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

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Egypt’s Mamluk Sultanate was ushered to its end by the invading Ottomans in 1517. But while their sultanate ended, the Mamluk elite really didn’t go anywhere. The distinction has to do with the unique nature of the sultanate, so even if this is something you’ve read about before, we should review. The Mamluk ruling class 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, daughter, brother, nephew, whatever). Instead, every succession was a contest for supremacy. When a sultan died, cadres of mamluks would jockey, often quite violently (people living in Cairo loved this part) to put their man on the throne. The sons of Mamluk sultans, part of a larger social group of mamluk sons 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, and on some occasions they were successful. Indeed, one of the longest-ruling Mamluk sultans, al-Nasir Muhammad (d. 1341) was one of the awlad al-nas. But the point is that successions in the Mamluk sultanate were never routine and almost invariably involved some amount of violence.

Because the Mamluk rulers weren’t drawn from a single ruling family but were instead the preeminent figure in a large and diverse aristocratic class, when the Ottomans toppled the sultanate it was both more difficult and less necessary to purge them. As the Ottomans began incorporating the sultanate into their empire, 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 this vast new territory the Ottomans had just won. It was much safer, as well. Egypt was arguably the single most important conquest the Ottomans ever made, and overnight it turned the empire from an important regional kingdom to a world superpower. Leaving Egyptian society more or less as they’d found it was both the quickest and least disruptive way to bring this new territory into the empire and avoid the possibility of a rebellion.

Ottoman authorities 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 sultanate 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 I just skated over about 280 years, but while a lot of stuff happened during that time the only important thing we need to understand for our purposes is that, by the time Napoleon arrived, the mamluks had completely marginalized the Ottoman governor and were once again effectively ruling Egypt—just not, technically, as an independent kingdom anymore. One of Napoleon’s most cynical justifications for his invasion of Egypt was the “restoration” of true Ottoman authority over the lawless (almost gangster-like in this portrayal) mamluks. Of course Napoleon had no intention of restoring Ottoman anything. He viewed Egypt as the first in what would be a series of conquests that would take him all the way to India as the New Alexander the Great. But it was so obvious by this point that the Ottomans had lost control of Cairo that even an outsider like Napoleon could cite that fact to help justify his invasion.

When the French occupation of Egypt came to its end in 1801, the Ottomans saw an opportunity to reassert their authority not just in the wake of the Napoleon interlude but also after decades of mamluk resurgence. They sent an army to Egypt to achieve that aim, the second in-command of which was an Albanian fellow named Muhammad Ali (d. 1849). Then when British forces left in 1803 (they’d be back, of course), some funny things started to happen. For one thing, the mamluks once again 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.

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 mamluk factions—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 still didn’t go away. 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 a battle 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 nonsense. The Ottomans ordered him to undertake an expedition to deal with a 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 couldn’t “order” Muhammad Ali to do anything even though he technically worked for them. But 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 another of his sons, 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” appears in the title of this post, you can probably guess what happened next—the mamluk leaders were all slaughtered by Muhammad Ali’s soldiers.

Muhammad Ali sent orders to his regional deputies 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 as a pretext to invade and conquer the Sudan region, which marked the final end of the mamluks and the start of a very tense 136 year period in which Sudan was subject first to Egypt and later (once Muhammad Ali’s successors had become British clients) to Britain via Egypt.