Mamluks of Jewish Origin in the Mamluk Sultanate
By Koby Yosef
Mamlūk Studies Review, Vol. 22 (2019)
Abstract: Students of the Mamluk Sultanate generally do not refer to the phenomenon of mamluks (i.e., slaves, and more specifically military slaves) of Jewish origin. David Ayalon noted that “there is hardly any trace of a Mamlūk of Jewish origin in the Mamlūk sultanate.” Moreover, it is thought that Jews were not considered suitable for warfare. This article surveys mamluks of Jewish origin that can be identified in Mamluk sources. Gaps in information about their geographical origin, which is usually lacking in Mamluk sources, will be filled with information given by European travelers or that can be deduced from the names given to them as slaves.
Introduction: Students of the Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517) generally do not refer to the phenomenon of mamluks (i.e., slaves, and more specifically military slaves) of Jewish origin. David Ayalon noted that “there is hardly any trace of a Mamlūk of Jewish origin in the Mamlūk sultanate.” Moreover, it is thought that Jews were not considered suitable for warfare. The only exception is perhaps the well-known “renegade” Taghrī Birdī the dragoman, who entered the service of the Mamluk Sultanate in the late fifteenth century and functioned as an envoy to Venice and other European powers and as a grand dragoman.
John Wansbrough dedicated an article to this unique figure. Almost every European traveler visiting the sultanate in the closing decades of the fifteenth century and at the beginning of the sixteenth century mentions him (Meshullam de Volterra is the first to mention him, in 1481). While Taghrī Birdī was probably of Spanish origin (perhaps of Valencian origin but born in Montblanch, southwest of Barcelona), it is not clear if he converted to Islam from Christianity or Judaism (he was perhaps a Marrano). In addition, as Wansbrough put it, “[d]espite his Turkish name and his patronymic Ibn ʿAbdallāh,” and despite the fact that he was a minor amir, it is not at all clear if he was “a mamlūk in the then accepted sense of the term” [i.e., a military slave]. He appears to have occupied a civil post in the chancery and not a military one.