By Rory Cahill
University of Michigan Journal of History (Winter 2012)
Introduction: The establishment of the Mamluk sultanate at the close of the 13th century was a major change in the political power in Egypt and Syria; however the central economic institutions of the state initially remained faithful to those of the its predecessor, the Ayyubid Empire. The economies of Egypt and Syria were tied to agriculture, and thus the revenues of the state derived from taxes on the land. The early Mamluk state, under control of a Mamluk military elite, was dependent on two traditional institutions; the kharaj tax (land tax) and the iqta (land grant). These institutions served as the means by which state revenue was collected and the standing military was financed by its emirs (commanders). However, this system was not static, and major changes to the manner of taxation and land ownership began at the end of the classical Islamic period and this process of institutional change continued into the era of Mamluk rule.
It was during the third reign of al-Nasir Muhammad bin Qalawun from 1309-1341 that these structural shifts were adapted to serve the unique priorities of the sultanate and coalesced into a centralized administrative system. Al-Nasir Muhammad’s reign was defined by his reorganization of the tax system and investment in the agricultural infrastructure of the sultanate in a manner which fundamentally altered the economic structure of the Mamluk state.
The changes effected on the iqta system altered the traditional tax farm into a state-controlled system free from hereditary claims, granting the sultan determinative power over the economic status of his emirs. The state’s recognition that traditional jurisprudence regarding the rights of the payers of the kharaj tax was obsolete in an era of massive estates paved the way for a more efficient means of tax assessment resulting in increased royal revenues and a central bureaucracy. The regime showed an awareness of the importance of agriculture to its revenue system and thus invested state resources into the maintenance of the irrigation system and means of transportation and storage for agricultural products. This in turn allowed the agricultural sector to flourish and provide the necessary tax revenues. The centralized economic system established during the third reign of alNasir Muhammad was the culmination of structural historical changes which he codified into official state policy.