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 Eventually the mostly Turkic Bahri sultans were superseded by a line of Circassian mamluks that historians call the Burji “Dynasty,” because they ruled out of the Cairo citadel (burj in Arabic means “tower”).


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.