Pre-20th Century History -- Protectors or Praetorians? the Last Mamluk Sultans and Egypt's Waning as a Great Power by Carl F. Petry

By Cook, Weston F., Jr. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

Pre-20th Century History -- Protectors or Praetorians? the Last Mamluk Sultans and Egypt's Waning as a Great Power by Carl F. Petry


Cook, Weston F., Jr., The Middle East Journal


Protectors or Praetorians? The Last Mamluk Sultans and Egypt's Waning as a Great Power, by Carl F. Petry. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. xv + 226 pages. Appends. to p. 251. Sources to p. 263. Index to p. 280. $19.95.

After nearly a decade of study, Carl Petry has written an elegant and judicious analysis of politics and society under the last Mamluk sultans, al-Ashraf Qaytbay (872-902/1468-96) and Qansuh al-Ghawri (906-22/1501-16). Despite extensive research, including a meticulous combing of waqf (Islamic trust) documents from the era, his stated aims are cautious. Petry has sought to clarify the events and processes at work in Egypt during the last half-century of Mamluk rule, to analyze the interplay of ruling policy, patronage, and crises in Mamluk society, and to reveal the mindset of an elite military caste whose power had begun to unravel under new strategic, commercial, and demographic duress. Petry is extremely successful at this task.

This book provides a brief but precise guide through the cavalcade of wars, mutinies, revolts, and conspiracies of the Sultanate's last years. Petry's discussion of the Mamluk "world view"--how the ruling caste understood Egypt as a fulcrum of power between Africa, Asia, and Europe--is crisp and lucid. It is well worth the price of the book. Viewing themselves as the heirs of the Mamluk slave-soldier champions who rescued 13th-century Islam from the Mongols and the Crusades, they saw Egypt as both the hub and fulcrum of the globe. As a self-renewing elite, the Mamluks saw themselves as a military caste closed to the Egyptians under their protection, and thereby entitled to the privileges of power, property, and domination. Ironically, in their last century, they expended their energies on fighting each other in ever-shifting factions. In response, civilians developed a myriad of passive resistance strategies to protect their assets from Mamluk depredation.

The standard view of decline in medieval Egypt is derived from the following image. The predatory Mamluk state was run by a parasitic bureaucracy under self-indulgent rulers. It was fractionated by self-seeking soldiers made obsolete by gunpowder technology. Productive classes oppressed into passivity or pointless riot by an exploitative state. Finally, the international arena fell under the control of aggressive sea-going mercantilism and powerful, coherent land empires, all modern and "superior" to Mamluk medievalism. Petry does not posit a dramatic revision of this paradigm, but instead offers a sophisticated and fascinating series of insights into how Mamluk society worked.

Survival for the Sultan meant first assuring that the Mamluk army and its retainers enjoyed the wages, resources, and style of life that marked them as superior to all others in society. …

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