In Our Time: The Mamluks

The Mamluks were a slave army that went on to rule Egypt (and Egypt’s empire) for around 300 years between the mid 13th Century & the early 16th Century AD. Although we call it a dynasty the position of sultan was generally not hereditary during this period, and before one could be a sultan one needed to have been a slave. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Amira Bennison (University of Cambridge), Robert Irwin (SOAS, University of London) and Doris Behrens-Abouseif (SOAS, University of London).

The Mamluk army was founded under the Ayyubid Dynasty, and soldiers were “recruited” i.e. bought as boys from Kipchak Turks who lived on the steppes, or from Circassians from the Caucasus. These peoples fought as a horse archers, and this was the skill they were purchased for. Once enslaved they were brought to Egypt where they were given a good education, and they were instructed in & converted to Islam. Bennison was keen to stress that this slavery was different to the US model that we are more familiar with – the Mamluks had high status, even as slaves, and in later times in particular were often freed once their education was finished.

When the last of the Ayyubid Sultans died, and his heir shortly after, his widow ruled in her own name for a while. She allied herself with the Mamluks, and subsequently married one of the Mamluk generals who became Sultan in her place. The experts were saying that the Mamluks used this to legitimise their rule – a sense of continuity with the old dynasty. They also did this by reinstating the Caliphate – the last Caliph had died in Baghdad when the Mongols sacked the city & when a relative of his turned up the Mamluk Sultans installed him as Caliph in Egypt. He was a figurehead, but one that meant they were seen as the legitimate Islamic rulers of Egypt & the surrounding area.

Even after they took power the Mamluks were “recruited” in the same way, from the same places. They were mostly a meritocracy – at the end of their education the best & brightest became Emirs and other members of the elite (not just leading the army but leading the country). The position of Sultan was also filled from the Mamluk ranks, and the experts said it was generally not hereditary although sometimes sons did succeed fathers. There was also a lot of assassination as a means of succession – which apparently was also the way in their original cultures, if you killed the King you were fit to be the King. I thought it was fascinating that for so long the Egyptians & surrounding areas were ruled by outsiders.

The “Sons of Mamluks” were generally born to Egyptian mothers, and the experts said they didn’t often enter the army. Instead they were privileged & pampered, and well educated – they tended to serve the country as the civilian bureaucracy. And these men are why the Mamluk era is so well documented by contemporaries – they wrote biographies & histories of their nation.

During the Mamluk era the borders of their empire were fairly static, they had no expansionist goals. They worked to oust the Christians from Syria, and even fought off the Mongols. Perhaps a bit of luck involved in the timing of that latter, as the leader of the Mongol army threatening them was actually back in Mongolia at the time to elect the new Great Khan. But another important factor was that for the first time the Mongols were facing an enemy who fought using their own tactics. Their rule didn’t crumble or collapse towards then end, instead they were conquered in one fell swoop by the Ottoman Empire who took advantage of the distraction of part of the Mamluk army by the Portuguese presence in the Red Sea.

The Mamluk era was generally peaceful & stable, and the experts said that the primary legacies of the Mamluks are in literature (including new poetic forms) and architecture. A lot of the classic buildings of Old Cairo were built by the Mamluk Sultans or their Emirs, and they were responsible for a lot of the infrastructure as well.