The Mamluk Sultanate: A History (Book Review)

Mamluk Cavalry Riding Amongst the Pyramids of Egypt- art generated using Midjourney

It should not come as a surprise that my favorite (post-ancient) state in the history of North Africa and the Middle East is the Mamluk Sultanate. As a collector both of unique governing systems and ‘barbarian’ run states from the Liao Dynasty to the Haudenosaunee, it should not be surprising that this entity that ruled Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the late medieval period is the state from that place and time that most stands out to me. Perhaps more pertinently, it was the favorite state of the most influential intellectual on my own life, Ibn Khaldun. He would eventually relocate to this empire and serve as an educator and informal ambassador under its employ. Most famously in this capacity he would meet the conqueror Timur during the siege of Damascus.

Ibn Khaldun’s fascination with the Mamluk state is easy to discern. His own philosophy was about noticing the trends of barbarians to conquer the civilized, set up new vigorous states, and then gradually succumb to complacency and corruption as they became as overly civilized along the lines of the people they once replaced-opening them up to displacement by the next phase of barbarians as the cycle repeated itself. The Mamluks wanted to keep their Turkic and Circassian military character and so recruited new members of the elite by purchasing slaves from what is now the southern steppe regions of Russia. These slaves would then become the personal property of the Sultan (himself a former slave or descendent thereof) and be educated and trained to become the military and ruling class. Distinct from the general population, their internal culture was quite egalitarian and merit based (though frequently unstable when it came to determining succession). Though this model is incredibly distinct both to its time and place (what isn’t?), Ibn Khaldun thought it worth learning from as it addressed many of the problems in premodern governance he had diagnosed.

The question certainly could be asked of us today. What outsider-yet-amenable class can we draw an elite from to keep things going without sliding to poorly into entrenched decline. It is a question that is worth answering, even if it may never be solved.

Art by the late and great Angus McBride in Osprey Publishing.

‘The Mamluk Sultanate: A History’ by Carl F. Petry seeks to give us a thorough examination of this original form of statehood. Extremely comprehensive, Petry’s narrative begins with a summary of the reigns and events of Sultans in the new government, its shaping in the crisis of the Mongol invasions (the only successfully defended country from those assaults in the region), the seizure of power by the nomadic slave-class and their erection of a new form of oligarchy on the ruins of the Ayyubid order, and their initial expansion. This was a ruling class more based on lifestyle than on ethnicity, as even the great defeater of the Mongols, Baibars, aped Mongol court customs and actively tried to recruit defected Mongols into his army. We then see how restrained the Mamluks were once they had direct control over Egypt, Syria, and the Hejaz. For the remainder of their over 250 years, the large and powerful state would act mostly defensively in upholding this order. (The invasion and vassalization of Cyprus being a big exception to this, but that itself was provoked by constant pirate attacks). Considering the quality of its elite troops in its early years and the weakness of many of its rivals, this is impressive and most likely aided the longevity of its regime. Additionally, being a hub of trade, more of its money could go into works of public infrastructure and building than one might expect from a military government largely made up of foreigners who kept themselves apart from most of their subjects.

The coming of the Ottomans, however, would change the situation. Another rising power that gained traction in the post-Mongol world, the Ottoman commitment to technological innovation would be the one thing the Mamluk edifice was not prepared to handle. The fatal flaw of their system was not the occasional coup and counter coups (this never actually divided the realm when it happened), but the requirement of a military based off specialist cavalry warfare. The Ottomans had no such restrictions as their system was hereditary monarchy and they were forged in far more apocalyptic circumstances after the Timurid incursions lay waste to their core regions. Therefore, the Ottomans had become innovators in both technology and tactics in the use of firearms. Something the Mamluks had only just started experimenting with just a few years before in the attempt to recruit a Nubian infantry gunner corps. This experiment, however, was extremely controversial towards guardians of the social order and it was hard to move forward with it before Selim the Grim descended onto Egypt and Syria in what would be the Ottoman Empire’s largest scale and most efficient conquest in its history. As an independent state the Mamluks would be no more, but as a class they would retain their regional rule in Egypt until their decisive defeat by Napoleon and the subsequent modernization programs of 19th Century Egypt as it moved out of the Ottoman orbit.

The remainder of the book breaks down various internal and structural topics of the Mamluk state. Petry is extremely thorough and his work, especially in regards to the political economy, jurisprudence, and promotion of the arts is to be commended. What we are left with is a work that, while lacking general audience narrative flow, has a well organized structure and lends itself well to referencing and citation. This was, no doubt, the intent. And for those of us whose primary fascination is that of the stranger states in history, this book is well worth the time.