The 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.
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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