Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Mameluke mysteries

Julien Loiseau, Les Mamelouks XIIIe-XVIe siècle, une expérience du pouvoir dans l’Islam medieval, Paris: Seuil, 2014, pp434, Reviewed by David Tresilian

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The military regimes that controlled various societies across the Islamic world in the mediaeval period were in many respects unique. While the feudal systems in place across much of Europe at the same time also had a military character, with local knights or barons raising armed forces while keeping the bulk of the population tied to the land as serfs, only in the Islamic world were these military rulers former slaves and members of a non-native caste.

As the French historian Julien Loiseau explains in his new book Les Mamelouks, which seeks to reconstruct the character of the regime that ruled Egypt and Syria between the end of the Ayyubid Dynasty in the 13th century and the Ottoman invasion in 1517 CE, the Mamelukes, a ruling caste of former slaves, were not themselves of Egyptian origin and in many cases hardly spoke Arabic. Instead, they had been brought to the country as slaves at a very young age, usually seven or eight years old, from the Caucasus or Central Asia and raised as part of a separate ruling group arranged in the households of grand emirs.

At the top of the system was the sultan’s court, made up of an inner group of Mameluke emirs. It was from this group that new sultans emerged, sometimes bloodily or as a result of factional disputes, there being no principle of hereditary leadership in the Mameluke system. Only the Qalawunids, descendants of the sultan Al-Mansour Qalawun, managed to form something like a Mameluke dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries, Loiseau notes, despite attempts to do so by the sultans Al-Zahir Barquq and Al-Ashraf Qaytbay in the 15th. In some ways the system was remarkably meritocratic, since the best way to join the ruling group was to have been brought to the country as a small boy, having been purchased as a slave, and to work one’s way up within it.

No non-Mameluke, on the other hand, in other words no native Egyptian, could hope to acquire real political or economic power. While the Mamelukes were egalitarian among themselves, with military prowess being what counted most, they were also a closed group to outsiders. Only former slave boys could hope to reach the top echelons of power in Mameluke Egypt and only then if they had been attached at an early age to the household of one of the grand emirs and had excelled in the characteristic Mameluke educational curriculum of horsemanship and military type games.

Described this way, the Mameluke system can make for strange reading, particularly given its method of replenishing the ruling group by purchasing new slave boys and its system of sharing out the great offices of state among former slaves. On the other hand, it does seem to have been successful, at least for a time, not only in defeating the country’s enemies – the Mamelukes may have been former slaves but they were first and foremost soldiers – but also in providing the kind of stable political and economic framework within which commerce and more broadly civilisation could flourish.

Much of the spectacular Islamic architecture that graces the streets of Cairo today was built during the Mameluke period, often as the gift of Mameluke sultans or grand emirs. Fatimid or Ayyubid Cairo may have long since disappeared, but the Mameluke city is very much still standing if one counts the mosques, madrasas, charitable foundations and other architectural complexes that line the streets of Islamic Cairo.

The Mamelukes even gave their name to a characteristic style of Islamic architecture, perhaps reaching its apogee in the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrasa, built by the sultan Al-Nasir Hassan ibn Mohammed ibn Qalawun (reigned after 1347), or the Qalawun Madrasa Hospital and Mausoleum Complex, built by the sultan Al-Nasir Mohammed ibn Qalawun at the end of the 13th century, that still dominate the Islamic city today. They were also important patrons of the arts, with many of the skills associated with Islamic art reaching new levels of sophistication in the Mameluke period. Not native speakers of Arabic themselves, and converts to Islam since Muslims could not have been sold as slaves, they left many magnificent religious buildings behind them and acted throughout their rule as the defenders of the faith.

In fact the Mamelukes were, Loiseau says, “a unique historical experiment.” Set up at the time of the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and the Mongol invasions in the 1250s CE, the Mameluke regime in Egypt “was at once the most extravagant and the most classic of all the regimes that emerged from the ruins of the caliphal system, giving former slaves, born in ignorance, the signal task of defending, supporting and exemplifying the religion of the Prophet.”

The Mamelukes never questioned their right to rule, he adds. “The military society that was renewed over successive generations by these slave soldiers had its own raison d’être, its own self-evidence, even if it did not always carry out all its obligations, or if the competition for power among its members could overflow onto the rest of society.” Yet, for Loiseau the Mamelukes were also caught within an existential dilemma: thrown by chance into a foreign country where they had first arrived as slaves, they were perpetually in search not so much of legitimacy as of belonging.

They dreamed of settling down, he says, of becoming native, “a dream they passed on to their descendants but which they only ever posthumously realised.”



MAMELUKE RULE: Mameluke rule in Egypt started out in an improvised fashion during the dying days of the Ayyubid sultanate in the mid-13th century.

Following the death of the sultan Al-Salih Ayyub, a group of Mamelukes installed his widow, Shajara al-Durr, herself of Turkic slave origin, as sultan, making her the only woman ever to hold the office. However, this proved politically unacceptable, and following a series of manoeuvres fought out between rival factions the effective founder of the Mameluke sultanate, Al-Zahir Baybars, was installed as sultan in 1260, his rule being bolstered by victory over the invading Mongols at the battle of Ayn Jalut in Syria and the defeat of French king Louis IX’s ill-considered Seventh Crusade which had for a time occupied the Egyptian port city of Damietta.

Al-Zahir Baybars was the real founder of the Mameluke sultanate, establishing the political structures and institutions of the new regime which in total counted some 50 sultans until the defeat of the last, Al-Ashraf Tumanbay, at the hands of the Ottomans three centuries later. 13 of these sultans died a natural death, Loiseau says, one died on the field of battle, and 36 were deposed. But instead of offering a political history of the Mameluke sultanate, something which, given the source material, could prove self-defeating or even impossible satisfactorily to do, Loiseau opts in his book to describe instead the structure and institutions of the Mameluke system, in so doing providing some fascinating vignettes of Mameluke rule.

Regarding the characteristic Mameluke slave system, for example, Loiseau notes that while the practice of buying slaves from external sources and then using them for military purposes was not unique to the Mameluke sultanate, the latter was perhaps the only example of such a system achieving stability over the longer term. The Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad had relied on Turkic slave soldiers since at least the 9th century, for example, these eventually rising up and taking over the regime, and the Ayyubid sultans had also bought in Mameluke soldiers, these eventually also acting as the regime’s grave-diggers.

Al-Zahir Baybars, ruling until 1277, acted swiftly to secure more slaves to ensure the continuity of the new regime. At first most of these slaves were Qipchaq Turks acquired from Central Asia via the Black Sea. Later, with the Islamisation of Central Asia most new slaves came from the Caucasus, but their supply always remained a major foreign-policy objective of the regime. According to Loiseau, between 1262 and 1395, the first, perhaps most successful century of Mameluke rule, more than 70 embassies were sent to the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople in order to ensure that the Black Sea slave route remained open. To give a sense of numbers, in 1304, 400 male slaves and 200 female were sent to Cairo, he says, with 300 more arriving in 1313 and 1317. Most of these slaves had been acquired through raids, tax requisitions, or purchase, and they had originally been put on sale in slave markets in the Crimea, in some cases arriving in Cairo through the hands of Genoese or Venetian merchants.

The prices of such slaves could vary considerably depending on their age, sex and origin and market conditions at the time. A massive consignment of Qipchaqs arriving in Cairo in 1304 drove prices down to 1,000 silver dirhams from a previous high of 4,000, for example, though the Mameluke sultans were always ready to pay higher prices for future soldiers. In 1436, the sultan Al-Ashraf Barsbay paid 50 gold dinars each for a consignment of slaves from the Caucasus, and later in the century the sultan Al-Nasir Mohammed ibn Qaytbay is on record as having paid 80,000 silver dirhams for his Mameluke Sarghitmish al-Nasiri. Loiseau says that a servant would have earned a monthly salary of one gold dinar at the time and that the larger Mameluke houses would have consisted of some 100 to 200 slaves.

Wealth could be measured by the number of slave soldiers owned by a given Mameluke emir. The 15th-century military commander Taghri Birdi al-Tahiri apparently had 450 Mamelukes in his household, while the sultans Al-Mansour Qalawun and Al-Ashraf Qaytbay at the end of the 13th and 15th centuries, respectively, seem to have owned between 6,000 and 8,000 Mameluke slaves. While many of these would have been acquired at seven or eight years old, growing up in the emir’s household, becoming his property, and acquiring his name (nisba), the Mamelukes could also be sold off, inherited, or given as presents.

Sometimes an emir would raise his Mamelukes with his own children, though usually they would have lived in barracks-type accommodation in the Cairo citadel or attached to the larger Mameluke palaces. In all cases an emir had legal responsibility for them. According to Loiseau, the relationship between a Mameluke emir and his Mamelukes could be quasi-parental as well as proprietorial. The death of an emir could be as traumatic for his Mamelukes as the death of a father, since they would have known no other family and often would have had no memory of their natural parents. Taken as a whole, the Mamelukes, dressed distinctively and living next to, but hardly among, the rest of the population, were bonded together by a “caste culture” based on military prowess and particularly horsemanship (furusiyya), which they developed into a kind of art form.

“A knight-like military aristocracy separated from the rest of the population in their urban citadels and foreign by virtue of their language and their ethnicity to the majority of their subjects, the Mamelukes had little in common with the latter apart from their practice of the Muslim religion,” Loiseau comments. This being so, it is perhaps not surprising that some Mamelukes at least seem to have yearned for some more concrete sense of belonging.

After the sultanate of Al-Zahir Barquq at the end of the 14th century and until the end of the regime in 1517, all the Mameluke sultans were former slave soldiers from the Caucasus, Loiseau says, with the exceptions of Al-Zahir Khushqadam (reigned 1461-1467) and Al-Zahir Timurbugha (1467/68), who were Turks. Barquq, himself sold into slavery as a boy in the Crimea and brought to Cairo, seems to have instituted a policy of “ethnic preference” when buying new Mamelukes, “not because there was anything wrong with Turkic slaves, but because he wanted to buy Mamelukes from among his own people.”



A SINGULAR ADVENTURE: Loiseau’s book, full of fascinating details of the Mamelukes and their regime gleaned from mostly Arabic sources, is a hugely scholarly, but very readable, introduction. Judging from the notes and references in the book he has done a vast amount of research. His aim has been, he says, to “give the Mamelukes the credit for their historical adventure in all its singularity and uniqueness,” perhaps a version of the English historian E.P. Thompson’s famous warning against the “vast condescension of posterity” in the face of historical failure, or, in this case, a long-defunct and to many modern eyes singularly odd regime.

Yet, while Mameluke civilisation has left the magnificent buildings of Islamic Cairo to posterity in a style that contributed to modern Egyptian nationalism when it was revived as Neo-Mameluke in the 19th century, Mameluke subjectivity has been harder to capture. The Mamelukes did not write about their own experiences, leaving that to Arab historians, and their private thoughts and feelings are difficult to reconstruct from the evidence available.

Of the magnificent Mameluke palaces and town houses that once dotted Cairo only a handful remain, among them the palace of the emir Taz and that of the emir Alin Aq on Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, both restored in 2000. Loiseau’s book, unusual among historical accounts in that it contains attempted reconstructions of Mameluke identity, family life, and subjectivity, brings modern readers closer to these mediaeval slave soldiers, uprooted from their own societies as boys, brought up and educated in a foreign language and society, and converted from their native paganism to Islam. They contributed vast amounts to their new environment, not only by defeating the Mongol invasions and European crusaders and securing Egypt and Syria against external enemies, but also by protecting and fostering Muslim civilisation in the wake of the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate and Ayyubid sultanate.

They have long been the object of bemused curiosity to European writers, with commentators like Montesquieu in De l’esprit des lois, and Machiavelli in The Prince, founders of modern political study and quoted by Loiseau, seeing them as examples of “oriental despotism.” However, for these writers the Mamelukes were also almost inexplicable, even in the absolutist conditions of early modern Europe, as former slaves raised to the condition of sultans and grand emirs.

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