Today in Middle Eastern history: the Massacre at the Citadel (1811)

Egypt’s Mamluks are one of the rare historical dynasties that gets to have two endpoints, where most just get the one. We’ve talked about the Mamluks before, several times, but since the nature of their dynasty is a big part of the reason why they survived their first “end,” let’s recap. The Mamluk dynasty grew out of the institution of Turkic slave soldiers  (mamluks) who were brought to Egypt by the Fatimids and then Ayyubids during the 11th-13th centuries. As the Ayyubid dynasty fell apart in the early 1200s, their slave generals began to assume more direct authority over Egypt and Syria, until they finally usurped full control during a messy ~10 year changeover between 1250 and 1260.

The Mamluks never became a “dynasty” in the traditional sense of a single ruling family handing power from one member to another (son, brother, nephew, whatever), but instead remained a dynasty of freed slaves. When a sultan died, cadres of mamluks (when I use that word in lower case it’s to refer to the actual mamluks themselves, as opposed to the dynasty) would jockey, often quite violently (people living in Cairo loved this part) to put their man on the throne. The sons of Mamluk sultans, called awlad al-nas (“children of the people”)–who themselves could never be mamluks because they could never be slaves–often tried to throw their hats into the succession contest, but only on rare occasions did they manage to actually sit on the throne, and usually very briefly.

Because the Mamluk dynasty wasn’t a “dynasty” in the traditional sense, when the Ottomans toppled it in 1516-1517, there were a lot of important mamluk aristocrats and officials still running around Egypt and Syria who had no particular loyalty to the sultan (Tuman Bey) who had just been overthrown. It was much simpler for the Ottomans to leave those people in place, handling the day to day management in cities all across the vast new territory the Ottomans had just won. They simply made a change at the top–instead of being answerable to a sultan in Cairo, these mamluk officials would now be answerable to an Ottoman governor in Cairo, who was in turn answerable to the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople. The Mamluk Dynasty as such was over, but mamluks were still, in many ways, running Egypt.

We can skip ahead to 1798 now, and Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Egypt. Yeah, I know, a lot of stuff happened in that 280 year interval, but it’s not important for us today. When the French occupation of Egypt came to its dismal end in 1801, the Ottomans sent an army there to reassert their authority (yes, waiting for the French to leave and then puffing out your imperial chest is pretty craven, but what can you do), and the second in-command of that army was an Albanian fellow named Muhammad Ali (d. 1849). When the British left in 1803 (they’d be back, of course), some funny things started to happen. For one thing, the mamluks began trying to reassert themselves as Egypt’s independent ruling class. For another, in May of that year the Albanian contingent of that Ottoman army booted the Ottoman governor from Cairo, mostly because he’d run out of money to pay them.

Muhammad Ali Pasha, portrait by 19th century French painter Auguste Couder (Wikimedia)

After everything shook itself out, Muhammad Ali wound up in control of Cairo, and he quickly made alliances with several prominent mamluks against an expected Ottoman response. He also worked hard to earn the support of the people of Cairo, something that would benefit him in the power struggles to come. The Ottoman response came in the form of a new governor appointed by Istanbul, Trabluslu Ali Pasha, who landed in Alexandria, assembled a small army, and marched on the Egyptian capital. Muhammad Ali’s Albanians and his mamluk allies made short work of the Ottoman army, but then they turned on each other. Muhammad Ali spent much of the next two years defeating various mamluk attempts to capture Cairo. To make a very long story short, by the end of 1805 Muhammad Ali–with the support of his Albanian army, prominent Egyptians, and occasionally some of the mamluks–had made himself the ruler of Egypt, and the Ottomans were forced to acknowledge this reality and formally name him governor lest they risk losing Egypt altogether.

The mamluks didn’t go away, though. In 1807 a British army sailed into Alexandria and took the city peacefully. London was planning to seize Egypt as a way to pressure the Ottomans, who had in the years since 1801 actually formed an alliance with Napoleon. Many mamluks, who had fled to Upper Egypt after Muhammad Ali’s accession, now decided to accept his offer to unite their forces against this new foreign invader. Britain’s war plans for Egypt died, along with a substantial part of its army, at Rosetta in April.

For a while after the British defeat, relations between Muhammad Ali and the mamluks reached a kind of detente. But eventually they began to deteriorate again and mamluk and Albanian armies repeatedly clashed with one another. By 1811, as is now apparent, Muhammad Ali decided that he’d had enough of this shit. The Ottomans ordered him to undertake an expedition to Arabia to deal with some problematic family called the Saudis who’d moved out of central Arabia and captured Mecca and Medina. Well, really they requested he undertake the expedition–the Ottomans were never really able to “order” Muhammad Ali to do anything even though he technically worked for them. This was a huge opportunity for Muhammad Ali to expand his authority within the empire, and so he prepared an army under the command of his son, Ibrahim.

That army would decisively, though obviously only temporarily, crush the Saudis’ political aspirations. But before it left, Muhammad Ali decided that he couldn’t weaken his internal security without dealing with his mamluk problem once and for all. On March 1, 1811, he invited hundreds of prominent mamluk leaders to his citadel in Cairo for a ceremony that would invest his son, Tusun, with a military command. After the ceremony, the mamluks began to parade out of the citadel…only to find the gates shut. Since the word “massacre” already appeared in the title of this post, you probably already know what happened next–the mamluk leaders were all slaughtered by Muhammad Ali’s soldiers.

Muhammad Ali reclines during the massacre, by 19th century painter Horace Vernet (Wikimedia)

Orders were sent to regional governors serving under Muhammad Ali to round up as many of the mamluk rank and file–and their family members–as possible. Estimates of the number of people killed range into the thousands. Some surviving mamluks headed south and founded a small political entity within the Funj Sultanate, in modern day Sudan. In 1820, Muhammad Ali used their presence there more or less as a pretext to invade and conquer the Sudan region, which really marks the end of the end for Egypt’s mamluks.

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