Cairo City of Memories- Chapter 4

Slaves and Plagues

The death of Shagarat ad-Durr the last female ruler of Egypt, in 1257, marked the beginning of a new age in Egyptian history. The state came under the formal control of the ‘Mamluks’ (slave soldiers), and would remain so until the Ottoman invasion in the 16th century.

The Mamluks were a force to be reckoned with. They were sold into slavery during childhood, usually taken from Eastern Europe or the Eurasian steppes. As soon as they were purchased, by the sultan or a wealthy emir, they would begin training in combat, horsemanship, and Quranic studies. As a result of starting their training so young, their skills of soldiery were unrivalled in the medieval Middle East. They grew up with their comrades and formed brotherly bonds with them, creating a solidly unified company. Once they reached a certain age they were released from slavery and often became statesmen and or high ranking officers, many establishing companies of Mamluks themselves. However, they were disallowed from inheriting, or passing on property or titles. It was hoped that this would prevent them from creating dynasties. At the end of the 13th century, the state Mamluks were stationed on Rawdah island, in attempt to keep them away from the civilian population, where they earnt the name Bahri Mamluks.


After marrying into power through the last Sultana, the fighting prowess of the Bahri Mamluks was immediately put to the test. In 1260, an envoy was sent to Sultan Qutuz, with a threat from the largest land empire the world had ever known: the Mongols.


The message read:
To Qutuz the Mamluk, who fled to escape our swords...submit to us...You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire...massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee?...Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand...Only those who beg our protection will be safe. Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes.


The Mongols were at the peak of their power. In half a century they had gone from a loose federation of small tribes, to the heads of an empire stretching from Europe to China. Nevertheless, Qutuz responded with the ultimate insult: he decapitated the messengers, and placed their heads on spikes above Bab Zuwayla. The Mongols retaliated by marching to Egypt with a force of 10,000–20,000 men. Qutuz, however, was able to raise a larger army and met them in Palestine at the battle of Ain Jalut. The Mamluks were victorious, and the Mongol Empire was forced to retreat. It was the first time the westward expansion of the Mongols had been checked. As a result, they never made it to North Africa.


The Mamluks were not just proficient warriors, they were also patrons of art and architecture. Aside from developing new building styles as a dynasty, many Mamluk Sultans were so knowledgeable on the subject that they were able to include personal additions to their creations. The Bahri Mamluk ascendance to power coincided with a period of economic boom in Egypt, and a number of architectural projects were embarked upon. A good example of early Mamluk design, which still exists in Cairo, is the Qalawun Complex, built in the heart of Fatimid Cairo on top of the ruins of the old palace. Completed in 1285, this massive site includes a school, a mausoleum, and a hospital.


Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn-Qalawun commissioned the hospital after he was himself cured in a similar complex in Syria. Patients were given a bed each, and provided with hot meals and laundry services, all free of charge. In the event that a patient died the funeral costs would be incurred by the hospital’s foundation – the ostentation of the ceremony was tailored to the social standing of the patient. Incredibly, it continued to treat people up until 1910, when it was finally demolished. The complex also featured a mausoleum to house the sultan after his death (a practice begun by the late sultana). Today, this is the best preserved section of the complex, richly decorated with an array of expensive materials.


During this period, Cairo developed greatly. The sultans focussed on building outside of the city walls, and extended the city south to meet Ibn Tulun mosque, and west to the river. The easterly banks of the Nile had receded, leaving more land exposed, and the old port facilities redundant. A new port was constructed, in the form of Bulaq, the modern-day site of the Maspero complex. During this, Cairo prospered, its population certainly more than double that of London or Paris at the time.


But the good times could not go on. The second half of the 14th century was one of the most miserable periods in Egyptian history. Al-Nasir died in 1340, and was replaced by a string of weak successors. Over the next seven years, Egypt was subjected to constantly changing leadership, undermining the central authority and stability in the provinces. In 1347 Sultan Hassan came to power, bringing with him some promise of strong leadership. However, it was around this time that Egypt, along with most of Eurasia, was afflicted by one of history’s greatest disasters: the Black Death.


It arrived in Alexandria in 1348 on European merchant ships, and quickly swept through the whole country. When it reached Cairo it decimated the densely populated city, leaving people dead just days after infection. A contemporary account describes the disaster: ‘Cairo became an empty desert, and there was no one to be seen on the streets. A man could go from Zuwayla Gate to Bab al-Nasr without encountering another soul...Wailing could be heard from all sides, and you did not pass a house without being assailed by shrieks. Corpses lay piled up along the public way…’


The observer estimated over one million died from the plague in Cairo alone. This figure seems vastly unlikely and modern estimates put the figure closer to 100,000, but it shows how much of a psychological impact it had. The indiscriminate decimation of Egypt’s urban centres wrecked the country’s crucial infrastructure, leading to famines, floods, and further catastrophes.


It may seem odd but, during this period of destruction, Sultan Hassan managed to construct one of Cairo’s most impressive monuments, the mosque which bears his name. The plague ripped apart the economy of Cairo, but ironically helped to fill the state coffers. Those who had saved through the previous economic boom were now dying in large numbers, with increasingly few family members to which they could pass on their wealth. By appropriating the money from plague victims, the state rather morbidly collected the funds for which to construct the Sultan’s grand project.


Construction began in 1356 and took five years to complete. It was built in front of the gates of the citadel, the residence of the Sultan. At 10,000 square metres, reaching a height of 85 metres, the huge construct was one of the biggest mosques in Cairo, designed to house 400 students. It was also the first to be built with four minarets – although two collapsed shortly after completion, resulting in many deaths. Although impressive in its size and architecture, the mosque was never decorated, and remains so to this day. Sultan Hassan was murdered at the age of 26 by his generals and never oversaw its finalisation.


The Bahri dynasty did not last long after Hassan’s death. The tumult of the 14th century proved too much for them and they were overthrown by a rival Mamluk faction. The next century was to bring a sustained period of coups, other-throws, internal bickering, and the eventual invasion of Egypt by the Ottoman Empire.


Edmund Bower is a freelance journalist and assistant editor of the Maadi Messenger. He can be found at and tweets @edmund_bower

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