Wrapping up the Mamluks: Ibn Battuta’s Egypt and Syria, Part 4

The Mamluk Sultanate survived from roughly 1250 until…well, that’s not as simple a question as it might seem on first glance. The most common answer is the most obvious one: 1517. That’s when the Ottomans conquered Cairo and took control of Egypt, Syria, and the Hejaz, which they would hold until the end of World War I (and the end of the Ottoman Empire). The expansive “ahhhh, actually” answer is 1811, when the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, massacred most of the mamluk class in his Cairo citadel. The Ottomans, see, viewed Egypt as something of a special prize, and rightly so–it was probably the most important conquest they ever made. So they were very careful not to disrupt its administration they way they did in the other places they conquered. Which meant that the mamluks, despite losing their sultanate, maintained their status at the top of the social pecking order. Eventually they usurped real power from the Ottoman governors and reasserted themselves. Until Muhammad Ali, you know, killed them all.

For our purposes, I’m going to propose a third date: 1382. Which is definitely not the end of the Mamluk Sultanate, but it is the end of the Bahri “Dynasty” whose birth we discussed last time. Eventually the mostly Turkic Bahri sultans were superseded by a line of Circassian mamluks that historians call the Burji “Dynasty,” because they ruled out of the Cairo citadel (burj in Arabic means “tower”).

It’s worth noting that this Turk/Circassian division is actually less ahistorical than the “Mamluk Sultanate,” a term that is only used by us moderns. Contemporary Arab sources refer to our “Mamluk Sultanate” as either the “Realm of the Turks” or the “Realm of the Circassians” depending on who’s in power at the time. Still, the sultanate didn’t change much from one period to the other, apart from the background of the slave soldiers who ruled it. The distinction is useful mostly for modern historians looking to break the sultanate’s ~267 year lifespan up into shorter periods. And it’s useful for us as well. Since Ibn Battuta made his way through the Mamluk sultanate in 1326 and again on his return journey in the late 1340s, we don’t really need to talk about the Burji period here. Which makes for a more manageable topic.

Even at that, covering the century or so between Baybars’ death in 1277 and the end of the Bahri period in 1382 is a lot for one essay. Luckily for us, one guy ruled for 42 of those 105 years, and it’s the same sultan who was in power during Ibn Battuta’s (outbound) journey: al-Nasir Muhammad (d. 1341). so that helps. In fact most of the Bahri period was dominated by the sons and mamluks of one sultan, Qalawun, who ruled from 1279 until his death in 1290. Qalawun was al-Nasir Muhammad’s father (indeed, you will sometimes find al-Nasir Muhammad called “Ibn Qalawun”), and so ironically the longest-ruling Bahri Mamluk sultan wasn’t actually a mamluk.

As you may recall, the Mamluk Sultanate was defined in part by the built-in tension that attended any succession. Mamluk sultans naturally were inclined to arrange for their sons to succeed them, but the Mamluk system explicitly barred those sons (called awlad al-nas or “children of the people”) from becoming mamluks themselves and thereby attaining the political power that came from forming a slave cohort and leading it to power. So when Baybars handed the throne to his son, Berke Khan, it wasn’t long before (less than two years) before the leaders of the mamluk establishment rebelled. They forced Berke to abdicate in 1279 and replaced him with his much younger brother, Salamish, as a stopgap measure before Qalawun emerged as the most powerful mamluk and therefore as the new sultan.

The early years of Qalawun’s reign were marked by an attempted rebellion in Syria and a Mongol invasion. The former, in fact, petered out because of the latter, and left Qalawun in good shape to lay the second major Mamluk whupping on the Mongols, at the Battle of Homs in 1281, though not without taking substantial losses in the process. He also undertook a campaign to systematically excise the Crusader states from the Middle East, which would finally come to fruition in 1291 when Qalawun’s son and initial successor, al-Ashraf Khalil, conquered Acre.

The Mongol (left) fleeing before the Mamluks at the Second Battle of Homs, from the 14th century Histoire des Tartares by Hayton of Coricos (Wikimedia Commons)

Qalawun’s reign wasn’t terribly noteworthy, but its aftereffects dominated the rest of the Bahri period. The next five Mamluk sultans, through 1341, were either Qalawun’s sons or his mamluks, and every sultan after that, through 1382, was a descendant of Qalawun through al-Nasir Muhammad. Most of these had very short, usually violent reigns as they tried (and generally failed) to appease and/or suppress mamluk resistance, but al-Nasir Muhammad was very much the exception. He had three different stints on the throne–one from 1293 to 1294, another from 1299 to 1309, and the third from 1310 to 1341.

Qalwun also, as a way to undercut the power of the Turkic mamluks who dominated the sultanate, began broadening his slave shopping to the Caucasus. It was during his reign that the sultanate began importing Circassian slaves, who increasingly began filling important military and bureaucratic offices. The Burji period may not have come about had Qalawun not initiated this policy change. He was able to do this because, by the end of Baybars’ reign, the sultanate had opened up a regular slave trade involving Genoese merchants operating out of Crimea. This not only made it easier for the Mamluks to buy a variety of slaves of different backgrounds, but also enabled them to import more slaves overall. Qalawun may have ended his reign with as many as 12,000 mamluks in his direct service, which would have been far more than any other Mamluk sultan amassed. The size of his slave cohort helps to explain why his progeny, often used as the puppets of a particular faction within that cohort, remained at the center of Mamluk power until the end of the Bahri period. It also contributed to the political dysfunction of the period–more mamluks meant more and larger mamluk factions, which meant more infighting, often involving literal fighting on the streets of Cairo and/or Damascus.

As I noted above, Qalawun was succeeded by his son, al-Ashraf Khalil. Aside from finishing off the Crusaders, he wasn’t really in power long enough to do anything. That’s because Qalawun’s mamluks decided, after Khalil moved against some of their leaders, to get rid of him in December 1293. In his place they installed the nine year old al-Nasir Muhammad, who lasted until December 1294 before being deposed by his regent, Kitbugha, who was in turn (mostly because of a devastating famine) deposed by another leading mamluk named Lajin in 1296. A group of Circassian mamluks, who were already beginning to seize power in the sultanate, and Oirat Mongols assassinated Lajin in early 1299 rather than submit to his plans for land reform, and decided to reinstall the now-14 year old al-Nasir Muhammad as a compromise puppet.

Since he was still a child, al-Nasir Muhammad’s second reign was still a regency, this time under an Oirat named Salar and a Circassian mamluk named Baybars. When the Mongols again invaded Syria in 1299, the Mamluk army met them at Wadi al-Khazandar, and for the first time the Mongols bested the Mamluks in a pitched battle and took Damascus. The Mongols couldn’t hold it though, and when the Mamluks defeated another Mongol invasion at Marj al-Saffar in 1304 that was the end of the Mongol threat for a few years. But al-Nasir Muhammad began to get fed up with his handlers, and knew the feeling was mutual, so he abdicated in 1309 and was succeeded by Baybars. This was a tactical move–al-Nasir Muhammad believed he could use the chaos and resentment that would attend Baybars’ succession to build new alliances with other mamluks and use them to return himself to power. And he was right.

In his third bite at the royal apple, al-Nasir Muhammad was determined not to serve again as somebody’s puppet. To that end, his overarching project was moving his father’s mamluks out of positions of authority and replacing them with his own mamluks. In general, his final 31 years in power are marked by great building projects (his legacy can still be seen across Cairo) and thriving commerce. He fended off the final Mongol invasion of Syria in 1312 and then made peace with the Ilkhanate in the 1320s. He cracked down on corruption (mostly because it dovetailed with his effort to purge his father’s mamluks) and eased the fiscal and legal burdens on his common (mostly Arab and Copt) subjects. After 20 years marked by short-reigned sultans and the chaos and violence that went along with every handover of power, al-Nasir Muhammad’s reign was an oasis of stability and peace. It was unquestionably the high water mark of the Mamluk sultanate.

Here’s what Ibn Battuta had to say about al-Nasir Muhammad:

The Sultan of Egypt at the time of my entry was al-Malik an-Nasir Abu’l Fath Muhammad, son of al-Malik al-Mansur Saif al-Din Qala-un al-Salihi. Qala’un was known as al-Alfi [‘the Thousand-man’] because al-Malik al-Salih bought him for a thousand dinars of gold. He came originally from Qifjaq [Kipchak]. Al-Malik an-Nasir (God’s mercy upon him) was a man of generous character and great virtues, and sufficient proof of his nobility is furnished by his devotion to the service of the two holy sanctuaries [of Mecca and Medina] and the works of beneficence which he does every year to assist the pilgrims, in furnishing camels loaded with provisions and water for those without means and the helpless, and for carrying those who cannot keep up with the caravan or are too weak to walk on foot, both on the Egyptian pilgrim road and on that from Damascus.

After al-Nasir Muhammad’s death in 1341, the tensions between the mamluks and the sons of mamluks returned. Of the 12 sultans who ruled between 1341 and 1382, all but two were ousted either by the mamluks or in some intra-dynastic conflict that involved the mamluks. All 12 sultans were awlad al-nas, not mamluks themselves, but all were controlled to one degree or another by one or more of the leading mamluk emirs. Only two, al-Nasir Hasan, who ruled 1347-1351 and again 1355-1361, and al-Ashraf Shaʿban, who ruled 1363-1377, can really be said to have held significant authority in their own rights. The former was have been in his first reign when Ibn Battuta passed back through Syria on his way home, but as he was a teenager at the time real power was held by his mamluk handlers.

The next mamluk to rule in his own right was the Circassian Barquq (d. 1399), who inaugurated the Burji period. Under the Circassian rulers the Mamluk Sultanate remained one of the great powers of the Islamic world until the Ottomans showed up on their doorstep in the early 16th century.

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