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MAMLUK STATE. A regime controlled by slave soldiers (sg. mamluk, pl. mamalik; “one owned”) governed Egypt, Syria, southeastern Asia Minor, and western Arabia (al-Hijaz; the Hejaz) from 1250 to 1517 CE. Founded by officers (amirs) of the last Ayyubid sultan al-Salih Ayyub (d. 1249), the Mamluk State was born under the shadow of usurpation. Fearing their displacement by al-Salih’s heir Turan-Shah, these officers, who had attained high rank in their former master’s Bahriya regiment, assassinated the legitimate claimant and designated one of their own as sultan. The first two sultans, Aybak and Qutuz, were preoccupied with quelling internal rebellion by their own subordinates and external rivalry by surviving Ayyubid princes in Syria. Qutuz’s lieutenant Baybars won renown following his victory over invading Mongols at `Ayn Jalut (Spring of Goliath) in Palestine, but soon thereafter he murdered his sovereign and began to formalize his administration.


Sultan Baybars (r. 1260-1277) spent much of his reign battling the Crusader states in Syria-Palestine and securing his eastern frontiers against invasions from Ilkhanid Iran. Yet he did not neglect the infrastructure of his regime. The Nile Valley’s agrarian resources were inventoried, and the Ayyubid system of land allotments to militarists (iqta`s) was restructured. In consequence of Baybars’s policies and those of his major successors, Qalawun (r. 1279-1290) and al-Nasir Muhammad (r. 1310-1341), a state far more centralized than its Ayyubid predecessor was created in the central Arab lands. Moreover, Baybars offered haven in Cairo to an uncle of the last `Abbasid caliph in Baghdad (dispatched by the Mongols in 1258), and so the orthodox caliphate was revived in Egypt-but under the Mamluk sultan’s strict control. The caliph now functioned solely as the sultan’s legitimator, thereby mitigating the seizure that had sullied the origins of his office.

Until the mid-fifteenth century, the Marnluk State flourished as the undisputed military power of the central Muslim world. Although the regime recruited its ruling oligarchy from men who were imported as slaves, and therefore never surmounted the sedition and intrigue that had given it birth, the Mamluk sultanate stabilized the political order in this turbulent zone for 267 years. Until around 1340, when the Black Death decimated the populace of both Egypt and Syria, the regime enjoyed an era of prosperity. Agrarian productivity was high, and the trade linking South Asia with the Mediterranean poured copious revenues into the government’s coffers. The Mamluk autocrat was acknowledged as the paramount monarch of Sunni Islam because of his dominion over all four holy cities (Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, and Hebron). No foreign competitor in Europe or Southwest Asia posed any tangible threat to Mamluk suzerainty until the final decade of the fifteenth century, when the international balance of power altered radically. Because Mamluk factional quarreling was confined largely to the military elite, the mass of the population and its productive sectors remained unscathed until insurmountable fiscal crises compelled the regime to adopt predatory measures to stave off bankruptcy. Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo flourished as brilliant centers of culture, while the literary arts experienced a “silver age” of refinement. The Mamluk elite invested heavily in charitable endowments (waqfs) that supported a sophisticated religio-academic class in these urban centers. Cairo in particular cast a cosmopolitan lure across the Islamic world, attracting scholars to its schools from afar.

The sultanate’s economy never recovered fully from the famines and plagues of the later fourteenth century. Whether the regime could have devised long-term strategies rather than short-term expedients to surmount these disasters-had its elite been less preoccupied with disputes among cadres-remains a debated issue. Certainly the emergence of the formidable Ottoman military threat in Asia Minor, plus the growing maritime menace from Europe, transcended the Mamluks’ powers of deterrence. Thus, after more than one hundred years of stop-gap efforts to recover its former glory, the Mamluk sultanate was defeated in 1516 at Marj Dabiq in Syria by the Ottoman monarch Selim I. Cairo fell to Selim the following year. Today, historians castigate the Mamluk State for its acceleration of economic decline in the central Arab lands. Yet this regime indelibly shaped the bureaucracy and administrative profile of Egypt into modern times. The sultanate imparted a legacy of security to these regions that later governments have sought with less success to emulate.

[See also Egypt; Ottoman Empire.]


Ayalon, David. Studies on the Mamluks of Egypt, 1250-1517. London, 1977. The Mamluk Military Society. London, 1979. Collected articles by the leading authority on the Mamluk institution.

Irwin, Robert. The Middle East in the Middle Ages: The Early Mamluk Sultanate, 1250-1382. London, 1986. Political survey of the Bahri Mamluk era.

Lapidus, Ira. Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge, 1967. Insightful description of urban society under Mamluk rule, with an extensive bibliography.

Petry, Carl F. The Civilian Elite of Cairo in the Later Middle Ages.

Princeton, 1981. Quantitative analysis of the scholastic elite (`ulama’) during the Mamluk period.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/mamluk-state/

  • writerPosted On: August 3, 2014
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