Post-classical history


The Mamluks, 1249–1382

Al-Salih Ayyub had placed great reliance on mamluk troops, building up a large regiment of them in his armies, including an important unit known as the Bahriyya. In the wake of his death, the Bahriyya were instrumental in saving Egypt from St Louis’ crusade. However, they then went on to depose their Ayyubid masters and set up their own state in Egypt and Syria. It is this state, and its interactions with its neighbours, that we will examine in this chapter.

Bahriyya: An important mamluk regiment. The Bahriyya was created by the Ayyubid sultan al-Salih Ayyub (r. 1240–9). The name derives from the fact that their original barracks was on Rawda island on the River (Arabic: bahr) Nile.


As indicated in the last chapter, al-Salih Ayyub’s heir, Turan-Shah, was absent from Egypt when his father died. However, al-Salih’s widow, a former Turkish slave named Shajar al-Durr (d. 1257), acting in collusion with a senior mamluk emir, concealed the sultan’s death, even forging his signature on official documents. Resistance to the crusaders continued, and in February 1250 the Muslims inflicted a decisive defeat on their enemies at al-Mansura, in which the Bahriyya played a prominent role. In the aftermath King Louis was taken prisoner. His wife, Queen Margaret, negotiated his release in return for Damietta, and the crusaders left Egypt. Louis himself remained in the east for four more years, strengthening the defences of the Latin Kingdom before returning home.

By the time that Louis left in 1254, a radical change had occurred in the government of Egypt. Turan-Shah had arrived at the Muslim camp at the end of February 1250 and was duly recognized as sultan. However, he soon alienated his father’s senior Bahrimamluks by threatening them and by assigning members of his own mamluk retinue to the major posts in the state (Irwin, 1986: 21). Tensions soon came to a head, and on 2 May 1250 a group of Bahri mamluks murdered Turan-Shah. They elected Shajar al-Durr as the new sultana (female sultan), an act almost without precedent in Islamic history, but it soon became apparent that if the new rulers were to impose their authority on Syria, where rebellions against the new regime immediately broke out, then they would need a military leader (a man) at the helm. Less than three months later, then, Shajar al-Durr was deposed and replaced with a mamluk emir named Aybak al-Turkumani (r. 1250 and 1254–7). Aybak was induced to abdicate after only five days to make way for a 10-year-old member of the Ayyubid family, instead becoming the young sultan’s atabeg, though he remained the effective ruler of the state – with the exception, as Holt puts it, that ‘Shajar al-Durr ruled him’ (Holt, 1986: 84). At some point during the proceedings Shajar al-Durr was married off to Aybak. In 1254, once Aybak had consolidated his own political position, he deposed his young charge and assumed the title of sultan, ruling for three years before being murdered in the bath at the orders of Shajar al-Durr, who felt threatened by his plans to take another wife. Aybak’s 15-year-old son al-Mansur ‘Ali (r. 1257–9) succeeded to the throne, although it was the senior mamluk emirs who controlled the actual positions of power in the state. In the meantime Shajar al-Durr was killed, apparently beaten to death with wooden clogs by Aybak’s concubines (Irwin, 1986: 29). Thus began the Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517), a period when Egypt and (from 1260) Syria were ruled by whichever mamluk emirs were able to gather the most support among the various factions of the army and (to a lesser extent) the wider elite classes of society.

Historians traditionally divide the Mamluk sultanate into the so-called Bahri Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1382) and the Burji Mamluk Sultanate (1382–1517), labels derived from the names of two prominent Mamluk units. As David Ayalon has shown, a better labelling might be the ‘Turkish Mamluk Sultanate’ and the ‘Circassian Mamluk Sultanate’, reflecting the ethnicity of the majority (though not all) of the Mamluks in each period (Ayalon, 1994: IV: 3–53). In any case, it is the first of these two periods that we will concern ourselves with here, since this was the period during which the Mamluks ejected the Franks from the Levantine coast. However, the Mamluks first had to deal with other threats. As indicated above, Turan-Shah’s murder and Shajar al-Durr’s accession were greeted with revolts in Syria, most of which were led by Ayyubid princes who objected to the Mamluks’ usurpation of power. By 1260, these princes had mostly been eliminated or suppressed by the Mamluk forces, who in the same year also managed to break the advance of a new threat to their state: the Mongols.

Bahri (Turkish) Mamluk Sultanate: The first period of mamluk rule in Egypt and Syria (1250–1382), named after the Bahriyya and characterized by the fact that most of the sultans were Kipchak Turks.

Burji (Circassian) Mamluk Sultanate: The second period of mamluk rule in Egypt and Syria (1382–1517), during which most of the sultans were Circassians.

In 1206, a Mongol warrior chieftain named Temujin, but better known by his title Chingiz Khan (or Genghis Khan [‘Universal King’], r. 1206–27), welded together a confederation of Central Asian tribes and launched a series of campaigns intended to create a great empire. He conquered China and began expanding west into the Muslim world. After he died, his successors took up his mission and continued the Mongol expansion. A destructive expedition was launched into Russia and eastern Europe in 1236–41; the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum was subdued in 1243; and in 1255 Hülegü (d. 1265), the brother of the Great Khan Möngke (r. 1251–60), launched a major campaign into Persia and Iraq. In 1256 Hülegü destroyed Alamut, bringing the Persian line of the Nizari Assassins to its end. Then on 12 February 1258 he took Baghdad. The caliph, al-Musta‘sim (r. 1242–58), was executed by being rolled up in a carpet and trampled to death by horses, in accordance with a Mongol custom that forbade the shedding of royal blood, and the reign of the ‘Abbasid caliphate was also, temporarily, ended (but see below).

Hülegü continued his progress westwards. Aleppo fell in January 1260, Damascus in March; then, hearing of the death of his brother, Hülegü returned east to take part in the choice of the next Great Khan, leaving behind a small portion of his forces to continue the advance. The following summer a Mongol embassy arrived in Cairo, where one of Aybak’s mamluks, Qutuz (r. 1259–60), had usurped power from al-Mansur ‘Ali. Qutuz responded to the Mongols’ demands for surrender by executing the ambassadors and setting out with his army. The two forces met in September at ‘Ayn Jalut, to the south-west of the Sea of Galilee, and the Mamluks carried the day, putting the Mongol army to flight [Doc. 18]. The Mongols would make further attempts to invade Mamluk Syria in the future, but each time the Mamluks would turn them back.

On the way back from ‘Ayn Jalut, Qutuz was murdered by a group of mamluk conspirators. Among their number was a Bahri mamluk named Baybars al-Bunduqdari (r. 1260–77), who had also been involved in the murder of Turan-Shah. Baybars was now chosen as the new sultan. Baybars spent most of his reign fighting wars on multiple fronts. In addition to consolidating Mamluk control of Syria, and putting down rebellions within his state, he also fought ongoing wars against the Mongols on the northern and eastern frontiers, mounted punitive expeditions into Lesser Armenia, subdued the fortresses and power of the Syrian Assassins in 1265–73 and directed almost yearly campaigns against the Franks. Baybars adopted a multipronged approach in his attacks on the Franks, destroying crops, pastures and livestock to damage the economic prosperity of the Latin states, while also razing coastal fortresses so that they could not be used as bridgeheads for new waves of crusaders. In May 1268 he personally oversaw the capture of Antioch, thus ending its time as a Frankish capital. These military actions were complemented by skilful diplomacy that enabled him to extract further concessions from the Franks in the form of land- and income-sharing agreements (Irwin, 1986: 47–8 and 55–7; Holt, 1986: 95–6).

Baybars died on 20 June 1277, probably accidentally poisoned by a bad batch of qumiz (fermented mare’s milk; Irwin, 1986: 58). After brief, successive reigns by two of his sons, power was usurped, in November 1279, by another Bahri mamluk, Qalawun (r. 1279–90) al-Alfi (‘of the thousand’, so called because his first master had paid 1,000 [Arabic: alf] dinars for him). Like Baybars, Qalawun spent much of his time at war, quelling opponents within and outside the Mamluk state, including defeating the Mongols at the Battle of Hims in 1281, and pursuing the holy war against the Franks. Qalawun adopted similar tactics to those used by Baybars, destroying coastal strongholds and mixing diplomacy with force [see Doc. 19]. His crowning achievement was the capture of Tripoli in April 1289. He demolished the city and was preparing to mount an expedition against the last Frankish capital, Acre, when he fell ill, dying on 10 November 1290. Qalawun’s son, al-Ashraf Khalil (r. 1290–3), sought to fulfil his father’s ambition, besieging the city in March 1291. The city was taken on 18 May and was, like Tripoli, demolished [Doc. 20].

The fall of Acre did not signify the end of conflict between the Mamluks and the Franks in the Levant. There remained a handful of Frankish strongholds on the coast that had to be mopped up over the next few years, and even after that there was ongoing conflict, especially between the Mamluks and the Frankish rulers of Cyprus. For example, a particularly destructive raid on Alexandria, mounted by King Peter I (r. 1359–69) in October 1365, caused significant damage to the city and soured trade relations for several years. Nor was it only the Mamluks who were the targets of later crusades; conflicts in the Balkan Peninsula between the Hungarians and the Ottoman Turks in the early 1390s eventually led to the Crusade of Nikopolis (Nikopol) in 1396, the culmination of which was the complete rout of a coalition of European crusaders at the hands of the Ottoman armies.

Returning to the Mamluk Sultanate: al-Ashraf Khalil was assassinated in 1293, and thereafter power passed, for the most part, into the hands of the senior Mamluk officers. Often a descendant of Qalawun might occupy the sultan’s throne, but real power actually lay in the hands of his theoretical subordinates. The most important exception is the third reign of Qalawun’s son al-Nasir Muhammad (r. 1293–4, 1299–1309 and 1310–41), during which the sultan enjoyed firm control over a mostly peaceful realm, although as Levanoni has argued, he destroyed many of the traditional Mamluk power structures and ruined the economy of the state in order to achieve this (Levanoni, 1995: passim). The Qalawunid sultans thereafter were usually puppets of high-ranking Mamluk emirs, and in 1382 a Circassian mamluk called Barquq (r. 1382–9 and 1390–9) usurped the position of sultan. With the exception of a brief nominal restoration of a Qalawunid sultan in 1389–90, the title passed out of the hands of Turkish mamluks and into those of their Circassian counterparts. Circassian Mamluk sultans subsequently reigned in Egypt until 1517, when the country was conquered by the Ottomans.


In this book we have briefly mentioned mamluks in the context of their involvement in the Muslim armies, but here it is appropriate to discuss in more detail the ‘system’ that encompassed their recruitment and employment. Muslim rulers had been making use of significant numbers of mamluk troops, principally Turks from Central Asia, as early as the ninth century. By the end of the Ayyubid period the majority of the mamluks in the sultanate’s armies were Turks drawn from the Kipchak Steppe, north of the Black Sea, although other ethnic elements were also present; as we have seen, Circassians eventually rose to prominence in the Mamluk Sultanate. Mamluks, both male and female, were bought as slaves on the fringes of the Muslim world, while they were young children, by merchants who then imported them into the major trade centres and capitals. There they were sold to the sultan or emirs. Girls would usually be directed to domestic service or the harems (Shajar al-Durr was one such slave), while boys would be taken to barracks or other quarters in preparation for training. Indeed, the Bahriyya and Burjiyya units were named for the barracks where they were originally quartered: on Rawda island, on the River (bahr [nahr in modern Egyptian Arabic]) Nile, in the case of the Bahriyya, and in aburj (tower) of the Citadel in Cairo, in the case of the Burjiyya. Mamluk regiments would normally receive names derived from the titles of their owners; al-Salih Ayyub’s Bahriyya were part of his wider mamluk regiment, known as the Salihiyya from his title of ‘al-Malik al-Salih’ (the Virtuous King), while Baybars’ personal mamluk regiment was called the Zahiriyya, after his title ‘al-Malik al-Zahir’ (the Victorious King).

Burjiyya: Another important mamluk regiment. The creation of the Burjiyya is usually ascribed to the Mamluk sultan Qalawun (r. 1279–90). Their name derives from the fact that they were originally quartered in a tower (Arabic: burj) of the Citadel in Cairo.

However, before joining such a regiment, young mamluk boys had to go through extensive schooling, both religious and military. Their initial scholastic training would be in Arabic, learning to speak and write the language, though how well they mastered it varied; Qalawun is said never to have learned to speak Arabic fluently (Northrup, 1998: 67). A religious scholar would then teach them the Qur’an and Shari‘a (Islamic law). However, as soon as they were old enough the majority of their time would be spent on military training, which included horsemanship and fighting with a lance, sword and composite bow, as well as a shield and other weapons. In establishing their training system for new recruits the Mamluks drew on the Muslim tradition of furusiyya, military standards dating back to the eighth century that encompassed not only riding and the use of weapons, but also hunting, basic veterinary skills, sports such as wrestling and polo, and an expectation of behaviour roughly corresponding to the European concept of chivalry. Furusiyya literature can also be seen as including the military manuals referred to in Chapter 6 (al-Sarraf, 2004: 144–52; Nicolle, 1994: 8–9). By the time that they completed this training the best mamluks, then, were highly educated and skilled warriors, athletes and military tacticians. For example, it was said that they could make sword cuts to precise depths and bodily locations, depending on their leaders’ instructions. A mamluk’s training naturally took years, so that he would be a fully grown adult by the time that he completed it. He would then graduate with his fellows in a group ceremony, being freed and normally joining the retinue of his former owner (al-Sarraf, 2004: passim; Rabie, 1975: passim; Ayalon, 1994: II: 11–13). A fully trained and armedmamluk was an intimidating figure, armed with a lance, sword, shield, bow and mace, wearing mail and/or lamellar armour, and riding a warhorse.

Some mamluks, especially those of the sultan, could rise to high ranks within the army and state. As we have seen, even before the Mamluk takeover they were senior figures in the military hierarchy and instrumental in the conduct of the resistance to Louis IX’s crusade.


Naturally, the Mamluks inherited bureaucratic structures from their Fatimid and Ayyubid predecessors, but the state that they established in Egypt was much more centralized, with tighter control of its institutions by the sultan and his deputies. The state administration was divided into three parts: the Men of the Sword (the military), the Men of the Pen (the civil administration) and the Men of the Turban (the religious hierarchy). The Men of the Turban were originally led by a Shafi‘i chief qadi, but Baybars instead instituted the practice of having a chief qadi from each of the four major schools of Sunni Islamic law, thus preventing the Shafi‘is from monopolizing this position and making it possible for subjects to appeal to whichever chief qadi represented the school of law that they followed; indeed, many mamluks followed the Hanafi school of law and hence appreciated the appointment of a Hanafi chief qadi to judge their cases (Irwin, 1986: 43). The Men of the Pen consisted for the most part, as before the Mamluk takeover, of Egyptian Coptic Christians or Muslims, with the latter becoming increasingly numerous as ever more Copts converted to Islam (Little, 1983: 179–80). Of the three divisions, however, the Men of the Sword were the most influential, and offices in the other parts of the state administration were subject to inspection by Mamluk officials with appropriate expertise. Meanwhile, the major centres in Syria became the capitals of provinces, ruled by representatives of the sultan who reported directly to him in Cairo (see Plate 6).

The Men of the Sword merit further attention. At their head was the sultan, who was advised by a council of about 24 senior mamluk emirs, each known as amir mi’a wa-muqaddam alf (emir of 100 and commander of 1,000), indicating that he had a retinue of 100 cavalrymen (mamluks and free-born) and led 1,000 halqa troops (see below) in battle. Ranged below these were the emirs of 40 (each having a retinue of 40 cavalry and also known as amir al-tablakhana, [emir of the military band, indicating his right to maintain one]), then the emirs of 10 (with 10 cavalry). All of these senior ranks were normally reserved for mamluks.

Halqa: Arabic: ‘circle’. Term used to refer to (a) a circle of students gathered around a scholar, and (b) a regiment in the armies of the Mamluk Sultanate made up of (mostly) free-born troops of various origins.

The majority of the free-born soldiers in the Mamluk army formed the greater part of the body of troops known as the halqa (circle); this division comprised soldiers of various origins, including Kurdish and Arab troops, Mongol refugees, some mamluks and in particular the awlad al-nas (sons of the people), the sons or descendants of mamluks who were not normally permitted to rise to the higher ranks in the military or state, although some clearly did (Irwin, 1986: 38–40 and 50–1; Northrup, 1998: 189–200; Richards, 1998: passim). Of course, the major exception to this rule was the progeny of the sultan, since a number of sultans sought to establish a dynastic succession to their rule; indeed, Qalawun and his descendants reigned (in theory if not always in fact) for over a century. However, most awlad al-nas encountered a ‘glass ceiling’ that resulted from their not having gone through the mamluk experiences of their forebears. The Mamluks also made use of additional auxiliary troops, including in particular Turkmen, Bedouin and other free cavalry (Northrup, 1998: 199).

Awlad al-Nas: Arabic: ‘the sons of the people’. The term used to refer to the descendants of mamluks in the Mamluk Sultanate. Although they might be wealthy and privileged, they were usually limited in how far they could ascend the military–political hierarchy.

Of course, it is worth noting that the above list of ranks and political relations is normative, and that practice varied during the more than 250 years that the Mamluks were in power. The whole Mamluk military system was supported, as in earlier decades, by the distribution of iqta‘s. This was something that was of particular importance for higher-ranking Mamluk emirs, who were after all required to keep retinues of significant sizes.


As usurpers, the Mamluks felt under particular pressure to prove the legitimacy of their rule. Baybars’ supporters sought to legitimize his rule in a number of ways, arguing that divine decree had placed him in the position of sultan, that his natural abilities qualified him to rule, that he was elected to the position by his peers and that he loyally continued the pious traditions of his former master al-Salih Ayyub, including his efforts in the military jihad (Irwin, 1986: 42–4).

Both Baybars and his successors sought to place particular emphasis on their Islamic piety, articulating this in a number of ways. As indicated above, in 1258 the Mongols took Baghdad, putting the ‘Abbasid caliph to death. In 1261 Baybars resurrected the caliphate in Cairo, placing on the throne a relative of the deceased caliph, who took the regnal title of al-Mustansir (r. 1261). The caliph in turn invested the sultan with not only Syria and Egypt, but also western Arabia, including the holy cities, the Yemen and any territory that he might conquer in the future, effectively authorizing Baybars to engage in expansion of Mamluk territory and appointing him the sultan of the Islamic world in the manner of the Great Seljuk sultans. Al-Mustansir, who seems not to have been as easy to manipulate as Baybars may have hoped, enjoyed only a brief reign; he was slain by the Mongols after being sent off to try and retake Baghdad with what may have been a deliberately inadequate force. His successors would reign, but never rule, until the Ottoman conquest of 1517, providing a veneer of caliphal approval for the Mamluk regime (Holt, 1986: 92–3; Irwin, 1986: 43–4).

In the meantime, the Mamluks capitalized on precedents set by their Ayyubid and Zangid forebears, seeking to promote their legitimacy through both official propaganda and acts of public piety, the latter including in particular endowments of religious or charitable buildings. As Robert Hillenbrand has noted, the Mamluks enthusiastically supported building projects, competing with each other to endow the most impressive mosques, madrasas and other buildings. The Mamluks’ efforts were supported by an influx of skilled craftsmen and architects from the eastern Islamic world, who came as refugees from the Mongol conquests. Cairo soon became crowded with buildings, forcing architects to design vertically rather than horizontally, and the city became home to awe-inspiring structures that towered over the common folk, emphasizing the conspicuous amount of wealth that Mamluk patrons had spent on their construction, and with it their piety and power. Naturally, such buildings bore inscriptions naming and exalting their patrons with titles that emphasized their pious support of the faith. Jerusalem also benefited greatly from Mamluk attention during this period. While it was no longer seen as being at risk from the Franks, its holiness attracted the patronage of Mamluk sultans and emirs keen to demonstrate their piety through the restoration or construction of religious buildings within its walls, especially on the Temple Mount (Hillenbrand, 1999 b: 140–50; Little, 1997: 186–93).

Mamluk emirs also richly supplemented their endowments of buildings with salaries for their staffs, furnishings and equipment, including ornate Qur’an manuscripts, lamps and bookstands. The Mamluks also made widespread use of blazons, circular emblems bearing devices that identified particular emirs in a way similar to western heraldry. Such devices were used in both architectural decoration and, where possible, the minor arts, in this way publicly proclaiming the piety and influence of the patrons in question; thus the blazon of a Mamluk emir might, for example, appear on the stucco work of a building or on a glass lamp donated to a particular mosque (Hillenbrand, 1999 b: 150–66). Baybars made particularly widespread use of the lion or panther found on his blazon, using this device even on objects as small as coins (see, for example, Plate 7). A particularly striking example of Baybars’ use of this device is on the Jisr Jindas, a bridge built by the sultan at Lydda (Lod) in 1273 and bearing on each side an inscription commemorating the date of its construction (Plate 8). Each inscription is flanked on either side by a depiction of a lion toying with a rat, probably intended to exalt the sultan in his superiority over his puny enemies; it has been suggested that the rat was a visual parody of the lion rampant heraldry of the Lusignan kings, or possibly an Arabic linguistic pun on the words far (rat) and kuffar (blasphemers or infidels), and was intended to refer specifically to the Franks (Clermont-Ganneau, 1896: 110–18).

Baybars’ particular use of the lion device at the Jisr Jindas reminds us that there was, of course, one more way in which the Mamluks could assert their pious credentials: the military jihad against the Franks and other enemies, which, as we have seen, a number of sultans pursued with considerable enthusiasm. We will consider this in more detail in the next section, but it is worth noting for the moment that a heightened atmosphere of hostility to non-Muslim external enemies may have had a collateral effect within Mamluk territory, in that religious minorities within the state, especially Christians, suffered increasingly harsh discriminatory measures at the time. The extent to which the two phenomena were actually linked is still debated, however (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 414–19).

As with Nur al-Din and Saladin, it is important to avoid being too cynical about the Mamluks’ religious activities, as it can be tempting to write them off merely as attempts to make use of religious ideas for political gain. While it is more than likely that there were some sultans who sought to use Islam in this fashion, a number of sultans do seem to have been genuinely engaged with their faith in a real and personal way. Baybars, for example, is known to have been devoted to a Sufi shaykh named Khadir al-Mihrani (d. 1277), consulting him constantly, allowing him to persecute Christians and Jews, and sharing state secrets with him despite the opposition of his senior emirs (Thorau, 1992: 225–9). This suggests that on some level Baybars’ piety was genuine, even if it does not prove that all his activities were undertaken for the good of Islam. It is likely that for many of the Mamluk sultans and their followers the line between religious devotion and political ambition was extremely blurred.

Shaykh: A term used to refer to (1) a highly regarded scholar or teacher and (2) the master of a Sufi order.


As indicated above, the Mamluks were enthusiastic proponents of the jihad, both in propaganda and in action. As with their predecessors, the buildings that they endowed bore inscriptions loudly attesting to their participation in the military jihad, and their panegyrists numbered their enthusiasm for the holy war among their virtues (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 227–37). However, the Mamluk period sees two major shifts in the way that the jihad was approached by the rulers of Egypt and Greater Syria. First, as Humphreys has noted, the Mamluks placed a much greater emphasis on the military aspect of the jihad, something that is reflected in the sources from the time; as he states of one biography of Baybars, ‘a reader […] almost gets a headache from the throbbing drums and the glare of sunlight on armor’ (Humphreys, 1998: 11–12). Second, the Mamluks fought a military jihad that was multi-faceted, having to deal with several enemies both outside and within their state, including the Franks, the Mongols, the Armenians and the Assassins. Of these it was the Mongols who most occupied the Mamluks’ attention, since they, unlike the others, posed a clear and present danger to the survival of the Mamluk regime, and it was the Mongol threat that dictated the course of Mamluk military activity, with expeditions against other enemies normally only undertaken when the frontier with the Mongols was secure (Amitai-Preiss, 1995: 114; Northrup, 1998: 100).

Thinking about the Franks in particular, we should not take this as an indication that the Mamluks saw them as a trivial concern. There were a number of reasons for the swift elimination of the Frankish states on the coast by the end of the thirteenth century. As we have seen, early Mamluk propaganda sought to draw attention to the Mamluks’ links with the previous regime, including their claims to be continuing the holy war against the Franks undertaken by such exalted figures as Saladin and al-Salih Ayyub, and so fighting the military jihad was an important means for the sultans and their followers to emphasize these links in a way that also attested to their pious support of the faith. Showing contentedness with the presence of the Franks on the coast would have belied the Mamluks’ claims to be defenders of the Muslim lands and alienated the religious classes upon whom the Mamluks relied for support. Instead, as Carole Hillenbrand has noted, the Mamluk sultans forged close links with the religious elite (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 238).

One of the most important religious scholars of the Mamluk era was Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Ibn Taymiyya was born into a family of Hanbali religious scholars in Harran in modern-day Turkey. His family fled the Mongols in 1268–9, moving to Damascus, where Ibn Taymiyya received an education in – and by the age of 19 mastered – the religious sciences, becoming a high-profile teacher and public scholar. As Donald Little has put it, ‘It is Ibn Taymiyya’s distinction that he opposed by word and deed almost every aspect of religion practiced in the Mamluk Empire’; he objected to both popular practices and Mamluk policies and was imprisoned six times over the course of his career for his outspokenness (Little, 1983: 180–1). Yet at the same time he was an influential figure who periodically served the Mamluks as a jihad propagandist. Ibn Taymiyya was an enthusiastic advocate for a vigorous jihad within the Muslim world, in terms of both personal engagement in the greater jihad and state-level correction of the errors of Muslim society, to the point that rulers who did not behave correctly could legitimately be rebelled against, since they were evidently heretics and hypocrites. At the same time, Ibn Taymiyya saw the external, military jihad as a defensive obligation, incumbent on all Muslims when their security was threatened. Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas were influential in his own time and have also had a great impact in the modern day. In particular, aspects of his teachings have been selectively quoted – and distorted – by modern violent extremists to justify acts of terrorism (Bonney, 2004: 111–26); for more on this topic, see Chapter 9.

Returning more directly to the Mamluk military jihad against the Franks, it is clear that there were also serious strategic gains to be made through the liquidation of the Frankish states. When the Mongols had invaded Syria in the mid-thirteenth century, they had received the submission and support of both the Principality of Antioch and the Kingdom of Lesser Armenia (Amitai-Preiss, 1995: 24–5 and 54), an alliance that even briefly persisted after the Battle of ‘Ayn Jalut. The Mamluks remained concerned that the Franks might form a grand alliance with the Mongols; history tells us that while there were embassies exchanged between various European, Levantine Frankish and Mongol rulers, no such alliance materialized, but the Mamluks of course did not know that this was how such discussions would turn out (Amitai-Preiss, 1995: 94–105). Thus they took action to remove the Franks from the equation, systematically destroying the coastal cities and fortresses that they captured in order to make it more difficult for the European powers to re-establish a presence in the region.

Yet at the same time, practicalities dictated that the Mamluks could not pursue a uniformly hostile policy towards the Franks. It was important to come to terms with them from time to time, at least temporarily, especially when the Mongols threatened to launch new expeditions into the Mamluk state and the Mamluks had to direct their military resources elsewhere. Consequently, we see Mamluk sultans making peace agreements with the Franks (both of the east and of Europe) whenever it proved necessary or convenient (Humphreys, 1998: 14–15). One particularly important set of treaties was that made with the intention of guaranteeing ongoing supplies of slaves from the Kipchak Steppe, a vital resource for the Mamluks who, after all, based their power primarily on slaves from this region during this period. The securing of this supply required peace agreements not only with the rulers of the Golden Horde (the part of the former Mongol Empire north of the Black and Caspian Seas), the Byzantine Empire and Lesser Armenia, through which the trade routes ran, but also with the Genoese, who controlled trade across the Black Sea (Northrup, 1998: 284–5). Fortunately for the Mamluks, the Genoese, along with the other Italians, do not seem to have had strong objections to the destruction of the Latin states on the coast (Amitai-Preiss, 1995: 103), which did not impede them from continuing to pursue immensely profitable trade through Alexandria and other ports on the Egyptian coast.


In this chapter we have seen the Mamluks transform the Ayyubid confederation of Muslim Egypt and Greater Syria into a centralized polity geared first and foremost to military activity. It is understandable that the Mamluks, themselves military men, sought to organize their state in this way, and given that they faced major threats to their territory’s integrity from the start, it is not surprising that this conditioned the structure of the sultanate. There is, however, a striking tension between the old and the new that can be seen in how the Mamluk sultanate evolved; this was a state where those most qualified to rule rose to the top (sometimes in a brutal fashion), yet the Mamluks themselves seem to have felt that this was not enough. It is notable that the Mamluks also sought to emphasize their links to pre-existent precedents, in particular previous regimes and Islamic tradition; witness the number of sultans who claimed to be ruling as successors to, on behalf of, or as representatives of earlier sultans and caliphs. Such rationales were widely disseminated through official propaganda, public buildings and examples set by the Mamluks themselves in their conduct. The Mamluk sultans also looked forwards, seeking themselves to establish dynasties on the sultan’s throne and thus still showing a preference for hereditary rather than meritbased transmission of power.

Where did this leave the Franks? Arguably the destruction of the Latin states in the Levant was more a collateral result of other concerns than something that had been seen as a major goal by the Mamluks. After the defeat of Louis IX’s crusade the Franks posed no direct threat to the existence of the Mamluk state; instead, their extirpation resulted principally from the potential danger posed by a Frankish–Mongol alliance, and the Mamluks’ own need to legitimize their rule through visible engagement in the militaryjihad. It is testimony to the secondary nature of the Frankish menace, in Mamluk eyes, that it took almost a half-century after the Mamluk takeover for the sultans to destroy the last of the Latin strongholds on the coast, and they were content both to make treaties with and to conduct commerce with the Franks in the meantime.


An excellent overview of the Bahri Mamluk Sultanate is Robert Irwin’s The Middle East in the Middle Ages (1986). P.M. Holt’s The Age of the Crusades (1986) also provides an account of the complex political developments that took place in the period. On amamluk’s education, see in the first instance Shihab al-Sarraf, ‘Mamluk Furusiyah Literature and Its Antecedents’ (2004); and Hassanein Rabie, ‘The Training of the Mamluk Faris’ (1975). The structure of the Mamluk army is the subject of a number of articles by David Ayalon; see his Studies on the Mamluks of Egypt (1977). Some of his conclusions have been questioned by other scholars; see, for example, Donald S. Richards, ‘Mamluk Amirs and Their Families and Households’ (1998). A number of Mamluk sultans have been the subject of scholarly biographies. On Baybars, see Peter Thorau, The Lion of Egypt: Sultan Baybars I and the Near East in the Thirteenth Century (1992); and Abdul-Aziz Khowaiter, Baibars the First: His Endeavours and Achievements(1978). Qalawun is the subject of an important study by Linda S. Northrup: From Slave to Sultan: The Career of al-Mansur Qalawun and the Consolidation of Mamluk Rule in Egypt and Syria (678–689 A.H./1279–1290 A.D.) (1998). On al-Nasir Muhammad, see Amalia Levanoni, A Turning Point in Mamluk History: The Third Reign of al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun (1310–1341) (1995). For an excellent discussion of the last years of the Qalawunid sultans see Jo van Steenbergen, Order out of Chaos: Patronage, Conflict and Mamluk Socio-Political Culture, 1341–1382 (2006). The conflict between the Mamluks and the Mongols is addressed in Reuven Amitai-Preiss, Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk–Ilkhanid War, 1260–1281 (1995), while the multiple challenges faced by the Mamluks are succinctly discussed in R. Stephen Humphreys, ‘Ayyubids, Mamluks and the Latin East in the Thirteenth Century’ (1998). On Mamluk practice of Islam, see Donald P. Little, ‘Religion under the Mamluks’ (1983). On Ibn Taymiyya, his teachings on jihad and their impact, including in the modern day, see in the first instance Richard Bonney, Jihad: From Qur’an to bin Laden (2004).

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