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H - 158 : When the Ottomans became Khalifs

We write the year 1516. Few people in the Western World consider this to be an important year. Future German Emperor Charles V assumed the Spanish crown and went on to become the first ruler of a global Empire.  Even more important, Ottoman Sultan Selim defeated the Mamluks in Syria and Gaza. Within a year, the powerful Mamluks which once defeated the Mongols in the hills of Galilee (Ain Jalut in 1260) and evicted the last crusaders from Acre (1291) were no more. The Ottoman Sultans became the overlords of Islam’s Holy Sites Mecca and Medina and assumed the title of Khalifs.  


Ottoman Cavalry charging - Painters love glorifying War - am sure it did not look like this

Whilst the Ottoman rulers did not hesitate to assume these prestigious titles, the real prize was Egypt, the most populous and wealthy country in the Med, and control of the lucrative trade routes to India and China. What Augustus conquered in 30 BC for the Roman Empire; Selim won for the Ottomans in 1517. Both times, the wealth from three annual grain harvests and the huge tax revenues from trading propelled the beneficiaries into super power status. It guaranteed the stability of both empire for 400 and 500 years respectively.

In 1517, the Ottoman Sultans became the Rulers of Mecca and Medina

How could a powerful state like the Mamluks collapse so quickly? The answer is manyfold but boils down to four major factors. Many things had changed since the peak of the Mamluks' military prowess in the 13th century. (I covered them in previous blogs)


1) With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Genoa’s and Venice’ slave trading ended abruptly. For two hundred years, the two Italian Republics bought slaves from the Mongols and sold them to Egyptian rulers. The teenage boys were put into military service, the girls into harems. The trade started in 1240 and was conducted in slave markets on the Crimea and in Alexandria. The Mamluks were a slave state, mostly of Turkish and Circassia origin. With its supply of manpower cut, the Mamluk Army shrank. By 1516, there were only 6’000 true Mamluk fighters left.

Slave Trading in the Crimean - Young Women and Teenage Boys achieved the highest Price. The Painting is from the 19th Century and reflects how the West looked down on Ottomans

2) After Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a direct passage to India via the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, the Portuguese started to roam the Indian Ocean. Nobody could oppose their well-armed carracks. The guns on deck of their ships wreaked havoc. The Mamluks, who had no navy to speak of, nor the Indian Sultans had an answer. The Portuguese were thus able to severely interrupt the trade that flowed through the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Recent calculations estimate that the value of the trade dropped from 9 million to 2 million dinars. The Mamluks were so cash strapped they had to replace their silver and gold coins with copper money. In essence, when the conflict with the Ottomans started, they were broke.

Inside of a Portuguese Carrack - the few Guns were

on the Top Deck - these Ships were very sturdy

3) In order to avoid taxation, many Mamluk nobles had converted their land holdings from private property to religious endowments which benefited religious institutions but – of course – also their off-springs. By the beginning of the 16th century, at the time the conflict with the Ottomans started, almost 40% of the arable land had been put into religious trust structures. Whilst good for the owners, the Mamluk state lost more than 1/3 of its Egyptian tax base. No state can lose one third of its taxes without getting into serious troubles. And that is what happened to the Mamluks. Whilst the Ottomans modernized their army and were called a “gun powder” empire, the Mamluks lacked the funds to do so.

A Wheat Field in Modern Egypt - It must have looked similar for Centuries

4) Last but not least, the Mamluks were a cavalry army. Their culture and fighting philosophy was built around horses. This is the reasons why Arab nations still continue their love affair with beautiful horses. But cavalry attacks on positions defended with guns with were never a good idea. The shrapnel makes mincemeat of any attacker who is not covered by his own artillery fire. There is more than one example in history. The charge of the English Light Brigade on Russian gun positions during the Crimean War in 1854 was heroic but suicidal. The same was true for the Mamluk attacks on the Ottoman Army in 1516.


The Mamluk Cavalry was armoured, fast and flexible

There are other factors though like the frictions within the Mamluk ruling class. Several Mamluk factions sympathised with the Ottomans and defected. They were rewarded with positions of power. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he fought Mamluk Cavalry in the famous Battle of the Pyramids. Mamluks were still in charge, albeit in the service of the Sultans in Istanbul.


On our trip this summer we won’t see much left from Mamluk time. We would have to take a detour to Cairo. But the Ottoman's gain from the conquest was huge. They used the new taxes to build an empire that almost succeeded in conquering Rome and Vienna. Had Spain not discovered the silver mines in Petosi, Bolivia, nobody would have been able to stand up to the Ottoman Juggernaut. Spain's rule in Latin America was anything but benign, but it enabled Christian Europe to survive.

The Ottoman Sphere of Influence in 1590 was as global as the Spanish Empire



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