Mamluk Survival In Ottoman Egypt
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
The armies of the Ottoman Empire destroyed the Mamluk Kingdom in a few short months during 922-23/1517. Under the leadership of Selim the Grim (r. 918-26/1512-20), they eliminated virtually all Mamluk resistance, occupied Egypt, and established their own government in Cairo. An observer at the time would assume that this Ottoman victory destroyed the Mamluk order and that Egypt would henceforth be governed by men and institutions coming from Istanbul.
The strangeness of the Mamluk order made this seem the more likely. Its origins lay in the slave troops recruited by the Ayyubids in the 6th/12th century; called mamluks, they hailed from the Central Asia and the Black Sea area. In 748/1250 they rebelled against their Ayyubid masters and took over the government on their own. They continued the practice of importing slaves to staff the armed forces; the most qualified of these went on to fill administrative posts both at the court and in the provinces. The Mamluks established a political system of their own based on education, a complex network of loyalties, and distinctive offices and customs. They used Turkic as a lingua franca among themselves and strenuously worked to keep native Egyptians out of the power structure; sons and grandsons of slaves tried to stay in it but were usually pushed out. Thus, the Mamluk order consisted of a self-perpetuating slave oligarchy which ruled Egypt and its provinces from 748/1250 to 922/1517 with impressive strength.
One would expect that the Ottomans would have done their best on conquering Egypt to destroy this system in order to control the country more closely. Surprisingly, they seem to have made no real effort to do so; the Mamluk system survived the crushing defeat of 922/1517 and continued with almost undiminished strength for yet three centuries. Indeed, the Mamluks increased their own power with time; it is reasonable to surmise that they would have broken away from Ottoman control had Napoleon not invaded Egypt in 1213/1798.
How did the Mamluks, an alien ruling minority, outlast their political independence? An explanation lies in developments immediately following the Ottoman conquest, when the Mamluks made a rapid recovery of their old power. They retained varying influence over the political institutions of Egypt: the position of governor became analogous to that of Mamluk sultan; the administration came fully under their control and they staffed much of the armed forces; and, as of old, native Egyptians continued to be excluded from power.
Information on Egypt immediately after the Ottoman conquest comes from virtually only one source, Bada'i' az-Zuhur fi Waqa'i' ad-Duhur by Ibn Iyas (852-930/1448-1524). Fortunately, it provides rich material: Ibn Iyas came in contact with the highest political circles and recorded events with considerable precision and objectivity; his chronicle also strays often enough from the actions of rulers and armies that the modern historian also finds evidence in it to assess social and economic conditions. Besides Ibn Iyas' work, numerous Turkish sources describing the conquest of Egypt survive, but they ignore internal Egyptian history following the conquest. Mufakahat al-Khillan fi Hawadith az-Zaman by Ibn Tulun (880-953/1473-1546) covers Syria and Egypt through 926/1520 but provides almost nothing original on Egypt after the conquest.
The Governor. Before leaving Egypt, Selim appointed a renegade Mamluk, Kha'ir Bey, as the first Ottoman governor of the country (Ibn Iyas, p. 203). Kha'ir Bey proceeded to rule Egypt as much as possible like the Mamluk sultans of old. He exercised many of their symbolic prerogatives, for example, moving into the Cairo citadel, former residence of the Mamluk sultans, within two days of Selim's departure from the city and immediately resuming the Mamluk practice of bestowing garments on favored officials and envoys (209). He gave new clothing to the four chief qadis on the first day of Ramadan (211) and resumed the practice, abandoned during Selim's sojourn in Cairo, of receiving the chief qadis on the first of each month (216, etc.). Kha'ir Bey undertook innumerable processions (e.g., 214, 273, 277) and outings (216, 318, 321) through Cairo.
As governor, he also claimed the substantial powers of Mamluk rulers. Kha'ir Bey served as chief judge of Egypt (254-55, 357-59), placing himself at the apex of the legal system; he sold state offices as of old (implied on 301); and he even retained traditional Mamluk control over appointments of the chief qadis in Mecca and Medina (341). In these and other ways, the first Ottoman governor of Egypt, a Mamluk himself, maintained Mamluk traditions in order to win as much power for himself as possible.
In one major way, the Ottoman governor had more authority than almost any sovereign Mamluk ruler; for whereas before 922/1517 power in Egypt was precarious, subject to ever-shifting changes in support among ambitious amirs, after the Ottoman conquest it derived from Istanbul. As an appointee of the Ottomans, the governor became malik al-umara', king of the amirs, and no longer had to contend with jealous, unreliable rivals to quite the same extent; he could refer to a higher authority in times of crisis, thus assuring a wider acceptance of his own command. The turmoil of Egyptian politics largely subsided after the country lost its independence.
At the same time, Kha'ir Bey and his successors lost several important symbols and functions of the Mamluk sultans. The two Islamic prerogatives of sovereignty (mention of the ruler's name in the khutba and on coinage) now both belonged to Selim, not Kha'ir Bey (148, 215). Ottoman conquest meant that the ruler of Egypt paid rather than received tribute; before 922/1517 Egypt received tribute from Syria, the Hijaz, Cyprus, and parts of the Sudan, Libya, and Anatolia, but now Kha'ir Bey had to send "periodic gifts in cash and kind" to Selim "from his own revenues." Kha'ir Bey had no control over foreign policy; while Mamluk sultans had active relations with Muslim rulers as far as India and with all the major European powers of the Mediterranean, with few exceptions, Kha'ir Bey only had contact with his Ottoman overlord. Selim maintained direct contact with a number of officials in Egypt, keeping check on Kha'ir Bey's authority. For example, Ibn Iyas tells of a qadi appointed by Selim; when the Egyptian populace was abused by soldiers, he threatened to inform Selim about this state of affairs and this threat compelled Kha'ir Bey to take measures to repair the situation (233-34).
Kha'ir Bey died at the end of 928/1522 and a new governor was appointed from Istanbul, Mustafa Pasha. Not a Mamluk, he was the brother-in-law of the new Ottoman ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent. Still, he maintained the office of the governor of Egypt as Kha'ir Bey had established it; by the time Mustafa Pasha came to power, the symbols and powers of his office had already been defined. Generations hence, the governor of Egypt remained malik al-umara' of the country with an authority generally accepted by the Mamluk amirs. The many vaunted reforms ordered by Ibrahim Pasha during his brief tenure in Egypt during 931/1525 must be seen within a framework established by Kha'ir Bey. The first Ottoman governor of Egypt had a decisive role in delineating the powers of his office and in defining it in the Mamluk tradition.
Administration. After their military debacle, Mamluk leaders won an astoundingly quick and complete return to political power. Most of them fled Cairo after the Ottomans won at the Battle of Raydaniya on 29 Dhu'l-Hijja 922, but a small number stayed behind and co-operated with the new rulers. Because they knew Egypt and spoke Turkic, they became indispensable to the conquerors. Within a month of the Ottoman occupation of Cairo, Mamluk amirs already filled important political posts, such as the muhtasib (market inspector) and tax supervisor (161-62).
Selim left Cairo on 23 Sha'ban 923; two days later Kha'ir Bey offered general amnesty to all Mamluks (208). On the following day, in what Ibn Iyas calls "Kha'ir Bey's first actions to deal with conditions in the country" (210, lines 6-7), he made many political appointments, all of them filled by Mamluks. One, the mayor of Cairo, he granted to his own personal slave (208-10). Mamluk amirs not only took charge of the administration, but they filled the distinctive Mamluk offices of old (such as the Chamberlain, Master of the House, Director of the Stables); further, they commonly returned to the very same positions they had occupied before the Ottoman conquest (208-10, 212). Also, leading amirs held more titles than ever before, some of them filling three, four, even five important positions at the same time; such a concentration of power may have been due to the death of so many amirs during the war with the Ottomans, leaving the survivors with increased duties. When some Mamluk amirs were called to Istanbul, they were replaced by fellow Mamluks (276-77); when a Mamluk provincial governor was removed from office, another Mamluk took his position (310).
Mamluks effected a dramatic and nearly total return to political power within months of their military defeat. They reinstituted Mamluk offices and staffed them, scarcely missing a beat. Only in minor ways did the form change—such as the elimination of tablakhanat (musical bands) attending amirs (275), the decline of polo-playing, and the replacement of Mamluk ceremonial clothing with the Ottoman qaftan; for the most part, Mamluk administrative power continued undisturbed.
Mamluk control of the administration can be easily explained; they knew their profession well and could not easily be replaced. Like bureaucrats everywhere, they made themselves indispensable to the ruling authorities. The Ottoman central government did not attempt to challenge their power; when Mustafa Pasha was sent to Egypt as governor he did not bring a retinue of assistants who could take over the Egyptian government. Mamluk control of the government remained intact for centuries, even growing with time. Their power increased so much by the 12th/18th century that, when Istanbul lost much of its direct control over the provinces, they became virtually autonomous.
The Army. Mamluks perished in large numbers in their struggle against the Ottomans, beginning with the Battle of Marj Dabiq (25 Rajab 922) and ending with the Battle of Giza (6-10 Rabi' I 923); but again, those soldiers who survived retained their old powers substantially intact, though militarily they faced rivals sent from Istanbul. Selim conquered Egypt with an army made up of Janissaries, Sipahis (whom Ibn Iyas calls al-Inkishariya and al-Isbahaniya), and other specialized divisions. On his departure, Selim left three or four corps in Egypt as garrison troops. Initially they controlled Cairo and Lower Egypt, so Mamluk soldiers fled either to the Nile Valley and the deserts or they remained in Cairo "in wretched conditions, wearing a peasant guise of low hat (zumut qura'), black garments and shirts with huge sleeves so that anyone who saw them could not tell they were not peasants" (208, lines 15-17; see also 224). They apparently all accepted Kha'ir Bey's amnesty of 25 Sha'ban 923, for Ibn Iyas never mentions any independent Mamluks fighting the Ottoman authorities after that date.
After the amnesty, the Mamluks regrouped along their old lines and immediately purchased horses and weapons, notwithstanding Kha'ir Bey's strenuous efforts to prevent this (212-13). They dressed once again in their traditional costume, although Ibn Iyas reports that some donned Ottoman clothing so that they could steal with impunity, leading Kha'ir Bey to appeal to the Mamluks that they wear only their own style of clothing and remain distinct from Ottoman troops (213). Far from attempting to merge the Mamluk soldiers into the Ottoman army, the governor encouraged them to remain separate. At the same time, however, high Mamluk officers received qaftans to make them indistinguishable from their Ottoman colleagues—except that they had beards and the Ottomans did not (220). This policy of keeping the soldiers separate and bringing the officers together may reflect Kha'ir Bey's desire to balance his need for united support with his fear of a united opposition.
The Mamluk army rapidly rose to become the strongest military force in Egypt. Defeated and dispersed throughout the country until the amnesty in Sha'ban 923, they re-armed the next month, received full wages one month later (224), and continued thereafter to draw full military pay (245, 247, 255); they constituted Kha'ir Bey's strongest and most trusted force. In a remarkable reversal of role, when Selim requested some Mamluk officers and Ottoman soldiers to join him in Syria (234), the Mamluks agreed on the condition that they be well paid for the expedition while the Ottoman troops, Janissaries and Sipahis, resisted so strongly that large numbers of them fled Cairo rather than obey (234, 237-38). A few Ottoman soldiers did leave for Syria (239) but most refused to go, for reasons unexplained by Ibn Iyas. To maintain his position as governor, Kha'ir Bey had to dispatch whatever troops Selim requested; ironically, the Mamluks (whom he had recently betrayed to join Selim) saved him. Thus did a force composed principally of Mamluks fight on Selim's behalf and defeat Janissaries and Sipahis attempting to avoid Ottoman service on 23 Jumada I 924 (256). This battle marks the full re-emergence of Mamluk military pre-eminence in Egypt, just over one year after their humiliating defeat at the Battle of Giza. Commenting on this peculiar turn of events, Ibn lyas reflects that "strange things happen every day and night" (257, line 9).
Along with military power, the Mamluks regained their customary privileges: power, wealth and prestige returned to them almost as before the Ottoman conquest. Their service to the Ottomans won them favor in Selim's eyes; he twice ordered Kha'ir Bey to pay their wages (244, 328) and he apparently also allowed the Mamluks to continue recruiting new slaves in the Black Sea region. The Mamluks remained a self-perpetuating elite, distinct from the bulk of the Egyptian population and dominating it.
After Kha'ir Bey's death, the Mamluks revolted against the new governor, Mustafa Pasha, and lost to his Ottoman forces. This might have spelled the end of their power, but again it did not and the Mamluks endured. Only a year later, a new governor sent from Istanbul, Ahmad Pasha, tried to establish an independent regime in Egypt but was defeated on the sultan's behalf by the forces of Hanim Hamzawi, a Mamluk. This second reversal of roles points to two features of Egyptian public life after 922/1517: fighting for or against the sultan in Istanbul was a matter of political expediency, not deep sentiment; and Ottoman garrison troops stationed in Egypt could not control the country on their own against the Mamluk soldiers.
But neither could the Mamluks dominate the country as they had for so long; they had now to contend with the presence of Ottoman troops. Relations between Mamluk and Ottoman corps were complex; besides the two battles already noted, they fought endless skirmishes, even between amirs (287-88). Relations were so delicate that a Janissary accused of not paying for soap almost brought the armies to battle in Jumada I 926 (333-34). At relaxed moments, though, Ottoman amirs might join Mamluks at a wedding (337), the two forces might join to fight the Bedouin (224, 327) or to patrol the area surrounding Cairo (321). Ottoman corps sometimes fought among themselves on occasion (298, 300, 318-19), providing the Mamluks with opportunities to exploit their divisions.
Just as the Ottoman governor broke the Mamluks' exclusive political hold over Egypt, so too the Ottoman forces ended their military monopoly. In both cases, the authority of the sultan in Istanbul, though remote, added a crucial factor to Egyptian politics. Fighting sometimes for the sultan, sometimes against him, the context of Mamluk activities changed profoundly after 922/1517. Accommodating the Ottoman governor and garrison troops meant that the Mamluks were but one of several factions, though by the 12th/18th century they had gained such power in Egypt that they could afford to break up into several factions among themselves.
The Egyptians. Egyptians felt the change in regime that took place in 922/1517 only slightly at first, though it eventually affected their lives profoundly. Egyptians had little political voice in either the Mamluk or the Ottoman periods; the political changes outlined above brought had little immediate bearing on the bulk of the population except insofar as the transition to Ottoman rule brought chaos (147ff.) and encouraged the Bedouin to raid (e.g. 167). The native population continued to supply religious leaders and government bureaucrats, as in Mamluk times; that they would continue to do so was never questioned. Selim captured the four chief qadis of Egypt shortly after the Battle of Marj Dabiq and reappointed them to their old positions when he reached Cairo (165). Politically, Egyptians experienced almost no dislocation.
Nor did Ottoman rule bring many immediate changes to the daily lives of Egyptians. Selim specifically endeavored to spare them major dislocations; on one occasion he sent word to Kha'ir Bey from Syria ordering that "the people both great and small be left to their customs" (244, line 22 to 245, line 1), instructions he repeated again two years later (353). Kha'ir Bey fell behind in paying government officials (225) until Selim ordered him to catch up (244). Selim's will seems to have been carried out, for Ibn Iyas records changes in customs only among the Mamluks, not the Egyptians. Interested in maximizing revenues from Egypt and keeping the province under quiet control, the Ottomans had every incentive not to maltreat the natives. Selim's behavior on entering Cairo for the first time confirms this; he called for the rectification of past injustices—"let he who has been wronged present his case to Sultan Selim" (158, lines 16-17)—and (shades of Napoleon!) he accused the Mamluks of oppression (159).
At the same time, Ibn lyas remarks that "Selim and his viziers every day brought about a new outrage" (163, line 14); especially harmful were the many new taxes levied. Herein lies the major long-term consequence of the Ottoman conquest, economic decline, attended by cultural and social stagnation. Although Gibb and Bowen consider the loss of Indian transit trade revenues due to Portuguese control of the Indian Ocean to be "the most serious blow" in the overall drop in Egyptian prosperity from the 10th/16th century forward, loss of independence was probably yet more important. For the first time in over five hundred years, Egypt had to pay tribute out rather than receive it. Revenues that might have gone for culture and public works went out of the country. Ottoman rule brought much economic dislocation, some of which was apparent from the first. Currency problems recurred from the moment Selim minted his own coinage in Egypt (174), waqf lands were confiscated (189, 254), eighteen hundred skilled craftsmen were called to Istanbul (118), and increased Bedouin raiding hurt trade (327-28). Inflation was severe (270, 282, 323, 355-56), reaching such proportions that the markets had to close down on occasion (e.g. 356), soldiers rebelled frequently to demand higher wages (214, 283, 294, 315, 322-23), and fewer Egyptians went on the pilgrimage to Mecca (218), a fact that Ibn Iyas ascribes directly to inflation in one year (317). Perhaps too, the diminished public celebration of holidays was connected with economic insecurities (216, 226, 245, 276, 316). Thus did the bleakest era of Egyptian economic history begin, to continue in like manner for nearly three centuries.
Conclusion. Even during Ibn Iyas' lifetime, the two main characteristics of Ottoman Egypt had emerged: economic decline and Mamluk continuity. Though stripped of their independence and of their provinces outside of Egypt, though having to accommodate an Ottoman governor and garrison troops, in most respects the Mamluk elite retained its favorable position throughout the Ottoman period. Indeed, Ottoman conquest can even be seen as providing it with a lease on life: The Mamluk Kingdom had so weakened by the early 10th/16th century that it could not have remained in power for long; had any conqueror other than the Ottomans taken Egypt, the Mamluks would presumably have been destroyed (that is what both Napoleon and Muhammad 'Ali immediately endeavored to do).
Why did the Ottomans allow Mamluks to remain so much in control of Egypt? The reason probably lies in the language and culture of the two groups; they both spoke Turkic dialects and both were foreigners in Egypt. Ottomans and Mamluks shared a distance from the Arabic-speaking Egyptian subjects; the Ottomans made a division between the ruling class (Osmanlılar) and the Egyptian subjects (Mısırlılar) and there was never any question that the Mamluks belonged to the former. Had they not been fellow Turks, this cultural bond would not have existed and they would most likely not have been admitted to the Ottoman ruling class. A look at the fate of other ruling elites after Ottoman conquest makes this clear; whether Muslim (as in Tunisia) or not (as in Serbia), they virtually disappeared, to be replaced by new agents of Istanbul. Significantly, the only major exception to this pattern was Bosnia—and there the old elite survived by Turkicizing itself. The fact that both Mamluks and Janissaries were Turkic-speaking slave troops serving in an Arabic-speaking country meant that they had cultural reasons for cooperation as well as institutional reasons for competition. The importance of cultural affinity has perhaps been neglected in the understanding of Ottoman imperial controls.
Not that the Ottomans were anomalous in this regard; many other empires depended on cultural bonds and relied more heavily on those deemed similar. Note, for example, the case of the British and the Dutch-speaking Boers of South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. Both groups of Europeans had settled in South Africa where they battled for control of a country in which black Africans formed the overwhelming majority of the population. Racial and linguistic affinities between the Boers and the British did mean that they had similar interests, however. Hailing from the Netherlands, the Boers arrived in South Africa in 1652: two and a half centuries later they found themselves defending their only homeland from the British, masters of a world-wide empire seeking to bring South Africa under their control. Britain mustered its vast resources to defeat the Dutch settlers and installed its own government. But the Dutch regained control of the country almost immediately, thanks to their skills and organization. Through all this, the native population had only a passive role.
So it was when the Ottoman imperial power crushed the Mamluk settlers. Just as it never occurred to Europeans at the turn of this century that Africans could rule, so was it preposterous that Egyptians be enfranchised in the 10th/16th century; politics remained a concern for Turks alone.
 Volume 5, edited by M. Mustafa (Cairo, 1961).
Reader comments (1) on this item
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes