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 Eventually the mostly Turkic Bahri sultans were superseded by a line of Circassian mamluks that historians call the Burji “Dynasty,” because they ruled out of the Cairo citadel (burj in Arabic means “tower”).


Ibn Battuta in the Levant

If you’ve been following Ibn Battuta’s journey on Twitter and/or Facebook then you know he’s finally made his way from Cairo to Damascus, picked up a Hajj caravan in Damascus, and set off for Mecca. You’ll also know that I’m a little skeptical about this part of Ibn Battuta’s account. When Ibn Battuta left Cairo he seemed to be in a great rush to get to Damascus in time to meet that year’s Hajj caravan. Indeed, his failed attempt to get to Mecca via the Red Sea, which would have put him in the Hejaz long before the next Hajj, is suggestive of somebody who wanted to get to Mecca as quickly as possible. But if he was in a rush, why go all the way to Damascus instead of cutting across the Sinai, a far more direct route from Cairo to the Hejaz? And why, according to his account, did he travel throughout the Levant–often doubling back a bit to see places he passed along the way–before finally meandering into Damascus?

Ibn Battuta’s timing is also suspect. Despite the litany of places he describes visiting on the way to Damascus, we’re also told that he made the journey in a scant 23 days, quick enough that he was able to spend most of the month of Ramadan in Damascus before heading out for the Hajj. It’s not inconceivable that Ibn Battuta made the trek he describes in the time he says it took, but it seems questionable. We know that Ibn Battuta related his account long after the fact, we know that he visited Syria again on his return home, and we’re pretty sure he just made up a couple of parts of his account that we’ll discuss later, so part of me wonders whether the combination of a faulty memory and a loose association with the facts caused Ibn Battuta  to fudge things a little bit. Regardless, I’m committed here to treating The Rihlah as though the whole thing really happened, even the parts we’re pretty sure didn’t happen, so on we go.


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 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.