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Mameluke -  Mameluke (or Mamluk or Mameluk or mamaluke or mamluq or marmeluke or marmluk) (Arabic: مملوك (singular), مماليك (plural), literally means "owned by the king" or "slave." It refers to white slave soldiers, primarily Christians , like the Janissaries but also Mongols, who converted to Islam and were employed by various rulers including the Abbasid and Ayyubid dynasties and the Ottoman Empire.   Like Janissaries, Mamelukes converted to Islam and served the Muslim rulers until modern times. And like the Janissaries, the Mameluke caste was governed by rules that supposedly prevented children of Mamelukes from inheriting their position and similar restrictions designed to ensure they would never be a threat. As in the case of the Janissary soldiers, the rules were often eroded or disregarded. The Mamelukes seized power for a time in Egypt, Damascus and India and set up their own dynasties. They did two signal services to the Muslim and Arab world: They stopped the advance of the Mongols at Ayn Jalut, and they finally drove the Crusaders from Palestine.


Mameluke Mithrab, Al Azhar,

Cairo, Egypt

Mameluke arches,
Temple Mount,
Jerusalem, Israel


At its largest extent, the Mameluke empire included the three most important religious cities of Islam: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. However, the real capital in terms of political power as well as culture and development, was always Cairo. The sack of Baghdad by Mongols had eliminated it as a Muslim center, so Cairo was also the economic capital of the Muslim world in their time. The Mameluke empire reached its greatest extent and highest cultural achievements from 1250 to about 1350, immediately after their rise to power in Egypt. They left behind achievements in historiography and in architecture, including renovations and new building work in Cairo and Jerusalem. The madrassas, khans (hostels) and other buildings that the Mamelukes built are often characterized by the alternate use of red and white stones, geometric black and white stone interlace ("ablaq"), softening of angles using domes, use of "stalactite" like formations in domes and arches, and elaborate facades with carved stone frames as if in a picture.  


The map shows a portion of the Mameluke empire in the Middle East, excluding the Indian branch.


Mameluke empire in the Middle East

Mamelukes in Egypt


The Mamelukes were evidently brought to Egypt originally with the armies of Saladin and his uncle Sharkuh. The last of the Ayyubid Sultans, as Salih, brought additional  slaves from foreign lands to shore up his army. In 1250, the French Crusaders invaded Egypt.


In June 1249, the Seventh Crusade under Louis IX of France landed in Egypt. The Crusaders conquered Damietta. The Egyptians retreated. When the Egyptian sultan As-Salih Ayyub died, power passed briefly to his son Turanshah and then his favorite wife Shajar Al-Durr. She took control with Mameluke support and the Egyptians counterattacked. The Bahri commander Baibars defeated Louis, who was captured by the Mamlukes in March 1250 and ransomed.


Shajar married a Mameluke commander named Aybak (Aibec), who was murdered. The vice-regent Qutuz took power after a struggle and founded the Mameluke Bahri dynasty, named for the Bahriya or river regiment, so named because they were quartered in an island on the Nile. They were mostly Turks.  The Mamelukes never defined a process of succession or legitimacy of individual leaders, thus successive rulers often came to power by murdering legitimate pretenders.  The Mameluke dynasties through  Bahri and Burji, took their names from the quarters where the troops that seized power had been stationed.


Mameluke Cavalry Training Manual

The Mongols and the Mamelukes


Hulagu Khan the mongol sacked Baghdad in 1258 and advanced towards Syria. The  Mameluke Emir Baibars fled Damascus.  After conquering Damascus, Hulagu demanded that Qutuz surrender Egypt as well.  Qutuz and Baibars murdered Hulagu's envoys. Qutuz drew the Mongol army into an ambush near the Orontes River, routed them at the Battle of Ain Jalut and captured and executed the Mongol commander Kitbuqa. Qutuz was promptly assassinated by other Mamelukes and Baibars ascended to the throne. The Mamelukes again defeated in Homs in 1260 and began to drive them back east. Baibars' armies subdued Syria and Palestina and the Mongols defeated the Mongols in subsequet battles in Syria in 1271, 1281, 1303, 1312, though they were defeated by a Mongol-Crusader alliance at Wadi al-Khazandar in 1299. In 1324, the Mamelukes concluded a peace treaty with the Mongols. In 1348, Black Plague wiped out a large part of the population of Cairo, weakening the Mameluke dynasty. In 1381 or 1382, the Bahri line was replaced by the Burji.


About 1400, Mameluke rule over Syria was ended by the invasion of Tamerlane (Timur Lenk).


Ottomans and Mamelukes


On August 24, 1516, Sultan Selim 1 defeated the Mamelukes at Marj Dabik and put an end to formal Mameluke rule. The picture shows the hanging of the last Mameluke Sultan, al-Ashraf Tumanbay




However, for much of the ensuing period, the Mamelukes continued to hold actual power in Egypt as "Beys" or Emirs subject to the Sultan. In 1768, the Ottomans put down a revolt by Ali Bey Al-Kabir who had declared himself Sultan. In 1798, Napoleon defeated Mameluke troops in the Battle of the Pyramids. The independent ruler Mohamed Ali finally put an end to the Mamelukes in 1811. He invited their leaders to a large feast to celebrate the declaration of war against the Wahhabis in Arabia. He ambushed and slaughtered about 700 of them on that day, another thousand were supposedly killed in the Cairo citadel and in all about 3,000 Mamelukes were killed in about a week. A number of them escaped however, and reached what is now Sudan, forming a state there. This was suppressed by Mohamed Ali around 1820.


Mameluks in India and Iraq


Two minor Mameluke dynasties ruled for a time in India and in Iraq, with no real relation to each other or the main Mameluke dynasty in Egypt. In 1206 the Mameluke commander in India, Qutb-ud-din Aybak, proclaimed himself sultan and founded a dynasty that  lasted until 1290.  From 1747 Iraq was ruled, with short intermissions, by Georgian Mameluke officers, except for brief periods. This continued until 1831, when the Ottomans overthrew Daud Pasha, the last Mameluke ruler.


Napoleon's Mamelukes


The French Emperor Napoleon organized a Mameluke mercenary corps, a small "regiment" of about 250 men. These presumably fought under the banner of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, not only in Egypt, but in Europe. They distinguished themselves at the Battle of Austerlitz. They are immortalized in a painting by Goya. 



Synonyms and alternate spellings:

  Further Information: Saladin

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The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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