It is a sad fact that our ancient history was filled with slavery and injustice of all kinds. Great empires and powerful rulers often relied on their slave forces both for building of cities and for waging of wars. The ancient Romans and Greeks were known for their abundance of slaves who were used for anything one could need. But what happens when those very same slaves gain a degree of power and influence? The mamluks were a special caste of slave soldiers who rose to prominence in the Islamic world. In the realms of caliphates, sultanates, and empires, the mamluks proved to be an invaluable asset. The mamluks originated as slaves from all over the world but had a chance to rise to lofty heights. And that they did.
Ottoman Mamluk lancers, early 16th century. Etching by Daniel Hopfer (circa 1526–1536), British Museum, London. (Daniel Hopfer / Public domain )
Who Were the Mamluks?
Throughout history, the mamluks have been known by a variety of names, all originating from the Arabic مملوك (mamlūk). This was transliterated in many various ways, so one can often see names such as mamluq, mameluke, mamaluke, and even marmeluke. But no matter which name you choose the meaning remains the same. The literal translation of mamluk would be “one who is owned” or a slave.
Almost exclusively, the mamluk soldiers were taken as slaves from non-Arab peoples and nations that were usually subordinate to Islamic powers. These included peoples of Caucasian, Turkic, Circassian, Slavic, Southeastern and Eastern European, and Afro-Asiatic ethnicities. Mamluks were often taken as children or bought on slave markets and trained in the arts of war in Islamic “military academies.”
Over time, mamluks became one of the major military forces in the Islamic world. Their ethnicities also grew with additions from the Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Greeks, Albanians, Egyptians, and South Slavs. This created a true ethnically diverse fighting force, which excelled in the warrior role. In time they became the backbone of the sultan’s forces and rose to important military and administrative roles. Over their long history, the mamluks were at times important characters at royal courts, the turning point in historic battles, and even sultans!
In simplest terms, the mamluks were a military caste of slave soldiers and freed slaves, which at times paradoxically rose above their own masters. The mamluks survived for over 1,000 years and that fact alone tells us of their importance across the Islamic world.
Mamluks weren’t the lowest slave rank! Amongst the Muslims, the lowliest slaves had no rights, and were not allowed to carry weapons or perform certain important tasks. That is where the mamluks differed.
A Muslim Greek Mamluk portrayed by the French painter Louis Dupré in 1825. (Louis Dupré / Public domain )
Slaves With Swords Tip the Scales
The earliest origins of the mamluk caste can be traced back to the 9th century AD. Scholars and historians tell us that this defined military caste emerged amongst the Islamic society of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad . It is agreed that they were originally synonymous with the term Ghilman (or Ghulam) which was another class of slave-mercenary soldier. These were the earliest such soldiers appearing in the Islamic world, particularly in the Iranian dynasties of the Qajar, Safavid, and Afsharid dynasties. Still an even earlier origin of the slave soldiers can be traced back to the life of prophet Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphate , where there is mention of African slaves used as a military force.
Over the centuries following the Rashidun Caliphate’s influence the use of slave soldiers only increased. From the 600s to the 9th century AD only a few of these slaves were used as soldiers. But by the end of the 9th century, slave soldiers became the most potent and most dominant feature of Islamic armies.
And with their increased importance and freedom these slave soldiers often revolted against their masters, or even surpassed them entirely. Early on, they prompted several important revolts, the foremost of these being the period called the “Anarchy at Samarra.” This period of extreme instability in the Abbasid Caliphate lasted from 861 to 870 AD and saw the powerful military groups of the “ghilman” revolt against their overlords, the caliphs. It was one of the most dramatic episodes in the entire history of this Islamic Caliphate .
And immediately after the Anarchy at Samarra ended, another vicious slave rebellion broke. The “Zanj Rebellion” was also directed against the Abbasid Caliphate and instigated by Bantu-speaking African slaves (known by Muslims as Zanj), many of whom were captured and used as slave-soldiers. The Zanj revolt is considered by historians as one of the most vicious and brutal uprisings in Abbasid history, and it claimed tens of thousands of lives in the short time it lasted (from 869 to 883 AD).
Trained from Early Age to Become the Elite Soldiers
In many regards, the Mamluk soldier caste developed after the rebellions and surpassed the Ghilman caste, becoming a more refined military slave class. The Ghilman caste included both slaves and free men, and was largely based on the ancient, pre-existing practices of Central Asia. To that end, the mamluks emerged as a wholly Islamic “design,” a stricter, more controllable, and more potent caste of slave soldiers that would finally end the rebellion era.
Many consider the prominent Abbasid prince and war leader, Abu Ahmad Talha ibn Ja’far (better known as al-Muwaffaq) to be the defining figure in the emergence of the mamluk caste. This man was crucial in restoring stability in the caliphate after the Zanj Rebellion and defending Iraq from the rival Saffarid dynasty. He is considered to have improved the reliability of slave soldiers, setting the foundations for the continued influence the mamluk caste.
Either way, the use of slave soldiers as the main backbone of the armies was quickly established as a rule. And that was why, when the Abbasid Caliphate was fragmented, both Mamluk and Ghilman castes (often used synonymously) were used as the definition and the basis of military power across the Islamic world, which stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to Central Asia.
As Islamic power and influence spread across the world, many other ethnicities found their way into the mamluk ranks, often taken forcibly at a very young age. Turks, Armenians, Copts, Sudanese, Circassians, Africans, and many others all stood shoulder to shoulder, carrying weapons, and fighting devotedly for their Muslim overlords.
Over the centuries, especially in the High Middle Ages, the mamluks grew into a powerful knightly military class, and were present in almost all Muslim societies. One of the most powerful and enduring knightly realms was established by the Mamluks of Islamic Egypt. Here the Mamluks grew from the simplest slave soldiers to powerful lords and knights, holding both political and military power. And not only that: some mamluks rose to become emirs and beys, and even sultans!
One of their most important power centers was known as the Mamluk Sultanate , which was centered on Syria and Egypt. It lasted from 1250 to 1517 and was an instrumental force in the fight against the Christian European crusaders. What is more, it was the Mamluk Sultanate that drove the Crusaders out of the Levant in 1302 AD, bringing the age of the crusades to an end.
The Rus trading saqaliba slaves with the Khazars. The slaves ended up in the Abbasid Caliphate via the Caspian Sea Volga trade route from Eastern Europe. (Sergey Ivanov / Public domain )
The Saqaliba : Slav Soldiers that Rose to Power
The mamluks were also very influential in the Iberian Peninsula, in the age when the Muslim caliphs ruled over it. Here, the so-called “saqaliba” were the most prominent of all slaves. The saqaliba were Slavs, and the term saqaliba is the Arabic pronunciation of the Greek “sklavenoi” or Slavs. The Arabs relied on pillaging and slave markets to procure masses of Slavs from the Balkans, the Adriatic coasts, and Central Europe. Most often they ended up as mamluk soldiers, but in the Iberian Peninsula they quickly surpassed this role. In fact, they amassed immense power and influence, and served in the highest positions at court. And over time, many of them became major political players, coming to rule over numerous taifas, independent Muslim principalities that dotted the Iberian Peninsula.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the mamluk soldiers emerged from young boys that were captured, bought, or taken forcibly from their diverse and distant homelands. One of the major sources of boy soldiers was the practice known as the devshirme, better known as the “blood tax.” This was a practice of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. It was a special levy in which the Ottoman authorities forcibly kidnapped boys from their families and trained them to become soldiers. The devshirme tax was one of the main sources of soldiers for the Ottomans and was focused almost exclusively on their Christian subordinates from the Balkans. In this way, the Slavs came to be one of the largest groups slave-soldiers used in the Islamic world.
Over time, the identity of the mamluks became complex. It was clear that they were well above ordinary slaves and were never used to perform menial tasks. A mamluk was a very valuable asset, and it took many years to train a slave in the military arts. In many regards, a mamluk was best described as an enslaved mercenary soldier: owned but allowed to carry weapons.
In Islamic Egypt and Levant, the mamluks were even above the general populace where social status was considered. This meant that the most skillful men of the mamluk ranks were given a chance to rise in status. This was since rulers often selected these men to serve in administrative and political roles. And in time, a mamluk could even reach the role of a vizier, a high court position.
The sultan of Morocco with the Black Guard, 1862 painting by Eugène Delacroix. (Eugène Delacroix / Public domain)
The Mamluk Elite: The Slaves of al-Būkhārī
The “ Black Guard ” was one of the most famous Mamluk armies. It was known variously as “The Sultan’s Slaves,” “The Slave Army,” or “Slaves of al-Būkhārī,” and was a major fighting force in employ of the Moroccan sultan, Isma‘il ibn Sharif. The Black Guard were his elite corps and bodyguards, composed of black African slaves and special Harratin slave soldiers.
Sultan ibn Sharif was quite controversial, as he ordered that all black people of Morocco should be enslaved, no matter their status or religion. It is said that over 221,000 black persons were enslaved during his reign. However, only a handful managed to fit in the ranks of the elite “Black Guard.” These mamluks were the main fighting unit in the sultan’s wars and any other conflict that occurred during his long reign. Oddly enough, they were extremely loyal even though they were slaves. They were brutal, efficient, and never yielded and their unwavering loyalty kept the sultan on the throne for 55 years. The sultan always moved around in public surrounded by eighty of his black slaves.
The massacre of the Mamluks at Cairo, Egypt, painted by Horace Vernet. (Horace Vernet / Public domain )
A Bloody End of the Mamluks in 1811
The Mamluk soldiers survived well into the Napoleonic era. During the Napoleonic Wars, the mamluks that served the Ottoman Empire could trace their lineage of service back to the 13th century. They were used as an elite cavalry unit and were known for their daring mass cavalry charges. However, their tactics were quickly proving to be outdated, especially when facing technologically superior French units, with their potent weapons and unique defensive formations.
The Mamluks were finally fade away in the Napoleonic Era. In 1811, their last remaining power was in Egypt, where their Mamluk Sultanate existed for centuries. However, in the power vacuum that followed the French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, several factions contended for rule over Egypt.
The power struggle ended in favor of Muhammad Ali, an Albanian Ottoman governor who treacherously lured the Mamluk leaders into Cairo and massacred them there mercilessly. It was a bloody and drawn out end of the power-holding mamluks, who had held power for over a thousand years.
Top image: The battle of Wadi al-Khazandar in 1299, depicting Mongol archers and the Mamluk cavalry. Source: Public domain
By Aleksa Vučković
Guo, L. 1998. Early Mamluk Syrian Historiography: Al-Yūnīnī’s Dhayl Mirʼāt Al-zamān, Tome I. BRILL.
Levanoni, A. 2021. Egypt and Syria under Mamluk Rule: Political, Social and Cultural Aspects. BRILL.
Levanoni, A. 2021. A Turning Point in Mamluk History: The Third Reign of al-Nāsir Muḥammad Ibn Qalāwūn (1310-1341). BRILL.
Luz, N. 2014. The Mamluk City in the Middle East: History, Culture, and the Urban Landscape. Cambridge University Press.
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