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Mameluks (or Mamluks) (the world is usually translated as “owned”) were slave soldiers used by the Muslim Caliphs and the Ottoman Empire who on more than one occasion seized power for themselves.

The first Mameluks worked for Abbasid caliphs in 9th century Baghdad. They were recruited from slaves captured in non-Muslim families in areas including modern Turkey and Eastern Europe. They were converted to Islam and trained as cavalry soldiers. Sultans kept them as an outsider force under their command against potential local tribal frictions. Status was not hereditary at first but apparently many Mameluks rose to high positions, including to commanders.

Table of contents
1 Mamluks in Egypt
2 Mameluks in Baghdad
3 Memluks in India
4 Other slave soldiers

Mamluks in Egypt

In 1250, when Ayyubid sultan as-Salih died, the Mameluks killed his heir, and the Mameluk general Aybak (who ruled 1250-1257) married his widow (or mother, sources disagree) Shajar ad-Durr. The Mameluks consolidated their power in ten years and eventually established the Bahri dynasty. They were helped by the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, which effectively destroyed the Abbasid caliphate. Cairo became more prominent as a result and remained a Mameluk capital thereafter.

There were two Mameluk dynasties, Bahri (consisting of Turks and Mongols) and Burji (Circassians and Georgiansns). The Bahri were the first to break the rule of non-hereditary positions and established rule by a few families. Through all of this period all the way to 1800s they continued to increase their numbers by purchasing more slave soldiers.

In 1260 the Mameluks defeated a Mongol attack at the Battle of Ain Jalut in modern-day Syria and eventually forced them to retreat to area of modern-day Iraq. Baibars, one of the leaders at the battle, became the new sultan after assassinating Sultan Qutuz on the way home. In 1250 Baibars he had led a successful attack against the Christian knights of Louis IX of France, whom he had captured and ransomed. He had also been involved in the Mameluk takeover of Egypt. In 1261 he established a puppet caliphate in Cairo, and the Mameluks fought the remnants of the Crusader states in Palestine until they finally captured Acre in 1291. Baibars preferred to purchase his new slave recruits from the Tatars.

The reign of sultan al-Nasir Muhammad is especially complex. He rose to the throne at the age of 9 and ruled in the years 1293-1294, 12981308, and again in 1309-1340. He also organized the digging of a canal in 1311 which connected Alexandria with the Nile.

The Burji period of rule begun in 1382. It was especially turbulent with short-lived sultans. Political power plays were often more important in designation of a new sultan. During this time Mameluks fought Timur Lenk and conquered Cyprus. Constant bickering may have contributed to the fact that Ottomans were able to rise against them.

In 1517 the Ottoman Turks and their sultan Selim I defeated the Mameluks – the Mameluk cavalry charges were no match for the Ottoman artillery and janissaries, Ottoman version of slave soldiers. Power was transferred from Cairo to Istanbul. However, the Ottoman Empire retained the Mameluks as an Egyptian ruling class. There, the Mameluks were able to regain much of their influence.

Sultan Ali Bey proclaimed a short-lived (1768-1777) independence from the Ottomans, and the Mameluks retained their position after his defeat. By this time new slave recruits came chiefly from Georgia, in the Caucasus.

Napoleon defeated Mameluk troops when he attacked Egypt in 1798 and chased them to Upper Egypt. By this time Mameluks had added only muskets to their typical cavalry charge tactics. When Napoleon was obliged to leave, his officers failed to contain the rebellion. When French troops left 1801, Mameluks had to fight both Ottoman Empire and the British.

Napoleon formed his own Mameluk corps in the beginning years of the 1800s, the last known Mameluk force. Even his Imperial Guard had Mameluk soldiers during the Belgian campaign, including one of his personal servants. They were awarded their own regimental standard after the Battle of Austerlitz.

In 1806 Mohammad Ali Pasha became the governor of Egypt. In 1811 he invited a number of Mameluk leaders (accounts differ from 64 to 700) to his palace in Cairo and ambushed them in the street after the reception. Reputedly only one survived the Citadel Massacre. During the following weeks his troops killed thousands of Mameluks all over the country. Only small group managed to flee to Sudan. The era of Mameluk rulers was over.

Mameluks in Baghdad

Under the Ottoman Empire Mameluks of Baghdad proclaimed their independence in the 18th century and remained so until supressed in 1832.

Memluks in India

In 1211 the Mameluk commader of the Muslim forces in India proclaimmed himself as Sultan. This Mamluke dynasty lasted until 1290. See also Delhi Sultanate for more information.

Other slave soldiers

Other Islamic states used slave soldiers: the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire and the saqaliba of Andalusi taifas, especially in Denia.