Baybars al-Bunduqdari, the First Great Mameluke Ruler of Egypt

Baybars al-Bunduqdari, The First Great Slave Ruler of Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza

A Mameluke soldier from the time of Baybars

For the most part, it would seem that many of Egypt's archaic Muslim leaders were so colorful that their pharaonic predecessors pale, by comparison, and that is what makes Egypt's post dynastic period so interesting. During the Medieval Ages the institution of Mameluke slaves developed in Egypt, resulting in their eventual elevation to rulers, and this is certainly one of the most interesting period in Egyptian history.

One character of this period who stands out was Zahir Baybars (Baybars al-Bunduqdari), who ruled Egypt from 1260 until 1277 AD. Baybars was born in Kipchak (Mongol Russia). In the Cairo of 1830, Edward Lane counted some thirty reciters of epics related to Baybars in the city's coffee houses, making him one of the most popular characters of Egyptian history. Baybars the first great Mameluke ruler of Egypt (when Egypt was ruled by former slaves), and with the idea of promoting a cult of personality, this thirteenth century ruler had commanded court scribes to compose heroic accounts of his life. Even back then, he probably paid reciters to broadcast these tales of his piety and valor, but over time, Baybars' biography warped out of all recognition. What filtered down to Lane's coffee shop listeners had blossomed magnificently into fable.

The storytellers' version of Baybars presents him as the orphaned son of a king who swashbuckles to fame, overcoming enemies and their plots to arrive in Egypt's capital as a respected amir. However, at some point the fiction diverges completely from any fact, when Baybars hires a native stable boy named Osman, who elbows his mater almost completely out of the story.

The real Baybars had blue eyes, very bright and steely, or rather one blue eye, for the other was filmed over with a cataract. Because of the bad eye, he was purchased for only eight hundred dinars, a cheap price, as a boy in Damascus. We know that he had brown hair, a strong voice, broad-shoulders, a swarthy complexion and a violent temper, but it was really his high energy and vigor that elevated him, through murder and intrigue, to the sultanate.

Baybars was a fanatically brave soldier who led the vanguard of the Egyptian army against the Tartars (Mongols) in a furious battle at Ayn Jalut (the Pool of Goliath) near Jerusalem on September 3, 1260. Though the Tartars fought well, they were no match for the Egyptians who were far more numerous and who were able to conceal their numbers until the time came for the last devastating charge. The Tartar were pursued beyond Aleppo and swept out of Syria, and it would seem that Baybars hoped to be given Aleppo as a reward by his sultan, but to no avail. Hence, as emir Baybars asked his predecessor, Koutouz (Kutuz, Qutuz), for one of the women they had just captured in the wars. Koutouz granted the favor and Baybars kissed his hand in thanks, which was the signal for assassins to cut the sultan's head off. Baybars then took control of the Citadel and assumed the title, al-Malik al-Zahir (the conquering king), and remained the ruler of Egypt for seventeen years, two months and twelve days.

His court in Cairo was fabulous, formal and rich. Every member of his court held an elaborate title, such as Master of the Horse, Cupbearer, Food-taster, Polo Master or Slipper-Holder. They were all Mamelukes who received princely salaries, and everyone was required to be in attendance when Baybars held court in the Citadel. Everyone, it seems, also hated him. A story told of how Baybars arrived before Tyre one evening might explain give us some clues into his abrasive personality.

Upon his arrival, a tent was immediately pitched by torchlight, and seven secretaries and the commander-in-chief of the army were summoned into his presence. For hours, the secretaries wrote down orders as they were given by the king, including letters, diplomas of rank, instructions to minor officials in a steady stream. One of these letters has been preserved, and was addressed to Bohemond, the former Prince of Antioch, who had been absent from the city when Babyars took it by assault. The letter gently commiserates with the former prince on his loss, ironically complimenting him on his change of title from Prince to Count, as a result of losing his city, and then goes on to describe the siege and capture of Antioch, sparing no horrors. It concludes with a happy commentary on the delights of absence:

"Hadst thou but seen thy knights trodden under horses' hooves, thy palaces invaded and ransacked for booty, thy ladies bought and sold at four to the dinar of thine own money! Hadst thou seen any churches demolished, the crosses sawn in sunder, they garbled gospels hawked about before the sun, the tombs of thy nobles cast to the ground...then thou wouldst have said, 'Would God that I were dust!'...This letter holds happy tiding for thee! It tells thee that God watches over thee, inasmuch as in these latter days thou was not in Antioch!. As not a man has escaped to tell thee the tale, we tell it thee: as no soul could apprize thee that thou art safe, while all the rest have perished, we apprise thee!"

Bab (gate) Zuweila

It is said that any one of his twenty four emirs would have gladly killed Baybars if there had been a chance, but Makrizi, a Muslim historian tells us that Baybars loved to be in several places at one time. No one really ever quite knew where he might turn up, which had its effect on anybody plotting against him. Apparently, there were those who tried, for Bab Zuweila was often hung with the heads of those who rebelled or opposed him.

When the last Abbasid Caliph was murdered by Hulagu, the grandson of Genghiz Khan, Islam lost its spiritual head. For over three years Muhamadans had lamented the absence of a spiritual ruler who could legitimately wear the mantel of Muhammad. Baybars decided to remedy this situation, and in June of 1261, he brought from Damascus to Cairo an uncle who had escaped the massacre resulting in the murder of the former Caliph. He came in a great procession, actually accompanied by Jews bearing the Torah and Christians bearing the Gospels. After the uncles genealogy was formally approved by the qadis, he was acknowledged as Caliph under the name al-Mustansir. Baybars played his comic role to the end, solemnly swearing allegiance to the Caliph, who would never be allowed to rule and who was shortly afterward put to death, so to speak. When Baybars tired of him, he suggested that the Caliph should lead a jihad against the enemies of Islam in Baghdad. The Caliph seems to have been overjoyed and set out with a small army provided by the Sultan for Damascus, which was to become his base. Here, Baybars was warned that the re-establishment of the Caliphate in Baghdad would inevitably endanger his own independence, and he therefore abandoned the Caliph to his fate. The Caliph was killed when making his way across the desert by a small force sent out by the governor of Baghdad, and nothing more was ever heard of the handful of troops who accompanied him. However, from the new Caliph, who was remarkably dark in color and suspect of being no descendant of Muhammad, Baybars received a robe of honor and a diploma of investiture giving him authority over Egypt, Syria, Diyak Bakr, Hijaz, Yaman and the land of the Euphrates.

Yet, Baybars honored his religion by forbidding hashish and wine in Cairo, and "to purify the city" he closed all the taverns and brothels and expelled the European prostitutes (probably women who had been camp followers of the crusaders). He built a House of Justice at the foot of the Citadel and attended it personally on Sundays and Fridays, where he held audiences and received envoys. Even so, he had a reputation for indulging himself privately in his own excessive pleasures, but if this were true, there was never really any evidence seen to support these claims.

Baybars made strict laws to cope with the bold behavior of women in Cairo, but Cairo's women have always been irrepressible and they obviously found their own way around the sultan's prudish restrictions, since in 1264, Baybars had to bring in a law forbidding women to wear turbans or men's clothing. Nevertheless, that same year there was a serious famine in Cairo and Baybars ordered all his lords to take on the responsibility for feeding a certain number of the populace.

A coin with Baybars' lion at the bottom dating to his reign

Egypt did actually prosper greatly under Baybars' rule, and therefore so did Cairo. It is said that Baybars put Egypt back on its feet again after a period of decline. Though he was a fantastic soldier and never lost a battle, he was also a superb administrator and a consummate politician. Baybars rebuilt all the essential elements of the public works in Egypt, such as canals, shipyards and fortifications. He improved the road system so well that postal service dispatched from Cairo were delivered in Damascus in four days. In fact, the roads were so good that the king was able to play polo in Damascus and Cairo during a single week. He built an enormous bridge over the Great Canal, and decorated it with stone lions, because there were lions on his coat of arms.Of course, he came to be known as the "Lion of Egypt"

But this prosperity was mostly derived from his success abroad. Baybars and his amirs spend lavishly on importing, training and equipping new ranks of Mameluke soldiers. He was a formidable foe, who one Crusader commander described as more brilliant than Caesar but nastier than Nero. He extracted hard tribute from any foreign city or lord he conquered, and apparently in this regard he excelled. In one battle, his Mameluke soldiers killed six thousand Mongols and fourteen hundred Muslims who had sided with the Mongols against him. However, his ruthless side was not always evident, for when thirteen hundred Mongols surrendered to him in Syria, he received them in Cairo, gave their leader the title of emir and invited them all to embrace Islam, which they did when they had been painfully but legally circumcised.

Baybars actually died from his own intrigue when he accidentally poisoned himself. It seems that he wanted to murder a rival prince named Malik Kaher, and so he prepared a poisoned draft of koumiss for him. But in an almost Hamlet-like drama, Malik Kaher cleverly switched glasses. Zahir Baybars took his own poison and died, after thirteen days of agony, "just after the sun had set", when he was slightly over fifty years of age. Though he had intended on establishing a dynasty, his two young sons were quickly deposed by another Turkish slave who had risen to military power.

The remains of the Madrasa of Baybars

Yet, Baybars legacy is with us always. At a moment in history fraught with terror and uncertainty, a decision was made by Baybars' predecessor to stand against the Tartars, who had massacred the people of Aleppo, Nisibin and Edessa, and who were preparing to destroy Jerusalem and Cairo. They would have very likely succeeded, and gone on to destroy Europe who's armies would have been all but defenseless. It was Baybars who put an end to them and drove the the Tartars from the Middle East, and in the process, gave protection to the west even as he continued to fight against them in the Crusades.

Unfortunately, today little is left to us from the reign of Baybars. He was buried in Damascus, so there is no tomb, and the long standing Madrasa that he built next to the tomb of al-Salih was unfortunately torn down in 1874 to make way for a road, though a few blocks remain. The Palace of Justice that he build, called Dar al-Adl, located next to the Citadel on its northwest side is likewise gone. However, a tower with carved lions, Babyars' emblem, has recently been excavated at the Citadel. However, one of his Mosques remains, though somewhat out of the way to modern visitors.

The southwest porch of the Mosque of Baybars

The southwest porch of the Mosque of Baybars

As a final note, while reporting the details of Baybars' reign, Makrizi tells us of some fascinating details concerning life in Cairo. In Cairo, Biography of a City, James Aldridge recounts one such event, telling us that:

"In 1264, he says, the Cairo canals suddenly started disgorging the bodies of murdered citizens. Men also began to disappear mysteriously and were never heard of again. The mystery was then traced to a young woman of great beauty named Gaziya, who went out in the streets of Cairo every day with an old woman companion. Gaziya was always dressed in the very latest fashion, and when men approached her it was easy to entice them to her home, where several male accomplices robbed and strangled them and threw their bodies into the canal. Gaziya was caught when her aged woman accomplice invited Cairo's most famous coiffeuse to a wedding; when the coiffeuse turned up laden with her well-known jewels she was robbed and murdered. The young slave of the coiffeuse came looking for her, and when Gaziya's old crone said she hadn't seen hide nor hair of the hairdresser, the slave complained to the wali, who burst in on the old woman and 'applied torture' to Gaziya and her gang. They admitted everything. One of the accomplices was a brick maker, who burned many of the victims in his brick oven; in fact when he was caught his cellar was stacked with bodies waiting to be incinerated. The criminals were all crucified, probably on the Bab Zuweila, and though the beautiful young Gaziya was unnailed and taken down after two days, she died almost immediately."






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