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The Mamluks: Slave Warriors of Medieval Islam

December 4, 2023 at 8:32 am

The Mamluks: Slave Warriors of Medieval Islam [Amazon]
  • Book Author(s): John Brunton
  • Published Date: October 2023
  • Publisher: Amberley Publishing
  • Hardback: 288 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1398107342

Between the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate and the ascent of the Ottoman Empire, there stood the formidable Mamluk Sultanate. Spanning the 13th to the 16th centuries CE, this regional power ruled over Egypt, Syria and the Hijaz.

The transfer of Sunni Muslim political authority from Baghdad to the Ottomans during the Mamluk period is a historically significant yet often overlooked event. Despite the Mamluks’ pivotal role in “saving Islam” from the devastating Mongol invasion that swept across the Middle East, this episode has not always been given the attention it deserves.

In The Mamluks: Slave Warriors of Medieval Islam, John Brunton brings our attention to these slave-soldiers who not only preserved the remnants of Islamic civilisation after the incalculable sacking of Baghdad, but also continued where the Ayyubid Sultan Salah Al-Din (Saladin) left off, in finally dismantling the European Crusader states in the Levant.

Their most notable and important battle was their victory over the Mongols at Ain Jalut (“Goliath’s Spring”) in northern Palestine, by the fourth sultan Baibars Al-Bunduqdari, who was arguably the true founder of the Mamluk sultanate. While the victory over the feared Mongols was highly significant, as it kept the invaders at bay beyond the River Euphrates, the victory could hardly be described as “a major military achievement for the Mamluks; it was in fact a victory of superior numbers at a time when most of the Mongol army had been withdrawn,” due to internal politics back in the steppes.

Although the system of using freed slave-soldiers or mamluks had been in place for several centuries in the Islamic world, initially to provide personal bodyguards for caliphs, it was Ayyubid ruler Al-Salih Najm-ad-Din whose “innovation was to raise a large contingent and to use them as his elite troops,” not too dissimilar to the Janissaries employed later by the Ottomans. Yet as the best of Muslim warriors were long considered to be Turks, most Mamluks hailed from this background before being almost entirely replaced by Circassians towards the end of the Mamluk state. At least in theory, they were known for their fierce loyalty to their patrons, though this didn’t always play out in practice, particularly when power-struggles and self-interests were at stake.

Brunton explains very early on that, “[as] colourful as the history of the Mamluks was, the deepest stain was blood red.” This is due to the recurring instances of usurpation and dethroning. In fact, the prevalence of these practices is such that it would be interesting to see a word count for “executed” and “strangled” in the book. Although this makes for a dizzying read, it is akin to watching Game of Thrones; no sooner are we introduced to a personality, then he is put to death, imprisoned or banished, or a combination of all three.

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Having managed to revive the Abbasids through distant relatives within the dynasty, who were already reduced to figureheads under the likes of the Seljuks and the Buyids, the Mamluks “made and unmade caliphs as it suited them.” It wasn’t just that the caliphs themselves became puppets; throughout much of Mamluk history, the real power and decision-making was exercised by the amirs and vice-regents of the sultans, many of whom were minors in the process of ascending to “power”. As such the sultanate was marked with political instability, infighting and economic mismanagement, with the “dynasty”, if you can call it that, characterised as “a line of upstarts”. In fairness, though, they also had to deal with depopulation caused by plagues and natural disasters of the age.

The Mamluks… is an absorbing and in-depth breakdown of their story. Brunton argues that without them “the region would have been reduced to a wilderness from which it would not have recovered for ages.” It was nevertheless interesting to find out beyond the ruthless rule of the sultans and to learn how the Mamluks helped preserve the arts and sciences from the destructive forces of the Mongols and their successors like the Timurids; it was in this era that the likes of “the father of sociology” Ibn Khaldun and renowned traveller Ibn Batuta were contemporaries.

Moreover, just as Ibn Khaldun explored the rise and fall of empires, it was only inevitable that the Mamluks too would meet their violent demise at the hands of the Ottomans and in the face of encroaching European powers. Impressively, the Mamluks as an institution lasted some three centuries even after the fall of the sultanate, ultimately ending with the British occupation of Egypt.

From a historical and civilisational standpoint, the Mamluks undeniably played a pivotal role, as the author asserts convincingly. However, this influence began to wane with the cessation of the Mongol threat to the region. There’s a lingering sense that the Mamluk sultans might have achieved even greater heights with more stable governance and dynastic rule. Yet, as inherently “slave warriors,” their primary focus on military prowess is evident, while administration and diplomacy, crucial as they may be, appeared to take a secondary role in shaping their legacy.

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