The Mamluks under Baibars (yellow) fought off the Franks and the Mongols during the Ninth Crusade.

In the autumn of 1260, Baybars was patently aware of the fragility of his hold on the sultanate. He moved swiftly to assume authority in Cairo, occupying the great citadel–the seat of power built by Saladin–and rewarding a wide circle of emirs with offices and wealth. In addition, the surviving Bahriyya mamluks were established as his personal bodyguards. Their old regimental barracks on the Nile were later rebuilt and placed under the command of the sultan’s most trusted emirs, including Qalawun.

Baybars’ most urgent concerns were the legitimisation of his own rule and the wider entrenchment of Mamluk power in Egypt. But the new sultan also possessed the political and strategic vision to recognise, and adapt to, the new Levantine world order. In decades past, Muslim leaders had sought to unite Islam and, in some cases, tried actively to combat the Franks in the Holy Land. Now, the imperative had changed and a different paradigm had been created. After 1260, the critical frontiers lay to the north and east of Syria, whence the primary enemy–the Mongol Empire–might once again seek to destroy Islam. To combat this threat, these borders must be protected and the Near East transformed into a united and impervious fortress state.

The Latin Christians were a secondary danger. Geographically their remaining settlements lay within the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian territory that Baybars now wished to unify and secure against the Mongols. He rightly judged that, in the wake of setbacks like the Battle of La Forbie, the Franks of Outremer were effectively emasculated. On their own, they posed little concern. But as allies to an external force–be it in the form of a Mongol horde or a western crusade–they might open a troublesome and distracting second front within the confines of the Near East. As such, the crusader states were embedded irritants that had to be neutralised.

Aware of these challenges, Baybars dedicated much of the early 1260s to radically reshaping the Muslim Near East, founding a potent, authoritarian regime. At the same time, he set out to ready the Mamluk state for the onset of war–be it against Mongol or Christian enemies. By these means, the new sultan spent his first years in power assiduously preparing for what he hoped would be ultimate victory in the struggle for control of the Holy Land.


The protector of Islam

At first, Baybars’ hold on power was relatively precarious: he inherited a Mamluk state that was only partially formed; and he had been involved in the assassination of two former sultans, Turanshah and Qutuz. Against this somewhat tainted background, civil insurrection or counter-coup threatened, and the loyalty of his fellow mamluk emirs was by no means assured. But in late 1260, the new sultan also stood to benefit from some significant advantages. In the aftermath of the Mongol invasion and the Battle of Ayn Jalut, the remaining vestiges of Ayyubid power in Syria and Palestine were all but shattered, and the Holy Land was ripe for Mamluk domination. Thus, in contrast to the likes of Nur al-Din and Saladin, who laboured for decades to unite the Near East, Baybars was able to assert control of Damascus and Aleppo within the first years of his reign, installing regional governors who answered to Cairo.

In addition, Baybars was able to draw upon the triumph achieved at Ayn Jalut to legitimate his claim to power. Presenting himself as the saviour of Islam, he had a monument erected on the battlefield, and demolished Qutuz’s grave to downplay any suggestion that the late sultan also might have played a ‘heroic’ role in the confrontation. In later years, Baybars’ chancellor and official biographer, Abd al-Zahir, reconfigured the history of the battle in his account of the sultan’s life, presenting it as a victory won almost single-handedly by Baybars. The sultan also sought to promote his own cult of personality, embodied in his lion emblem (depicting a lion walking to the left, with a raised forepaw). This distinctive heraldic device was placed on Baybars’ coinage and used to mark public buildings and bridges constructed in his name. And while it is true that the Mamluk state was threatened by potent enemy forces in the 1260s, these evident dangers enabled Baybars to enact an unprecedented programme of militarisation and to enjoy unparalleled autocratic authority.

Baybars took a number of masterful steps to consolidate his hold on the sultanate. To ground the new Mamluk regime within the framework of Islam’s traditional legal and spiritual hierarchy, he reestablished the Sunni Abbasid caliphate. In June 1261, Baybars claimed to have found one of the few surviving members of the Abbasid dynasty. The man’s pedigree was carefully assessed by a hand-picked committee of Cairene jurists, theologians and emirs and then confirmed as the new Caliph al-Mustansir. Baybars then made a ritual oath of allegiance to the caliph, swearing to uphold and defend the faith; to rule justly, according to the law; to serve as a protector of Sunni orthodoxy; and to wage jihad against the enemies of Islam. In return, al-Mustansir invested Baybars as the sole, all-powerful sultan of the entire Muslim world, an act that not only confirmed his rights to Egypt, Palestine and Syria, but also provided tacit authorisation for a massive campaign of expansion. In a final public affirmation of his regime’s legitimacy, Baybars was invested with sultanly apparel: a black rounded turban of the sort customarily worn by the Abbasids; a violet robe; shoes adorned with golden buckles; and a ceremonial sword. Dressed in this finery, he and the caliph rode, in state procession, through the heart of Cairo. From this point onwards, Baybars took great care to endorse caliphal authority, so long as it did not impinge upon his own power. Both the caliph and sultan were named in the Friday prayer; likewise, Mamluk coinage bore both their names.

To reinforce the aura of tradition and continuity developing around the sultanate, Baybars consciously sought to connect himself with two Muslim rulers. The first, al-Salih Ayyub (Baybars’ own former master), was now presented as the last legitimate Ayyubid sultan, with Baybars as his direct and rightful heir–an agile manipulation of the past that conveniently ignored the bloody turmoil of the 1250s. The sultan also modelled himself upon Saladin, the conqueror of the Franks and idealised mujahid. Imitating his famed generosity as a patron of the faith, Baybars set about restoring Cairo’s now dilapidated al-Azhar mosque. In addition, he established a new mosque in Cairo and a madrasa beside al-Salih’s tomb. The sultan also visited Jerusalem and there restored the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa mosque–both of which had become somewhat run down under later Ayyubid rule.

Similar echoes were present in a number of civil measures adopted in these early years. Styling himself as the archetypal ‘just ruler’, Baybars abolished the war taxes imposed by Qutuz, established palaces of justice in Cairo and Damascus and also ordered fair prices to be paid to merchants for goods sequestered by the state. By these diverse means, the sultan engendered widespread popular support among his subjects in the Near East and this helped to insulate his position against other mamluk challengers.

Centralised power in the Mamluk state

While working to legitimise the Mamluk sultanate and his own claim to power, Baybars also took bold steps towards governmental and administrative centralisation. Mamluk Cairo was turned into the unquestioned capital of the Muslim Near East, and the office of sultan was imbued with a degree of despotic authority never before witnessed in the medieval era. In stark contrast to many of his predecessors, Baybars carefully monitored state finances and controlled the Mamluk treasury–measures that gave him the wealth to pay for critical reforms.

As sultan, Baybars expected his will to be obeyed without hesitation across the Mamluk world, and he made ready use of both direct force and propaganda to ensure submission and compliance on the part of regional governors. Emirs who failed to levy troops for war in short order, for example, were hung by their hands for three days. Anyone foolish enough to attempt insurrection could expect summary punishment, with torments ranging from blinding or dismemberment to crucifixion. Like other rulers before him–including Nur al-Din and Saladin–Baybars drew upon the fear of external threats to justify his autocratic behaviour, but new emphasis was placed upon the Mongols as the prime enemy of the state. Thus, when the sultan wished to remove the petty Ayyubid princeling al-Mughith from power in Transjordan in 1263, accusations of consorting with the Ilkhanate of Persia were levelled, and letters supposedly from Hülegü to al-Mughith were produced as evidence.

But even beyond guile and brutality, the true cornerstone of Baybars’ authority in the Near East was communication. He was the first Muslim in the Middle Ages to master the business of ruling a pan-Levantine empire from Egypt because he made huge investments in message-carrying networks. Many centuries earlier, the Byzantines and early Abbasids had made use of a courier-based postal structure, but this had long since fallen out of use. Baybars created his own barid, or postal system, using relays of horse-borne messengers, hand-picked and well rewarded for their reliability. Changing mounts at carefully maintained post stations positioned along key routes through the Mamluk realm, these men could routinely bring a message from Damascus to Cairo in four days, or three in an emergency. Use of the barid was strictly limited to the sultan, and letters were always brought directly to Baybars, no matter what he was doing–on one occasion he even had a messenger report to him in the bath. To ensure the smooth and swift transfer of information, major roads and bridges were carefully repaired, and the barid was also supplemented by pigeon post and a system of signal fires. This remarkable (and admittedly costly) feat of organisation allowed Baybars to maintain contact with the far reaches of the Mamluk state–in particular the northern and eastern borders with the Mongols–and meant that he could react to both military threats and civil disorder with unprecedented speed.

Allied to Baybars’ own particularly forceful and energetic brand of rulership, this raft of practical and administrative reforms served to consolidate the Mamluk state and cement ‘royal’ power by the mid-1260s. However, Baybars’ regime was not without its faults. The success of this intensely centralised approach to government depended heavily upon the sultan’s personal qualities and skills, and this raised obvious questions about how readily the mantle might be passed on to a successor. Seeking to overturn the notion that a Mamluk sultan should be elected, Baybars tried to lay the foundations for his own familial dynasty in August 1264 by appointing his four-year-old son Baraka as joint ruler. Given the emphasis placed on merit rather than heritage among the mamluk elite, it remained to be seen whether this plan would be realised.

Baybars also developed a potentially disruptive association with the sufi (holy man) mystic Khadir al-Mihrani in these early years. Supposedly a prophet, but regarded by many in the Mamluk court as a philandering fraud, Khadir befriended Baybars in 1263 during one of the sultan’s visits to Palestine. Impressed by the sufi’s predictions of numerous future Mamluk conquests (many of which later came true), Baybars soon rewarded him with property in Cairo, Jerusalem and Damascus. Khadir was given unfettered access to the sultan’s inner circle and was said to have been privy to matters of state, all to the chagrin of Baybars’ leading mamluk lieutenants. This strange relationship suggests that even a cold-blooded despot like Baybars could be seduced by flattery–it also was a chink in his defences that, in time, would have to be sealed.

Mamluk diplomacy

Given the time and resources Baybars expended within the Muslim Levant while building his Mamluk state in the early 1260s–and the strident militarism evident in his later career–it would be easy to imagine that the sultan adopted an insular approach to the outside world, turning inwards to spurn diplomacy. In fact, he was an active and adept player on the international stage. Baybars used negotiation to pursue three interlocking goals: to forestall any possibility of an alliance between the Latin West and the Mongols; to sow dissension within the Mongol ranks by encouraging rivalry between the Golden Horde and the Persian Ilkhanate; and to maintain access to a ready supply of slave recruits from the Russian steppes.

Within his first year in office, Baybars established contact with the late Emperor Frederick II’s bastard son, King Manfred of Sicily (1258–66). Seeking to perpetuate the tradition of close relations between Egypt and the Hohenstaufen, and to support Manfred’s anti-papal policies, the sultan dispatched envoys to the Sicilian court with exotic gifts, including a group of Mongol prisoners, complete with their horses and weaponry–testament to their shattered reputation for invincibility. After Manfred’s death, Baybars renewed contact with his rival and successor, King Louis IX of France’s acquisitive brother, Charles of Anjou.

The sultan likewise opened channels of negotiation with the Golden Horde in 1261. The Mongol ruler of this region, Berke Khan (1257–66), had converted to Islam and was engaged in a heated power struggle with the Ilkhanate of Persia. Baybars flattered Berke’s religious affiliation by including his name in the Friday prayers at Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, and by establishing equitable relations he retained access to the steppe-land slave markets within the Golden Horde and secured the Mamluk sultanate’s northern borders with Asia Minor. To ensure the safe and efficient passage of Kipchak slaves from the Black Sea to Egypt, the sultan also forged pacts with the Genoese–the main transporters of slave cargo in the Mediterranean basin. These Italian merchants had recently lost the so-called ‘War of St Sabas’–a two-year struggle with Venice over economic and political pre-eminence in Acre and Palestine. When this fractious civil war ended with Genoese defeat in 1258, they relocated to Tyre and, through the 1260s and beyond, proved only too happy to trade with the Mamluks. To ensure that Genoese ships continued to enjoy unhindered access to the Bosphorus Strait, Baybars forged additional contacts with the newly reinstated Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus, who had returned to Constantinople in 1261 with the final collapse of Latin Romania.

For a mamluk inculcated in the arts of war rather than the intrigues of court politics, Sultan Baybars managed this tangled web of diplomatic interests with a surprisingly deft and assured hand–all the while manoeuvring to isolate the Mongol Ilkhanate and Latin Outremer.


Perfecting the Mamluk military machine

Between 1260 and 1265 Baybars was phenomenally active in the fields of diplomacy and statecraft. But ever mindful of the need to undertake urgent and extensive preparations for war, he simultaneously set the Mamluk state on the path to militarisation. The sultan’s underlying goal was to prosecute jihad against the Mongols and the Levantine Franks–scoring victories that would cement further his position and reputation, achieving conquests that would secure Muslim dominion over the Levant.

From the start, work proceeded apace to strengthen the Mamluk world’s physical defences. In Egypt, Alexandria’s fortifications were bolstered and the mouth of the Nile at Damietta was partially sealed to prevent another naval incursion up the delta akin to that mounted by Louis IX. Across Syria, battlements destroyed by the Mongols at the likes of Damascus, Baalbek and Shaizar were repaired. To the north-east, along the course of the Euphrates River–now the effective frontier with the Persian Ilkhanate–the castle of al-Bira became a strategic linchpin. The fortress was strengthened and heavily garrisoned, and its security closely monitored by Baybars via the barid. Al-Bira proved its worth in late 1264, when it successfully withstood the first serious offensive by Ilkhanid forces. This attack, brought on by a lull in the war between the Golden Horde and Mongol Persia, caused the sultan to rally his forces for war, but even as he prepared to march from Egypt reports arrived indicating that the Ilkhanids had already broken off their fruitless siege of al-Bira and retreated.

Above and beyond any reliance on castles, however, Sultan Baybars regarded the army as the bedrock of the Mamluk state. Adopting and extending the existing system of mamluk recruitment, he purchased thousands of young male slaves, drawn from Kipchak Turkish and, later, Caucasian stock. These boys were trained and indoctrinated as mamluk troops, and then at the age of eighteen freed to serve their masters within the Mamluk sultanate. This approach created a constantly self-rejuvenating military force–what one modern historian has called a ‘one-generation nobility’–because children born of mamluks were not regarded as being part of the martial elite, although they were permitted to enrol in the army’s second-tier halqa reserves.

Baybars ploughed massive financial reserves into building, training and refining the Mamluk army. In total, the number of mamluks was increased fourfold, to around 40,000 mounted troops. The core of this force was the 4,000-strong royal mamluk regiment–Baybars’ new elite, schooled and honed in a special practice facility within the citadel of Cairo. Here recruits were taught the arts of swordsmanship–learning to deliver precise strikes by repeating the same cut up to 1,000 times a day–and horse archery with powerful composite recurve bows. The sultan emphasised rigid discipline and rigorous military drilling across every section of the Mamluk host. In the course of his reign, two massive hippodromes were constructed in Cairo–training arenas where the essential skills of horsemanship and combat could be perfected. Whenever in the capital, Baybars himself came daily to practise the warrior craft, setting a standard of professionalism and dedication. His mamluks were encouraged to experiment with new weapons and techniques, some archers even attempting to use arrows doused in Greek fire from horseback.

Once of adult age, mamluks were paid, but also were expected to maintain their own horses, armour and weaponry. To ensure his forces were outfitted properly, Baybars instituted troop reviews, in which the entire army, in full martial regalia, would parade past the sultan in a single day (in part to ensure that equipment was not being shared). Failure to attend these displays was punishable by death. Fear was also used to maintain order while on campaign. The drinking of wine was banned on many expeditions, and any soldier caught contravening this injunction was summarily hanged.

To reinforce the human component of the Mamluk armed forces, Baybars invested in some forms of heavier armament. Close attention was paid to the development of siege weaponry, including sophisticated counter-weight catapults, or trebuchets. These engines became the mainstay of Mamluk siegecraft. Capable of being dismantled, borne to a target and then readily reconstructed, the largest could propel stones weighing in excess of 500 pounds. In addition to raw military power, Baybars also placed great value upon accurate and up-to-date intelligence. He therefore maintained an extensive network of spies and scouts across the Near East and received reports from agents embedded in Mongol and Frankish societies. The sultan also showed generous patronage to the nomadic Bedouin Arabs of the Levant, and thereby won their valuable support, both in military conflicts and in the gathering of information.

Through these diverse methods, Baybars constructed the most formidable Muslim army of the crusading era; a force more numerous, disciplined and ferocious than any yet encountered in the war for the Holy Land–the perfect military machine of its day. Having carefully legitimised and consolidated his hold on power, the sultan turned in 1265, with a united Islamic Near East behind him, to wield this deadly weapon in the name of jihad.

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