Egyptian camp was defeated, largely owing to the Bahriyya, a regiment within the mamluk (slave soldier, literally “owned”) formation known as the Sālihiyya. Tūrān Shāh, the son and heir of al-Sālih, quickly alienated his officers, including the Bahriyya, and was assassinated on 1 May 1250.

In such cases in Muslim states at this time, the usual procedure was for the military grandees to gather and find a young prince who would be a puppet in the hands of the officers. On this occasion, however, the senior officers decided to dispense with a prince of the Ayyūbid family and appointed Shajar al-Durr, the Turkish wife of the late sultan.

The Mamlûk Sultanate in the reign of Baybars I (1260-1273)

The Mamlûk Sultanate in the reign of Baybars I (1260-1273)

This was a short-term arrangement: Muslim political culture was not yet ready to have a woman ruler. She was replaced by Aybak, a former mamlûk of al-Sālih (but not a member of the Bahriyya), who in turn married her.

Egypt had become a Mamlûk state, ruled by a Turkish military caste composed mainly of warriors of slave origin. The convoluted events of the 1250s were characterized by infighting among the various Mamlûk factions, along with conflict with the Syrian Ayyûbids, who did not accept that the rich country of Egypt had been wrested from the control of their family. This led to Ayyûbidattacks on Syria as well as Mamlûk campaigns in Palestine and its environs. The Bahriyya, which had played a prominent role at Mansurah and in the establishment of the new regime, was relegated to a secondary role: its leader, Aqtay, was murdered, and his second in command, Baybars, fled to Syria with 700 Bahri Mamlûks. In the next few years these refugees earned their keep as mercenaries and contributed not insignificantly to the political confusion in the region. The fledgling Mamlûk state was little concerned with the Franks on the coast at this time.

War against Mongols, Franks, and Armenians

The arrival of the Mongols in northern Syria at the beginning of 1260 put an end to the infighting. Early in the year, Bay- bars had returned to Cairo with his followers and reconciled with the new Mamlûk ruler, Qutuz. In the late winter, Ayyûbid rule collapsed in Damascus, and many soldiers and other refugees (including the odd Ayyûbid prince) fled to Egypt. Mongol raiders, meanwhile, were harrying the countryside as far south as Gaza and Hebron. With the withdrawal from Syria of the Ilkhan Hülegü with most of his army in the late winter, the sultan, supported by Baybars, decided to capture the initiative and attack the remaining Mongol troops in the country.

This campaign led to the complete Mamlûk victory at ‘Ayn Jâlût in northern Palestine on 3 September 1260. The battle was significant for three reasons: it showed that with determination (and luck) the Mongols could be beaten; it provided legitimacy for the nascent Mamlûk state; and finally, it gave the Mamlûks control over most of Muslim Syria up to the Euphrates and the foothills of the Taurus Mountains. At the same time, the Mamlûks understood that they had defeated only part of Hülegü’s army and that the real test of strength was yet to come. Qutuz, however, was unable to savor his victory for long. Within several weeks he had been assassinated by a team organized by Baybars, who replaced him as sultan.

Sultan Baybars I (1260-1277) was the real architect of Mamlûk power and in many ways can be seen as the insti- tutionalizer of the sultanate. He first had to strengthen his power internally, which he did by consolidating his support among the military (mostly Turkish) Mamlûk elite, particularly among his comrades in the Sâlihiyya/Bahriyya. Realizing that the greatest danger to the sultanate was an attack by the Mongols, now itching to revenge their defeat at ‘Ayn Jâlût, Baybars launched a massive expansion of the army (perhaps even as high as fourfold) and increased its readiness and training. A communication system, based on postal-horse relays (the famous band), smoke and fire signals, and pigeon-post, was established to bring quick word of trouble in Syria to the government center at the citadel in Cairo. A widespread external intelligence service was set up that included both sympathizers in the enemy camp and secret couriers; this system was active among the Mongols, the Armenians of Cilicia, and the Franks of the coast of Syria and Palestine.

Fortifications along the frontiers and inland were strengthened and refurbished, although it should be noted that fortifications along the coast were usually destroyed to some degree after these cities were taken from the Franks. The Mamlûks were never particularly adept seamen and made only a halfhearted attempt to keep a navy, as a sorry performance at Cyprus in 1271 shows. It was this awareness of Mamlûk weakness at sea that convinced Baybars to adopt a “scorched earth” policy on the coast, which was followed by his successors: conquered cities were razed (although actual destruction was surely less than the sources would lead us to believe), the logic being that the Franks, who enjoyed freedom of movement on the sea, would not be able to gain a significant and fortified beachhead on the coast before the mobile Mamlûks could gather and drive them off.

Baybars I also strengthened his hand politically, both internally and externally. He brought to Cairo a scion of the ‘Abbāsid family who had been found wandering around the Syrian desert; after ascertaining his genealogy, this claimant was declared caliph and given the title al-Mustansir. The lat- ter’s first act of “government” was to promptly hand over all aspects of power to the sultan, who was to act in his name. Baybars also received a mandate to expand the borders of his state. This caliph was soon sent across the border into Iraq with a small force, with which he was massacred by the local Mongol garrison. Either Baybars had wanted to get rid of him, since the new caliph may have been too independently minded, or there may have been a belief that the Mongols had indeed withdrawn from this area and that it could be easily recaptured.

Baybars’s most important diplomatic démarche was the establishment of relations with the Mongols of the Golden Horde in the steppe area north of the Black Sea. Word reached him around 1262 that Berke, khan of the Golden Horde, was now engaged in a conflict with his cousin, the Ilkhan Hülegü. Baybars encouraged Berke (a Muslim) and his successor, Mongke Temür (a pagan) in this struggle, buoyed by the knowledge that his main adversary was engaged on another front. Perhaps the most important matter established with the distant Golden Horde was permission for merchants from the sultanate to continue exporting young mamlûks (mostly Turkish, but with a sprinkling of Mongols) from its territory. The main emporium for young slaves was the Crimea; from there they were transported by Genoese ships via the Bosporus to the slave markets of Syria and Egypt. Needless to say, this trade required the agreement of Genoa and the Byzantine Empire, which was acquired to the advantage of all sides.

Baybars I’s initial attitude toward the Franks was not obviously more aggressive than that of his Ayyûbid predecessors. By the mid-1260s, however, matters had clearly changed. In 1265, theMamlûks took Caesarea (mod. Har Qesari, Israel) and Arsuf, and the following year Saphet (mod. Zefat, Israel) was conquered. Two years later they took Jaffa (mod. Tel Aviv- Yafo, Israel), and the following year they stormed Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey). In 1271 they captured the important Hospitaller fortress of Krak des Chevaliers. They also took numerous smaller forts and minor places.

It would be difficult to suggest that there was anything inherently Mamlûk behind this change in policy vis-à-vis the Franks in Syria, beyond noting the general atmosphere of jihād (holy war) that pervaded their early regime, largely as a result of the ongoing fight against the still pagan Mongols. It can be suggested, however, that concrete circumstances may have led the Mamlûk sultan to adopt a more truculent attitude toward the Franks: this was the growing awareness that the Mongol Ilkhans in Persia, from Hülegü onward, were engaged in efforts to arrange an alliance with the Christians of the Levant and Europe itself, including the pope and the kings of France, England, and Aragon, against their common Mamlûk enemy.

The perceived threat of fighting on two fronts at one time or the possibility of a joint Mongol-Frankish force may well have convinced the Mamlûk elite that the Frankish bridgehead in Syria and Palestine should be systematically reduced and eventually eliminated. Even after the conquest of Acre in 1291 by the sultan al-Ashraf Khalīl, and the subsequent abandonment of the coast by the remaining Franks, there remained a fear among the Mamlûk leadership of a possible alliance between the European powers and the Mongols of Persia. These Mamlûk fears, however, were never realized: apparently the closest the Franks ever came to some type of military cooperation with the Mongols was during the campaign of Prince Edward of England in 1271, which resulted in some halfhearted and not very effective Mongol raids in Syria. It should be mentioned that long after the peace with the Ilkhans (c. 1320) and the breakup of their state (1335), the threat of both a renewed crusade as well as Frankish raids was taken seriously by the Mamlûk leadership. This fear was not unjustified, as seen by the temporary capture of the port of Alexandria by Peter I, king of Cyprus, in 1365.

Throughout the reign of Baybars I there was an ongoing border war with the Mongols along the northern Euphrates and the frontier region north of Aleppo. The Ilkhans launched serious attacks against the border fortresses of Bira and al-Rahba and several deep raids into the north of the country, but during this period they did not attempt a determined campaign into Syria. In any event, none of these Mongol efforts were particularly successful, and all were met by a forceful Mamlûk response. The sultan and his lieutenants, always suspecting the Mongol raids and attacks as harbingers of a larger offensive, immediately reacted by dispatching reinforcements from the main cities of Syria and Cairo; often the sultan would set out himself at the head of the main Egyptian army. In their war in the frontier region, the Mamlûks were assisted by the Bedouins of the Syrian Desert, who had been integrated into the Mamlûk state by subsidies, land grants, and titles. The Mamluks themselves frequently carried the border war into Mongol territory, often using the border fortresses as staging areas, as well as dispatching Bedouin or Turcoman raiders.

The kingdom of Lesser Armenia in Cilicia also suffered Mamlûk depredations. In the early 1260s, the Armenians, sure of the support of their Mongol overlords, had launched several raids into Syria, which were all repulsed. The Mamlûks responded by carrying out a series of devastating raids, thus gaining revenge, weakening an important localally of the Mongols, and issuing a warning to the Armenian kings and barons about attempting ill-advised forays into Mamlûk territory. Subsequent sultans continued this tradition of raiding Cilicia until the Armenian kingdom was finally eliminated in 1375, and most of its lands incorporated into the sultanate.

Baybars I’s greatest success against the Mongols was his campaign into Mongol-controlled Anatolia in 1276-1277 because he was able to take advantage of dissatisfaction among much of the localSaljûq elite. The culmination of this campaign was the total defeat of a smaller Mongol, Saljûq, and Georgian army at Elbistan in the southeast of the country. Baybars was, however, aware of his precarious posi- tion—he was far away from his bases, with a large Mongol army approaching—and soon withdrew. He died soon afterward in Damascus and was succeeded by his son, Baraka Khān, whose disastrous reign was ended in 1279 by a coterie of senior officers led by Qalâwûn, Baybars’s close associate. For appearance’s sake, another son of the late sultan, al-‘Adil Sülemish, was named ruler, but after a reign of only 100 days, he was removed, and Qalâwûn gained the throne (1279-1290), taking the royal title al-Malik al-Mansûr.

This series of events repeats a pattern that was common within the Mamlûk governing system. The ruling sultan would attempt to have his son succeed him, and even secure the consent of his senior officers, but with his demise the most powerful officers would jockey among themselves until one was strong enough to gain power. At this point the usually hapless sultan, often only a youth, was typically removed. Alternatively, if the former sultan’s son was old enough to attempt to assert his power vis-à-vis the officers, he might even bring his own mamlûks into positions of power and influence. The old guard, however, fearing for their power, livelihood, and perhaps more, would eliminate him, and again, the most powerful of them would seize the throne. In the case of BarakaKhān and the final seizure of power by Qalâwûn, a combination of both models was at work.

Qalâwûn, an old and trusted comrade of Baybars I, can be seen as a continuator of his policies. During his reign, the institutions of the sultanate developed and crystallized. Early on in his reign, he was faced with a large-scale invasion of Syria by the Mongols. This was the first serious attempt that the Mongols, now led by Abagha, had launched to conquer Syria since the campaign of 1260, and it was, in a sense, a test of all of the military preparations that Baybars had made to meet a Mongol challenge. The armies met on the plain to the north of Homs in October 1281. The battle hung in the balance throughout the day, but in the end the Mamlûks were victorious. The military machine that Baybars had built had proven itself in spite of the vicissitudes it had undergone since his death in the years of political confusion.

Through the remainder of Qalâwûn’s reign, the frontier with the Mongols was to remain relatively quiet, and during the reign of the Ilkhan Tegüder Ahmad (1282-1284), envoys were even exchanged to discuss ending the war. After the battle of Homs, Qalâwûn concluded a treaty with the Franks of Syria, but by the mid-1280s he was prepared to renew the Mamlûk offensive against them: the castle of Margat was taken in 1285, and more importantly, Tripoli (mod. Trâblous, Syria) in 1289.

At his death in 1290, Qalâwûn was preparing a campaign to conquer Acre. The realization of this plan was left to his son and successor, al-Ashraf Khalil, in 1291. This sultan was evidently planning a campaign to Iraq when he was assassinated by a group of senior officers. His death initiated several years of political instability, which lasted until the reign of al-Nāsir Muhammad ibn Qalâwûn (1310-1340). This time of political confusion came too late, however, to help the Franks, whose presence in the Levant was now just a memory.

Institutions, Military Organization, and Society

At the heart of the Mamlûk sultanate was the institution of military slavery that had developed in the Islamic world over several centuries. A number of principles can be discerned for this institution. The mamlûks were brought as young slaves (generally eight to twelve years old) from wild pagan areas in the north (the steppe region north of the Black Sea, and later the Caucasus). They were then converted to Islam and put through several years of religious and military training in the barracks. Around the age of eighteen, they completed their training, were officially manumitted, and then enrolled in the army or unit of their patron, either the sultan or an officer. In theory, and generally in practice, they were loyal to both their patron (Arab. ustādh) and their comrades, mamlûks of the same patron (these were known as khushdâshiyya). Finally, Mamlûk society was a continually replicating, single generational military caste; the sons of mamlûks could not be enrolled as mamlûks, although many, known as awlād al-nās (“sons of the people [who matter]”), served in inferior units. The Mamlûk army was therefore replenished by the constant import of young slave recruits.

Contemporary Muslim observers appear to have been aware of these “principles” in a general way, although they were never actually written up as such.

The Royal Mamlûks (Arab. al-mamālīk al-sultāniyya) were the mainstay of the army. The core of this group consisted of those mamlûks who had been bought and raised by the ruling sultan. To these were added mamlûks of previous rulers, as well as some mamlûks who had been attached to various officers who were deceased or no longer serving. An officer or emir (Arab. amīr) had a personal entourage of mamlûks, although in the early sultanate, some of this complement was composed of horsemen of nonslave origin.

Non-mamlûk horsemen, as well as some déclassé mamlûks, were enrolled in the halqa formations. The word halqa means literally a “ring” or “circle” in Arabic, perhaps denoting either a ring around the sultan or an encircling maneuver. Halqa units were of some importance in the early sultanate, when there was a ready supply of first-class horsemen, such as Kurds, Turcomans, Ayyûbid soldiers of various provenance, and military refugees (known as wāfidiyya or musta’minün) from across the frontier with the Mongols: these might be mamlûks and other troopers from subjected states (for example, Iraq and Saljûq Anatolia) or even Mongol deserters themselves. With time, however, these sources dried up, and the halqa declined in quality and became units of decidedly secondary importance. Generally, Bedouins and Turcomans served as auxiliaries in time of war, and also patrolled the northern frontier, occasionally raiding into enemy territory. Foot soldiers and militiamen are infrequently encountered in the time of the early sultanate, mainly on the frontier with the Mongols or as garrison troops; sappers and other technical support troops are mentioned during sieges, especially against the Franks.

The officers were divided into ranks, as follows: an “officer (Arab. amīr) of 100, commander (Arab. muqaddam) of 1000,” which meant that they had a personal entourage of some 100 mamlûks and commanded a regiment of (theoretically) 1,000 halqa troops in time of war; an “officer of 40,” known also as “an officer of a tablkhāna (“drum orchestra”),” who enjoyed an entourage of 40 mamlûksand the right to maintain a private band of musicians; and “an officer of 10,” who had a small entourage of 10 personal mamlûks. These ranks were somewhat flexible: there were, for example, “officers of 40” who actually had 70 personal mamlûks.

The basis for the purchase of young mamlûks, their training, the maintenance of a unit, and an officer’s household in general was an iqta (pl. iqtaāt), an allocation of agricultural land. The officer in question (called a muqta) had a right to collect the taxes from this allocation for the above-mentioned uses; the state treasury was thus circumvented in this process. The iqtā did not, however, entail administrative authority and was not passed on as an inheritance. The muqta also lived in the city: theMamlûk regime was an urban-based military society. There are thus several differences between the iqtā system and feudalism, including the variant of the latter in the Levant. The senior Mamlûkamirs amassed great wealth, not only from agricultural taxes but also from land and grain speculation and commerce. The sultan himself held large tracts of land in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt as his royal iqta. Occasionally, as in the aftermath of the conquest of Arsuf and Caesarea, state land was alienated and given as private property to various emirs. In short, the iqtā system was an efficient mechanism for transferring the agricultural surplus of the state to the sultan and the Mamlûk elite.

Compared to its Ayyûbid predecessor, the Mamlûk sultanate was a relatively centralized regime. Under normal circumstances the sultan’s authority reigned supreme throughout Syria, Palestine, and Egypt (at least as much as premodern conditions permitted). The center of the government was the Citadel of the Mountain (Qal‘at al-Jabal) in Cairo; the bulk of the Royal Mamlûks were stationed there and in its environs; the senior officers (theoretically numbering some twenty-four in Egypt) and their contingents also resided in the city. The governors in Syria, which was divided into a number of provinces, were directly appointed by the sultan. The governors and officers in Syria also had their private contingents of mamlûks, and there were other horsemen in their forces. Provinces in the early sultanate included Damascus (which was responsible for Jerusalem, a subprovince until 1376 when it became a province, albeit of secondary rank), Homs, Hama (actually anAyyûbid puppet regime until the early 1330s), Aleppo, and Kerak. After their conquests, Saphet and Tripoli also became centers of provinces, as did Gaza later on. In some of the larger cities (most prominently Damascus and Aleppo), there was a separate commander of the local citadel who answered directly to the sultan, and who thus could help check any overly ambitious governors. The sultan resided in Cairo, but in the case of Baybars, much of his time was spent campaigning in Syria and Palestine.

The Mamlûk sultans and senior officers were great patrons of Islamic architecture. This patronage resulted from the Mamlūk elite’s religiosity and spiritual needs, and perhaps also from their need to prove their attachment to their new religion and from the tremendous wealth that they amassed. The fact that these establishments were usually waqfs (endowments), which provided income for descendants in a volatile economic milieu (as well as circumvention of Muslim inheritance laws), was an added incentive. Finally, although this may not have been the original intention, the cultivation of religion won the Mamlūk sultans and officers legitimacy in religious circles and among the population at large. Foremost among the institutions supported were madrasas (religious colleges focusing on legal studies), but mosques, khânqâhs (Sufi lodges), and khāns (hospices or caravansarays) also received extensive patronage. The Mamlūk elite saw itself as the defender of Sunnī Islamic orthodoxy, which included moderate Sufism (mysticism), although individual Sufis of a more extreme variety could also enjoy the benefits of support from the military-political elite. Among various intellectual currents that flourished under the Mamlūks, mention can be made of historiography, the extent and richness of which may be unsurpassed in premodern Muslim societies.

Decline of the Sultanate

It is often thought that the height of the sultanate was the third reign of al-Nāsir Muhammad ibn Qalāwūn (1310-1341), during which peace was concluded with the Mongols. It was certainly a time of massive urban and rural construction, encouraged by the sultan himself, as well as general luxurious living among the elite. Recent research has suggested that many of the subsequent political and economic problems may be attributed to the irresponsible fiscal policy of these years as well as to changes in the educational system of the young mamlūks. In any event, after this ruler’s death, the sultanate entered a forty-one-year period of political and economic instability, exacerbated by the arrival of the Black Death in 1348. In 1382, Barqūq ascended the throne, providing a modicum of stability. He also inaugurated the succession of Circassian sultans known (incorrectly) as Burjīs.

The fifteenth century was one of successive economic crises that made for smaller and less disciplined armies. Novice mamlūks (now mostly imported from Circassia in the northern Caucasus) were bought at an older age and thus received less training. This period is often seen as one of decline, although if so, it was certainly a process that took a long time. With the demise of Frankish and Mongol power, the Mamlūks had no serious external enemies (Tamerlane’s excursion to Syria was short-lived); nor did they have any substantial internal opponents. The appearance of the Ottoman Empire in the northern frontier region in the second half of the fifteenth century brought about a change for the Mamlūks, who put up a spirited fight in the area until their final defeat, which was aided by their unwillingness or inability to adopt gunpowder weapons, in 1517.

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