While Islam in Asia suffered repeated invasions and revolutions, Egypt was exploited with relative stability by the Mamluk sultans (1250–1517). The Black Death destroyed Egyptian prosperity for a time, but through such vicissitudes the Mamluks continued to reconcile competent administration and artistic interests with embezzlement and atrocity. In 1381, however, with Sultan Malik al-Nasir Barquq, the Burji Mamluks began a dynasty of luxury, intrigue, violence, and social decay. They debased the coinage even beyond the custom of governments, taxed the necessaries of life, abused the state monopoly of sugar and pepper, and laid such heavy dues at Alexandria on European trade with India that Occidental merchants were provoked into finding a route to India around Africa. Within a generation after Vasco da Gama’s voyage (1498) Egypt lost much of its once rich share of the commerce between East and West; and this economic disaster reduced the country to such destitution that it offered only feeble resistance when Selim I ended the Mamluk rule and made Egypt a province of the Ottoman Empire.
Cairo remained from 1258 to 1453 the richest, fairest, and most populous city in Islam. Ibn-Batuta described it glowingly in 1326; and Ibn-Khaldun, visiting it in 1383, called it “the metropolis of the universe, the garden of the world, the ant heap of the human species, the throne of royalty; a city adorned with palaces and châteaux, convents, monasteries, and colleges, and illumined by the stars of erudition; a paradise so bounteously watered by the Nile that the earth seems here to offer its fruits to men as gifts and salutations” 30—to which the toilsome fellaheen might have demurred.
The Egyptian mosques of this age reflected the severity of the government rather than the colors of the sky. Here were no “ivans” or portals of glazed brick and tinted tile as in Islamic Asia, but massive stone walls that made the mosque a fortress rather than a house of prayer. The mosque (1356–63) of Sultan Hassan was the wonder of its age, and is still the stateliest monument of Mamluk art. The historian al-Maqrizi thought that “it surpassed all other mosques ever built,” 31 but he was a Cairene patriot. An uncertain tradition tells how the Sultan collected renowned architects from many lands, asked them to name the tallest edifice on earth, and bade them erect a loftier one. They named the palace of Khosru I at Ctesiphon, whose surviving arch rises 105 feet from the ground. Stealing stones from crumbling pyramids, their workmen built the walls of the new mosque up to 100 feet, added a cornice for thirteen feet more, and raised at one corner a minaret to 280 feet. The gloomy towering mass impresses, but hardly pleases, the Western eye; the Cairotes, however, were so proud of it that they invented or borrowed a legend in which the Sultan cut off the right hand of the architect lest he should ever design an equal masterpiece—as if an architect designed with his hand. More attractive, despite their function, were the funerary mosques that the Mamluk sultans built outside Cairo’s walls to embalm their bones. Sultan Barquq al-Zahir, who began life as a Circassian slave, ended in mute glory in the most splendid of these tombs.
The greatest builder among the Burji Mamluks was Qa’it Bey. Though harassed by war with the Turks, he managed to finance costly edifices in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem; restored in Cairo the Citadel of Saladin and the university mosque of el-Azhar; built a hotel famous for its arabesques of stone; raised within the capital a mosque with ornate ornament; and crowned his demise with a memorial mosque, in granite and marble, whose superb decoration, lofty balconied minaret, and geometrically carved dome make it one of the lesser victories of Moslem art.
All the minor arts flourished under the Mamluks. Carvers in ivory, bone, and wood made a thousand handsome products, from pen boxes to pulpits, conceived with taste and executed with unremitting industry and skill; witness the pulpit from Qa’it Bey’s extramural mosque, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Gold and silver inlay reached its peak during these bloody dynasties. And Egyptian pottery, which had invented a thousand novelties in its immemorial millenniums, now gave the world enameled glass: mosque lamps, beakers, vases. painted with figures or formal ornament in colored enamel, sometimes enhanced with gold. In these and numberless other ways the Moslem artists, giving beauty a lasting form, atoned for the barbarities of their kings.