The Struggle for Power within the Mamluk Sultanate

By Adam Ali

The Mamluks had a long tradition of deposing and/or killing their own rulers. Only a few sultans could meet the challenges posed by revolts, civil wars, and internal struggles.

The Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517) was one of the wealthiest and most powerful states of the late medieval world. It was ruled by a sultan and a power network of military and administrative elites in Cairo and governors in the provinces who were closely linked to the sultan. The sultanate also had a large and professional standing army that was quite rare for this period.


Despite the Mamluk sultanate’s longevity (267 years) and relative stability and prosperity, its rulers faced frequent internal challenges. There were several coups to depose sultans. Some of these were successful and others failed. Factional fighting within the ranks of the army also occurred. Additionally, when the payment of the soldiers was not forthcoming, they rebelled and mutinied and the civilians often bore the brunt of their anger. Lastly, regional and tribal rebellions broke out, especially on the peripheries of the sultanate, when there was discontent among the Bedouin and Turkmen tribes living in these regions or if there were problems in Egypt.

It is important to note that the Mamluk Sultanate came into existence through an act of rebellion and regicide and this set a trend that was repeated during the next two and a half centuries. Succession in the Mamluk sultanate was generally non-hereditary. The new sultan was either elected from among the Mamluk leadership by the magnates and the army or seized power by deposing his predecessor. Sultan Qalawun (r. 1279-1290) was able to establish a dynasty of sorts. His sons, grandsons, and great grandsons ruled from 1290 until 1382. However, even during the Qalawunid period there were sultans who seized power who were not descendants of Qalawun. These sultans, Kitbugha (r. 1294-1297), Lajin (r. 1297-1299), and Baybars II (r. 1309-1310), were all part of Qalawun’s Royal Mamluk corps. Furthermore, after 1341, most of the Qalawunid sultans were, for the most part, puppets controlled by the powerful amirs.

The institution of military slavery produced some of the best soldiers of the medieval era. They were well-trained, professional, disciplined, and loyal. However, one of the inherent weaknesses of this system was the limited nature of the military slaves’ loyalty. Loyalty and fealty were often limited to the Mamluk’s patron/master and to his comrades but was not guaranteed to be passed on to the patron’s successor(s). Therefore, when a sultan died, the loyalty of his Mamluks to his chosen successor (usually his son) was not guaranteed. In most cases these “sons of Mamluk sultans” (who were not really considered Mamluks because they were born free and had not gone through the process of slavery, training, and promotion through the ranks) were quickly removed from the throne and one of the Mamluk amirs, usually the commander of the army, seized the throne.


It is due to the fact that there was no real systematic succession in the Mamluk regime that there were so many power struggles and heavy opposition to some of the rulers, especially early in their reigns. Several sultans were deposed or even murdered by the amirs, who had previously been their peers. This situation seemed to continue throughout both major parts of the Mamluk era in which two ethnic groups dominated the regime: the Turkish/Bahri period (1250-1382) and the Circassian/Burji period (1382-1517).

Regicides and revolts

Al-Muẓaffar Qutuz (r. 1259-1260 CE) was murdered in 1260 CE, shortly after his victory against the Mongols at the Battle of ‘Ayn Jalut. A group of amirs seized the opportunity to kill the sultan when he was separated from his army and retinue during a hunt on the return journey to Cairo after the battle. The future sultan, Baybars, played a prominent role in this plot. Several reasons were cited for the regicide. Among them were the Bahriyya Mamluk’s desire for vengeance against the sultan, a former enemy, who had murdered their former commander and forced them into exile. The Mongol advance into Syria had forced them into an uneasy alliance. Furthermore, some of the leading amirs did not receive the governorships and rewards that Qutuz had promised them prior to the Battle of ‘Ayn Jalut.

Of the first thirteen sultans of the Bahri period, only Baybars (r. 1260-1277) and Qalawun were able to consolidate their power without being deposed or assassinated. Baybars had to deal with two serious revolts in Syria early during his reign. The first rebellion in 1260 was launched by Sanjar al-Ḥalabi, who was Qutuz’s viceroy in Damascus. Sanjar proclaimed himself the independent ruler of Damascus and he had his supporters swear allegiance to him. Baybars attempted to win him over and return him to the fold with gifts and robes of honor, but Sanjar rebuffed these offers. Baybars dispatched a punitive expedition from Egypt. His forces put an end to the revolt and captured the rebel amir along with several of his supporters. What is interesting is that the sources state that the rebels were not punished or reprimanded. Sanjar al-Ḥalabi was imprisoned for a short period of time before he was released and returned to favor. He was even put in command of a force that was sent to Syria to put down another revolt not too long after these events.


Aqush al-Burli, another amir, revolted in Central and Northern Syria in the same year. He burned and pillaged throughout the region between Hama and Aleppo. He was forced to abandon this region by Baybars’s superior forces. Aqush then marched to the Euphrates and occupied the frontier fortress of al-Bira from which he raided both Syria and Iraq. Baybars’s armies were unable to force the rebels into a decisive battle. The sultan then resorted offering Aqush and his men gifts and the promise of amnesty if they surrendered. The rebel leader was eventually convinced, and the sultan honored his word and made him one of his close confidants while pardoning those who had joined him.

Qalawun faced a similar revolt during the early parts of his reign. The viceroy of Damascus, Sunqur al-Ashqar, challenged him and proclaimed himself the independent ruler of Greater Syria in a move reminiscent to that of Sanjar al-Halabi’s revolt against Baybars. Qalawun acted quickly and decisively and the Mamluk army, led by none other than the previous rebel, Sanjar al-Ḥalabi, defeated Sunqur al-Ashqar’s forces at Gaza and then again on the outskirts of Damascus causing the rebel army to scatter. Most of the rebel amirs were pardoned and returned to Damascus. Sunqur al-Ashqar and some of his close associates fled to Sahyun, which he occupied and from where he wrote to the Mongols urging them to invade Syria. Qalawun was only able to reach reconciliation with him before the decisive clash with the Mongols in 1281 at the Battle of Hims (Homs).

Shortly after putting an end to Sunqur al-Ashqar’s revolt, Qalawun had to contend with another plot against him being hatched much closer to home. A group of amirs planned to murder the sultan while he was preparing for the Mongol incursion into Syria in 1281 and negotiating treaties with the Crusader States for their neutrality in the upcoming clash. In addition to planning the sultan’s murder, the plotters had also sent a message to the Franks in an attempt to foil the talks with Qalawun. The sultan learned of these plans from his efficient spy network and also from none other than the Franks themselves, who probably wanted to get on his good side. The conspirators were apprehended and executed. This harsh measure on Qalawun’s part, in comparison with his leniency towards the rebels who had joined Sunqur al-Ashqar, may have been a result of the dire situation in which the sultan found himself between the Mongol invasion, the Crusader States, and the traitors within his own army.


The sons of Baybars and Qalawun

Both Baybars and Qalawun named their sons as their successors. But they were not as successful as their fathers in consolidating their positions against internal opposition. Baybars’s sons al-Sa‘id Berke Khan (r. 1277-1279 CE) and al-‘Adil Sulamish (r. 1279) were deposed in quick succession within a few years of their father’s death. When Berke Khan became the sultan he had to deal with two powerful mamluk factions: the Baḥriyya (Baybars’s comrades) and the Zahiriyya (Baybars’s personal Mamluk regiment). He undermined the amirs and the various groups in the army by attempting to elevate his own Mamluks and supporters to positions of power. The powerful magnates banded together and openly resisted the sultan, whose policies had alienated much of the army. Berke Khan and a few of his mamluks were eventually besieged in the Cairo Citadel and he was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Karak. Al-‘Adil Sulamish was elevated to the throne temporarily. The few months that he ruled served as a transitional period in which Qalawun, the commander of the army and Baybars’s close friend, consolidated his support and seized the throne for himself.

Al-Ashraf Khalil was Qalawun’s son and successor. Like Berke Khan, he had to contend with strong mamluk opponents upon his accession. He quickly had his father’s powerful viceroy, Ṭurunṭay, arrested and killed on the charge of treason. Al-Ashraf wanted to weaken his opponents and to further secure his position and had several amirs arrested and strangled in his presence. Fearing for their positions and lives, a group of amirs banded together and plotted to murder the sultan. In a scenario eerily reminiscent of Quṭuz’s assassination, the conspirators approached al-Ashraf while he was hunting after he had become separated from his retinue. They surrounded the hapless sultan and cut him to pieces.

Al-Ashraf was succeeded by his younger brother al-Nasir Muhammad (r. 1293-1294, 1299-1309, 1310-1341). He was deposed on two occasions and sent into exile. During this time, the sultanate was ruled by three Mamluk amirs – Kitbugha, Lajin, and Baybars II. Kitbugha, a Mongol Mamluk, alienated the army by favoring Mongols for high positions. He was deposed and replaced with Lajin in 1297. Lajin did not last long either, he attempted to reform the financial system through which the army was paid and to create a new force loyal to him. When he discovered a plot to dethrone him, he locked himself in the citadel and was murdered by his own retainers. Baybars II was also deposed within one year of his reign when al-Nasir Muhammad marched back to Egypt from his exile to retake his throne with a large army.

The rise of Barquq

The biggest internal conflict in the Mamluk Sultanate occurred in the late 14th century. Its outcome was the rise to prominence of the Circassians and the decline of the Turks as the main element of the army and the ruling elite. The roots of this conflict could be traced to the mid-1300s during al-Nasir Hasan’s reign (1347-1351 & 1355-1361). One of this sultan’s Mamluks, Yalbugha al-Umari, rose to prominence very quickly. He eliminated all opposition to him and even had his master deposed and tortured to death. Yalbugha also created a large personal army of 4,000 Mamluks, most of whom were Circassians.


Yalbugha was the true power behind the throne during the reigns of al-Mansur Muhammad (1361-1363) and al-Ashraf Shaban (1363-1377) until his fall in 1366. Yalbugha created a revenge fleet to invade Cyprus after Peter I’s crusade against Alexandria, which in reality was no more than a piratical raid on the most important port city of the sultanate. The crusaders struck quickly, sacked the city, killed thousands of its people, and sailed off with all the loot and slaves they could carry. The “revenge fleet” never saw any action against Cyprus. Shortly after the completion of its construction a revolt against Yalbugha broke out. Many of his Mamluks hated him because of his strictness, cruelty, and his harsh treatment. The sultan threw in his lot with the rebels and a major naval battle ensued on the Nile as both sides seized as many of the new ships as they could. Yalbugha was defeated and captured, he was subsequently murdered by a mob of his own Mamluks who cut him to pieces in a fit of rage against their former master.

Madrasa Khanqah of Sultan al-Zahir Barquq in Moez street- Cairo, founded in 1384. Photo by Moh hakem / Wikimedia Commons

The first of the Circassian sultans would emerge from among Yalbugha’s Mamluks. Al-Zahir Barquq (r. 1382-1389 and 1390-1399) during the last chaotic years of the Turkic period of the Mamluk sultanate. Barquq was able to rise in the ranks and to consolidate his position and eliminate his potential rivals. In 1382 he deposed al-Salih Mansur, the last Turkic sultan of Kipchak origin and ushered in the Circassian period. However, things were not to go smoothly for Barquq either. The first few years of his reign were dangerous due to several plots against him and a major revolt that took on a racial element. Barquq was even temporarily deposed in 1389 and forced to flee by the Turkic rebels.

In 1383 the caliph, al-Mutawakkil (Baybars had brought survivors of the Abbasid house to Egypt to legitimize his seizure of power after the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 and created a “shadow caliphate”) and a number of amirs plotted to kill Barquq and raise the caliph in his place as the new ruler. Their plan was to ambush the sultan when he descended to the hippodrome to play polo with his companions. The conspirators agreed to use a militia of 800 Turkmen and Kurdish warriors in the service of one of the amirs to attack the sultan’s retinue and guards as they accompanied him from the citadel while they were dismounted.

Barquq got wind of the plot. He had the conspirators arrested. The caliph barely escaped with his life and was imprisoned in the citadel. The ringleaders among the rebel amirs were crucified and then bisected. In 1386 Barquq was able to uncover another plot. This time a group of Royal Mamluks planned to assassinate him. The plotters were arrested and beaten with whips after which the ten leading members of the attempted coup were crucified and then cut in half.

The major revolt against Barquq took place in 1388 in Syria. It started with an amir, Mintash, who was joined by Turkmen tribesmen, Turkic mamluks, and even by Yalbugha al-Nasiri, the commander of the army sent to put down the rebellion. After a series of defeats at the hands of the rebels, Barquq was forced to flee after he had been abandoned by most of his supporters. The rebels took Cairo and captured Barquq, who was sent into exile to Kerak in chains. However, the deposed sultan still had partisans who rescued him from prison, and they marched on Cairo as rifts between the rebel leaders grew into an open conflict. Due to the chaos, a major prison break in Cairo saw hundreds of Barquq’s imprisoned Mamluks freed and they secured the city and drove out the rebels. Barquq returned to Cairo triumphant. But the rebels were still at large in Syria and it was not until 1393 that Mintash was finally captured and executed, putting an end to what was probably one of the most dangerous internal conflicts in the Mamluk Sultanate.

A “real” Mamluk Sultan

Barquq’s son, al-Nasir Faraj, was deposed, imprisoned, and murdered in his cell in 1412. He attempted to assert his authority by purging his father’s Mamluks in a heavy-handed manner. The sources report that he had over 2,000 Circassians killed during his reign. He also attempted to promote large numbers of Rum (either Greeks or Turks from Anatolia) to high positions because his mother was from Rum and he felt he could trust them more than his father’s Circassians.

In the Circassian period a pattern began to emerge in which a “real” Mamluk sultan (i.e. one who had gone through the process of slavery, training, promotion through the ranks etc.) made his son his heir. This successor was usually removed quickly by the army and another “real” Mamluk rose to the throne and usually ruled for a long period. The cycle then repeated itself and the non-Mamluk successors were usually deposed within a year or less.

Trouble in Cairo

The above-mentioned examples all deal with the power struggles in the upper echelons of the Mamluk regime. The sources are also rife with accounts of the rank and file Mamluks rioting and causing disturbances, especially when their pay was not forthcoming. The sources are replete with reports of the Mamluks of several sultans rampaging through Cairo or committing depredations against the populaces of Syrian cities such as Aleppo and Damascus. While fighting Mintash and his rebel army during a campaign in 1388, Barquq’s forces entered Damascus and the soldiers busied themselves with looting, kidnapping women and children, and extorting the local populace until they were driven out by the rebels.

In 1399, the year of al-Nasir Faraj’s accession, a conflict arose between two Mamluk factions, one of which wanted to depose the newly enthroned sultan. A major battle ensued between the two parties in the streets of Cairo and around the citadel in which the partisans of the sultan won. In the aftermath of the battle, the Mamluks of the victorious side started to break into and loot the homes of the rebel amirs. The situation got out of control as the Mamluks were joined in the looting by local brigands, thugs, and criminals. Large parts of the city were looted and whole quarters went up in flames. In the confusion there were also several prison breaks and the criminals confined therein were released, and they in turn contributed to the chaos.

In 1434 the Mamluks rioted in Cairo because they had begged for their pay, which was late, to no avail. They headed to the homes of the powerful amirs and government officials and looted them and then the rioting became more general and the Mamluks attacked and looted several stores and markets. In 1437, the Mamluk soldiers committed atrocities once again. This time they took advantage of the confusion and upheaval caused by the annual pilgrimage procession that passed through Cairo to commit crimes such as theft, abductions, and assault. In 1441 the Nile failed to flood, and this led to food shortages and high prices. Only the very wealthy could afford to buy food. The rank and file Mamluks descended upon the docks on the Nile and seized the merchants’ goods and wares.

During al-Ashraf Inal’s reign (r. 1453-1461), the Mamluks even attacked and confiscated the horses to the jurists and judges (qadis) and the religious scholars, who were reduced to riding donkeys and mules. During Inal’s reign the sources record the Mamluks committing depredations almost every year. They robbed the merchants, looted the homes of the wealthy, and got into bloody factional street fights. The inability of the ruling elite to ensure order in the capital during this period saw a rise in banditry in the countryside as well.

The primary motivation for this type of behavior on the mamluks’ part was the frequent delays in their salaries. It is also interesting to note that most of this behavior occurred during times when the Mamluk Sultanate was not engaged in war with external enemies. These wars often filled the coffers with extra wealth and kept the army busy. There are similar examples of professional soldiers and mercenaries in medieval and early modern Europe turning to brigandage during times of peace when they were unpaid or out of work. They, like the Mamluks above, also often committed acts of depredation against the civilian populations. This proves to show that in the pre-modern era having a professional standing army had its advantages during times of war, but could also be dangerous if the soldiers were not paid on time and kept busy, especially during times of peace.

Trouble on the outskirts

Tribal revolts on the peripheries of the sultanate were also a common occurrence, especially when there was chaos and disorder in the capital. The Turkmen of Northern Syria and the Bedouins of Upper Egypt presented the biggest challenges to the Mamluk sultans in this regard. The Arab tribes of Upper Egypt rebelled during both the Turkic and Circassian periods. Revolts were suppressed by the Mamluks very harshly. Captive rebels were impaled on stakes and flayed, roasted, and buried alive. Their severed heads were hung on the gates of Cairo, their bodies and skins were displayed in the domains of their tribes, and their women and children were sold into slavery. Hostages were taken from among the tribes of Upper Egypt to ensure their good behavior, and after certain revolts some sultans also put out an order that the weapons of the Bedouins were to be confiscated and that any of them found bearing swords or spears were to be punished.

The situation of the Arab tribes of Syria differed significantly. These tribes were instrumental in maintaining order, in patrolling the roads and highways, and as auxiliaries against the Mongols and later the Timurids and Ottomans. Even when the tribes of Syria did rebel, the Mamluk sultans were more lenient with them and they tried to win them over rather than punish them.

The Turkmen became a great menace to the Mamluk sultanate in Northern Syria during the Circassian period. The Turkmen tribes resorted to guerrilla tactics when facing the Mamluk army during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They fled to the mountains whenever a major expedition was sent to Northern Syria from Cairo. The wars against the Turkmen Dhu al-Qadrid vassal principality best exemplify this conflict.

The story of Shah Suwar

Shah Suwar was the prince of the Dhu al-Qadrid Turkmen principality, which was a vassal state of the Mamluk Sultanate. The conflict started when Shah Suwar overthrew his brother with Ottoman help and proclaimed his independence from the Mamluks in Elbistan (Eastern Anatolia) in 1465, in the last years of Khushqadam’s reign (r. 1461-1467). This sultan neglected to do anything in the early stages of the revolt and did not send an expedition against it until 1467. The Mamluk force was defeated by Shah Suwar’s army mainly because the viceroy of Damascus rebelled against the sultan and failed to support the Mamluk army in its efforts against the rebels.

The most intense fighting between the Mamluks and Shah Suwar took place during the reign of al-Ashraf Qaytbay (r.1468-1496). This sultan was able to secure his position on the throne and then focused much of his energy on dealing with the rebel prince. Qaytbay’s first expedition (overall the second one sent against Shah Suwar) in 1468 was almost successful in defeating the rebels. In a series of clashes the Mamluks were almost victorious on three occasions, but Shah Suwar was able to extricate his forces from danger and was able to turn the tables on his enemies through the use of guerrilla tactics and the mountainous terrain. He routed the Mamluk expeditionary force and captured its commander. Upon receiving news of the defeat Qaytbay immediately dispatched a force of 500 men to Northern Syria in a demonstration showing he was unphased by the setback, although in reality it sent shockwaves through Cairo.

Another expedition set out from Cairo in 1469. Shah Suwar was defeated, his brother Mughulbay, was captured and beheaded, and his army was put to flight. The victorious Mamluks pursued the defeated rebels who led them into a gorge, where Shah Suwar was able to rally his forces and set a trap for the approaching Mamluks. One of the Mamluk officers, smelling a trap, departed with a portion of the army and returned to Aleppo, while the remaining Mamluks charged into the gorge where they were slaughtered.

Portrait of Qaytbay by Paolo Giovio (1483-1552)

Qaytbay’s third and last expedition against Shah Suwar departed from Cairo in 1471. The commander of the Mamluk forces Yashbak, marched north to Aleppo at a leisurely pace to preserve the energy and morale of his army. Yashbak detached a flying column from the main force. This smaller contingent was charged with raiding, harrying, and flushing out Shah Suwar and his forces. On the other hand, Yashbak reserved his main force to conduct sieges and to fight pitched battles. This strategy brought about some excellent results and the rebels were constantly driven back, losing ground to the advancing Mamluks.

Shah Suwar was forced into a pitched battle at the end of 1471. The two armies faced each other across the Jayḥun River in Anatolia. The rebels attempted to lure the Mamluks into making a difficult river crossing and into a trap. They hurled insults at them and mocked them. But Yashbak maintained an iron discipline in his army and his men did not fall for the ruse. When the two forces did finally clash, Shah Suwar’s army was routed. Shah Suwar and his remaining forces fled to the fortress of Zamantu in Anatolia. Yashbak besieged the fortress but was unable to take it for several months. The stalemate ended when Shah Suwar was lured out of his stronghold with promises of safe conduct only to be captured.

Shah Suwar, his brothers, and his amirs were dragged back to Cairo in chains and presented before Qaitbay who rebuked the rebel prince for his disobedience and the bloodshed and destruction caused by his revolt. A procession was then formed to take the condemned rebels to Bab Zuwayla (one of medieval Cairo’s gates). Shah Suwar was in the lead wearing a simple white gown. His brothers and the other prisoners among his supporters were stripped naked, nailed to wooden boards, and seated on camels backwards. When they arrived at Bab Zuwayla, Shah Suwar and his brothers were suspended on hooks and chains. They remained in this state until they died. The other rebel prisoners were taken to Birkat al-Kilab (the Lake of Dogs) and where they were quartered.

The Mamluk Sultanate faced its fair share of internal struggles and conflict. Coups, regicides, mutinies, and tribal revolts plagued this medieval regime. However, the relatively centralized ruling system established by the Mamluks, the power of the sultans, and the effectiveness and strength of the army enabled them to persevere and emerge victorious and to survive as a unified entity until the Ottoman conquest of the sultanate in 1516-1517, which will be discussed in the next article.

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

Top Image: A 14th century depiction of a Mamluk cavalryman – Manual on the Arts of Horsemanship (Nihayat al-su’l wa al-umniya fi ta‘allum ‘amal al-furusiyya)


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