Al-Nasir Mohamed, A Mamluke Builder in Cairo, Egypt

Al-Nasir Mohamed (Muhammad)
A Mamluke Builder

The Madrasa (college) and Mausoleum of al-Nasir Muhammad

Sultan al-Nasir (Nasser) Mohamed (Muhammad) Ben Qalawoon (Qalaun) was a Bahari Mamluke who ruled Egypt no less than three times, first between 1293 and 1294 AD, the second between 1298 and 1309, and finally once again between 1309 and 1340. He was the only son of Qalawun (Qalaun) by a Mongol princess named Aslun Khatun, who is perhaps best known as a prolific builder in Cairo. Basically, he ruled Egypt for forty-two years, beginning at age eight, except for two intervals totaling about five years, when he was still too young to hang on to the empire he had inherited and his rivals were able to depose him until he was strong enough to hold onto Egypt.

The sultan who ruled during the second interruption of al-Nasir Mohamed's long reign was Hossam Eddin Lagin, who had taken part in the murder of Sultan al-Khalil some years before. Afterward the murder, he hid in the neglected mosque of Ibn Tulun. He swore that if he ever got power and wealth, he would restore Ibn Tulun's mosque from its existing state of ruin at that time. So when he became sultan in 1296, he fulfilled his promise. However, al-Nasir once again took power in 1298, and in 1299 Lagim was murdered while saying his prayers.

When al-Nasir was finally able to completely establish himself as Egypt's ruler, he became another of those incredible rulers who made Cairo a brutal fairy tale of such wealth and cruelty and art and beauty that it is always difficult for a modern European or American to understand the complexity of the times. He was lame and had a cataract film over his eye like Baybars, was fanatically strict about morals and ruled so absolutely with such brutality, viciousness and deceit that he kept all his rival Mamlukes completely under his thumb.

The Mosque of al-Nasir Muhammad in Cairo's Citadel

One ancient traveler from Tangier, Ibn Batuta, who passed through Cairo on his way to Mecca in 1326, was very impressed with al-Nasir Mohamed's nobility and morality, but he also recorded several different stories showing how the Sultan murdered his opponents, sometimes using the Ismaili sect as private assassins, and sometimes pursuing his rivals as far as Iraq, where the Ismailis killed them with poisoned knives.

However, this was a period of prosperity in Egypt, specifically in Cairo, where Egypt had settled into a thoroughly feudal trading system given it by Saladin (Salah al-Din). The Mamlukes, who's governing of Egypt is so alien to us today, had nevertheless helped unify the state and the outlets for trade were also fairly safe, particularly in the Mediterranean, despite the continuing wars with Mongols and crusaders. Al-Naser was clever enough to make good alliances on his borders, the most important of which was probably the Golden Horde on the Volga, who were bitter rivals of the eastern Mongols. He also seems to have kept his peace with Constantinople.

Al-Nasir is noted by historians for his defeat of the Mongols, expansive building projects in Cairo, the wealth of his reign, and some curious problems with the Coptic Christians of Egypt. Until now, the Coptics had suffered very little in Muslim-ruled Cairo, and were, for example, as bitterly opposed to the crusaders as the Muslims themselves. In fact, with a few exceptions, the Copts of Cairo had prospered almost too much under the Fatimids, as well as the Mamlukes, at least until now.

Al-Nasir took on the Mongols at Marj al-Suffrar, near Damascus, on April 20th 1303, and there he defeated them. In 1303, when he returned, Cairo was ecstatic to meet him. Pavilions and grandstands lined the route of his entry, and the whole city was hung with silken banners. Rooms were rented on his return route for exorbitant prices, and the streets were laid with silk carpets over which al-Nasir and his soldiers rode. They were followed by seven hundred Tartar-Mongol prisoners in chains, and around each Mongol's neck was tied the severed head of another Mongol. A thousand more Tartar heads adorned the lances of the Mamluke warriors who followed him. Afterwards, the city went crazy and "disorders" were committed with women, soldiers got drunk, and an earthquake ended it all, which most of the citizens thought was a punishment from God Himself for too much pleasure.

Afterwards, the climate of international peace brought to Egypt domestic tranquility to a large degree, and with it economic prosperity, allowing al-Nasir free reign to pursue his evident love of building. Makrizi (Maqrisi) estimates that he spent an average of 100,000 dirhams a day on his construction projects, and encouraged his principal emirs to follow suit. Much of al-Nasir's Cairo is still standing, including about eighteen mosques, tombs and colleges, though not all of them were built by him. During his reign, all of his emirs competed with each other and were by al-Nasir through land grants to build beautiful mosques, tombs and colleges, and thirty-three were built between 1320 and 1340. However, in his book, Cairo, Adre Raymond claims to have tracked down no less than fifty-four mosques and madrasas built between 1293 and 1340

Al-Nasir's most famous works, built by him, were the aqueduct which once took water from the Nile to the Citadel, his college and mausoleum next to Qalaun's hospital, and the mosque he built in the Citadel, which was later used as a prison.

The origin of the aqueduct has been a matter of dispute among some scholars, but Makrizi says that it was al-Nasir who built it between 1340 and 1341. yet there were always signs of an earlier aqueduct underneath it which could have been attributable to Saladin. However, in 1919, the Egyptian archaeologist Ali Bahgat excavated part of the aqueduct and discovered that what lay beneath was not an aqueduct at all, but part of an old city wall. This aqueduct of al-Nasir was used right up until 1872. He apparently built, or rebuilt several canals that supplied water to the city as well.

However, in the final analysis it is the sheer totality of the building that took place during his reign that is so impressive. Stanley Lane-Poole describes the expansion of the city under Nasir "in every direction," while Marcel Clerget says that it was "full to bursting," where "the empty lots...are rented out and immediately overrun with buildings; gardens that surround houses during the Fatimid period are being filled with several-story apartment houses. The public squares are disappearing." Sometimes historians are critical of the long-term effects of Nasir's construction policies, and at other times not, but build he did.

This old Cairo of al-Nasir was a complex city that Ibn Batuta (Battuta) descries as the mother of all cities, and goes on to call it, "peerless in beauty and splendor, the meeting place of comer and goer, the stopping place of feeble and strong." He also says that it was full of:

"the learned and the ignorant, the grave and the gay, the mild and the choleric, the noble and the base, the obscure and the illustrious. Like the waves of the sea she surges with her throngs of folks, yet for all the capacity of her station and her power to sustain can scarce hold their number"

Various estimates put the population of Cairo of this time at between 500,000 and 600,000, so al-Nasir seems to have been required to build up the city, and change its appearance forever.

Ibn Batuta also tells us that there were twelve thousand water carriers who transported water on camel to the city, thirty thousand hirers of mules and donkeys and thirty thousand boats on the Nile which sailed up and down, laden with goods of all kinds. He says that the people were in love with pleasure and amusement, and he notes one event in which Cairo was decorated with silks and rich ornaments for days, all to celebrate al-Nasir's recovery from a fractured wrist.

The Nile trade that Ibn Batuta mentions was a very important factor in Cairo's prosperity during this period. At this time, Venice had just begun to establish itself on the Italian mainland, some of Cairo's goods began to fill its markets. Many of the thirty thousand ships Ibn Batuta refers to went down the Nile to Alexandria where they were transshipped on to Italy, as well as to Constantinople. The importance that al-Nasir attached to this Mediterranean trade is shown by the canal he dug between Alexandria and the Nile in 1311, which is said to have required the work of a hundred thousand men. Furthermore, there are reported to have been some 200 Karimi merchants who had commercial interest in Yemen, Jidda, Aydhab, Qus, Cairo, Alexsandria and Damietta, and sometimes ranging as far a field as the Sudan and the Indian Ocean region.

While Egypt was not quite al-Nasir's private estate, it was to some degree his private trading organization, and his wealth lived up to all past reputations of waste and excess. He spent a fortune on his stud horses, and when his son was married, some twenty thousand beasts were slaughtered for the occasion. When he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he ate fresh vegetables even in the desert, brought along on his traveling garden carried by forty camels.

And then there was the Christian problem. Suddenly, during al-Nasir's time, there were demonstrations against the Christians in Cairo. Cairo was at this time full of Muslim refugees from the Mongols, and doubtless they played a part in this. They were most likely a large and dissatisfied element, if what we know of modern displaced people is any indication. First, a church outside Bab el-Luk, which al-Nasir had ordered to be left alone, was razed to the ground by an angry crowd, and this ripened into other incidents when finally there were thousands of people in the streets of Cairo demonstrating against the Christians.

It is very possible that these events might have been a way for the people to protest al-Nasir himself, who had used Copts as advisers. His taxes and laws had become very oppressive, and the fact that he had used the Christians in his government made them ideal scapegoats. Soon some of the people began to light fires around Cairo, and the city began to burn. No sooner was one fire put out than another was started, the work, it seems, of some obviously skilled group of arsonists. Then, a Christian was caught in Baybars' Mosque with a pot of oil ready to set it alight, and soon the city went completely berserk.

Since most of the other fires had started near mosques the origin of the fires seemed obvious. The Christian caught in Baybars' Mosque and some monks were tortured and they admitted setting fires in the city. Even though the Coptic patriarch denounced the arsonists, a Melchite convent in the Mukattam was razed to the ground, and four monks were burned alive. By now, the streets were filled with an angry mob of people caught up in a sudden hatred of Christians. The city bazaars were closed up tight, and the whole demonstration got so out of hand and frightening that al-Nasir arrested two hundred people, all of whom were Muslims.

Though no direct evidence exists, this would indicate that the Muslims themselves were against al-Nasir. He seems to have been more determined to suppress the Muslim demonstrator than the Christians, because he had the two hundred hanged by their hands on gallows set up along the city streets and alleyways near Bab Zuweila. They were left their until they died, but he executed no Christians. He did, however, humiliate the Christians them by making them ride backward on their donkeys, and forced them once more to wear blue turbans and bell around their necks when they were in the public baths. It seem clear that these measures were intended to divert away from himself, and on to the Christians, whatever trouble had stirred people up in the first place.

While this seems almost an isolated problem, in fact the disturbances between Christians and Muslims during al-Nasir's reign resulted in a large-scale conversion to Islam which culminated, soon after his death, with the Christians finally becoming a religious minority in Egypt.

There was really very little respect in Cairo for al-Naisr. While the Mamluks were indeed violent rulers of Egypt, the population was certainly itself not docile. In fact, it sometimes seems that the more brutal the Mamluek sultan, the more rebellious, or at least disrespectful, the population. Cairo apparently always managed to somehow enjoy itself, and thrive in its own way while protesting with raw, rude wit when a sultan did anything that was unpopular. For example, al-Nasir felt this very forcefully when he arrested a Mamluke emir named Tushtu, whose popular name in Cairo was "Green Chickpeas". Tushtu had the habit of giving large sums of money to the harafish, who were the vagabonds of Cairo. According to Ibn Batuta, the harafish were a "large, organized body, hard-faced folk and lewd". At one point, al-Nasir imprisoned Tushtu, but then thousands of the harafish showed up outside the Citadel to demonstrate his arrest, changing, among other rude things, "Listen, thou all-starred cripple. Let him go! al-Nasir wisely followed their insulting advice and quickly turned Green Chickpeas loose.

Much of al-Nasir's wealth was at the expense taxation imposed by him on everything salable, including salt and slaves. The city seemed to thrive fabulously during his reign, but it suffered terribly after his death in 1341. The whole country was ripped apart by civil war, famine and finally the plague, known in Europe as the Black Death, but which is said to have eventually killed as many as nine hundred thousand people in Cairo alone.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Cairo Raymond, Andre 2000 Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-00316-0
Cairo: An Illustrated History Raymond, Andre, Editor 2002 Rizzoli, New York ISBN 0-8478-2500-0
Cairo (Biography of a City) Aldridge, James 1969 Little, Brown and Company ISBN 72-79364
Cairo: The City Victorious Rodenbeck, Max 1998 Vintage Books (A Division of Random House, Inc. ISBN 0-679-76727-4

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