The Mamluk Sultanate stared down the Mongol conqueror from Central Asia Timur, famine, civil unrest yet found time to commission works under Barquq (r. 1382–99), Faraj (r. 1399–1412), Mu’ayyad Shaikh (r. 1412–21), and Barsbay (r. 1422–37); works such as Khan al-Qadi warehouses (1441) , mosque of Aqbugha al-Utrush (Aleppo, 1399–1410), Sabun (Damascus, 1464) and the Jaqmaqiyya Madrasa (Damascus, 1421). Timur is estimated to have killed 5% of the world population in his quest to be the sole, undisputed ruler of the Muslim world. (i)
To understand how the Mamluk Sultanate came to be, we need to go back and trace the footsteps of the migrant Turkish Tribes. In the sixth century, Turkish tribes began moving from the Eurasian steppes in the direction of the west. By that time, the Abbasid Empire was weakening and so the Turkish tribes began to cross the frontier looking for pasturage. After a few decades of entering the Middle East, the Turks began to convert to Islam. They entered the region as “Mamluks” ‘owned’ meaning slaves, employed in the armies of Arab rulers and they were paid for their services. The Mamluk training wasn’t restricted to military matters but often included languages, literary and administrative skills to enable them to occupy administrative posts. This made a Mamluk’s service as a member of an elite unit or as an imperial guard nothing but an enviable first step in a career with the possibility of occupying high offices in the state.
In the late tenth century, a new wave of Turks entered the empire as conquerors and free warriors. A group took control of the central government of Baghdad and occupied the city, reducing the Abbasid caliphs to puppets. Another group moved to Anatolia which they conquered from the weakened Byzantines.
At the time, the Mamluks were already well-known in Egypt and they were able to establish their own empire due to the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate by the Mongols. In 1250, the last Ayyubid sultan in Egypt, As-Salih had died and the political control of the state had passed to the Mamluk guards whose generals seized the sultanate. This was the official start of the reign of the Mamluk Sultanate.
Eight years later, a Mongol army of 120,000 men commanded by Hulagu Khan entered Syria through the Euphrates River. When this news reached Egypt, the Turkish Mamluk Qutuz declared himself sultan and prepared a military resistance to the Mongol advance. The decisive battle was fought at Ayn Jalut, Palestine in 1260 where Qutuz defeated the Mongol army. During the battle of Ayn Jalut, an important military role was played by Baybars I who shortly afterwards assassinated Qutuz and took his place as sultan. Baybars I [1260 -1277] came from the elite corps of the Turkish Mamluks, the “Bahri” (coastal) named so because they were garrisoned on the island of Rawdah on the Nile River in Cario. He was considered the real founder of the Mamluk Empire and he established his rule firmly in Syria forcing the Mongols to retreat back to their Iraqi territories.
The Bahri phase [1250 – 1381] was the first of two phases that made up the Mamluk dynasty. The second phase is the Burgi (tower) phase [1382 – 1517] which started at the end of the fourteenth century when the power passed from the original Turkish elite to the Circassians from the Caucasus whom the Turkish Mamluk sultans had recruited as slave soldiers. The two phases were named so because of the political dominance of the regiments during the respective times. Others refer to the two phases or periods as the “Turkish” and the “Circassian” periods referring to the ethnic origin of the majority of the Mamluks at the time.
For more than two-and-a-half centuries, the Mamluk sultans of Turco-Circassian origin ruled an empire that stretched from Egypt in Northern Africa, to Syria in Western Asia and included the holy cities of Mecca and Madina. The Mamluk sultans organized the yearly pilgrimages to Mecca in what was an attempt to revive the caliphate and consolidate their position in the Islamic world but it was regarded more as being “shadow caliphs”. Due to the Mamluk power, they were able to shield and protect the western Islamic world from the threat of the Mongols. During their rule, the city of Cairo in Egypt and the Mamluk capital, prospered and grew in prestige that by the fourteenth century, the city of Cairo had become a distinguished religious center of the Muslim world. Egypt in general was restored at the time as the principal trade and transit route between the Orient and the Mediterranean.
The main source of revenue in the Mamluk economy was agriculture. The agricultural products were the primary exports of the Mamluks of Egypt, Syria and Palestine. With abundance in the production of sugar cane and cotton, this gave rise to two major industries which were; the sugar industry and the textile industry.
The Mamluk period is mainly known for its achievements in architecture and in historical writing. The Mamluk historians were avid biographers, chroniclers and encyclopedists. When the Mamluks took power, the Arabic language was already established in the region as the language of religion, culture and the bureaucracy. The Turkish language and the Circassian were introduced to the region, but the Arabic was widespread among Muslim and non-Muslim commoners due to their aspiration to learn the language of the scholarly elite. Regarding architecture, the Mamluks endowed Cairo with some of its most remarkable monuments, many of which are still standing, ranging from mosques and monasteries to schools and even tombs. The Mamluk mosques are recognized by their massive stone domes and their striking geometrical carvings. Islam was the prevalent religion, however there were Christian and Jewish minorities governed by the dual authority of their religious institutions and the sultan.
Despite all of that, the dynasty started to show signs of decline with the start of the Circassians ruling in 1382 and the appointing of sultan Barquq. Many factors contributed to that decline; among those was the fact that during the Circassians period, the promotion in the army and state was dependent on race, where the Circassians were favoured among others regardless of their skill in the art of war. Also the black death (plague) that came over in 1340 reduced the population drastically. Another factor was the economic instability due to the Mamluks’ inability to provide the necessary safeguards against the Bedouins for the peaceful conduct of trade and agriculture. Moreover, further economic decline happened after the failed defense against the Turkic conqueror Timur Lenk in (1400) were the Mamluks were unable to defend Syria, while at the same time ventures like the conquest of Cyprus in 1426 led to the increasingly higher taxes that were needed to finance such ventures.
In 1500, the Portuguese assault on the trade in the Red Sea was the final economic blow for the Mamluks. Furthermore, the incident was accompanied by the Ottomans’ expansion into Syria, the Mamluk’s territory. Eventually, seventeen years later in 1517, the Mamluks’ cavalry were no match for the Ottoman artillery and were thus defeated by the Ottomans in both Syria and Egypt. The Ottoman sultan Selim I captured the center of power, Cairo and transferred the center of the Ottoman Turkish Empire to Constantinople. The Ottomans retained the Mamluks as an Egyptian ruling class but they continued as vassals of the Ottomans for almost three centuries until the 1811 massacre by Egypt’s new ruler, Muhammad Ali Pasha when their power was finally vanquished.
Rabbat, Nasser (2001). “Representing the Mamluks in Mamluk Historical Writing”. In Kennedy, Hugh N. The Historiography of Islamic Egypt: (c. 950 – 1800). Brill. ISBN 9789004117945.Elbendary, Amina (2015). Crowds and Sultans: Urban Protest in Late Medieval Egypt and Syria. The American University in Cairo Press. ISBN 9789774167171.
Shayyal, Jamal (1967). Tarikh Misr al-Islamiyah (History of Islamic Egypt). Cairo: Dar al-Maref. ISBN 977-02-5975-6.
Rabbat, Nasser (2001). “Representing the Mamluks in Mamluk Historical Writing”. In Kennedy, Hugh N. The Historiography of Islamic Egypt: (c. 950 – 1800). Brill. ISBN 9789004117945.
(i) J.J. Saunders, The history of the Mongol conquests (page 174), Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1971, ISBN 0812217667