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Mamlūk State

By:
Carl F. Petry
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Mamlūk State

A regime controlled by slave soldiers (sing. mamlūk, pl. mamālīk, “one owned”) governed Egypt, Syria, southeastern Asia Minor, and western Arabia (the Hejaz) from 1250 to 1517 C.E. Founded by officers (amirs) of the last Ayyūbid sultan Ṣalāḥ al-Ayyūbī (d. 1249), the Mamlūk State was born under the shadow of usurpation. Fearing their displacement by Ṣalāḥ 's heir Tūrān-Shāh, these officers, who had attained high rank in their former master 's Baḥrīya regiment, assassinated the legitimate claimant and designated one of their own as sultan. The first two sultans, Aybak and Quṭuz, were preoccupied with quelling internal rebellion by their own subordinates and external rivalry by surviving Ayyūbid princes in Syria. Quṭuz 's lieutenant Baybars won renown following his victory over invading Mongols at ʿAyn Jālūt (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 Il-khanid Iran. Yet he did not neglect the infrastructure of his regime. The Nile Valley 's agrarian resources were inventoried, and the Ayyūbid system of land allotments to militarists (iqṭāʿs) was restructured. In consequence of Baybars 's policies and those of his major successors, Qalāwūn (r. 1279–1290) and al-Nāṣir Muḥammad (r. 1310–1341), a state far more centralized than its Ayyūbid predecessor was created in the central Arab lands. Moreover, Baybars offered haven in Cairo to an uncle of the last ʿAbbāsid caliph in Baghdad (dispatched by the Mongols in 1258), and so the orthodox caliphate was revived in Egypt—but under the Mamlūk 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 Mamlūk 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 Mamlūk 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 Mamlūk autocrat was acknowledged as the paramount monarch of Sunnī 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 Mamlūk suzerainty until the final decade of the fifteenth century, when the international balance of power altered radically. Because Mamlūk 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 Mamlūk 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 Mamlūks ’ powers of deterrence. Thus, after more than one hundred years of stop-gap efforts to recover its former glory, the Mamlūk sultanate was defeated in 1516 at Marj Dābiq in Syria by the Ottoman monarch Selim I. Cairo fell to Selim the following year. Today, historians castigate the Mamlūk 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 and OTTOMAN EMPIRE.

Bibliography

  • Ayalon, Ami, and David J. Wasserstein, eds.Mamluks and Ottomans: Studies in Honour of Michael Winter. London, 2006.
  • Ayalon, David. Studies on the Mamlūks of Egypt, 1250–1517. London, 1977. The Mamlūk Military Society. London, 1979. Collected articles by the leading authority on the Mamlūk institution.
  • Irwin, Robert. The Middle East in the Middle Ages: The Early Mamluk Sultanate, 1250–1382. London, 1986. Political survey of the Baḥrī Mamlūk era.
  • Lapidus, Ira. Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge, 1967. Insightful description of urban society under Mamlūk 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 (ʿulamāʿ) during the Mamlūk period.
  • Petry, Carl F.Protectors or Praetorians? The Last Mamlūk ultans and Egypt 's Waning as a Great Power. Albany, N.Y., 1994.
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