The Mamluks were a class of warrior-slaves, mostly of Turkic or Caucasian ethnicity, who served between the 9th and 19th century in the Islamic world. Despite their origins as slaves, the Mamluks often had higher social standing than free-born people.
In the 9th Century Baghdad, there were political upheavals – the armies took an active role in the politics without being loyal to the Caliph. Therefore, the Caliph Al-Mu’tasim formed his own private army, he brought slaves of Turkic origin where they served his own private guards. Once they converted to Islam, they were trained as soldiers in the army, hence, this army counter-balanced other Arab-based groups politically.
The Destruction of Baghdad
Baghdad had been established in 762 by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur. Throughout its history, it had been the capital of the Muslims, as well as the world in general. The libraries of Baghdad were unrivaled. The House of Wisdom, established soon after the city was built, was a magnet for the most intelligent scientists, thinkers, mathematicians, and linguists of the world. The caliphs were patrons of literature, science, and the arts.
It was at this historic and landmark city that the Mongols arrived in 1258. Their army, estimated at over 150,000 soldiers, stood before the city that was just a shadow of the great capital of the Muslim world of the 800s. The siege began in mid-January and only lasted two weeks.
On February 10th, 1258, the Mongols entered the city of the caliphs. The Mongols destroyed mosques, palaces, grand buildings, hospitals, and libraries. The Mongols raided the House of Wisdom itself. The Tigris river ran black from the ink of the books that were thrown into the river, mixed with the blood of the slain. The destruction the Mongols wreaked on the Muslim world was so great – it came close to wiping out Islamic civilization – that most Muslims of the time viewed it as a form of divine retribution for the sins they had committed.
The Mongols were a destructive force that exterminated civilizations. As Curtin describes, “The Mongols destroyed every living thing; even the cats and dogs in the city were killed by them.”
The Battle of Ain Jalut
The Battle of Ain Jalut was a defining moment in the formation of the Mamluk state and is also the reason behind Qutuz and Baibars renown in relation to other Mamluks Sultans. The Battle of Ain Jalut was initiated after the sacking of Baghdad and the continued advance of the Mongol army. At the time Baghdad was considered the ‘capital’ of the Islamic world and numerous tales tell of the devastating attack when the Tigris river ran red with blood and the ink of books turned the water black. The attack on the Islamic capital of Baghdad which also contained the House of Wisdom library (Bayt al-Hikma) sent shockwaves throughout the empire, and this sentiment was further exacerbated by a letter sent by the Mongol leader Hulagu to the Mamluk leadership.
“From the King of Kings of the East and West, the Great Khan. To Qutuz the Mamluk, who fled to escape our swords. You should think of what happened to other countries and submit to us. You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of the disorders that tainted it. We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee? What road will you use to escape us? Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand. Fortresses will not detain us, nor armies stop us. Your prayers to God will not avail against us. We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations. Only those who beg our protection will be safe. Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled. Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then will kill your children and your old men together. At present, you are the only enemy against whom we have to march.”
Qutuz’s response to the letter was damning and he responded by killing the two envoys who had delivered the message, placing their decapitated heads on spikes outside the entrance of the city of Cairo. The Mongols swept through the Muslim lands taking Baghdad as well as cities in Syria such as Damascus and Aleppo. With the Mongol advance threatening the center of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt the Mamluks were pressed to make a decision and Qutuz eventually led an army through the Levant region to meet the Mongols on the battlefield. Both Qutuz and Baibars participated in the battle and through skillful military tactics which included a carefully orchestrated attack and retreat manoeuvre the Muslims were able to conclusively defeat the Mongols and halt the western advance. A landmark achievement at the time as the Mongols had never previously lost in combat.
The Mamluk Saved the Muslim World from Mongols
The new Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, under the leadership of Baibars, defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in September 1260 – was coincided with Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. The battle with the infidel Mongols was a holy war. The victory prevented a Mongol invasion of the Holy Lands of Makkah, Madinah, and Jerusalem. This ensured the safety of the only remaining powerful Muslim empire of the time, the Mamluks. 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 – they were converted to Islam around 1300, means, after around 40 years of the Battle of Ain Jalut they were converted.
- The Mongol Invasion and the destruction of Baghdad by Firas AlKhateeb.
- Why Indian Civilization Should Be Grateful to Alauddin Khilji by Dr. Seshadri Kumar.
- The Slave Warriors Who Saved the Muslim World by Muhammad Yousuf Shuwekh.
- Who Were the Mamluks? by Kallie Szczepanski
- University’s Document on Medieval Arab-Islamic History.