Post-classical history

Chapter Fifty


The Mamluks of Egypt

Between 1250 and 1268, the Bahri Regiment takes control of Cairo, and the Mongols suffer their first defeat

IN EGYPT, mamluk soldiers now governed the country, and a woman sat on the throne.

After Turan-shah’s murder, the Bahri Regiment had taken control of Egypt’s government. Realizing that they had no legitimate claim to rule, its leaders had followed Islamic custom and recognized Ayyub’s widow Shajar al-Durr as the new sultan; but the power of government remained firmly in their hands.

Shajar al-Durr had been one of Ayyub’s younger concubines (Turan-shah’s mother was long dead); she had apparently become one of his favorites, and later his wife. She had borne him a single son, Khalil, who died as a baby. As sultan of Egypt, Shajar al-Durr had coins struck in her name and Friday prayers said on her behalf, but not in her name alone. She represented herself, always, as “Queen of the Muslims and Mother of Khalil.” Only as mother of Ayyub’s son could she claim any right to hold the throne.1

And even this right was a shaky one. Hearing of the coup d’état and Shajar al-Durr’s enthronement, the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad had sent a withering message to the Bahri: “If there remain no men among you, let us know, and we will send you one.” Cairo’s crown would never sit securely on a woman’s head. Two months after her enthronement, Shajar al-Durr tried to protect herself by marrying the mamluk commander Aybek and handing over the title of sultan to him.2

Aybek did not belong to the Bahri Regiment itself, and Shajar al-Durr’s choice was not a popular one. Aybek, one of the Bahri remarked later, was not “ruler of Egypt”: “He was simply one of our comrades whom we appointed over us, while there were among us some who were older, more qualified, more skilled, and more deserving to be Sultan.” A number of these comrades gathered behind another candidate, a six-year-old of Ayyubid descent named al-Malik al-Ashraf (the grandson of the youngest son of al-Kamil himself), and proclaimed him the rightful Ayyubid sultan.3

For a time, Aybek—perfectly aware of his own lack of legitimacy—agreed to accept al-Ashraf as co-sultan. This did not bring peace; the seven years of Aybek’s rule were marked by riots and looting in Cairo, quarrels with the other mamluks, and political murders. In 1254, Aybek murdered his most distinguished colleague, the Bahri Regiment general Faris al-Din Aqtay, who had been largely responsible for the defeat of Louis and the French army. The assassination, carried out by Aybek and his loyal lieutenant Qutuz in the citadel of Cairo, broke the Bahri apart. Aqtay’s friends fled north into the chaotic Syrian lands; among them was Baibars himself, the assassin of Turan-shah. Aybek then managed to rid himself of his ten-year-old co-sultan by sending the boy into exile. His retainers took him north and found refuge for him in the Empire of Nicaea.4

This temporary victory over opposition lasted only until 1257. Shajar al-Durr had been growing disenchanted with her husband; she had hoped that the marriage would allow her to keep some power, but Aybek was determined to shut her out. In April, she sent her own retainers to ambush Aybek at the royal bathhouse; there they strangled the defenseless sultan to death.

The palace disintegrated. Aybek’s own guards chased Shajar al-Durr into the southern end of the palace and captured her; then they dragged her back into Aybek’s quarters, where (according to Ibn Wasil) Aybek’s first wife allowed the house servants to beat her to death with their wooden house clogs.5

Aybek’s mamluk companions then appointed his fifteen-year-old son, al-Mansur Ali, to be the next sultan of Egypt. Ali was never meant to rule; he was a makeshift caretaker, meant to reassure the people of Cairo that all was in order, while behind his throne the mamluks fought among themselves over the sultanate.

The winner was Aybek’s lieutenant and hitman Qutuz, who got himself proclaimed sultan by his companions on November 12, 1259, and sent Ali into early and peaceful retirement. Shortly afterwards, the Bahri who had fled from Aybek began to trickle back into Egypt. Qutuz welcomed them. He needed them to face the Mongols.6

Hulagu, temporarily abandoning his conquests to return to Karakorum, had left his ten thousand men under the command of his general Ked-Buqa. Ked-Buqa had carried on, leading the occupation of Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Gaza. By early 1260, the Mongol front had pushed forward almost to the Jordan river; very little land lay between Ked-Buqa and Egypt.7

In late August, Ked-Buqa sent an envoy to Cairo, ordering Qutuz to surrender. Instead, the new sultan put the Mongol messengers to death and stuck their heads up on his city gate.

The defiance was intended to spark an explosion; Qutuz knew that the Mongols had been left behind as a skeleton force, and he was convinced that Allah was behind him in his desire to crush the Mongol enemies of Islam; like Hulagu’s mother, Ked-Buqa was a convert to Christianity. Qutuz even sent a message to Acre, asking the Crusaders there to join him in an alliance. Given that the slaughter at Damietta had happened a bare decade before, the Crusaders were a little taken aback by this offer; they finally decided to pass, but they did offer help with resupplying the Egyptian army as it marched against the Mongols.8

On September 3, 1260, both armies entered the valley of Ain Jalut: “Goliath’s Spring,” site of the storied slaying of the giant Goliath by a young David. And, for the first time, the Mongols fell into the trap they had so often laid for others. Qutuz’s army outnumbered Ked-Buqa’s, but Qutuz concealed most of his men in the hills around Ain Jalut and sent only a small division, led by Baibars, into the Mongol jaws. Ked-Buqa, scenting victory, called for a charge; Baibars turned tail and fled into the hills; and as the Mongols followed, the rest of the mamluks emerged from hiding and surrounded them.9

The Mongol ferocity showed itself, and the trapped army nearly fought its way free. But the mamluks were as effective on horseback as the Mongols had ever been. Several hours into the battle, Ked-Buqa fell. The death of their commander took the heart out of the Mongol army; they began to retreat, and the retreat turned into flight. At the town of Beisan, eight miles out, the survivors attempted to turn and regroup. The pursuing mamluks slaughtered them.

For the first time, a Mongol army had been beaten in pitched battle. News of the mamluk victory was carried triumphantly to Egypt, accompanied by Ked-Buqa’s head on the end of a spear; news of the Mongol defeat spread to the four quarters. The Mongols, it turned out, were not invincible after all. Their triumph was not inevitable. The rest of the world could fight back.10

Qutuz himself rode in triumph to Damascus, drove out the Mongol occupiers, and claimed it again for Egypt. Within a month, he had also retaken Aleppo, Homs, and Hama. Egypt and Syria were finally reunited under the Cairo sultanate. And a lasting line had been drawn between the Arabic empire of Cairo and the domain of the Mongols, deeply influenced by Christianity; first Hulagu’s mother and now his wife were Christian converts.11

Qutuz never returned to Cairo, where his people were preparing to welcome him as hero and conqueror. The Bahri Regiment had not forgotten his part in the murder of Faris al-Din Aqtay, six years earlier. Led by Baibars, they had been planning a cold revenge. In October of 1260, as they journeyed back towards Egypt, Baibars and Qutuz went out hawking with a small band of companions. As the two men stood together, Baibars bent to kiss the sultan’s hand. It was a signal to his confederates; they all surrounded Qutuz at once and killed him.

Leaving the body, they rode back to the camp and faced down Qutuz’s top official, who was waiting for him. Eyeball to eyeball with the murderers, the man folded. “Which of you killed him?” he asked. “I did,” Baibars answered. “Then sit on the throne in his place,” the man said, and retreated.12

A Bahri sultan had at last emerged.* Baibars, biding his time, now ruled a sultanate that was reunified and victorious over the most blood-chilling enemy the world had ever seen.

In the seventeen years of his rule, the border lines of the new Middle East shifted slightly and then were carved even more deeply into the rocky ground. Hulagu, separating himself from Kublai’s dominion, chose the city of Maragheh, west of the Caspian Sea, as the Il-khanate capital; to guard himself from the revenge of the Il-khanates, Baibars sent envoys north to the Golden Horde to negotiate alliances with Berke, the khan who now ruled the Rus’ lands. Berke had converted to Islam, and now that he too had renounced allegiance to the Great Khan, he was anxious to protect his own borders against Hulagu’s ambitions.13

The friendship between the Golden Horde and the Bahri Sultanate also protected the slave trade routes. Thousands of slaves, taken captive by Mongol detachments, were shipped from the shores of the Black Sea (now under Berke’s control) to Egypt every year; the slave regiments, continually replenished, remained the strongest instrument of Baibars’s power.14

In 1261, Baibars lassoed the role of Commander of the Faithful by welcoming an Abbasid refugee, fleeing the Mongol-occupied city of Baghdad, into Cairo, and declaring him the new Abbasid caliph, under Bahri protection. Hulagu had destroyed the ancient heart of Islam; now Baibars was posing as its restorer. The “heathen Tartars,” wrote the fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, “abolished the seat of the Caliphate and . . . made unbelief prevail in place of belief,” but Baibars had snatched the fading torch:

[I]t was God’s benevolence that He rescued the faith by reviving its dying breath and restoring the unity of the Muslims in the Egyptian realms. . . . He did this by sending to the Muslims, from this Turkish nation and from among its great and numerous tribes, rulers to defend them and utterly loyal helpers, who were brought from the House of War to the House of Islam under the rule of slavery. . . . [S]ome of them are chosen to sit on the throne of the Sultans and direct the affairs of the Muslims, in accordance with divine providence and with the mercy of God.15


50.1 The Bahri Sultanate

A pleasant side effect of this decision was the immediate allegiance of the sharif of Mecca, the most powerful tribal chief in the Holy City, with the Cairo sultanate. In order to make the hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca, most of the Muslim world would have to pass through Baibars’s land; now that land would be friendly. At once, Baibars adopted a new title: khadim al-haramayn al-sharifayn, “Servant of the Two Holy Places,” protector of both Mecca and Medina. In the next years, he paid for the renovation of the mosque in Medina that bore Muhammad’s name, and supervised the renewed observation of Islamic laws in the sultanate (including the ban on drinking alcohol).16

He also renewed the war against the Crusader kingdoms, now reduced to two: the Kingdom of Jerusalem at Acre, still clinging desperately to the Mediterranean coastline; and the Principality of Antioch, which since 1201 had also encompassed Tripoli. Bypassing Acre, Baibars marched north towards Antioch and laid siege to the city itself. Antioch fell after a mere four days. Seventeen thousand of its people were taken captive, over a hundred thousand sold into the slave markets; Bohemund VI, the prince of Antioch, was left with only Tripoli.17

Bohemund had not been in Antioch during the siege, but Baibars thoughtfully sent him a letter describing the conquest. “Your houses [were] stormed by pillagers and ransacked by looters,” he wrote,

your women sold four at a time . . . the crosses in your churches smashed, the pages of the false Testaments scattered, the Patriarch’s tombs overturned . . . your Muslim enemy trampling on the place where you celebrate the mass, cutting the throats of monks, priests, and deacons upon the altars. . . . The God who gave you Antioch has taken it away again; the Lord who bestowed that fortress on you has snatched it away, uprooting it from the face of the earth.18

Now only Tripoli and Acre remained in Crusader hands: Tripoli as the last remnant of the Principality of Antioch, minus Antioch; Acre, as the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which no longer controlled Jerusalem. Baibars had restored the Muslim supremacy east of the Mediterranean, a dominance that would endure for generations. “Thus, one intake comes after another and generation follows generation,” Ibn Khaldun explains, “and Islam rejoices in the benefit which it gains through them, and the branches of the kingdom flourish with the freshness of youth.”19


*The “Bahri sultanate” is generally dated 1250–1382, even though the first five sultans were not actually part of the Bahri Regiment.

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