Mamluk or Mameluke [Arab.,=slaves], was a warrior caste dominant in Egypt and influential in the Middle East for over 700 years. Islamic rulers created this warrior caste by collecting non-Muslim slave boys and training them as cavalry soldiers especially loyal to their owner and each other. They converted to Islam in the course of their training.
The Mamluks were first used in Muslim armies in Baghdad by the Abbasid caliphs in the 9th cent. and quickly spread throughout the Muslim world. They served the Ayyubid sultans from the 12th cent. onward and grew powerful enough to challenge the existence of the rulers who were theoretically their masters. Aybak, the first Mamluk to actually rule, persuaded (1250) the mother of the last Ayyubid sultan to marry him after she had murdered her son. For more than 250 years thereafter, Egypt and Syria were ruled by Mamluk sultans supported by a caste of warrior slaves, from which the sultans were chosen. The Mamluks took advantage of their power to become the principal landholders in Egypt.
The Mamluk sultans are usually divided into two dynasties, the Bahris (1250–1382), chiefly Turks and Mongols, and the Burjis (1382–1517), chiefly Circassians who were chosen from the garrison of Cairo. The Bahri sultans were usually selected from a few chief families, but during Burji times there was scant respect for hereditary principle in the selection of rulers. Neither dynasty was able to exercise more than a limited power over the turbulent Mamluk soldiers. The sultans reigned, on the average, less than seven years and usually met violent ends. In spite of the dangers that threatened the sultans at home, they usually conducted a vigorous foreign policy. They defeated the last of the Crusaders and repulsed the Mongol invasion of Syria. At times they held all Palestine and Syria and the holy places of Arabia.
One of the strongest Mamluk rulers, Baybars (1260–77) defeated the Mongols at Ain Jalut in Syria (1260), the first serious setback they had received. Baybars also installed a relative of the last Abbasid caliph of Baghdad as a Mamluk puppet caliph at Cairo. The long reign of al-Nasir from 1293 to 1340, although interrupted three times, was one of ostentation and luxury that helped to undermine the Bahri dynasty. The Burji period that followed was one of bloodshed and treachery. It was marked by war against Timur and by the conquest (1424–26) of the Christian-held island of Cyprus.
Toward the end of the 15th cent. the Mamluks became involved in a war with the Ottoman Turks who captured Cairo in 1517. The Mamluks favoured the cavalry and personal combat with sword and shield. They were no match for the Ottomans, who skilfully used artillery and their own slave infantry, the Janissaries, to defeat the Mamluks. The Ottoman ruler, Selim, put an end to the Mamluk sultanate and established a small Ottoman garrison in Egypt. He did not, however, destroy the Mamluks as a class; they kept their lands, and Mamluk governors remained in control of the provinces and were even allowed to keep private armies.
In the 18th cent., when Ottoman power began to decline, the Mamluks were able to win back an increasing amount of self-rule. In 1769 one of their number, Ali Bey, even proclaimed himself sultan and independent of Constantinople. Although he fell in 1772, the Ottoman Turks still felt compelled to concede an ever greater measure of autonomy to the Mamluks and appointed a series of them as governors of Egypt. The Mamluks were defeated by Napoleon I during his invasion of Egypt in 1798, but their power as a class was ended only in 1811 by Muhammad Ali.