The Mamluk sultanate (1250–1517) emerged from the weakening of the Ayyubid realm in Egypt and Syria (1250–60). Ayyubid sultans depended on slave (Arabic: mamluk, literally “owned,” or slave) soldiers for military organization, yet mamluks of Qipchaq Turkic origin eventually overthrew the last Ayyubid sultan in Egypt, al-Malik al-Ashraf (r. 1249–50) and established their own rule. Their unusual political system did not rely entirely on family succession to the throne—slaves were also recruited into the governing class. Hence the name of the sultanate later given by historians. Following the defeat of Mongol armies at the Battle of ‘Ayn Jalut (1260), the Mamluks inherited the last Ayyubid strongholds in the eastern Mediterranean. Within a short period of time, the Mamluks created the greatest Islamic empire of the later Middle Ages, which included control of the holy cities Mecca and Medina. The Mamluk capital, Cairo, became the economic, cultural, and artistic center of the Arab Islamic world.
Mamluk history is divided into two periods based on different dynastic lines: the Bahri Mamluks (1250–1382) of Qipchaq Turkic origin from southern Russia, named after the location of their barracks on the Nile (al-bahr, literally “the sea,” a name given to this great river), and the Burji Mamluks (1382–1517) of Caucasian Circassian origin, who were quartered in the citadel (al-burj, literally “the tower”). After receiving instruction in Arabic, the fundamentals of Islam, and the art of warfare, slaves in the royal barracks were manumitted and given responsibilities in the Mamluk hierarchy.
Art and Architecture under the Bahri Mamluks (1250–1382)
The Bahri reign defined the art and architecture of the entire Mamluk period. Prosperity generated by the east-west trade in silks and spices supported the Mamluks’ generous patronage. Despite periods of internal struggle, there was tremendous artistic and architectural activity, developing techniques established by the Ayyubids and integrating influences from different parts of the Islamic world. Refugees from east and west contributed to the momentum. Mamluk decorative arts—especially enameled and gilded glass, inlaid metalwork, woodwork, and textiles—were prized around the Mediterranean as well as in Europe, where they had a profound impact on local production. The influence of Mamluk glassware on the Venetian glass industry is only one such example.
The reign of Baybars’s ally and successor, Qala’un (r. 1280–90), initiated the patronage of public and pious foundations that included madrasas, mausolea, minarets, and hospitals. Such endowed complexes not only ensured the survival of the patron’s wealth but also perpetuated his name, both of which were endangered by legal problems relating to inheritance and confiscation of family fortunes. Besides Qala’un’s complex, other important commissions by Bahri Mamluk sultans include those of al-Nasir Muhammad (1295–1304) as well as the immense and splendid complex of Hasan (begun 1356). These structures were emulated by high-ranking officials and influential emirs who built similar foundations, such as the complex of Salar and Sanjar al-Jawli (begun 1303) and that of the emir Shaykhu (1350–55).
Art and Architecture under the Burji Mamluks (1382–1517)
The Burji Mamluk sultans followed the artistic traditions established by their Bahri predecessors. Although the state was faced with its greatest external and internal threats in the early fifteenth century, including the devastation of the eastern Mediterranean provinces by the Central Asian conqueror Timur (Tamerlane; r. 1370–1405), as well as famine, plague, and civil strife in Egypt, patronage of art and architecture resumed. Mamluk textiles and carpets were prized in international trade. In architecture, endowed public and pious foundations continued to be favored. Major commissions in the early Burji period in Egypt included the complexes built by Barquq (r. 1382–99), Faraj (r. 1399–1412), Mu’ayyad Shaykh (r. 1412–21), and Barsbay (r. 1422–38).
In the eastern Mediterranean provinces, the lucrative trade in textiles between Iran and Europe helped revive the economy. Also significant was the commercial activity of pilgrims en route to Mecca and Medina. Large warehouses, such as the Khan al-Qadi (1441), were erected to satisfy the surge in trade. Other public foundations in the region included the mosques of Aqbugha al-Utrush (Aleppo, 1399–1410) and Sabun (Damascus, 1464) as well as the Madrasa Jaqmaqiyya (Damascus, 1421).
In the second half of the fifteenth century, the arts thrived under the patronage of Qa’itbay (r. 1468–96), the greatest of the later Mamluk sultans. During his reign, the shrines of Mecca and Medina were extensively restored. Major cities were endowed with commercial buildings, religious foundations, and bridges. In Cairo, the complex of Qa’itbay in the Northern Cemetery (1472–74) is the best known and admired structure of this period. Apart from his own patronage, Qa’itbay encouraged high-ranking officials and influential emirs to build as well.
Building continued under the last Mamluk sultan, Qansuh al-Ghawri (r. 1501–17), who commissioned his own complex (1503–5); however, construction methods reflected the finances of the state. At this time, the Portuguese were gaining control of the Indian Ocean and barring the Mamluks from trade, their richest source of revenue. Though the Mamluk realm was soon incorporated into the Ottoman empire (1517), Mamluk visual culture continued to inspire Ottoman and other Islamic artistic traditions.
Yalman, Suzan. “The Art of the Mamluk Period (1250–1517).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/maml/hd_maml.htm (October 2001)
Atil, Esin. Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks. Exhibition catalogue. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.
Behrens-Abouseif, Doris "Architecture of the Bahri Mamluks" and "Architecture of the Circassian Mamluks." In her Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction, pp. 94–132 and 133–57. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989.
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