The Knights of Islam – the Wars of the Mamluks, 1250-1517, James Waterson

The Knights of Islam – the Wars of the Mamluks, 1250-1517, James Waterson

The word Mamluk comes from the Arabic for ‘one who is owned’ or ‘slave’, but it came to refer to a class of warriors who began their military career as slaves, but who were often freed after their initial training, forming a military caste that was in theory at least more loyal to their employer than the previous Arab armies had been, and less demanding. However in several places the Mamluks replaced the dynastys that had employed them, forming Sultanates of their own. The most famous example of this came in Egypt, where the Mamluks overthrew Saladin’s Ayyubid dynasty less than sixty years after his death, and established a dynasty that survived for two and a half centuries.

This book focuses on the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt, but in order to tell their story it also has to look at the origins of the Mamluks, how they were recruited and trained, and how their fought. It is clear that the dedication of the original Mamluk warriors was the reason for their remarkable successes. The training regime was intense, and created a class of highly skilled archers, who could defeat the Mongols at their own game. There are some fascinating sections on Mamluk training manuals, which reveal an attention to detail that rivals the Samurai.

One of the most impressive features of the defeat of the Mongols is that it happened while the Mamluk dynasty itself was in the middle of a period of deep uncertainty, with. Qutuz, the Sultan who actually won the battle of Ain Jalut on 3 September 1260, had only been in power since November 1259 and was deposed by Baybars in October 1260.

One notable feature of the Mamluk sultanate was the desire of many Sultans to be succeeded by their son, and the short reigns of almost all of those sons. Even the great Baybars wasn’t able to ensure a stable succession – the son who followed him onto the throne only lasted for two years, before being replaced by another son, who only managed four months! The succession does appear to have been the weak point in the Mamluk system – most strong Sultans were surrounded by a court of powerful emirs of their own generation, who didn’t take well to being replaced by the next ruler’s men.

The initial victories over the Mongols didn’t end their presence in the Middle East, only stopped them completing their conquest of the area. They were followed by a long period of hostility between the Mamluks, whose empire stretched up the Mediterreanean coast to western Syria and the edges of Anatolia and the Ilkanate, which ruled much of modern Iraq and Iran. An uneasy balance of power developed here, with the Mamluks often allied with the Mongols of the Golden Horde against their common enemy. The unusual nature of the Mamluks also meant that on occasion the Mongols were defeated by the forces of a Mamluk sultan of Mongol origin.

Waterson paints a picture of a very impressive dynasty, one that was able to deal with threat of the Mongols, end the last Crusader states and weather the storm of Tamerlane, before eventually falling to the Ottomans, who had their own slave troops in the shape of the Janissaries. However this wasn’t the end of the individual Mamluks of Egypt, who survived an initial Ottoman effort to wipe them out to become the Ottoman’s own ruling class in Egypt, famously surviving long enough to be defeated by Napoleon!

1 – Strangers from a Strange Land: The Mamluk Enigma
2 – Under Siege: Steppe People and Crusaders
3 – To Power: The Birth of the Mamluk Sultanate
4 – Prester John Comethin: The Mongol War Begins
5 – Bloodless Battles and Bloody Drills: Building the War Machine
6 – Dubious Allies and Untrustworthy Friends: Baybars’ Last Campaigns
7 – The Pattern of Power: The Qalawunids
8 – Triumph and Discord: The End of Outremer
9 – Victory and New Enemies: The End of the Ilkhanate
10 – Enemies Within and Without: The Rise of the Ottomans and Tamerlane
11 – Riding with the Ghosts of the Past: The Dynasty Falls

Author: James Waterson
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 288
Publisher: Greenhill
Year: 2022

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