MMS-I - Mamlukisation of the Mamluk Sultanate

This project focused on the interlocking themes of individuals, institutions and interactions in the Syro-Egyptian Sultanate between 1412 and 1468, along the following lines of research:

  • Early 15th-century political identities (1412-1468): a prosopographical analysis 
  • Institutions, rituals and political traditions (1412-1517)
  • Institutions, resources and the 15th-century political economy 
  • Networks and households in 15th-century Egypt and Syria 
  • Feuding and conflicts in 15th-century Egypt and Syria
  • Interpreting Mamluk Elites, Institutions and Interactions: Early Modern State Formation in 15th-Century Egypt and Syria [ERC-research project synthesis, 2009-14: Jo Van Steenbergen]; this includes an ongoing side-project ‘The Mamluk Empire’ (survey monograph, under contract with Edinburgh UP), a conference on early modern state formation (September 2014 - proceedings forthcoming), and various articles and chapters (see publications).

Team: Jo Van Steenbergen, Kristof d'Hulster, Malika Dekkiche, Patrick Wing, Veerle Addriaenssens, Yasser Daoudi, Maya Termonia, Stijn Van Nieuwenhuyse, Jeroen Vanwymeersch

main outcomes (2014):

The MAMLUKISATION-OF-THE-MAMLUK-SULTANATE (MMS) project focused on the reconstruction of the political traditions that organised the interplay between powerful individuals, political institutions and social interactions in 15th-century Egypt and Syria, in the so-called Mamluk sultanate. Basically, it looked at the following two questions: ‘what were the rules of the game of 15th-century regional politics, and how did they change over time ?’ The overarching aim of MMS was to validate the hypothesis that a surprisingly radical transformation of the Cairo sultanate’s longstanding socio-political organisation took place, as a very different set of traditions emerged that were constructed around the criterion of military slavery (‘mamlukisation’) and that points at a local state transformation process that demonstrates surprising parallels with socio-political transformations elsewhere in the Early Modern Euro-Mediterranean zone.

MMS tackled this research problem from the methodological perspective of prosopo- and sociographical research, as operationalised via the development of a complex relational database-system. On this basis, three types of research operating on three different scales of analysis were pursued: the micro-history of actors and events, with a particular focus on the period 1412-68 (the reigns of the sultans Shaykh, Tatar, Barsbay, Jaqmaq, Inal and Khushqadam); the meso-history of social networks, political structures, and practices of socio-political interaction; and the macro-analytical history of political organisation and state transformation in the Cairo sultanate, from internal as well as from comparative perspectives.

On the basis of this research, MMS identified in qualified ways the individual and social identities of the main political agents operating in the period 1412-1468; it reconstructed how dynamic agencies, practices and institutions interacted in the formation, transformation and disintegration of various local and trans-local power networks; and it defined the Cairo sultanate’s process of state formation beyond the narrow framework of ongoing institutionalisation as a social product of the continuous integration, expansion and fragmentation of central power networks.

The MMS project concluded that its research exposed the widespread use of a generic signifier such ‘the Mamluk state’ as empty and meaningless in analytical terms, for the simple reason that it was an ideological construction (‘mamlukisation’) of a particular time, place and social group, which never really was —at least not what all kinds of historians since the 15th-century have been trying to make of it. In order to understand better the politics of the late medieval Cairo sultanate, it are rather first the discontinuities between statist projects, in the format of all kinds of ruptures, frontiers and peripheries, that merit our full attention, before we can really begin to appreciate how these projects were yet also connected in the continuity of a Cairo (as opposed to Mamluk) sultanate.


[the MMS-project is mainly funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (2009-14)]