Mamelukes Usurp Power In Egypt
Author: Muir, Sir William

Mamelukes Usurp Power In Egypt


From A.D. 969 to 1171 the Arabian dynasty of caliphs called Fatimites -
because they professed to trace their descent from Fatima, the daughter of
Mahomet - reigned in Egypt. Their downfall was due to their own decline into
imbecility, through which they fell into the hands of Turkish viziers who,
keeping their nominal masters in subserviency, themselves assumed the actual

For several generations the caliphs of Bagdad, under whose sway the
Fatimites were now reduced, had attracted to their capital slaves from
Turcoman and Mongol hordes. These slaves they used both as bodyguards and as
contingents to offset the dominating influence of the Arab soldiery in their
affairs. In the end the slaves superseded the Arab soldiers altogether, and
from bondmen became masters of the court. They stirred up riots and rebellion
and hastened the fall of the effete caliphate.

Under the Eyyubite dynasty in Egypt, which Saladin founded about 1174,
the same practice was followed with the same results. The Eyyubites were
strangers in Egypt, and welcomed the support of foreign myrmidons. Slave
dealers bought children of conquered tribes in Central Asia, promising them
great fortunes in the West. These children, together with prisoners of war
from the eastern hordes, streamed into Egypt, where they were again bought by
the rulers, who thus unwittingly prepared the way for their own destruction.
The military body created by Saladin, called mamelukes ("slaves;" literally
"the possessed"), obtained ascendency in the manner here related by Muir.

The thousands who, with uncomely names and barbarous titles, began to
crowd the streets of Cairo, occupied a position to which we have no parallel
elsewhere. Finding a weak and subservient population, they lorded it over
them. Like the children of Israel, they ever kept themselves distinct from
the people of the land - but the oppressors, not, like them, the oppressed.
Brought up to arms, the best favored and most able of the mamelukes when freed
became, at the instance of the Sultan, emirs of ten, of fifty, of a hundred,
and often, by rapid leaps, of a thousand. They continued to multiply by the
purchase of fresh slaves who, like their masters, could rise to liberty and

The sultans were naturally the largest purchasers, as they employed the
revenues of the state in surrounding themselves with a host of slaves; we
read, for example, of one who bought some six thousand. While the great mass
pursued a low and servile life, the favorites of the emirs, and specially of
the crown, were educated in the arts of peace and war, and, as pages and
attendants, gradually rose to the position of their masters - the slave of
to-day, the commander, and not infrequently the sultan of to-morrow.

From the first, insolent and overbearing, the mamelukes began, as time
passed on, to feel their power, and grew more and more riotous and turbulent,
oppressing the land by oft-repeated pillage and outrage. Broken up into
parties, each with the name of some sultan or leader, their normal state was
one of internal combat and antagonism; while, pampered and indulged, they
often turned upon their masters. Some of the more powerful sultans were able
to hold them in order, and there were not wanting occasional intervals of
quiet; but trouble and uproar were ever liable to recur.

The Eyyubite princes settled their mamelukes, chiefly Turks and Mongols -
so as to keep them out of the city - on an island in the Nile, whence they
were called Baharites, and the first mameluke dynasty (1260-1382) was of this
race, and called accordingly. The others, a later importation, were called
Burjites, from living in the Citadel, or quarters in the town; they belonged
more to the Circassian race. The second dynasty (1382-1517) was of these,
and, like the Baharite dynasty, bore their name. The mamelukes were for the
most part attached faithfully to their masters, and the emirs, with their
support, enriched themselves by exactions from the people, with the
unscrupulous gains of office, and with rich fiefs from the state. The
mamelukes, as a body, thus occupied a prominent and powerful position, and
often, especially in later times, forced the Sultan to bend to their will.

Such is the people which for two centuries and a half ruled Egypt with a
rod of iron, and whose history we shall now attempt to give.

It was about the middle of the twelfth century that Nureddin and King
Amalrich both turned a longing eye toward Egypt, where, in the decrepitude of
the Fatimites, dissension and misrule prevailed. The Caliph, in alarm, sought
aid first from one and then from the other; and each in turn entered Egypt
ostensibly for its defence, but in reality for its possession. A friendly
treaty was at last concluded with both; but it was broken by Amalrich, who
invaded the country and demanded a heavy ransom. In this extremity, the
Caliph again appealed to Nureddin, sending locks of his ladies' hair in token
of alarm.

Glad of the opportunity, Nureddin despatched his general, Shirkoh, to the
rescue, before whom Amalrich, crestfallen, retired. Shirkoh, having thus
delivered the Caliph, gained his favor, and, as vizier, assumed the
administration. Soon after he died; and his nephew, Saladin, succeeded to the
vizierate. The following year the Caliph also died; and now Saladin, who had
by vigorous measures put down all opposition, himself as sultan took
possession of the throne. Thus the Fatimite dynasty, which had for two
centuries ruled over Egypt, came to an end.

Saladin was son of a Kurdish chief called Eyyub, and hence the dynasty is
termed Eyyubite. His capital was Cairo. He fortified the city, using the
little pyramid for material, and, abandoning the luxurious palace of the
Fatimites, laid the foundations of the Citadel on the nearest crest of the
Mokattam range, and to it transferred his residence. After a prosperous rule
over Egypt and Syria of above twenty years he died, and his numerous family
fell into dissension. At last his brother Adlil, gaining the ascendency,
achieved a splendid reign not only at home, but also in the East, from Georgia
to Aden. He died of grief at the taking of Damietta by the crusaders, and his
grandson Eyyub succeeded to the throne.

It was now that the Charizmian hordes fell upon Syria, and, with horrible
atrocities, sacked the holy city. Forming an alliance with these barbarians,
the Sultan sent the mameluke general Beibars to join them against his uncle,
the Syrian prince Ismail, between whom and the crusaders an unholy union had
prevailed. Near Joppa the combined army of Franks and Moslems met at the
hands of Beibars and the eastern hordes, with a bloody overthrow; and thus all
Syria again fell under Egypt. To establish his power both at home and abroad,
the Sultan bought vast numbers of Turkish mamelukes; and it was he who first
established them as Baharites on the Nile. His son Turan was the last
Eyyubite sultan.

In his reign Louis IX of France invaded Egypt, and, advancing upon Cairo,
was defeated and taken prisoner. Turan allowed him to go free; and for this
act of kindness, as well as for attempts to curb their outlawry, he was
pursued and slain by the Baharite mamelukes, who thereupon seized the

The leading mamelukes chose one of themselves, the emir Eibek, to be head
of the administration. He contended himself at first to govern in the name of
Eyyub's widow, who, indeed, had been in complicity with the assassins of her
stepson Turan. The Caliph of Bagdad, however, objected to a female reigning
even in name, and so Eibek married the widow; and still further to conciliate
the Eyyubites of Syria and Kerak, elevated to the title of sultan a child of
the Eyyubite stock.

This concession notwithstanding, Nasir the Eyyubite, ruler of Damascus,
advanced on Egypt, but, deserted by his Turkish slaves, was beaten back by
Eibek, who returned in triumph to the capital. He soon found it, however,
impossible to hold the turbulent mamelukes in hand, for, with the victorious
general Aktai at their head, they scorned discipline and defied authority.
Eibek, therefore, compassed the death of Aktai, on which the Baharite emirs
all rose in rebellion. They were defeated. Many were slain and cast into
prison; the rest fled to Nasir, and eventually to Kerak. Among the latter
were Beibars and Kilawun, of whom we shall hear more hereafter.

Eibek was now undisputed Sultan, recognized as such by all the powers
around. And so he bethought him of taking a princess of Mosul for another
wife; on which the Sultana, already estranged, caused him to be put to death;
and she too, in the storm that followed, was assassinated by the slave girls
of still another wife.

Eibek's minor son was now raised by the emirs to the titular sultanate;
and Kotuz, a distinguished mameluke of Charizmian birth, persuaded to assume
the uninviting post of vicegerent. The Eyyubite Prince of Kerak, in whose
service many of the Baharite mamelukes still remained, attempting, with their
help, to seize Egypt, was twice repulsed by Kotuz, and thus obliged to disband
the Baharites, who returned to their Egyptian allegiance.

Their return was fortunate, a time of trial being at hand. For it was
now that Holagu with his Mongol hordes, having overthrown Bagdad and slain the
last of the Abbassides, launched his savage troops on the West. He fulminated
a despatch to Nasir the Eyyubite head of Syria, in which he claimed to be "the
scourge of the Almighty, sent to execute judgment on the ungodly nations of
the earth." Nasir answered it in like defiant terms; but, not being supported
by Kotuz, had to fly from Damascus, which was taken possession of by the
Mongol tyrant.

After ravaging Syria with unheard-of barbarity, Holagu was recalled to
Central Asia by the death of Mangu. Leaving his army behind under Ketbogha,
he sent an embassy to Egypt with a letter as threatening as that to Nasir.
Kotuz, who had by this time cast the titular Sultan aside and himself assumed
the throne, summoned a council and by their advice put the embassy to death.
Then awakening to the possibilities of the future, he roused the emirs to
action by a stirring address on the danger that threatened Egypt, their
families, and their faith.

Gathering a powerful army, the Egyptians advanced to Acre, where they
found the crusaders bound by a promise to the Mongols of neutrality. The two
armies met at Ain-Jalut, and there, after a fiercely contested battle, and
mainly by the bravery of Beibars as well as of Kotuz himself, the Mongols were
beaten and Ketbogha slain. On the news reaching Damascus, the city rose upon
their barbarian tyrants, and slew not only all the Mongols, but great numbers
also of the Jews and Christians who, during the interregnum, had raised their
heads against Islam.

Following up their victory, the Egyptians drove the Mongols out of Syria,
and pursued them beyond Emessa. Kotuz, thus master of the country,
reappointed the former governors throughout Syria, on receiving oath of
fealty, to their several posts. For his signal service, Kotuz had led Beibars
to expect Aleppo; but, suspicion aroused of dangerous ambition on Beibars'
part, he gave that leading capital to another.

Beibars upon this, fearing the fate that might befall him at Cairo,
resolved to anticipate the danger. On the return journey, while Kotuz was on
the hunting-field alone, he begged for the gift of a Mongol slave girl, and,
taking his hand to kiss for the promised favor, seized hold of it while his
accomplices stabbed him from behind to death. Beibars was forthwith saluted
sultan, and entered Cairo with the acclamations of the people, and with the
same festive surroundings as had been prepared for the reception of his
murdered predecessor.

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