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

Our “Today in History” posts are always free, but if you want to support the newsletter and get the full Foreign Exchanges experience you know what you have to do:

Once the Ottomans decisively eliminated any possible threat from the Safavids at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, they turned their attention to the Mamluks, who controlled Syria and Egypt. Not coincidentally, the Mamluks were at the same time preparing for a war with the Ottomans. The two empires were direct competitors when it came to east-west trade, since the Mamluks controlled the Indian Ocean-Red Sea route while the Ottomans were the western terminus of the overland Silk Road from China. So it seemed likely they would come to blows at some point.

We should say a few words about the Mamluks. 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). 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. Blood descendants (called awlad al-nas, or “children of the people”) of Mamluk sultans couldn’t be Mamluks, because they were never slaves and never went through that process. Sultans would frequently try to leave the throne to their sons. But the Mamluk system was based on a kind of clique framework, where individual mamluks became part of a cohort (usually based on when they were enslaved and/or where they’d come from back home) and those cohorts would jockey, often quite violently, for supremacy. The cohort that came out on top of the fighting in a succession situation could put its leading member on the throne This meant that many successions were accompanied by some kind of low-level civil war. It also meant that the sons of previous sultans, who didn’t go through the Mamluk system and usually didn’t really have a cohort to support them, generally didn’t survive very long on the throne. There were exceptions, like Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, who held the throne three times for a total of about 42 years between 1293 and 1341, and was the son of a previous sultan. But as a rule heritability wasn’t a big deal in Mamluk politics.

A portrait of Qansuh al-Ghawri done by a 16th century Italian artist and historian named Paolo Giovio (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1516 the Mamluks were ruled by al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, who knew what was coming after the Ottomans attacked the Anatolian principality of Dulkadir in 1515. Dulkadir was a Mamluk vassal, which was strike one as far as the Ottomans were concerned. Strike two came when the ruler of Dulkadir, Bozkurt, was uncooperative about allowing the Ottoman army to cross his territory when it was on the way to Iran in the lead up to Chaldiran. He didn’t get a third strike. Ottoman Sultan Selim I later gained the epithet Yavuz, which is often translated as “grim” but more accurately means “resolute,” “stern,” or, more negatively, “inflexible.” He had a temper, is what I’m saying. And he exhibited that temper with Bozkurt. After defeating the Dulkadirids, he supposedly sent Bozkurt’s head to Qansuh al-Ghawri, and the message there probably doesn’t need to be parsed. 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 Commons)

In order to (once again) skirt Islamic rules about making war on one’s fellow Muslims, Selim contended that the Mamluks an alliance with the Safavids, which you may recall he’d already had declared heretical. Whether there really was a formal alliance in place or not is kind of irrelevant. Selim was really just looking for an excuse here.

Qansuh al-Ghawri decided not to wait for the Ottomans to come to him and began preparing to invade Anatolia. He left his vizier, al-Ashraf Tuman-bay, in charge in Cairo and set out. It’s at this point that Selim seems to have played a pretty effective trick on his Mamluk counterpart. He sent word to Qansuh al-Ghawri that he would let the Mamluks choose another vassal to rule Dulkadir and that he would reopen what had become a closed frontier between the two sultanates. This put the Mamluk ruler somewhat at ease, though he still marched his army north toward Ottoman territory. When the Mamluks arrived in northern Syria, Selim sent more messengers, excusing the fact that he had his own army in the field with a cover story about renewed hostilities with the Safavids and carrying gifts for the sultan and the high officials in his retinue. It was only after receiving and then humiliating a Mamluk emissary sent in return that Selim made it clear he wanted a fight.

The Mamluk army was probably outnumbered (at best they were at parity with the Ottomans) and couldn’t match the Ottomans in gunpowder weapons. The two forces encountered each other at Dabiq, north of Aleppo (Marj Dabiq means “meadow of Dabiq” in Arabic). Qansuh al-Ghawri’s relaxed, almost celebratory march north (when he thought Selim was being nice to him) bought the Ottomans time to organize their army and to convince the Mamluk governor of Aleppo, Hayır Bey, to turn on his sultan. Qansuh al-Ghawri, despite having been warned about Hayır Bey’s loyalty, decided to put him in charge of the Mamluk left flank. When the time came, and after an initial attack by the Mamluk right flank had done substantial damage to the Ottoman line, Hayır Bey ordered his men to retreat and may also have begun a rumor that Qansuh al-Ghawri had been killed (he did die at some point but it’s unclear how or when).

Between the mismatch in armaments and some chaos on the Mamluk side (even if Hayır Bey didn’t spread that rumor, a couple senior Mamluk commanders were killed and that did throw the Mamluk army into a panic), the Ottomans were able to win a decisive victory. What was left of the Mamluk army fled in disarray to Damascus. In addition to Qansuh al-Ghawri’s death, the last Cairo caliph, al-Mutawakkil III, fell into Ottoman hands. He supposedly surrendered the caliphate to Selim, though since his own claim on the caliphate was questionable at best Selim’s claim didn’t get much traction either. Hayır Bey, meanwhile, did pretty well for himself—he got to be the Ottomans’ first Egyptian governor.

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. Al-Ashraf Tuman-bay became the new Mamluk sultan, 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 wasn’t enough and when the Ottomans defeated this new army at the Battle of Ridaniyah, outside Cairo, in January 1517, that was it for the Mamluk Sultanate. The people of Egypt don’t seem to have been much more enamored of the Mamluks than were the people of Syria, though they never really got rid of them. The Ottomans, reluctant to rock the Egyptian boat too much, left the Mamluk system largely in place and simply set an Ottoman governor over it. Within a couple of centuries, the Mamluks had restored most of their power and rendered that Ottoman governor little more than a figurehead.

Finally, we should say a word about Selim “the Grim.” Although he was only sultan for just a little over 8 years, he not only ended the brief (perceived) Safavid threat, but his conquest of the Mamluk Sultanate roughly tripled the size of the Ottoman Empire and helped draw the contours of the modern Middle East. That conquest also, eventually, proved to be the empire’s undoing, when Britain exploited Ottoman weakness in Egypt and the rest of the Arab-speaking Middle East in World War I.