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Mamluks, 1250-1517

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. 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.

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.

Saladin, whose full appellation was El-Melik En-Nasir Salah-ed-deen Yoosuf Ibn-Eiyoob, acquired his greatest renown by his campaigns against the Crusaders in Syria. The youth of El-Melik Es-Salih Isma'eel, the son and succeessor of Noureddin, and the consequent confusion which prevailed in his dominions, gave Saladin a fair pretext to occupy Damascus as the guardian of the young prince, and enabled him to wrest from him his kingdom. He thus considerably enlarged his territory, made himself master of a great portion of Syria, and continued to consolidate his power in those parts until the year 572 (AD 1178), when Philip, count of Flanders, laid siege to Antioch, and Saladin entered Palestine. Having encamped before Ascalon, the Egyptian troo|>s ravaged the neighboring country, and set. fire to Joppa, until at length Baldwin the Leper, king of Jerusalem, issued from Ascalon and gave them battle. The result was disastrous to Saladin: his army was totally routed, and he himself fled alone on a dromedary. After this, however, he gained some partial advantages over the Christians, till a terrible famine induced him two year* later to conclude a truce with the king of Jerusalem and to retire to Egypt.

Saladin departed from Egypt (a.h. 578) to prosecute a war witii the Crusaders in which neither side desired peace. Saladin encamped at Tiberias and ravaged the territory of the Franks; he then besieged Beyroot, but in vain; and thence turned his arms against Mesopotamia and subdued the country, but the city of Mosul successfully resisted him. In the mean while, the Crusaders contented themselves with miserable forays across the enemy's liorders, and made no serious preparations for the return of their redoubtable antagonist.

In the year 582 (1186) war again broke out lietwcen Saladin and the Crusaders. The sultan had respected a truce into which he had entered with Baldwin the Leper. The capture by the latter of a rich caravan enraged Saladin, who despatched orders to all his lieutenants and vassals, summoning them to assist in the " Holy War." Saladin approached in person at the head of an army of 80,000 men ; and the Christians with their whole force en countered him on the shore of the Lake of Tiberias. The result of the battle which ensued was the heaviest blow which had yet fallen on the Crusaders. Tiberias, Ptolemai's (Acre), Nabulus, Jericho, Kamleh, Csesarea, Arsoor, Joppa, Beyroot, and many other places successively fell into the hands of the conqueror. Tyre resisted his attacks; but Ascalon surrendered on favorable terms, and the fall of Jerusalem crowned these victories. The glory acquired by Saladin, and the famous campaigns of Cceur de Lion, have rendered the Third Crusade the most memorable in historv, and shed a lustre on the arms of both Muslims and Christians greater than they ever attained in those wars, either before or afterwards.

Saladin died about a year after the conclusion of peace (a.h. 589 or 1193 of our era) at Damascus, at the age of fifty-seven years. Ambition and religious zeal appear to have been his ruling passions ; he was courageous, magnanimous, and merciful, possessed of remarkable military talents and great control over himself. His generosity to the vanquished and his faithful observance of his passed word are lauded by the historians of the Crusades; the former brought on him much obloquy among his own fierce soldiers, and is a trait in his character which is worthy of note in the annals of a time when this virtue was extremely rare.

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.




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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:38:34 ZULU