[The history of the Ottoman Empire] is remarkable for the accession to power of a race of slaves, who, transformed into soldiers, became alike celebrated for their military qualities, and formidable by their exactions, to the country over which they domineered. It will be at once understood that we allude to the Mamlukes. The origin of this celebrated military caste dates from the time of Saladin. As a usurper, the sultan naturally put little confidence in the native troops; and hence, distrusting the fidelity of his subjects, he was led to place around his person a guard of foreigners, composed chiefly of slaves purchased or made captives in the provinces bordering on the western shores of the Caspian.

Under succeeding sultans the power of these armed attendants was increased by new privileges; and in a short time they, like the celebrated pretorian bands at Rome, acquired or usurped the entire disposal of the sovereign authority. In the year 1250 the reigning sultan, Malek-al-Salek, was dethroned and slain by these mercenaries; in consequence of which crime the Mamlukes became sole masters of Egypt, and chose a sultan out of their own number. This was Ibeg, who, having been named regent during the minority of the young prince, married the queen-mother upon the death of that boy, and finally, supported by his companions in arms, stepped into the vacant throne. The Mamlukes having obtained possession of the government, and neither understanding nor valuing anything except the art of war, every species of learning soon decayed in Egypt, and barbarism in some measure resumed its ancient empire. Nor was their ascendency of long duration, notwithstanding their martial abilities. The fact is, that originally they formed but a small part of the standing forces of Egypt; and as a numerous army was necessary in a country where, according to the fundamental maxim of government, every native must be a slave, they were at first at a loss how to act, being justly suspicious of the other portions of the regular force. But at length they resolved to purchase Christian slaves, and educate them in the same way as they themselves had formerly been ; and these were commonly brought from Circassia, where the people, though they professed Christianity, made no scruple of selling their children. When they had completed their military education, these soldiers were disposed of throughout the fortresses erected in the country to keep down the inhabitants; and because in their language a fort was denominated borge, the new militia received the name of Borgites or garrison-troops. By this expedient the Mamlukes hoped to secure themselves in the sovereignty; but the result proved that they were mistaken in their calculations.

The old Mamlukes having become proud, insolent, and lazy, the Borgites took advantage of their degeneracy, rose upon their masters, deprived them of the government, and about the year 1382 transferred it to one of their own number, by name Barcok, under whom the Mamluke dynasty, properly so called, was brought to an end, after having endured about a hundred and twenty years. The Borgites, as well as their former masters, now assumed the name of Mamlukes, and became famous for their valour and ferocity of conduct. They were almost perpetually engaged in wars either foreign or domestic; and their dominion lasted till the year 1517, when they were attacked by Sultan Selim. The Mamlukes defended them selves with incredible valour; but being overpowered by numbers, they were defeated in every engagement. The same year the city of Cairo was taken, after great slaughter, and the Borgite sultan was obliged to fly. But having collected all his force, he ventured a decisive battle, in which he was defeated, the most romantic efforts of valour proving unavailing against the innumerable multitude which composed the Turkish army. A great number of his troops perished on the field; and the unhappy prince him self, seeing all hope utterly gone, took shelter in a marsh, whence he was dragged by his pursuers, and soon afterwards put to death. Nor did the vengeance of the conqueror stop here. Having erected a throne on the banks of the Nile, he caused the prisoners, amounting to up wards of thirty thousand men, to be brought before him, when he ordered them to be beheaded in his presence, and their bodies to be thrown into the river. With the death of Tuman Bey, and the wholesale butchery which followed it, ended the glory, and almost the existence, of the Mamlukes, who were now everywhere hunted out and cut in pieces.

But notwithstanding these barbarous proceedings, Selim did not attempt the total extermination of the Mamlukes, though this would have been quite agreeable to the maxims of Turkish policy. He seems to have considered, that if he should establish a pasha in Egypt, with the same powers with which those of other parts were invested, such a lieutenant or viceroy would, by reason of the distance from the capital, be under strong temptations to revolt. He therefore devised a new form of government, according to which, the power being distributed amongst the different members of the state, an equilibrium might be established, and the dependence of the whole upon himself might thereby be secured. With this view he chose a divan, or council of regency, consisting of the pasha or viceroy, and the chiefs of the seven military corps. To the former, who was to be in all cases president, it belonged to notify to the council the orders of the Porte, to transmit the tribute to Constantinople, and to provide for the safety of government, both external and internal; whilst, on the Egypt. other hand, the members of the council had a right to reject the orders of the pasha, or even to depose him, provided they could assign sufficient reasons for so doing; and all civil and political ordinances required to be ratified by them.

An Empire of Twenty-Four Provinces Governed by the Sublime Porte

From the Mamluke Beys, who presided over the provinces, were chosen the Sheikh-el-Belled, or governor of Cairo; the Janizary Aga, or commander of the janizaries; the Defterdar, or accountant-general; the Emir-el-Hadgee, or conductor of the caravan to Mecca; the Emir-el-Said, or governor of Upper Egypt; and the Sheikh-el-Bekheri, or governor of the scherifs. He then formed the whole body into a sort of republic; and with this view issued an edict, setting forth that a republican government was granted to the twenty-four sangiacs or governors of provinces. These were,

1. That the sovereignty of the Porte should be acknowledged by the republic, and, in token of obedience, its lieutenant should be received as the representative of the sultan; but if the said lieutenant should attempt to infringe any of its privileges, the republic might suspend him from his authority, and send to the Sublime Porte a complaint against him:

2. That in time of war the republic should provide twelve thousand troops at its own expense, to be commanded by a sangiac or sangiacs;

3. That the republic should raise annually, and send to the Sublime Porte, the sum of 560,000 aslany (afterwards augmented to 800,000, or about £100,000), accompanied by a sangiac, who should receive an acknowledgment for the same:

4. That the same sum should be raised for the use of Medina and Kiaba or Mecca:

5. That the janizaries should not exceed fourteen thousand in time of peace, though this number might be increased in time of war:

6. That to the sultan's granaries should be sent annually a million measures of corn, 600,000 of wheat, and 400,000 of barley:

7. That, on fulfilling these articles, the republic should have a free government over all Egypt, independently of the sultan's lieutenant, but on condition of executing the laws of the country, with the advice of the moollah:

8. That the republic should be in possession of the mint as heretofore, but on condition that it should be under the inspec tion of the sultan's lieutenant, in order that the coin might not be adulterated: and,

9. That the republic should elect a Sheikh-el-Belled out of the number of Beys, to be confirmed by the sultan's lieutenant; and that the said Sheikh el-Belled should be the sultan's lieutenant, and esteemed as the head of the republic. It was further provided, that if the sultan's lieutenant should be guilty of oppression, or exceed the bounds of his authority, the Sheikh-el-Belled should represent the grievance to the Porte; and in case the peace of the republic should be disturbed by foreign enemies, the sultan guaranteed it his protection free of all expense.

Thus the power of the Mamlukes, which conquest and massacre had broken, was in some measure re-established by the arbitrary will or caprice of the conqueror; and it continued to increase until at last the Turkish dominion over Egypt became little better than a species of feudal superiority, recognised in principle, but disregarded in practice. But in order to understand how this transference of authority was produced, it is necessary to attend to the manner in which the race of Mamlukes was continued and multiplied in Egypt. This was not in the ordinary way, by marriage or descent; on the contrary, during all the time the Mamlukes maintained a footing in Egypt, few of them left subsisting issue, and almost all their children perished in the first or second descent.

The means by which they were perpetuated and multiplied were the same by which they were originally established, namely, by slaves brought from the country whence they originally came. From the time of the Moguls this commerce continued on the banks of the Cuban and Phasis, in the same manner as it is carried on in Africa, by wars amongst the hostile tribes, and the misery or avarice of the inhabitants, who sold their children to strangers. The slaves thus procured were first brought to Constantinople, and afterwards dispersed throughout the empire, where they were purchased by the wealthy. When the Turks subdued Egypt they should undoubtedly have prohibited this dangerous traffic; and their omitting to do so in a great measure dispossessed them of their conquest, a consummation which a series of great political errors had otherwise been long preparing.

In fact, the Porte had, for a considerable time, neglected the affairs of this province, and, in order to restrain the pashas, had suffered the divan to extend its power till the chiefs of the janizaries and ayahs were left without control. The soldiers themselves, having become citizens by the marriages which they had contracted, were no longer the creatures of Constantinople; and a change introduced into their discipline still more increased these disorders. At first the seven military corps had but one common treasury; and though the society was rich, individuals, not having anything at their own disposal, could effect nothing. But the chiefs, finding their power diminished by this arrangement, had interest enough to get it abolished, and to obtain permission to possess distinct property, lands, and villages. As these lands and villages, however, depended on the Mamluke governors, it was necessary to conciliate them, in order to prevent their exactions. From that moment the Beys acquired an ascendency over the soldiers, who till then had treated them with disdain; and this ascendency continued to increase, as their government secured to them the possession of con siderable riches, which they employed chiefly in creating friends and multiplying dependents. They increased the number of their slaves; and after emancipating them, employed all their interest to obtain various employments, and procure advancement in the army. These upstarts, retaining for their patrons the superstitious veneration common in the East, formed factions implicitly devoted to their will, and were ready at all times to execute their commands.

Related material


“Egypt.” The Encylopædia Brittanica or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black: 1842. VIII, 458-560. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Chicago Library. Web. 13 August 2020.

Last modified 15 August 2020