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History, Mamluk Rule and Ottoman Conquest

Turkic peoples, Circassians, Mamluks, Abbasid caliphate, ulama

Between 1250 and 1517, Mamluk sultans ruled Egypt along with Syria. The Mamluks successfully resisted invasions by the Crusaders and the Mongols, brought about commercial prosperity, and fostered the arts and architecture, most notably in Cairo. A Mamluk sultan usually bequeathed his position to a son or other relative, but a rival Mamluk claimant often toppled the heir and seized the throne.

The Mamluk sultans who ruled from 1250 to 1382 were commonly referred to as the Bahri sultans. They were the descendants mainly of Turkic peoples from Central Asia. The sultans who ruled from 1382 to 1517 were called the Burji sultans. For the most part, they were Circassians, originally from Caucasia. Egypt prospered under the Bahri sultans but succumbed to plague, famine, and mounting unrest under the Burji rulers.

Under the Mamluks, Egyptians, Syrians, and other Arabs were barred from positions of political or military power. However, they were able to be ulama (Islamic legal experts), merchants, landowners, and administrators. In 1261 the Mamluk ruler Baybars I reestablished in Cairo the Abbasid caliphate, which the Mongols had destroyed at Baghdad in 1258. The caliphs were allowed to perform only religious duties; the Mamluk sultans retained absolute political authority.

Equipped with cannons and other firearms, the armies of the Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamluks in 1516 and 1517. Egypt became an Ottoman province. The Ottomans sent a governor to Cairo, but a general uprising in 1525 convinced them that it would be wiser to delegate local power to the Mamluks. The Ottoman governors retained nominal authority and appointed the highest Muslim judges, but in practice the Mamluks continued to control Egypt in conjunction with the local ulama.

Egypt prospered in the 16th century but later declined as world trade shifted away from Egypt and the Middle East to sea routes around Africa and across the Atlantic. In addition, Mamluk factional strife caused much devastation in the country. In the mid-18th century Mamluk prince Ali Bey made a bold attempt to take Egypt and Syria from the Ottomans, as did his lieutenant and successor, Muhammad Bey. In the late 18th century widespread famine reduced the population of Egypt, and factional fighting in Cairo weakened the authority of the Mamluks.

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