Baghdad and the Mamelukes: 9th century AD

The Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad unwittingly create a group of considerable power in the Middle East. To strengthen their armies, they acquire slaves from the nomadic Turks of central Asia. These slaves, who become known as Mamelukes (from the Arabic mamluk, 'owned'), distinguish themselves in the service of the caliphate and are often given positions of military responsibility. Well placed to advance their own interests, they frequently take the opportunity.

The first Mameluke to seize extensive power is Ahmad ibn Tulun. In the early 870s he takes control of Egypt. By 877 he has conquered the Mediterranean coast through Palestine and up into Syria.

This first Mameluke dynasty lasts only a few decades, until 905. But the Mamelukes retain their importance and power throughout the Middle East. They have the natural strength of a small, self-aware military elite. They speak their own Turkish language in addition to the Arabic of their official masters (the weak caliphs in Baghdad, whose rule technically extends throughout the Muslim Middle East). And they constantly replenish their numbers with new recruits from the fierce tribes of central Asia and the Caucasus.

The height of Mameluke power begins in 1250, when they again seize control of Egypt. Ten years later they confront the Mongols.

Mamelukes and Mongols: AD 1250-1260

The decade beginning in 1250 provides a succession of dramatic events in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. In 1250 the last sultan of Saladin's dynasty is murdered in Egypt by the slaves of the palace guard. This enables a Mameluke general, Aybak, to take power. He rules until 1257, when his wife has him killed in a palace intrigue. His place is immediately taken by another Mameluke general, Qutuz.

In the following year, 1258, Baghdad and the caliphate suffer a devastating blow. Mongols, led by Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, descend upon the city and destroy it. The Middle East appears to be open to conquest and destruction.

In 1259 Hulagu and the Mongols take Aleppo and Damascus. The coastal plain and the route south to Egypt seem open to them. But in 1260 at Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth, they meet the army of the Mameluke sultan of Egypt. It is led into the field by Baybars, a Mameluke general.

In one of the decisive battles of history Baybars defeats the Mongols. It is the first setback suffered by the family of Genghis Khan in their remorseless half century of expansion. This battle defines for the first time a limit to their power. It preserves Palestine and Syria for the Mameluke dynasty in Egypt. Mesopotamia and Persia remain within the Mongol empire.

Baybars and his successors: AD 1260-1517

Baybars is ruthless - in the best Mameluke tradition. Seized as a boy from the Kipchak Turks, north of the Caspian, he has been brought to Egypt as a slave. His talents have enabled him to rise to high command in the Mameluke army. In 1260, the year of his great victory at Ayn Jalut, he defeats and kills his own Mameluke sultan. He is proclaimed in his place by the army.

During his reign of seventeen years Baybars crushes the Assassins in their last strongholds in Syria, drives the Crusaders from Antioch, and extends the rule of Egypt across the Red Sea to control the valuable pilgrim cities of Mecca and medina.

In exercising this extensive rule, Baybars takes the precaution of pretending that he does so on behalf of an Abbasid refugee from the ruins of Baghdad - whom he acclaims as the caliph. His many successors maintain the same fiction. These Mameluke sultans are not a family line, like a traditional dynasty. They are warlords from a military oligarchy who fight and scheme against each other to be acclaimed sultan, somewhat in the manner of the later Roman emperors.

But they manage to keep power in their own joint hands until the rise of a more organized state sharing their own Turkish origins - the Ottoman empire.

The Ottomans, cautious about Mameluke military prowess, tackle other neighbouring powers such as the Persians before approaching Egypt. But in 1517 the Ottoman sultan, Selim i, reaches the Nile delta. He takes Cairo, with some difficulty, and captures and hangs the last Mameluke sultan.

Mameluke rule, spanning nearly three centuries, has been violent and chaotic but not uncivilized. Several of Cairo's finest mosques are built by Mameluke sultans, and for a while these rulers maintain Cairo and Damascus (500 miles apart) as twin capitals. A Pigeon post is maintained between them, and Baybars prides himself on being able to play polo within the same week in the two cities.

Ottomans: AD 1517-1831

As a disciplined caste of soldiers and administrators, the Mamelukes are of use to the Ottoman sultans in the administration of middle eastern regions. By the 18th century they have recovered so much power in Egypt that they are beyond the control of the Ottoman governors of the province. And from 1749 Baghdad is officially ruled by Mamelukes as a province within the empire.

Eventually their power proves intolerable. Ottoman troops massacre the Mamelukes in Egypt in 1811, and destroy their counterparts in Baghdad in 1831.