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The Mamluk Military: A Professional Medieval Army

By Adam Ali

How was the Mamluk military system organized? Which types of units could be found in their armies? What was the size of these forces? This is the first part in a series looking at the Mamluk military.

The professional standing army is often seen as a product of more modern periods and is rarely correlated to the medieval era, especially in Europe. Most medieval armies had at their core the royalty, nobility, and knights of a kingdom, principality, or a lord’s feudal domains. These men often formed the heavy cavalry, and were supplemented with levies of peasants and townsmen who formed the infantry, archers/crossbowmen, and light cavalry. They were also sometimes accompanied by bands of mercenaries. Professional soldiers of fortune became more common in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

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Another type of medieval army was the tribal army. Although this type of army may seem like a permanent force, it was in fact not a professional army and was composed of bands of tribal warriors. Furthermore, the fighting forces of these clans and tribes were relatively small and they rarely came together to form big confederations such as those created of the Xiong-nu, the First and Second Turk Empires, and the Mongol and Timurid Empires. When this happened, a charismatic leader often united these groups and forged them into an empire building army from disparate bands. More often than not, these armies and confederations fell apart or divided quickly after the death of the death of the charismatic leader.

Permanent military forces did exist, but these were not “armies.” Kings and nobles had their household guards composed of anywhere between a few dozen to a few hundred vassal knights. To create an army for a major campaign the ruler had to issue a call to arms to his feudal lords and knights who gathered to form an army. Furthermore, these feudal armies were seasonal and rarely stayed mobilized for significant periods of time. Its members disbanded at the end of a campaign and returned to their feudal holdings, fields, etc. Most European rulers did not start forming large professional standing armies until the 16th and 17th centuries (and that usually went hand in hand with the weakening of the nobility and the feudal system). It is true that some European monarchs were able to create large and powerful standing armies. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is King Mathias Corvinus’s Black army, which was composed of up to 28,000 professional soldiers. However, the Black Army was disbanded shortly after the king’s death.

It has been stated that the Ottomans created the first real standing army in Europe. The sultans’ personal army numbered between 2,000-3,000 janissaries by the late 14th century. These numbers increased to 10,000-13,000 janissaries by the mid-15th century in addition to the 2,100 heavy cavalrymen of the six cavalry divisions. These units grew in size in the next century and an artillery corps was also created by the Ottoman sultans early in the 15th century. This standing army dwarfed any of the personal military forces maintained by the kings of Europe at the time.  As impressive as the Ottoman military machine was, there was another medieval army that predated that of the Ottomans in Egypt and Syria. It was the army of the Mamluk sultanate.

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“The men of the sword”

The Mamluk sultanate came into being in 1250 after the mamluks overthrew the last Ayyubid ruler and proclaimed one of their own sultan. The mamluks were elite slave soldiers who served the Ayyubids. In fact, military slaves formed the backbone and elite of almost all the armies of the Muslim world from the 9th century to the 19th century. I have written on military slavery in the Muslim world and the status and training of military slaves in previous articles on Medievalists.net, so I will skip the details here and get into discussing the army that the mamluks created.

The Mamluk sultanate lasted from 1250-1517. Throughout its existence, its mainstay and power lay in its well-trained and effective military force. Being a military regime, most of the important posts in the government were held by “the men of the sword” or arbab al-sayf in Arabic; and most of these were military slaves, or former military slaves. Although the Mamluk army cannot be compared to a modern standing army or to the professional armies of later periods, it was probably one of the few professional standing armies of the High and Late Middle Ages. I will present a description of the main elements of the Mamluk army below.

However, we must keep in mind that this is a simplified look at this topic and that most of the most recent studies on this period and the regime that ruled Egypt and Syria have argued that there were very complex networks of power and relationships between the sultan and the great magnates of the realm and their households and that this “standing army” was in fact not one unified entity (although in the field it acted as such) and was “feudal” in some sense and there were intricate relationships and networks connected these various households and the individuals within them to the royal court in the Cairo citadel. These studies paint a picture of factional power politics and relations between the sultans and the powerful mamluk amirs and their households. However, a big difference between the system in Mamluk regime and in Feudal Europe was that the military elites and the army were mostly concentrated in Cairo and the other major urban centers of the realm and not residing in manors or castles in the countryside.

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Types of Mamluks

The early Mamluk army was was composed of three major groups: The Royal Mamluks (al-mamalik al-sulṭaniyya), the amirs’ mamluks (mamalik al-umara’), and the free soldiers of the ḥalqa. In the later period of the sultanate the halqa disappeared as a major element of the army, but new gunpowder unit(s) were created shortly before the fall of the sultanate. It should be noted here that the mamluk slave soldiers (or former slaves) formed the bulk of the army. In many other regimes that ruled various parts of the Muslim world these slave soldiers often only formed an elite unit within the army, which more often than not was composed of freeborn troops. Some of the earliest and most detailed studies on the Mamluk army have been conducted by scholars such as the late David Ayalon, Stephen Humphries, Robert Irwin, Amalia Levanoni and Reuven Amitai among others.

The Royal Mamluks formed the core and backbone of the army. These were the mamluks who were in the service of the sultan and formed his personal regiments. The Royal Mamluks could be divided into two groups. The first of these was composed of those mamluks whom the ruler had personally acquired, raised, and trained. In the sources from the later period of the sultanate they are referred to as julban or mushtarawat (meaning those bought/purchased). The other group that formed the Royal Mamluks were those mamluks who passed into the service of the ruler from previous sultans and deceased/disgraced amirs and are often referred to in the later sources as the qaranisa or mustakhdamun (those who have been used/veterans).

The Royal Mamluks received the best training, weapons, armor, and the highest wages in the sultanate. They also formed the largest of the mamluk units. The size of the Royal Mamluk contingent varied throughout the Mamluk period and depended on the ruling sultan and his ability to acquire and build up his personal army and numbered anywhere between 2,000-16,000 men. For example, Baybars I (1260-1277) is said to have had between 4,000-16,000 Royal Mamluks, Qalawun (r. 1279-1290) had 7,000-12,000 Royal Mamluks, Barquq (r. 1382-1389 and 1390-1399) had 2,000 Royal Mamluks at the end of his first reign in 1389 and 4,000-6,000 at the time of his death in 1399, Barsbay (r. 1422-1437) had 2,000-3,000 mamluks, and Qaytbay’s (r. 1468-1496) mamluks numbered 8,000 men.

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Helmet of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay (1422–1428) – photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

The khassakiyya (the sultan’s retinue and bodyguard) were selected from among the Royal Mamluks. They always accompanied the sultan in his public appearances and they also guarded him when he had withdrawn to his private chambers and were some of the few who had access to him there. Those who became khassakiyya mamluks had more opportunities to rise to high posts in the army and the administration and also of being appointed as governors and viceroys throughout the sultanate. All of this was possible for these mamluks due to their close proximity to the sultans.

In addition to the Royal Mamluks who served the sultan directly, there were also contingents of mamluks that served the amirs, who were the officers and magnates of the regime. The mamluks of the amirs were slightly inferior in quality, equipment, and training to the Royal Mamluks. They were in the service of the amirs, and their masters did not have access to the vast resources of the sultan, and their troops did not have access to the military schools and training grounds used by the Royal Mamluks.

The sultan was the ultimate commander of the army, under him there were four major officer ranks in the Mamluk military society: amir of one hundred (amir mi’a), amir of forty (amir ṭablakhana), amir of ten (amir ‘ashara), and amir of five (amir khamsa). The numbers denoting these ranks indicate the number of mamluks the holder of that rank was entitled to have in his service. However, these numbers were not set in stone, and it is not uncommon to see the sources mention amirs of fifteen, twenty, or thirty. On the other hand, Julien Loiseau contends in his monograph Les Mamelouks XIIIe-XVIe Siècle: Une Expérience du Pouvoir dans l’Islam Médiéval that these numbers indicate the minimum number of mamluk cavalrymen the amir had to maintain at his rank and he states that some of the high ranking amirs, who were very wealthy and powerful, could have had significantly more than one hundred mamluks in their service.

For example, during the Kypchak period (1250-1382 – sometimes referred to as the Bahri period) the great amir Yalbugha al-Umari al-Nasiri al-Khassaki (d. 1366) had a personal army of 4,000 mamluks. The highest ranking amirs generally had 200-400 mamluks in their service during the Circassian period of the sultanate (1382-1517). However, some very powerful and wealthy amirs such as Jakam, Taghri Birdi al-Kamashbughawi, and Yalbay had 1,500, 1,000, and 1,000 mamluks respectively. Although the combined number of mamluks under the amirs was quiet large as we will see below, they lacked the unity of the Royal mamluks and served dozens of masters making them secondary in size, importance, and power within the sultanate.

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An axe from 15th century Syria. The cup decorating the socket of this ax is the insignia of a Mamluk emir and indicates that he held the important ceremonial office of cupbearer to the sultan. Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The halqa was the third important group in the early Mamluk army. It was composed of freeborn cavalrymen. Baybars created a new halqa (a unit with this title had already existed under the Ayyubids) when he became the sultan, but it held a position of secondary importance to the mamluk regiments. Stephen Humphreys describes it “as a second class of royal troops distinguished from the mamalik sulṭuniyya chiefly by recruitment and training.” Amalia Levanoni agrees with Humphreys regarding the secondary status of the halqa in the army and states that “its status in the Mamluk army was secondary, since the sultan naturally fostered the Royal Mamluks,” and that although it “was under the sultan’s direct control, its troopers did not share a common living quarters financed by the sultan, as was the case with his recruits. The halqa troopers also had to provide their own equipment, again unlike the sultan’s mamluks” or those of the amirs.

The halqa was composed of several different groups. Prominent among them very early on were some Syrian troops such as the freeborn Kurdish Shahrazuriyya and the remnants of the armies of the Syrian Ayyubids including their mamluk regiments such as the Aziziyya and Nasiriyya mamluks. The sons of mamluks, who are referred to in the sources as awlad al-nas, were also enlisted in the halqa and formed an important element of this unit. These men were born and raised within the Islamic world; they did not qualify to join the mamluk regiments because they had not gone through the process of enslavement, conversion, and the rigorous training of the first generation mamluks. They were therefore relegated to the halqa if they chose to pursue a military career.

Another important group that swelled the ranks of the halqa were the refugees, referred to as wafidiyya, who sought asylum in Egypt due to political conflicts and rebellions in their homelands. Most of the wafidiyya came to the sultanate from the Ilkhanate and Anatolia. These warriors entered the Mamluk domains in several waves that ranged from 200 horsemen to groups that numbered 10,000-18,000 horsemen.  The halqa played an important role in several of the Mamluks’ early battles. However, its decline started during the third reign of al-Nasir Muhammad (r. 1309-1340) when this sultan redistributed the incomes from the lands of the sultanate giving the members of the halqa significantly smaller portions, which prevented them from maintaining themselves as an effective fighting force. Over time their numbers dwindled because they were removed from the payroll for not being combat-ready.

Illustration from a 15th century Mamluk training manual. Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Arabe 2824 fol. 67r

Auxiliary forces

In addition to the standing army, the mamluk sultans could call upon large numbers of auxiliaries during major campaigns. These auxiliaries consisted, for the most part, of tribal groups living within and on the frontiers of the sultanate. They included Turkmen tribesmen, Arabs tribes, Kurds, and infantrymen from the towns and cities of Syria. Some of these troops were kept on the central government’s payroll, but were not stationed in Cairo and were not considered a part of the Mamluk army proper. For example, the amir of the Arabs, the powerful tribal chief who controlled many of the Syrian tribes received payment for patrolling and guarding the Euphrates frontier against the Mongols. These auxiliaries operated as scouts and spies for the sultans. On campaign they formed the bulk of the light cavalry and the infantry. In battle the sources state that they operated as skirmishers.

The Turkmen and Arabs are often described as guarding the far right and left flanks of the army and they are also described in several instances of carrying out encircling operations to strike at the enemy’s flank when the opportunity presented itself. At the First Battle of Hims (or Homs) in 1260 they appeared in the nick of time to take the Mongol army in the rear. At the Second Battle of Hims in 1281, which was a much bigger clash than the previous one, the Arab tribesmen held against the Mongol charge on the flank of the right wing of the army and then helped destroy the Mongol left wing with a successful flanking manoeuver. Some auxiliary groups were also responsible for policing the more remote parts of the realm and keeping its roads safe and for capturing and punishing bandits and highwaymen. They were also in charge of supplying horses for the Royal Post.

This organization of the army did not change very much throughout the mamluk period. However, in addition to the above-mentioned sections of the standing army, some new units were introduced during the Circassian era. Prominent among them were the arquebusier units created by al-Nasir Muhammad b. Qaytbay(r. 1497-1498) and Qansuh al-Ghawri (r.1501-1516). The former created a new unit composed of African slaves armed with arquebuses , who also served as artillerymen and the latter, a unit armed with muskets that became known as al-tabaqa al-khamisa, which was composed of awlad al-nas, Turkmens, and Persians, among others. Qaytbay had also created a special unit of awlad al-nas armed with handguns to fight the Ottomans during the Ottoman-Mamluk war of 1485-149. In addition to these units, in the last decades of the sultanate there were also large numbers of Ottoman soldiers, possibly including Janissaries, who had deserted to the Mamluks during and after the war of 1485-1491. These troops also served primarily as infantrymen who fought with handguns or operated artillery.

Size of the Mamluk armies

It is always tricky and difficult to ascertain the exact numbers of armies in the middle ages. This is no different regarding the Mamluk army. These numbers are especially difficult to pin down because the size of the sultanate’s military constantly changed. We have seen above that the Royal Mamluks varied in number depending on the sultan who ruled and on access to new manpower, which came from regions beyond the sultanate. Additionally, some of the amirs were able to build up large personal armies as well.

The Mongol invasion force that fought the Mamluks at the Battle of Hims in 1281 was said to have numbered between 80,000 to 120,000 men. The most reliable of the sources tend towards the lower estimate and they also state that the Mamluk army that was mobilized to fight was half its strength or slightly more than half. Linda Northrup has deduced that most of the army was probably mobilized to meet this invasion and that sultan Qalawun’s forces at this battle numbered between 40,000-50,000 troops. This number includes the Turkmen and Arab auxiliaries. The standing arm composed of mamluk regiments and the halqa, were probably no more then 30,000-40,000 soldiers and perhaps even fewer than that. Furthermore, the sources state that the central army of the sultanate was in Egypt, stationed primarily in Cairo. However, there were provincial armies in Syria that were smaller versions of the Royal army in Egypt.

Ibn Shahin outlines all of these armies and units in his book, Kitab Zubdat Kashf al-Mamalik wa Bayan al-Turuq wa al-Masalik. He states that in Egypt the army was composed of 24,000 halqa soldiers, 10,000 Royal Mamluks, and 8,000 amirs’ mamluks. He then lists the armies of Syria as follows: 12,000 halqa soldiers and 3,000 amirs and their mamluks in Damascus; 6,000 halqa soldiers and 2,000 amirs and their mamluks in Aleppo; 4,000 halqa soldiers and 1,000 amirs and their mamluks in Tripoli; 1,000 halqa soldiers and 1,000 amirs and their mamluks in Safad; and 1,000 halqa soldiers and mamluks in Ghaza. These are all the numbers on paper giving a total of 42,000 soldiers in Egypt (24,000 halqa and 18,000 mamluks) and 30,500 soldiers in Syria (23,500 halqa and 7,500 mamluks).

These numbers are clearly inflated as it would have not been possible to maintain such a large force, 72,500, on a permanent basis given the huge fiscal burden it would have placed on the economy. This is especially true for the halqa units listed in this source. In theory there were 24 amirs of 100, each of whom commanded a division of 1,000 halqa troopers in battle. However, the sources are quiet clear that such large numbers of halqa soldiers were not present even at major battles such as the Battle of Hims in 1281. Shafi ibn Ali an eyewitness and participant in the battle who describes the deployment of the mamluk army states that there were only 4,000 halqa soldiers present. The numbers given for the mamluks seem a little more reasonable at a total of 25,500 for both Egypt and Syria, but these too fluctuated throughout the history of the sultanate and a safe estimate for the numbers of mamluks that could be given is 15,000-30,000 full-fledged soldiers and amirs at any given time, with the lower end of the scale probably being more accurate.

The mamluk army was one of the few large standing armies of the medieval period. It was composed of highly trained professional heavy cavalrymen and cavalry archers. This army was also highly effective in the field and performed very well against a variety of enemies. The next article will discuss the mamluk army in action against foes such as the Mongols, crusaders, Timur, and the Ottomans.

See also:

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

The Turks: The Medieval World’s Most Martial People

The slave who founded an empire: The story of Alp Tegin

The Assassination of Ahmad Ibn Ismail: Power Struggles in the Samanid Empire

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 2824 fol. 37r

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