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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Mamluks in Syria (1291-1517)

Mamluks Syria
View of the entrance of the Citadel of Aleppo (Alep) on August 28, 2008, in the center of the old city of Aleppo, northern Syria. Usage of the Citadel hill dates back at least to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. Subsequently occupied by many civilizations including the Greeks, Byzantines, Ayyubids, and Mamluks, the majority of the construction as it stands today is thought to originate from the Ayyubid period. (Photo by PATRICK KOVARIK / AFP)

Half a century after Saladin’s death (1193), the Ayyubid dynasty ended when the Mamluks – slave officers of Turkish origins – took over in Egypt. At that time, the European occupants of the Levant had lost important battles, but they had not been entirely defeated yet.

Circa 1250, when the Mamluks came to power in Cairo, the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his descendants conquered all of the Central and large parts of Western Asia and even some parts of Eastern Europe. In the Middle East, the Mongols and their allies, the Tatars, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu, penetrated as far as Damascus – sacking the capital (in 1258) as well as its northern counterpart Aleppo on their way, killing thousands of inhabitants. Afterward, they went on in the direction of Egypt.

The Mamluks ran into them in the north of Palestine, where the famous battle of Ayn Jalut (1260) is said to have changed the course of history. There, the Mamluks defeated the Mongols and went on to conquer Syria and Mount Lebanon. In September 1260, the troops of the Mamluk general – later Sultan – Baibars (1223-1277) entered Damascus, where they were received as liberators.

After a few years of relative calm, Baibars took to the battlefield again in 1268, when he conquered – and destroyed – the northern city of Antioch (Antakya), a stronghold of the crusaders. Antioch never recovered from this defeat. In 1277, Baibars (allegedly) died of poisoning, and his successor Qalawun carried on the fight against both the Frank crusaders and the Mongols. It was only on 17 June 1291, that Acre, until then solidly in the hands of the Franks, was conquered by Qalawun’s son Khalil, after the Christian Europeans broke a long-lasting truce. The last crusaders took refuge in Cyprus. This is generally considered the end to the presence of the Franks in the Middle East, although there remained one – very small – Frankish stronghold, the tiny island of Arwad, opposite Tartus, which was only conquered by the Mamluks in 1301.

In 1401, after a century of relative peace, the Mongol ruler Tamerlane (also known as Timur) reconquered and sacked Aleppo and Damascus, killing thousands of inhabitants and thus setting in the decline of Damascus. The Mongols were ousted by the Mamluks, but again, it took fierce fighting.

Next to being warriors, the Mamluks were also builders. They left many fortresses – and fortified existing castles, churches, and mosques as well as ancient temples – but also mosques, madrasas, and khans (caravanserais).

As Sunnite Muslims, the Mamluks were wary of both Christians – mainly Maronite – and Shiite Muslims. However, the Mamluks entertained good relations with Catholic Venice, and therefore generally let the Christian communities be. The Shiites, however, were considered not only as heterodox but – worse – as friends of the Mongols, whom they at times sheltered during the war with the Mamluks. The Mamluks consequently persecuted the Shiites. Many were killed, those who managed to survive did so by hiding in the mountains. The same fate was reserved for all those who helped the Mongols, such as the Christian knights of the Templar Order.

When, finally, in 1517, the Ottomans conquered the region, the inhabitants welcomed them as liberators after the Mamluks’ harsh regime – just as some had welcomed the Mamluks as liberators after the devastation and killings of the Mongols.