Do you wonder about the role of the Mamluks in history? Do you want to understand the origin of these knights of Egypt who protected their nation for centuries?

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We will answer these questions as we retrace their fabulous history.

The Egyptian Mamluks were an elite cavalry of the Egyptian caliphates and sultanates. These warriors are defined by their loyalty, perseverance and mastery of combat. They represent the way of the warrior par excellence and are somewhat equivalent to the heavy chivalry of the ancient Europeans.

In this article, you will discover:

  • The origins of the Mamluks (also known as Mamelukes)
  • The history of the Mamluk dynasty during the Crusades
  • The Mamluks' fight against Napoleon in 1798

The origins, stories and prowess of these skilled warriors will hold soon no more secrets for you!

Let's get started!

1) The origins of Mamluks

First, it is necessary to explain what a Mamluk is. The word "Mamluk" means "slave" or "possessed by another". Mamluks are former Turkish and Coptic Christian (the Christian minority of the Middle East) slave soldiers converted to Islam.

Let us first look at the origins of these horsemen in the service of Muslims.

A) Who are the Mamluks?

The Mamluks first appeared in the Abbasid Caliphate around the 9th century. This gigantic caliphate stretched from the north of Algeria to the border of India.

The Mamluks were generally boys of about 13 to 14 years of age who were captured in the northern regions of the Persian Empire (Lebanon and Turkey). They were then enlisted, converted to Islam and trained to become an elite force led by the sultan (the head of the caliphate) or his relatives.

In principle (but not always in practice), a Mamluk was a freed slave and therefore could not pass on his properties and his title of Mamluk to his son. Indeed, it should be remembered that Mamluks are not Muslims by origin. Thus, their sons were theoretically not allowed to serve in Mamluk regiments (since they were Muslims by origin). This rule imposed a constant replenishment of Mamluk forces from outside sources.

The Mamluk warriorsThe life of a Mamluk prepared him for nothing but war and loyalty to his lord.

Among the Mamluks, a particular importance was attached to "Furūsiyya", a doctrine calling for excellence in three areas of cavalry:

- The Ulum (the science of cavalry and combat skills)

- The Funun (the art of cavalry and combat skills)

- The Adab (the literature of cavalry and combat skills)

The Furūsiyya was no different from the code of chivalry of the medieval Christians. In addition to cavalry skills, the Furūsiyya included a code of honor embracing great virtues such as the following:

- Some cardinal virtues: courage, magnanimity and generosity.

- Some military skills: cavalry tactics, mounted archery, armor maintenance, army training, the use of fire and the use of smoke screens.

- Some practical skills: the treatment of wounds and the care of war horses.

B) The rise of the Mamluks

The Mamluks quickly became very precious goods due to their great military qualities. Sent as units for maintaining order and peace, they were frequently used as a bargaining chip between the governors and lords of the various Abbasid provinces and other Islamic states of Morocco, Spain and Sudan.

As early as the 9th century AD, Islamic society took the form of a feudal pyramid (at the same time as medieval Christian society). The sultan was at the top of this pyramid and received the allegiance of the great lords, who in turn received the allegiance of the small lords at the base of the feudal pyramid.

Thus, the small lords responded as much to the orders of the sultan as to those of the great lords, which sometimes created great instability during the numerous attempts to overthrow the sultan by the great lords (see diagram below).

To alleviate this structural problem, the Mamluks were exceptions in this system, since they were taken away from their families in their youth and had no family ties in their new homeland. So, they only responded to the orders of the sultan. The Mamluks were therefore the guarantee of the sultan's protection.

Sultan feudal vassalageThus, the Mamluks became more than mere bodyguards or soldiers, they became indispensable elements for the survival of the Abbasid Caliphate. They took part in many conflicts between the dynasties trying to control the Abbasid Caliphate.

Initially equipped only (in the 9th century) with tunics, wooden shields, short swords and bows, one can observe the power acquired by the Mamluks through the evolution of their equipment.

Indeed, from the 13th century onwards, they were equipped with lamellar armor (the equivalent of the very expensive mesh ribs in Europe), long double-edged sabers, metal shields and spears decorated with small banners bearing the colors of their masters.

The richness of the Mamluk order was increasing. The Mamluk chiefs possessed strongholds, lands and personal fortunes.

2) The dynasty of the Mamluks

The Mamluks therefore quickly became the spearhead of the Muslim army. The numerous internal wars in the Middle East and the settlement of Christians in the East (following the capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade) only increased their role in Egyptian society.

They fought against the Crusaders for almost 100 years, until what was for them the ultimate reward: alongside the sultan Saladin, they retook Jerusalem in 1187. Faced with the growing power of their order, many Mamluks were thinking of freeing themselves from the sultans and taking their independence.

A) The Mamluks' seizure of power

The opportunity for the Mamluks to overthrow their masters arose at the end of 1240. At this time, the Ayyubid Kurdish dynasty created by Saladin in 1170 gradually replaced the Abbasid dynasty (under which the order of Mamluks had been created).

Saladin's descendants had negotiated a peace treaty with the European Crusader states present in the Holy Land (the territories close to Jerusalem). The time had thus passed from open warfare to skirmishes resulting from interpersonal disputes between Muslims and Christians.

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But one event was to change the situation: the desecration by Muslim extremists of certain tombs of European kings buried in Jerusalem. The French king Louis IX (or Saint Louis) called for the Seventh Crusade to punish this act deemed infamous. As a wise strategist, he knew that trying to take back Jerusalem directly would be futile and impossible.

Louis IX therefore decided to begin his crusade by conquering Egypt. The rich and fertile lands of Egypt would quickly come under his control, thus cutting an essential economic artery of the Ayyubid Caliphate.

Map of the Seventh Crusade (1248-1251)Map of the Seventh Crusade (1248-1251)Louis landed and took Damietta in the Nile Delta in June 1249 with an army of about 20,000 men. Chance or conspiracy, the sultan As-Salih dies mysteriously. The Muslim forces are thus disorganized by wars of succession.

The two armies of equal forces finally face each other at Mansourah (located just below Damietta). On one side are the Christian armies composed of the French knights, the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templars. On the other side are the regular Egyptian army and the Mamluk cavalry.

The French heavy cavalry charges and routs the Egyptians. The regular Egyptian army is massacred. Nevertheless, the Mamluks guided by their general Aybak turn the tide and against all expectations defeat the coalition of European knights.

The Mamluks are welcomed as heroes in Cairo. Aybak marries the widow of the previous sultan and founds a new caliphate: the Mamluk Caliphate.

The taking of DamiettaThanks to a combination of unlikely elements (notably the death of the sultan As-Salih), the Mamluks make themselves masters of the Orient. It was they who defeated the coalition gathered by Saint Louis which nothing seemed to be able to stop after the capture of Damietta.

B) The apogee of the Mamluks

In 1260, the military power of the Mamluks was to be permanently installed by their general Baibars. It is the latter who will fight the new enemy threatening the gates of the sultanate: the Mongols. Faced with an enemy so strong in numbers, political tensions arose and assassinations and conflicts arose between supporters of a fight against the Mongols and supporters of a rapid surrender.

Baibars will stand out from the crowd and succeed in beating the Mongolian hordes during a battle in Syria. He succeeded in destroying the Mongol army almost entirely by integrating other combat units into the Mamluks and thanks to the use of Greek fire (a type of fire burning even in contact with water).

The hospitable knightsThe main Christian opponents of the Mamluks, the Knights Hospitaller, have very little to do with what we call "hospital" nowadays. The Knights Hospitaller are highly trained monk-soldiers in the same way as the Templars.

The age of the great conquests of the Mamluks, led by a victorious Baibars, began. Baibars will take back many lands from the Christian settlers who arrived during the Crusades:

- In 1263, Baibars seized the whole Nazareth region and the city of Acre.

- In 1265, he seized Caesarea and Haifa. He then took the fortified city of Arsuf from the Knights Hospitaller and a few months later the Christian city of Athlit.

- In 1266, the city of Safed was taken from the Templars. At the time of this capture, Baibars ordered that no more prisoners should be taken among the Templars and the Knights Hospitaller, considering them to be "unconvertible unbelievers".

- In 1266, Qalawun (Baibars' principal lieutenant) led an army into Armenia. Sis (the capital of Armenia) fell in September 1266. This capture isolated the Crusader city of Antioch, which fell four days later.

- In 1271, Baibars took the "Chastel Blanc" (meaning in French the "White Castle") and the "Krak des Chevaliers" (meaning in French the "Bastion of Knights") from the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller respectively.

the Krak of the Knights of the TemplarsOn this picture: the "Krak des Chevaliers" nowadays. The Christians had shown that such fortified fortresses could break Muslim uprisings by compensating for their lack of forces in the Middle East with strongholds capable of withstanding several months of siege (while providing an ideal strike base in the region). After conquering many Christian castles, the Mamluks followed the same defense policy (which preserved their superiority for centuries).

After these vast conquests, the supremacy of the Mamluks over the East continued until the 16th century. Unfortunately, the Mamluk forces were greatly weakened by multiple waves of the Black Death during this century.

In the end, it took only two brief battles for the Ottoman sultan Selim I to decimate the last great Mamluk army at the foot of the Giza Pyramids in 1517.

This defeat can be explained by the use of firearms and artillery weapons by the Ottoman army against Mamluks armed only with bows, spears and swords. Faithful to their traditions as archers and horsemen, history had caught up with them.

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3) Napoleon and Mamluks

The Mamluks are well known for the role they played in maintaining the Abbasid Caliphate and in the Crusades. Nevertheless, a succession of battles will forever engrave the Mamluks in the memory of history: Napoleon's Egyptian campaign.

A) The "Battle of the Pyramids"

In 1789, the Mamluks led by Murad Bey met the soldiers of the French general Napoleon Bonaparte during several clashes. The future Emperor of France began Egypt's military campaign to cut the "route to the Indies" belonging to Great Britain (at war with France at that time). Indeed, the "route to the Indies" allowed Great Britain to become enormously wealthy without its European enemies being able to react.

Murad Bey, an ally of the British, will attack the French army twice: during the Battle of Shubra Khit and during the "Battle of the Pyramids".

During these two battles, Murad Bey's Mamluks will be massacred because of Napoleon's "infantry square" strategy (see picture below).

Having arrived with 10,000 cavalrymen to fight the French, Murad Bey fled into the desert with just under 2,000 of his men. On the French side, only 29 losses were suffered.

infantry square formationThe "infantry square" formation is extremely effective against cavalry charges. In front of a mass of bayonet-equipped soldiers, the horses of the assailants become frightened and refuse to continue the charge. The infantry can then fire to kill the enemy horses and men.

After this great defeat, Murad Bey and his remaining riders harassed the French in the desert in surprise attacks for about a year. Napoleon would later propose to Murad Bey to join him. Murad Bey accepted and remained faithful to his promise of alliance until 1981 when he died of the bubonic plague.

B) The end of the Mamluks

After the withdrawal of the French in 1811, the last Mamluk chiefs opposed the rise of Muhammad Ali, an officer sent by the Ottoman Empire to take control of Egypt. The Mamluks did not want an Ottoman to rule Egypt, so they prepared the assassination of Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali pretended to want to reconcile with the Mamluks. He therefore invited the Mamluk chiefs to the citadel of Cairo for a great feast. During this feast, however, he had the Mamluk leaders arrested before having them tortured and murdered. Thus ended the story of the Mamluks.

Viceroy Mehmet AliMuhammad Ali, the person responsible for the disappearance of the clan that ruled Egypt for 600 years. He will become Viceroy of Egypt and will start a great modernization of Egypt through social reforms and the creation of many schools.

The Mamluks

And there you have it: you know absolutely everything about the Mamluk epic. At this point we discovered together:

  • The history of the first Mamluks
  • The role of the Mamluks during the Crusades
  • The reasons for the disappearance of these illustrious fighters

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