Baybars and the founding of the Bahri “dynasty”: Ibn Battuta’s Egypt and Syria, Part 3

The first ten years after the Mamluks usurped power in Egypt from the Ayyubid dynasty were a chaotic and confusing time. The first Mamluk sultan, Aybak (d. 1257), spent most of his time trying to marginalize his fellow Mamluks in order to consolidate his own power. It was in a sense his failure to do so that birthed the unique Mamluk system we talked about last time.

Aybak’s Salihiyah cohort, so called because they were the mamluks of the Ayyubid Sultan al-Salih Ayyub (d. 1249), had amassed quite a bit of power during their master’s reign and, in Aybak’s mind, needed to be disabused of it. After al-Salih Ayyub’s death it was the Salihiyah, under Aybak’s leadership, who murdered his successor, Turanshah (d. 1250). Aybak had colluded with al-Salih Ayyub’s widow, Shajar al-Durr (d. 1257), who feared losing her status under Turanshah. Aybak and the mamluks recognized Shajar al-Durr as the new sultan, making her the second woman ruler in all of Islamic history, and she in turn married Aybak and installed him as her atabeg or military commander. But the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad refused to recognize her as sultan and her already fairly precarious position collapsed quickly, forcing her to abdicate.

Aybak, as the leader of the Salihiyah, now stood alone atop the Egyptian political scene, but he had no legitimacy to rule in his own right and already there were grumblings from among the other Salihiyah mamluks that he was amassing too much power for himself. So he set an Ayyubid puppet on the throne and pretended to govern on his behalf for the next few years. During this time the Salihiyah began to fragment into competing cohorts like the Jamdariyah and the Bahriyah. The latter were named for their fortress headquarters on Rawdah Island in the Nile River at Cairo–bahriyah means “of the river.” The Bahriyah especially resisted Aybak’s efforts to consolidate power, and they eventually became enough of a problem that Aybak had the faction’s leader killed in 1254, after which he felt confident enough to dethrone his Ayyubid puppet and take power in his own right.

Aybak’s end was not unlike his beginning, in that it featured Shajar al-Durr. When he took steps to secure a political marriage with the daughter of the emir of Mosul in 1257, Shajar al-Durr had him murdered. She was subsequently put to death by Aybak’s mamluks. For the next two years, it was Aybak’s son, al-Mansur Ali (d. 1259) who served as puppet while Aybak’s chief mamluk, Qutuz (d. 1260) reigned as the power behind the throne. The Bahriyah, who had broken completely with Aybak and anybody related to him, made several attempts to install their own figurehead on the Egyptian throne after 1254 but were unsuccessful.

While this was all going on in Egypt, there was another guy running around claiming to be the legitimate Ayyubid sultan in Syria. That was al-Nasir Yusuf (d. 1260), a cousin of al-Salih Ayyub who was serving as emir of Aleppo when Turanshah’s assassination left him sort of the last Ayyubid standing. He also made a couple of unsuccessful attempts at dislodging the Mamluks from Egypt. Eventually the Bahriyah, displaced from Egypt, began raiding Syria until al-Nasir Yusuf defeated them and then made an alliance with their leader, Baybars (d. 1277). The two made a joint attack on Egypt in 1255 and were still interested in toppling al-Mansur Ali and Qutuz by 1259.

That’s how this decade reads on paper, so imagine trying to live through it.

What clarified this messy situation was, unsurprisingly, the Mongol invasion of the Middle East. Al-Nasir Yusuf at first reached out to the Mongols to ask for help invading Egypt, which sent a disgusted Baybars and his Bahriyah back to Egypt and a very tenuous truce with Qutuz–who, meanwhile, used the Mongol threat to justify unseating al-Mansur Ali and taking the throne for himself. The Mongols had no interest in an alliance with al-Nasir Yusuf and instead sacked Aleppo at the end of 1259. Al-Nasir Yusuf was taken prisoner and would later be executed. The Mongols then continued on toward Egypt until they were soundly defeated by the Mamluks at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260.

That tenuous relationship between Qutuz and Baybars didn’t even survive the Mamluks’ journey back to Egypt, as Baybars arranged for Qutuz to be assassinated along the way. As the leader of what was now unquestionably the dominant Mamluk faction, the Bahriyah, Baybars naturally succeeded him as sultan.

Bronze bust of Baybars at Cairo’s National Military Museum (Wikimedia Commons | Ahmed Yousri)

It is Baybars who should be considered the founder of the Bahri “dynasty” (the word “dynasty” isn’t so applicable to the Mamluks but you get the idea), though the three sultans who preceded him are also generally counted as Bahri sultans. Baybars demanded oaths of loyalty from the leading Mamluk emirs, and in turn he pledged to them that he would protect their interests. In that vein he distributed the offices of state not among his own personal mamluks but among the Bahriyah and Salihiyah more broadly. His 17 year reign and relatively uncontroversial death (see below) shows that he must have been able to appease the rest of the Mamluk leadership in this way. He also decided (more from necessity than anything else) to mostly leave Qutuz’s civilian (bureaucratic and judicial, i.e., jobs that generally went to Arabs) appointments in place in the short term, which enhanced the sultanate’s stability.

In many respects Baybars is the true founder of the Mamluk Sultanate in general. He built up the Mamluk army, using a combination of mamluks, volunteers, mercenaries, and the children of Mamluks, who were not themselves Mamluks but fought in a force of freeborn men called the halqa. He also instituted a postal system that connected Egypt and Syria far more closely than they had been under the Ayyubids or the Fatimids. This suppressed somewhat the independence of Syrian emirs but it went a long way toward making the sultanate more cohesive than its predecessors. Baybars eliminated some of Qutuz’s taxes, which admittedly was out of a need to win over a public in Cairo that wasn’t on his side (Baybars had been actively involved in the political violence that affected the capital during the chaos of the early 1250s). He also resurrected the Abbasid Caliphate, in a sense, from its destruction by the Mongols in 1258. Struggling to legitimize his reign, he found the last Abbasid caliph’s uncle–or some random guy who claimed he was the last caliph’s uncle–and with great fanfare installed him as caliph in Cairo in 1261 under the name al-Mustansir. This new caliph then returned the favor by legitimizing Baybars as sultan.

The new caliphate’s authority was defined late in 1261, when al-Mustansir got on Baybars’ bad side for some reason. Rather than dealing with the problem directly, the sultan sent al-Mustansir off to reconquer Baghdad with all of 250 men behind him. The Mongols of course massacred this small party, and Baybars installed a new Abbasid (or “Abbasid”), al-Hakim, as caliph.

Much of Baybars’ reign was concerned with consolidating power in Syria and eliminating, once and for all, the Crusaders. The Mongols had helpfully eliminated al-Nasir Yusuf, and their defeat at Ayn Jalut precipitated a series of losses that forced them out of Syria altogether. Baybars moved against the remaining Ayyubids and Mamluk emirs in Syria and relatively easily forced them all to accept his sovereignty. The Crusaders fared even worse. By 1270 Baybars had taken Arsuf, Haifa, Safed, Antioch, and Jaffa, driving the Crusaders to the brink of elimination. In 1272 he made the Nubian kingdom of Makuria a Mamluk vassal, and he did likewise with the Syrian remnants of the Assassins order, who were allowed to stick around so long as they only put their talents to use at the sultan’s behest. Baybars also occasionally clashed with the Mongol Ilkhanate, and won a decisive if costly victory against them at the Battle of Elbistan in Anatolia in 1277. At the same time he established an alliance with the Mongol Golden Horde, whose leaders had converted to Islam, and this alliance helped strengthen the Mamluks’ position.

Baybars was overall a remarkably successful military commander, and is alongside Qutuz considered an Islamic hero for preserving the faith from the Mongols at Ayn Jalut. His reign was a period of transition for Egypt, which moved from a sort of important satellite position to being effectively the center of the Islamic world and incorporated countless scholars and artists who fled the Mongolian conquest of Iran and Iraq.

Sultan Baybars died in July 1277, and as I said above his death is mostly uncontroversial. By that I mean that he may have been poisoned, but it’s not terribly likely and no strong suspects have emerged for perpetrating such a crime. His death seems to have been related to consuming kumis, which is fermented mare’s milk popular in Mongolia and Central Asia. It’s possible somebody spiked his kumis with something nasty, though even if they did it’s not clear that he was the intended victim. And anyway it’s equally possible that he drank spoiled kumis–the stuff is alcoholic, but it’s also still a dairy product. His impact on the formation of the Mamluk sultanate cannot be overstated.

Next time we’ll cover the highlights of the rest of the Bahri period and take a brief look at the subsequent Burji period (even though that will take us far past Ibn Battuta’s day).

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