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Egypt Through the Ages

The Mamelukes



The first Mameluke dynasty, the Bahri, held power as sultans of Egypt until 1382. Hereditary succession was frequently disregarded and the throne usurped by the more powerful emirs (military commanders). Many among them were remarkable rulers, such as Baybars I, who halted the Mongol advance into Syria and Egypt in 1260. Two other Mongol invasions were repelled by the Mamelukes, who also expelled the Crusaders from the region and captured ‘Akko, their last stronghold in Palestine, in 1291. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the Mameluke realm extended north to the borders of Asia Minor.

The age of the Mamelukes was one of extraordinary brilliance in the arts. It was also an age of commercial expansion; Egypt's spice traders, the Karimi, were merchant princes who vied with the emirs in patronizing the arts.

After the death of the last great Bahri sultan, al-Nasir, in 1341, Egypt lapsed into decline. His descendants were mere figureheads who allowed real power to remain in the hands of the emirs. In 1348 the plague known as the Black Death swept over the land, radically reducing the population.

The second dynasty of Mameluke sultans, the Burjis, was of Circassian origin and ruled from 1382 to 1517. Most of the Burji rulers exercised little real authority; their dynasty was marked by continual power struggles among the Mameluke elite. In the midst of rebellion and civil strife, the Mamelukes continued to hold Egypt and Syria by virtue of their ability to repel invasions. By the early 16th century, however, they were threatened by the growing power of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1517 the Ottoman Sultan Selim I invaded Egypt and ruled it.


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