Mamluk Egypt

Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt
سلطنة المماليك
Sulṭanat Misr al-Mamālīk
Dawla al-Turkiyya



Catalan Atlas.

Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, c. 1279.
Capital Cairo
Languages Arabic (Egyptian and Classical)[1]
Turkic (Oghuz and Kipchak)[1]
Religion Sunni Islam
Government Monarchy
 -  1250–1257 Izz al-Din Aybak
 -  1516–1517 Tuman bay II
 -  Turanshah's death 1250
 -  Battle of Ridaniya 1517
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Ayyubid dynasty
Kingdom of Jerusalem
Egypt Eyalet
Sharifate of Mecca
Ottoman Tripolitania
Yemen Eyalet
Damascus Eyalet
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The Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt (Arabic: سلطنة المماليكSulṭanat al-Mamālīk) was a state based in medieval Egypt. It lasted from the overthrow of the Ayyubid Dynasty until the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. The sultanate's ruling caste was composed of Mamluks, soldiers of predominantly Kipchak Turk, Circassian, and Georgian slave origin.[3][4] While Mamluks were purchased, their status was above ordinary slaves, who were not allowed to carry weapons or perform certain tasks. Mamluks were considered to be "true lords", with social status above freeborn Egyptian Muslims. Though it declined towards the end of its existence, at its height the sultanate represented the zenith of Egyptian and Levantine political, economic, and cultural glory in the Islamic era.[5]


Rise to power

Main articles: Bahri dynasty and Dawla al-Turkiyya

Mamluk regiments constituted the backbone of the Egyptian military under the Ayyubid Dynasty. Each sultan, and high-ranking emir had his private corps, and the Sultan as-Salih Ayyub (r. 1240-1249) had especially relied on this means to maintaining power. His mamluks, numbering between 800 and 1,000 horsemen, were called the Bahris, after the Arabic word bahr (بحر), meaning sea or large river, because their barracks were located on the island of Rawda in the Nile. They were mostly drawn from among the Kipchak Turks who controlled the steppes north of the Black Sea,[6] and the Circassians of the northwest Caucasus.

In 1249 Louis IX of France led a crusade on an invasion of Egypt, capturing Damietta and then proceeding slowly southward. As they advanced, as-Salih Ayyub died and was succeeded by his son al-Muazzam Turanshah, but before Turanshah could arrive at the front, the Bahri mamluks defeated the crusaders at the Battle of Al Mansurah and captured Louis, effectively ending the crusade. Turanshah proceeded to place his own entourage and especially his own mamluks, called Mu`azzamis, in positions of authority to the detriment of Bahri interests. Four weeks after Louis' capture, on 2 May 1250, a group of Bahris assassinated Turanshah.[7]

Wars with Mongols and Crusaders

Following the death of Turanshah a ten-year period of political instability in Egypt and Syria ensued as various factions competed for control. In 1254, when a rival faction under the leadership of Qutuz became powerful, most of the Bahris fled Cairo and took service with Ayyubid amirs in Syria. Meanwhile, the Mongols under the command of Hulagu invaded the Middle East in force. They sacked Baghdad in 1258 and proceeded westward, capturing Aleppo, and Damascus. Qutuz and the Bahris agreed to put aside their differences to face the common threat. They met a contingent of Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut and defeated them. With the Mongol threat temporarily over, rivalries among the mamluks revived, and Baibars, a leading Bahri, assassinated Qutuz and claimed the sultanate.

Change in regime

Main article: Burji dynasty

By the late fourteenth century, Circassians from the North Caucasus region had become the majority in the Mamluk ranks.[8] In 1377 a revolt broke out in Syria which spread to Egypt, and the government was taken over by the Circassians Barakah and Barquq; In 1382 the last Bahri Sultan Al-Salih Hajji was dethroned, thus ending the Bahri dynasty, and Barquq was proclaimed sultan. Barquq was expelled in 1389 but recaptured Cairo in 1390. Permanently in power he founded what came to be called the Burji dynasty.[9]

Ottomans and the end of the Mamluk Sultanate

While Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II was engaged in Europe, a new round of conflict broke out between Egypt and the Safavid dynasty in Persia in 1501. Shah Ismail I sent an embassy to the Venetians via Syria inviting them to join arms and recover the territory taken from them by the "Porte" (Ottomans). Mameluk Egyptian sultan Al-Ghawri was charged by Selim I that he was providing the envoys of the Safavid Ismail I safe passage through Syria on their way to Venice and harboring refugees. To appease him, Al-Ghawri placed in confinement the Venetian merchants then in Syria and Egypt, but after a year released them.

After the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, Selim I attacked the Dulkadirids, an Egyptian vassal, and sent his head to Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri. Secure now against Shah Ismail I, in AD 1516 he drew together a great army aiming at conquering Egypt, but to deceive it he represented his army to further the war against Shah Ismail I. The war started in 1516 which led to the later incorporation of Egypt and its dependencies in the Ottoman Empire, with Mamluk cavalry proving no match for the Ottoman artillery and the janissaries. On August 24, 1516, at the Battle of Marj Dabiq Sultan al-Ghawri was killed. Syria passed into Turkish possession, who were welcomed in many places as deliverance from the Mamluks.

The Mamluk Sultanate survived until 1517, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman sultan Selim I captured Cairo on January 20, the center of power transferred then to Constantinople. Although not in the same form as under the Sultanate, the Ottoman Empire retained the Mamluks as an Egyptian ruling class and the Mamluks and the Burji family succeeded in regaining much of their influence, but remained vassals of the Ottomans.

Mamluks independence from the Ottomans

In 1768, Sultan Ali Bey Al-Kabir declared independence from the Ottomans. However, the Ottomans crushed the movement and retained their position after his defeat. By this time new slave recruits were introduced from Georgia in the Caucasus.

Napoleon defeated Mamluk troops in the Battle of the Pyramids when he attacked Egypt in 1798 and drove them to Upper Egypt. The Mamluks still used their cavalry charge tactics, changed only by the addition of muskets.

After the departure of French troops in 1801 Mamluks continued their struggle for independence, this time against the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain. In 1803, Mamluk leaders Ibrahim Bey and Usman Beg wrote a letter to the Russian consul-general and asked him to act as a mediator with the Sultan to allow them to negotiate for a cease-fire, and a return to their homeland Georgia. The Russian ambassador in Istanbul categorically refused to mediate because the Russian government was afraid of allowing Mamluks to return to Georgia, where a strong national liberation movement was on the rise which might have been encouraged by a Mamluk return.

In 1805, the population of Cairo rebelled. This was an excellent opportunity for the Mamluks to seize power, but internal tension and betrayal prevented them from exploiting this opportunity. In 1806, the Mamluks defeated the Turkish forces several times, and in June the rival parties concluded a peace treaty by which Muhammad Ali, who had been appointed as governor of Egypt on 26 March 1806, was to be removed and the state authority in Egypt returned to the Mamluks. However, they were again unable to capitalize on the opportunity due to conflicts between the clans; Muhammad Ali kept his authority.

End of Mamluk power in Egypt

Muhammad Ali knew that eventually he would have to deal with the Mamluks if he ever wanted to control Egypt. They were still the feudal owners of Egypt and their land was still the source of wealth and power. The constant strain on sustaining the military manpower necessary to defend the Mamluks's system from the Europeans would eventually weaken them to the point of collapse, and he felt that the Mamluk power must therefore be replaced.[10]

On March 1, 1811, Muhammad Ali invited all of the leading Mamluks to his palace to celebrate the declaration of war against the Wahhabis in Arabia. Between 600 and 700 Mamluks paraded in Cairo. Near the Al-Azab gates, in a narrow road down from Mukatam Hill, Muhammad Ali's forces ambushed and killed almost all in what came to be known as the Massacre of the Citadel. According to period reports, only one Mamluk, whose name is given variously as Amim (also Amyn), or Heshjukur (a Besleney), survived when he forced his horse to leap from the walls of the citadel, killing it in the fall.[11]

During the following week, hundreds of Mamluks were killed throughout Egypt; in the citadel of Cairo alone more than 1,000 were killed. Throughout Egypt an estimated 3,000 Mamluks and their relatives were killed.

Despite these attempts by Muhammad Ali to defeat the Mamluks in Egypt, a party of them escaped and fled south into what is now Sudan. In 1811, these Mamluks established a state at Dunqulah in the Sennar as a base for their slave trading. In 1820, the sultan of Sennar informed Muhammad Ali that he was unable to comply with a demand to expel the Mamluks. In response, the pasha sent 4,000 troops to invade Sudan, clear it of Mamluks, and reclaim it for Egypt. The pasha's forces received the submission of the kashif, dispersed the Dunqulah Mamluks, conquered Kordofan, and accepted Sennar's surrender from the last Funj sultan, Badi VII.

The Mamluk households

The mamluks were organized into households under the leadership of an ustad. Mamluks had intense loyalty to their ustad and to their comrades in the regiment. The loyalty of a mamluk to his comrades was called khushdashiya (Arabic: خشداشية‎)

Mamluks' sons did not enter the ranks of the mamluks, and tended to blend in with the wider society. The ranks of the Mamluks were always replenished by importing fresh slaves from abroad.

Art and architecture

As part of their chosen role as defenders of Islamic orthodoxy, the Mamluks sponsored numerous religious buildings, including mosques, madrasas and khanqahs. Though some construction took place in the provinces, the vast bulk of these projects took place in the capital.[12] Many Mamluk buildings in Cairo survive until today, particularly in the district of Old Cairo. As representatives of Islamic ideology, it was also the responsibility of the Mamluk dynasty to spread the holy word of Islam to its surrounding areas. One such way of doing this was by commissioning pages of the Quran and sharing it with the local population. This leaf contains portions of Surat (Chapter) Al’Ala(The most high) and was for use in a local mosque in Cairo. The leaf dates back to 1300 AD during the mamluk sultanate and its age clearly shows based on the tears that appear at the top of the leaf. Surat Al'Ala discusses the wonders that Allah has created and the rewards for those who believe the message of Islam, as well as the punishment for those who reject Islam. It is likely that the illuminator of the leaf was Abu Bakr aka Sandal, who was centered in the artistic hub of Islam at the time; Cairo, Egypt. The Qur'an verses are written in black ink and in the Naskh writing style, which was the easiest for the common man to read, opposed to other scripts that required individuals to be familiar with calligraphic styles.

See also




  • Abu al-Fida, The Concise History of Humanity
  • Al-Maqrizi, Al Selouk Leme'refatt Dewall al-Melouk, Dar al-kotob, 1997.
  • Idem in English: Bohn, Henry G., The Road to Knowledge of the Return of Kings, Chronicles of the Crusades, AMS Press, 1969.
  • Al-Maqrizi, al-Mawaiz wa al-'i'tibar bi dhikr al-khitat wa al-'athar, Matabat aladab, Cairo 1996, ISBN 977-241-175-X
  • Idem in French: Bouriant, Urbain, Description topographique et historique de l'Egypte, Paris 1895.
  • Ibn Taghribirdi, al-Nujum al-Zahirah Fi Milook Misr wa al-Qahirah, al-Hay'ah al-Misreyah 1968
  • Idem in English: History of Egypt, by Yusef. William Popper, translator Abu L-Mahasin ibn Taghri Birdi, University of California Press 1954.


  • Ayalon, David: The Mamluk Military Society. London, 1979.
  • Shayyal, Jamal, Prof. of Islamic history, ISBN 977-02-5975-6
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