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 Eventually the mostly Turkic Bahri sultans were superseded by a line of Circassian mamluks that historians call the Burji “Dynasty,” because they ruled out of the Cairo citadel (burj in Arabic means “tower”).


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.


The Hafsids: Ibn Battuta’s North Africa, part 2

The Hafsid dynasty was the first of the three successor dynasties to emerge from the collapse of the Almohad Caliphate in the mid 13th century. Unlike the Zayyanids, who had merely been regional governors in Tlemcen under the Almohads, and the Marinids, who had never been anything more than an enemy to the Almohads, the Hafsids had been part of the Almohad project from its earliest days as a religious revivalist movement. Unlike the Marinids and Zayyanids, the Hafsids emerged from the same Masmuda Amazigh background as Ibn Tumart and the Almohads. In fact, the dynasty could trace its ancestry to one of Ibn Tumart’s closest companions, Omar Abu Hafs al-Hentati, so it held a prominent position in the caliphate throughout its history.


Morocco before Ibn Battuta

The first territory Ibn Battuta crossed on his journey was, obviously, his homeland. So that’s where our journey has to begin as well.

Actually, we should probably start in an even more basic place than that, with a little etymology. Sorry. The thing is that my use of the name “Morocco,” which helps my English-speaking brain situate Ibn Battuta’s homeland geographically, is kind of problematic. Historically, for Arabic speakers, this region–at the far western edge of North Africa–is the Maghrib or, as you’ll sometimes see in modern usage, “Maghreb.” The word simply means “western place” so its usage here should be fairly self-explanatory. The modern nation is usually called al-Maghrib in Arabic, though its full name is al-Mamlakah al-Maghribiyyah, “the Western Kingdom.” The name “Morocco” derives from the city of Marrakesh, whose name may be Tamazight (Berber) in origin but we can’t be sure. In European usage for centuries Morocco was known as the “Kingdom of Marrakesh” since Marrakesh was often its capital and most important city. Morocco is still called “Marrakesh” today in Persian and several Persian-influenced languages (Pashto, Urdu, Uzbek, Sindhi, Azerbaijani, etc.)

Turks, by the way, call the country Fas, after the city of Fez. Same idea as Morocco/Marrakesh but different city. It’s a land of contrasts.


Who was Ibn Battuta?

Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Lawati al-Tangi ibn Battuta, or “Ibn Battuta” for short, was born in the Moroccan city of Tangier in 1304. By all rights he was an unremarkable man: educated but not elite, born into a comfortable but not wealthy or powerful family in a city that was not one of the dominant cultural centers of the Islamic Maghreb (western North Africa). Had he remained in Tangier it’s likely that he would have lived and died in relative anonymity, and that we wouldn’t know his name today.