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Mamluk State

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Mamluk State

    In the 800s and 900s, Islamic rulers came to rely on slave soldiers as the basis for their military power. Called mamluks (an Arabic word meaning “owned”), these slave soldiers were usually of non-Muslim origin but converted to Islam as part of their education and training. In later centuries, the slave soldiers themselves took control of the state and ruled as powerful sultans in the Muslim world. From 1250 to 1517 , the Mamluk state centered in Egypt was the most successful of these slave sultanates. It controlled Egypt, Syria, southeastern Asia Minor, and western Arabia.

    The Mamluk state emerged when a small group of army officers staged a revolt against al-Salih Ayyub, heir of the last Ayyubid sultan. They assassinated al-Salih Ayyub in 1249 and designated one of their own to be the new leader. The first two Mamluk sultans, Aybak and Qutuz, faced rebellion from their own soldiers, as well as challenges from Ayyubid princes in Syria. Qutuz's lieutenant, Baybars, became famous for his victory over invading Mongols in Palestine. Soon afterward, he murdered Qutuz and seized power for himself.

    Ruling as sultan from 1260 to 1277 , Baybars established the foundation for the long-lasting Mamluk state. He defeated the Mongols who had destroyed Baghdad in 1258 , stopping their conquest of the Middle East. The Abbasid caliphate had come to an end with the Mongol conquest of Baghdad, and Baybars installed an Abbasid prince as his caliph in Cairo. He fought a series of wars with states established by crusaders, bringing an end to their power.

    Until around 1340 , when the Black Death devastated the populations of Egypt and Syria, the Mamluk state enjoyed a period of prosperity. Agricultural output had been high, and trade between the countries of the Mediterranean region and South Asia had brought great wealth to the government. The Mamluk sultan was acknowledged as the highest ruler of Sunni Islam because of his control of all four holy cities (Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, and Hebron). Under Mamluk rule, the cities of Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo flourished as major centers of art and culture. The Mamluk elite supported waqfs, facilitating the development of a sophisticated religious and academic class in these urban centers. Cairo, in particular, attracted scholars from all over the world to its acclaimed schools.

    The Mamluk state flourished as the undisputed military power of the central Muslim world until the mid-1400s. But the Mamluk economy never fully recovered from the famines and plagues it had suffered earlier. The sultanate implemented short-term measures to recover the state's former glory, but the Mamluks were unable to deter the formidable military threat of the Ottoman Empire. In 1516 the Ottoman ruler Selim I defeated the Mamluks at the battle of Marj Dabiq in Syria. Cairo fell to Selim the following year. This military campaign ended Mamluk rule, but the Ottoman monarch permitted some of the Mamluks to remain in power. He appointed Mamluks as governors over various provinces and allowed them to maintain their private armies. In fact, when Napoleon Bonaparte's troops invaded Egypt in 1798 , they fought Mamluk soldiers. Mamluk power did not completely end until 1811 , when Muhammad Ali Pasha took control of Egypt and killed the Mamluk leaders. See also Egypt; Ottoman Empire.

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