The Mamluks

They were class of fierce warrior-enslaved people

Illustration of Mameluke/Mamluk chief in battle gear, 1798.
Mameluke or Mamluk Chief.

Print Collector / Getty Images

The Mamluks were a class of warrior-enslaved people, mostly of Turkic or Caucasian ethnicity, who served between the 9th and 19th century in the Islamic world. Despite their origins as enslaved people, the Mamluks often had higher social standing than free-born people. In fact, individual rulers of Mamluk background reigned in various countries, including the famous Mahmud of Ghazni in Afghanistan and India, and every ruler of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria (1250-1517).

Enslaved People of High Standing

The term mamluk means "slave" in Arabic, and comes from the root malaka, meaning "to possess." Thus, a mamluk was a person who was owned. It is interesting to compare Turkish Mamluks with Japanese geisha or Korean gisaeng, in that they were technically considered women of pleasure, yet they could hold a very high status in society. No geisha ever became Empress of Japan, however.

Rulers valued their enslaved people-warrior armies because the soldiers often were raised in barracks, away from their homes and even separated from their original ethnic groups. Thus, they had no separate family or clan affiliation to compete with their military esprit de corps. However, the intense loyalty within the Mamluk regiments sometimes allowed them to band together and bring down the rulers themselves, installing one of their own as sultan instead.

The Mamluks' Role in History

It's not a surprise that the Mamluks were key players in several important historical events. In 1249, for example, the French king Louis IX launched a Crusade against the Muslim world. He landed at Damietta, Egypt, and essentially blundered up and down the Nile for several months, until he decided to besiege the town of Mansoura. Instead of taking the city, however, the Crusaders ended up running out of supplies and starving themselves The Mamluks wiped out Louis's weakened army shortly thereafter at the Battle of Fariskur on April 6, 1250. They seized the French king and ransomed him off for a tidy sum.

A decade later, the Mamluks faced a new foe. On September 3, 1260, they triumphed over the Mongols of the Ilkhanate at the Battle of Ayn Jalut. This was a rare defeat for the Mongol Empire and marked the south-western border of the Mongols' conquests. Some scholars have suggested that the Mamluks saved the Muslim world from being erased at Ayn Jalut; whether or not that is the case, the Ilkhanates themselves soon converted to Islam.

Egypt's Fighting Elite

More than 500 years after these events, the Mamluks were still Egypt's fighting elite when Napoleon Bonaparte of France launched his 1798 invasion. Bonaparte had dreams of driving overland through the Middle East and seizing British India, but the British navy cut off his supply routes to Egypt and like Louis IX's earlier French invasion, Napoleon's failed. However, by this time the Mamluks were outmatched and outgunned. They were not nearly as decisive a factor in Napoleon's defeat as they had been in earlier battles. As an institution, the Mamluks' days were numbered.

The Mamluk's End

The Mamluks finally ceased to be in the later years of the Ottoman Empire. Within Turkey itself, by the 18th century, the sultans no longer had the power to collect young Christian boys from Circassia as enslaved people, a process called, and train them as Janissaries. Mamluk corps survived longer in some of the outlying Ottoman provinces, including Iraq and Egypt, where the tradition continued through the 1800s.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Mamluks." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 27). The Mamluks. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Mamluks." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).