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

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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. They were a class 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 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 by virtue of the fact that Cairo became the new seat of the Abbasid “caliph” after the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258. I put “caliph” in quotes because (as far as we can tell) as a practical matter very few people outside of the Mamluks themselves ever seriously recognized the legitimacy of the Cairo Abbasids.

Sometimes you’ll hear the Mamluk rulers referred to as a “dynasty,” but that’s not exactly true. Blood descendants of mamluks (called awlad al-nas, or “children of the people”) couldn’t be Mamluks, because they were born free. Sultans would frequently try to leave the throne to their sons, to be sure. 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 in a succession struggle could put its leader 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 really have strong cohort support, generally didn’t survive very long on the throne. There were exceptions. Indeed the longest-reigned Mamluk ruler, Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, ruled 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 were in an alliance with the Safavids, which you may recall he’d already had declared heretical. The Mamluks and Safavids were on cordial terms, but whether there really was a formal alliance in place or not is far from clear. It’s also irrelevant. Selim was really just looking for an excuse to justify a war.

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-bey, in charge in Cairo and set out. It’s at this point that Selim apparently played a 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 during the march north. 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 the Mamluks had gotten very comfortable in their camp, and sent their own emissaries to the Ottomans, 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 significant 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 during the battle, but it’s unclear how or when).

Between the mismatch in armaments and the chaos on the Mamluk side (even if Hayır Bey didn’t actually spread that rumor, a couple of 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 modern scholars can’t seem to find any evidence of this and at any rate Ottoman sultans didn’t really start emphasizing any claim to the title of “caliph” until centuries later. 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-bey suddenly 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. 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 didn’t entirely get 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 a little over 8 years, he not only ended the (perceived) Safavid threat, but his conquest of the Mamluk Sultanate was arguably the most consequential single single expansion in Ottoman history. It roughly tripled the size of the Ottoman Empire, made its population majority Muslim for probably the first time, and helped draw the contours of the modern Middle East. The addition of Egypt, still an agricultural and commercial powerhouse, was a huge boost for the Ottoman economy, and the sudden annexation of Islam’s three holiest cities (Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem) was a huge boost for the Ottoman dynasty’s political legitimacy.