18th MIDDLE EAST HISTORY AND
MAY 9-10, 2003
Center for Middle Eastern Studies
The University of Chicago
The Mamluk Architecture as Evidence of State Stability and
Administration in Egypt and Syria
The University of Chicago
A Working Paper
This is a draft and should not be cited without the author‟s permission
The Mamluk dynasty (1250-1517) succeeded to the rich heritage of the
Ayyubids in Egypt and Syria. For two hundred and sixty-seven years, the
Mamluks had a complex, hierarchical system, with the sultan`s own
Mamluks at the top of the structure. The sultans power was supported by
chief emirs and bureaucracy.
Construction projects of all types and functions were sponsored by
sultans, Emirs, and members of the local elite in Cairo, Damascus,
Aleppo, Tripoli, and Jerusalem, and also in smaller towns and villages.
The existing architecture of the Mamluk period in Egypt and Syria is one
of the most important visual sources indicating, together with its
decoration, related emblems and inscriptions, the prosperity of this
period, an accordingly, achieving progress and development in different
Although a large number of essays have attempted to understand the
architecture in the context of the Mamluk state and society, many further
efforts and micro-historical and art-historical studies are still needed to
explore more evidences resulted such stability and developed
administration of this period.
This paper endeavors to illuminate how far the architecture and its related
arts can reflect the Mamluk dynasty stability and ability, how the
architecture represents evidences of interactions between local and
regional builders and artisans, and how the architecture provides new
visual data much data on the domestic social life and ruling system in
Egypt and Syria.
As a matter of fact, the Mamluk dynasty was founded in a very complicated political
atmosphere and increased domestic civil needs. The dynasty has to face military
challenges of the Mongol standing beyond borders despite their defeat in „Ain Jalut,
south west of Jerusalem in 1260, and to deal with the Crusade threat still within its
borders, in cities along the Palestinian coast.
The emir Baybars, who became a Mamluk sultan afterwards, realized the charges he has
to undertake. He started laying out the basic foundations of a Mamluk State that
succeeded to live 267 years.
During his long reign (17 years) sultan Baybars (1260-1277) managed to his territories by
a large number of construction activities in Egypt and Syria for military and domestic
The military constructions:
During his first year in the sultanate he conducted, for instance, the following projects:
In Egypt he fortified the citadel on the al-Rauda Island, and secured the coastal
front line in Damietta and Rosetta by providing the existing forts with additional
towers. He consolidated the walls of Alexandria as well.
In Syria, he restored forts in Damascus, and along the northern borders in
Ganiantep, and in Belenozu (ar-Rawadan), as well as forts in the areas of Ajlun,
ar-Rabad, Baalbek, Busra, Salkhad, as-Salt, Baniyas and as-Subayba.
In his 17 years long reign he restored and consolidated 27 forts providing them with
additional space and towers (Meinecke 1992).
Sultan Baybars realized the importance of the religious support for his established
He announced Jehad against Islam enemies; the Crusades and Mongols.
He built and encouraged the mosque construction. His mosque in Cairo is an
example of the Mamluk architecture in which the local Egyptian construction
traditions, integrated with Syrian influences (Creswell 1959). As a matter of fact,
the mosque construction is as a result of a new school of architecture integrated
works of different builders and artisans from different Islamic origins integrated
with Crusade architectural and decorative elements such as the buttresses, the
decoration of the zigzag fries. In this respect we mention the cross vault that has
been produced by the Crusades in their Cathedrals built in the Near East and still
used as a main roofing system in Syria and Egypt during the Mamluk and post
He restored the sanctuary area of al-Haram of Mecca, the dome of the rock in
Jerusalem, al-Haram al-Ibrahimi in Jerusalem, The Ummayad mosque in
Damascus, the great mosques in Allepo and Hims.
He rebuilt important sacred places visited by people, such as the mausoleums of
Ja‟far Ibn Abi Talib (a relative to the Prophet Muhammad) in al-karak, Abu
Huraira in Asdud, Abu „Ubayda Ibn al-Jarrah in „Imwas („Ammata), Khalid Ibn
al-Walid in Hims, The Prophet Muses in Jericho, the Prophet Noah in al-Karak, as
well as a number of mosques and zawiyas (Meinecke 1992). Some Crusade
churches were converted to mosques during his reign.
Thank to the efforts of Baybars a developed infrastructure system was established.
He has build a road net not only for his developed post communication only, but
also for the inter-regional commercial and expertise exchange between Egypt and
Syria. The most important road has taken the ancient tract used in ancient times.
This tract was called Horus way in the old Egyptian inscriptions, The way to the
Land of the Philistines in the Old Testament, via maris (the sea way) during the
classic period, and ad-darb as-sultanu (the sultan‟s way) since the Mamluk
period. At present day, the last name is, for instance, still indicating parts of this
way in Gaza Strip, the bordering area between Egypt in south and Syria (ash-
Sham) in the north.
Along this road the Mamluk sultans erected a series of stations, for the post
services, commercial and good exchange, and served as a hospice for travelers.
A Mamluk station as a case study:
One of such stations we mention here a caravanserai (khan), of which remains are
still located in the center of the present day city of Khan Yunus in Gaza Strip,
which was named after the emir Yunus an-Nauruzi, the khan‟s founder in 1387
(Abu Khalaf: 1983, Sadeq: 2002).
According to the architectural remains, the traveler Schumacher, who visited this
Khan in 1866 (Schumacher 1886), and based on a reconstruction made in the
1930s by Palestinian Department of Antiquities of the British mandate the khan
had a square plan. Each side being approximately 85.5 m in length. Round corner
towers protected the corners. It had two floors. The ground floor was used for
storage and exchange of goods and for stabling the animals. The upper floor was
used for the guest‟s accommodation and provided with a mosque containing a
prayer niche, a pulpit, and minaret. The later is still extant on the west façade of
the khan. It octagon shaft on a square base is similar to the Mamluk minarets.
Due to the khan location away from any urban area (prior to the city foundation),
it was well equipped and provided with several defense elements, such as massive
outer walls, towers, arrow-slits, battlements and a slot for dropping missiles over
the gateway porch. These defensive features distinguish the khans built along the
highways from the ones situated safely inside city walls.
As a further example of the Mamluk developed infrastructure, Ibn Shaddad, a
historian during the Mamluk period, mentions 35 stone bridges erected during the
reign of az-Zahir Baybers alone.
In order to enhance the Hydrological system he widened the Nile arms in the delta
and the irrigation canals as well. Furthermore he built a large number of wells and
aqueducts. One of them is the Abu al-Munajja aqueduct in Cairo (Creswell:
Recruiting of inter-regional builders and artisans:
The above mentioned activities required recruiting of a large number of builders and
artisans monitored by a central management. „Abd az-Zahir, a historian contemporaneous
to as-Sultan Bybars, reports that in 1260 the sultan has sent:
A number of handworkers, along with their own tools from Damascus to
In the same year he sent Crusades prisoners from Jaffa and Beirut to Damascus
participate in the restoration project of the citadel and the justice house.
He has sent builders, plaster workers, carpenters and other handworkers from
Cairo to „Ain Jalut to integrate with their Syrian colleagues in construction
When he besieged Caesarea in 1275 he recruited stone and hand workers from the
This inter-regional recruiting of builders, artisans, and hand workers has created,
accordingly, similar architectural traditions in Egypt and Syria in that period.
As a further priority of the sultan to secure the Mamluk territories he created the basic
foundation of a State organization; in Damascus he built the Justice house (dar al-‘adl)
New phase of state security and prosperity:
The long lasting reign of the sultan Muhammad Ibn Qala‟un for approximately 50 years
(two reigns: 1294-95 and 1299-1309) enabled him to start a new phase of State security,
which was deeply rooted and solid during the reign of az-Zahir Baybars.
In 1303 he destroyed the Mongol army which occupied the Syrian cities of Damascus,
Aleppo, Hama, and Hims in 1299. To secure his state his army reached Malatya in central
Anatolia in 1315.
Renascence of decorative elements and regional interactions
The stability and the secured territories of the Mamluk dynasty resulted in an economical
prosperity reflected in renascence in the architectural decoration. The large quantity of
constructions during Baybars, the antecedent sultan, was replaced today by high quality
and richness of decoration, which were still produced until the end of the Mamluk period
They the works output in art and architecture show inter-regional influences and artisan‟s
migration and traveling between Syria and Egypt. As example of this regional art
interaction we mention the following decorative elements:
Ablaq-technique of decoration
Al-ablaq (piebald) is the color change of the masonry courses, mostly lime stone and
basalt alternation of white and black or merely alternation of white and pink lime stones.
It is an earlier technique dated to the Byzantine period, produced for instance in Ibn
Wardan palace near Hims in 561-66.
The ablaq technique had merely an aesthetic function especially in the building facades,
entrances and around the window openings.
The oldest example in the Islamic architecture is in the northern Wall of the Umayyad
mosque in Damascus. The earliest example of al-ablaq in the Mamluk architecture is in
the palace of as-sultan a-Zahir Baybars (1260-1277) in Damascus, as well as in his
mosque in Cairo.
While this technique was not known in Egypt the sultan an-Nasir Muhammad (two
reigns: 1294-95 and 1299-1309) was obliged to call artisans and builders from Damascus
to construct his palace in Cairo citadel in cooperation with their Egyptian colleagues.
Since the Basalt not exists in Egyptian quarries an-Nasir Muhammad imported it from
Syria. In other later constructions the builders replaced the basalt by the dark marble.
The ablaq system appeared also in the Mausoleum of az-Zahir Baybars in Damascus and
afterwards has disappeared to be seen again in Damascus in the beginning of the 14th
century. It seems to be that this technique was brought, in this period, by Egyptian
builders or Syrian artisans returned from Egypt after completing the construction of an-
Nasir Muhammad palace. Examples in Damascus are the mausoleums of the emir Ghilan
al-Malik Dubaj in 1315, and of the Ghirlu al-„Adili in 1319. The red/pink stones used for
the ablaq technique were also imported for Syrian buildings.
The Façade Niches:
As a further example of the regional interaction is the rhythmical arrangement of the
facades through vertical niches. It is an aesthetic function for the large and uninterrupted
spaces such as the facades and the also the minaret bases. Egypt is the birth place of this
technique. It was appeared in the facades of Fatimid and Ayyubid buildings, seen in the
mosque of az-Zahir baybars and became afterwards characteristic for the Mamluk
architecture in Egypt.
This construction style entered Syria coming from Egypt in about 1370 (Meinecke 1992),
i.e. in the madrasa (Islamic college) of the emir al-malik al-jukandar in Jerusalem and in
the governor palace in Gaza (Sadeq 1991).
Stalactites as dome transition:
The stalactites (muqarnas) are a architectural and decorative element mostly for the
domes transitions and the entrance portals. It appeared first in Syria during the Ayyubid
period, and then developed during the reign of an-Nasir Muhammad to be provided with
The muqarnas-transition in the mausoleum of the emir Sanjar al-Muzaffari in Cairo
(1322) was influenced by the similar transition in the mosque of Sanjar al-Jawli in
Hebron (1318-20). The muqarnas-transition in Egypt built so far of bricks, wood, or
The braid/twisted band:
It is a stone relief ornamentation runs mostly around the arch face forming a knot or
medallion above the keystone and other two besides the both arch feet.
This aesthetic element reflects, as well, the regional inter-impacts during several periods.
It was introduced in the Byzantine architecture in Syria, and afterwards in the Umayyad
and Crusade architecture in Egypt and Syria. The first example of the twisted braid in
Egypt was around the arch of the prayer niche in al-madrasa at-Taybarsiyya dated to
The leading form of this decoration is a star or disk of the sun. It was very famous in the
Mamluk architecture and art. This element was used during the Ayubid period, such as
in al-madrasa al-kamiliyya (an Islamic college) in Aleppo dated to 1241-51, and then was
a characteristic decorative element in Egypt and Syria during the Mamluk period and the
following Islamic periods. Many example of this decoration were produced in Syrian
buildings such as in Tripoli (Salam-Liebich 1983), Jerusalem (Burgoyne: 1987) and Gaza
Interaction with neighboring regions
The stability of the Mamluk period is reflected in architectural and art interactions with
the neighboring regions as well.
Interactions with Iranian architecture and art:
During the last century of the Mamluk dynasty, the small constructed buildings became a
dominant phenomenon, the engraved inscriptions, geometrical and floral decoration on
stones and marble became more and more characteristic for the interior and exterior
building spaces; on portals, minarets, and on domes. It gave them an optical spectrum
which was not existing before. We see, for instance, twisted bands as decoration on the
dome outer face of the madrasa and the mausoleum of the sultan al-Asharaf Barsbay
(1422-37) in Cairo. This is the first appearance of dome outer decoration. Further
example of such dome decoration by vertical ribbing and horizontal zigzags were also
The origin of this decoration came obviously from Iran (Meinecke 1992), nevertheless
produced here in ceramic tiles. As example we mention the dome of the Mausoleum of
Ni‟mat Allah in Mahan, near Kerman, dated to 1436.
In Damascus, the artisan Ghaybi Taurizi decorated the interior walls of the mosque and
mausoleum of the emir Khalil at-Taurizi (1420-23) by using ceramic tiles. This kind of
decoration technique came from Damascus to Cairo, nevertheless produced here in stone
in the dome of the sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay mentioned above and appeared afterwards in
limited examples in Cairo.
Mamluk architecture tradtions in Constantinople:
Despite the Ottomans managed to end the Mamluk dynasty in Syria (1516) and Egypt
(1617), the long lasting traditions of the Mamluk architecture and art attracted the sultan
Salim to call construction workshops from Cairo to Constantinople and import
construction material as well. He called Shahab ad-Din Ahmad at-Tuluni, the chef of
architects, to build a madrasa there similar to the madrasa and mausoleum of as-Sultan al-
Ghuri (1501-1516) in Cairo. Due to the sultan-death in 1520 the madrasa has been not
In Topcapi Saray, the residence of the Ottoman Dynasty in Constantinople, a pavilion
was built in 1818 by using the Egyptian marble and traditions of wall marble incrustation.
It seems to be that the Egyptian traditions did not impact further Ottoman architecture.
According to the chronicler Ibn Iyas (d. 1524), the Egyptian artisans returned home and
did not stay for a long period in the Ottoman Capital.
Nevertheless the traditions of the Mamluk architecture art appeared together with the
Ottoman architecture in Cairo in the mosque of the Ottoman governor Sulayman Basha
(1529). While here a large and high central dome dominates the building and surrounded
by three axial semi domes (Ottoman tradition), the internal walls are dressed by the
Mamluk art of incrustation mentioned above. This Mamluk influences appeared in further
Ottoman examples in the other metropolis in Egypt and Syrian as well.
The Sultan cartouche and emir blazons:
The sultan‟s inscribed shields (cartouche), and the emir‟s blazons are a heraldic science
developed during the Mamluk period. Despite there are many questions still opened
concerning the meaning of some blazon devices or emblems, they are considered,
nevertheless, essential evidence for the Mamluk organization and administrative posts.
They were displayed in the literature, architecture, and artifacts.
The most important leading works dealt with the Islamic heraldry are the work of L.
Mayer “SARACENIC HERALDIC” (1933), and Michael Meinecke “Zur mamlukischen
Heraldik” (1973). The work of Hasan al-Basha “al-Al-qab alislamiyya” (1957) is on the
other hand an essential work for the Islamic post-terms and history.
The cartouche is the blazon that merely shows script. Mayer (1933) considered that the
first known inscribed cartouche is the shield of the Nasrid (or Banu al-Ahmar) princes of
Granada (1230-1492) which bears the motto “la ghalib illa Allah”(there is no victor but
The first datable Mamluk cartouche goes back to the end of the 13th and beginning of the
14th century. They were depicted on lamps, bowls, and similar objects. In the early
Mamluk period the shield comprising an inscription engraved in an cartouche divided
into three fields, of which the middle one bore the inscription, whilst the upper and lower
fields were left blank. The texts of the inscriptions on shields of this early period occur
the following versions: “izz li-maulana” “izz li-maulana as-sultan”, “‟izz li-maulana as-
sultan al-malik”, “izz li-maulana as-sultan „azza nasruhu”. The motto, mostly during the
Burji-Mamlul (Circassian Mamluk) period, was distributed over the three fields and in
this case the name and title of the sultan was mentioned in the text (Mayer 1933).
One example for the Circassian Cartouche is depicted on the façade of the caravanseray
founded in the center of the city of Khan younus in 1389. The three lines text says:
In the upper field: Barquq
In the middle field: ‘izzun li-maulana as-sultan al-malik az-Zahir (glory to our lord the
sultan al-malik az-Zahir)
In the lower field: ‘azza nasruhu (may his victory be glorious)
Blazons of the mamluk emirs:
Thousands of emir blazons were engraved, painted, or sculptured everywhere: in
architecture and artifacts. Only a fraction of these is accompanied by inscriptions.
The blazon was one of the many prerogatives of the emir, or military dignitary, in
Ayyubid and Mamluk society. Apart of the sultan, emirs only are known from literature
to have used it, and none but a sultan or an emir ever figures as the main person in an
historical inscription accompanying a blazon (Mayer 1933).
In the Mamluk contemporary literature there are fewer lines devoted to the blazon.
Al-Qalqashandi (d. 1418), who finished his work subh in 1412, says: :It is the custom that
every emir … have a special blazon …. According to his choice or preference”.
It would appear to be safe to infer that originally the blazon was granted by the sultan.
The choice of the emblem was apparently left to the discretion of the emir himself.
The emirs changed their blazons when changing their offices, but there are some emirs
remained their blazons unchanged such as the emir Yunus an-Nawruzi, Manjak al-Yusifi.
The emirs retained the blazons, once chosen or granted to them, for the whole of their
They are rare in the Islamic armory. The panther is represented in the act of walking in
the Islamic heraldic, which is one of the best known balazons, being the emblem of
Baybers. According to Ibn Iyas (d. 1524), a historian lived during the late Mamluk period
and beyond, the panther (as-sab’) of Baybars were indicating the Baybars courage and
power (Sadeq 1991).
Among the birds the eagle alone seems to be represented in two varieties, the one-headed
and the two-headed and appears both on one, and on two-fielded shields, and at times
without a shield.
The number of cup-bearers/taster was greater than that of any other blazon groups. The
cup became one of the most frequently occurring blazons.
It was for the inspector of stables, privy secretary, and for chamberlain
There are many emblems used by various officers begin with the pen-box of the pen-box
holder (dawadar), a secretary of lower rank at court.
The typical pen-box consists of four elements: the first, containing the ink-pot, the second
the sand-pot and the starch paste-pot, the third a receptacle for reeds.
The main in inscriptions accompanying simple blazons with this device, the holders were
usually called dawadar.
The pen-box was the main component of two very common types of composite blazons,
one of which consisted of a napkin on the upper and lower fields and a pen-box on the
middle field, and the other of a napkin (buqja) on the upper, of a cup placed between a
pair of trousers of nobility and charged with a pen-box on the middle, and of a cup on the
The napkin (buqja) is the emblem of the master of the robes (jamdar). The buqja is a
piece of cloth in which clothes, chancery deeds, etc were wrapped up. The normal shape
of such a napkin being either square or oblong. The rhomb napkin also appears on some
The small table is called khanja of the taster (jashnigir) . These tables consist of large
round plates, sometimes with, sometimes without, a support. The round disks as a proper
representation of the khanja and the plates (atbaq), which are mentioned together and
appear almost synonymous.
Among the charges in the Mamluk administration is the polo-stick (jukan) of the polo-
master (jukandar), a well-known officer at court.
The disk divided into three horizontal bands is in itself the emblem of the dispatch-rider
It was the device of the bowman (al-bunduqdar), who was of the same rank as the armor-
The sword or a pair of swords is the emblem of the armor-bearer (silahdar). Besides the
sword, the Mamluk shields also display a scimitar, the dagger and the fight axe.
The composite blazons:
The blazons of the Circassian Mamluks (Burji-Mamluks) are composite. One blazon may
depict more than 7 emblems. According to Meinecke (1973), the composite blazons are
classified in three groups:
1. Blazons of released sultan‟s Mamluks/emirs
They are classified in two subgroups:
A: Mamluks of sultans were in power:
They belong to the elites. Some of them became sultans, such as az-Zahir
Barquq (1382-1399), al-Mu‟ayyad Shaykh (1412-1421), Inal (1453-1461),
Qa‟it Bay (1468-1496), Janbalat (1500-1501), and al-Ghawri (1501-1517).
In this case they give their own emblems to their emirs.
The blazons of these emirs have slight differences between each others.
The common emblem of az-Zahir Barquq‟s emirs (az-Zahiriyya) is the
two cups; one in the middle field and the another in the lower field,
emblem of al-Ashraf Barsabay‟s emirs is two cups in the middle field, and
sometimes two cups flanked a bigger cup, and emblems of al-Ashraf Inal‟s
emirs is the pen box in the upper field, a cup in the middle, and a three
petalled fleur de li in the lower field.
B: the Mamluks of former sultans:
Their blazons depict a large variation of emblems so that we can not order
them under any blazon group of the of the sultans‟s emirs.
2. Blazons of emir‟s sons (aulad an-nas)
They received military education and religious studies. They had administrative
posts as well.
Their blazons are not classified to one of the blazon-groups of the sultan emirs.
The most characteristic emblem of their blazons is the pen box in the middle field
of a three fielded medallion accompanied with other different emblems.
This paper endeavors to illuminate how far the detailed micro art-historical study of the
Mamluk architecture and its related arts would provide essential data for reconstruction,
even if merely partially, the profile of Mamluk Dynasty, its structure and administration
system and how far the Mamluk territories enjoyed regional and domestic stability.
In addition, such visual data can add new factors for scholars to enrich the analytic
studies and conducting critical editions of the contemporary literary texts.
The Mamluk military architecture in Egypt and Syria, as well as its location whether on
front lines or along regional and domestic routes or on hill within the state territories can,
in fact, identifies the strategic defense vision of that period and which efforts they
devoted to provide their forts with specific architectural elements and devices.
In addition to the protecting of the outer borders, the Mamluk dynasty realized how
important is the domestic security and stability that, in return, achieved economical
prosperity. The Mamluks developed the infrastructure, and fulfilled the needs of the
metropolis and pilgrim cities.
The large Mamluk architectural legacy in Egypt and Syria required recruiting of local and
regional builders and artisans as well as interaction with colleagues in neighboring
regions cross the borders, specially after setting down the Crusade and Mongol
challenges. The outcome of this cooperation is represented clearly in their surviving
works in Egypt and Syria.
The achieved stability and the Mamluk-needs encouraged, in fact, the elite and the
society to adopt foreign types and techniques of Crusade architectural and decorative
elements, which, in turn, had its basic role in the islamic architecture of the post Crusade
The Mamluk architecture and its related art represent visual evidences for state
administration and organization. The studying of the sultan cartouches and emir blazons
illuminates further details on the state structure. The explored large variation of blazon
that depicted on architecture and objects, has identified emir groups and post charges.
Hence we realize the importance of architecture and art as essential supplemental source
to the literary works of court chroniclers and political or religious oriented historians. We
emphasize, at the same time, that large part of the architectural legacy is not yet studied
and evaluated. More further explorations and researches are needed to understand it in its
context with the divergent life aspects.
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