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Too Good Looking to Die: How to get saved from an execution in the Middle Ages

By Adam Ali

Among the most dreadful and powerful images of violence from the Middle Ages are that of the scaffold, the dungeon, and of course the hooded executioner who meted out dreadful punishments upon outlaws, rebels, defeated enemies, heretics, and others who were unfortunate enough to end up in their hands. In the case of Egypt and Syria during the 13th-16th centuries, often referred to as the Mamluk era, the sources abound with graphic accounts of corporal punishment for a variety of crimes such as regicide, murder, rebellion, treason, and theft. As in Europe and elsewhere during the Middle Ages, these executions were turned into mass public spectacles that were witnessed by large crowds and involved the humiliation, torture, and finally the death of the condemned. However, on some occasions mercy was shown to the condemned. There were a variety of reasons for staying an execution including: intercession on behalf of the condemned, bribery, and physical beauty.

The mamluks had come to power by overthrowing the previous regimes in Egypt and Syria, and their sultans had to defend their rule from rebels and potential usurpers. Power struggles were very common during the first fifty years of Mamluk rule (1250-1300) – ten out of thirteen sultans were deposed. Among those deposed seven rulers were violently murdered. New sultans, upon their accession, often attempted to purge their predecessors’ mamluks and their officers and to replace them with their own followers. These purges varied in severity. A sultan may demote his predecessor’s followers and confiscate their property and wealth, or imprison them, or exile them, or carry out wholesale massacres.

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Such violence was not only present in the palace and among the elites, but it also permeated all levels of society. The rank and file mamluk soldiers often mutinied and rioted when they did not get paid on time. It was the populace of Cairo that often bore the brunt of these mamluks’ wrath and depredations. There were also frequent factional conflicts that result in violent street battles in the major urban centers of the sultanate such as Alexandria, Aleppo, Damascus, and especially Cairo. During these fights large groups of mamluks often battled against one another in the city streets and squares and were often joined by gangs of thugs and criminals who took advantage of the chaos to loot, pillage, and commit other crimes.

The sultans and the ruling elite had to enforce their rule by punishing those who transgressed their authority, committed crimes, or rebelled. These punishments were carried out in public for all to witness. The sources describe the various forms of punishment that were carried out in these spectacles, sometimes in graphic detail. For example, sultan al-Ashraf Khalil’s (r.1290-1293) assassins were quickly defeated by a loyalist faction that supported his young brother. When Baydara, the sultan’s vicegerent and the ringleader of the conspiracy, was captured he was disemboweled by al-Ashraf’s mamluks. They then took turns cutting the flesh from his body and consuming it due to their anger over their master’s death. Seven of the other emirs involved in the regicide had their hands cut off and strung around their necks. They were then crucified and paraded around Cairo on the backs of camels.

18th-century drawing of a public execution by saw in ancient Persia

In another example, Sultan Barquq (r. 1382-1389 and 1390-1399) uncovered two plots against him. In the first one in 1383 the caliph al-Mutawakkil and the emirs Quruṭ b. ‘Umar al-Turkmani and Ibrahim b. al-Amir Quṭlu al-‘Ala’i plotted to kill the sultan and to replace him with the caliph (by this point in history the caliphs were fulfilled a symbolic role and were the sultans’ puppets in Cairo). Their plan was to ambush the sultan, using Quruṭ’s private army of 800 Turkmen and Kurdish warriors, when he descended to the hippodrome to play polo. Barquq got wind of the plot and foiled it. The caliph barely escaped with his life and was imprisoned in the citadel. Quruṭ and Ibrahim were crucified and the former was then cut in half. The second plot Barquq uncovered in 1386 involved a group of Royal Mamluks under the leadership of the ḥajib (grand chamberlain), emir Timurbugha, who planned to assassinate him. The plotters were arrested and beaten with whips after which Timurbugha and ten of his co-conspirators were crucified and then cut in half.

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One can also add the threat of Arab tribal revolts against the Mamluk regime, which increased in frequency and intensity. The authorities responded tot these Bedouin uprisings with ever increasing harshness and cruelty. Captive rebels were impaled on stakes, flayed alive, roasted alive, and buried alive. Suffice to say, the Mamluk state was a violent place and its rulers responded by harsh punishments.

Save yourself with bribes or friends

Despite the extreme violence of these public spectacles, as they are described in the sources, there were instances when the condemned were shown mercy. Clemency was shown to some of the powerful individuals whose support the sultan could not afford to lose. Some of the condemned were able to avoid a gruesome death by paying the sultan and his emirs large sums of money. Lastly, mercy was sometimes granted when large numbers of people begged the ruler on behalf of the condemned.

For instance, the Bedouins suffered severe retributions for rebelling, as mentioned above. However, it depended on which group of Arab tribes were involved in the uprising. The most draconian punishments were meted out to the Arab tribes of Upper Egypt. On the other hand, the Arabs of Syria and their chieftains were often treated with leniency. For example, Isa b. Muhanna, the amir al-‘arab (paramount chief of the Arab tribes of Syria), threatened to defect to the Mongols in 1271 when he had been deprived of some of his lands. Sultan Baybars I (r. 1260-1277) went to Syria and met with the rebellious chieftain and placated him. This same chieftain rebelled against sultan Qalawun (r. 1279-1290) in 1280 and threatened to join the Mongol army that was invading Syria that year. This sultan was once again able to appease his rebellious vassal and pardoned him.

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The reason that the chief of the Arabs of Syria was treated so leniently was due to his wealth, power, and his large following. He was also the first line of defense against the Mongols in Iraq and Iran on the eastern frontier along the Euphrates River and his defection would have caused the Mamluks a great deal of trouble in their struggle with the Ilkhanate. In another example in 1309 Salar, the sultan’s viceroy, was able to purchase his life and freedom by presenting horses, slaves, and money to his sovereign, who had been displeased with his powerful viceroy’s ambitions. In 1311 another two emirs were arrested and they also only escaped with their lives after paying a large sum of money.

Appealing a death sentence to the ruler was another means through which the condemned could escape his/her fate. Upon his accession to the throne in 1290, al-Ashraf Khalil had a number of powerful emirs and potential rivals strangled in his presence in order to secure his position. The sultan’s retainers and emirs begged him to spare the life of Lajin, who had been the powerful viceroy of Damascus. The sultan showed this emir mercy. Ironically, Lajin was among al-Ashraf’s murderers and eventually ruled Egypt and Syria as the sultan for two years (1297-1299). In another instance, al-Nasir Muḥammad (r. 1293-1294, 1299-1309, and 1310-1341) sentenced a group of his predecessor’s mamluks to be crucified beneath the walls of the Cairo Citadel for plotting to overthrow him. On the appointed date they were led out in chains to their execution. The mamluks’ wives and children attended the event wailing and begging the sultan for mercy. The plight of the women and the children touched the sultan and he stopped the executions and pardoned the mamluks.

Bab Zuwayla in Cairo – photo by JMCC1 / Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most interesting examples of clemency shown to condemned traitors, rebels, and criminals are the instances where the sources mention that they were granted mercy due to their beauty, youth, and attractiveness. Shah Suwar was a vassal of the Mamluk sultanate. He was the prince of the Turkmen Dhu al-Qadrid dynasty that ruled southeastern Anatolia. He rebelled against his overlords in 1465 and was able to defeat two punitive expeditions sent against him, despite the inferiority of his forces before he was finally defeated in 1471. After being on the run for two years Shah Suwar, his brothers, and the emirs still loyal to him were captured in 1473 and dragged back to Cairo in chains. Shah Suwar was presented before sultan Qaitbay (r. 1468-1496) who rebuked him for his rebellion and the bloodshed and destruction it had caused. A procession was then formed to take the condemned rebels to Bab Zuwayla (one of medieval Cairo’s major gates facing south), where a grizzly death awaited them. They were suspended on hooks and chains and remained in this state until they died. The other rebel prisoners were taken to Birkat al-Kilab (the Lake of Dogs) and were all cut in half. While Shah Suwar and his brothers were being executed in Cairo, the crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle took pity on the youngest brother, Salman, on account of his youth and handsome features. They pleaded with Yashbak, the dawadar (the bearer of the royal inkwell and the officer who had been charged with putting down the revolt), who also took pity on the young man and commuted his sentence to imprisonment.

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The story of Ghaziya the Strangler

The next example is even more striking for two reasons: it involves a commoner and a woman. These are significant points because the chronicles of this era focus primarily on the events surrounding the rulers and the elite. However, in the case of the story below, the narrative in two of the chronicles suddenly stops and addresses the crimes committed by this commoner and her compatriots, the group’s punishment, and her salvation. In fact, the account in both chronicles reads like a crime story, not too different from some of the crime shows on TV. Both al-Maqrizi and Ibn al-Dawadari mention in their chronicles that a large number of people disappeared in Cairo during 1263. They state that these disappearances were linked to a woman called Ghaziya who, according to these reports, was a very beautiful young woman.  She prowled the marketplaces of Cairo accompanied by an older woman. Her beauty and charm frequently attracted men’s attention and those who wished to pursue her for a romantic or sexual encounter were told by the older woman that Ghaziya only met her love interests at her home. When the unfortunate suiters arrived at her house they were set upon and killed by two or more men who attacked them as they entered. The group then robbed and stripped their victim and disposed of the body by burning it in a kiln owned by one of their associates.

The group moved locations frequently to avoid suspicion, detection, and getting caught. One day the older woman approached one of Cairo’s famous coiffeuses and tailors and told her that a young woman from her family was getting married and that they intended to hire her to tailor her dress and to prepare her for the wedding. The old woman told her to bring her best material and cosmetics to Ghaziya’s home. The coiffeuse went to the house accompanied by her servant but dismissed the servant upon her arrival. Like the other victims, the coiffeuse was murdered and robbed. When her mistress did not return her servant reported it to the wali (a position similar to that of prefect or sheriff or chief of police) of Cairo.  The wali and his men raided the home and arrested the two women who confessed to their crimes under duress. Their male accomplices were also arrested and several bodies were found in a mass grave beneath their home. The two women and their male accomplices were all sentenced to be crucified. After the sentence was carried out a large number of emirs, who were in attendance, took pity on Ghaziya on account of her beauty and fair looks and petitioned the sultan to have her taken down. The sultan consented and she was spared from the long and painful death her partners suffered.

Mamluk depicted in a 15th century Furusiyya manual

The theme of mercy and clemency being shown to those who were beautiful, wealthy, or powerful is not uncommon and not exclusive to the Mamluk period. During the struggle between Salah al-Din (Saladin) and Richard I during the Third Crusade, 3,000 Muslim prisoners from Acre were massacred by the crusaders in plain sight of the Muslim army. In response, Salah al-Din put a large number of Frankish soldiers and knights who had been captured to death. In his biography of Salah al-Din, Ibn Shaddad, writes about a Christian knight who had been taken prisoner. After questioning him, the sultan ordered his execution, however he was spared because “our admiration and his fair appearance interceded for him. Indeed I have never seen such a perfect frame with such elegance of body and refinement of manners the sultan ordered him be left for now and his case deferred.”

Some questions arise when reading the accounts from these medieval sources. How accurate or exaggerated are they? It can be argued that these chronicles present both truth and exaggerations. Carl Petry states this most aptly in his introduction to The Criminal Underworld in a Medieval Islamic Society:

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Those who compiled these works seem to have made no attempt to gloss over unsettling criminal acts…From a superficial perspective, chronicle authors sought to “spice up” their logs with graphic descriptions of the deviant, discomfiting, or shocking in daily life. They perceived no need to hide its sordid side from their readers. 

The mamluks were a foreign elite in Egypt and Syria. Hailing primarily form Inner Eurasia and the Caucasus region, they entered Egypt and Syria as slaves and rose to become its rulers. However, many of the chroniclers, who formed the scholarly and religious class, were critical of their rule. These chroniclers accepted the hierarchy of their societies with these elite slaves occupying the top position; however they did not censor themselves when it came to being critical of them. These chroniclers included judges, scholars, bureaucrats, and even the sons of mamluks, who were members of the military class. As foreigners who were considered usurpers, looked upon with contempt, and feared by the freeborn elites and the scholarly and religious classes (many of whom write about the mamluks and their behavior in a disapproving tone), the mamluks had to use their strengths to maintain their rule. These strengths included patronizing the scholarly and religious class to legitimize their rule. But more importantly, they utilized brute force and violence, including the violent spectacles mentioned above, to enforce their monopoly on the use of violence (as is the case with most ruling bodies and governments) to bring their subjects in line and to ensure their continued rule. The mamluks’ utilization of force should come as no surprise since they formed a socio-military elite and the sultans were able to enforce their will through violently punishing transgressors through the centralized coercive power at their disposal.

Does it still happen?

Recent studies have shown that those people deemed “physically attractive” have advantages over others in our societies today. The studies show that “good-looking” people tend to have better chances of getting hired, frequently  get paid higher salaries, often have an advantage in politics, are more likely to be trusted, receive better treatment in their societies generally, and they often get away with more lenient penalties for committing crimes and transgressions. Case in point, a study entitled “When Emotionality Trumps Reason” carried out in Cornell University “has found that unattractive defendants tend to get hit with longer, harsher sentences — on average 22 months longer in prison.”

A modern day example of good looks serving those who had fallen afoul of the law include Jeremy Meeks who not only got famous for his mugshot after his crimes, but also landed a modelling career after he had served his sentence. His “sexy mugshot” garnered him hundreds of thousands of followers on social media and his mother’s crowdfunding page “Free Jeremy Meeks” raised thousands of dollars from fans infatuated with him.

Additionally, in a Psychology Today article, researcher Sandie Taylor, Ph.D., has explained. “People who are physically attractive are assumed to be clever, successful and have more friends, it is tragic in a way.”

“Taylor has cited Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer who murdered more than 30 young women, as an example of a criminal who used his good looks to lure his victims—and, at least to a point, charm jurors. “[I]f that forensic evidence hadn’t been there, he might well have got off, because he was quite charming and knew how to work people,” she has said.” 

The historical accounts mentioned above, from an era seemingly very foreign to our 21st century societies, in which mercy and clemency are shown to people humanize the historical characters in these accounts and show that they could be moved by the prospect of economic gain, or valued the alliance of a powerful individual (or potentially losing his support and that of his followers), or were so moved by the physical beauty of the condemned that they spared them from horrible deaths. These stories demonstrate that these people were human beings who were in some ways not too different from people in the 21st century.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Further reading:


Ali, Adam. “Mighty to the End: Utilizing Military Models to Study the Structure, Composition, and Effectiveness of the Mamlūk Army” PhD Diss. University of Toronto, 2017.

Elbendary, Amina. Crowds and Sultans: Urban Protest in Late Medieval Egypt and Syria. Cairo: The American University of Cairo Press, 2015.

Har-El, Shai. Struggle for Domination in the Middle East: the Ottoman-Mamluk War, 1485-91. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

Hiyari, M. A. “The Origins and Development of the Amīrate of the Arabs during the Seventh/Thirteenth and Eighth/Fourteenth Centuries.” BSOAS 38, (1975): 509-524.

Ibn Shaddād, Bahāʼ al-Dīn. The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin, or, al-Nawādir al-Ṣultāniyya wa al-Mahāsin al-Yūsufiyya. Translated by D. S. Richards. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2001.

Irwin, Robert. The Middle East in the Middle Ages: The Early Mamluk Sultanate, 1250-1382. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Levanoni, Amalia. “Mamluks’ Ascent to Power in Egypt.” Studia Islamica 72 (1990): 121-144.

Northrup, Lind. From Slave to Sultan: The Career of al-Manṣūr Qalāwūn and the Consolidation of Mamlūk Rule in Egypt and Syria (678-689 AH/1279-1290 AD). Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1998.

Petry, Carl F. Twilight of Majesty: The Reigns of the Mamlūk Sultans al-Ashraf Qāytbāy and Qānṣūh al-Ghawrī in Egypt. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993.

Petry, Carl. The Criminal Underworld in a Medieval Islamic Society: Narratives from Cairo and Damascus under the Mamluks. Chicago: Middle East Documentation Center, 2012.

Pipes, Daniel. Slave Soldiers and Islam: The Genesis of a Military System. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Top Image: KBR Ms. 11201-02  fol. 01v

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