Mamluk Origins: Ibn Battuta’s Egypt and Syria, part 1

Ibn Battuta’s journey isn’t just of value to scholars and amateur historians as a curiosity. Of course that’s part of it–somebody who traveled all the way from western Morocco to China in the 14th century is bound to attract some attention–but what’s really of interest is the role Ibn Battuta can play, via his travelogue, as an eyewitness to the life and times of the places he visited. Assuming, of course, that he really was an eyewitness–remember we’re not sure he actually visited some of the places he claims to have visited.

We’re also interested in Ibn Battuta’s account because of when he traveled through these places. Because the 14th century was a time of great transition for much of Eurasia, which was emerging from the 13th century Mongol conquests and adjusting to the new realities left in their aftermath. This transition is a theme we’ll come back to over and over again, particularly when we move deeper into the Middle East and a world that’s still coming to grips with the sudden disappearance of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258. But Egypt and Syria (and the Hejaz, where Ibn Battuta is headed on his pilgrimage) were a bit of a different case. Egypt and Syria were spared much of the turmoil brought by the Mongols because they remained outside the Mongols’ hands. And that’s because they were successfully defended by the Mamluk Sultanate.

The Mamluk Sultanate’s origins can be found in the word mamlūk. It derives from the Arabic root M-L-K, which deals with possession or authority. If you’re unfamiliar with Arabic or other Semitic languages, they work according to a consonant root system where any given root (usually three consonants in Arabic) refers to a broad concept, and several nouns, verbs, etc. related to that concept are derived from that root. The word mulk in Arabic can mean “kingship” or “dominion” and the word malik is usually translated as “king.” The world mālik means “master” or “owner,” while the word mamlūk means “owned,” which in the case of a human being would mean “slave.” Arabic has a few words for “slave,” each referring to a different class of slave either according to their role or their ethnic origins. The word we’re interested in, mamlūk, was generally used, at least by the 14th century, to refer to slave soldiers.

The institution of slave soldiery can be a difficult one to wrap your head around. I’ve tried to explain how it works, particularly in the Ottoman context, here. But there are some generalities we need to talk about, because slave soldiers became ubiquitous in the Islamic world starting in the 9th century under multiple dynasties. Which is not to say they weren’t around before that. We have evidence of slave soldiers under the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750)–these were predominantly zanj (“blacks”) imported from the East African coast. But it was the Abbasid caliph al-Muʿtasim (d. 842) who was the first Islamic ruler to build an army around slave soldiers and to do so using slaves imported not from Africa but from Central Asia–Turks. These slaves were often called ghilmān (“youths”) and the Abbasids began importing them into the caliphate in significant numbers under al-Muʿtasim’s predecessor, the caliph al-Maʾmun (d. 833) who employed them as his bodyguard.

Al-Maʾmun and al-Muʿtasim ruled in the aftermath of the fourth Islamic civil war, at a time when the Persian soldiers who had supported the Abbasids’ rise to power in 750 were beginning to see themselves as more powerful than the caliphs themselves. Al-Maʾmun saw his Turkish bodyguard as protection and a counterweight against the Persians. Because the Turkish slaves were purchased and removed from their surroundings at a young, impressionable age they could be well-trained, disciplined, and taught that loyalty to the caliph (not, say, loyalty to family or to a tribe) was paramount. When he learned of a plot against his life by a group of Persian soldiers in 838, al-Muʿtasim decided to take the bodyguard program and dramatically expand it, creating an entire army of loyal slave soldiers that wouldn’t just be a counterweight to the Persians, but would replace them altogether. While this wouldn’t work out so well for al-Muʿtasim or his next few successors, who increasingly found themselves at the mercy of their slave army, the proverbial die was cast. From al-Muʿtasim’s reign on, we see not just the rise of slave armies in the Islamic world, but the rise of the Turks as well.


Mahmud of Ghazna, founder of the Ghaznavids, receiving a robe from the Abbasid Caliph al-Qadir, from an illustrated copy of 14th century historian Rashid al-Din’s world history (Wikimedia)

The first genuine ruling dynasty of slave soldiers in the Islamic world was the Ghaznavids, who ruled modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, eastern Iran, and parts of Central Asia and India from the late 10th century through the late 12th century. Their ruling family began as officers in the slave army of the Persian Samanid Empire. The Khwarazmian Dynasty, most famous for baiting Genghis Khan into a war and then being thoroughly annihilated by his armies, was founded by slave officers in the Seljuk Empire. A Mamluk dynasty, not to be confused with the Egyptian one, founded and ruled the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century–they were founded by Turkic officers who had served the Ghurid dynasty previously. So the Egyptian Mamluks weren’t the first case of slave soldiers eventually coming to rule the kingdom that had enslaved them. They wouldn’t be the last, either–for example, a dynasty of Mamluks (Georgian in this case) “ruled” Iraq (Baghdad and Basra) as an almost independent entity within the Ottoman Empire between 1704 and 1831.

What made the Egyptian Mamluks unique was their political system, which grew out of the slave process and crowded out notions of “dynasty.” These other “mamluk” dynasties had origins as slaves, but once they took over they more or less looked like typical royal houses, with sons or son in laws or brothers inheriting power from their relatives. Not so for the Egyptian Mamluks–at least, not always. But I’m going to save discussion of the Mamluk system and how it developed in Egypt and Syria for next time.

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