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Slave, Soldier, Lord, and Sovereign: The Story of Baybars

By Adam Ali

“We brook no opposition: if anyone takes a sown field of ours, in its place we capture a lofty citadel; and for any peasant of ours captured we seize a thousand armed warriors. If they destroy a wall of a house, we destroy walls of cities…Whoever wishes to pick a quarrel with us must know what he is about; and whoever wishes to take something from us will find disasters such as these ordained for him.” – Baybars in a letter to a crusader leader.

By the thirteenth century, military slavery was strongly entrenched as an institution in most of the Muslim world. I have discussed in other articles that military slavery was unique to Islamic history (the closest comparison is that of the medieval Georgian kings who had pagan Turkic slave bodyguards) and is quite different to other forms of slavery, especially those practiced in Europe and the New World. In fact, calling it “slavery” is problematic because the men who formed the units of military slaves became the socio-military elites and the brokers of power in the principalities, empires, and sultanates in which they served.

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It is rather paradoxical because this form of slavery was one of the very few ways through which one could improve their social standing through their own merit. Military slaves had the opportunity to rise in the ranks of the army through promotions and rewards to become officers and generals, to occupy important positions at the ruler’s court, to become governors, or even rulers in their own right. Additionally, unlike many other types of slaves, military slaves were always highly paid and treated well by their patrons. In those cases where their pay was not forthcoming or if the master treated his slaves harshly, cruelly, or with disrespect, the slaves often killed him (being the military elite and the “men with the swords” that reaction should come as no surprise).

During the 9th-11th centuries these military slaves were referred to as ghulams (meaning “boy/youth”) but by the 13th century this term had fallen out of use and was replaced by the term mamluk (meaning “one who is owned”). Although this latter term’s definition could refer to any slave, in reality it was specifically a designation for fair skinned mounted military slaves of Turkic/Asiatic or Caucasian origin. These slaves were acquired in more than one way. They were taken as prisoners in wars and raids, they were purchased from slave merchants, or they were even sold by their families. In the last example, destitute families or tribes sold their youths into slavery, especially to rulers of the Muslim world, because they received large sums of money for them and also because very often (especially by the 13th century and onward) they knew that these slaves had a chance at an illustrious career.

In fact, by the Circassian period of the Mamluk sultanate (1382-1517) many of the slave soldiers sent for their families to come to Egypt after they had risen in the ranks. A presentation at a recent conference on violence in the Mediterranean world exemplifies the difference between military slavery in the Muslim world and slavery in the west. One of the presenters compared the fates of two Circassians who were enslaved at the same time during the 15th century. One of them ended up in Venice and the other in Cairo. The Circassian who ended up in Cairo had an illustrious career. He became a mamluk and eventually rose to the throne to rule the sultanate as sultan Barsbay (r. 1422-1438). On the other hand, the Circassian who was sold to the Venetians disappears from the records into obscurity, most probably living his entire life as a menial slave. Nevertheless, one should remember that these military slaves only formed a small and very elite proportion of all the slaves in the Muslim world, and their careers do not exemplify the lives of most of the other slaves who were procured for other purposes.

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The Kipchaks

During the 12th and 13th centuries the Kipchaks (referred to as Cumans by the Byzantines and Europeans and Polovtsians by the Russians) were pagan nomadic Turkic tribes inhabiting the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine. They were sought after as soldiers for the armies of the polities that ruled the various regions of the Muslim world. Their martial nature, equestrian skills, and horse archery made them excellent soldiers. They served in the armies of the Khwarazmian Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ayyubid sultanate, and as pagan slave bodyguards of the Georgian kings. Robert Irwin states that they were “so widely employed outside their homeland as soldiers that they may almost be called the Ghurkas of the Middle Ages.”

The availability of Kipchaks as mercenaries and slaves increased greatly during the early 13th century because of the Mongol invasions of the western steppes. Genghis Khan invaded the Khwarazmian Empire in 1219 and by 1221 had defeated its armies and conquered it. He sent two of his best generals, Subedai and Jebe, to pursue the fleeing Khwarazmshah to northern Iran.

After the shah’s death the two Mongol generals got permission from Genghis Khan to lead a reconnaissance into the Caucasus region. The 20,000 strong Mongol force defeated much larger Georgian armies under King George IV Lasha and plundered his kingdom. They then defeated a coalition of tribes living north of the Caucasus composed of the Lezgians, Alans, and Circassians who were also joined by the Kipchaks. The Kipchaks were convinced by the Mongols to turn on their allies. After defeating the coalition the Mongols attacked the Kypchaks. Those of them who were not killed or captured fled north. They joined the armies of the Russian principalities to fight the Mongols. But even this great army, reportedly numbering 80,000 men, was defeated by the Mongols at the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223.

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Jebe and Subedai returned to Mongolia. All this was only a raid, the real Mongol conquest of the Kipchak steppe was carried out by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, in 1236. It was these Mongol invasions in the 1220s and 1230s that led to the displacement of many tribes in the Eurasian steppe. These wars resulted in famines and inter-tribal warfare over land and resources, which in turn led to large supplies of slaves and mercenaries that were available for the sultans of Egypt and Syria to purchase.

Becoming a mamluk

Baybars was born into this chaotic world in the south Russian steppe (sometimes referred to as the Kipchak steppe for this time period). According to the sources the year of his birth was either in 1221, 1223, or 1227. He was a member of the Barali tribe (Burc Ogli tribe according to Linda Northrup). Afraid of being attacked again by the Mongols, Baybars’ tribe fled to the Crimean Peninsula. There, they sought refuge with Anas Khan, a Turkmen tribal chief. In Crimea, the refugees felt secure and let their guard down only to be treacherously attacked by Anas Khan. Large numbers of Kipchaks were killed and enslaved. Among the captives was Baybars and other young Kipchaks who would, as unlikely as it seemed at the time, one day become the magnates and rulers of Egypt and Syria.

Little is known about the details of Baybars’ journey to the Middle East, his education, and his training. However, one can reconstruct the process based on the descriptions given in the many chronicles, biographical dictionaries, and furusiyya manuals (manuals on the equestrian arts, martials arts, and weapons training) that survive from the Mamluk period. Slaves who were to become mamluks were treated much differently than other slaves. These boys were destined to become elite soldiers, officers, governors, and members of the ruler’s court. They established strong relationships with their patrons. The young slave’s first patron and protector was the slave merchant who brought him from his homeland to his new home.

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In the case of Baybars the route taken probably involved a voyage by ship across the Black Sea and then the journey continued overland through Anatolia to Syria and Egypt. This journey was fraught with dangers and the merchant was the one who ensured that his young charge survived and arrived to his destination in good shape. The merchant made certain that the young slaves safe from physical harm, well-fed, and healthy. The late David Ayalon states that the merchant “was his first patron and protector from the hardships and dangers during the long voyage to his adopting country. He also served as the most usual link between him and his original homeland, so that Mamluk was usually bound with strong ties of affection and veneration to that merchant.”

If a mamluk was fortunate enough to be purchased by the Ayyubid and later mamluk sultans of Egypt he was moved to the barracks (tibaq sing. tabaqa) situated in the Cairo Citadel. There were twelve barracks and each of them had a special section for the novices. The mamluks who were purchased by the ruler would one day join the ranks of the Royal Mamluks (al-mamalik al-sultaniyya), who were the elite and the backbone of the army. The novices received two forms of education: the study of Islam and military training. In the first part the young mamluk in addition to being initiated into the faith of his new home, he also learned Arabic, the language of his master. He studied the Quran, Arabic script, the law, and Muslim prayers. Loyalty to the master was also instilled in the young mamluks, they would forever feel gratitude to their patron who raised them from poverty to wealth and power and from anonymity to fame and into the ranks of the socio-military elite.

Eunuchs played a big role in the early part of the mamluk’s career. They undertook a big part of the novice’s education and upbringing and were also strict disciplinarians meting out punishments for transgressions and insubordination. Each of the barracks in the citadel was commanded by a eunuch called muqaddam al-mamalik al-sultaniyya (commander of the Royal Mamluks) and a number of other eunuchs (khuddam) served under him.  These high ranking eunuchs often held high military posts and wielded a considerable amount of power in the sultanate.

The second part of a mamluk novice’s training was in the martial arts, horsemanship, and the use of weapons. Collectively these are referred to in the sources as the furusiyya exercises. The mamluks were excellent cavalrymen. They functioned both as mounted archers and heavy shock cavalry. Therefore, mastering equitation was heavily emphasized. Initially, the trainees practiced on horse models made of wood. The mamluks were taught to jump onto the backs of these models correctly unarmored and then fully kitted out for battle. Once the mamluk mastered this skill he started to ride a real horse. He had to master riding a horse with and without a saddle and on the different methods of riding, mounting, dismounting, turning, and on the proper use of the equipment and accoutrements that came with the horse. The mamluks also learned how to care for their horses and how to treat them if they became ill or got injured.

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The mamluks also trained with a range of weapons. One of the most important was the lance. They went through several different drills learning how to mount and dismount while holding a lance, how to attack, parry, deflect, and thrust. They also learned how to extricate themselves from a difficult situation, and how to withdraw. During training the mamluks played the “lance game” (called the birjas). The birjas was a wooden target composed of seven segments with a ring fixed to it. The mamluk had to ride at this object and hurl or thrust his lance through the ring. Another game played by the mamluks to practice lance skills was one where cornets or cones were scattered on the ground and the riders had to collect them with their spears. After mastering horseback riding and the use of the lance, the mamluk was sent to continue his training in one of the hippodromes in Cairo. Here the mamluks engaged in group exercises advancing and retreating together and learning to ride and fight in formation.

In addition to mastering the use of the lance, all mamluks had to be excellent archers. Mastering the use of the bow took a long time and the mamluks started by using bows with weaker drawing weight and advanced through a succession of bows, each one heavier than the one before it. It was the fifth bow that the mamluks trained with that was actually used in real combat. Throughout the training, the mamluk had to master shooting at targets from a variety of distances from both foot and horseback. In addition to mastering the use of the bow, the trainee also learned about the different kinds of arrows and how to manufacture them. Furthermore, the mamluks were instructed on how to avoid injuries such as blisters and other wounds that could potentially be caused by the bowstrings while shooting. The mamluks also played an archery game called the qabaq. The qabaq was a gourd that was fixed to a high wooden beam. The mamluks had to fire arrows through a wooden circle fixed to the beam at the target while on horseback.

A 15th century Furusiyya manual showing Mamluks training. Bibliothèque nationale de France. MS Arabe 2824 fol.20r

Mamluks were also trained in the art of fencing and sword fighting. Training with swords was carried out both on foot and from horseback. Before training on how to fight an opponent, the mamluk had to practice various strikes with different types of swords. He had to train to increase the power of his blows and to learn to control his sword strikes. The trainee was required to cut through layers of felt, lead, and clay. These layers were increased as the mamluk’s strike got stronger. Furthermore, the mamluk had to master controlling his sword blows. He had to be able to cut through a certain number of reams of paper, which were placed on top of a pillow without cutting any more reams than he was instructed. This way the trainee learned how to control his sword strikes and to deal both killing blows and those that only wounded an opponent. He also had to learn to strike from horseback while riding at a fast gallop. To practice this skill the mamluk had to cut the top section (about one span) of a green reed that was placed upright in the ground while riding past it at full gallop. This exercise was also repeated with multiple reeds placed at certain distances apart. After the mamluk mastered these skills, his teacher then taught him to use his sword in battle against foes. He was taught how to attack, defend, parry, and how to fight using two swords at once. The mamluks also practiced with other weapons. They trained with the staff, daggers, maces, axes, and crossbows. They also learned to wrestle both on the ground and from horseback.

After completing his training a mamluk became a full-fledged soldier. In a communal ceremony, he and his peers were officially manumitted receiving a certificate of manumission that attested to their freedom and to their status as professional soldiers and entitled them to a stipend from the treasury. These mamluks, now free men, never returned to their homes due to the bonds of love and loyalty to their masters and their peers, whom they viewed as brethren. They also did not return to their homelands because they had much better lives with higher standards of living as mamluks. As mentioned earlier, in the Circassian period some mamluks brought their families to Egypt to partake in the benefits of a new life as the elites of society.

The Mamluk training regimen produced excellent soldiers. The Royal Mamluks of medieval Egypt and Syria were some of the best soldiers of their era. The Mamluk army’s track record in the field is excellent (barring a few setbacks). They defeated both the Crusaders and the Mongols and they emerge victorious in all the battles that they fought against the Ottomans during the first Ottoman-Mamluk war (1485-1491). It is unclear how long the whole training process took, but it must have taken years before a novice became a full-fledged soldier.

One indication of the elite nature of the Mamluk army was tits relatively small size compared to other armies of the late Middle Ages such as those that could be raised and deployed by the Mongols/Ilkhanids, the Timurids, the Aq Qoyunlu, the Ottomans and the Safavids. The numbers of the Royal mamluks rarely exceeded 10,000-12,000 and most often numbered between 3,000-6,000 men. To these one could add the mamluks of the amirs and some other regular units of lesser quality and tribal auxiliaries. The Mamluk regime had a defensive policy for most of its existence, fighting wars to maintain the status quo rather than expand. One of the reasons for this policy was due to the fact that it took a very long time to raise and train mamluk soldiers and involved a considerable financial investment. This meant that replacing heavy losses was both difficult and costly, and the sultans and amirs seldom risked their troops on ventures of imperial expansion.

The Battle of Mansura

The sources do not tell us what Baybars looked like as a youth, but later descriptions state that he was tall, swarthy, had a powerful voice, and blue eyes one of which had a tiny white spot. He was first sold to someone by the name of Imad al-Din al-Sa’igh for the low price of 800 dirhams. He was promptly returned to the merchant due to the white spot in his eye. Baybars was then taken to Hamah, where the local ruler, al-Malik al-Mansur Muhammad almost purchased him. However, his mother convinced him not to buy Baybars because “there was something evil in his eye.”

He was eventually purchased by an amir, Ala al-Din Aydakin al-Salihi al-Bunduqdar, one of Najm al-Din Ayyub’s officers (the sultan of Egypt). Aydakin, who was already on shaky terms with his master, incurred al-Salih’s anger when he married another amir’s concubine. The sultan banished him and confiscated his property, including his mamluks. This is how Baybars came to pass into the service of al-Salih Ayyub. He would eventually join the sultan’s elite regiment, the Bahriyya. This unit was initially made up of 800-1,000 men and at the time of al-Salih’s death may have numbered up to 2,000 mamluks. Baybars was able to distinguish himself early on through his prowess, intelligence, and leadership qualities. He was promoted and rewarded by his patron until he was one of the leading officers in the regiment.

Baybars is mentioned in the sources long before he seized the sultanate in 1260. Al-Salih Ayyub made a bid for the Egyptian throne after the death of his father, al-Kamil, in 1239. He occupied Damascus and set out to invade Egypt with his army. This force was reportedly 6,000 strong and composed of tribesmen and mercenaries who were mostly Turkmen, Kurds, and Khwarazmians in addition to al-Salih’s personal guard of mamluks. During the campaign he was betrayed and most of his troops abandoned him. He was left only with his loyal mamluks. He was imprisoned by his cousin in Kerak for six months. During his incarceration Baybars shared his cell, along with his favorite concubine, Shajar al-Durr (who was also a Kipchak Turk). Al-Salih’s other mamluks remained waiting just outside Kerak either for their master’s release or the opportunity to rescue him.

Al-Salih was released from prison in 1240 and seized the sultanate of Egypt. Based on his experiences, he started purchasing mamluks in large numbers and based his power on these loyal and elite soldiers. He created several regiments of which the Bahriyya and the Jamdariyya were the most powerful and elite. As an officer of the Bahriyya regiment Baybars and his comrades were in close association with their patron and many of them held some of the most important positions at the royal court.

Baybars also had plenty of battlefield experience before becoming the sultan. He may have been at the Battle of Gaza/La Forbie in 1244 (the sources mention a Baybars, but do not specify if it was “the” Baybars) where al-Salih Ayyub and his mamluks and Khwarazmian allies inflicted a crushing defeat on the allied army the Crusader States and the Ayyubids of Syria. This was the last time the Crusaders of the Levant would ever be able to put a significant force into the field. Al-Salih defeated the Khwarazmians, who had rebelled against him and devastated Syria, in 1246 in a battle near Homs. The sources do not mention if Baybars was there, but it is most likely that he was because al-Salih would not have left his elite Bahriyya regiment behind on such an important campaign.

It was at the Battle of Mansura in 1250 during the Seventh Crusade of Louis IX that Baybars really distinguished himself. Baybars was effectively in command of the Bahriyya during this battle. The sultan had died from medical complications during the campaign; his death was kept a secret by Shajar al-Durr (who was now his wife) and an inner circle of leaders. The commander of the Bahriyya regiment, Faris al-Din Aqtay, was dispatched to Hisn Kayfa (in south eastern Turkey) to bring back the al-Salih’s heir, Turanshah.

The Battle of Mansura looked like it would be a victory for the crusaders. Robert of Artois and his contingent of knights forded the Ashmum canal at a lightly guarded point with the help of a Bedouin. He launched a surprise attack on the Egyptian military camp which was about 2-3 miles away from Mansura forcing most of the forces that were stationed there to withdraw and killing Fakhr al-Din, the commander of the army. The crusaders then proceeded to enter the town of Mansura. Joinville states that it was Baybars’ idea to leave the gates of the town open to lure the enemy into the narrow streets so that they would lose cohesion. Baybars and the Bahriyya rallied the other retreating units and restored order and stationed them at various points in the city. Robert and his men advanced deep into Mansura, all the while suffering attacks from the alleys and the rooftops.

When they got to the palace they were met by the Bahriyya, arrayed in battle formation. These mamluks were just as heavily armored as the Frankish knights and more than a match for them. Robert of Artois died in the fighting along with hundreds of knights and almost all of the Templars who had accompanied Louis IX’s expedition. Shortly after the debacle at Mansura, Louis IX and the remainder of his army started to withdraw to Damietta. About two months after the Battle of Mansura the crusaders suffered another devastating defeat at the Battle of Fariskur on April 6. By this time Turanshah had arrived to take command the Egyptian army. Louis army was destroyed; those soldiers and knights who were not killed were taken prisoner along with the king.

Turanshah did not reign long. He despised the Bahriyya for their power and influence in Egypt and sought to replace them with his own mamluks and supporters. He even threatened to execute their leaders and to confiscate their property and wealth. The Bahriyya did not wait and struck at Turanshah pre-emptively.  They attacked him in his camp and a mamluk injured the sultan’s hand with his sword. Turanshah fled to a wooden tower near the Nile. The mamluks set fire to the tower and forced their enemy out. The sultan attempted to make a run for the river, but was wounded by a spear thrust to the ribs as he attempted to make his escape. He did make it to the water, but the Bahriyya were right behind him and they fired arrows at him from the riverbank. Some accounts state that it was Baybars himself who waded into the river to deal the killing blow to the hapless monarch as he begged for his life; other accounts state that it was Aqtay who finished him off.

The Battle of Ayn Jalut

The next decade was a chaotic one in Egyptian history. The various factions and strongmen could not decide who would be the next sultan. Initially, the Bahriyya had raised Shajar al-Durr as the sultana. However, a female on the throne of Egypt did not sit well with the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Izz al-Din Aybak, an officer of middling rank was raised to the position of atabak (commander of the army) and sultan, only to be replaced five days later by al-Ashraf Musa, a six year old scion of the house of Ayyub. Al-Ahsraf was the titular sultan of Egypt until 1254. Aybak remained in the position of atabak and was also the regent. He was the power behind the throne along with Aqtay, the leader of the Bahriyya.

During this time Baybars supported his commanding officer Aqtay in furthering his interests and those of his fellow Bahriyya. In 1250, shortly after the victory at Mansura, the Bedouin tribes of Upper Egypt revolted. They refused to be the subjects of “slaves.” Baybars was in the expedition sent against them. Ibn abd al-Zahir, Baybars’s secretary and author of his biography, states that he commanded 200 mamluks against an army of 13,000 rebels. There were also an unspecified number of auxiliaries that rallied to Baybars to bolster his numbers and even out the odds. The rebellion was very bloodily suppressed.

In 1254 al-Ashraf was deposed. That same year Aqtay, who was confident he could seize the sultanate, informed Aybak that he would be moving into the citadel with his new bride who happened to be an Ayyubid princess. Aybak invited Aqtay to the citadel for a meeting. When he arrived, Aybak’s mamluks, led by the future sultan Sayf al-Din Qutuz, surrounded Aqtay and killed him. When their leader failed to return, the Bahriyya went to the citadel. Aqtay’s head was flung over the wall at his followers who had gathered at the gatehouse. Many of the Bahriyya, about 700-800 in number, fled to Syria under the leadership of Baybars. They served the Ayyubid princes al-Mughith of Kerak and then al-Nasir Yusuf of Damascus as mercenaries. Others from the Bahriyya fled to the Seljuk court in Anatolia. Another group of about 130 Bahriyya mamluks became highwaymen in the Jordan valley. While those who remained in Egypt were either killed or imprisoned; some eventually made their peace with Aybak, who now proclaimed himself sultan and took the regnal title of al-Muizz.

In 1257 Aybak was murdered by Shajar al-Durr. She had married him and been his co-ruler as she had been with her previous husband al-Salih Ayyub. However, after murdering Aybak none of the mamluk factions supported her. She and her accomplices were imprisoned in the Red Tower of the citadel. Those who had taken part in Aybak’s murder were crucified and Shajar al-Durr was killed. According to some accounts she was beaten to death by al-Muizz Aybak’s concubines. Her body was thrown into a ditch outside the walls of the citadel. Al-Muizz Aybak’s 15 year old son was raised to the throne, but it was his lieutenant Qutuz who held the real reins of power.

In 1259 Qutuz seized the sultanate for himself, using the need for a strong leader against the Mongol invasion as his excuse. In the meantime, Baybars had been busy in Syria. He led two invasions of Egypt in the name of al-Mughith, the Ayyubid amir of Kerak in 1257 and 1258. These invasions both failed, but Baybars and his comrades distinguished themselves against superior numbers in these battles. Baybars fared much better in Syria fighting against the other Ayyubid princes and made a name for himself as a fierce warrior and an excellent military commander.

In 1260 Baybars made his peace with Qutuz. He was disappointed with al-Nasir Yusuf, the prince of Damascus whom he served, because the latter was unwilling to fight the Mongols and instead submitted to Hulegu Khan. At the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260, Baybars led the vanguard of the Egyptian army against the Mongols. Once again, he and the Bahriyya distinguished themselves and were an important element that secured the defeat of the Mongol forces. Baybars and a group of amirs managed to isolate Qutuz on the return journey to Cairo and murdered him. If Ibn Abd al-Zahir’s account can be trusted, it was once again Baybars who struck the killing blow. Baybars was proclaimed the new sultan by his followers and the entire army followed suit.

The Sultan

Baybars spent his entire reign, 1260-1277, strengthening the Mamluk army and preparing for another inevitable Mongol invasion. During his reign the regular army increased significantly. Under the Ayyubids the number of regular horsemen that the Ayyubids maintained in Egypt was around 10,000-12,000 men. Under Baybars this number grew to 30,000-40,000 including the Royal Mamluks, the amirs’ mamluks, and the Halqa (a unit of professional freeborn cavalrymen). Baybars also recruited Turkmen, Bedouin, and Kurdish tribesmen as auxiliaries and employed them as scouts, frontier guards and raiders against the Mongols of the Ilkhanate, and as highway patrols to keep the roads safe.

He also established an effective spy network that alerted him of any impending Mongol attacks. Under Baybars the army was always in a state of readiness. He held frequent military reviews to make sure the soldiers all maintained their equipment and were combat ready. In one instance, the historian al-Maqrizi states that Baybars commanded all the mamluks to make arrows and to practice archery; he also partook in these activities.

Baybars also continued the struggle with what was left of the Crusader States. He besieged and conquered Caesarea, Arsuf, Safad, Jaffa, Antioch, and Crac des Chevaliers. He weakened the Franks of the Levant so much that his successors Qalawun and his son, al-Ashraf Khalil, easily finished them off conquering their last two major strongholds: Tripoli and Acre.

All throughout his campaigns, Baybars actively participated in both planning, leading, and fighting the battles and sieges. For example, during the siege of Caesarea, Baybars personally examined the mining work by advancing to the walls under the protection of a cat (dabbaba). He, along with his personal retinue, also climbed a high church tower adjacent to the citadel and showered the defenders on the wall with arrows. Baybars also personally participated in the fighting and the storming of the citadel.

Baybars’s last campaign took place in 1277. He invaded Anatolia, at that time ruled by the Seljuks of Rum who had been conquered by the Mongols and were their vassals. At the Battle of Elbistan he defeated a Mongol army. Both armies numbered between 10,000-15,000 men. The Mongols deployed one tumen along with around 3,000 Georgian vassal troops and some Seljuk auxiliaries as well. Despite driving back the left wing of Baybars’s army, the Mongol army was crushed in the battle. The mamluk soldiers’ more accurate and longer range archery, their heavy armor, and their larger and stronger war horses all contributed to the outcome of the battle in which 6,000-10,000 Mongols and Georgians were killed as opposed to a relatively small number of mamluks. Baybars personally led a small band of mamluks in a counter attack on the Mongol right wing that was driving back his left wing.

Baybars occupied the Seljuk capital of Caesarea in Anatolia after his victory, had himself proclaimed sultan, and struck coins in his name. He died in Syria that same year on his return journey to Cairo. There are several speculations regarding his death. He may have consumed poisoned qumis (fermented mare’s milk); he may have died of a wound he sustained in battle; or he may have died of an illness. At the time of his death, Baybars left a stable sultanate with a strong army that was ready for the next major Mongol invasion. He laid down the model for the organization and of the army and its training, which was followed for generations after his death.

Baybars’ story is exemplary of the careers of many slave soldiers of the medieval and early modern Muslim world. He rose from being a refugee and slave to become a soldier, officer, and then a ruler. Most of the most successful rulers of the Mamluk sultanate went through a similar period of slavery, training, and promotion through the ranks. Even though not every slave soldier became a sultan, many of them became officers, administrators, and governors. They (even the rank-and-file mamluks) enjoyed a special status in society and had the opportunity to rise to wealth and power through merit at a time when climbing the social ladder was not very common among the freeborn peoples of both European Christendom and the Muslim world.

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

Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France. MS Arabe 282

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