Mamluks: An Overview

By Justin Epstein

In the simplest sense, Mamluks were soldiers of slave origin. Enslaved in their youth and converted to Islam, Mamluks underwent rigorous training in order to create the perfect soldier. Perhaps one of the most famous political forces in history, the Mamluks enjoyed a extraordinary long rein of power lasting from the 9th to the 19th century AD. As far as weaponry goes, before 1804 AD, the Mamluks wielded an "Oriental" scimitar, a brace of pistols in a brass crescent decorated holder, and a dagger. Loosely speaking,
their uniform consisted of a green cahouk (hat), red saroual (trousers), a white turban, a loose shirt and vest, and yellow/red boots or tan leather shoes.
Mamluk Cavalry
Mamluk Cavalry

The Mamluk phenomenon began under the the Mamluks of Egpyt and Syria and the Ottoman Turks. Slaves that served the Mamluk ruling were brought to Egpyt as pagans by Venetian and other carriers, and sold. The young slaves purchased by the sultans were converted to Islam and given an Islamic education. Similarly, they were trained in special military schools in Cairo. Although the Mamluk's are of slave origin, it is a common misconception that they experienced any stigma of social inferiority. Under Mamluk reign, it was actually the slave Mamluks who enjoyed the highest honors to the sultan. Their children were free in status and enjoyed membership of the mass of free.

Mamluk Foot Soldier
Mamluk Foot Soldier

Mamluk Cavalry
Mamluk Cavalry

During the "Mamluk phenomenon," the cavalrymen were known their unparalleled skill in handling weapons, particularly, of the bow and lance. There was specific calvary teamwork drills and polo playing, in order to keep them on the top of their game. Mamluk soldiers would participate in fencing and cutting through solid objects with their swords until they were able to cut through a bar of lead. Other activities included wrestling and archery exercises, comprised of shooting from their saddle through a wooden circle to a target topped by a metal ring and piercing a point through it as they rode past.

A Brief Timeline of the Mamluks From Look-Lex Encyclopedia:

8th century: Turks are recruited to armies in the Middle East and North Africa. Most of these were enslaved, and rulers buying them usually preferred slaves from distant countries, in order to be able to break their original loyalties.
1240's: The Ayyubid sultan Salih buys large numbers of slaves from the Black Sea region, in order to strengthen his Mamluk army.
1250: The Mamluks general use their strong position in the Egyptian state to replace the Ayyubid sultan with one of their own: Aybak marries the wife of the last sultan.
1260: Baybars 1 becomes sultan, and builds the fundamental structures of the Mamluk state.
1261: Mamluk sultan Baybars 1 brings the uncle of the last Baghdad caliph to Cairo, and makes him new caliph, but without any political power.
1291: The Mamluk army defeats the last rest of Christian crusader states in the Middle East.
1323: The Mamluks conclude a peace treaty with the Mongols.
1340: With the death of sultan Nasir, a long period of conflicts over throne follows. Over the next 21 years 9 of his sons fight over power. Through this period the fabrics of Mamluk rule is partly destroyed, and the power passes slowly to the troop commanders.
1348: The Black Plague kills a large part of the population in the Mamluk state, and destroys the strength of the state. The reduction of the population made the state vulnerable to neighbour warlords.
1381: A Mamluk commander of the Burji camp usurps the sultan throne.
1400: The Mongol warlord Timur Lenk wins over the Mamluks in Syria.
Around 1500: Portugal takes control over the lucrative Red Sea trade, stripping the Mamluks of one of their most important sources of income.
1517: The Mamluks are defeated by the Ottoman sultan Selim 1, and Egypt becomes subject to Istanbul. Egypt is ruled by a pasha, but the Mamluk rulers, now called bey, manage to hold on to the actual power.
1811: Muhammad Ali takes control over Egypt, and ends the Mamluk dominance over Egyptian politics.


" Mamluks - LookLex Encyclopaedia ." LookLex [Travel guides / Encyclopaedia / Language course]. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <>.

Aziz, Abu 'Abdir-Rahman Mohammad Navaid. " Home Page - There is none worthy of worship except Allah!." N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <>.

Mamluk studies review . Chicago: Middle East Documentation, 2006. Print.

Philipp, Thomas, and Ulrich Haarmann. The Mamluks in Egyptian politics and society . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.


Rise of the Mamluks

By Kevin Germain

Map of Mamluk Controlled Territory
Map of Mamluk Controlled Territory

The Ayyubids that controlled Egypt in the early 13th century used Turkish slaves as their army. These were the Mamluks. Half of the Ayyubids army consisted of Mamluks. The Mamluks strong and heavily trained in horsemanship and archery (Ali, 59). The Ayyubid ruler, Malik Salih died in 1249 leaving his son, Turan Shah, in command. However, Turan Shah’s reign lasted for only 70 days. After accusing his stepmother of theft, she and senior Mamluk officers assassinated him (Ali, 59-60). The Ayyubid dynasty was over and the Mamluk Bahri dynasty had begun. It would not be another ten years until Egypt was fully under their control, and the Ayyubids were still in control of Syria (Amitai-Preiss).

Mamluk Cavalry, from Nihayat al-Sul (A Manual of Horsmanship and Military Practice)
Mamluk Cavalry, from Nihayat al-Sul (A Manual of Horsmanship and Military Practice)

The first sultan was of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt was Izzuddin Aybak, who attempted to destroy the remaining Ayyubids in Syria, who believe they were the legitimate heirs to Egyptian control (Ali, 60-61). Unlike the Ayyubid rulers, the Mamluks did not rule by aristocracy. Rather, they were a military oligarchy and those that assassinated the sultan usually became the proceeding one (Levanomi, 373-376). The Ayyubids would eventually be taken defeated and disintegrated by the Mongol Invasions, however (Ali, 60; Amitai-Preiss, 17). Factionalism would "be the mainspring of Mamluk politics," meaning that recruits among friends and households to keep their power (Levanoni, 375). The dominance of the Mamluk Sultanate would be very powerful and last until the Ottomans took over in the early 16th century. However, the Mongol Invasions would be the first major difficulty for the Mamluks to overcome.


Ali, Abdul, "Islamic dynasties of the Arab East: state and civilization during the later the later Medieval Times," MD Publications: New Dehli, 1996
Amitai-Preiss, Reuven, Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281, Cambridge University Press: New York, 1995
Levanoni, Amalia "The Mamluk Conception of the Sultanate" International Journal of Middle East Studies 26, No. 3 (Aug., 1994), pp. 373-392

Images from:,r:10,s:0

The Mamluks and the Mongols
by Anthony Bartaway

While the Muslim dynasties continued to fight against invading Crusaders, a new force arrived in the Middle East from the central Asian steppe. The Mongol Hordes had swept across Central Asia, consolidating the various nomadic tribes and conquering the Khwarezmid Empire. One of the hordes, the Illkhanate under the control of Hulagu Khan would go on to destroy the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad and the Ayyubids in Syria. (Sinor 1999)

Mongol-Mamluk Conflict (
Mongol-Mamluk Conflict (

Battle of Ain Jalut
With Baghdad pacified, the Mongol Illkhanate moved on to suppress the great cities of Syria, including Damascus and Aleppo. Following the death of the Great Khan Mongke, however, Hulagu was forced to temporarily abandon his campaign in Syria while he returned to Mongolia to settle the succession issue. In his place he left Kitbuqa, a Christian who led the Khan’s forces south towards Egypt. He was met by a slightly numerically superior army sent by the Mamluk Sultan Qutuz at the Battle of Ain Jalut in the Galilee. Qutuz had previously made an agreement with the Crusader Kingdom of Acre to allow him passage. Although the battle ended in a Mamluk victory, before his death Kitbuqa foreshadowed the coming decades of war, “"You've got me, but there are 300,000 more like me." (Smith n.d.)

Civil War and Further Conflict
While returning from Palestine, Sultan Qutuz was assassinated by one of his commanders, Baibars al-Bunduqdari. Baibars would then succeed Qututuz as the Mamluk Sultan. The new Sultan led frequent campaign against not only the Mongols, but also the Crusader States and Christian Armenia. He campaigned in nearly every year of his reign, driving out the Crusaders and expanding Mamluk control over Syria. Sultan Baibars also launched attacks against the Seljuk Turks, at the time a Mongol client state. (Smith n.d.)

The Mongols were also plagued by internal strife in the years following the Battle of Ain Jalut. Berke Khan, the ruler of the Golden Horde in Russia, had converted to Islam several years before the destruction of Baghdad. Berke was outraged at the bloodshed carried out by Hulagu, especially the destruction of Baghdad. Also contributing to the conflict was the ethnic makeup of the Golden Horde. Much of its army was composed of Kipchak Turks, the same group that most Mamluks came from. Muslim and Turkish identities drew the Golden Horde closer to the Mamluks than Mongol identity tied them to the Hulagu’s Illkhanate. Berke, while in contact with Cairo, opened a second front against Hulagu in the Caucasus Mountains. (Sinor)
Baibars's Campaigns (
Baibars's Campaigns (

A New Dar al-Islam
The Middle East was drastically changed after the Mongolian invasions. Both the Ayyubids in Syria and Abbasids in Iraq were destroyed by the invaders, leaving the Mamluks as the only surviving Muslim Empire in Southwest Asia. Baghdad and its surrounding countryside was devastated by the Mongols and never returned to its position of former glory. While the Abbasid Caliph retained a position in Cairo, the institution of the Caliphate was broken and became almost entirely theoretical and ceremonial. (Hourani, 143) This era also saw the end of Arab dominance the Muslim world. The successors of the Mongols would convert to Islam and establish dynasties in Persian and India while other Turkic peoples further established themselves in Anatolia and elsewhere. The Mamluks themselves were largely Turkic in origin. Meanwhile, Berber dynasties came to rule the Maghreb. (Hourani, 215)


Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. New York: Warner Books, 1991.
Sinor, Denis. "The Mongols in the West." Journal of Asian History 33, no. 1 (1999).
Smith, John Masson. "Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281." The Journal of the American Oriental Society 118, no. 1: 54-63.

The Flower of The Histories of the East (A contemporary account):
Encyclopedia Britannica:

Mamluk Art and Architecture

by Aaron Dawson

The Mamluk sultanate existed from the year 1250 until 1517. There are two distinct periods within these years that both influenced Mamluk art. These two time spans were named based on the ruling sultans of the time. The Bahri Mamluks ruled from 1250 until 1382, and the Burji Mamluks took power from 1382 until the end of the Mamluk sultanate, in 1517. During both periods art and architecture flourished, and these periods are well documented and preserved in the forms of enameled and gilded glass, inlaid metalwork, woodwork, and textiles.
A lamp, from the second half of the 14th century.
Koran Box, c. 1330.
Ewer, c. 1300.
A simple basin, c. 1330.

During the reign of the Bahri Mamluks, goods that were produced were prized across the Mediterranean and Europe (Yalman). The production of these goods also influenced other cultures, leaving a lasting influence on many industries. Intricate designs in metalwork and glassmaking were common in Mamluk art, which were adorned with circular, medallion-like symbols and other detailed shapes. As power transferred from the Bahri to the Burji Mamluks, new tastes and techniques developed which influenced final designs in metalworking and glassmaking. Architecture was influenced slightly during this transitional period as well, although many of the projects that were done under the Burji Mamluks were restoration of shrines and temples. In addition, many major cities were given commercial buildings, religious foundations, and bridges (Yalman). Textile manufacturing also saw a significant boost, leading to the creation of the most lucrative trade during a desperate time for the sultanate. The arts of metalworking and textiles were the most important source of revenue during this time.

The transition between the two periods of Mamluk rule did not have as much of an impact on architecture as it did art. Many of the sultans constructed not only buildings for public use, but homes and governmental structures for themselves. Many of the buildings constructed during this time continue to influence modern day Middle Eastern designs. Examples of architecture are shown below.

Complex of Qa’itbay, exterior (1472–4), Cairo.
Complex of Faraj, exterior (1400–1411), Cairo.
Complex of Qa’itbay, interior of dome (1472–4), Cairo.
Complex of Qala’un (1283–85), Cairo.

Works Cited

Yalman, Susan. "The Art of the Mamluk Period (1250-1517)." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. n.d. Web. 14 Mar 2011.

Grabar, Oleg. "Reflections on Mamluk Art." Muqarnas Vol. 2. (1984): 1-12.

Note: All images are from the above sources.