Mamluks (1250-1517)

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The Mamluks (1250-1517) were 'slave soldiers' who became the rulers of Egypt and large chunks of the Middle East and North Africa. They ruled for over 250 years from 1250 until they overthrown by the Ottomans, but rose up again after a brief period of oppression to play a significant role in running of Egypt. The Mamluks were a self-perpetuating caste of non-Muslim slave soldiers used by Muslim states to fight wars against one another and non-Muslims. The Mamluks were used by the Arabs to fight the Crusaders, the Seljuks and Ottoman Turks, and the Mongols. The Mamluks were also rulers in their own right.

Mamluks (also known as Mamlukes, Mamelukes and other similar names) were mainly Turks from Central Asia. But some were also Circassians and other ethnic groups. Arabs were generally excluded because the were Muslims and Muslims were not allowed to be slaves. The main Mamluk weapons were composite bows and curved swords. Their horsemanship, mounted archery skills and swordsmanship made them the world's most formidable soldiers until gunpowder made their tactics obsolete.

Even though they were slaves, Mamluks were highly privileged and some became high-ranking government officials, governors and administrators. Some Mamluk groups became independent and founded their own dynasties, the most famous being the slave kings of Delhi and the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt. Mamluks established a self-perpetuating slave dynasty that ruled Egypt and much the Middle East from the 12th to 15th century, fought a monumental battle with Napoleon and endured until the 20th century.

In a review of Erik Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, Christopher Berg wrote: “War against fellow believers is frowned upon in the Qur’an. This led to the emergence of a trained military class of slaves called Mamluks used for the sole purpose of waging war against fellow Muslims. They were to become the elite guard, the crème de la crème of the army. They were highly trained in a way reminiscent of strict Roman discipline using furusiya manuals. “Furusiya refers to the skills to be mastered by mounted soldiers”, according to Hildinger, “and these textbooks set out drill and instruction in the necessary skills for the Mamluks.” [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University /^]

Websites on Islamic History: History of Islam: An encyclopedia of Islamic history ; Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sacred Footsetps ; Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Muslim Heritage ; Chronological history of Islam

Origin of the Mamluks


To understand the history of Egypt during the later Middle Ages, it is necessary to consider two major events in the eastern Arab World: the migration of Turkish tribes during the Abbasid Caliphate and their eventual domination of it, and the Mongol invasion. Turkish tribes began moving west from the Eurasian steppes in the sixth century. As the Abbasid Empire weakened, Turkish tribes began to cross the frontier in search of pasturage. The Turks converted to Islam within a few decades after entering the Middle East. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The Turks also entered the Middle East as mamluks (slaves) employed in the armies of Arab rulers. Mamluks, although slaves, were usually paid, sometimes handsomely, for their services. Indeed, a mamluk's service as a soldier and member of an elite unit or as an imperial guard was an enviable first step in a career that opened to him the possibility of occupying the highest offices in the state. Mamluk training was not restricted to military matters and often included languages and literary and administrative skills to enable the mamluks to occupy administrative posts. *

Mamluks came into being because the Qur’an clearly states that Muslims can not fight each other. Such an offense is considered blasphemy, because the Qur’an says you can't do it. The Arabs got around this problem by using non-Muslim Turks captured in Central Asia to fight their wars. New Mamluks were constantly recruited because the children of the old ones became Muslims. The arrangement became messy and incestuous when the majority of Turks became Muslims. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

In the late tenth century, a new wave of Turks entered the empire as free warriors and conquerors. One group occupied Baghdad, took control of the central government, and reduced the Abbasid caliphs to puppets. The other moved west into Anatolia, which it conquered from a weakened Byzantine Empire.*

Mamluks Become a Major Power in the Middle East

By the ninth century, Mamluks were systematically used by the Baghdad caliph who said that "no people in the world are braver, more numerous or more steadfast." Mamluks dominated the army of the Ayyubid state of Saladin, the great Muslim ruler who defeated the Crusaders. They led a successful coup the Ayyubids.

Mamluks battling Ethiopians

The Mamluks had already established themselves in Egypt and were able to establish their own empire because the Mongols destroyed the Abbasid caliphate. In 1258 the Mongol invaders put to death the last Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. The following year, a Mongol army of as many as 120,000 men commanded by Hulagu Khan crossed the Euphrates and entered Syria. Meanwhile, in Egypt the last Ayyubid sultan had died in 1250, and political control of the state had passed to the Mamluk guards whose generals seized the sultanate. In 1258, soon after the news of the Mongol entry into Syria had reached Egypt, the Turkish Mamluk Qutuz declared himself sultan and organized the successful military resistance to the Mongol advance. The decisive battle was fought in 1260 at Ayn Jalut in Palestine, where Qutuz's forces defeated the Mongol army.*

An important role in the fighting was played by Baybars I, who shortly afterwards assassinated Qutuz and was chosen sultan. Baybars I (1260-77) was the real founder of the Mamluk Empire. He came from the elite corps of Turkish Mamluks, the Bahriyyah, socalled because they were garrisoned on the island of Rawdah on the Nile River. Baybars I established his rule firmly in Syria, forcing the Mongols back to their Iraqi territories.*

At the end of the fourteenth century, power passed from the original Turkish elite, the Bahriyyah Mamluks, to Circassians, whom the Turkish Mamluk sultans had in their turn recruited as slave soldiers. Between 1260 and 1517, Mamluk sultans of TurcoCircassian origin ruled an empire that stretched from Egypt to Syria and included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. As "shadow caliphs," the Mamluk sultans organized the yearly pilgrimages to Mecca. Because of Mamluk power, the western Islamic world was shielded from the threat of the Mongols. The great cities, especially Cairo, the Mamluk capital, grew in prestige. By the fourteenth century, Cairo had become the preeminent religious center of the Muslim world.*

Mamluks Defeat the Mongols

In the mid 13th century, the Mongol army lead by Hulagu advanced on Jerusalem, where a victory would have sealed up their grip on the Middle East. The only thing that stood in their was a division of horse-mounted Mamluks from Egypt.

In the middle of the campaign, Hulegu, the Mongol ruler who conquered much of Western Asia, returned to Mongolia upon receiving news of Mongke's death. While he was gone, his forces were defeated by a larger Mamluk army at the Battle of Ayn Jalut (Ain Jalut and other spellings) in Palestine in 1260. This was the first significant Mongol defeat in seventy years. [Source: Library of Congress]

Mamluk helmets

The Battle of Ayn Jalut is also memorable in that the Mamluks were able to repulse repeated Mongol attacks. The key to Mamluk success was a similar fighting style to the Mongols that was “perfected” and combined with able leadership. The Mamluks had been led by a Turk named Baibars, a former Mongol warrior who used Mongol tactics. During an attack on Jerusalem at the time of the Battle of Ayn Jalut a detachment of Crusaders was nearby. The question on everyone's minds was whether or not the Christian Crusaders assist the Mongols in their assault on Muslim-occupied Jerusalem. Just as the battle was getting ready to take shape, Hulagu was informed of Khan Mongke's death and went back to Mongolia, leaving behind a force of 10,000 men.

The Mamluks tried to enlist the Crusaders in their fight against the Mongols. “The Crusaders only offered token help by allowing the Mamluks to cross their territory to attack the Mongols. The Mamluks were also assisted by Berke — Batu's younger brother and khan of the Golden Horde—a recent convert to Islam.

Ayn Jalut is where David reportedly killed Goliath in northern Palestine. The Mamluks went on to destroy many of the Mongol strongholds on the Syrian coast. The Mamluks employed a battle tactic the Mongols were famous for using: an attack after a feigned retreat and surrounding and slaughtering their pursuers. The Mongols were routed in a couple of hours and their advance into the Middle East was brought to a halt.

Battle of Ayn Jalut (1260) by Jumi’u’t-Tawarikh

Jumi’u’t-Tawarikh wrote in “The Battle of ‘Ayn Jalut (September 8, 1260): “The Mongol armies were thought to be unstoppable after they were able to overcome the defences of both Baghdad and Damascus. In 1260 Hulagu sent envoys to Saif ad-Din Qutuz in Cairo demanding his surrender; Quduz responded by killing the envoys and displaying their heads on the gates of the city. As Qutuz prepared for a Mongol invasion, Hulagu returned home to attempt to seize power when his brother the Great Khan Mongke died. Qutuz allied with a fellow Mamluk, Baubars, who had fled Syria after the Mongols captured Damascus. The Mongols attempted to ally with the remnant of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, now centred on Acre, but Pope Alexander IV forbade this. The Christians remained neutral. [Source: “Jumi’u’t-Tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles): A History of the Mongols” translated by W.M. Thackston (Sources of Oriental Languages and Literatures 45, 1998-9). Thackston is a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, posted by Scott Manning, De Re Militari, The Society for Medieval Military History March 4, 2013]

“Both Mamluk and Mongol armies encamped in Palestine in July of 1260. They finally met at Ain Jalut on September 3, with both sides numbering about 20 000 men (the Mongol force was originally much larger, but Hulegu took most of it when he returned home). The Mamluks drew out the Mongol cavalry with a feigned retreat, and were almost unable to withstand the assault. Quduz rallied his troops for a successful counterattack, along cavalry reserves hidden in the nearby valleys. The Mongols were forced to retreat, and Hulagu’s deputy Ket Buqa Noyan was captured and executed. On the way back to Cairo, Baibars killed Quduz and became sultan himself. His successors would go on to capture the last of the Crusader states in Palestine by 1291.

Battle of Ain Jalut

“When Hulagu Khan departed from Syria, he sent a Mongol emissary with forty liege men on a mission to Egypt, saying, “God the great has elevated Genghis Khan and his progeny and given us the realms of the face of the earth altogether. Everyone who has been recalcitrant in obeying us has been annihilated along with his women, children, kith and kin, towns, and servants, as has surely reached the hearing of all. The reputation of our innumerable army is as well known as the stories of Rustam and Isfandiar. If you are in submission to our court, send tribute, come yourself, and request a shahna; otherwise be prepared for battle.”

“At that time there was no one left of Kamilite lineage worthy of ruling, and a Turcoman had become ruler. When he died he left an infant child named Muhammad, who was elevated to his father’s position with Quduz as his atabeg. Muhammad died suddenly, and Quduz became ruler. He curried favor with the people through largesse. Most of the soldiers of Syria and Egypt were the defeated troops of Sultan Jalaluddin who had fled from the gates of Akhlat and gone to Syria. Their leaders and com-manders were Barakat Khan and Malik Ikhtiyaruddin Khan son of …, and Malik Sayfuddin Sadiq Khan son of Mingbuga, Malik Nasiruddin Gushlu Khan son of Beg Arslan, Atlas Khan, and Nasiruddin Muhammad Qaymari. When Hulagu Khan set out for Syria, they went into hiding in the surrounding areas, and after he pulled out, they reassembled and headed for Cairo in Egypt, where they told their sad story to Quduz. He showed them favor, sympathized with them, and gave them much money. They all became wholehearted supporters of Quduz’s rule.

Events Before the Battle of Ayn Jalut (1260)

Jumi’u’t-Tawarikh wrote in “The Battle of ‘Ayn Jalut (September 8, 1260): “When the emissaries arrived, Quduz summoned them and consulted with them on what to do, saying, “Hulagu Khan has proceeded from Turan with a huge army into Iran, and no one, caliph, sultan, or malik, has the ability to withstand his onslaught. Having conquered all lands, he has come to Damascus, and were it not for the news of his brother’s death he would have added Egypt to his conquests too. In addition, he has stationed in this area Ket Buqa Noyan, who is like a raging lion and fire-breathing dragon lying in ambush. If he attacks Egypt, no one will be able to contend with him. Before we lose all power of self-determination, we must come up with a strategy.” [Source: “Jumi’u’t-Tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles): A History of the Mongols” translated by W.M. Thackston (Sources of Oriental Languages and Literatures 45, 1998-9). Thackston is a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, posted by Scott Manning, De Re Militari, The Society for Medieval Military History March 4, 2013]

““In addition to being Genghis Khan’s grandson, Tolui Khan’s son, and Manggu Qa’an’s brother,” said Nasiruddin Qaymari, “Hulagu Khan has power and might beyond description. At present he holds from the gates of Egypt to the borders of China in his mighty grasp, and he has been singled out for heavenly assistance. If we go before him under amnesty, it will not be blameworthy. However, willingly to drink poison and to go out to greet one’s own death are far from the path of wisdom. A human being is not a grape vine that doesn’t mind having its head cut off. He does not keep his word, for with no warning he killed Khwarshah, Musta’sim, Husamuddin Akka, and the lord of Arbela after having made promises to them. If we go to him he will do the same to us.”

““At the present time,” said Quduz, “everywhere in Diyarbekir, Diyar Rabi’a, and Greater Syria is filled with lamentation. The land from Baghdad to Anatolia lies in ruins, devoid of farmers and seed. If we don’t make a pre-emptive strike and try to repulse them, soon Egypt will be destroyed like the others. Given the multitudes with which he is proceeding in our direction, one of three things must be done: we must make a truce, offer resistance, or go into exile. Exile is impossible, for there is nowhere we can go other than North Africa, and a bloodthirsty desert and vast distances lie between us and there.”

““A truce is also imprudent,” said Nasir-uddin Qaymari, “for their word is not to be trusted.” “The other commanders said, “We do not have the power to resist either. You must say what you think the best plan is.” “My opinion,” said Quduz, “is that we go out to battle together. If we win, fine; oth-erwise, we will not suffer blame from the people.” “After that, the amirs agreed, and Quduz consulted with Bunduqdar, his chief amir, in private. “My opinion,” said Bunduqdar, “is that we should kill the emissaries and ride as one to attack Ket Buqa. Win or die, in either case we will not be blamed, and we will have people’s gratitude.” Quduz approved this plan, and by night he had the emissaries crucified”

Fighting During Battle of Ayn Jalut (1260)

Jumi’u’t-Tawarikh wrote in “The Battle of ‘Ayn Jalut”: “The next morning they perforce committed themselves to battle and mounted. Amir Baidar, who was the leader of the Mongolyazak [advance troop], sent a man named Aghlabak to Ket Buqa Noyan to inform him of the movement of the Egyptian troops. Ket Buqa sent in reply, “Stay where you are and wait for me.” [Source: “Jumi’u’t-Tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles): A History of the Mongols” translated by W.M. Thackston (Sources of Oriental Languages and Literatures 45, 1998-9). Thackston is a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, posted by Scott Manning, De Re Militari, The Society for Medieval Military History March 4, 2013]

fighting between Mongols and Arabs

“Before Ket Buqa arrived, Quduz attacked Baidar and drove him to the banks o£ the Orontes. Ket Buqa Noyan, his zeal stirred, flared up like fire with all confidence in his own strength and might. Quduz stationed his troops in ambush and, himself mounted with a few others, stood waiting. He clashed with Ket Buqa and his several thousand cavalry, all experienced warriors, at Ayn Jalut. The Mongols attacked, raining down arrows, and Quduz pulled a feint and started to withdraw. Emboldened, the Mongols lit out after him, killing many of the Egyptians, but when they came to the ambush spot, the trap was sprung from three sides. A bloody battled ensued, lasting from dawn till midday. The Mongols were powerless to resist, and in the end they were put to flight.

“Ket Buqa Noyan kept attacking left and right with all zeal. Some encouraged him to flee, but he refused to listen and said, “Death is inevitable. It is better to die with a good name than to flee in disgrace. In the end, someone from this army, old or young, will reach the court and report that Ket Buqa, not wanting to return in shame, gave his life in battle. The padishah should not grieve over lost Mongol soldiers. Let him imagine that his soldiers’ wives have not been pregnant for a year and the mares of their herds have not folded. May felicity be upon the padishah. When his noble being is well, every loss is compensated. The life or death of servants like us is irrelevant.” Although the soldiers left him, he continued to struggle in battle like a thousand men. In the end his horse faltered, and he was captured.

“Near the battlefield was a reed bed in which a troop of Mongol cavalrymen was hiding. Quduz ordered fire thrown into it, and they were all burned alive. After that, Ket Buqa was taken before Quduz with his hands bound. “Despicable man,” said Quduz, “you have shed so much blood wrongfully, ended the lives of champions and dignitaries with false assurances, and overthrown ancient dynasties with broken promises. Now you have finally fallen into a snare yourself.”

“When the one whose hands were bound heard these words, he reared up like a mad elephant And replied, saying, “O proud one, do not pride yourself on this day of victory.” “If I am killed by your hand,” said Ket Buqa, “I consider it to be God’s act, not yours. Be not deceived by this event for one moment, for when the news of my death reaches Hulagu Khan, the ocean of his wrath will boil over, and from Azerbaijan to the gates of Egypt will quake with the hooves of Mongol horses. They will take the sands of Egypt from there in their horses’ nose bags. Hulagu Khan has three hundred thousand renowned horsemen like Ket Buqa. You may take one of them away.” Quduz said, “Speak not so proudly of the horsemen of Turan, for they perform deeds with trickery and artifice, not with manliness like Rustam.” As long as I have lived,” replied Ket Buqa, “I have been the padishah’s servant, not a mutineer and regicide like you! Finish me off as quickly as possible.” Quduz order his head severed from his body.

“They then attacked throughout Syria as far as the banks of the Euphrates, overthrowing everyone they found, plundering Ket Buqa’s camp, taking captive his wife, child, and retainers, and killing the tax collectors and shahnas of the provinces. Those who were warned escaped, and when the news of Ket Buqa Noyan’s death and his last words reached Hulagu Khan, he displayed his grief over his death and the fire of zeal flared up. “Where will I find another servant who will show such devotion and allegiance in the face of death?” he said as he showered those left by Ket Buqa with favor.”

Impact of the Mamluk Defeat of the Mongols

Battle of Homs in 1299

The defeat by the Mamluks kept the Mongols from moving into the Holy Land and Egypt. The Mongols, however, are able to keep the territory they already had. The Mongols initially refused to accept the defeat as final and destroyed Damascus before finally giving up on other ambitions in the Middle East and later abandoning what is now Iraq and Iran and settling in Central Asia.

The Mongol defeat at Ayn Jalut in 1260 led directly to the first important war between grandsons of Genghis. The Mamluk leader, Baibars, made an alliance with Berke Khan, Batu's brother and successor. Berke had converted to Islam, and he thus was sympathetic to the Mamluks for religious reasons, as well as because he was jealous of his nephew, Hulegu.

When Hulegu sent an army to Syria to punish Baibars, he was attacked suddenly by Berke. Hulegu had to turn his army back to the Caucasus to meet this threat, and he made repeated attempts to ally himself with the kings of France and England and with the Pope in order to crush the Mamluks in Palestine. Berke withdrew, however, when Khublai sent 30,000 troops to aid the Ilkhans. This chain of events marked the end of the Mongol expansion in Southwest Asia. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Neither Khublai nor Hulegu made a serious effort to avenge the defeat of Ayn Jalut. Both devoted their attention primarily to consolidating their conquests, to suppressing dissidence, and to reestablishing law and order. Like their uncle, Batu, and his Golden Horde successors, they limited their offensive moves to occasional raids or to attacks with limited objectives in unconquered neighboring regions.

Mamluks Rule in Egypt

According to the BBC: “In 13th century Egypt loyalty to the masters dissolved and the Mamluks established themselves as the ruling dynasty. Once the Mamluks had successfully revolted against their masters they were, of course, no longer slaves. They remained in power for the period 1250-1517.”

The Mamluks established a sultanate in Cairo and ruled Egypt, Palestine, Syria and western Arabia for 300 years (1250 to 1517). They ruled their states like military dictatorship and controlled the holy cities in western Arabia. Among the important Mamluk leaders were Sultan Qalawun, who rose from slavery to found a dynasty that lasted for 100 years in the 13th and 14th centuries; and Sultan Mu'ayyard, a Circassian slave who came to rule Egypt in the 15th century.

Mamluk Rulers

Mamluk—Bahri: 648–792: 1250–1390
Ruler, Muslim dates A.H., Christian dates A.D.
Shajar al-Durr: 648: 1250
Aybak: 648–55: 1250–57
cAli: 655–57: 1257–59
Qutuz: 657–58: 1259–60
Baybars I: 658–76: 1260–77
Baraka Khan: 676–78: 1277–80
Salamish: 678: 1280
Qala'un: 678–89: 1280–90
Khalil: 689–93: 1290–94
al-Nasir Muhammad (1st reign): 693–94: 1294–95
Kitbugha: 694–96: 1295–97
Lajin: 696–98: 1297–99
al-Nasir Muhammad (2nd reign): 698–708: 1299–1309
Baybars II: 708–9: 1309
al-Nasir Muhammad (3rd reign): 709–41: 1309–40
Abu Bakr: 741–42: 1340–41
Kujuk: 742–43: 1341–42
Ahmad: 743: 1342
Ismacil: 743–46: 1342–45
Shacban I: 746–47: 1345–46
Hajji I: 747–48: 1346–47
al-Nasir al-Hasan (1st reign): 748–52: 1347–51
Salih: 752–55: 1351–54
al-Nasir al-Hasan (2nd reign): 755–62: 1354–61
al-Mansur Muhammad: 762–64: 1361–63
Shacban II: 764–78: 1363–76
al-Mansur cAli: 778–83: 1376–82
al-Salih Hajji II: 783–84: 1382
[Barquq: 784–91: 1382–89]
Hajji II (2nd reign): 791: 1389
[Source: Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Mamluk—Circassian (Burji): 784–922: 1382–1517
Ruler, Muslim dates A.H., Christian dates A.D.
Barquq (1st reign): 784–91: 1382–89
[Hajji I: 791–92: 1389–90]
Barquq (2nd reign): 792–801: 1390–99
Faraj (1st reign): 801–8: 1399–1405

Qait Bay

al-Mansur cAbd al-cAziz: 808: 1405
Faraj (2nd reign): 808–15: 1405–12
al-cAdil al-Mustacin: 815: 1412
al-Mu'ayyad Shaykh: 815–24: 1412–21
al-Muzaffar Ahmad: 824: 1421
Tatar: 824: 1421
al-Salih Muhammad: 824–25: 1421–22
Barsbay: 825–41: 1422–37
Yusuf: 841–42: 1437–38
al-Zahir Jaqmaq: 842–57: 1438–53

cUthman: 857: 1453
Inal: 857–65: 1453–61
al-Mu'ayyad Ahmad: 865: 1461
Khushqadam: 865–72: 1461–67
Bilbay: 872: 1467–68
Timurbugha: 872: 1468
al-Ashraf Qayitbay: 872–901: 1468–96
al-Nasir Muhammad: 901–3: 1496–98
Qansuh: 903–5: 1498–1500
Janbalat: 905–6: 1500–1501
al-cAdil Tuman Bay: 906: 1501
Qansuh al-Ghawri: 906–22: 1501–17
al-Ashraf Tuman Bay: 922: 1517

Slave Trade in Muslim Countries

sale of slaves in the 13th century in Yemen

Muslims played a significant role in the slave trade as users of slaves and providers of slaves to others. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Slaves were owned in all Islamic societies, both sedentary and nomadic, ranging from Arabia in the centre to North Africa in the west and to what is now Pakistan and Indonesia in the east. Some Islamic states, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate, and the Sokoto caliphate [Nigeria], must be termed slave societies because slaves there were very important numerically as well as a focus of the polities' energies.”

According to the BBC: “Many societies throughout history have practised slavery, and Muslim societies were no exception. It's thought that as many people were enslaved in the Eastern slave trade as in the Atlantic slave trade. It's ironic that when the Atlantic slave trade was abolished the Eastern trade expanded, suggesting that for some Africans the abolition of the Atlantic trade didn't lead to freedom, but merely changed their slave destination. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“It's misleading to use phrases such as 'Islamic slavery' and 'Muslim slave trade', even though slavery existed in many Muslim cultures at various times, since the Atlantic slave trade is not called the Christian slave trade, even though most of those responsible for it were Christians. |::|

Elite Slavery in Muslim Societies

The Mamluk system was a form of elite slavery. According to the BBC: “Something particular to Islamic slave systems was the creation of a slave elite in some Muslim societies that allowed individuals to achieve considerable status, and even power and wealth, while still remaining in some form of 'enslavement'. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

Leslie P. Peirce wrote in “The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire”: “The slave elite had enormous value to their Muslim masters because they were a military and administrative group made up of 'outsiders' who didn't have tribal and family allegiances that could conflict with their loyalty to their masters. It was believed that a corps of highly trained slaves loyal only to the ruler and dependent entirely on his good will would serve the state more reliably and efficiently than a hereditary nobility, whose interests might compete with those of the ruler. [Source: Leslie P. Peirce, “The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire,” 1993 |::|

“Elite slavery is something of a paradox: how can a person have power and hold high office and yet still keep the status of a slave? One answer is that the slave gets authority and high office because they are dependant on the person who gives them their authority and status and who could remove that status if they chose. Thus elite slaves must give total loyalty and obedience to their master in order to maintain their privileges. |::|

“Another view is that the slave who achieves elite status is no longer really a slave, and is able to use their position and power to free themselves of many of the limitations of slavery. This is less convincing since even elite slaves are at risk of losing their privileged status until they break free completely. |::|

“The dependency was not all one way - the masters in many ways relied on their elite slaves, because those slaves were the only people they could really trust. And there was another reason why elite slaves were valuable - precisely because they were slaves, the elite slaves were free of some of the restrictions that limited free people, and this allowed them to do things for their masters that their masters could not otherwise achieve. Two examples of elite slavery were the Mamluks and the Devshirme system. |::|

Mamluk System

According to the BBC: “Mamluks were originally soldiers captured in Central Asia, but later boys aged 12-14 were specifically taken or bought to be trained as slave soldiers. Their slave status was shown by the name 'Mamluk' which means 'owned'. The Mamluk system became firmly established in the Abbasid Empire during the 9th century. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

Michael Winter wrote in “Egyptian Society under Ottoman Rule”: “Although the Mamluks were not free men (they could not, for example, pass anything on to their children) they were elite slaves who were held in high regard as professional soldiers loyal to their Islamic masters. Historians have been fascinated by the uniqueness of the Mamluk phenomenon. It was inhuman in some respects (for example, Mamluks being denied the opportunity to bequeath their positions and privileges to their sons), yet it provided Islam with a superb military force and a sophisticated political system. [Source: Michael Winter, Egyptian Society under Ottoman Rule, 1517-1798, 1992]

“The basic ideal of military slavery - the Mamluk's total loyalty to his master who had bought, trained, maintained and freed him - was a pillar of Mamluk society in Ottoman Egypt, as it had been in the Mamluk Sultanate. When the master decided that his Mamluk had reached maturity and was ready to assume an office, he set him free, and 'allowed him to grow his beard.' He was now a free man, no longer dependent. The master often appointed these former slaves to army posts, to the beylicate [the beys were high ranking emirs who held important positions in Egyptian government], or to the regimental command. Very often, the master decided whom his former slave would marry, a decision which could advance the Mamluk socially and financially.”

Mamluk Education

Mamluk lance training

Mamluks were recruited and trained as slaves, then converted to Islam and freed. The children of Mamluk soldiers were free men and women who were not allowed to join the army. Power was not passed from father to son but through slaves raised to be generals and administrators.

Mamluks were usually recruited as children or adolescents. Some older Mamluks volunteered for enslavement in return for the chance to plunder They were given religious and well as military training. They lived in monastic barracks, memorized the Qur’an, studied Islamic law and learned to read and write with Arabic script in special schools.

When they got older Mamluk slaves were taught the fine points of horsemanship and how to shoot a bow and arrow while riding a horse. They were also trained in assault tactics and instructed on how to have a Zen-like union with their horse.

Young Mamluks were taught to have total loyalty towards their commanders and their fortunes were expected to rise and fall with his. Sultans were selected among the most senior Mamluk commanders. Some have suggested there was a homosexual aspect between the slave recruits and their masters.

Mamluks Defeated by the Ottomans and Napoleon

In 1516-17, the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks and absorbed Syria, Egypt and western Arabia into their empire. The Ottomans turned their attention to the Mamluk empire partly out of frustration and lack of progress against the Safavids in Iran. The Ottomans prevailed largely due to their superior firepower and discipline.

After the defeat by Ottomans, the Mamluks fled to the Maghreb coast, where they became the successors of the Hafsids in Tunisia. There they governed as semi-autonomous governors under the Ottomans.

Mamluk defeat in the Battle of the Pyramids

The Turks used the Mamluks from time to time in their military campaigns. The Mamluk states went through many changes but endured until 1922. The Mamluks were a force to be reckoned with in the early 1800s until Napoleon almost comically mowed them down with artillery and gunfire during a battle in front of the Pyramids.

Napoleon easily defeated the Mamluks but failed to watch his rear. Nelson arrived a month and a day after the French victory and destroyed the French fleet. During the August 1, 1798, Battle of the Nile, the British navy under Nelson destroyed the entire French fleet with the exception of four ships.

The Battle of the Nile was one of the most important naval battles ever. It was more significant than Trafalgar which was like Normandy, while the Battle of the Nile was like Stalingrad. It ended Napoleon's ambition for Egypt and India and ended his plan to cut off Britain' source of wealth. If the British had lost they would have lost their toehold in the Mediterranean and the Middle East and made India vulnerable to attack and France might have been able to conquer the Ottoman Empire.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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