The Mamluk (Slave) Dynasty

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The Mamluks have frequently been cited as a dynasty, which developed the techniques of war to a high degree. Their rise is one aspect of the general Turkish takeover in the Islamic world, but the difference between them and the earlier Seljuk Turkish sultanate which had grown up in Persia, Iraq and Anatolia during the V/11th and VI/12TH centuries was that the Seljuk’s were essentially a tribal dynasty of free origin, migrating into eastern Persia from their central Asian homeland, whereas the Mumluks were, as their name implies, of servile status, originally Quiche Turkish slaves imported from the South Russian steppes, and latter, Carcasses  slaves from the Caucasus, but always with an admixture of several other races, such as Kurds, Mongols and even Slavs and Americans. A system of slave troops and officials was to be found in the in the latter Muslim Middle Ages, i.e. the post Mongol period, in varying degrees across most of the Islamic world east of the Maghrib. The Safavids of Persia, themselves springing from a militant Sufi religious order in Azerbaijan, employed in the X/16th and XI/17th centuries, in addition to their Qizil-bash or ‘red-cap’ Turcoman troops, contingents of slaves personally attached to the shah, including Christians from Georgia and Armenia.

But it was under the Mumluks of Egypt and Syria and the Ottoman Turks that the system of military slavery attained it’s apotheosis, and it was the successes gained by the Ottoman troops against Christian Europe, above all by their Janissaries, that instilled Christendom with fear of a new wave of Islamic expansionism in the Balkans Central Europe and Italy. The slaves that came to compose the Mamluk ruling institution were bought to Egypt as pagans by Venetian and other carriers, and sold there; the young slaves or Mamluks purchased by the sultans were given thorough Islamic education and military training in special schools at Cairo, and when after several years they passed out, they were enrolled into the corps pf royal Mamluks, affranchised, and given there mounts, equipment and a land grant by means of which they might support them selves.

Although we describe the Mamluks (and the later ottomans who employed a similar system) as ‘slave’ systems, we must rid ourselves of the idea that this entailed any deep stigma of social inferiority. Under the Mamluks, indeed, it was the slave Mamluks who enjoyed the highest prestige and could aspire to the sultanate; their own children, including the sons even of sultans, being free in status, slipped back into the mass of free, second class soldiery, which suffered serious discrimination in terms of pay and equipment. Likewise, although the supreme power in the Ottoman Empire remained in the hands of the house of Uthman down to the early 20th century, the highest offices of the civil and military establishment were attained by slaves; this is why we find among the viziers men of such varied ethnic origins as Greeks, Armenians, Italians and Albanians.

In their heyday, the Mamluk cavalrymen were outstanding for their equestrian skill and for their handling of weapons, above all, of the bow and lance. The Mukluk troops kept their high standard of weapon training by practices and exercises at various training grounds scattered through Cairo. There was training in cavalry teamwork and drill, and polo playing; fencing, and practise with swords cutting through solid objects, layers of clay and felt, till the manluk was able to cut through a bar of lead; wrestling; archery exercises, comprising shooting from the saddle through wooden circle to a target topped by a metal ring and insetting a spear point through it as he went past.

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