Academic journal article
By Watenpaugh, Heghnar Zeitlian
The Art Bulletin , Vol. 93, No. 3
DORIS BEHRENS-ABOUSEIF Cairo of the Mamluks: A History of the Architecture and Its Culture London: I. B. Tauris, 2007. 400 pp.: 258 color ills., 72 b/w. $79.00
NASSER RABBAT Mamluk History through Architecture: Building, Culture, and Politics in Mamluk Egypt and Syria London: I. B. Tauris, 2010. 275 pp.; 71 b/w ills. $80.00
ABDALLAH KAHIL The Sultan Hasan Compkx in Cairo, 1357-1364: A Case Study in the Formation of Mamluk Style Würzburg: Ergon in Kommission; Beirut: Orient-Institut Beirut, 2008. 436 pp.; 185 color ills., 159 b/w. euro 80;00
What ids tonography calls the Mamluk period (1250-1517) is the time when a series of former militar)' slaves (sing, mamluk, "owned" in Arabic) ruled an empire that comprised Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, and greater Syria, with Cairo as its capital. The Mamluk state depended on a seemingly fragile yet remarkably long-lived alliance between a constantly renewed military elite of foreign (mostly Turkic) origin and powerful local social groups, ostensibly legitimated by die (at this point entirely nominal) audiority of the Abbasid caliphs, brought from Baghdad to live as virtual prisoners and ceremonial puppets in Cairo's citadel. A temporal ruler, a Mamluk sultan typically began life as a young slave purchased outside the realm. Trained by a Mamluk amir (or emir, commander) as a highly skilled warrior, he formed an enduring alliance with fellow Mamluks in his patron's household, was converted to Islam and manumitted, and launched, if his talent, luck, and wits permitted him, into the competitive world of powerful emirs, any of whom had the opportunity to impose himself as the next sultan. On attaining die sultanate, too often for a short period, a ruler usually accumulated uemendous resources, sometimes obtained through dubious means, to patronize the arts, conspicuously by sponsoring urban architecture. The most common choice was to build and endow in perpetuity a charitable architectural complex centered on a funerary monument to himself, featuring educational, pious, and benevolent functions, such as mosques, madrasa* for higher education in legal and religious sciences, khanqahs, or Sufi lodges* and maklabs for primary education, supported by dedicated commercial or agricultural properties.
The Mamluk "building zeal," to use Doris Behrens-Abouseifs apt term (p. 10), transformed virtually every city in thè empire: Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo, Tripoli (in today's Lebanon), and, above all, the capital, Cairo. To our eyes the Mamluk system may seem strangely meritocratic, so distinct from traditional dynasties' emphasis on a presumed God-given right to rule based on lineage. The Mamluk system allowed outsiders to become integrated in Islamic society through networks of loyalty and obligation. Of course, it was also ruthlessly violent, both in its dependence on slavery and on die merciless competition it encouraged. This particular type of slavery, one-generational and generative of a military and political elite, existed in many preniodern Islamic societies; indeed, the mamluk hotiseholds of Cairo endured until the nineteendi century. Only in die Mamluk state, however, did the former slaves command an empire, and their journey from the most wrenching abjection to the height of power is one of Islamic history's most intriguing episodes. Mamluk urbanism and architecture have also exerted a strong appeal, not least because, during economic and political downturns as well as in periods of prosperity, both the output and quality of patronage continued unabated.
Sources for the Mamluk era are relatively abundant. In addition to surviving buildings, there are chronicles and legal documents, as well as scientific and !iterar)' texts of great variety. Earlier generations of scholars published archival materials, inscriptions, and surveys of urban layers. Since 1984, when the field of Mamluk art and architecture could still strike Oleg Grabar as being "new,"1 the visual culture of the Mamluk period has become better known. …