The word ‘mamluk’ comes from the Arabic for slave and the Mamluks originated as slave soldiers, who took power, and founded a dynasty. The early Mamluks, particularly the relentless conqueror Baybars, drove the Crusaders from the Levant, their expulsion completed by the capture of Acre (1291). The apex of Mamluk power was under An-Nasir Muhammad (r. 1310–41); Ibn Battuta, the Arab traveller, described his capital Cairo as ‘peerless in beauty and splendour’ and marvelled at its mosques and hospitals. The Mongol warlord Timur the Lame invaded Mamluk Syria in 1400, leaving towers of skulls outside Aleppo and Damascus. Fortunately for the Mamluks, he then turned north, capturing the Ottoman Sultan and parading him before his marauding army. However, the Ottomans rebounded from Timur’s invasion with the capture of Constantinople (1453), while the Mamluks were weakened by internal unrest, the piracy of the Hafsids of Tunisia, and, from 1501, the Safavid Empire on their eastern frontier. Mamluk rule would be abruptly overthrown by the invasion of Ottoman Sultan Selim I (1516–17).
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