In 1249 al-Salih, last Egyptian sultan of the Ayyubid line, passed away. His widow and former slave, Shajar-al-Durr, connived at the murder of her stepson, and proclaimed herself queen. To save their masculine honor, the Moslem leaders of Cairo chose another former slave, Aybak, as her associate. She married him, but continued to rule; and when he attempted a declaration of independence she had him murdered in his bath (1257). She herself was presently battered to death with wooden shoes by Aybak’s women slaves.
Aybak had lived long enough to found the Mamluk dynasty. Mamluk meant “owned,” and was applied to white slaves, usually strong and fearless Turks or Mongols employed as palace guards by the Ayyubid sultans. As in Rome and Baghdad, so in Cairo the guards became the kings. For 267 years (1250–1517) the Mamluks ruled Egypt, and sometimes Syria (1271–1516); they incarnadined their capital with assassinations, and beautified it with art; their courage saved Syria and Egypt—even Europe—when they routed the Mongols at Ain-Jalut (1260). They received less wide acclaim for saving Palestine from the Franks, and driving the last Christian warrior from Asia.
The greatest and least scrupulous of the Mamluk rulers was al-Malik Baibars (1260–77). Born a Turkish slave, his brave resourcefulness raised him to high command in the Egyptian army. It was he who defeated Louis IX at Mansura in 1250; and ten years later he fought with fierce skill under the Sultan Qutuz at Ain-Jalut. He murdered Qutuz on the way back to Cairo, made himself sultan, and accepted with winning grace the triumph that the city had prepared for his victorious victim. He renewed repeatedly the war against the Crusaders, always with success; and for these holy campaigns Moslem tradition honors him next to Harun and Saladin. In peace, says a contemporary Christian chronicler, he was “sober, chaste, just to his people, even kind to his Christian subjects.”8He organized the government of Egypt so well that no incompetence among his successors availed to unseat the Mamluks till their overthrow by the Ottoman Turks in 1517. He gave Egypt a strong army and navy, cleared its harbors, roads, and canals, and built the mosque that bears his name.
Another Turkish slave deposed Baibars’ son, and became Sultan al-Mansur Sayf-al-Din Qalaun (1279–90). History remembers him chiefly for the great hospital that he built at Cairo, and which he endowed with an annuity of a million dirhems ($500,000). His son Nasir (1293–1340) was thrice enthroned but only twice deposed; built aqueducts, public baths, schools, monasteries, and thirty mosques; dug with the forced labor of 100,000 men a canal connecting Alexandria with the Nile; and exemplified Mamluk ways by slaughtering 20,000 animals for the marriage feast of his son. When Nasir traveled through the desert forty camels bore on their backs a garden of rich earth to provide him with fresh vegetables every day.9 He depleted the treasury, and condemned his successors to a slow decline of the Mamluk power.
These sultans do not impress us as favorably as the Seljuqs or Ayyubids. They undertook great public works, but most of these were accomplished by peasants and proletaires exploited to the limit of human tolerance, and for a government completely irresponsible to either the nation or an aristocracy; assassination was the only known form of recall. At the same time these brutal rulers had good taste and a large spirit in literature and art. The Mamluk period is the most brilliant in the history of medieval Egyptian architecture. Cairo was now (1250–1300) the richest city west of the Indus.10 Markets teeming with all the necessaries and many of the superfluities of life; the great slave mart where one could buy and sell men and maidens; little shops nestling in the walls, and crowded with goods of flexible price; alleys crawling with men and beasts, noisy with pedlars and carts, deliberately narrow for shade and crooked for defense; homes hidden behind stern façades, rooms dark and cool amid the glare and heat and bustle of the streets, and breathing from an inner court or garden close; interiors lushly furnished with hangings, carpets, embroideries, and works of art; men chewing hashish to produce a dreamy intoxication; women gossiping in the zenana, or furtively flirting in a window bay; music strummed from a thousand lutes, and weird concerts in the Citadel; public parks redolent with flowers and picnicking; canals and the great river dotted with cargo barges, passenger vessels, and pleasure boats: this was the Cairo of medieval Islam. One of its poets sang:
Beside that garden flowed the placid Nile.
Oft have I steered my dahabiya there;
Oft have I landed to repose awhile,
And bask and revel in the sunny smile
Of her whose presence made the place so fair.11
Meanwhile in North Africa a succession of dynasties had their day. Zayrids (972–1148) and Hafsids (1228–1534) ruled Tunisia; Hammadids (1007–1152) governed Algeria; Almoravids (1056–1147) and Almohads (1130–1269) held sway in Morocco. In Spain the victorious Almoravids, once the frugal warriors of Africa, rapidly learned the luxurious ways of the Cordovan and Sevillian princes whom they had replaced. The discipline of war gave way to the blandishments of peace; courage yielded to money as the standard of excellence and the goal of desire; women won by their grace and charms a power rivaled only by theologians promising like joys in paradise. Officials became corrupt, and administration, which had been competent under Yusuf ibn Tashfin (1090–1106), was already debased under Ali his son (1106–43). As governmental negligence grew, brigandage spread; roads became unsafe; commerce languished, wealth declined. The kings of Catholic Spain seized their opportunity, and raided Cordova, Seville, and other cities of Moorish Spain. Again the Moslems turned to Africa for deliverance.
There, in 1121, a religious revolution had raised a new sect to power and violence. Abdallah ibn Tumart denounced both the anthropomorphism of the orthodox and the rationalism of the philosophers; he demanded a return to simplicity of life and creed; and ended by proclaiming himself the Mahdi or Messiah promised in the Shia faith. The barbarous tribes of the Atlas range flocked to him, organized themselves under the name of Almohads or Unitarians, overthrew the Almoravid rulers in Morocco, and found it an easy matter to do the like in Spain. Under the Almohad emirs Abd al-Mumin (1145–63) and Abu Yaqub Yusuf (1163–84) order and prosperity returned to Andalusia and Morocco; literature and learning once more raised their heads; and philosophers were protected on the quiet understanding that they would make their works unintelligible. But Abu Yusuf Yaqub (1184–99) yielded to the theologians, forsook philosophy, and ordered all philosophical works to be burned. His son Muhammad al-Nasir (1199–1214) cared for neither philosophy nor religion; he neglected government, specialized in pleasure, and was overwhelmingly defeated by the united armies of Christian Spain at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. Almohad Spain broke into small and independent states, which were conquered by the Christians one by one—Cordova in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Seville in 1248. The harassed Moors retired to Granada, where the Sierra Nevada, or Snowy Ridge, provided some defense; and well-rivered fields flowered into vineyards, olive orchards, and orange groves. A succession of prudent rulers sustained Granada and its dependencies—Xeres, Jaen, Almeria, and Malaga—against repeated Christian assaults; commerce and industry revived, art flourished, the people gained renown for their gay dress and joyous fetes; and the little kingdom survived till 1492 as the last European foothold of a culture that had made Andalusia for many centuries an honor to mankind.