90 Miles From Tyranny : 10 Bloody Facts About The Mamluks

Sunday, March 25, 2018

10 Bloody Facts About The Mamluks

It is rare to find an everyday person, even a university-educated one, who has heard of the Mamluks. Sometimes spelled as “Mameluke,” the Mamluks were slave soldiers who rebelled against their rulers to establish their own state in Egypt.

Despite many Mamluks being the captured sons of Christians, Jews, pagans, and other non-Muslim religions, the Mamluks quickly gained a reputation for being zealous jihadists. Indeed, their gory conquests outdid those of the famous Muslim warrior Saladin and his Ayyubid Empire, which the Mamluks overthrew in 1250.

At their height, the Mamluks controlled Egypt, northern India (including the major city of Delhi), the cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Jerusalem, and the nation which would become known in the 20th century as Iraq.

It was the Mamluks who finally defeated and destroyed the last remnants of the Crusader states in the Middle East, and Mamluk forces held their own against the Ottoman Empire and the French Army of Napoleon. These fascinating soldiers deserve to be studied more, and we hope that this list is part of that correction.
10 Slave Origins

The Arabic term mamluk simply means “property.” The first Muslim power to use such slave soldiers was the Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad. Under Abbasid rule, the Islamic Empire enjoyed what is commonly called its “Golden Age.”

The Abbasid court oversaw the “Persianization” of the Islamic world, with Arab scribes and scholars translating Zoroastrian texts on medicine, philosophy, art, and poetry. Similarly, Abbasid scholars developed their own interpretations of the Greco-Roman texts that they found after Muslim armies seized Egypt.[1]

Despite this flowering of culture, several of the Arab and Berber rulers of North Africa and Spain felt that the Abbasids had given up on the holy cause of converting the whole world to Islam. In the autonomous states of the Cordoba Caliphate of Spain, the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt, and Ghaznavid Empire of Central Asia, more stringent brands of Islam prevailed, which resulted in increased persecution of Christians and Jews in those areas.

To retain their control over North Africa and Central Asia, the Abbasids began converting the nomadic Turkic people of the Pontic and Caspian steppes. Christians from the Mediterranean and Caucasus Mountains were also converted or captured by the Abbasids.

Many of these converts had been sold into slavery by their impoverished families. Once Muslim, these slaves were trained to be excellent cavalry soldiers. The Mamluks pledged their loyalty to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Such a system would later be adopted by the Turkic Ottoman Empire, which used its slave Janissary soldiers to conquer large parts of southeastern Europe.

9Takeover Of Jerusalem

Photo credit: ancient.eu

Unfortunately for the Abbasids, Turkic Muslims proved to be independent-minded. In fact, the marauding Turks earned a much more fearsome reputation among Christian powers than their Arab predecessors.

In August 1071, the mighty Byzantine Empire was decisively defeated by the Seljuks, a Turkic confederation that included Mamluk veterans, at the Battle of Manzikert. Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes was captured during the battle, and from that point on, the Byzantine Empire would never be able to reclaim its control over most of Anatolia.[2]

Two years later, Seljuk Sultan Malik-Shah I captured the holy city of Jerusalem. Under Malik-Shah’s reign, Seljuk Turks, with the blessing of the Abbasid caliph, conquered the breakaway territories of Mesopotamia, Azerbaijan, Syria, and Khorasan.

While Malik-Shah’s sultanate did earn a reputation for learning (including supporting the poet-intellectual Omar Khayyam), his conquest of the Holy Land saw horrific massacres that turned Christendom against his rule. This set the stage for the First Crusade, which was preached by Pope Urban II as a specifically anti-Turk war.

8Ayyubid Soldiers

Photo credit: muyhistoria.es
Arguably the greatest military general in Islamic history is the Kurdish warlord Saladin. Salah al-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, or Saladin, was the nephew of Shirkuh, an earlier Kurdish general who was employed by the feared Turkic ruler of Aleppo and Damascus, Nur ad-Din. Under orders from Nur ad-Din, Shirkuh invaded Egypt to stop the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem from conquering the main grain-producing parts of that country.

When Saladin came of age, he took control of Egypt and purged it of the Shia Fatimid Caliphate. Prior to his famous exploits against the Crusader army under the command of English King Richard I (“The Lionheart”), Saladin carried out a murderous military campaign against the Shia in Egypt and established Sunni Islam as the official religion of the new Ayyubid Sultanate.

The Ayyubid army, which earned battlefield distinction and captured the city of Jerusalem after 88 years of Christian rule, was primarily composed of Mamluk horsemen and foot soldiers. Until its collapse in 1250, the Ayyubid Sultanate relied overwhelmingly on the strength and skill of its Mamluk soldiers.[3]

7Fighting The Fifth And Seventh Crusades

Photo credit: historylearning.com
Even though Saladin thwarted the Crusaders’ desire to seize Egypt, this does not mean that the remaining Christian forces in the Middle East or the various kingdoms of Europe had given up on the idea of seizing Cairo, Alexandria, or Damietta.

Beginning in 1219, Christian armies began invading the northern reaches of Egypt. One army, led by Spanish Catholic Cardinal Pelagius, captured the port city of Damietta. This army, which included the Knights Templar, tried to take the Ayyubid capital of Cairo. But their plan failed. Before long, the Crusaders were low on supplies and men, which forced them to abandon Egypt.

In December 1244, King Louis IX of France launched the Seventh Crusade with 100 ships and approximately 35,000 men to capture the major cities of Egypt. The idea was to capture Damietta, Alexandria, and Cairo to exchange these cities for Syrian municipalities like Aleppo and Damascus.[4]

On June 6, 1249, King Louis’s mainly French army seized Damietta. However, this victory proved short-lived when the Crusaders failed to capture the important fort of al-Mansurah. This stopped the Seventh Crusade from gaining Cairo.

In almost every battle of both these crusades, the Mamluk soldiers squared off against the Christian knights and peasant soldiers of Western Europe. Indeed, following the capture of Damietta, Shajar Al-Durr, the Ayyubid queen, won control of political power in Cairo thanks to support from the Mamluks.

In March 1250, King Louis IX, later to become Saint Louis in the Catholic Church because of his famous piety, was captured by Mamluk soldiers and ransomed for 400,000 livres.

6The Seizure Of Egypt

Photo credit: bahath.co

The initial success of the Seventh Crusade helped to further fracture the political situation in Ayyubid Egypt. Ever since the death of Saladin, the Mamluk soldiers had had a significant say in political matters. After all, the Ayyubid army was dominated by Mamluk captains and generals and these men were not shy about using the threat of violence to keep the Ayyubid sultans in line.[5]

When Shajar Al-Durr became the undisputed leader in Cairo, the Mamluks exerted pressure on her to get married. The man she ultimately married was a Mamluk general named Aybak. With this marriage, Aybak became the first Mamluk sultan of Egypt. Although Aybak died ignobly after being assassinated while taking a bath, he did found the Bahri dynasty, a Muslim ruling family of Cuman-Kipchak Turk origin.

From then until the 16th century, Egypt would be in the hands of Mamluk sultans. Most of them were also of Turkic origin.

5The Most Terrifying Warlord

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