Post-classical history

Warfare: Muslim Armies

The crusades to the Near East, Egypt, and the Balkans encountered a variety of Muslim armies between the late eleventh and the fifteenth centuries. The earliest crusades were confronted by the Great Saljûq Empire and its dependencies (covering Persia, Iraq, and Syria), the Saljûq sultanate of Rûm in Anatolia, and the Fātimid caliphate in Egypt. Later the main enemies were the Ayyûbidsin Syria and Egypt (the later twelfth and earlier thirteenth centuries), the Mamlûk sultanate in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria (thirteenth century and later), and the Ottoman Empire (fourteenth-sixteenth centuries).


Military recruitment in the Islamic world during the period of the crusades reflected established traditions until the coming of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Most eastern Muslim states recruited multi-ethnic armies, which included local volunteers as well as large numbers of soldiers of slave origin called mamlûks or ghulāms. Even the Saljûq Turks turned to such traditional methods as their authority spread across most of the Middle and Near East. Paradoxically, however, it seems that many of the first so-called Turks who erupted into Byzantine Anatolia around 1025 were actually Persians, Daylamis, or Kurds. Non-Turks, including Armenians and Arabs, also played an important role in the armies of several Saljûq successor states in eleventh-century Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, by the end of the eleventh century, some of the Christian Greek and Armenian military elites of Anatolia had also been Turkified through intermarriage. The Khwārazm-Shāhs, who took over Transoxa- nia and eastern Persia following the decline of the Saljûqs, recruited numerous troops of slave origin, though their garrisons also included freeborn Turkish and Persian professional soldiers. Traditional Islamic military recruitment reappeared in Mongol Persia and Iraq during the fourteenth century, but was more characteristic of the post-Mongol successor states.

The most significant military development in the heartlands of Islamic civilization was a continuing professionalization of most armies, because the skills demanded of a soldier were now so high that the old militias and tribal forces could not compete. This trend prevailed despite the fact that, after the fragmentation of the Great Saljûq sultanate, many of the states involved were remarkably small and could only maintain small armies. Most rulers could only afford a small ‘askar (bodyguard of slave-recruited mamlûks), which formed the core of a larger force of provincial soldiers, mostly Turks or Kurds plus a few Arabs. Ahdath (urban militias) played a minor role in some cities, while, further south, Bedouin Arab tribes continued to dominate the semi-desert and desert regions.

Saladin and his Ayyûbid successors built a large and powerful military system in Egypt, Syria, and northern Iraq, making use of existing Zangid-Turkish and Fātimid-Egypt- ian structures. Though Saladin was himself of Kurdish origin, the role of Kurds in Ayyûbid armies has been greatly exaggerated, and the halqa, “elite,” of Saladin’s army were slave-recruited Turks. Thereafter mamlûkscontinued to form the elites of subsequent Ayyûbid forces. Among the more exotic troops in Saladin’s army were ex-Fātimid infantry of black African slave origin, but these proved unreliable and were soon disbanded. The same applied to most of the ex-Fātimid Armenian soldiers. Many North Africans were recruited by the Ayyûbid navy, while large numbers of renegade European warriors served Saladin and his successors after Saladin’s reconquest of most of Outremer.

The army of Mamlûk Egypt was essentially the same as that of the preceding Ayyûbid dynasty, except that mamlûks now formed the ruling caste, as well as forming the military elite. Under the Bahri, or first “dynasty” of Mamlûk sultans, the majority were of Turkish origin, but in the late fourteenth century larger numbers of Circassians, Russians, Greeks, and western Europeans were enlisted. Meanwhile, freeborn troops had a far lower status in the Mamlûk army.

The Saljûqs of Rûm who ruled central Anatolia attempted to model their army on that of the Great Saljûqs of Iraq and Persia. At first their military forces consisted of Turcoman tribesmen around an elite of slave-recruited ghulāms that included many Greek prisoners of war, but by the later twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the bulk of the professional cavalry were probably freeborn Turks. Other characteristics of the army of the Saljûqs of Rûm were its assimilation of existing Byzantine, Armenian, and Georgian military elites, and the use of professional mercenaries (at the height of the sultanate’s prosperity). Rûm and the subsequent Turkish principalities (beyliks) also encouraged urban Islamic brotherhoods as a source of religiously motivated volunteers.

Like the other western beyliks, the Ottomans attracted military and civil refugees from the Mongol occupation of central Anatolia. Nevertheless, the earliest Ottoman armies were entirely traditional, consisting of a majority of Turcoman tribal cavalry, perhaps a tiny elite recruited from slaves or prisoners, and a few ill-trained infantry. By 1338 the Ottoman ruler already had a small force of ex-prisoner or slave-recruited soldiers, and although these were not as yet known as such, the famous janissary (Turk. yeni çeri) infantry may have developed out of this earlier formation. The janissaries also differed from previous slave-recruited formations because they eventually came to be drawn from “enslaved” members of the Ottoman sultan’s own non- Muslim population.


Traditional systems of military organization characterized the Islamic world until the Mongol invasions. Military ranks remained much the same as they had been for centuries. The Great Saljûqsultanate was theoretically divided into twenty- four military zones, each commanded by an officer whose Turkish or Persian title reflected the culture of his district. Each had to raise, train, equip, and lead a specified number of local troops. However, this idealized system proved inadequate, and the sultan soon created a palace-based army loyal to himself. The inadequacy of traditional structures also led to a great extension of the iqta' system of allocations of revenue. Although this system was largely destroyed by the invading Mongols, it was partially recreated by the Ilkhans (the Muslim Mongol rulers of Persia) and their successors.

The success of the Ayyûbids, Mamlûks, and Ottomans in expelling the Franks of Outremer and defeating later crusading expeditions was not a result of superior numbers but reflected superior organization, logistical support, discipline, and tactics. Such sophistication could even be seen in the small forces of some city-states, such as that of twelfth- century Damascus. This force was divided into five sections, according to the origins of the soldiers or their specific role. The militia, though primarily defensive, sometimes took part in offensive campaigns. The mutatawwi’a (religious volunteers) also formed a permanent though part-time force. There were three senior military ranks: the isfahsalar (commander) who was often the ruler himself, the ra’is (head of the militia), and the shihna (head of internal security forces). Many grants of iqta appear to have become hereditary and were largely reserved for the ruler’s ‘askar of regular cavalry. This force was in turn divided into tulb (platoons), whose weapons were normally held in the ruler’s own zardkhanah (arsenal).

Cavalry was now the dominant arm, but Egypt, the primary center of Ayyûbid power, was seriously short of pasture. Consequently the Egyptian army relied on small numbers of exceptionally well-trained and equipped horsemen, with larger mounted forces being stationed in Syria. In Egypt the Ayyûbids also inherited the sophisticated Fātimid Diwan al-Jaysh (ministry of war).

The elite of the Ayyûbid army was the jandariyah, which largely consisted of regiments of mamluks, while the bulk of the army consisted of the professional but non-elite halqa. Infantry remained essential for siege warfare but mostly consisted of mercenaries and volunteer auxiliaries. On campaign, Ayyûbid tactical units were not necessarily the same as the administrative formations, and they varied considerably, often overlapping or being created in response to circumstances. These included a yazak (advance guard) selected from the best cavalry and the jalish, which appears to have been a cavalry vanguard carrying banners. The term qufl (literally “fortress”) may have referred to soldiers sent to secure the main routes; the term harafisha (“rabble”) seems to have referred to guerrillas operating inside enemy territory, while the lisūs were light cavalry sent to attack enemy supplies or caravans. Ayyûbid logistical organization was even more sophisticated and was based upon an atlab al-mira (supply train) commanded by a senior officer. There was also a recognized military market (Arab. sūq al-‘askar) of civilian, specialized merchants.

The army of the Mamlûk sultanate was a development of that of the preceding Ayyûbid dynasty and consisted of three main elements. The most important were the Royal Mamlûks (Arab. mustakhdamūn),while the khassakiya formed an elite bodyguard within the Royal Mamlûks. Lower in status were the mamlūks of senior officers, and thirdly there was the halqa, the freeborn cavalry. However, the status of the halqa steadily declined and, within Egypt, had little military value by the end of the fourteenth century.

The Mamlûk army’s ranking structure was equally elaborate. Until the late thirteenth century, the most senior officer was the na‘ib al-saltana (viceroy of Egypt), but later the atābak al-‘asàkir(“father-leader of soldiers”) was considered senior. The amir silah (master of arms) was in overall charge of government arsenals, the raīs nawbat al-nawab commanded the Royal Mamlûks, the ustadar was in charge of mamlūk pay, and the dawadar al-kabir selected which members of the halqa went on campaign. Other officers were in charge of government stables, arsenals, garrisons, and so on. Ordinary officer ranks were based upon the number of soldiers the man maintained as his own retinue rather than the number he commanded on campaign. Provincial forces remained vital for the Mamlûkstate, each qirat (military district) theoretically supplying 1,000 soldiers. Syria was by far the most important region outside Egypt. Its army commander was called the ‘atabak ‘amir kabir and was directly responsible to the sultan in Cairo. Syria itself was divided into small mamlaka (districts), each with a local administration with an officer called na‘ib al-saltana in charge of local military forces.

The army of the Saljûqs of Rûm was divided into two parts: an “Old” or traditional force and a “New” army. The “Old Army” mainly consisted of Turcoman tribesmen and the ruler’s mamlūks, plus the havashvi (armed retainers) of iqta‘ holders and urban governors. The “New Army” was essentially a mercenary force under the ruler’s immediate control. Following the Mongol conquest of Anatolia, these elite forces were replaced by Turcoman tribesmen whose loyalty was gained by giving them grants of freehold land rather than grants of revenue, while urban militias known as igdish were responsible for maintaining security under their own igdishbashis. The little beyliks that then emerged had small military forces under the command of the local ruler. Many of the ghazis (“fighters for the Faith”) who typified this period formed religious brotherhoods (Arab. futüwa) characterized by a very egalitarian spirit.

The Ottoman Turks absorbed a variety of military traditions, of which that of the Mamlûks was most important. At the start of the fourteenth century, the Ottomans’ Turcoman tribal forces were led by their own chiefs, whose loyalty was based upon traditional Turco-Mongol rather than Islamic concepts. But by the late fourteenth century the Ottoman army consisted of two parts. The freeborne timarli (holders of estates) were mostly sipahi (cavalry), while the maasli (troops recruited from slaves or prisoners-of-war) received salaries from the government. Irregulars and auxiliaries formed an unrecognized third part of the Ottoman army. At the very heart of the later fourteenth-century Ottoman army were the elite silahdar (“guardians of the ruler’s weapons”) who formed one of six Palace cavalry regiments. Quite when the two janissary cavalry regiments were established is unclear, though another elite janissary unit, the solak (infantry bodyguard), certainly existed from an early date. The janissary infantry were part of the Ottoman sultan’s birun (“outer service”) and consisted of a single ocak (“hearth”), a corps commanded by the YeniçeriAgasi. This ocak was divided into orta (companies), each commanded by a Çorbaci basi (“soup chief’). Ottoman provincial forces were divided into European and Asian armies, those in the Balkans consisting of three uc (frontier marches), which had, in fact, existed even before the Ottomans crossed into Europe. By the late fourteenth century, the fast expanding Ottoman Empire was divided into sanjaq (provinces), each of which fielded a specified number of cavalrymen. The timarli of these provinces were grouped into alay (regiments) under alay bey (officers), who were in turn led by the sanjaq bey (provincial governor). Several sanjaq beys were commanded by the beylerbeyi of the wider eyalet (military province).

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