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E - 45 : The Mamluk - A Slave Warrior State

In my previous blogs I talked about the Fatimid, the Ottoman, and the Spanish Empire, covered Arab dynasties and wrote about the Mongols. But only once I talked about the Mamluks – in the context of Genovese slave trading. Unknown to most, the Mamluks ruled a large part of the Middle East between 1250 and 1517. Their empire stretched from Benghazi in the west to Syria in the east and down the Red Sea. Under Mamluk rule, Cairo was the Muslim World’s richest and biggest town with half a million people. It was as large as the towns of Constantinople and Baghdad in their peak.

Mamluk Cavalry from the 14th century

The Mamluks were a force to reckon with. They destroyed the crusader states in Palestine, repulsed the 6thcrusade in Damietta (Nile delta), took Acre from the Knights of St John, defeated the Mongols and saved Syria, Palestine, and Egypt from the fate of Baghdad. In 1258, the Mongols had reduced Baghdad to ashes massacring the entire population. And when the Portuguese showed up on the Mamluk’s doorstep in Aden in 1513, they fought them to a stand-still too.

Size of the Mamluk Empire at its peak in 15th century

But the Mamluk’s were also a power who traded peacefully for centuries. Their traders supplied the West with goods from India and China. They were the most important trading partners for Genoa and Venice. Under Mamluk rule, Egypt’s and Syria’s economy prospered. With money to spend, arts, architecture, and learning recovered from the catastrophe of Baghdad. Cairo, the Mamluk capital, became the center of Islam.

The Mamluk Governor in Damascus receives a trade delegation from Venice in 1511

The Mamluks had their origin in the bodyguards of the Caliphs in Baghdad. Young Turkish boys were bought as slaves and trained for years before they converted to Islam and swore an oath of allegiance. They had no relatives, lived in closed garrisons, and only served their master. As the Caliphs’ power faded and regional emirs asserted their independence, these Turkish bodyguards gained influence and became arbiters in Baghdad’s politics. They went from slave to warrior to commander to sultan. As the only military force capable of stopping the Mongols, they putsched against the last Ayyubid sultan in Cairo and assumed power in 1250. They would hold it until defeated by the Ottomans in 1517.

Mamluk Cavalry during the Wars with the Mongols

The Mamluk state had two foundations: its cavalry army and local bureaucracy. With no intention to re-invent the wheel, the Mamluk co-opted the administration of its predecessors but inserted their own military leaders in key positions. This way, the Mamluks could have it both ways – taking control and providing continuity for the ordinary people. The Mamluk warriors lacked overarching strategic goals. They neither aimed at converting the whole world to Islam nor did they plan to create a global empire. All they wanted was to line up their pockets with the wealth from trading with Asia and live a splendid live. They fiercely protected their tax revenues and territories but seldom venture beyond.

The horse was a Mamluk's most prized possession

Good horsemanship was key to the Mamluk’s success. The slaves brought their way of fighting from the Asian steppes. The complete mastery of horses gave them the ability to rapidly maneuver on the battlefield, their lethal archery kept the enemy at bay and softened them up, the skilled use of lances in the final charge finished them off. Their fighting style was the same as the Mongols. Mamluks fought only on foot when necessary, i.e., when forced to besiege a town. Training in horsemanship was an everyday activity. Mamluks hunted and played polo to relax. There were two hippodromes in Cairo for this purpose.

The Mamluk, organized in the Bahri and the Burgi regiments, counted at their peak about 20’000 cavalry men. This does not sound like a big number but is not much off from the Legionnaires-Territory ratio during the Roman Empire. It proved adequate to control the Levant and to garrison the big population centers in Syria and Egypt.

Mamluk Forces taking Tripoli in the Levant in 1289

Being proud warriors, frictions and rivalry between the regiments were never ending. The Mamluk sultan had to rise through the ranks and earn his way up by being the bravest of the bravest. As a rule, the Mamluk Empire was not hereditary. Sons of Mamluk leaders had to serve in separate units – their regiment was looked down upon. They did not have the right to succeed. Most Sultans’ reign was short lived. On average, a sultan lasted six years. Most of them died a violent death – either in battle or murdered by their rivals.

Tried to find a picture of a Mamluk Sultan but only got

one of one of his councellors - impressive turban though

Whilst the Mamluks’ ethnicity was originally Turkish, it changed with the Mongol invasion. The Mongols, specifically the Golden Horde which ruled the steppes north of the Black and the Caspian Sea, were big slave traders. They enslaved Russians, Circassians and Caucasians alike and sold their catch to Genovese and Venetians traders on the Black Sea. The young slaves were all younger than 10 – many of them Christians. The boys ended up in Mamluk barracks, the girls in harems or brothels. It is one of the very black spots in European History. So bad that the Pope banned it in a Papal bull. To no avail though. It was too lucrative and lasted as long as Genovese and Venetian ships could sail through the Bosporus. It only ended when the Ottomans closed the Bosporus in 1453. Don’t expect to read about this awful episode in a tourist booklet on Venice or Genoa.

By 1517, the Mamluk were no match for the Ottoman Empire any longer. The supply of new slaves was cut and Ottoman gunnery dominated the battle field. After their military defeat before Cairo, the Mamluk regiments aligned with their new masters and became a fighting force under Turkish control. Some of their military techniques were copied by Napoleon when he invaded Egypt in 1797 and set up French Mamluk Cavalry Units. Of far bigger consequences were however :

  1. the Ottomans’ access to taxes on trading with Asia. The new wealth paid for the Ottoman Navy and modernized Turkish land forces. It ushered in the violent 16th century when the two superpowers with global ambitions clashed: the Spanish financed by silver from Latin America - the Ottomans financed by Asian trade.

  2. The conversion of most Egyptians to Islam after the crusades and the Black Death. The Mamluks imposed high taxes on the Coptic and Jewish population to rebuild and repopulate the country. Most of the Copts chose becoming Muslim instead.

The Genovese whose trading routes we follow on this trip and the Mamluk had a mutually beneficial relationship. The Genovese brought young slaves to the shores of the Nile, the Mamluks had goods from Asia to trade for. That many of the beautiful palaces in Genoa were built with money made from slavery is a fact difficult to digest though.

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