Atabeg (or atabek) was the title of an officeholder who acted as regent or guardian to a prince in the Saljûq, Zangid, Ayyûbid, and Mamlûk dynasties. It is derived from the Turkish words ata (father) and beg/bek (prince). It was first introduced by the Saljûqs of Persia and Syria in the second half of the eleventh century. The Saljûqs who ruled Syria between 1070 and 1154 depended on atabegs in their rule, and the institution was subsequently taken up and developed by other ruling dynasties of Turkish or Kurdish origin.
As early as the eighth century, the Saljûqs, while still in central Asia, used to designate an atabeg as a tutor to a young prince, and continued to employ the office after the foundation of their empire in Persia in the eleventh century. In Saljûq-ruled Syria, the character of the atabegate differed from the original institution, in that the atabeg was selected from a ruler’s most trusted and capable commanders, and had to be a Turk; the ruler would divorce the wife who was the prince’s mother and then marry her to the atabeg, who would thus become stepfather to the young prince and have the authority and proximity to bring him up according to Turkish tradition. The atabeg was supposed to assist the prince in the duties of government, but by the beginning of the twelfth century it was often the atabegs who exercised real power in Saljûq Syria, particularly during minorities. Tutush I, king of Syria (1078-1095), had five sons, and during his quest to gain the sultanate he appointed atabegs for two of his sons to whom he had allocated provinces: Tught- gin for Duqāq in Damascus (1093) and Aytagin for Ridwan in Aleppo (1094). After the death of Duqāq(1104), Tught- gin, who was also commander of the army of Damascus, manipulated and removed two consecutive Saljûq successors, Tutush II and Artāsh. From 1105 he continued to rule with the title atabeg, but without any recognition by the Great Saljûq sultan, allying himself with the Franks against Saljûq armies sent against him in 1114 and 1115. The sultan finally recognized his independent rule in 1115 and granted his dynasty the right of inheritance. This was the first case of a heritable atabegate in the Saljûq Empire. It set a pattern for others to follow and thus contributed to the decline of the empire.
In 1127 the Turkish commander Zangi was appointed by the Saljûq sultan Muhammad as lord of Mosul and atabeg to his two sons. Zangi expanded his power in Syria, taking Aleppo in 1128 and Edessa in 1144. His own son Nûr al-Din succeeded to these dominions and in 1154 took over Damascus from its atabeg. Nûr al-Din never granted the title of atabeg to any of his men, but after his death in 1174, three military commanders fought to gain the atabegate for his young son al-Sālih (d. 1181). One of them, Saladin, wanted to be regent in order to gain legitimacy for his own rule, but it was Shams al-Din ibn al-Muqaddam who declared himself as atabeg. The atabegate for al-Sālih eventually passed to Gûmûshtagin, who ruled in Aleppo until he was executed on the orders of al-Sālih in 1177.
Saladin, who had already conquered Damascus, took Aleppo two years after the death of al-Sālih. His Ayyûbid successors who ruled Egypt and Syria continued to use the office, though with several changes. The Turkish monopoly on the atabegate was broken, and atabegs of Slavic or Greek origin held office. Atabegs might also be eunuchs or even royal princes, as in the case of al-Afdal, son of Saladin, who in 1199 was appointed atabeg for his nephew al-Mansûr in Egypt. The range of their responsibilities varied. Some atabegs were essentially tutors in the manner of the originalSaljûq institution, while others exercised considerable power. The last atabeg during Ayyûbid rule, the eunuch Tughril (d. 1231/1233), governed Aleppo for sixteen years as regent and eventually handed over power peacefully to the Ayyûbid prince al-‘Aziz in 1231. Tughril also created a new subordinate office of atābeg al-'askar (commander of the army), which became the most powerful position after the sultan during the Mamlûk regime that replaced the Ayyûbids in Egypt. Its holder could combine the duties of regent and commander of the army, and as the most powerful person in the realm, often became the new ruler on the death of a sultan.