The Mamluk Sultanate: The Islamic Medieval Superpower

The Mamluks were at the height of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages, but one may not think so because of their origins. Mamluks, meaning “property”, were originally enslaved soldiers of the various Islamic Empires. The Mamluk Sultanate sprung out of the ashes of the Fatimid Caliphate, who controlled Egypt and Syria, around 1250. Al-Salih Ayyub’s Mamluk armies came to power after his death in 1249, and overthrew his empire a year later.

The Mamluks instilled a caliphate in Cairo and began expanding their lands into modern-day Syria, Saudi Arabia, and later Cyprus. Most notably, the Mamluks ruled over the Islamic Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. One of the keys to Mamluk success was their exceptional cavalry. Mamluks wore a much lighter armour than Europeans, and were much more flexible in combat. The Mamluks wore the traditional Islamic turban helmet, chain mail, or in some cases, lamellar armour. They relied heavily on curved swords, spears, lances, and small shields. However, the number of professional Mamluk soldiers were limited, and the majority of their forces were volunteers. These soldiers wore simple robes and turbans, which were a much cheaper form of uniforms. Some Mamluk horses received armour of their own, predominately made of laminated cloth and leather.

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Mamluk Warriors

 

Mamluk forces were commanded by amirs, or officers, who commanded a group of men. Most amirs commanded an army of around 300 to 800 soldiers. Amirs were paid well, and many could afford elaborately decorated homes. Many Mamluk amirs were trained well in military schools, and many were punished as part of a strict disciplinary regime.

The Mamluks were split between two dynasties: the Bahri (1250-1382) and the Burji (1382-1517). Bahri Mamluks invaded Nubia from Egypt in 1265 and showed their fine warriorship in battle. The Mamluks fought numerous engagements against the Crusaders and Knights Hospitaller, most notably in the 1291 Siege of Acre. The Bahri, who were predominantly of Turkish origin, were overthrown by the Burji in 1382. The Burji were mostly Circassians from the Northern Caucasus. The first Burji sultan, Sayf ad-Din Barquq, came to power and not only faced wars from the Bahri, but the Mongols as well. The unstable Bahri were destroyed, but the Mongols still threatened the borders of the Mamluk Sultanate.

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The 1291 Siege of Acre

Tamerlane, leader of the Mongols; raided Persia, the Caucasus, and Anatolia. Tamerlane’s “Golden Horde” slaughtered the occupants of Damascus and Aleppo in Mamluk territory, and war broke out between the two powers, but the worries of the ongoing Crusades pressured both. The Mongol invasions greatly degraded the quality of the Mamluk Sultanate, even with the capture of Cyprus in 1426. The Mamluks were not a naval power at all, and later failed to retain Cyprus after the fall of Egypt and Syria.

The fledgeling Ottoman Empire, led by Sultan Selim the Grim, butchered the Mamluks in Syria and later Egypt, and by 1517, the Mamluk Sultanate came to an end. Ottoman technological superiority with artillery and firearms proved too much for the Mamluk cavalry and foot soldiers, and the Mamluk Sultanate came to a close.The Ottoman Empire would dominate the area into the Early 20th Century.