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The Mamluks (lit. slaves) were a military class that ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1517 and Syria (including Palestine) from 1260 to 1516. Under the Mamluk sultans in Egypt and Syria, local Jews often suffered at the hands of government officials and Muslim zealots, although at times the sultan and his representatives were also a restraining influence on fanatical mobs or leaders. The Mamluks were one of the most important dynasties in the history of medieval Islam , gaining fame for stopping the Mongol advance into Syria and for eradicating the Crusader presence in Palestine and elsewhere along the Syrian coast. They were great patrons of culture, and many buildings with the distinctive building style of the period are scattered throughout Israel, especially Jerusalem. Scholars divide the Mamluk era into almost two equal sub-periods: the Baḥrī period (1250–1382), when the dominant group was mainly composed of Qipchaq Turks; and, the Circassian period (1382–1517) when Mamluks from the northern Caucasus region were predominant, although Turks continued to play an important role. The latter period is often still mistakenly called the Burjī period. Most Mamluk sultans were themselves Mamluks of slave origin, although some were the sons of sultans.

Military slavery, primarily of pagan Turks brought as youngsters from the Eurasian Steppe, had existed in the heart of the Muslim world since the ninth century. Later referred to as Mamluks (pl. mamālik), these soldiers of slave origin – particularly those who became officers – played an important role in the military and political life of many Muslim states. Turks were particularly favored since they combined hardiness, horsemanship, and archery which they had begun to learn in their Central Asian milieu. These nascent skills were reinforced by years of training in military schools in which the young Mamluks were enrolled after their conversion to Islam. Generally the sons of Mamluks were excluded from this military formation: Muslim rulers had learned that the sons of Mamuks had neither the hardiness nor loyalty of their fathers and therefore there was a continual import of young Mamluks to the centers of the Muslim world. In other words, the Mamluk system was a one-generational, continually replicating military elite. On the whole, Mamluks fought in organized units of mounted archers, and were generally loyal to their patrons, be they sultans or senior officers, although there were some notable exceptions.

Mamluks were certainly important in the armies of the Ayyubid sultans and princes, and, since the time of the dynasty's founder Saladin (d. 1193), played a key role in the war against the Crusaders. In 1250, they overthrew their masters in Egypt; ten years later, in the aftermath of their victory over the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in northern Palestine, they gained control of all of Syria up to the Euphrates River, and embarked on a 60-year war against the Mongols, whom they successfully kept at bay. The Sultan Baybars I (1260–77) was the real architect of Mamluk power, expanding and strengthening the army, reforming the judicial system and generally bringing stability to the subjects of the state, in spite of his many wars against the Mongols and Crusaders. The latter culminated in the conquest of Acre in 1291. The Mamluk Sultanate was a relatively centralized state, governed from Cairo, although most of the military activities were in Syria. Although the Mamluk regime became increasingly oppressive and rapacious over the decades, it was never seriously threatened by internal opposition. There were, however, many cases of urban disorder and riots, often over food shortages or other economic matters. The position of the dhimmīs ("protected people," i.e. Christians and Jews) was also a source of occasional disorder and dissatisfaction, not the least because of the many Christians (and some Jews) still employed in various government offices, some of them holding relatively high positions. Without a doubt, the Mamluk period saw an increase in anti-dhimmī feeling and the consequent decline of the position of these peoples. This appears to be a result of several factors: the militant rhetoric of the Mamluks themselves, engaged in holy war (jihād) for decades; the culmination of almost two centuries of war against the Crusaders; the apparent perception that the local Christians, while Arabic speakers, were secretly sympathetic to the enemies of the state, be they Crusaders or Mongols; the declining economic situation, which began to be felt from the mid-14th century onward, particularly after the outbreak of the Black Plague in the region in 1349; and perhaps the competition over government jobs in which members of the Muslim learned class had a particular interest. It should be noted that the lion's share of anti-dhimmī feelings were directed at the Christians of Egypt and Syria, a much larger group than the Jews and better represented in the government bureaucracy. The impression gained is that the acts and activities against the Jews were often side effects of steps taken against their Christian "colleagues." It appears that, during the Mamluk period, there was a long-term islamization process among the Sultanate's Christian population (certainly among the Copts of Egypt). It is difficult to gauge the exact long-term impact of the Mamluk period on the size of the Jewish community, but there was some demographic decline caused by conversions and perhaps emigration, although apparently not to the same degree as among the Christians.

The paucity of the Cairo Genizah documents from the Mamluk period indicates the great change in Egyptian Jewry; whereas these archives of Cairo Jewry contain many documents from the 11th and 12th centuries, there are relatively few preserved from the subsequent period. Perhaps rather than indicating only the decline of the Jewish community in Old Cairo, it may reflect the weakening of Egypt's participation in the Mediterranean trade, which was the economic basis of this particular Jewish community. In any event, the numerous Arab chronicles and other sources for the Mamluk period contain much information on the Jews. From these and various Jewish sources we can reconstruct a picture of the main developments of the Jewish community in the main provinces of the Mamluk Sultanate. The difficulties experienced by the Jews were not only with the Muslim majority and authorities, but were also related to tensions within the community and "the depressed condition of community life" (M.R. Cohen). On the whole, we can say that during the Baḥrī period there was a series of acute outbreaks of anti-dhimmī activity and measures, which also affected the Jewish population of the Sultanate. In the Circassian period, the anti-dhimmī (and therefore anti-Jewish) measures were generally less sweeping, but the Jews (and the Christians) suffered from both chronic and temporary harassments. The terms of the so-called Covenant of Omar are mentioned time and again during the period as the model which the dhimmīs were expected to follow, indicating perhaps that, between the anti-dhimmī measures enacted and mentioned in the sources, the non-Muslims lived under easier conditions. On the other hand, the repeated acts took their toll.

When Damascus was reconquered from the Mongols in 1260, there were riots against the local Christians, which spilled over to the Jews; the latter were soon curtailed when it was remembered that the Jews had not cooperated with the Mongols. Five years later the Christians in Cairo were accused of arson. Thereupon Sultan Baybars I (1260–77), who had just returned from Syria and the conquest of Caesarea and Arsuf from the Crusaders, assembled many Christians and Jews and ordered that they be burned alive, but released them on condition that they pay a heavy tribute in annual installments. These were, however, sporadic measures, which show how Jews could be caught up in what was originally a mainly anti-Christian activity. One act directed only against Jews was in Damascus in 1271. There the Sufi shaykh Khidr, a Rasputin-like figure who was the favorite of the sultan, attacked and expropriated the largest synagogue. However, this figure was known for his attacks on Christians too. It was mainly later that more concerted and widespread actions against the dhimmīs were taken, including the frequent dismissal of non-Muslim officials. One Arab chronicler, al-ʿAynī, notes that, already under Sultan Qalāwūn (1279–90), "the dhimmīs had been in a state of extreme humiliation and degradation." Arab chroniclers sometimes mention only measures taken against Christians, but they state explicitly that Jews suffered during the dismissal of the officials in 1293 under Sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf Khalīl (1290–93), which followed riots that broke out in Cairo in the aftermath of supposed overweening behavior by Christians. In 1301 the hatred of non-Muslims burst into severe persecution; riots occurred in several towns in Egypt and many Christians and Jews were compelled to adopt Islam, including all the Jews of Bilbeis, in Lower Egypt, according to the Jewish-Egyptian chronicler of the Ottoman period, Joseph b. Isaac Sambari. All churches and synagogues in Cairo were closed; in Alexandria, houses of non-Muslims which were higher than those of their Muslim neighbors were destroyed. These were unprecedented acts. Furthermore, the government decreed that henceforth Christians must wear blue turbans; Samaritans, red; and Jews, yellow. The willingness of the Mamluk authorities in this case to countenance the anti-dhimmī disorders and to enact stringent sumptuary laws may have been strengthened by the embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Mongols in Syria at the end of 1299, so that this became a way of diverting attention and demonstrating to the population the Mamluk commitment to Islam. In 1309, however, under Byzantine pressure, several churches and a synagogue were reopened, so there were occasional rays of light in this difficult period. There were again riots against Christians in Egypt, in which Jews are not mentioned, except in so far as some Christians borrowed their clothes to escape the wrath of the mob. In 1354 there was another general persecution of the non-Muslims in Egypt. There were riots during which Christians and Jews were attacked in the streets, with the rioters "throwing them into bonfires if they refused to pronounce the shahādatayn [the Muslim profession of faith]" (D.P. Little). Jewish and Coptic leaders were forced to listen to a list of the sumptuary measures which theoretically had already been in force. Non-Muslim government officials were dismissed, even those who embraced Islam. This particular set of measures seems to have had some impact on the conversion of Copts to Islam; whether it affected the Jews in the same way is unclear.

The anti-dhimmī atmosphere was not only a result of riots or repeated enactments of sumptuary laws. The early Mamluk period saw the appearance of several anti-dhimmī polemical works, such as that by al-Ghāzī b. al-Wāsiṭī, as well as the fatwas (responsa) and essays by the famous, but uncompromising, scholar Ibn Taymiyya. In addition, sometime in the first century or so of Mamluk rule, a humiliating oath which Jews had to take when appearing in Muslim courts was reintroduced after a hiatus of some 500 years (the text of the oath, from al-Umarī's Tarif, is found in Stillman, Jews of Arab Lands, 267–68).

In the second half of the 14th century restrictive laws and various vexations followed. Non-Muslim officials were dismissed in Damascus in 1356 and in 1363. At that time Jews and Christians were forbidden to ride horses and mules. They were allowed to ride donkeys only, using packsaddles and mounted so that both feet were on one side of the animal. In public baths they had to distinguish themselves by wearing little bells around the neck, and women had to wear one black and one white shoe. In 1365 Muslim zealots in Damascus searched Jewish and Christian homes for wine and poured the wine they found into the streets and rivers. Restrictive laws were again enforced; Jewish and Christian women were forbidden to frequent the public baths. Although the frequency of these ordinances proves that the discriminatory laws were not systematically kept, it is evident that their periodic enactment humiliated Jews and Christians whose communities were sizably weakened and diminished by the end of the rule of the Baḥrī Mamluks in 1382.

The image of the non-Muslim communities in the chronicles from the reign of the Circassian Mamluks (1381–1517) is somewhat different. With the end of the crusaders' principalities, the non-Muslims were no longer accused of conspiring with the enemies of the sultan; hence, general persecutions of non-Muslims in Egypt and Syria were to a degree lessened. Nevertheless, the actions of the second Mamluk dynasty were in some ways even worse than its predecessor. The frustration of the population increased and the sultans were thus often inclined to enforce the restrictive laws on the dhimmīs or extort heavy contributions from them. Under Sultan al-Malik al-Muʾayyad Shaykh (1412–19), the authorities harassed the Jews and Christians in Egypt for drinking wine. In 1417 non-Muslims were ordered to dress simply in order that they not resemble Muslim judges. Furthermore, they were forbidden to ride swift asses. Two years later non-Muslim officials were again dismissed from government posts. Al-Malik al-Ashraf Barsbāy (1422–38) readily complied with the suggestions of Muslim zealots. Immediately after his accession he dismissed non-Muslim officials, and in 1426 he again demanded distinctive signs, ordering Jews and Christians to reduce the size of their turbans and put iron rings around their necks when going to public baths. Periodically, he sent officials to search the non-Muslim quarters of Cairo for wine. In 1442, during the reign of Sultan Jaqmaq (1438–53), the dais (referred to as a minbar in Arabic) of a synagogue in Cairo was destroyed when it was thought that it contained anti-Muslim blasphemies, and several other Jewish institutions as well as Christian buildings were also in danger of being damaged or ruined. This same sultan prohibited in 1448 non-Muslim physicians from treating Muslims, and in 1450 reinforced the regulations regarding their dress. In 1463 Sultan Khushqadam (1461–67) solemnly reinforced all the restrictive laws imposed on non-Muslims, with the exception of those which forbade them to be physicians and money changers. The last Mamluk sultans did not introduce new restrictions, but periodically imposed heavy tribute. Arab historians report that Qaʾitbāy (1468–96) did this in 1488 and 1491 and that similar contributions were extorted from the Jews in 1500 and 1501. Yet, there was another side to late Mamluk attitudes towards the dhimmīs which should not be ignored, namely the occasional protection of the non-Muslims against the actions of intolerant Muslim religious figures or the mob. Thus, in 1473–75, the Mamluk authorities, eventually under the direct orders of the sultan, prevented the Muslim population of Jerusalem from expropriating a synagogue, although an enraged mob had destroyed it; the Jews were permitted to restore it. This episode shows that legalistic niceties were often enforced, and, even at a time of general anti-dhimmī feelings and measures, non-Muslims "could not be abused with impunity" (D.P. Little).

The decline of the Jews' situation in the Mamluk state in the second half of the 15th century, economically and demographically, is pointed out by the traveler Felix Fabri, as it is likewise vividly depicted in the letters of Obadiah of Bertinoro and his anonymous pupil, an Italian Jew who settled in Jerusalem at the end of the 15th century. In the capitals of Egypt and Syria there were still large communities, but in the other towns they had dwindled to small groups. Everywhere they were subject to legal discrimination and had to pay special taxes, e.g., on drinking wine. Their letters also stressed the general lawlessness and anarchy from which the Jews suffered (which was, however, not only the fate of the Jews, but also that of the Christians, and often the population at large). The authors of these travelogues, however, were not aware of the great change that Egyptian and Syrian Jewry had undergone under the impact of Mamluk rule. The flourishing Jewish middle class, once the mainstay of the Jewish communities, had greatly declined under the Mamluks (probably part of the general economic decline of the Sultanate, and not a result of an anti-Jewish policy) and most Jews had become poor. Social discrimination and the hostility of the upper classes caused many of the Jewish physicians and other well-situated Jews to adopt Islam. A relatively great number of biographies of these apostates appear in the writings of Arab historians of this period. On the other hand, the Mamluk sultans allowed the Jews to retain their judicial autonomy in cases of civil law, and until the end of their rule recognized the nagid as head of all the Jewish communities in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. The negidim, who had deputies in Jerusalem and Damascus, represented the Jews, Karaites , and Samaritans to the government. Until the end of the reign of the Baḥrī Mamluks, the post was held by the descendants of Maimonides . The last was David II. In the 15th century the post was filled by Jewish court physicians. The Mamluk sultans apparently did not interfere with Jewish settlement in Egypt and Syria after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. The economic decline and the overall brutalization of life in the Sultanate in the 15th century (and perhaps before) weakened the community and contributed to a worsening of relations within it, as seen by the Genizah document from 1442 published by M.R. Cohen in 1984. In general, in spite of the deterioration of the community, one can still state with a great deal of certitude that the legal conditions of the Jews in the Mamluk Sultanate were still superior to those of their fellow Jews in most of contemporary Europe. The economic, social, and demographic condition of the Jewish communities of Syria and Egypt was to improve discernibly under the Ottomans , who ended Mamluk rule and gained control over these countries in 1516 and 1517, respectively.


Ashtor, Toledot; Baron, Social, vol. 17 (19802), 154–228. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: C.E. Bosworth, "Christian and Jewish Religious Dignitaries in Mamlûk Egypt and Syria: Qalqashandî's Information on Their Hierarchy, Titulature, and Appointment," in: International Journal of Middle East Studies, 3 (1972), 59–74, 199–216; idem, "'The Protected Peoples' (Christians and Jews) in Medieval Egypt and Syria," in: Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library. 62 (1979), 11–36; M.R. Cohen, "Jews in the Mamluk Environment: The Crisis of 1442 (A Geniza Study)," in: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 47 (1984), 425–48; P.M. Holt, The Age of the Crusades: The Near East from the Eleventh Century to 1517 (1986); R. Irwin, The Middle East in the Middle Ages: The Early Mamluk Sultanate, 12501382 (1986); D.P. Little, "Communal Strife in Late Mamluk Jerusalem," in: Islamic Law and Society, 6 (1999), 69–96; idem, "Ḥaram Documents Related to the Jews of Late Fourteenth Century Jerusalem," in: Journal of Semitic Studies, 30 (1985), 227–64; idem, "Religion under the Mamluks," in: The Muslim World, 73 (1983), 165–81; D.S. Richards, "Dhimmi Problems in Fifteenth-Century Cairo: Reconsideration of a Court Document," in: Studies in Muslim-Jewish Relations, 1 (1993), 127–63; N.A. Stillman, Jews of the Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (1979), 67–73, 264–77; idem, "The Non-Muslim Communities: The Jewish Community," in: C.F. Petry (ed.), The Cambridge History of Egypt, vol. 1 (1998), 208–10; R. Amitai, "The Mamluk Institution: 1000 Years of Military Slavery in the Islamic World," in: P. Morgan and C. Brown (eds.), Arming Slaves (2005).

[Eliyahu Ashtor /

Reuven Amitai (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.