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Mamluk Egypt and its Decline

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Hong
Term Paper, AP European History Class, September 2008

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
I.1 Mamluks
II. History of Mamluk Egypt
II.1 Emergence of Mamluk Egypt
II.1.1 Ayyubid Dynasty (1171-1250)
II.1.2 Aybak (1250-1257)
II.1.3 Qutuz (1259-1260)
II.2 Bahri Dynasty (1260-1382)
II.2.1 Baybars (1260-1277)
II.2.2 Qalawun (1279-1290)
II.2.3 Nasir (1294-1340)
II.3 Burji Dynasty (1382-1517)
II.3.1 Barkuk (1382-1399)
II.3.2 Barsbay (1422-1438)
II.3.3 Qaitbay (1468-1496)
II.3.4 Qansuh (1501-1517)
III. Factors of the Decline
III.1 Political Structure of the Burji Dynasty
III.2 Black Death
III.3 Loss of Dominance in Trade
III.4 Foreign Invasions
IV. Conclusion

I. Introduction

I.1 Mamluks
            Mamluks are white slave soldiers that served for the Muslim rulers in the Middle East during the medieval periods. They were mainly Turkic in origin (later Circassian), and were brought to their owners from when were young to be raised and trained into a warrior. They were complete strangers with no family ties, which made them completely loyal to their owners. These Mamluks proved to be a great military asset to sultans that felt insecure of their positions, and as a consequence, they gradually grew into the main military force of such nations. In the case of Egypt, they developed into the main source of recruitment in the 12th century and later started to even hold military offices. Later in the 13th century they took control over the country and established a mamluk dynasty that lasted for more than 250 years.

II. History of Mamluk Egypt
            The history of Mamluk Egypt is divided into two dynasties: the Bahri dynasty, and the Burji dynasty; each was made into an individual section dealt in chronological order of its sultans (not all sultans are dealt with; sultans were selected upon the standard of their historical significance and length of period of rule). The two earliest sultans of the Bahri dynasty were included in a separate section dealing with the emergence of Mamluk Egypt, due to the fact that they played a greater role in the initial creation of the dynasty rather than in its establishment. little reluctance.

II.1 Emergence of Mamluk Egypt

II.1.1 Ayyubid Dynasty (1171-1250)
            The Ayyubid dynasty, the existing dynasty before that of the mamluks¡¯, was built by a man named Saladin, who had defeated the crusaders and liberated the Holy Land and the city of Jerusalem (1). From after his death in 1193, infighting among his descendents threatened the existence of the kingdom; the rulers had live in fear of a coup
            The penultimate Ayyubi ruler named al-Salih Ayyub, in distrust of his regiments, created a new regiment of slaves of Turkic origin called the 'Mmamluks' meaning ¡®owned¡¯ in Arabic (2); these slave regiments rapidly developed into a major force in the Ayyubid dynasty. While in preparation of defense against a new Crusade led by Louis ¥¸ in 1249, al-Salih Ayyub died in his tent. Upon the absence of a ruler the war against the Crusaders was led to victory by al-Zahir Baybars, a mamluk general.
            After the war, Al-Salih Ayyub¡¯s rightful heir by the name of Turanshah, who showed little gratitude for the actions of the Mamluks, was assassinated and Shajar al-Duur (al-Salih Ayyub¡¯s wife) became the ruler of Egypt (3). However, not long after her accession of the throne, she was pressured to marry a mamluk general named Aybak and later to abdicate the throne to him. This marked the end of the Ayyubid dynasty and the start of that of the Mamluks.

II.1.2 Aybak (1250-1257)
            To consolidate his position as sultan, Aybak installed a 6-year old boy named Musa, who was a member of the Syrian branch of the Ayyubid family as cosultan and announced himself simply as a representative (4). However, after he defeated the Syrian Ayyubids in 1252, Aybak imprisoned Musa and appointed Qutuz, one of his mamluk generals, as vice-sultan.
            Many rebellions occurred during Aybak's short rule as sultan; the largest were the ones at 1252 and 1255 in upper and middle Egypt (5). Aybak, with the help of a mamluk general named Aktai managed to suppress them
            Being in need of a strong Emir as an ally to consolidate his rule, Aybak in 1257, married a daughter of the Emir of al-Mousil. Shajar al-Duur, who was the wife of Aybak at this time, felt betrayed by this action and poisoned her husband to death, which ended Aybak's rule of seven years (6). Shajar al-Duur was assassinated by the mamluks, and in 1259, Qutuz was acceded as the new sultan (7).

II.1.3 Qutuz (1259-1260)
            The significance in the short rule of Qutuz (from 1259 to 1260) lies in that he led the defeat of the Mongols in the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. With the help of Baybars, a mamluk commander who had also fought in the war against the crusade of Louis ¥¸, and the usage of gunpowder to distract the Mongol cavalry, Qutuz defeated the Mongols and captured their leader Kitbuqa (8). This battle was the first setback for the Mongols and served as an event that allowed the mamluks to gain approval from the Islamic community.
            Qutuz, on the way back to Cairo was assassinated by several emirs in a conspiracy led by Baybars, who believed that he did not receive the rightful recognition for his achievements in the battle of Ain Jalut (9); Baybars became the new sultan of Mamluk Egypt.

II.2 Bahri Dynasty (1260-1382)

II.2.1 Baybars (1260-1277)
            Al-Zahir Baybars was the real founder of the Bahri dynasty and the Mamluk Empire, different from his predecessors that had ruled for brief periods of time (10). He reorganized the army and the navy, successfully carried out massive public works, established postal systems, and made alliances with the Byzantine emperor and of the Golden Horde (11); he was a prudent and careful leader, who established the backbone of the mamluk government.
            Baybars rule is also defined by wars and its subsequent territorial expansion. From 1265 to 1271, Baybars conducted almost annual raids against the crusaders and seized their territory (12). The most important city to be won was Antioch, which was captured in 1268. Baybars campaigns made possible the final victories against the crusaders of his successors. During his seventeen years of rule, Baybars also engaged in nine battles against the Mongols and conquered the Assassins, a fanatical Islamic sect in Syria (13). After his final conquests of Syria, his empire stretched from the Taurus Mountains to Egypt (14).
            Baybars died in 1277 by drinking a cup of poison that was not meant for him. His son named Nasir (different from the Nasir that rules from 1294 to 1340), succeeded the throne; however, due to his incapability to take the role of his father, he was soon displaced by one of the Mamluk generals named Qalawun.

II.2.2 Qalawun (1279-1290)
            Qalawun, continuing the government and military systems established by Baybars, opened a century long golden age for the Mamluk Empire.
            During Qalawun's rule in 1281, Mongols again launched an invasion of Syria; Qalawun¡¯s defeated the Mongols which led to a truce that lasted for seventeen years (15). Qalawun also engaged in wars against the crusaders and recaptured Tripoli in 1289 (16). Later, his son Khalil captured the last Crusader city in 1291.

II.2.3 Nasir (1294-1340)
            Al-Nasir acceded to the throne on three separate occasions: in 1294, he was made sultan at the age of nine, but was deposed after a year; five years later, he returned back to the throne, but abdicated after ten years of being dominated by the emirs; eleven months later in 1309, he return to power for the final time and ruled for thirty years (17). He is by far the longest ruling sultan of Mamluk Egypt.
            During his first two periods of rule, his Mamluk generals fought with each other, imprisoning, torturing, and murdering one another; they also grew rich at the expense of the population. However, regardless to the political disputes, trade and architecture flourished among the Mamluks throughout this period. In 1299, the Mongols invaded Syria again in attempt to regain the territories lost to Baybars, and after three years of war they were defeated by the mamluks for the fourth time (18).
            Nasir¡¯s third period of rule was the most brilliant period in Mamluk history; it was an age of plenty and well-being. Most of the oppressive taxes on the people were repealed, and instead were requested from the emirs. The government supplied grain and fixed its the prices in times of famine. His rule was also an apex of culture and civilization.
            From the point of the death of Nasir, Mamluk Egypt goes through a gradual decline, lacking a leader such as Nasir.

II.3 Burji Dynasty (1382-1517)

II.3.1 Barkuk (1382-1399)
            For forty-one years after the death of al-Nasir, twelve of his descendents were placed on throne as puppets of influential mamluk emirs (19). Finally in 1382, a mamluk emir by the name of Barkuk claimed the sultanate for himself. This marked the end of the original Bahri dynasty and announced the beginning of a new dynasty called the Burji dynasty; the Burji dynasty differed from the previous dynasty in that the ruling Mamluks were of Circassian origin rather than Turkic origin, and that it did not follow the hereditary principle of succession (20).
            After his initial accession in 1382, Barkuk faced a revolt in 1389, led by two mamluk governors from northern Egypt (21). Barkuk was captured and deposed; however, in Cairo fighting among the mamluks escalated and finally Barkuk's supporters overcame the rebels. In 1390, Barkuk was again restored to the throne and ruled until he died in 1399.

II.3.2 Barsbay (1422-1438)
            Barsbay¡¯s significance in Mamluk history lies in his attention on the Indian trade. By the time of Barsbay, the Mamluks were losing their raison d'etre, which was to fight and conquer land. Incapable to defeat their enemies and expand their territory, and damaged by the population reduction caused by the Black Death and following famines the mamluks were in desperate need a continuous source of income, and these trades provided that source. Barsbay especially managed to secure exclusive rights over the Red Sea trade between Yemen and Europe (22).

II.3.3 Qaitbay (1468-1496)
            Qaitbay ruled for twenty-nine years, second longest only after that of al-Nasir; his rule was a brief period of political stability, military success, and prosperity (23).
            His rule initially faced the threats of an insurrection in eastern Antolia; however in 1473, the leader of the insurrection Shah Suwar was defeated and captured, and gradually Qaitbay managed to consolidate his military power (24). During his rule, Qaitbay fought sixteen military campaigns and was able to defend Mamluk Egypt from foreign enemies such as the Ottoman Empire.
            The reign of Qaitbay saw the restoration of economic prosperity. Though the traditional spice trade and trade in luxury goods continued to decline, trades of everyday goods such as linen, rice, creals, leather and sugar increased (25).
            In 1492, a deadly plague swept over Egypt that was said to have caused the death of twelve thousand people a day in Cairo (26). Qaitbay, said to be worn out by the plague and the damages that ensued, died in 1496 and a period of strife and chaos followed.

II.3.4 Qansuh (1501-1517)
            In 1501, Qansuh al-Ghuri seized power and established the most repressive regime in mamluk history. He levied ten months¡¯ taxes and confiscated land from the people; however, in a sense it is true that he set up order in the chaos that ensued after the death of Qaitbay.
            Qansuh was over seventy years old, and was na?ve enough to believe that the Ottomans would not attack without initial provocation. However, the Ottomans, led by a leader named Selim, invaded Mamluk Egypt, in 1516 (27). The Ottomans had a larger, more experienced army that used artillery and firearms, while the Mamluks were constituted of an army used to local squabbles, expecting a hand-to-hand combat which they were good at. The Mamluks were decimated in battle before they even reached within combat distance, and consequently, they were defeated and conquered.
            In January 1517, the Ottomans finally entered the city of Cairo, hanged the new elected leader Tuman Bey, who succeeded Qansuh that died in battle, and appointed a new viceroy of Egypt, a man by the name of Khair Bey (28). From this moment, Mamluk Egypt as an independent state seized to exist and fell under the suzerainty of the Ottomans.

II. Factors of Decline

III.1 Political Structure of the Burji Dynasty
            The gradual decline of the Mamluk Empire is most often identified by historians with the beginning of the Burji Dynastry in 1382. Many other factors, such as the Black Death dealt with below, contributed to this decline; however, it is important to analyze the political power structure that was different from the Bahri dynasty.
            There was a change in the ethnic origin of the dominant Mamluks. The ruling Mamluks of the Bahri Dynasty were mainly of Turkic origin; while as the Mamluks of the Burji Dynasty were Cricassian descent (29). The Cricassians were different from the Turkic people in that they did not follow a hereditary principle in succession (30). They elected one mamluk as the sultan from their peers and that person stayed as the sultan as long as the others accepted as so. The result of this political system was a perpetual change in throne. Twenty-three sultans came to power in a period of 135 years, and six of them ruled for a period of 103 years; many of the sultans ruled less than a year.
            This political system was harmful for the nation for mainly two reasons. First, in that every change of sultan meant a struggle of powers. The fight between the political factions always preceded change in power of the throne, and this factional rivalry within the Mamluks was a destructive competition; they killed each other, a force that should have been directed outward. Second, in that it did not allow a continuous state policy to exist. Every two sultan had their own idea of how the administration of the nation should be done, especially when they came from opposing political factions, and this resulted in drastic changes in state policies, such as policies in trade. And in the case of trade, these rapid changes in policies hindered a continuous flow of goods that were crucial in the development of international trade.
            Another problem in the political structure of the Burji dynasty was that ethnic affiliation took greater importance than one¡¯s abilities in the advancement in the state (31). Until the Bahri dynasty, one¡¯s abilities, usually those shown in military achievements were the main criteria of promotion. However, from the Burji dynasty one needed to be a Cricassion and a member of the dominant political faction to rise into high positions in state. This difference resulted in the lack of competent rulers in the Burji dynasty, possibly the greatest reason the dynasty never recovered its glory of the past.

III.2 The Black Death

            The Black Death first arrived at Egypt in 1347, and from 1347 to 1349, it wiped out one-third of the Egyptian population (32). The plague recurred eighteen times between 1348 and 1513, and it left behind manifold consequences that in the end contributed to the decline of Mamluk Egypt. Before discussing the consequences, it is worth noting that the mamluks were damaged even more than the general Egyptian population. This was mainly due to that they were not of native origin, meaning that they had weaker immune systems in regard to their natural surroundings.
            Agricultural production dropped drastically. This was a direct consequence of the decrease in population. It is said that only one-fifth of the land prior to the plague was cultivated in Egypt, for there was a lack of manpower (33). This was a serious matter not only to the farmers, but also to the Mamluk rulers that relied on land tax as income. The Mamluk rulers searched for alternative sources of income, and in the process caused lasting damages upon the Egyptian economy
            Initially, the Mamluk rulers started taxing the urban communities more rapaciously. However, this policy met great opposition from the general population and from among the Mamluks themselves, and thus, was abandoned. The Mamluks then resorted to monopolizing the trade in spices and sugar in the Indian trade (34). This state monopoly of spices meant fix prices and greater inefficiency; and thus, ruined the economic prosperity of the country. Additional to the damages of trade to the economy, industries such as the sugar industry or the paper making industry also declined greatly due to lack of manpower.
            The Black Death in itself was a plague that killed a great part of the Egyptian population, but its effects were much far-reaching: decrease in the production of agricultural and industrial goods, political turbulence among the farmers and the Mamluk rulers, and the decline of international trade. All these consequences, in the long run, contributed to the decline of Mamluk Egypt.

III.3 Loss of Dominance in Trade

            The Mamluk period was the zenith of the medieval Egyptian economic history in terms of trade and commerce. They traded heavily with the Mediterranean and Black Sea ports and with India during the 13th and 14th century, and prospered greatly (35). However, from the 15th century, Egypt¡¯s commercial importance deteriorated rapidly, as a result of population losses due to the plague, increased government interference in trade, and Portuguese competition in the Indian trade. The first two factors were dealt in the section above about the Black Death. Portuguese competition in the Indian trade will be the main discussion in this section
            Venetians in the 10th century opened a trading route through Alexandria to trade with the Middle East, Asia, and India. One of the major goods that they traded was spices and thus, this trade is known as the spice trade. There were known trading routes through land; however, maritime trade through Alexandria and the Indian Ocean proved to be greatly efficient and it prospered in the period of the Mamluks.
            Near the end of the 15th century, the era of discoveries had begun and explorers ventured abroad in search of finding new routes to reach the spice-producing nations; this demand for a new route increased due to the exaction of the Mamluks. Finally in 1501, a Portuguese explorer by the name of Pedro ?lvares Cabral managed to bring spices from India to Europe going around the Cape of Good Hope (36). Portuguese competition and later dominance in the Indian trade was a final blow to the trade of Mamluk Egypt and its economy.

III.4 Foreign Invasions

            Mamluks had always been in territorial conflict with the Mongols and the Ottomans. They had been victorious in these conflicts that arouse, and maintained their rule; however later in the 15th century, the mamluks were no longer able to defend their nation from these enemies and this led to the direct consequence of the fall of Mamluk Egypt.
            The term 'Mongols' can possibly refer to many people of different dynasties; in this paper, 'Mongols' until 1260 refers to the Mongols led by Hulagu, from 1260 to 1335 refers to the Mongols of the Il-Khanid dynasty, and after 1335 refers to the Mongols of the Timurid dynasty.
            Under this distinction, the Mongols had invaded the Mamluks numerous times before: in 1260, when Qutuz managed to defeat them in the Battle of Ain Jalut; in 1277, when they were defeated by Baybars in the Battle of Elbistan; and in 1281, defeated by Qalawun in Syria. In 1399, the Mongols, led by a leader named Timur, invaded the Mamluks for the fourth time (37). Timur marched his army into Syria and sacked the city of Aleppo, and then sin 1401, without much difficulty, occupied Damascus; the Mamluks no longer had the military strength to defeat the Mongols. The Mongols sued for terms, and in 1404, Timur returned to Samarkand. Timur never entered or controlled Egypt; however, the Mamluks had lost a big portion of their land in Syria, and also, had lost their reputation and dignity as a military strength.
            The Ottoman Empire, from the start of the 14th century, experiences continuous expansion for the next four-hundred years. This continuous force of expansion, along with that of the Mongols, can also be interpreted as a factor of the decline of Mamluk Egypt; the campaign of Selim ¥°, which was explained above, is evidently the ultimate cause for the end to Mamluk Egypt

IV. Conclusion
            Mamluk Egypt is unique. It was a state created and ruled by people of slave origin (the lowest possible class), and the ruling class was consisted of people with different ethnicity from the people native to the land. The fact that a nation with such unique characteristics could exist and develop into a dominating power of that region, endows Mamluk Egypt with great historical significance. Understanding this, to perceive the factors of decline of the dynasty is of historical importance.
            Four factors were introduced as the contributors of the decline of Mamluk Egypt: faulty political structure, the Black Death, loss of dominance in trade, and foreign invasions. An important fact to understand about these four factors is that the last two factors is actually a consequence of the first two. Loss of dominance in trade was caused by the drastic population drop due to the plague, and by the excessive and inconsistent government interference in trade due to its faulty political structure. Also in the case of foreign invasions, enemies such as the Mongol or the Ottomans have existed from the very start; what had changed was that the mamluks had lost the military strength to compete with these foreign powers, and this loss of power is the combined result of its faulty political structure and the Black Death. Other seemingly existing factors are also a direct or indirect result of these two factors. Thus, the fundamental factors that caused the decline of Mamluk Egypt are its own problematic political structure, and the Black Death.

VI. Notes

(1)      Article "Mamluk" from Encyclopaedia Britannica
(2)      al-Sayyid 1994 p.23
(3)      ibid. p.24
(4)      Perry 2004 p.49
(5)      Article "Aybak" from Wikipedia.
(6)      ibid.
(7)      Article "Mamluk" from Encyclopaedia Britannica
(8)      Article "Qutuz" from Wikipedia
(9)      Article "Battle of Ain Jalut" from Wikipedia
(10)      Article "Qutuz" from Wikipedia
(11)      al-Sayyid 1994 p.28
(12)      ibid.
(13)      Article "Baybars I." from Encyclopaedia Britannica
(14)      ibid.
(15)      al-Sayyid 1994 p.28
(16)      ibid. p.29
(17)      Article "Qalawun" from Wikipedia.
(18)      al-Sayyid 1994 p.30
(19)      ibid.
(20)      ibid. p.33
(21)      ibid.
(22)      Article "Barkuk" from Wikipedia
(23)      Article "Burji Dynasty" from Wikipedia
(24)      Article "Qaitbay" from Wikipedia
(25)      ibid.
(26)      al-Sayyid 1994 p.35
(27)      ibid. p.36
(28)      ibid. p.37
(29)      ibid. p.38
(30)      Article "Mamluk" from Encyclopaedia Britannica
(31)      al-Sayyid 1994 p.33
(32)      Article "Mamluk" from Encyclopaedia Britannica
(33)      Article "Black Death" from Encyclopaedia Britannica.
(34)      al-Sayyid 1994 p.32
(35)      ibid.
(36)      Article "Mamluk" from Encyclopaedia Britannica
(37)      Article "Spice Trade" from Encyclopaedia Britannica
(38)      Article "Timur" from Encyclopaedia Britannica

VII. Bibliography

Note: websites quoted below were accessed in September, 2008 1.      Perry, Glenn. ¡°Islamic Egypt to 1798.¡± pp. 37-54 in: Perry, Glenn. The History of Egypt. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004
2.      al-Sayyid Marsot, Afaf Lutfi. A short history of modern Egypt. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge University Press, 1994
3.      Goldschmidt, Jr. ¡°Introduction.¡± Historical Dictionary of Egypt. United States of America: The Scarecrow Press, 1994. pp. 4-5.
4.      Article: Mamluk, pp. 750-751 in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., Vol 7
5.      Article: Egypt, pp. 133-134 in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., Vol 18
6.      Article : "Baybars I." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclop©¡dia Britannica Online.
7.      Article : al-Malik an-N??ir." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. .
8.      Article : "spice trade." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. .
9.      Article : Black Death." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. .
10.      Article : "Timur." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. .
11.      Article : "Ottoman Empire" Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online .
12.      Article : "Aybak" from Wikipedia. .
13.      Article : "Qutuz" from Wikipedia. .
14.      Article : "Battle of Ain Jalut" from Wikipedia. .
15.      Article : "Qalawun", from Wikipedia. .
16.      Article : "Barkuk" from Wikipedia. .
17.      Article : "Burji Dynasty" from Wikipedia. .
18.      Article : "Qaitbay" from Wikipedia. .

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