Mamluk History and Culture


'From Mamluk History (1250-1517) to the History of the Sultanate of Cairo (ca. 1170-1517)'

Modern research on Mamluk history continues to take for granted a long-term view that a new social category of military slaves, generically referred to as mamlūks, acquired elite status and political authority in the regions of Egypt and Syria between 1250 and 1260. Subsequently, this dominant view argues that as a social category this new elite managed to consolidate this new situation in such a way as to enable them to monopolise political power continuously for more than 250 years, excluding in the process all other social groups, including their own descendants. As a result of this view’s prevalence, the regime is indeed known, in modern historiography and current global usage alike, as the ‘Mamluk Sultanate’; a ‘Mamluk System’ of rules, values and norms of behaviour, inculcated through slavery, tends to be considered the stable backbone for the sultanate’s long history; and Mamluk history is constantly approached from the perspective of an initial historical peak, while a wide range of complexities that pertain to the 14th and 15th centuries tend to be explained first and foremost as resulting from deviations from such an ideal, 13th-century ‘Mamluk System’.

Our research aims to move away from this paradigmatic linking of issues of political authority and historical agency with explanatory categories of military slavery. We argue that as a socio-political system, the Cairo sultanate of the 13th and 14th centuries was far more in line with pre-existing and contemporary Turco-Mongol polities than hitherto acknowledged, using the concept of the ‘military patronage state’ (cfr. Hogdson, Chamberlain) to refine our understanding of the dynamics of 13th- and 14th-century Syro-Egyptian politics, society and culture. Furthermore, we claim that the substantial transformations of that socio-political system in the long 15th century (1412-1517) should be conceptualised as a process of early-modern state formation, as the rise of a more complex patrimonial polity that amongst many other things awarded greater significance to the mamluk identity of its military elites than it did before [‘Mamlukisation’]. 

The general lines of argument and ideas of this revisionist approach to late medieval Syro-Egyptian history are most explicitly developed in the following publications:

Recent and ongoing research and publication projects within this conceptual remit include:

= a broadly defined research project, studying 15th-century Syro-Egyptian politics and the social production of the 'Mamluk State' (ERC-Starting Grant, 2009-14)

= a broadly defined research project, studying 15th-century Syro-Egyptian historiography and the cultural production of the 'Mamluk State' (ERC-Consolidator Grant, 2017-21)