Although the phenomenon of using slaves as soldiers had antecedents in pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, the formal institution of military slavery in the Islamic world had its origin in the Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century, when al-Mu’tasim (833-842), distrusting the loyalty of some regiments of his army, came increasingly to rely on his personal slaves for protection, eventually expanding his slave bodyguard to an alleged 20,000 men, garrisoned at Samarra. From the ninth through the eighteenth centuries the Mamluk soldier – slave corps formed an important part of the armies of many Islamic dynasties, including the famous Janissaries of the Ottoman sultans. It was in Egypt, however that the mamluk military system reached it apogee, under the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517), when Egypt was ruled for a quarter of a millennia by an aristocracy of slave-soldiers.
Mamluk is an Arabic term meaning "possessed" or "owned," and generally refers to military slavery. (Military slaves were also sometimes called abd or ghulam.) During the Mamluk dynasty the major source of recruitment was Turkish nomads from the steppes of Central Asia, who were viewed as exceptionally hardy, loyal and warlike, and who had learned basic skills of archery and horsemanship during their nomadic youth on the steppe. During the early Mamluk dynasty the majority of the mamluks came from Kipchak tribes; after the reign of Sultan Barquq (1382-1399), recruitment focused on Circassians. However, during different periods of the dynasty, smaller numbers of Mamluks were recruited from a number of additional ethnic groups, including Mongols, Tatars, Byzantines, Russians, Western Europeans, Africans, and Armenians.
Mamluks began their military careers as young nomad boys on the steppes of Central Asia, who were captured as slaves during military campaigns or raids. Slave merchants would select boys in their early teens with the proper physique and skills, transporting them to the slave markets of Syria or Egypt. There, agents of the sultan would purchase the most promising candidates, enrolling them in a rigorous training program. The new Mamluk recruits were taught Islam, and at least nominally converted, while engaging in multi – year military training focusing on horsemanship, archery, fencing, the use of the lance, mace and battle – axe, and many other aspects of military technology, tactics and strategy; several dozen military manuals survive detailing all aspects of Mamluk military science and training. Emphasis was placed on skill at mounted archery; Mamluk warriors represented an amalgamation of long-established Islamic military systems with a professionalized version of the warrior traditions of steppe nomads.
The displaced young teenagers soon became fiercely loyal to their new surrogate families, with the sultan as their new father and their barracks companions as their new brothers. They came to realize that, despite their technical slave-status, the Mamluk military system provided them a path to wealth, power, and honor, and, for the most fortunate and bold, even the sultanate itself. Upon completion of the training program, which lasted around half a dozen years, young Mamluk cadets were manumitted and began service in the army, the brightest prospects being enlisted in the Khassikiyya, the personal bodyguard of the sultan. Mamluks were distinguished from the rest of society by ranks, titles, wealth, dress, weapons, horse riding, special position in processions, and court ritual—they were renowned for their overweening pride in their Mamluk status. The Mamluks thus formed a military aristocracy, which, ironically, could only be entered through enslavement.
Armies were organized into regiments often named after the sultan who had recruited and trained them—for example, the Mamluks of the sultan al-Malik al-Zahir Baybars (1260-1277) were the Zahiriyya. Successful soldiers could be promoted from the ranks. The Mamluk officer corps was divided into three major ranks: Amir ("commander") of Ten (who commanded a squad of ten Mamluks), the Amir of Forty, and the highest rank, "Amir of One Hundred and Leader of One Thousand," who commanded one hundred personal Mamluks, and lead a 1000-man regiment in combat. There were traditionally twenty-four Amirs of One Hundred, the pinnacle of the Mamluk army, who formed an informal governing council for the sultanate; some eventually became sultan.
The Mamluks had a formal and highly organized system of payment based on rank and function, overseen by a sophisticated bureaucracy. Remuneration included monthly salaries, equipment and clothing, food and fodder supplies, and special combat pay. Many Mamluk officers and soldiers were given land grants known as iqta’, both for their own support and to pay for the maintenance of additional soldiers under their command. Such grants were carefully controlled and monitored by the bureaucracy, and amounted to regular payment of revenues and produce of the land rather than a permanent transfer of ownership; the grant of an iqta’ could be withdrawn and redistributed.
At its height, the Mamluk military system was one of the finest in the world, with the Mamluks of Egypt simultaneously defeating both the Crusaders and the Mongols in the second half of the thirteenth century. During most of the fourteenth century, however, the Mamluks faced no serious outside military threat, and their military training and efficiency began to decline. During this period the major fighting the Mamluks engaged in was usually factional feuding and civil wars associated with internal power struggles and coups. When faced with the rising military threat of the Ottoman Turks in the late fifteenth century, the Mamluks initiated military reforms, which ultimately proved insufficient. The Mamluks were also unsuccessful at efficiently integrating new gunpowder weapons into a military system dominated by a haughty mounted military aristocracy. The Mamluks were decisively defeated in wars with the rising Ottomans (1485-1491, 1516-1517), who conquered Egypt in 1517, overthrowing the Mamluk sultanate.
William J. Hamblin
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