April 10, 2023

Baybars, The Sultan That Stopped The Mongols (with James Waterson)

Author James Waterson provides an in-depth look into the history of the Mamluk Sultanate, with a special focus on the reign of Sultan Baybars.

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In this episode Elliot sits down with James Waterson, author of "The Knights of Islam: The Wars of the Mamluks."


James provides an in-depth look into the history of the Mamluk Sultanate, with a special focus on the reign of Sultan Baybars. 

Baybars, who ruled from 1260 to 1277, was one of the most powerful and influential Mamluk sultans. He led the Mamluks to victory against the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut, a significant turning point in the region's history.


James delves into Baybars' military strategies, and the ways in which he left a lasting impact on the region. 

He also discusses the conflicts and wars that defined Baybars' reign, including the ongoing struggle against the Crusaders. 


Listen in for a captivating conversation that will give you a new understanding of the complexities of the Mamluk era and the powerful leader who shaped it.



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Hey everyone, thanks for joining me on the Anthology of Heroes podcast, the podcast sharing

stories of heroism and defiance from across the ages.

Today we're joined by James Watterson, an author who wrote, among many other books,

The Knights of Islam, the Wars of the Mamluks.

The Mamluks are a fascinating group.

They were essentially slaves taken from the Mongol steppe who were raised into elite Islamic


These guys were the cream of the crop.

They could shoot faster than a Mongol, charge harder than a Crusader, and had all range

of grenades and other explosives up their sleeves.

So it's no surprise they end up overthrowing their enslavers and establishing a dynasty.

Yeah, just like the Unsullied in Game of Thrones.

Baybars is the most famous of all Mamluks.

A defender of Islam from both the Crusaders and the Mongols, he's a big deal.

And if it wasn't for his unbelievable victory at Anjelut, how far would the Mongols have


As James says, it's Saladin who's the greatest Muslim warrior in the eyes of the


But it's the story of Baybars that gets the coffee shops of Damascus roused into cheer.

And James is going to take us through it.

As a reminder, you can also watch this interview on YouTube.

Links in the show notes below.

Let's get into it.

The story of Baybars.

James, thank you very much for joining me on Anthology of Heroes, how are you going



I'm all right, apart from, you know, the dreaded lurkey that's going the rounds.

It doesn't matter if you're in Europe or Western Asia, you're going to get it somewhere,

I think, this year.

It may not be COVID, but it's going to be something equally nasty.


Can you give me a bit about your background first?


Yeah, I'm probably what they would call a bit of a drifter, to be quite honest.

These days I'm a health economist and medical affairs officer for a large faceless American

corporation, which is pretty much the day job, and that keeps me mostly in Africa and

Western Asia with a little bit of time in Europe now and again, I get lucky.

But I spent my early life in healthcare, but also in university teaching.

I spent about seven years between Nanjing and Shanghai as a university lecturer, a few

years in the US doing healthcare, doing nursing, a couple of years in the oil industry, drifting


I don't think that was, I'm trying to think, I tried to write my first novel when I was

on an oil rig, which was fairly awful and we should not talk about that.

I think the first article I ever wrote on the Mamluks was written in Shanghai on a broken

ironing board with a half dead laptop.

I sold my apartment there and I was on my way back to Italy at that point, actually.

It was a lucky strike.

I was reading, I better get this right, really, considering I owe them a huge debt, History


I wrote to them and I said, would you be interested in this piece on this very unusual military


They were very positive.

It was like, I don't think, what did they pay you back in 75 pounds or something?

It was very nice.

The article was picked up by a small publisher, North London publisher, Greenhill Books, Michael

Leventhal, who still publishes a fantastic range of cookery books, Jewish cookery books

and also children's books as well.

Great people that you'd meet that will take the risk with what is potentially very, again,

as I say, very small niche audience, potentially, because one thing we do know about the Mamluks

and obviously Baybars, who we hope to speak about in detail today, is not much known.

It's very little known.

I do remember, however, my old university was SOAS, the School of Oriental and African


On day one, you were given the drill by the chancellor who essentially said, you people

are all studying ridiculous minority subjects.

Some of you are studying Burmese, studying law for Cameroon and things like this.

It is your secondary mission to go out in the world and proselytize and inform everybody

else about these minority subjects.

So it was quite nice because I think in my second book on the assassins, Professor David

Morgan actually wrote that in the foreword that I'd taken this perhaps rather over-enthusiastically,

that this was part of a trilogy on the Middle East, started with the Mamluk dynasty working

slightly backwards perhaps and then the Ismaili assassins and then a book concentrating quite

strongly on the early counter-crusaders leading up to Salah ad-Din and through to that and

you end up with the Mamluks.

I always feel you can't escape the Mamluks in Middle Eastern history, but the greater

statement at SOAS was always you can't escape the Mongols.

It doesn't matter if you study Chinese history, it doesn't matter if you study Indian history,

it doesn't matter if you study Eurasian history, you're going to meet the Mongols at some point

and again I think that's why the Mamluks are so centrally important because after a huge

run of success, going all the way up to 1241, even defeating Teutonic Knights in Lake Nix

and Sayo, the subjugation of China, okay it took a very long time but eventually it was


Only the Mamluks really essentially stand against the Mongols and actually stopped them

at Ain Jalut in 1260, stopped that run of success.

So I think they're worthy of study for that reason alone.

But they're also one of those fascinating characteristics of Western Asia that is, and

it's kept me there also as a sort of a citizen and as a resident for many years, I love the

blend of the mix of peoples that come through the region.

I mean there's a very good reason why it's called the Middle East, it really is the nexus

between Asia coming this way and Europe coming this way and Africa coming this way, tripartite

joining there.

But also, again another old professor of mine, Colin Hayward, the first thing he would do

when he was lecturing both on the Ottomans and on the Mongols, he would take the map

and he would sort of tilt it slightly by 30 degrees so that you could see that the whole

of Iran, the whole of Iraq, right down into the central lands of the Middle East is one

giant corridor from Asia.

And I remember myself lecturing on the Mongols some time ago and why the Mamluks were so

important in stopping them in the Middle East for Europe, was that essentially Europe is

a small peninsula of Asia.

So you know, if the Mongols keep coming, they just keep coming.

They're already in Russia, they've been very successful there.

They're already sitting just beyond the Hungarian plains.

If they're already in Iran, they've crushed one of the major constituent powers of the

medieval world.

If they don't get stopped, the Mediterranean lies open and who knows?

I mean, John Mann wrote in the foreword, who obviously has written extensively on Chinkis

Khan and Kublai Khan, wrote in the foreword to Knights of Islam that if they'd got access

to the navies of the Middle East, then the Mongols would have had a very good chance

of conquering southern Europe and coming the same way as the great Arab conquest came.

I'm not entirely convinced because the maritime republics of Italy were particularly strong

in the Crusades period.

It would not have been that easy, I think, to have crossed the Mediterranean.

But I still think that it was very much the resources of the Middle East were huge at

this point.

This was one of the richest, even with the damage of the Mongol and the Turkish invasions

of earlier centuries, still one of the richest pockets of the world.

Those resources may well have taken the Mongols all the way.

I think it was Edward Gibbon who said, you know, we may be teaching Mongolian in Oxford

or something.


You can look at them almost like they kept out, well, everything.

If they hadn't got past the Mamluks, the Mongols could have just kept going through, right?


I think so.

I mean, let's be very honest about it as well.

There was no way that the Mamluk empire, such as it was with Egypt and Syria, was ever going

to take on the full might of the Mongol empire.

It was never going to occur.

And they did get lucky.

Let's say the Baybars got lucky or Khusus, the then Sultan, got lucky in 1260 with the

Battle of Ain Jalut in those series of Mongol civil wars that eventually blew the empire

apart because impressive as it was, it was very short-lived, were really the key to it.

During 1241, after the defeat of the Teutonic Knights at Leynitz and Sayo and of the Polish

nobility, they essentially stopped because there's the first death of, I have to really

think back in my Mongol here a little bit, I cannot remember which great Khan.

But the problem is that the Mongols, when there was an issue like that, you had obviously

several different branches of the family.

You have the Toluis, the Chagatais, and so on and so forth.

And also, of course, you may have one father in Chinggis Khan, but you've got several

different mothers and Turkish dynasties have the same issue as well.

You've got pushing mothers, pushing their sons forward, et cetera.

No love lost between the chains, between the actual branches of the family either.

So in 1241, there has been an argument that Europe was saved more by that than there was

the fact that perhaps Europe wasn't that appealing to the Mongols because it wasn't absolutely

the vast pasture lands that they were used to having with their sheep and with their

horses and so on and so forth.

But certainly in 1260, we see the same again when Moltke dies and Kublai begins to compete

with Ariqbokai for the throne.

Now Kublai holds China, he holds the, well, not all of China, he's still trying to conquer

it, but that's the major prize.

But Ariqbokai probably represents the more, shall we say, earthy individuals of the Chinggisid


So they've got Pachagatai, but also the Golden Horde sitting up there in Russia that's been

up in Russia since the 1220s, since the initial Great Blitzkrieg, I think we can probably

call it that.

Sometimes we overuse that word with the Mongols because it gives that impression they come

really, really, really fast, but it does take generally a long time.

But this was a really massive hit, very quick, that destroyed Rus and then put them right

where they were, sitting there, sitting down in the Caucasus as well.

So that division then, so the death of Moltke, Kublai probably the strongest candidate, has

got the support of the generals, has got the support of holding China.

But again, with Ariqbokai holding the passions and the affections of the Chagatai horde,

the more radical elements, shall we say, the more ragtag kind of guys, poor Hulagu

has been sent by Moltke to invade Persia, to bring the Baghdad caliph to heel, to destroy

the creed of the assassins, because they'd sent assassins against Moltke, they'd sent

some sources say 40 assassins, some say 400 to try and kill the Great Khan.

So he's sitting there, he's essentially finished his mission, now he has to get into

Syria, destroy the Crusaders, destroy the Mamluks to finish his mission.

But there's money in the Caucasus as well, there's a lot of silver up there.

So he's already in competition over conquest rights with the Golden Horde under Berghirai

Khan, who's also converted to Islam.

This is all becoming very complex because one of the things the Mongols did when they

arrived in Persia was treat Islam in a manner that it had not been treated ever in its life.

They actively supported Nestorian Christians, they conducted great slaughters, they destroyed

mosques, they disestablished Islam as being the essential faith of these states that they

conquered, and they began to do the same in Syria, both in Damascus and Aleppo as well.

So I think there's two things that they're not facing the full might of the Empire, probably

at any point to be perfectly honest.

But Baybars does something incredibly skillful out of what has been a very shaky polity.

You know, the Mamluks come to power in 1250.

They're not very good at politics for the first 10 years.

And essentially, they only solidify behind one year in 1260 because the Mongols are coming

and they're coming now.

But what Baybars does during his reign is he actually makes them like a normal state.

They have extensive diplomatic relations with the Golden Horde, the natural enemy of his


They also reach out to the Genoese, for example, very strongly because the Genoese control

the slave trade, and the Mamluk Empire is built on slaves, manumitted slaves who become

soldiers, become the best soldiers of the medieval age, essentially.

But they also, of course, export a huge amount of the trade of the Middle East to Europe.

They also become pretty strong friends with the Venetians as well.

He involves himself with Charles of Anjou when he realizes that this is the guy that's

going to take Sicily, a possible launching pad for a crusade for his brother, King Louis

IX of France.

It's interesting that in 1270, the great crusade of Louis never gets anywhere.

It gets diverted to Tunis.

It never reaches the Holy Land, and I think Charles of Anjou has got a large hand in this.

Suddenly, ships are not available.

Suddenly, it doesn't seem like a good idea to attack the Mamluks and so on.

So, I'm sorry, I've really drifted past with a lot of events and a lot of statements on

this, but I think that that is obviously the key that makes the Mamluk sultanate is the


I mean, there's a classic line from an Arabic, and I'm trying to think if it's Ibn Al-Afir,

I don't know that it is in this case.

But the classic line is that the Mongols came to Islam, intended to destroy it, and they

were destroyed by one of their own kind.

And the idea is that this parasite, this dangerous entity was destroyed by people of almost exactly

their own kind.

The other interesting thing is that many of the Mamluks, in fact, possibly Baybars himself,

during the early Mongol invasions of the Caucasus and of southern Russia, a huge amount of

chip-capped Turks were displaced.

They obviously also were captured by Mongols as young men, and they were sold as slaves,

and they ended up in the slave markets of Cairo.

They ended up in the slave markets of Damascus.

Baybars himself went for a very cheap price.

It's said that he went for as low as 10 dinar because he had an unusual eye condition.

He had a cast in his eye, which some people believe was like the evil eye.

So he went at a bottom dollar price, which is strange considering a man of such enormous

abilities, whatever you feel about his ethics, whatever you feel about the niceties of how

he managed power.

He's certainly one of the most incredible people of the medieval age.

Whereas the sultan that followed him after Baybars' son had fallen from power, Calavum,

went for a thousand.

He was actually called al-Alfi, the thousand dinar, because he was so handsome and so tall,


So Baybars went at a knockdown price because also there was a huge amount of slaves in

the market at that point.

But again, one might argue that the Mongols created their own nemesis by capturing so

many of these boys and sending them into slavery.

So I was going to ask you on that.



So can you explain the process of how a Mamluk soldier would be kind of indoctrinated into

the faith?

They were bought at the markets.

Were they like janissaries?

Were they bought as Christians or Muslims or it didn't matter?



In theory, in Islam, classical Islam, at that point, it is illegal to enslave a Muslim.

It is also illegal to enslave people of the book, which also includes the Jews and the

Christians as well.

Now, of course, by the time you get to the Ottomans, yes, they're absolutely, with the

Devshirme, the harvest of boys.

They're taking boys from the Balkans who are clearly Christian.

They're putting them into farmland in Anatolia.

They're converting them to Islam.

They're returning as the Yeni Shari, the new men, the janissaries, et cetera.

But in classical Islam, which extends into the Mamluk period, in theory, these are pagans.

Now, whatever that means, let's be very liberal and open at this point.

Let's not be medieval at this point about people's affiliations.

But I think there was a number of things going on.

I think there were certainly the attitude of families who were living on the steppe

would be, as we said with the British royal family, a spare and an heir.

I've got one senior boy who can take over the farm when I die as a father, but I've

got some unruly boys around who are beginning to challenge my authority.

This is from Al-Jahiz, to be honest, a gentleman, an Islamic scholar from the 13th and 14th


He's called the goggle-eyed Al-Jahiz, but he observed very strongly the nature of steppe

people just beyond the borders of classical Islam.

He's a little bit like Tacitus with Germania and Agricola.

He's one of those interested people who's looking at the customs of these people.

And he says that this is the problem.

You've got these unruly 13-year-old boys who are essentially adults.

They can already ride.

They can already shoot the bow.

They're challenging the authority of the father.

So, they're actually put up for sale.

Or they see opportunity beyond the borders of what could be quite a hard, short, brutish

life on the steppe of entering Islam and becoming a soldier.

It's a little bit like being a gurka, right?

You might go to, or not a gurka, but a potential gurka.

You might go to a recruitment station in Nepal in the hopes that the British army might pick

you up, and you're going to have a better standard of living.

Again, I make no moral judgment here whatsoever.

What is opportunity to people like this?

Having said that, there was certainly harvesting as well.

There were certainly kidnappings, et cetera.

It's very easy to transport children, of course, much easier than transporting adult slaves.

And it's been suggested in the text that a relationship would be created between the

ustad, the master, the person who is essentially a slave dealer, to be honest, and the very

useful Mamluk slaves, or initiates, let's just call them that.

They're in the slave market.

They're available for being bought.

So, Mamluks classically are of, Mamluks of 10, Mamluks of 40, and Mamluks of 100.

And a Mamluk of 10 is a very junior emir.

He has a very low position in the Mamluk sultanate.

Also, a Mamluk of 40 has the right to have drums beaten, has a much larger share of the


And they're also essentially parts of a pyramid that builds the entire sultanate.

But Baybars would have been bought under the last Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, Al-Salah.

And he had always had a massive interest in the creation of soldiers, for want of a better


I think you can almost call him the father of the Mamluk organization, although the history

of this is incredibly long.

It goes right back to the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad.

Certainly around, even as early as 750, there were recruitment of Turks.

They were separated from the population.

They were given a very perfunctory form of Islam to follow.

They were absolutely, had adherence to the sultan and nobody else.

And then Caliph al-Muttasim in the early 800s formalizes this much more.

He becomes much more dependent on the Mamluks than he does on his Arab soldiery, than on

his Persian soldiery.

They're absolutely his men.

And he builds an entire city, Samara, just north of Baghdad, to house and barrack these


Al-Salah, again, very much spends much more time with his Mamluks than he does with his

Ayyubid relatives, with his normal halqah, the Ayyubid army, the descendant army of Salah


And he's really, as I say, the beginner of this process of a Mamluk-Dum beginning.

So you spend time with the Ustad, and then once you get bought by a Mamluk of 10 or a

Mamluk of 40 or a Mamluk of 100, you're essentially their property, but you still go to the general


You go to the barracks, you go to the place where you learn the skills of soldiering and

of riding all over again.

They don't care the fact that you could ride a horse since you were seven years old.

You will learn again, with a wooden horse, how to mount, how to dismount, 500 times,

wearing armor.

You may have chopped somebody with a sword in the past, but no, you will go back to the

beginning, one forefinger, one thumb on the sword grip, 500 blows on a bed of clay, then

a bed of lead, then a bed of lead with a cushion on top, then with paper on top, so you only

cut the paper and don't cut the cushion.

Every single thing is two steps forward, one step back.

And of course, the key skill is archery.

And they spend hours and hours and hours shooting with a featherless arrow with a dead head

on it into what we call the butia.

It's just a big barrel of straw.

And they shoot at it from point blank range just to learn the grip, as they call the falcon's

grip on the front of the bow and the string technique with the thumb and finger pulled

back to the ear.

This is probably at the point that I should make a very belated apology to my dear friend

Michelle for the fact that I once destroyed a book in her library because I missed a butia

that I was shooting at from point blank range and tore through one of her big fat paperbacks.

So here, Michelle, here is the apology about two decades too late.

But this was, it's actually, it sounds incredibly boring, but when you want men to perform in

a measured manner, when you want them to be able to control themselves and be drilled

under battle, this is absolutely what you need.

And I think this is why the Mamluks were the greatest soldiers of the medieval age.

And again, when we start to look at the battles with the Mongols, you know, you've got the

most superior bowmen of the medieval age suddenly meeting their nemesis because the very thing

that they excel at, they can't beat their opponents at.

The Mongols become deadly at 50 meters with their bows.

The Mamluks are deadly at 75 meters because they're pulling a bigger, harder, composite

bow, much better crafted from a full industrial base, but also they have the power and the

skill to pull it all day.

They're only bringing two battle horses to the battle because their horses are of better

condition and they understand them better.

Whereas the Mongols are riding small step ponies, they're bringing six of them to battle.

So the cycle of battle, the classic Mongol battle of wearing down your opponent by the

first wave coming forward, shooting its arrows as a shower at about a hundred meters, and

then retiring between the flanks on either side, and then the second wave coming forward,

essentially gets broken by the Mamluks for two reasons.

They've got a higher rate of fire.

They can fire three arrows in one and a half seconds.

They're holding the locks of the arrows, you know, the very base of the arrows at the feathers

in their trailing fingers, in their little finger and in their ring finger, because they're

using a thumb and a four finger draw for power.

They've also got wide splayed quivers on both sides of their bodies that they can pull.

They can shoot off the wrong side of the bow, but they're also wearing heavier armor than

the Mamluks, sorry, than the Mongols because they've got, again, a better industrial base,

long history of lamellar armor that the Mongols later adopt actually in the 14th century.

But also they're coming forward.

They're not confused by the charge of the Mongols because they're Turks themselves.

They're used to undertaking great hunts.

Their pastime is polo.

When they're not doing polo, they're shooting their bow in something called the kabak.

The kabak is where you shoot through a high loop or a high ring placed high above the

hippodrome and you try to place the arrow into a gourd on top of a pole.

There's a lovely story of the Sultan Khalil.

He was the Sultan who finally destroyed the last Crusader cities and actually finished

the Crusader kingdom of Uthrima in 1291.

He went with some friends into the hippodrome to shoot the tibak.

And what he did as a novelty is as you shot into the gourd, it broke the gourd apart and

a dove would be released as well.

I mean, I know it's only a small story, but it shows the obsession with the military arts

that these people had.

They would spend their time and their evenings discussing the furucia.

And the furucia is a combination of three things.

It talks about veterinary science.

It talks about military science, but it also talks about martial science.

So it's very like the Bushido of the samurai.

But I think it's more than that because it even goes into the treatment of wounds.

It even goes into the psychological management of individuals who have become panic-stricken

during a battle.

Such is the depth.

In some ways, the furucia is a little bit outdated as well.

It talks about Greek and Roman techniques of warfare.

It talks about classical Islamic weapons such as, I think it's called the ukud, a huge

heavy mace that nobody had used for centuries.

But it was probably used to round out conversations over a few glasses of wine or a few

anecdotes thrown here.

But why did you do it that way?

Oh, well, because it was done in this way in 825 by the great caliph.

You know, it's that.

But it also has the most amazing battle plans.

Crisscrossing the battle from taking a flank attack that comes in and sweeps in to take

out the standard bearers of the Mongols, et cetera.

Things like this.

But also when you look at the archery treatises, they're very similar to koyodo in Japan.

Again, the art of the bow in Japan.

You must enter as if you are entering the mosque.

You must take on a countenance of reverence.

You must tie your sleeve in the right way.

You must grip the bow.

And there's 13 different descriptions of how to grip the bow to suit you.

There's descriptions of how to find arrows in the sand with your bare feet.

I mean, it's that depth of a military cast that really makes the Mamluks distinctly

different even from the great warriors of Salchadin's time.

The Ottomans revered them.

If you visit the Topkapi Sarai now, you cannot decide.

There's a few that you know.

Some of the battle standards of the Mamluks are there.

And we must remember that the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks.

You know, they destroyed them essentially in 1517.

But they were revered as the greatest romantic warriors of Islam, as the bravest of the

brave, the fact that they would take on the Ottoman artillery and guns in a charge of


It's a bit cheesy to say like the last samurai, you know, but it feels like that.

But also, you cannot sometimes decide in Topkapi Sarai between whether this is actually a Mamluk

helmet of the period or whether it is a fake made for an Ottoman emir to mimic his heroes.

And the swords are the same.

There are some that we know are distinctly.

And the battle standards, we do know that this particularly was cake pie or this was

algory, et cetera, of the later Mamluk sultans.

But, you know, if they tell you this is the sword of Baybars, you really can't be sure

or not.

But these things were revered.

And the SiraBaybars, this folkloric tale that still runs in the Middle East and is still

told in, well, I hope it's still told in coffee houses in Damascus.

I haven't been in Damascus since 2008, probably, long before the war.

And I was very fortunate to do so.

But in the Nafara coffee house in the corner of Damascus, they still, the man in his face,

the storyteller, he still raises his sword.

He still shouts as Zahi Baybars.

And everybody gets excited because they know the story that's coming.

But it's not just Baybars' victory at Al-Bistillan.

It's not just his victory over the Crusaders.

It's not just Angelut.

There's a lot of fantasy stories in there as well about him crossing the bridge.

I cannot remember the name of the SiraBaybars, the bridge that is as narrow as the blade

of a sword into heaven and so on.

And so it's incredibly strong.

For us, Salah ad-Din is often, you know, the Islamic hero of the Crusades because of Dante,

because of Scott, because of the troubadours.

But in the Middle East, it's definitely Baybars.

Absolutely number one, followed by Calamoun as well, because they destroy the Crusader


They defeat the Mongols.

They bring another new golden age of Islam when it's been in a lot of trouble for a long

period of time.

And also, when you look at the artwork that comes out of the Mamluk Sultanate as well,

if anyone is ever in the Louvre, definitely going to see the Baptiste de Saint-Louis.

It is one of the most amazing pieces of medieval metalwork in the entire world.

Also in Venice, you will see ewers, water jugs, and so on from the Mamluk period.

In the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, actually, now, because they have this extended relationship,

they're absolutely beautiful pieces as well.

And I think it's part of that interest in artisanship from weapons spilling over into


But it's also the fact that they create literally a haven from the Mongol storm for artisans

from all over the Islamic world that are running.

You know, they're like refugees, and they're running like crazy to escape this scourge

that's coming.

Mongols, they're not going to cut your head off if you're an artisan.

Let's be very honest about it.

But they are going to transplant you and take you somewhere where you don't want to be.

They did the same in China.

They often kidnapped artisans, took them beyond the border, and then created their own cities

where they could use them to create goods for the Mongol Empire, one should say.

So I don't know if we have to demystify the Mamluk Sultanate too much.

I'm quite cautious when I write about them.

Of course, they were not always the greatest avatars of chivalry.

They were known for treachery.

Baybars in particular, we know him.

He's twice a regicide.

He kills the last Ayyubid successor of Saladin's line.

He wades into the river at the siege of Al Mansur, and he stabs him in the back.

And then the last emir of Saladin's line in the Egyptian line is hacked to pieces by another


He's not very popular for this act at all.

In fact, after the dust settles, he has to flee because once the Mamluks start to fight

amongst themselves over who should become the sultan, he's actually seen as somebody

who has really caused a lot of trouble here.

And also, he's a very junior emir, in fact.

He's not one of the seniors.

He's very impressive during the siege of Al Mansur.

He leads the Crusaders foolheartedly inside the city.

He then takes small groups of Mamluks, and they destroy the Crusaders, the king's brother.

So, it's Louis IX in 1250 with his crusade, which essentially fails at that point because

I think it's Robert of Anjou charges into the city with a bunch of Crusader knights.

But it's fairly obvious that Babos has let them in because he knows once he closes the

gates that, yeah, okay, normally classic that we think of the heavy armored Crusader knight

with his broadsword, his triple link chain mail.

He's fairly indestructible.

He's like a tank.

But the Mamluks are not the lightly armored bowmen that we've seen in the past in Crusades


They're heavily armed.

They can use axes.

They can use maces.

They can use swords.

They're skilled in every single one of these, and they're also incredibly skilled in pyrotechnics.

They're really very good with explosives.

They're good with napalm or naft.

They've got grenades that will drop fire all over you.

They can shoot fire darts from tubes from their bows, five or six of those.

And we know from accounts from the Crusaders that they were wearing heavy felt cloaks,

and they were constantly having to put out fire burning all over their bodies against

this absolute storm.

But not only that, the Mamluks knew how to deploy that and then advance after it.

So you've got this firestorm that knocks you out of condition, and then suddenly you've

got somebody arriving with an axe still on his horse wading through you, and then he's

looped back on you, and then you're getting arrows as he's riding away from the Parthian


So they're absolutely, I don't know what we call it now.

The Americans had a beautiful term for it.

It's almost like linked up warfare, if you know what I mean.

They're deploying so beautifully in every aspect, and I think that's the key to their

victory over the Mongols as well, is that they can do what the Mongols can do so much

quicker, but they can also do with this heavier aspect of once you get close, we've also got

the advantage that we're like a heavy Crusader knight as well.

And we can take you on with the lance, the bunid, again, another one of those exercises

in the Hippodrome that they did all day, all day, all day.

You had to be able to take rings off of small caps as you rode past at the gallop and then

on a high one as well.

And I think at some point you had to knock something off of somebody's head.

I presume it wasn't the instructor who was standing there with something on his head,

but some stupid volunteer to sign.

But again, in the Furusia, it talks repeatedly about the pairing of weapons as well.

What goes well with the lance?

Well, you need something shorter like the kanjar, the long dagger that every Mamluk

always carried at his side.

It looks a little bit like the Gurkha Chris.

You know, it has a long, heavy blade that becomes wider as it goes on, and it's perfect

because it's like a short stabbing sword, but it's also a slashing weapon.

It's also possible to finish off an enemy who's on the ground with it, but it's also

perfectly balanced with things like a mace, with like a javelin.

The Furusia never discusses the use of the bow.

Well, no, sorry.

It never discusses the carrying of the bow because this is ubiquitous.

You're always going to have your bow.

You're a Mamluk.

You're never going to leave it.

You never see a single piece of metalwork.

You never see a single piece of art with a Mamluk without a bow at his side.

Unless he's just wearing a light silk top and doing some acrobatics to amuse people.

It's really like that.

You've got the kanjar on one side of your body.

You've got the bow on the other, and that's it.

You're always going to be having this, and it's just central.

Right, right.

So I remember you saying, well, actually maybe I've read it in your article before,

one Mamluk soldier was worth a thousand ordinary soldiers or something.

So you can see where that comes from, obviously.

With so much training, you've got a combination of this kind of wave of attacks and different

types of warfare that combine the heavy cavalry charge of a European knight alongside the bows

that we usually associate with, as you said, with Mongols rather than Mamluks.

Can you tell me a bit about – so we've got Baybars.

He's coming up as a junior officer.

He's caused quite a bit of trouble.



Can you tell me how he kind of rises to fame and how we get to Ain Jalut and the big battle

that he's famous for?



Yeah, I mean, in theory, it's not really his battle.

It's Kutta's, who I think we should really sympathize with because he wins the battle,

and then in a hunting party, Baybars kills him.

So he's now twice a regicide.

The issue is that in the early Mamluk Sultanate, and I don't think it ever really goes away

despite this pyramid that I've been describing of loyalty to the Ustad, and then 10 Mamluks

below this Mamluk, and then 40 Mamluks below this, and it sounds perfect, doesn't it?

But there are, of course, tribal loyalties that lie deeper, but there's also the fact

that Kutta's, for example, had actually been part of an organization called the Muziah

because his last master was a Sultan Mu'iz.

Well, Mu'iz died during the early period of chaos of the politics, the first 10 years

of the Mamluk Sultanate.

Baybars wasn't.

He was from the Bahria.

He was from the river battalion.

They were on a small island.

They were barracked on a small island in the middle of the Nile.

The Nile's so big that the Muslims have traditionally called it Bahia or sea because it's so huge

that they look at the sea.

Bahria is actually that kind of regiment.

So there's a loyalty there as well.

So Baybars probably took a little bit of a risk.

I think the killing of the last Ayyub Sultan may have been an agreement amongst all of

the Mamluk emirs.

There was certainly a threat to them that this guy had come down from Syria.

He wasn't known to them at all.

He was acting a little bit crazy.

There was a story that he was running around with his sword in the middle of the night,

cutting the heads off candles and shouting, so shall I deal with the Mamluks, et cetera.

But I think what really happened was the Mamluks essentially realized that this was their time.

The lines of Saladin were dying out.

The Ayyubid dynasty had come to an end in Egypt, essentially, with the death of the

last Sultan, who was their last master.

So a little bit like samurai, when you have no master, you go a little bit Roman, right?

You go a little bit rogue.

You make your own destiny.

And I think that's what Baybars was essentially doing.

I think he then miscalculated that his power base was not large enough.

So when Hutus seized power with a clique or a junta of other officers, they fled.

Baybars went with his followers and they left and they went up to Syria, where they hung

out a little bit with some of the Ayyubid minor emirs who were holding Aleppo, Damascus.

And I think he ended up, if I remember correctly, in Homs, actually, right up in the north

of Syria, where, of course, he was seeing the Mongols were gathering and this storm

was coming.

As early as 1254, the caliph in Baghdad had written to the Mamluks in Cairo to warn them

that the Mongol storm was coming.

So the whole of the Middle East knew, and it was sort of beginning to glue itself together

to some degree.

And there was a lot of fear around.

Baybars spent some time up there in Syria.

It sounds like time goes really slow now, doesn't it, for about six years before the

Mongols truly turn up.

But of course, the Mongol blitzkrieg wasn't a blitzkrieg at this point.

It took them a very long time to roll across Persia.

They were very thorough in their preparations.

Bridges were built.

Pasture was preserved ahead of time.

This was a mass movement of people.

It wasn't just an invasion.

They came to stay.

So it was moving quite slowly, which was lucky for the folks in the Middle East.

Although Anatolia was taken, the Battle of Khozideh takes place.

Essentially, the whole of Anatolia becomes a Mongol protectorate, and everyone knows

that they're in trouble.

So Baybars is up there really being soldiers of fortune.

And I think I wrote in my first book, Knights of Islam, that they acted a little bit like

those free companies in the Hundred Years War with the English in France, where, yeah,

we're working for the English king, but we're kind of working for ourselves, essentially.

So a lot of booty, a lot of raiding, probably being pretty mean to civilians, to be perfectly

honest, or a lot of slave running, et cetera, et cetera.

He then apparently falls out with his employer in northern Syria and beats one of his ministers

in the presence of this minor Ayyubid in there for not showing enough resistance to the Mongols.

I must be honest.

I have sympathy with anybody sitting up in the north of Syria at this point.

I think I would have tried to make friends with them as well.

So he leaves there, and he returns to Cairo under a truce of good faith from Qutuz, who

needs everybody he can possibly find at this point.

There's probably only around 20,000 to 24,000 cavalrymen in the whole of Egypt at this point.

The Mongols sweep down fairly quickly.

Homs goes over to them, and as does Aleppo as well, quite bloodily, but Homs is saved.

The Ayyubid emirs, the descendants of Saladin, essentially join as auxiliaries, as does Armenia

and Georgia.

Antioch under Bohemond becomes a semi-ally, and also gets excommunicated by the Pope,

actually, for doing this.

Western attitudes towards the Mongols were not entirely

unsuspicious, shall we say.

I mean, there's this whole story of Prester John that existed for many centuries in the

Crusader literature, that this idea that this Christian king somewhere out to the east of

the Muslims would come and save Utremer.

And there were some thoughts that the Seljuk Turks, when they started moving, were these

people because somebody was beating the Muslims somewhere in the east.

And then the Kara Kitai, when they were pushed out of China, again, this story came back.

And the Mongols, there was a real genuine feeling in Europe that Prester John was on

the march.

Unfortunately, the more they began to understand and know about the Mongols, there wasn't such

a good option at all.

Well, because the Mongols didn't really care, to be honest, about this point in their history.

Certainly, when world domination was essentially the destiny of the Mongols, their word for

peace was il, and il does not mean peace at all.

It means subjugation.

There's no actual concept of partnership or even mild colonization.

There's absolute subjugation.

So, so, Barman was playing a dangerous game, but he had run out of a lot of options.

He was always seen even by the Crusader kingdoms of Jerusalem and the other counties and so

on as a little bit of a renegade.

So, they come on quite quickly.

Baybars returns.

And again, Kutus needs all the help he can get.

It's Kutus's victory.

There's no doubt about that because he arranges with the Crusaders to be able to march through

their lands with safe passage.

He arranges the strategy that we will not wait in Egypt because we have a good chance

to take them on in Syria.

We have another chance than if we lose in Syria to fall back to Egypt.

But if we lose in Egypt, we're done and we're finished.

But also, if we march north, we've got a chance to cut across their lines of communication

because Syria, obviously in the interior, is a very difficult place to actually occupy,

to descend an army as well.

Even though the Mongols, sorry, yeah, the Mongols actually control Damascus at this

point, which is a major, major issue in terms of supplies and bittling and actually being

able to hold on in Egypt.

What Baybars actually gives, I think, is that absolute cutting edge that Kutus needs.

He rides forward of the army at Ain Jalut.

He destroys the Mongols' reconnaissance patrol so they're essentially blinded.

He brings back important information about the nature of the Mongol layout and how they're

actually going to lay out the forces in the valley of Ain Jalut, the spring of Goliath

down there because it's a very dry valley.

It runs essentially north to south and the Mongols are going to line up north to south

and they're going to come across the valley.

There has been some stories in the past that the Mongols were ambushed.

This is not true.

We know this from renditions of soldiers who fought with the Mongols on that day with the

Ayyubid princes of Homs and they talk about telling the Mongol general Kitbuka that each

Mongol banner, each Manluk banner that comes into it, identifies this particular emir in

South Africa.

So we know that both forces are fully arrayed, but I think that what happens is that Kitbuka

does not realize that the Manluk army is as big as it is.

It's still not as large as the forces he's got in the field, but remembering that back

to that Mongol civil war problem, he hasn't got all of Hulagu Khan's army with him.

He's probably only got about one third to about half of it.

He's a great general Kitbuka, there's no doubt about it.

This is no slouch.

It's not going to be easy anyway.

And also Hulagu is sending reinforcements, but he's sending them a little bit late.

Baybars actually later destroys them, about 2,000 of them, north of the battle, after

the battle when he pushes north to actually secure Aleppo and Homs, which are the key


Also during the battle, it's interesting that Baybars is on the left wing and he's defeated

really quickly and he runs and it's like, oh, this doesn't sound quite right, this great

hero of Islam, but I think he feigns retreat really skillfully.

And the Mongols classically did, the Turks classically did this maneuver, this idea that

you ride into the enemy, but just before they get there, you turn, you twist away, you give

them the Parthian shot and you ride.

And of course they get excited.

It seems strange that the Mongols should fall for this, but maybe they just did it so well

that the left wing almost looks like it's collapsing.

Qutuz at that point brings the entire bodyguard around him, his kasakiyya, his best mamluks,

his royal mamluks into the left flank.

And that absolutely destroys the Mongol cycle.

As I said, what they do with the mamluks is they're shooting, but they're coming forward

at the same time.

They're shooting, they're coming forward, but then they're there with their heavy weapons

as well.

And their cycle of firing is so rapid and they don't retire on these short circuits

like the Mongols do because they don't need to because they're riding really top quality

Arab horses, well kept in stables, loved and looked after.

Whereas the Mongols are riding poor little step ponies.

I don't know if you've ever seen any TV footage of Mongol horse racing, it still goes on in


The rate of attrition is frighteningly high, right?

These horses die on the track and they do CPR on them by kicking them in the chest.

It's pretty, pretty brutal to say the least.

That is enough, but Kitbuka just about manages to pull the battle back.

Again, he's no slouch.

This is a great general.

He's not sent there.

He's Hulagu's number one left enemy.

At that point, it really does make the difference to discipline because for any Western army

to achieve what the mamluks did on the battlefield that day would have been near impossible without

infantry on the field.

Even the Normans, you know, the greatest of the Western warriors in the Crusades period,

in order to organize a charge, reorganize a charge, would have had to go behind their

infantry, form up as knights, and then come forward together.

The charge must be delivered as a solid mass of men.

If you arrive piecemeal, you'll be cut to pieces.

So what they do right there on the battlefront after Hutus stabilizes the left is the center

then reorganizes itself in the flux of a hot cavalry battle to organize a unified charge

and flatten the mongols.

And from that very point on, it becomes slaughter because the mongols are completely broken.

They also get, well, not bad luck.

Perhaps there's two stories.

One, either they are Yubid princes of Homs take this as, oh, it's time to desert, and

they run, or it's been prearranged.

There are some stories, again, that those old contacts of Baybars in the north of Syria,

he knows these princes.

He fought with them on a daily basis, whether it was just, you know, skirmishing battles,

whether it was just raids or whatever, he knows them.

And there's stories that perhaps there's a few Mamluk infiltrators in there been left

behind who say, you know, this would be a good time.

Maybe there's some messages passed before the battle, et cetera, et cetera.

I don't think it is prearranged because it happens quite late in the battle.

I think they do sit there and think, which way is this going?

And then they realize which way it's going, and it's a really good time to desert.

It may have been some degree of, you know, tugging on your shoulder or whatever, or shouting

across the battlefield.

Hey, you remember me?

It does happen, right?

Or it did happen.

So, Baybars is, it's not his victory.

It's definitely Khutuz's, but he is a major, major component of it.

But then he is the founder of the Mamluk state, no doubt about it from there on.

And he's obviously one of those individuals who has an incredibly clear vision of what

needs to be achieved very quickly.

The base is there.

But even the Mamluk army that defeats the Mongols at the Second Battle of Homs in 1280

under the Sultan Kalluun is Baybars' creation.

Kalluun is not a bad general again.

He's not that inspiring.

He's not that fantastic.

He's been there at all the great events with Baybars at his shoulder.

But it's Baybars' army that wins it because, again, the entire left wing of the army, again,

I think, is destroyed.

But the army recovers.

And then it pushes forward.

Then it folds the Mongols with a massive right-wing swing with even Bedouin cavalry

out on the right and crushes it into an advancing bodyguard of the royal Mamluks.

Again, this degree of discipline.

I think what did Wellington say that everything at Waterloo was one on the playing fields

of Eton or whatever, meaning that you drill and you move soldiers around and so on.

But this degree of command and control in the medieval period is absolutely miraculous.

I mean, what happens at the Battle of Homs in 1280 is the right wing of the Mongols that

have defeated the Mamluk left wing go down to Lake Homs and have a lie down and have a picnic

because they think they've won the battle.

So their generals completely lost control of them.

That never happens.

No, it does happen to the Mamluks once.

But it very rarely happens because, again, these men live their lives living in each

other's pockets.

They come through as boys.

They become men together.

They become soldiers together.

This idea of the kushtiyya or your comrades, the people who were of the same master or

you were in the same tibak, in the same barracks, in the same training school.

Again, Babus has a ready-made government.

He promotes into all the senior positions guys that he went through his training because

he trusts them absolutely.

Mamluk politics can be very bloody.

It can be very internecine at times, particularly when the Sultan dies because there's no established

pattern of inheritance.

In theory, no Mamluk can inherit the throne from his father.

Babus, again, oddly enough, tries this with his son Barakah, but it only lasts a few months

and he's deposed, sent into retirement in a castle.

Kalluun takes power with a new junta of Mamluks under his control and so it goes on like this.

Again, many, many times, Sultans try to put their sons on the throne, but in fact, the

son of a Mamluk can't even become technically a Mamluk.

He becomes a free man.

He becomes a regular citizen of the city.

Only very, very late on in the empire are these individuals formed into regiments, but

they're formed into regiments of riflemen, not because it's a second-rate thing.

The Mamluks appreciated firearms.

There was a lot of controversy saying they were very old-fashioned and they weren't interested

in firearms and cannons and that's why the Ottomans were superior to them at the end.

The biggest problem was actually access to the technology.

They did have a massive interest in firearms.

It didn't really suit their battle style, of course.

It's quite difficult to shoot a breech-loading musket and reload it when you're on a horse.

But they did apply mixed regiments in the field.

They were very successful against the Portuguese in the Red Sea using riflemen on ships and

they continued their interest in military technology.

They were not some anti-Diluvian backward military clique that wanted to live in the

13th century.

There was certainly a shortage of technology in the Middle East for firearms, which the

Ottomans obviously had contact with in the Balkans, but also the Ottomans had access

to copper from Austria for the forming of cannon, which the Mamluks did not have.

There's not a lot of copper in the Middle East.

We've spoken about Angelut and Baybaz's rise to power.



So can you tell me a bit about the downfall of him and the downfall of the Mamluk estate?

You mentioned being superseded by the Ottomans.

Was it just the firearms that eventually led to their fall?



I think there's a couple of things.

I don't know if we can really talk about the downfall of Baybaz.

I mean, he died at the height of his success.



I mean, the story that I like, I don't know if it's true, was that he had two glasses

of wine, one poisoned, one not poisoned, gave the wrong wine to the minor, minor Ayyubid

prince that he was going to have killed and drank it himself.

I'm not sure that I'm, he died around the age of 50 in 1277 in Cairo.

So he didn't die in battle.

A very complex individual, as I say, you know, the champion of Sunni Islam, but he kept his

own Sufi of his own who would make fortune telling, which is absolutely illegal or absolutely

yeah, illegal was probably a good word in Islam.

You know, fortune telling, absolutely frowned upon.

It's like witchcraft.

It's the absolute beastly thing to be doing.

He married a Karwazinium princess, not an Egyptian or not an Arab.

He basically ruled from his battle charger rather than his palace, but his mausoleum,

which oddly enough is in Damascus rather than in Cairo, even though he died in Cairo, is

now the National Library of Syria.

So he's a very, very strange contradiction.

But I say his inheritance for the Mamluks was great governance, absolutely rock solid

military, normal relations with Western powers and with Eastern powers and espionage service,

which continued to give information back from beyond the borders of the Mongol empire right

up until 1336, about 15 years after the Mongol empire had actually collapsed in Persia.

But guidance on how to manage things like espionage, you know, he would even tell all

of his lieutenants, always bring the spies in individually and interview them.

Never interview them together because they will come together to give you some false


What you want to hear is independent.

So it sounds a little bit Stalin-esque in a way, doesn't it?

And certainly one thing we know about Bevers is he's very paranoid.

He slept incredibly badly.

He had very bad night terrors, et cetera.

But again, in his demenure, in his daily management of life, he was absolutely confident,

absolutely on the ball, you know, he wouldn't challenge me.

An incredible polo player, absolute fascination with the martial arts.

But again, some of the most beautiful Qurans that we have, the most beautiful metalwork,

the most beautiful glasswork that we have from the Islamic times and periods.

Is absolutely from the Mamluk Empire.

So these guys were becoming cultured, so to speak.

They were like a clique outside of Egyptian society, distinctly proud of their heritage.

They were the only people who were allowed to eat horse on rip.

And they used to keep the tribal ceremonies as well as the Islamic holidays as well.

They distinctly, at one point in history,

stated that nobody who was a Mamluk should ride a horse because this was the mark of

this individual clique.

And they were sometimes seen as oppressive by the population, but they were also seeing

very much as the defenders of Islam and also as this flowering of the military arts, that

they were a chivalric in some ways.

Latian, who has always had a bad reputation as one of the worst Mamluk sultans because

of his reputation for political scolduggery, actually was one of those individuals who

opened Maristans or hospitals, who fed the poor, who essentially washed the feet of the

poor, did his penance according to the pillars of Islam, and was an incredibly religious


His politics inside Mamlukdom didn't have no effect on the population of Egypt whatsoever.

He was seen as a kind and benevolent ruler.

Absolutely bloodthirsty inside politics, though.

So they're very strange.

And I think Baybars, again, sets that pattern too, which is this very complex dichotomy

of things.



Why do the Mamluks finish in the end?



Well, I mean, I've written about this from a number of directions, including from the

Chinese nation, and I think we have to give a lot to the Europeans for going to the oceans.

I think we have to give a huge amount to the Italians for dominating the eastern

Mediterranean, with new shipbuilding technologies, with the bravery and the ability to sail in

winter, and to dominate that period.

I think that the Mamluks, as well, remember, are basically a land-based, horse-riding,

steppe-based tradition clique.

They don't have an enormous amount of interest in the Navy.

The Navy's fallen a long way, anyway.

Saladin did quite a lot to rehabilitate it in the Crusades period, but it was never matching

the Europeans.

Now, it's noticeable, too.

Actually, I mean, oddly enough, in one of the late searches of the Mamluks, they invade

Cyprus at one point, which seems very unusual for a nation with very poor naval credentials.

And they do quite well, but it's literally a raid.

They don't stay.

They can't stay.

And Alexandria is very badly raided by the Crusaders at one point, as well.

The Mamluk response takes days to actually kick them out and get rid of them.

So I think that's one part.

And it's noticeable, and it starts under Baybars, psychological turning in occurs.

Rather than refortifying the coast after they take Acre, after they take Jaffa, after they

take Arsuf, after they take the Crusader castles and cities, they actually devastate the coast.

They want no landing place for a Crusader to arrive.

But again, psychologically, that's quite a statement to make to yourself, that we're

quite scared of the people from the sea, actually, is what they're really saying, right?

Even late in the 15th century, Alexandria continues to be fortified again and again

and again.

They're quite scared of the Crusaders making these maritime raids from Sicily and from

Italy and so on and so forth.

There is also a massive psychological scarring right across Islam that is really hard to

understand now, perhaps, from the Mongol invasions.

I think it's Ibn al-Athir.

He had to be convinced by friends to even write about the Mongol invasions.

He couldn't bring himself to do it.

It was so massive.

It was like people would talk about the fact that in an entire village, there were six

people left alive, that men were pulling the ploughs because every single animal had been

killed by the Mongols.

There were stories that you shouldn't, certain Mongol generals, if they looked into a puddle

of water or into a small pond of water, the water would retain their evil image.

The blow was enormous, I think, and that fractioning that occurs in the great Islamic

empire after that period is never recovered, to be honest.

I mean, there's a lot of dynamics that we could talk about that are not really directly

related about the decay of the great Arab conquests from the eighth century onwards

with Turkification and the re-establishment of Persian identity and so on.

But the Mongols really do an enormous amount of damage to the Middle East, and of course

it doesn't fully end with them.

You've got the black and white sheet Turks that take on what's left of the Mongol empire,

the broken apart parts of it, and then Timur Leng returns again, or doesn't return, sorry,

as a Chinggisid or a descendant of the Chinggisid.

He marries into the Chinggisid line.

I think he marries a granddaughter of Chinggis Khan, maybe even a great granddaughter, I'm

not terribly sure, but his destruction right down into Baghdad, the towers of skulls, the

burning of the great mosque of Damascus, once it's been filled with the population, it

goes on.

It doesn't end with Hulagu Khan.

It doesn't end with Aqaba Khan.

It doesn't end with Ghazan Khan even.

It kind of ends when the Ottomans and the Safavids are the great power Greeks, and there's

some degree of stability in the Middle East.

Against the Ottomans, the Mamluks are relatively successful for a period of time.

Again, they defeat the Ottomans as far north as Ayas in what is for the Ottomans a very

much botched maritime invasion.

They try to bring the Ottoman fleet alongside the Ottoman army, marching down the coast

right up in the top of northern Syria, and it fails quite spectacularly.

Some really quite magnificent Mamluk resistance.

But I think what happens at the end is Mamlukdom itself begins to fall apart, that the Sultan

himself cannot absolutely guarantee control of Syria.

When he's in Cairo, there are constant revolts occurring in Syria.

And again, eventually northern Syria goes over to the Ottomans, and one of the senior

emirs is taken down by Selim, Selim the Grim, who's fantastically well named, the Ottoman


He even calls him the traitor, his Ottoman emir that's assisting him and advising him

and so on and so forth.

And eventually, they cannot resist in Syria.

The Ottomans, I think, are technologically superior.

Although, in the first battle of the Pyramids in 1516, I think Tumambe attempts to deploy

last Mamluk Sultan, attempts to deploy his troops with fixed artillery, fixed infantry,

and kind of gives away everything that he's got on the field as an advantage.

In fact, he tries to play the Ottoman janissaries at their own game, and they're much better

at it than him.

In the final battle, he attempts more like a traditional cavalry type attack, but there's

too few of them left.

There's very little left to be won, and the Ottomans crush them, essentially.

For Tumambe is executed, he's hung on the walls of Cairo.

The story goes that he says to the population of Cairo, say the Fatihah with me, the first

line of the Quran.

Traditionally, it's said three times for any dying individual.

It's a bit, I think, the last rites read into your ear if you're a Catholic.

And the populace weep.

They weep for him.

They can't believe, you know, one, that he's so noble that he's chivalric, but also they've

got used to this.

You know, the Mamluks have been around from 1250 to 1517.

It's another one of those anomalies of the medieval period that the Mongols are much

better remembered, but they last a lot shorter period, much more extensively geographically,

but they last actually longer than the Crusader Kingdom.

And we know how many volumes of books have been written about the Crusader Kingdom.

Our whole libraries have been written about the Crusader Kingdom, but it doesn't last

terribly long.

And Mamlukdom becomes a distinct culture.

There are writers, I've not investigated it myself, because I don't tend to go beyond

Napoleon turning up in the Middle East in my interest in history or any degree of expertise

in the Middle East in that period.

But some modern writers are talking about the modern state of Egypt have actually said

that the Mamluk system still exists very much there of patronage, of pyramid, of military

dominance, et cetera, et cetera.

I'm not sure.

I'm not really an expert enough about modern history periods to discuss this.

But it's interesting that their legacy certainly continues.

And as I said, Baybars is much more remembered in the Middle East than Saladin, actually,

despite the statue in Damascus and the attempts of Saddam Hussein to pretend he was an Iraqi.

So Baybars is really the one.




Well, it's a fascinating story.

Anyone interested can learn more in James Waterston's book, The Knights of Islam, The

Wars of the Mamluks.

You might also recognize him from the Netflix series Mehmet versus Vlad.

James, thanks again for joining me on the show.

Thank you to the show's patrons, Philip, Angus, Seth, Alex, Malcolm, Tom and Claudia.

And to everyone else, thanks for listening.

Thank you.

James WatersonProfile Photo

James Waterson

James Waterson is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and has post-graduate degrees from the University of Dundee and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. He traveled and worked in the Middle East, the United States and China for a number of years but now calls Prague home and Dubai the office.

His first book, The Knights of Islam, a history of the slave soldiers and sultans of Islam was started on a nearly dead laptop propped up on an ironing board in Shanghai, added to between night shifts in a London bedsit and completed on a building site masquerading as a house in the Appenines, eventually being published in 2007.

In pursuit of a living wage James has, at various times, been an actor in Chinese movies, a radio host, an oil rig worker, the voice of Chinese Steel, a university lecturer, a nurse and a contadino. He still writes and consults on healthcare and health economics in areas as diverse as disaster management, medication management and children's intensive care.