Post-classical history

Chapter Sixty-Four

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The Sultan and the Khan

Between 1310 and 1335, the empire of Egypt grows in strength and wealth, but the Il-khanate collapses

KHALIL, THE SULTAN OF EGYPT, had presided over the final end of the last Crusader kingdom: the goal of Muslim commanders since the days of Saladin.

This did not make him a hero. Instead, he was assassinated in 1293, aged twenty-nine, by three of his own officers.

In the seventeen anarchic years that followed, the sultanate changed hands four times. Self-made men, rising from slavery to sultanate, the mamluks of Egypt had no tradition of father-to-son succession: the strongest man was the one who could lay hold of the sultan’s scepter. And although all of the would-be rulers were mamluk, none of them belonged to the Bahri Regiment, the onetime personal bodyguard of long-dead Ayyub. Even the Bahri who had been very young men at the time of the Regiment’s rise to power, were in their seventies; the next generation of mamluks was now agitating for its share of power.1

Complicating the struggle for power at the top was the existence of Qalawun’s younger son, Khalil’s little brother al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun. Al-Nasir, only eight at the time of Khalil’s murder, was elevated to the sultanate twice between 1293 and 1310, both times as a figurehead; power had always remained in the hands of an ambitious regent, and al-Nasir had survived only by accepting his complete lack of authority and living in retirement.

But in those years the submissive child had grown into a young man. He was nearly twenty-four; he had spent most of his life under house arrest, and for some time he had been quietly planning to emerge as sultan in fact as well as in name.

Meanwhile, the people of Egypt had grown tired of the constant chaos and purges at the sultan’s palace. In 1310, the sudden failure of the Nile to rise pitched their discontent to a new high, and al-Nasir seized his chance. He left the castle of Kerak, where he had been living for some time in exile, and set out for Damascus, collecting followers as he went. By the time he arrived at the city, the governors of the mamluk-held cities of Aleppo and Jerusalem had decided to join his cause.

As al-Nasir prepared to journey from Damascus to Cairo to claim his throne, most of the empire came over to his side. His current rival, an officer named Baybars who had proclaimed himself sultan two years earlier, found himself entirely deserted. He came out to meet his replacement on foot, carrying a grave cloth to show that he was ready to die; al-Nasir, who was already a clever politician, magnanimously forgave him in public, and then had him strangled in private a few hours later.2

Al-Nasir had had years to plan out what he would do, once he got the sultanate into his hands, and immediately he started to reorganize the country’s disorderly affairs. He commissioned a survey of the empire’s land, its owners, and the taxes paid by each, a formal audit called a rawk; he then redistributed estates to those who were most loyal to him. He would do this three more times during his thirty-year rule, each time with enormous attention to detail, personally supervising the work of the scribes and surveyors.3

He had become sultan at a fortunate time; the most dangerous enemy of the Egyptian kingdom, the Mongol Il-khanate kingdom in the Middle East, had mellowed. The Il-khanate khan, Oljeitu, had married a daughter of the Byzantine emperor and allied himself with the Byzantine empire against the mamluks; in 1305, he had even tried to persuade the French and English kings to join him in an allied attack on Egypt. But unlike his brother and predecessor Ghazan, Oljeitu had little luck in battle. In 1312, he organized an invasion of Syria, across the Euphrates, which failed completely to conquer any mamluk-held cities; al-Nasir answered by sending an army into Il-khanate territory and seizing the eastern cities of Kahta, Gerger, and Malatya for himself.

Oljeitu made no more efforts to conquer the mamluks; he seems to have lost his appetite for war, and he was unwell. In 1316, he died of a bleeding stomach ulcer that had troubled him for years. He was only thirty-six, and his heir was his ten-year-old son Abu Sa’id Bahadur Khan. Serving as the child’s regent was one of Oljeitu’s most distinguished generals, Chupan.4

Despite a lifetime spent in war, Chupan was by nature a treaty maker and a bridge builder. When George V, the vassal king of Georgia (entirely in Mongol hands since 1248), arrived at Baghdad to attend the coronation of the new young khan, Chupan rewarded him by giving him back full control of a southwestern piece of Georgia that previous khans had ruled directly. And he began to negotiate a peace with the mamluks; the eventual truce, ratified in 1323 by both young Abu Sa’id and al-Nasir, set the Euphrates river as the boundary between the Il-khanate state and the mamluk empire. It was a line that would outlast both empires.5

At the same time, al-Nasir took the precaution of firming up his alliance with the Golden Horde. The khan, Uzbek, remained hostile to his Mongol cousins in the Il-khanate, but agreed to send one of his daughters to marry al-Nasir and seal the alliance.6

Egypt was now the single strongest power between Morocco and the Persian Gulf; Cairo alone was populated by perhaps 600,000 people, making it fourteen times larger than contemporary London. It stood at the intersection of the spice route that ran from the Red Sea to the Nile and then to the west of Africa, and al-Nasir’s efficient administration meant that the Egyptian sultanate collected a percentage of the trade passing through. The Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta, journeying from his home in Tangiers to Mecca to perform the hajj, came to Cairo in 1325 at the midpoint of al-Nasir’s reign. “Boundless in the profusion of its people, peerless in beauty and splendor,” he marveled, “she is the crossroads of travellers, the sojourn of the weak and the powerful. . . .”

There are reported to be twelve thousand water carriers and thirty thousand mocaris [renters of beasts of burden]; thirty-six thousand watercraft on the Nile belonging to the sultan and his subjects that do nothing but come and go . . . laden with merchandise of every kind. . . . There is a continuous series of bazaars from the city of Alexandria to Cairo. . . . Cities and villages succeed one another along its banks without interruption and have no equal in the inhabited world, nor is any river known whose basin is so intensively cultivated as that of the Nile.7

Al-Nasir himself plowed a huge amount of tax money back into Cairo and the surrounding cities. He built at least thirty mosques and schools, dug new canals and wells, ordered bridges and waterwheels constructed on the Nile: the sort of activity that could take place only in the absence of a treasury-draining war.

TO THE EAST, Al-Nasir’s new ally, the khan of the Il-khanate, was fretting.

Still in his teens, Abu Sa’id was increasingly unhappy in his role as figurehead. Chupan had assured peace in the Il-khanate, but the young khan, like al-Nasir a decade and a half before, found himself pushed constantly into the shade by his efficient and hardworking regent: “Chupan took all the realms of . . . Abu Sa’id into the grasp of his authority and the hand of his control,” writes the court historian Hafiz-i Abru.8

The khan began to suspect that Chupan, far from working to bring him into full power, was planning to install his own son as his successor, in a shogun type of arrangement that would leave Abu Sa’id entirely out of the circles of power. In 1325, he prodded hard at Chupan’s authority. Chupan’s daughter, the famous beauty Khatun, had two years earlier been married off to an Il-khanate nobleman; now Abu Sa’id summoned her father and demanded the young woman for himself. “For it was the custom of the Mongol house,” says Hafiz-i Abru, “that should any lady please the king, usage required her husband to forgo her with a good grace.”9

Abu Sa’id was a handsome youth (“The most beautiful of God’s creatures in features,” says Ibn Battuta, who passed through Baghdad after leaving Cairo and saw the khan with his own eyes), and the court historian Abru rather romantically chalks this demand up to love. “When the heart falls for a languid narcissus-eye,” he sighs, “be it a king’s or a slave’s, it slips out of control.”10

But the order was clearly an attempt to discover just how loyal to his khan Chupan actually was. When the vizier refused to order his daughter to obey, Abu Sa’id had his answer. He bided his time until Chupan was out of Baghdad, and then ordered Chupan’s oldest son arrested and executed, on charges that the young man was sleeping with one of the khan’s own concubines. Chupan, hearing the news, realized that a purge was upon him. He fled to the Il-khanate city of Herat, believing that the governor—a personal friend—would protect him. But the governor refused to defy the khan; instead, he offered his old acquaintance a choice between beheading and the more honorable death of strangulation.

Chupan chose strangulation. Afterwards, the governor chopped off one of his fingers and sent it to Abu Sai’d as proof of his obedience.11

Chupan’s second son fled to Cairo, but al-Nasir was also unwilling to offend Abu Sa’id; he put the boy in jail and then executed him the following year. Abu Sa’id then forced the beautiful Khatun to divorce her husband, and married her himself. At twenty, he was now in full control of the Il-khanate.

Unlike al-Nasir in Egypt, he did not blossom into an efficient ruler. To replace Chupan, he appointed one of his favorites, the minister Ghiyath al-Din: a good man, of “angelic temperament,” a contemporary account says, but incompetent. “Instead of punishing those who had wrought . . . ill deeds,” the chronicler says, “he drew the pen of forgiveness through the record of their crimes, recompensed their evil actions with good, and . . . entrust[ed] to them the most important functions.” The Il-khanate was in a downward spiral, and Abu Sa’id did not live long enough to mature into its savior. Ibn Battuta, repeating court gossip, says that around 1335 Abu Sa’id developed a “violent passion” for a new wife, and neglected Chupan’s daughter Khatun: “She became jealous in consequence, and administered poison to him. . . . So he died, and his line became extinct.”12

The Christian kingdom of Georgia at once declared its independence under George V. And Muslim dynasties, ruling over mini-kingdoms, sprang up all over the old Il-khanate lands: “When the King died and left no issue,” Ibn Battuta writes, “each of the governors assumed the government of the district over which he had been placed.” Almost overnight, the entire Il-khanate vanished.13

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64.1 The Collapse of the Il-khanate

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