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How Slaves Came to Rule an Empire

mamluk sultanate slaves rule empire


For over two and a half centuries the Mamluk Sultanate was a major player in the greater Middle Eastern region. Rising to prominence in the 13th century, the Mamluks solidified their rule by repelling Mongol and crusader invasions. Over the centuries that followed, the sultanate grew into a polity with millions of subjects.


The Mamluk Sultanate controlled the fertile lands of Egypt and the Levant. In addition, it held Islam’s holy cities of Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina. These possessions made the sultanate one of the mightiest and most influential powers of its time.


The Mamluks: From Slaves to Rulers

three mamluks lances horseback medieval drawing
Three Mamelukes with lances on horseback, by Daniel Hopfer, 1470, via Wikimedia Commons


The term Mamluk stems from the Arabic مملوك, meaning “one who is owned.” The Mamluks started their lives as slaves and were purchased when still young boys. Because Islamic law forbids the owning of Muslim slaves, young Mamluks were imported from Christian territories. Historic sources frequently mention Mamluks of Caucasian and Turkic origin, but Mamluks with Greek, Italian, German, Albanian, and Vlach backgrounds are also recorded.


Mamluks were considered to be loyal subjects because of their deep reliance on their masters. Far from home, young Mamluks lacked social and political affiliations which could compromise their loyalty. This meant that slave owners, including the sultan and powerful emirs, felt safe to mold their Mamluks into knowledgeable and skilled subjects, training them in martial arts, Islamic sciences, and court etiquette among other skills.


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While young Mamluks were formally slaves, they were treated very differently from household slaves and held a privileged position in society. After completing their education, Mamluks were freed but were expected to remain loyal to their patron and household. Now a member of the sultanate’s military elite, they could advance to the heights of power. Several Sultans of the Mamluk Empire even started out as slaves.


It should be remembered that the Mamluks were no monolith. They tended to organize themselves according to their ethnic origin and who their patron was. These factors determined their dress and the offices they could hold. For example, a distinct class of Caucasian mamluks housed in Cairo’s citadel were known by the name the “Burgi Mamluks,” meaning tower in Arabic .


The Rise of the Mamluk Sultanate

mosque madrasa sultan hasan cairo photo
Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hasan, by Dennis Jarvis, 2004, via Wikimedia Commons


The practice of buying and training Mamluks had existed for centuries in the Islamic world before the ascendance of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt, but they had never before seized political power over substantial territory. Their claiming of the sultanate in Cairo in 1250 revolved around the figure of the Ayyubid Sultan As-Salih Ayyub.


A great-nephew of Saladin, As-Salih became ruler of Cairo in 1240 in the context of major political struggles and wars against other members of the Ayyubid dynasty. Having a weak grip on power and finding himself in the context of political intrigues, As-Salih decided to buy a large number of Turkic and Caucasian Mamluks. Now possessing a strong military force, he was able to consolidate his rule.


As-Salih spent the years of 1240-1249 fighting other Ayyubid states and crusaders. During this time, he used his Mamluks, which constituted the backbone of his military, with great success. As a reward, many Mamluks were given influential positions within the sultanate. However, when the Seventh Crusade captured the city of Damietta in 1249, an enraged As-Salih had more than 50 Mamluk commanders executed as punishment for the defeat. Through this act he antagonized a now influential faction of his sultanate.


barqouqy mosque sultan mamluk photo
Mosque-Madrasa-Khanqah of Az-Zaher Barquq, by Moh Hakem, 2016, via Wikimedia Commons


In November 1249, As-Salih died and was shortly thereafter succeeded by his son al-Muazzam Turanshah. The new sultan who had resided in Turkey during his father’s rule was likely unaware of how influential the Mamluks had become over the previous years.


Upon arriving in Egypt, Turanshah promoted the Kurdish soldiers he brought with him to positions of power. In response, a group of conspirators staged Turanshash’s assassination, with a prominent Mamluk leader named Baibars dealing the killing blow.


Following Turanshah’s demise, a Mamluk commander named Aybak married As-Salih’s widow. She renounced the crown in favor of Aybak in 1250, an act which officially established the Mamluk Sultanate.


Solidifying Mamluk Rule: Defeating the Mongols and the Crusaders

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Mail and plate armor with full horse armor of an Ottoman Mamluk horseman, via Wikimedia Commons


In the years that followed Aybak’s rise to Sultanhood, factions of Mamluks vied for power of Egypt. This struggle resulted in a commander named Qutuz murdering Aybak and claiming the sultanate. Qutuz came to power in turbulent times. His reign was contested by the Ayyubid rulers of the Levant, and crusaders had their eyes on Mamluk territories. The most menacing threat of all, however, was the approaching Mongol horde.


In February of 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad, executing the Abbasid caliph and advancing into the Levant. In the span of a few months, they captured the cities of Damascus and Aleppo.


Alarmed by the speed and viciousness with which the Mongols seized the Islamic heartland, the Mamluk factions in Egypt put aside their differences and united under Sultan Qutuz. Envoys who came to demand the Mamluk’s submission to the Khan were executed, and the Mamluks mobilized their forces to resist the Mongol onslaught.


Under the leadership of Sultan Qutuz and General Baybars, the Mamluks set out from Egypt to meet the Mongol army in Palestine. The engagement that followed, known as the Battle of Ain Jalut, was a bloody struggle that saw many thousands die. The Mamluks managed to bait the Mongols into overcommitting their forces, and then used their larger numbers to outflank them, causing a rout.


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On the Way between Old and New Cairo, Citadel Mosque of Mohammed Ali, and Tombs of the Mamelukes, 1872, Louis Comfort Tiffany, via Brooklyn Museum


Qutuz did not survive his victory for long. On the way back to Cairo, a group of conspirators led by Baibars assassinated him. Baibars then claimed power for himself. Baibars and his successors continued the practice of buying Mamluk slaves, with Baibars bringing an estimated 4,000 Mamluks into the sultanate during his fifteen-year rule. Using this force of elite warriors, the Mamluk Sultanate seized the territories of the crusader states as well as parts of the levant and Arabia, thereby becoming the region’s dominant power.


Mamluk Politics

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Bust of Saif Al-Din Qutuz at the military history museum Cairo, via Wikimedia Commons


The Mamluk Sultanate’s political system was unique for its time. Importantly, throughout much of the sultanate’s history, dynastic and hereditary tendencies were weak. This meant that a person’s lineage was not the principal determinant of whether someone could rise to power.


While the office of sultan was hereditary during some periods of Mamluk rule, there were also periods during which social mobility enabled former slaves to rise to the position. On various occasions, Cairo’s ruling elite of emirs, a class of powerful commanders and officials, held elections to determine who would become the new sultan.


In a world where someone’s lineage was a major source of authority, a sultanate ruled by former slaves created a problem of legitimacy. The Mamluks skilfully addressed this problem by hosting Abbasid caliphs in their sultanate. In 1261, three years after the Mongol conquest of the Abbasid caliphate, Baibars installed a royal Abbasid who had managed to escape to Egypt as caliph.


For the next 256 years, until the Mamluk Sultanate’s demise in 1517, a caliph who could trace his lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad resided within the sultanate. While these caliphs were little more than religious figureheads, they did provide the Mamluks much-needed diplomatic and religious legitimacy.


Trade and Economy

bezestein bazaar khan khalili cairo painting
The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, by John Frederick Lewis, 1872, via Christie’s


The Mamluk Sultanate was an economic superpower. Located in a favorable geographic position it engaged in commerce with Middle Eastern, European, African, Indian, and Chinese nations. Trade flowed through the sultanate’s Mediterranean and Red Sea ports as well as overland via caravan routes.


The spice trade in particular was lucrative for the Mamluks. Vessels from India unloaded their wares in the sultanate’s Arabian ports. The spices were then transported to Egypt, from where they were shipped to Europe and sold for exorbitant prices.


Egypt and Syria’s natural resources were also a major source of revenue for the sultanate and allowed it to sustain a large population. By 1340, Cairo’s population stood at close to half a million, making it the largest city west of China.


The Mamluk sultan held monopolies on lucrative commodities including textiles, firewood, foodstuff, sugar, and spices, the proceeds from which he used to secure the loyalty of the powerful emirs who presided over the districts of his empire. As such, wealth gained from commerce mostly fell to the political elite.


The Fall of the Mamluk Sultanate

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Ottoman miniature depicting the battle of Marj Dabiq by Yaşam süresi, 1531, via Wikimedia Commons


By the late 15th century, the Mamluk Sultanate was suffering from political strife, rebellions, and wars against the Ottoman Empire and the Portuguese. These problems caused destabilization and economic distress.


The rise of the Kingdom of Portugal as a major naval power was a cause of headaches for the last Mamluk sultans. The modern fleets of the Portuguese ruled the seas from the Mediterranean to India, undermining the Mamluk spice trade. By the dawn of the 16th century, Sultan Qansuh II al-Ghawri ordered the construction of a strong navy to contest Portuguese dominance at sea. The expensive fleet was subsequently defeated in a battle in the Indian Ocean, constituting a major blow to the sultanate’s economy.


The Portuguese were not the Mamluks’ only problem. The Ottoman Empire was reaching its zenith and coveting Mamluk territories, especially the holy cities of Islam: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem as well as the lands of the Levant and Egypt. Weakened economically, and lagging behind the Ottomans in the domain of military innovation, things did not look good for the Mamluks. The first war between the two powers, fought between 1485-1491, ended in a stalemate. However, the Ottoman’s next offensive in 1516 proved fatal to the Mamluk Sultanate.


The Mamluks remained as a class in Egypt under Ottoman rule and were granted a degree of political power under Ottoman governors. The practice of purchasing Mamluk slaves continued during the centuries that followed. By the 17th century, Mamluks again held a large degree of power in Cairo. It was only in 1811 that they ceased being a political class. That year Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha had the Mamluk leadership killed, bringing an end to their history.

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