The Georgian Mameluks in Egypt
“ I imagine what I could have done using a fistful of these warriors”
This articles aims to provide a brief overview of the Mameluks and their history. Military chronicles reveal a few organizations whose history is more extraordinary than that of the elite slave troops employed in the Middle East. These corps were not only the finest military organization of the time, but nearly for six hundreds years constituted the backbone of the armed forces of the such great empires as those of Persia, Ottoman Turkey and Egypt.
Mameluks in Egypt, Janissaries in Ottoman Turkey and Ghulams in Persia are real phenomena that had no parallel outside Islamic civilization. For several hundreds years they uphold their countries, defending them from foreign conquerors, expanding their own influence and creating unique cultures. Without them, the geographical boundaries of Islam would have been much narrower. As for the struggle between Islam and Christian Europe, with its ever-growing technological preponderance, it must be pointed out that Islamic dominance on land was maintained for a good number of centuries mainly owing to the military might of the elite slave troops system. It was these soldiers who finally defeated and expelled the Crusaders, halted the Mongol advance across the Middle East and conquered south-eastern part of Europe.
The slavery was practiced in Middle East from the ancient times. The Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians and other great civilizations of the past attested its existence. Obviously, the first slaves were captives of the wars and most of them belonged to the royal and religious authorities. Therefore, there were a considerable number of slaves in the pre-Islamic Arabia and with the rise of Islam there number gradually increased, since Islam affirmed the slavery. At the very first stages of Islam, the professional slave soldier was not characteristic to the Islamic armies. The institute of the trained military slavery could be traced only at the later stages after the rapid expansion of Islam. This was a new institution in Islam that within a remarkably short time became the norm for Muslim rulers and rapidly developed into a mighty slave army serving to uphold the imperial authority of the ruler.
The literal meaning of the word “Mameluk” is “one owned by another”, a “bondsman”. Noteworthy, there were two different definitions of slavery. The term “abd” was the ordinary word for “slave” in Arabic. For centuries the great majority of slaves in western Arabia were colored people of African origins and in time the word “abd” lost its exclusive meaning and came to mean a black person regardless whether he was slave or free. Meanwhile a number of white slaves from northern territories were eventually brought by Arab caravaneers or captured by raiding armies. To distinguish the black slaves from the white, the word “Mameluk” was gradually introduced and confined to a fair-skinned slave horseman.
Generally, the history of Mameluks can be divided into three major periods:
The First period includes the foundation of the Mameluk system and its early days.
The Mameluks who were brought by slave merchants belonged mainly to tribal societies, distinguished by their superb military qualities as cavalrymen. Only the best of them were chosen, after a strict selection. They were taken from their homelands at or near the age of puberty. When they reached their destination, usually the court of a ruler of an important military commander, they were converted to Islam. They were first taught the basics of Islam and later received the best training of the time. When the Mameluk completed the period of Islamic studies and military training, he was manumitted. Noteworthy, the act of manumission was, in fact, the beginning of a real relationship between patron and slave. The patron and his Mameluk were united by feelings of loyalty and subordination. Mameluks could be relied upon because of their extreme dependence on the patron. Being kidnapped or sold in early childhood, they lived in a society to which they were strangers and where they had no family or relative to support them. Therefore, they were dependent solely upon their master and by uniting with the other Mameluks formed a type of the families, clans. On other hand, the patron himself was also vulnerable since he depended on family for protection and political support. The Mameluks provided him with necessary security and support to establish himself in the society.
Another remarkable feature of the Mameluk is that they were an institution of one-generation nobility. The sons of the Mameluks were excluded from it for a number of reasons. The main reason was that in the environment of ease and comfort in which Mameluks lived, their children would be unable to preserve the military qualities of their parents. Also, it was possible that Mameluks would intervene on behalf of their children and facilitate their promotion. This meant that the Mameluk system had to be fed by a constant stream of fresh recruits from their countries of origin.
Before the rise of Mameluks, the majority of slave troops were recruited from the African states. The black slaves made appearance in 8th Century, but not represented a strong military factor, and served in an auxiliary capacity. Egyptian rulers, particularly Ahmad Ibn Tulun, relied heavily on black slave soldiers. Ibn Tulun bought approximately 40,000 Nubians who were comparably inexpensive and well-known for being excellent archers. Meanwhile, most of white slaves were taken from Mongols and Turks. Noteworthy, the racial differences played important role in organization of the army, with black slaves serving in infantry, and whites in cavalry, generally considered as an elite troops. Though gradually tension developed between two groups and fierce clashes occurred. Black slave troops played important role in the rise of Fatimid Dynasty. The first Fatimids moved from Ifriqiya (Tunis) and captured Egypt in 969 with the help of black and Berber troops. But once the Fatimid state was firmly established, an internal tension between black slave regiments and those of other races gradually rose.
With the fall of the Fatimids, the black troops paid the price for their loyalty. Among the most faithful supporters of the Fatimid Caliphate, they were also among the last to resist its overthrow by Salah-ad-Adin (known in Europe as Saladin), the new master of Egypt. By the time of the last Fatimid caliph, al-'Adid, the blacks had achieved a position of power. The black eunuchs wielded great influence in the palace and the black slaves formed a major element in the Fatimid army. It was natural that they should resist Saladin’s aggression. In 1169, Saladin learned of a plot by the caliph's chief black eunuch to remove him, allegedly in collusion with the Crusaders in Palestine. Saladin acted swiftly and dismissed or executed most of the black eunuchs of the palace. In August 1169, Saladin finally defeated the black troops at the battle at Cairo, marking their end as a political factor in Egypt. Following this date, only white slaves were integrated into the military establishment of Ayyubids. This is an important period in the history of Mameluks as during this time, they were formed as a military organization, warrior clan. This is basement for their latter history of almost 600 years.
The second period, which lasted from 1250 till 1517 was a period when Mameluks made a successful coup d'etat and took power into their hands. During this period one of the most important roles was played by Baybars who gained his first major military victory as commander of the Ayyubid army at the city of al-Mansurah in February 1250 against the Crusaders' army led by Louis IX of France, who was captured and later released for a large ransom. Filled with a sense of their military strength and growing importance in Egypt, a group of Mameluk officers, led by Baybars, in the same year murdered Turan Shah. The death of the last Ayyubid sultan was followed by a period of confusion that continued throughout the first years of the Mameluk sultanate. Finally Mameluk Aybak became a Mameluk sultan of Egypt. He and his successors were capable enough to establish a powerful state within a short period of time.
During this period there were two Mameluk dynasties, which ruled Egypt:
By the time of the Mameluks, the arabization of Egypt must have been complete. Arabic was the language of the bureaucracy since the early 8th Century and the language of religion and culture even longer. The specific Mameluk contribution to Arabic culture lay above all in their military achievement. By defeating the Mongols (battle of Ain Jalut, 3 September, 1260), the Mameluks provided a shelter in Syria and in Egypt for Muslims fleeing from Mongol devastation. Though, the extent of this haven was narrowed by subsequent Mongol attacks against Syria, one of which led to a brief Mongol occupation of Damascus in 1294-95, so that Egypt received an influx of refugees from Syria itself as well as from areas farther east. Concrete evidence of the stimulus the Mameluks gave to cultural life can be found chiefly in the fields of architecture and historiography. Dozens of public buildings erected under Mameluk patronage are still standing in Cairo and include mosques, colleges, hospitals, monasteries, and caravansaries. Historical writing under the Mameluks was equally monumental, in the form of immense chronicles, philosophical tractates and other works.
The Third Period began in1517 when the Mameluks could not resist the increasing supremacy of Ottoman Empire that finally caused the annexation of Egypt by the Ottomans. Despite the fact that Mameluks had lost absolute power, they still were strong enough to hold almost every high position in the country and kept authority. The “wali” or Ottoman viceroy of Sultan in Egypt had only nominal powers. In 1768 Mameluks managed to liberate Egypt from Ottoman Empire. They ruled Egypt with a title “Sheih al-Balad” and the first sheih al-balad was Ali Bey (originally from western part of Georgia, Mingrelia). He then attacked Arabia and Syria and defeated them soundly. He was called the Caliph of Mecca, which made Egypt an essentially independent state within the Ottoman Empire. Noteworthy, starting from this period, the Mameluks arrived in Egypt only from Caucasus, and Georgia in particular, since the majority of Mameluks by this time were Caucasians and they endeavored to retain the “purity” of the system. The famous Mameluk leaders, Murad Beg and Ibrahim Beg were Georgians, kidnapped in childhood from Georgia, Murad being born in Tbilisi, and Ibrahim Beg at the little village Martkopi, near the capital of Georgia.
Every year during 6 centuries there were a great number of kidnapped Georgians, who were sold on markets in Izmir, Damask, Cairo and Istanbul. Approximately, 20,000-25,000 Georgians and Circassians were annually kidnapped and sold, that amounts to 8 - 10 million during the four hundreds years of supremacy of Caucasian Mameluks (present population of Georgia is about four million). A considerable part of those kidnapped went to Istanbul to fill Janissaries Corps.
Though separated from their homeland, the Mameluks never broke contact with it. In the 13th Century, Georgian king George VI “The Splendid” corresponded with Mameluks Sultans of Egypt. It was with their great assistance that the Georgian Orthodox Church regained its Churches in the Holy Land. The Georgians became a large and powerful presence in the Holy Land and enjoyed a privileged condition above the other Christians. A contemporary, James de Vitry, wrote in 1226 that while most Christians were forced to enter Jerusalem on foot, unarmed, and to live a most tenuous existence, the Georgians were able to move freely. In fact, when Georgian pilgrims arrived they entered the city with flags unfurled and held high, with full weaponry. Nor were not required to pay the tax which was imposed upon other Christians. Relations between the Mameluks and Georgian royal house was so close the Georgian church had the faith and courage to ask the Sultan of Egypt for the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, for Calvary, for the presence of two religious in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the keys to the Edicule of the Tomb of the Lord.
There were probably 60,000-65,000 of Mameluks living in Egypt at the time of Napoleon, of which some 15,000-17,000 composed the Mameluk cavalry, which was justly considered as one of the best Eastern armies. The Mameluks were excellent warriors, and their virtuosity, courage, and dedication astonished Napoleon. The Mameluk cavalry was certainly impressive to look at. Napoleon praised it saying “10,000 Mameluks could have easily fought and won against 50,000 Turks . . . I imagine what I could have done using a fistful of these warriors”. And indeed mounted on fine Arabian steeds (the most valuable treasure of Mameluks, as well as of Arabs), and armed to the teeth with a shotgun, 4 pistols and bejeweled scimitars, Mameluks were an impressive army. But despite of all their weaponry and flash power, the Mameluks were still essentially a medieval fighting force. Their dedication knew only how to charge, which was no match for the firepower and steel discipline of the French soldiers. This basic pattern was seen in every conflict, big or small, during the entire Egyptian campaign. Although, they could not resist French firepower, their martial art was incomparably higher, but they lacked the discipline and organization. “One Mameluk is stronger than two French soldiers; 100 Mameluks are equal to 150 French soldiers; 300 Frenchmen will defeat 300 Mameluks, and 1500 Mameluks will always lose to 1000 Frenchmen”, Napoleon once remarked. Thus, the martial art of a singl Mameluk was high, but the steel discipline French soldiers and the genius of their commander-in-chief always defeated them.
It was the Mameluk’s custom to carry their wealth on their person, and after the battle of the Pyramids the French soldiers spent much time in fishing for the drowned Mameluks. It was estimated that each body thus recovered would bring about 8 or 9 thousand francs to the lucky finder. Noteworthy, when in 1798 Murad Bey was invited by the French envoy to begin negotiations with Napoleon, he replied that if Bonaparte would retreat to Alexandria and with his troops, Mameluks would pay 10,000,000 francs in gold.
After the departure of French troops in 1801, Mameluks continued their struggle for independence, this time against the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain. For more than 5 years, the Mameluks fought against superior enemies and defeated them several times. It must be mentioned that in 1803 Mameluk leaders Ibrahim Beg and Usman Beg wrote a letter to Russian general-consul and asked him to act as a mediator to the Sultan as they wanted a cease fire and to return to their homeland, Georgia. The Russian Ambassador in Istanbul categorically refused to mediate, for the Russian government was afraid of allowing Mameluks to return. Meanwhile, in Georgia there was a strong national-liberation movement and the Mameluks’ return would have empowered it.
In 1805, the population of Cairo rebelled and there was an excellent opportunity for the Mameluks to seize the state authority and became independent. But the tension among them and betrayal by some Mameluks, did not allow them to seize this chance. In 1806, the Mameluks defeated the Turkish forces several times, and in June confronting parties concluded a treaty, according to which Muhammad Ali (appointed as governor of Egypt on March 26 1806) was to be removed and the state authority in Egypt returned to the Mameluks. But again, internal tension and conflicts between the clans did not allow the Mameluks to use this opportunity. Muhammad Ali kept his authority and this would be fatal for the Mameluks.
Mohammed Ali knew that eventually he would have to contend with the Mameluks if he ever wanted to control Egypt. They were still the feudal owners of Egypt and their land was still the source of wealth and power in Egypt. In 1809-1810, Muhammad Ali managed to split the Mameluks, one part of who went to Sudan and settled there. Finally, on March 1, 1811 Muhammad Ali invited all Mameluks to his palace to celebrate the declaration of war against the Arabs. There were nearly 600 Mameluks (in another source about 700) on parade in Cairo, when near the Al-Azab gates, in a narrow road down from Mukatamb Hill, superior Turk forces suddenly fired at them and slaughtered almost every one. Only one Mameluk named Hasan survived as he cut his way though the Turks and jumped with the horse over a precipice and escaped. The name of this Mameluk became a legend and Arabian writer Jurji Zaidan wrote a story “Exiled Mameluk” dedicated to him.
Throughout the following week almost thousands of Mameluks were killed in Egypt. In the citadel of Cairo more than 1000 Mameluks were murdered, while in the streets about 3000 Mameluks and their relatives were massacred. One little group of Mameluks escaped to Sudan and settled in a little village Dongola. For nine years, sp,eMameluks lived in Dongola in poverty, many of whom died within 2 or 3 years (among them Ibrahim Beg, who died in 1816). In 1820, Muhammad Ali pardoned them and allowed them to return to Egypt, but only 80 Mameluks crossed the border. This was the end of the history of Mameluks, and as James Oldridge wrote, this is how 600 years of ruling over Georgian slaves ended.
Noteworthy, the military history of Mameluks did not ended in 1811. Throughout the Napoleonic era, there was a special Mameluk corps in the French army. In his history of the 13th Chasseurs, Colonel Descaves recounts the use the young General Bonaparte made of native troops in Egypt. In his so-called "Instructions", which Bonaparte gave to Kleber after departure, Napoleon wrote that he had already bought about 2000 Mameluks from Syrian merchants from whom he intended to form a special detachment. On 14 September 1799, General Kleber established a mounted company of Mameluk auxiliaries and Syrian Janissaries from Turks captured at the siege of Acre. On 7 July 1800 General Menou reorganized the company, forming 3 companies of 100 men each and renaming it the “Mameluks de la Republique”. In 1801, General Rapp was sent to Marseille to organize a squadron of 250 Mameluks under his command. On 7 January 1802, the previous order was canceled and the squadron reduced to 150 men. The list of effectives on 21 April, 1802 reveals 3 officers, and 155 rank and file. By decree of 25 December, 1803 the Mameluks were organized into a company attached to the Chasseurs-a-Cheval of the Imperial Guard.
They performed well at Austerlitz (2 December, 1805) and were granted a standard and a roster increased to accommodate a standard bearer and a trumpet. A decree of 15 April 1806 defined the strength of squadron as 13 officers and 147 privates, while in 1813 its Chasseurs-a-Cheval of the Imperial Guard. A decree of 17 March established another company attached to the Young Guard. With the First Restoration, the company of the Mameluks of the Old Guard was incorporated in the Corps Royal des Chasseurs de France. The Mameluks of Young Guard were incorporated in the 7th Chasseurs a Cheval.
Despite the Imperial decree of 21 March 1815 which stated that no foreigner could be admitted into the Guard, Napoleon’s decree of 24 April prescribed inter alia that the Chasseurs-a-Cheval of the Imperial Guard included a squadron of two companies of Mameluks for the Belgian Campaign
During their service in Napoleon’s army, the Mameluk squadron wore the following uniform:
Before 1804: The only "uniform" part was the cahouk (hat) green, white turban and red saroual (pants), all to be worn with a loose shirt and a vest. Boots were of yellow or red or tan soft leather. Weapons, an "oriental" scimitar, a brace of pistols in a holder decorated with a crescent and a star, in brass, and a dagger.
After 1804: The cahouk became red with a brass crescent and star, the was closed and had a collar. The main change was the addition of a "regulation" chasseur style saddle cloth and roll, imperial green in color, piped red, with a red and white fringe. The saddlery and harness remained Arabic in style. The undress uniform was as for the Chasseurs-a-Cheval of the Guard but of a dark blue clothe.
 Though it must be mentioned that the King of Georgia David II (1089-1125) employed a similar system against the Islamic states. In 1118 he resettled 250,000 nomads of Turkish (Kipçak) origin from the Northern Caucasus and established 45,000 strong regular army.
 Napoleon's famous bodyguard Roustan was Armenian from Tbilisi, and his real name was Rostom Raza. In his memoirs Rustam wrote that he was born in Tiflis (an old name of Tbilisi) and his father Rustam Unan was a merchant. Being born in Tbilisi Roustan was often considered as Georgian.
Al-Jabarti, A. Egypt during the Expedition of Bonaparte - 1798-1801 Moscow, 1962 (in Russian)
Bonaparte, Napoleon. Memoirs: Campaign in Egypt New York, 1949.
Gordon, M. Slavery in the Arab World New York, 1987.
Janelidze D. Kartveli Mamelukebi egviptesa da erakshi [Georgians in Egypt and Iran] Tbilisi : Tbilisi State University: 1965. (in Georgian)
Jorjadze, A. Kartuli sabrdzolo xelovneba [Martial Art of Georgians] Tbilisi : Saqartvelo; 1990. (in Georgian and Russian)
Lewis, B. Race and Slavery in the Middle East Oxford, 1990.
Marmon, S. Slavery in the Islamic Middle East Princeton, 1999.
Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. Correspondance militaire de Napoleon Ier. Extraite de la correspondance generale et publiee par ordre du Ministre de la Guerre. Vol. 10, Paris, E. Plon, Nourrit, 1876-1897.
Silagadze, B. Kartveli mamluqebi egviptis damoukideblobistavis brdzolashi [Georgian Mameluks fighting for the Independence of Egypt] Tbilisi : Tbilisi State University; 1985. (in Georgian)
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2001
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