Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Marj Dabiq (1516)

After 1514’s Battle of Chaldiran demonstrated clearly that a) the Safavids were no military threat to the Ottomans and b) the Ottomans couldn’t sustain an extended campaign deep inside Safavid territory, the Ottomans turned their focus to the third great Middle Eastern power, the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria. Not coincidentally, the Mamluks were at the same time getting ready for what looked like an inevitable war with the Ottomans. The two empires were direct competitors for east-west trade (the Mamluks controlled the Indian Ocean-Red Sea route while the Ottomans were the western terminus of the Silk Road), hence the inevitability. On top of that, the Mamluks had something that the Ottomans coveted: control of Islam’s three holiest sites (Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). Controlling those cities would be a huge boost to Ottoman legitimacy, something the forever-trying-to-justify-their-success Ottomans valued highly. With the Ottomans having decisively ended any Safavid threat to their control of Anatolia, the Mamluks knew that the growing Turkish powerhouse could very well be coming after them next.

We should say a few words about the Mamluks, because I don’t think we’ve talked about them yet and we’re not going to get there in the Islamic History series anytime soon. This was a dynasty of slave soldiers (mamluk literally means “something that is owned” in Arabic) who revolted against the last vestiges of the Ayyubid Dynasty in Egypt in 1250 and ruled until 1517 (that’s kind of a spoiler for anybody wondering how this battle is going to turn out). There’s a European analogue to the Mamluks’ rise in the 751 overthrow of the French Merovingians by the Carolingians (Charlemagne’s dynasty). The Carolignians started out as high palace officials for the Merovingians before overthrowing them and taking power for themselves, and it was likewise (though with the addition of the slave component) for the Mamluks and the Ayyubids. The Mamluks legitimized their rule in part through their control of Mecca and Medina and (after Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols in 1258) by virtue of the fact that Cairo became the new seat of the Abbasid “Caliph.” I put “caliph” in quotes because (as far as we can tell) as a practical matter very few people outside of the Mamluk ruling elite ever seriously recognized the legitimacy of the Cairo caliphs.

Sometimes you’ll hear the Mamluks referred to as a “dynasty,” but that’s not exactly true; a Mamluk sultan was supposed to be succeeded by another Mamluk, not a blood descendant. In fact, blood descendants (called awlad al-nas, or “children of the people”) of Mamluk sultans couldn’t be Mamluks, because they were never slaves. Future sultans would rise through the slave ranks in a cohort of slaves until they reached a rank at which they could be freed, and there was constant jockeying within and between these cohorts to determine succession. This meant that many successions were accompanied by some kind of low-level civil war. Complicating this process was the fact that sultans would usually try to have their sons inherit the throne, even though it ran counter to the “Mamluk system.” Occasionally this actually worked (one of the longest-reigning Mamluk Sultans was al-Nasir Muhammad, who held the throne three times for a total of about 42 years between 1293 and 1341, and he was the son of a previous sultan), so sometimes the Mamluk empire actually did run like a dynasty.

Another reason why it’s problematic to call these guys a “dynasty” is because it’s generally recognized that there were two distinct ruling lines during the Mamluk period, and these are also, confusingly, sometimes called “dynasties.” From 1250 until 1382 the “Bahri Dynasty” ruled the empire–these were Turkic Kipchaks from Central Asia. From 1382 on, though, the empire was ruled by the “Burji Dynasty,” made up of Circassian (from the north Caucasus) slaves who supplanted the Kipchak Bahris.

A portrait of Qansuh al-Ghawri done by a16th century Italian artist and historian named Paolo Giovio (Wikimedia)

In 1516 the Mamluks were ruled by the Burji Sultan al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, who knew what was coming after the Ottomans attacked and captured the Anatolian principality of Dulkadir in 1515. The ruler of Dulkadir, Bozkurt, was basically the last holdout to Ottoman rule in Anatolia, and the reason he was holding out was because they were Mamluk vassals. After defeating the Dulkadirids, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I supposedly sent Bozkurt’s head to Qansuh al-Ghawri as a kind of “hey, how you doing?” message, and Qansuh al-Ghawri took the (admittedly not very subtle) hint. This story becomes more troubling if you believe, as many Ottomanists do, that Bozkurt was Selim’s maternal grandfather.

Selim I, indeed looking very grim, in a portrait by an 18th-19th century Ottoman court painter named Konstantin Kapıdağlı (Wikimedia)

The Ottomans were ruled by the aforementioned Selim I (known as Yavuz Sultan Selim or “Sultan Selim the Stern,” though this usually gets translated as “Selim the Grim”), who justified his plans to attack the Mamluks on the basis that they had formed an alliance with the Shiʿa heretic Safavids (which they may have, but that was just an excuse for a war Selim wanted to fight anyway). Although he was only sultan for just a little over 8 years, Selim not only ended the brief (perceived) Safavid threat, but his conquests of the Mamluk domains roughly tripled the size of the empire and (by setting the frontier between the Iranian world and the Turko-Arabic one) helped draw the contours of the modern Middle East. His reign also, as should be clear by now, saw a redirecting of Ottoman attention away from Europe and toward the Middle East. Future sultans would have to balance their attentions between the empire’s western and eastern frontiers, often (especially as the dynasty aged and weakened) without great success.

Qansuh al-Ghawri decided not to wait for the Ottomans to come to him, and formed a sizable army to march north and put these Anatolian upstarts in their place. The Mamluk army was as numerous as, or maybe even a little more numerous than, the Ottomans, but they hadn’t gotten the memo about gunpowder weapons. In 1516, firearms and gunpowder artillery were novel enough that you might not know that you needed them, but against an army that embraced them the way the Ottomans did, you definitely did need them. Selim’s army was already marching east, with Selim trying to decide whether to campaign against the Safavids again or to turn south against the Mamluks, when they got word of this Mamluk army marching north and moved to meet it.

The two forces encountered each other at Dabiq, north of Aleppo (Marj Dabiq means “meadow of Dabiq” in Arabic, and yes, that’s the same Dabiq that gives ISIS’s online magazine its name, because they think the great end-times battle between Muslims and the West will happen there). Unbeknownst to Qansuh al-Ghawri (actually it was made knownst to him twice, but he ignored both reports), the Mamluk governor of Aleppo, Hayır Bey, had already gone over to the Ottoman side; that hyper-competitive Mamluk system didn’t necessarily engender a lot of loyalty between individual Mamluks, you know, and Hayır Bey probably thought he could get a good deal from the Ottomans (which he eventually did; he governed all of Egypt on their behalf from 1517 to 1522). Between the mismatch in weapons technology and the betrayal of Hayır Bey, the Mamluks didn’t stand much of a chance. What was left of their army after their defeat fled to Damascus (Aleppo was obviously closed to them), but Qansuh al-Ghawri was killed on the battlefield, and the last of the Cairo Caliphs, Al-Mutawakkil III, fell into Ottoman hands.

Syria and the rest of the Levant came pretty easily under Ottoman control. The people there had no great love for the Mamluks, who were just as foreign to the Arabs of those parts as the Ottomans were, and most probably didn’t care whether their taxes wound up in Cairo or Constantinople. Qansuh al-Ghawri was briefly succeeded as Mamluk Sultan by Al-Ashraf Tuman-bay, but he he faced a teensy problem, which was that he had no army left after Marj Dabiq. He raised a new army as fast as he could and desperately tried to equip it with firearms, but it wouldn’t be enough to save Egypt or the Mamluks.

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8 thoughts on “Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Marj Dabiq (1516)

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