The Mamluk Sultanate: Ibn Battuta’s Egypt and Syria, part 2

Last time out, we looked at the roots of slave soldiery in the Islamic world and talked about a few slave soldiers who rose up to found ruling dynasties of their own. That’s not exactly what happened in Egypt and Syria. Instead the mamluk slave system itself took the place of a traditional dynasty, or at least competed with the traditional notion of dynasty.

To understand how the Mamluk Sultanate came to be we have to start with the dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria prior to the Mamluks, the Ayyubid dynasty. This ruling family was founded by none other than Crusader legend Saladin, who dissolved the decayed Fatimid Caliphate in 1171 and made himself the ruler of Egypt, then Syria a few years later. Saladin was nominally a governor, ruling the region on behalf of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, but that was a formality. Saladin quickly began to rebuild the Egyptian military around mamluks, mostly Turkic slave soldiers imported from Central Asia. There had been Turkic slave soldiers in Egypt going back at least as far as the 800s, but they’d never been the primary component of the Egyptian military. The Fatimids had preferred African slave troops, but Saladin was comfortable with Turkic soldiers. Himself ethnically Kurdish, Saladin had grown up under the Zengid dynasty in the Levant, which was a Turkic dynasty, so he knew the Turks’ language and their military capabilities.

The Mamluk system depended on a steady influx of new slaves at the bottom of the hierarchy. These would be brought in by the sultan himself, by senior military commanders under him, by royal princes and other important emirs, basically everyone of some import had his own mamluk force, and together these forces comprised the Ayyubid military. If you’re already seeing the factionalization that would eventually become a huge problem for these guys, give yourself a gold star. These slaves, purchased young, would be trained both in loyalty to their master and in military matters before they joined the army, where they would be paid (don’t let the “slave” designation fool you) and eligible to rise through the ranks both in the military and in the civilian administration. High-ranking mamluks would at some point gain their freedom, and sultans might free whole groups of mamluks in an effort to cement their loyalties.

As in the case of the Ottoman Janissaries, the training and loyalty of mamluk soldiers made them ideal fits for a range of both military and civilian jobs, and the Ayyubids quickly came to depend on them. At first, mamluk soldiers were limited in terms of how high they could rise–Kurdish nobles who either came with Saladin or joined him later on served in the most important posts. But as the dynasty wore on, freed mamluks began to occupy more and more of those key offices until eventually they, not the Ayyubid sultans, were really running the kingdom. This kind of thing tends to happen with most dynasties, where a “professional” class eventually assumes the day-to-day business of the kingdom, but it happened faster than usual with the Ayyubids, who, apart from Saladin and arguably Saladin’s brother, al-Adil, didn’t really produce any terribly effective sultans.

Inevitably, tensions began to develop between the mamluks and the Ayyubid rulers. Under al-Salih Ayyub (d. 1249), those tensions reached a breaking point. Al-Salih Ayyub was apparently loyal to his own personal cadre of mamluks. He freed them and insured that the really important jobs went to them. This earned him the enmity of several other mamluk factions. He empowered his mamluks, known as the “Salihiyah,” to such an extent that some leaders of the faction began to overstep their authority, which created additional tension for the sultan.

When al-Salih Ayyub died in the midst of the Seventh Crusade and his son al-Muazzam Turanshah took the throne, senior Salihiyah leaders initially seem to have welcomed him as someone they could control. But Turanshah quickly moved to strip the Salihiyah of its power in favor of his own mamluk faction, and actually seems to have had a larger plan to install Kurdish bureaucrats in top offices and diminish the power of the mamluks more generally. After a faction of mamluks within the Salihiyah, called the Bahri, defeated the Crusaders at the battles of Mansurah and Fariskur, in 1250, they decided they couldn’t tolerate this new sultan and so they assassinated him.

This marked the rise of the Mamluk Sultanate, though it took about 10 years for things to sort themselves out completely. During most of that time Salihiyah leader named Aybak (d. 1257) ruled either alongside a puppet Ayyubid or, later, in a sort of limbo where it was unclear whether or not the Ayyubids were still relevant. Roughly the first half of the Mamluk period, 1250-1382, is called the “Bahri” period after the Bahri faction. The leading Mamluks of this period were Turkic, but gradually shifted their slave purchases to Circassia, in the northern Caucasus. After 1382 those Circassian Mamluks assumed power, and in what’s known as the “Burji” period they controlled the sultanate through its conquest by the Ottomans in 1517.

The Mamluk Sultanate at the time of al-Nasir Muhammad, who was ruling when Ibn Battuta passed through (Wikimedia | Ro4444)

Aybak alienated the Bahri Mamluks, who at first went searching for other Ayyubid claimants they could put on the throne but ultimately, under the very successful mamluk general-turned-Sultan Baybars, took complete power in their own right in 1260. This was shortly after the Mamluks had won the Battle of Ayn Jalut against the Mongols, halting the Mongols’ advance into the Levant, and in some ways it was the arrival of the Mongols in the Middle East, in particular their sack of Baghdad and deposition of the Abbasids in 1258, that gave the Mamluks their legitimacy. Sure they were ex-slaves, and sure they’d usurped power from the legitimate ruling dynasty in Cairo, but they’d just defended Islam from the greatest threat it had ever faced. Surely that was a sign from God that He wanted them in charge. To double down on this claim, the Mamluks brought a cousin of the last Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, al-Mustaʿsim, to Cairo to “continue” the Abbasid line under the regal name al-Mustansir. The line of “shadow” caliphs continued in Cairo until 1517, but had no real authority and never achieved wide acceptance in the Islamic world.

We’ll cover more of the history of the Mamluk Sultanate in subsequent posts, but now I’d like to end with a brief overview of how the Mamluk system worked, or at least how it was supposed to work. The process of purchasing and importing slave soldiers remained unchanged from Ayyubid times. Leading Mamluks, including the sultan himself, would purchase their own slave forces who were loyal first to their master and secondarily to the sultan (assuming the sultan wasn’t their master, obviously). These slave soldiers formed factions, usually around their particular masters though other factors could enter in to the equation, and established factions would perpetuate themselves as best they could though eventually they tended to disintegrate into multiple factions of their own. The factions would compete with one another, jockeying for offices and positioning themselves for the future.

By “future,” I mean “whenever the sultan died.” It was the death of a given sultan that really kicked the Mamluk system into its highest and most problematic gear. Each sultan rose to power along with his faction, and his faction would benefit from his enthronement. Naturally that faction would want to maintain its grip on the sultanate if possible, so it would usually advance another member as successor. But other factions would look to have their turn at the top and put forward their candidates. Complicating matters further, sultans would often try to leave the throne to their sons, but the thing is that the sons of Mamluks (awlad al-nas or “children of the people”) weren’t technically eligible to participate in this system because they couldn’t start at the bottom–as slaves. Many of them participated anyway, getting appointments as military officers or high bureaucrats, and several actually did wind up making it to sultan. A couple even ruled for reasonably lengthy stints. But for the most part ex-slaves took power from other ex-slaves, which is why we can’t really refer to a “Mamluk dynasty” in this case.

Now, in principle these inevitable two- or three- or four- or more-way succession disputes were supposed to be settled by a vote of leading Mamluk emirs. But good luck even getting anybody to agree on who those “leading Mamluk emirs” should be. In practice successions often involved some level of violence, not a very high or widespread level but enough that the people of Cairo had to fear for their lives for a little while until everything got sorted out. Sometimes two or more factions would start fighting one another over general rivalries as well. In addition, the way the Mamluk system worked encouraged rioting by Mamluk factions that were unhappy with their treatment by the sultan. Mamluk factions viewed their ruler not so much as a royal figure as one of their own who made it good, and it’s easier to conceive of rioting against a peer than it is against somebody you’re supposed to believe is the divinely ordained heir of a prestigious ruling house or whatever. These riots would also bring a fair amount of violence onto the streets of Cairo. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the people of Cairo seem to have come to kind of hate these guys after a while.

The Mamluk period was an auspicious one for Egypt. We’ll talk more about these things as we go, but Mamluk Egypt was a major player in both Mediterranean and East-West trade, supplying goods of its own to Europe and also serving as an important conduit for goods coming from India and other parts of Asia. Agriculture was the sultanate’s primary economic driver and fueled its two largest industries: textiles and sugar-making. Leading emirs, including the sultan, held land grants that they tax farmed, and the revenues financed their slave purchases. The result was an economically stable (usually) kingdom even though it was not expansionist and therefore didn’t have regular flows of booty coming into the state treasury.

You can make a strong argument that the Mamluks did save not only Islam but also Arab culture from the Mongols. Though the Mamluks were not themselves Arab (in fact they were more closely related to the Mongols than to their Arab subjects), Egypt nevertheless became the center of the Arabic language, arts, and literature during this era. Turkic tongues were the languages of the elite, but while they were spoken at court they were more important as status symbols than as literary languages. Arabs were not entirely shut out of elite circles–Bedouin, for example, served as important military auxiliaries and were vital in supporting Mamluk commerce.

The Mamluk embrace of Sunni Islam, in the face of the Mongols in the east and the Crusaders in the Levant, was one of the defining features of the sultanate. Mamluk rulers patronized religious scholars and Sufi mystics. They brought a cadet branch of the Abbasid dynasty to Cairo after the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 and continued the caliphate, though this was mostly for propaganda purposes and these caliphs were almost never more than puppets. The Mamluk zeal for the faith contributed to a degradation in the status of Coptic Christians in Egypt, and this period was marked by a high rate of conversion to Islam and by frequent clashes between Muslims and Copts–even though, as they had since the early Arab conquests, Copts still occupied many/most bureaucratic offices in Egypt.

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