Saturday, March 3, 2018

Who were the Mamluks?

Charge of the Mamluks during the Battle of the Pyramids by Felicien de Myrbach-Rheinfeld
In 1798, the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte clashed with the remnants of the once powerful and glorious Mamluks of Egypt. The Mamluks rose from slavery to strong rulers and maintained power for centuries. But who are the Mamluks?


The word Mamluk rooted from the Arabic word meaning “man-possessed,” in other words a slave. Slavery also existed within the Islamic civilization. Children sold by their parents, individuals captured in war or indebted to creditors found their way to servitude. Many profited, but in the 9th century, 2 Abbasid Caliphates saw another potential.

In 813, Caliph al-Mamun of the Abbasid Caliphate rose to power after a short bloody civil war. Of course, he won the war through support of many factions. Right after winning, he suspected his powerful supporters, after all, it was them who helped him to rise up, and it was them who could bring him down. His mistrust of his surrounding led him to seek comfort and security in the hands of a new unit of personal body guards, men absolutely loyal and efficiently deadly. He turned to his brother, the later Caliph al-Mutasim (r. 833 – 842) to oversee the creation of this new military unit.

Al-Mutasim then looked to young male slaves as his initial members. In this young boys, he expected them to be loyal to their new master, especially that they had no connection to their families and to their homelands, thus no other affiliation other than their master who provided excellent opportunity to make a living and earn tremendous prestige and trust. He saw them becoming the best soldiers after receiving the best training in the military arts beginning at an early age. He perceived them as future men that would uphold the honor of their master with their high quality education and knowledge of Islam. With this vision, he bought about a hundred young slave boys, mostly Turks from Asian Steppes, and began to train them as effective and disciplined soldiers and learned men.

These men, which became known as Mamluks, became the most trusted bodyguards of al-Mamun. After the death of al-Mamun in 833, his brother al-Mutasim continued to rely on the Mamluks and even made them the pillar of his household and administration until his passing in 842.

As Mamluks gained influenced, the view of slavery and becoming a Mamluk changed. Slavery of the Islamic world veered away from the submissive and brutal life of servitude of western slavery. Rather, slavery in the Medieval Islamic world became an opportunity. A means for an impoverished parents to provide a bright future to his hungry boy. Even if not in poverty, becoming a Mamluk became an avenue to gain wealth, power, and prestige. It did not became an all-out scourge of society but a chance of a better life.

Life of a Mamluk

Mamluks came from various ethnicity. Some came from the Balkans or Turks from the Asian Steppes. Others started as prisoners of war. Mamluks usually purchased by their masters at a young age, possibly 9 to 12 years old, and sent to stay in dormitories with other fellow Mamluks in training. Then they went to study theology, arts, and most importantly, military skills.

Mamluk in full amor
They trained in various weaponry - swords, lances, etc. But most importantly, trainers placed great importance in developing the skills of the Mamluk trainee in archery and horsemanship. Thus, Turks, who had in them great horsemanship skill, grew in prominence. With their intensive training they did not just developed to become trained foot soldiers but high quality efficient cavalry force.

Mamluk trainees who studied and lived together also developed a close bond, camaraderie, and loyalty towards each other. This became important in creating a professional and cohesive fighting force that even today practiced by military academies.

After they reached majority, they had the choice of converting to Islam, and some even given the opportunity to be freed from servitude and continue their service towards his master. Their once masters became their employers and they served him with absolute loyalty. In exchange, their masters paid them in cash. Later on, a Caliph or a Sultan paid his Mamluks an iqta or right of revenue, meaning they would receive tax revenues collected from an area. They had become an equivalent of a knight in the western civilization.

With the training and salary, maintaining a Mamluk army took a strain in finances. Training alone cost tremendously. Paying high ranking Mamluks with tax revenue even worsen money flow as it reduced income to the coffers.

A Mamluk served his master loyally. He defended him or fight for him without question. Being right at the side, a Mamluk earned his master’s trust and became an adviser. Hence, many Mamluk’s who earned their master’s trust suddenly found themselves in high and influential positions. Some even received hefty rewards for their loyalty in form of larger fiefdoms. Mamluks became prestigious, wealthy, and powerful individuals in politics and society.

The loyalties of the Mamluk towards their master, however, much of the time did not pass to the heirs. When their master passed away and the sons and heir took power, many ambitious Mamluks saw the passing as an opportunity to gain ever more power and strength. Their knowledge of the administration and the military led to rise as leaders themselves.

Influence in Islamic History

As Mamluks rose up the ranks of not just military but also of civil administration, their ambitions hurled them to the forefront of history. They turned to an important faction in the messy politics of the Abbasids before being the rulers of a prosperous and progressive states.

After the death of Caliph Al-Mutasim, the Mamluks played politics and led the murder of Caliph al-Mutawakkil (r. 847-861) in 861. The death of al-Mutawakkil plunged the caliphate to the notorious decade called the Anarchy of Samarra when 4 Caliphs succeeded each one with 3 meeting a gruesome death in the hands of the Mamluks. Only with strong reassertion of Caliphal authority in 870 that the Anarchy ended, but left the Caliphate weakened, never again to regain its strength.

Even though the Mamluks caused the ruckus that brought the Abbasid down, many rulers continued to rely on their service. In India, Mamluks formed the first period of the Delhi Sultanate, founded in 1206. Mamluk Sultans expanded their domains until they stood as the prominent power in the subcontinent. Their groundwork laid the foundation for the expansion of succeeding dynasties.

Moreover, many Sultans, Emirs, and Caliph continued to form their own Mamluks. Fatimids and Ayyubids hired their own Mamluks. During the Crusades, Mamluks fought the Europeans and in 1244, when the French attacked, they won in the Battle of La Forbie.

After the battle, the Mamluks continued to serve Ayyubid Sultan al-Malik al-Salih until his death in 1249. The Mamluks did not, however, showed same loyalty to al-Malik’s successor and killed him instead. They declared themselves as rulers of Egypt, starting a Sultanate that would last until the Ottoman conquest in 1517.

Mamluk sultans presided over a golden age in Egypt funded by international trade in grain. They traded with many mercantile states, such as Venice and Genoa. Trade along the Silk Road also passed to Egypt. Money from commerce financed great buildings and services, including mental institutions, universities, and hospitals. It also financed the reconquest of the Levant from the Crusaders. Sultan Baybars (r. 1260 – 1277) extended the control of the Mamluk Sultanate to Syria and parts of Saudi Arabia. He began to push out the Crusaders until 1291 when his successor finally took Acre, the last Crusader state.
Massacre of the Mamlukes, 1811
Also Baybar and Mamluks also succeeded in defeating the feared Mongol horde. In 1258 the Mongols had overran Baghdad, the once great center of the Abbasid Caliphate and the Islamic world. In 1268, the Mongols knocked on the doors of the Mamluks. In the Battle of Ain Jalut, Mamluk horsemanship triumph over the Mongols. For the next decade, the Mamluks defended their domains against the incursions of the Mongols. But as the Mongol Horde lost its momentum, the Mamluks began their steady decline until in 1517, when the Ottomans under Sultan Selim “the Grim” marched down to Cairo and ended the Sultanate. Mamluks continued to hold great influence in Egypt. Napoleon fought the Mamluks in the Battle of Pyramids. The end of the Mamluks in Egypt, however, in 1811, when Mohammed Ali, an Ottoman general, took upon himself of destroying them and establish Ottoman rule.

The Mamluks faded in history as the practice of slavery also disappeared. Mamluk influence in Islamic history could not be marginalized. It became a vital part of social mobility in the Islamic world. It set a different perspective of a practice that the west scorned. They became an inspiration for generals and leaders in establishing their own loyal and capable units. They set the precedence of military orders especially the Janissaries. Their rule also left legacies of great architectural work, not just in Cairo, but also in India. The Mamluks are examples of self-made men who truly made a name for themselves.

See also:

Keaney, Heather. "Mamluk." In Encyclopedia of Islam. Edited by Juan Eduardo Campo. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2009.

May, Timothy. "Mamluks." In The Mongol Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2017.

Schultz, Warren. "Mamluk." In Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Edited by Richard Martin et. al. New York, New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004.

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