Mameluks, the Great Warriors of the Past
By Alexander Mikaberidze and David Sharashenidze
Editor's Note: This paper was first written in 1996. Since then further research has brought to light more information on the Mameluks. To read this latest research, see: The Georgian Mameluks in Egypt
"I could not imagine what I could do using a fistful of these warriors" -Napoleon
The history of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt is an episode so strange and extraordinary that it can not fail to capture one's attention and imagination! At times it seems like a storybook, filled with famous places, colorful characters and vicious and strange action! Yet it is all true. Napoleon Bonaparte conducted a campaign in Egypt so whimsical, so devoid of any real military purpose it was almost is chimerical. In his youth he had been fascinated with the East and for a long time dreamed of going there. He pictured himself following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, making an empire in the East. Only a person as huge as Bonaparte could do anything so unique!
Egypt is a land of a legendary civilization -- the land of Pharaohs, Pyramids, and the Sphinx. Egypt has always attracted man's attention by its exotic culture, treasures and esoteric knowledge. At the period of Bonaparte, Egypt was, in name, a part of the Ottoman Empire and its ruler was the Sultan of Constantinople. But in fact the real power lay with the Mameluks caste for the previous 600 years. The Mameluks governed Egypt, defended it from foreign invaders, and created their own culture. But who were these people, where did they come from and how did they disappear?
The history of the Mameluks begins in the 12th Century, when the famous Saladin followed a tradition of Eastern despots and formed a bodyguard who had no ties except those, which bound them to his person. Purchased as infants in Georgia or Cireassia its members, like the janizaries at Constantinople (who were also mostly Georgians and Cireassians), were trained in arms as their profession, and mounted on the finest steeds of Arabia. They were the elite of his army. In time this force transformed itself into a warrior caste and was divided into twenty-four companies - "Sanjaks", and obeyed no authority except their captains. These were known as "Begs", and the subordinates were called Mameluks, which in Arabian means "White Slave". They formed a kind of chivalry, which, although reduced to nominal submission in 1517, they governed the land with despotic power, and bade defiance to the Sultan's shaky authority.
The history of Mameluks can be divided into 3 periods: The first was when the Mameluks formed themselves into a social class and a warrior clan. This period lasted from the second half of the 12th Century until the first part of 13th Century. It was during this time the Ajubian Sultans purchased children from Georgia and Cireassia, brought them up as brilliant warriors, promoted them, and then established as a war aristocracy. The second period lasted from 1250 to 1517 and was when the Mameluks made took power into their hands. They created a strong state, defeated the Crusaders, stopped hordes of Mongols, and advanced the country to a high level. During this time there were two dynasties, which ruled Egypt: Bahrel Dynasty which ruled from 1250-1382 and the Burjel Dynasty from 1382 - 1517. The Bahrels were sultans, mostly of Turkish origin, while the Burjels were mostly Georgians and Cireassians. The third period lasts from 1517, when the Mameluks were incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. Although the Mameluks lost their absolute power, they were strong enough to hold almost every high position in the country and kept their authority. The "wali" or viceroy of Sultan had only nominal powers and was treated as a "Honorable Captive". It must be mentioned that starting from this period, Mameluks came only from Caucasus and Georgia. The famous Mameluk leaders, Murad Beg and Ibrahim Beg, as well as majority of other Mameluks, were Georgians, kidnapped in childhood from Georgia. Murad Beg was born in Tbilisi, and Ibrahim Beg was from Martkopi, near the capital of Georgia. (Napoleon's bodyguard Roustam was Georgian origin - he was born in Tbilisi and his real name was Rostom Dolidze). During this time, 47 Mameluk Begs governed Egypt, and all but 28 of them were Georgians, while the others of Cireassian origin. At the same time, many Cireassian did not speak any language but Georgian. Kansuh ez-Zahri, who was Cireassian, only spoke Georgian. In 1768 Mameluks managed to liberate Egypt from the Ottoman Empire. They ruled Egypt, and their leader had the title "Sheih al-Balad" -- the first sheih al-balad was Ali Beg from western part of Georgia, Mingrelia.
To understand the phenomena of Mameluks, we must know about their roots. From 1382 almost 90% of Mameluks were Georgians. At the same time there is a question - why was almost every Mameluk from Georgia? The history of Georgia is synonymous with strife. For 5,000 years Georgians have fought for their existence. As one of those most ancient nations, they were involved in the first war known to man. In 1312 B.C. during the battle of Kadesh (present Tel-Neb-Mend, Syria), between the Egyptians and Hittites, Georgian troops fought along with the latter. Many bloody wars raged in the large area - from Mesopotamia to the Caucasus - in the middle of the 3rd Millennium B.C. devastating the most advanced and beautiful countries located there and exterminating their peoples. Only the most resistant and industrious nations, and Georgia among them, managed to survive in this struggle of the fittest.
Those tribes and nations who escaped annihilation became the custodians and inheritors of the invaluable treasure of martial art. Georgians or more precisely, Georgian warriors were lucky to attain the peak of this art in almost incessant battles with the most advanced armies. This art of warfare mastered by Georgians since ancient times improved over the centuries, leading to victories over enemies many times their numbers. Trial by war is the strongest test a nation may be subjected to - for it is test of survival. Those who fail perish and disappeared. Success leads to continued existence and ensures further development. The martial art of Georgia took shape in the course of millennia. This art developed in its own way and over hundreds of years they reached the highest level. In the 11th Century, Georgians fought almost 120 wars and returned victorious from over 100 of these. In the 12th Century more than 140 wars took place where over 120 of those were victorious. The same ratio is kept in consequent centuries. In the War of Thrialeti, in 1110 Georgian King David IV, with 1500 (fifteen hundred! not thousand) beat the Seljuks with an army of 95000 (ninety five thousand! not hundred). In 1121 in the Didgori War with 55,000 (55 thousand) men (250 Crusaders among them) beat an army of 650,000 (650 thousand!!!) Seljuks. (This army was supposed to go against Crusaders in Jerusalem, but the importance of destroying Georgia was incomparably greater). In the 17th Century, 5000 Georgians, under leadership of King George IX, with the permission of Shah Abass I, ruled Afghanistan, Pakistan and part of India for 15 years. The superiority of the enemy by 20, 30 and sometimes 50 times did not mean much for Georgians, because historic hardship toughened them and formulated almost perfect characteristics of a warrior.
The cruelest conqueror to ever invade Georgia was Timur Lang (Tamerlane), who conquered the whole India within 14 months, but spent more than 15 years trying to subdue Georgia! During 1386-1403, he attacked Georgia 8 times and razed it to the ground. But Georgia did not give up and the last thought of the despot was about the Georgians, who never bent their heads before him. For hundreds of years Georgia was a little spot in the ocean of Muslims and always fought against them. In Arabia, Georgia is called Gurjistan, which means a "Country of Warriors". This is why the prices of Georgian slaves were the highest in the East. And is why Georgian warriors were kidnapped over centuries and turned into Mameluks.
Every year during 6 centuries a great number of Georgians were kidnapped and sold on markets in Izmir, Damask, Cairo and Istanbul. Approximately, 15000-20000 Georgians were annually kidnapped and sold, which means that during the time almost 12-13 million Georgians were forced into slavery. (The present population of Georgia is only 5 million.) Part of them went to the Istanbul where they filled the ranks of the Janizaries and part of them went to Egypt. Most of "Egyptian Mameluks" were from west Georgia, as historically this part of Georgia was influenced first by Seljuk and then by Ottoman Empires, while Eastern Georgia was under Iran dominion. In addition to those who were kidnapped, many Georgians and Cireassians left their native land for political or other reasons and went to Egypt.
Despite being separated from their homeland for long periods, the Mameluks never broke their ties with it. The famous Ibrahim Beg was born in peasant's family in Martkopi, near Tbilisi and kidnapped in childhood. Despite 25 years of separation Ibrahim Beg finally found his family. He notified the King of Georgia about the hardship of his family (as it was a peasant family) and asked him for help. The king of eastern Georgia Irakli II gave them nobility and land.
Because they were sold in different countries, Georgian Mameluks frequently were opposed to each other, as the Ottoman Empire used many Georgians too. The famous Turkish admiral, Kabudan Pasha, who invaded in Egypt and captured Cairo, was Georgian, from a little village Fshaveli in the north of Georgia and during the negotiations with Mameluks spoke only in Georgian. At the same time, a peasant boy from eastern part of Georgia - ruled the whole Ottoman Empire as Grand Vezir for 20 years. Among the Turkish nobility there were Georgian noblemen - Jakels, Diasamidzes, Shalikashvilis (ancestors of John-Malkhaz Shalikashvili ). During the 15-17 Centuries, Georgian Mameluks composed the Royal Court of Iran. The famous Shah Abbas I, "Iranian Lion", who expanded Iran's power to highest extent was "half-Georgian", as his grandmother and mother were Georgians, as well as his 4 wives. Yet he was the one of the fiercest enemies of Georgia. Between 1614 and 1618, he resettled more than 350,000 Georgians to the province of Fereidan in Iran and even today there are many descendants of those Georgians living there. They still speak Georgian, but are not considered to be Georgians. From these Georgians, Shah Abbas I formed his Royal Guard, and used them to conquered Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India. Until he was overthrown in a coup d'etat by Nadir Shah, the unofficial state language in Royal Court of Iran was Georgian.
For 50 years Georgian Mameluks governed Afghanistan and had established a few kingdoms in India, which was the most eastern point of Mameluk settlement. Here there was a great town known as Jeihan Abad ("Town of Shah Jeihan"), which Georgian Mameluks, because of its remoteness and hazardous place had renamed to "Jandaba" which in Arabian means - "Hell". This has been incorporated in the Georgian language and the phrase in Georgian - "Go to Jandaba", which means godforsaken travelling.
There were probably 100,000 of Mameluks living in Egypt by the Napoleonic times. Among these were some 15,000-17,000 cavalry and was the best army in the whole Asia Minor. The Mameluks were excellent warriors and the cavalry was impressive to see. Their virtuosity, courage, and dedication astonished Napoleon and he considered the cavalry the best in the world - ". . .10000 of Mameluks could have easily fight and win against 50000 Turks . . . I could not imagine what I could do using a fistful of these warriors"- said Napoleon. Indeed mounted on fine Arabian steeds (the most valuable treasure of Mameluks, as well as of Arabs), always armed to the teeth with a carbine, 4 pistols and bejeweled scimitars, Mameluks were the strongest army in the whole Asia Minor. But despite of all their weaponry and flash power, the Mameluks were still essentially a medieval fighting force. Their courage and dedication taught them 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.
One should diminish the role of Mameluks in the struggle against Napoleon. Of course, their medieval firearms could not resist to French firepower, but their martial art was incomparably higher. As Napoleon once said: "One Mameluk is stronger than two French soldiers, 100 Mameluks is equal to 150 French soldiers, but 300 Frenchmen will defeat 300 Mameluks, and 1500 Mameluks will always lose to 1000 Frenchmen". The warrior skills of an individual Mameluk were very high, but the iron discipline of the French soldiers and the genius of their commander-in-chief always defeat them. Yet their impact on the overall operation was far greater than their numbers. For 7 months General Desaix, with his 10000 soldiers, fought the Mameluks of Murad Beg and were not available to Bonaparte to fight the numerically superior forces of Ottoman.
Mameluks lived in beautiful mansions attended by scores of slaves, with fantastic treasures. This was a result of robbery and oppression of the native Egyptian peasantry or "fellahins". It was Mameluks custom to carry their wealth on their persons, and after the battle of the Pyramids French soldiers spent much time in fishing for drowned Mameluks. It was estimated that each body recovered would afford about 15 thousand francs to the lucky finder. If this is about an average Mameluks, what can we say about Begs and their wealth?
The Mameluk rule had many positive sides. During their reign, many palaces were erected and gardens flourished. The Mameluks assisted in the development of trade and protected local population from the enemy. The decrease in the population rate which occurred under the Mameluks was caused by the continuous battles that were fought with the Ottoman Empire rather than a deliberate policy. Another cause was the movement of a large portion of the Egyptian population to other locations within the Ottoman Empire because of better economic opportunity.
After departure of French troops in 1801, the Mameluks continued their struggle for independence, this time against the Ottoman Empire and the British. For the next five years they fought against numerically superior enemies and defeated them several times. In 1803 Mameluk leaders Ibrahim Beg and Usman Beg wrote a letter to the Russian general-consul and asked him to mediate with the Sultan in Istanbul for a cease fire and so that they could return to their homeland - Georgia. But of course, Russian Ambassador in Istanbul categorically refused to mediate, as Russian government was afraid of allowing Mameluks to return to Georgia because there was a strong national-liberation movement there and they would have greatly strengthened the rebel forces.
In 1805, the population of Cairo rebelled and this was an excellent opportunity for Mameluks to seize the state authority and became independent. But internal divisions among them did not allow them to seize this chance. On March 26, 1806 Muhammad Ali was appointed to "wali" - governor of Egypt. He was born in 1769 in a little city Kavala of Macedonia and hated Mameluks very much. "I could not sleep well, while Mameluks were existing"- Muhammad often said. At the same time the war between the Turks and the Mameluks continued. In 1806 Mameluks defeated the Turkish forces several times and in June a treaty was reached. According to the terms Muhammad Ali was to go to Thessaloniki and the state authority in Egypt returned to Mameluks. But once again, internal tension, conflicts between the clans did not allow Mameluks to use this opportunity. Muhammad Ali kept his authority and this spelled the eventual doom for the Mameluks. Since his appointment as wali of Egypt, Muhammad Ali was looking for an appropriate moment to eliminate all Mameluks, who were still very strong and extremely dangerous to him. During 1809-1810 Muhammad Ali managed to split the Mameluks, one part of who went to Sudan and settled there. On March 1, 1811 Muhammad Ali invited all the Mameluks to his palace to celebrate the declaration of war against the Arabs. There were nearly 600 Mameluks (in another source about 700) on the parade in Cairo, when near the Al-Azab gates, in a narrow road down from Mukatamb Hill, Turkish forces (about 3,500 warriors) suddenly fired at them and killed almost every one. Only one Mameluk named Hasan survived as he fought his way though the ranks of the enemy and jumped with the horse into 25 meters deep precipice and escaped. Muhammad Ali was astonished by his courageous, forgave him and offered service, but Hassan did not return and went with his compatriots to Sudan. The name of Hassan became legendary and the Arab writer Jurji Zaidan wrote a story "Exiled Mameluk" dedicated to him.
Throughout the following week almost 10,000 Mameluks were killed in Egypt. In the citadel of Cairo more than 1000 Mameluks were killed, while in the city streets about 3500 Mameluks and their relatives were massacred. Many Mameluk leaders were slaughtered during this horror - Marzuk Beg, the son of great Ibrahim Beg, Shahin Beg Al-Alfi, Iahia Beg, Numan Beg, Mustafa Beg, relatives of Murad Beg and many others. One group of about 1000 men escaped and went to Sudan, where they settled in a little village Dongola. Among them, there were Ibrahim Beg, Abd Ar-Rahman Beg, Usman Beg, Usman Beg Usup and others. The population of Dongola did not know who these people were, dressed as merchants and speaking a strange language (Georgian) and watched them with a great interest. During the 9 years the Mameluks lived in Dongola they lived in poverty and many of them died including Ibrahim Beg, who died in 1816. When in 1820 Muhammad Ali forgave them and allowed them to return to Egypt, only 80 Mameluks crossed the border of Egypt. And thus ended 600 years of rule by Georgian slaves.
There are many stories and legends in Georgia about these people:
In the beginning of Mameluk's History, in 13th Century Hassan Beg ruled Upper Egypt. He did not know where he was from, but because his stepfather was Cireassian and he was called "Cireassian who never smiles", he always considered himself a Cireassian. He was a cruel and despotic ruler, who extended the territory of Egypt. He had a beautiful palace, enormous amounts of slaves and treasures in Thebes, capital of Upper Egypt. Once, when he was returning home from a war and despite his many victories, he was sad. In the suburb of one of the towns he heard music and was furious. How could someone dare to celebrate when he was on a bad mood? Warriors burst the gates to the garden open and the following picture was spread in front of them:
A young, beautiful woman was sitting on the grass and singing. She was beautiful but her face was covered with scars. Hassan listened to her for a while. He heard something familiar, which astounded him. He approached the woman. He gently touched her scars and asked: "Who dared to do that?" The woman was quiet. Soldiers dragged a fat man out of the house who told Hassan: "I bought this woman in the Market for the price of 20 cows and one camel, but she cut her face so I would not sell her for a better price elsewhere. And now I make her sing so she can make up for the loss of my money." Hassan asked the woman: "The song you were singing...which country does it belong to?" "I am from Gurjistan (Georgia)" she replied, "But I sing the songs that are sad only." For some reason, the word "Gurjistan" was like a sword in his brain. "Sing a song for me" Hassan said. She started to sing and while she sang, Hassan approached a tree and leaned against it. Flames burned within him. There was something familiar in all of this, but he could not tell what it was. He could barely remember only one word from his memories - "Nana". The woman finished singing and Hassan asked: "I am not sure why, but these songs sound familiar do they sing anything about "Nana" where you are from?" "Of course" she replied "Nana means "Mother" and there is a song I can sing it if you want." And she started to sing. At the first note of the song Hassan shivered and he sat listening, frozen like a stone. And the woman kept singing. Hassan remembered everything - his Mother, his home, his native "Gurjistan". And when she finished singing, suddenly Hassan fell on the ground - He was dead. Soldiers grabbed the woman calling her she was a witch and slaughtered her to pieces. That is the tragedy of Mameluks and their native land - Georgia, which during hundreds of years lost its sons to far lands fighting for some other countries' independence, while at the same time enemies raze it to ground its own.
At the same time we want to write about the Mameluks of the Guard of Napoleon. 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 (Napoleon, Memoires, p.p. 618-620 in Russian). On the 14 September 1799 Kleber created a company of mounted Mameluk auxiliaries. General Menou reorganized it in 1800 into the regiment of "Mameluks de la Republique". On the 13 October 1801 Rapp went to Marseille to organize a squadron of 150 men under his command. In 1802 its strength was 13 officers, and 155 men. The Empire had them join the Guard, attached to the Chasseurs a cheval. Captain Delaitre was the new commander of a squadron. They performed well at Austerlitz and were granted a standard and the roster included a standard bearer, 4 French NCO's, 4 "horse mane" bearers, and a trumpeter.
In 1813 a second Mameluk squadron was formed and attached to the Young Guard. In all, 583 men served in the Mameluks of the Guard, half of which were of foreign origin, some of whom were Georgians. Interestingly up to 1813 3/4 of the Corps was made up of foreigners, but after the Russian campaign this number dropped to less than 1/3. Mameluks lived in Marseilles and after Napoleon's first abdication, most of them were slaughtered by royalist mob.
During their service in Napoleon's army, the Mameluks 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 included a scimitar, a brace of pistols in a holder decorated with a crescent and a star, in brass, and a dagger.
After 1804: The cahouk was red with a brass crescent and star, the vest closed and had a collar. The main change is 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 remain Arabic in style.
The undress uniform was as for the chasseurs of the Guard but of a dark blue clothe.
The Mameluks fought and won numerous battles against the French and the Turks. A partial listing of these battles follows the bibliography. After reading this list of battles, a question immediately comes to mind: Why, after all these victories, Mameluks did not seize the State authority in their hands and oust Muhammad from Egypt? We believe the answer to this question is that Muhammad was a skillful, sly, and clever governor, who managed to spread dissension among Mameluks after every victory. In January 27, 1807 Alfi Beg with his army of 20,000 Mameluks surrounded Cairo and wanted to seize the city, but suddenly on the next day he dies, presumably poisoned on Muhammad Ali's order and thus destroying any chance of a united Mameluk nation.
Al-Jabarti, A. Egypt during the campaign of Napoleon Moscow : Science; 1968. (in Russian)
Bonaparte, Napoleon. Memoirs Moscow; 1956. (Published at the request of the Ministry of State Defense; its translator was General Zhilin)(in Russian)
Janelidze D. Georgians in Egypt, Iran, Syria and Asia Minor Tbilisi : Tbilisi State University: 1965. (in Georgian)
Jorjadze, A. Martial Art of Georgians Tbilisi : Saqartvelo; 1990. (in Georgian and Russian)
Manfred, A. Napoleon Bonaparte Moscow : Science; 1989. (in Russian)
Silagadze, B. Georgian Mameluks fighting for the Independence of Egypt Tbilisi : Tbilisi State University; 1985. (in Georgian)
Tarle, E. Napoleon Bonaparte Moscow : Phoenix; 1994. (in Russian)
Battles of the Mameluks 1798-1811
1798/07/02 Battle near Marabut
First battle between French (50 soldiers) and Mameluks (30 soldiers)
F:? M: Said Muhammad Kuraim al-Iskander
1798/07/02 Battle and Conquest of Alexandria
France (4500) Vs Mameluks (?)
F: Napoleon; M: Said Muhammad Kuraim al-Iskander
1798/07/09 Battle near Damanhur
France (Brigade of general Desaix) Vs Mameluks (600)
F: Desaix; M:?
1798/07/13 Battle of Shubra Khit
France (20000 soldiers) Vs Mameluks (about 8000 soldiers: 500 Mameluks,
3000Arabs, 3500 Turks)
F: Napoleon; M: Murad Bey
1798/07/21 Battle of the Pyramids (Battle of Embabeh)
France (about 20000 soldiers; fleet of . . .. Vs Mameluks (12000
Mameluks, 20000 janizaries, 38000 Felahs; 300 war ships on Nile)
F: Napoleon; M: Murad Bey/Ibrahim Bey
1798/10/07 Battle of Sediman (Battle of El Lahun)
France (about 4000 soldiers, 600 cavalery, 10 gun) vs Mameluks (8000
Bedouins, 2000 Mameluks, 10000 Arabs)
French victory (?)
F: Desaix; M: Murad Bey
1799/01/03-17 Battles near Sauvak and That
France vs Mameluks
F: Desaix; M:?
Battle near hills of Samhud France (5000 soldiers, 14 gun and fleet) vs Mameluks (4000 Mameluks, 6000 Bedouins and Arabs)
F: Desaix; M: Murad Bey
1799/03/08 - 1799/03/10 Battle of Abnud
France vs Mameluks
F: Belliard; M: ?
1799/03/? Battle at Banuss
France vs Mameluks
Mameluks victory (they destroy and capture French fleet of 13 ships)
F: M:Hassan Beg Al-Jidavi
1799/04/02 Battle near Bir Al-Bari
France vs Mameluks
F: Colonel Diuplesi; M: Hassan Beg Al-Jidavi
1799/05/01 Action at Beni Adi
France vs Mameluks
F: Davout; M:?
1800/ March 19 - 26 April Rebel in Cairo
France vs Mameluks and Turks
F: Kleber; M:Ibrahim Beg, Hassan Beg Iamboel
1801-1810 - war between Mameluks and Ottoman Empire.
1806/03/27 Battle near Jazirat al-Havas
Ottoman Empire vs Mameluks
O: Khurshid Pasha ; M: Alfi Beg
1806/03/29 Action near Cairo
Ottoman Empire vs Mameluks
O: Khurshid Pasha; M: Alfi Beg
April, 1806 Battles between forces of Muhammad Ali and Mameluks
(Actions near Manuf and Damanhur)
O: Hassan Pasha, Tahir Pasha; M:?
1807/09/23 Battle near Miniat al-Kura
Ottoman Empire vs Mameluks
O: Ali Pasha; M: Alfi Beg
1808/01/21 Battle near Cairo (Shubra-Mant)
Ottoman Empire vs Mameluks
O:Muhammad Ali; M: Alfi beg
1810/05/26 Battle near Jurz al-Hava
Muhammad Ali vs Mameluks
O: Hassan Pasha, Abdin Beg M:?
1810/06/22 Battle for Giza
Muhammad Ali vs Mameluks