"Bring Us The Lame One!" The Disabled Sultan of Medieval Egypt
Updated: Feb 11
This post has been a long while coming, apologies for that but I guess that's the risk you take when you get a disabled and chronically ill person researching the history of disability and chronic illness!
I have so many different people and topics on my list for further research, but I'm always open to new cool people, so let me know by the contact form if there's someone you think I should know about!
So without further ado (sorry about the current amount of ado), this blog post is about one of the sultans of the Mamluk Empire; an-Nasir Muhammad.
First off, a PSA on the Mamluk Empire:
Mamluks were a caste of slave soldiers, mostly captured as teenagers and brought over from central Asia. They were taught to fight for the elite army, and were extremely skilled, but relied on their masters for everything and didn't really have any attachment to the empire that literally kidnapped them, shockingly. Technically there was no way a Mamluk could pass on his title or property to his son, they were not allowed to inherit any title, or become a Mamluk themselves. In practice, this happened a lot. They were working under the Ayyubid sultanate when in 1250 they overthrew them and took power.
In general, the Mamluk Empire refers to Egypt and parts of Syria, but in an-Nasir Muhammad's time it also covered parts of modern Saudi Arabia and around that area.
Second of all, a PSA on all the other names he is referred to as:
There are genuinely about 15. I will be using an-Nasir Muhammad, but al-Nasir, al-Malik an-Nasir, Sultan Nasir Mohammed ibn Qalawun and al-Malik an-Nasir Nasir ad-Din Muhammad ibn Qalawun are all the same guy too.
An-Nasir Muhammad was the ninth Mamluk sultan of the empire. He ruled in three separate reigns of varying length because people kept deposing him (rude). The first lasted a year, from December 1293 to December 1294 when he was just 9 years old. The second was slightly longer, from 1299 to 1309, but the third was the big one lasting from 1310 until his death in 1341. He has been described as having cataracts, a lame foot and being short (not sure that counts but who am I to judge).
His trail of sultaning began when his older brother was assassinated, leaving him as a very young sultan. Oddly enough they didn’t think he’d be great at that, so they appointed a vice-sultan and a political advisor (vizier) who absolutely hated each other and almost immediately started trying to plan assassinations.
The vice sultan was convinced by some of his cronies, who had returned after fleeing in the aftermath of the previous sultan's murder, to kick an-Nasir Muhammad off the throne and install himself as sultan, as protection since they were all super involved in that previously mentioned murder. And so ended reign number 1.
Between reign number 1 and number 2 there were a few different sultans, but they kept being murdered/deposed so at age 14, and to great public celebration, an-Nasir Muhammad was recalled and reinstalled.
During reign number 2 he was again a nominal sultan, relying on a vice sultan and a high up advisor (Beybars al-Jashnakir). However since this rule was a bit longer, some more things happened during it. There were two major battles; the Battle of Wadi al-Khazander and the Battle of Marj al-Saffar.
The Battle of Wadi al-Khazander was one of the something like 800 million battles of the Mongol attempts to invade Syria (disclaimer: may not be totally accurate). An-Nasir's army was defeated, but with very low casualties compared to what they inflicted, and considering they technically lost. An-Nasir's army retreated and pissed off back to Homs.
A few years later, the same guy tried to invade again (but via a deputy so he didn't have to get his hands dirty) so an-Nasir, who was probably a bit exasperated by this point, went off to the Battle of Marj al-Saffar.
This particular battle was very confusing for everyone. The invaders retreated to a mountain thinking they'd won, then had a look around and saw just how many opposing soldiers were still down there. After checking with a prisoner they'd just taken who the soldiers belonged to they went back to battling, and fled on defeat.
By 1309 an-Nasir was sick of all these grown ups telling him how to live his life and (reportedly accidentally) resigned, after telling everyone he was going to Mecca and instead going to Al Kark and not leaving, ending reign number 2. The people of the sultanate were very upset when he abdicated, and an-Nasir decided to use his time to do some plotting while he was away.
The next few rulers were not popular at all, and were not seen as legitimate leaders, in particular Beybars II (you may remember him from such other reigns as vice sultan in #2). Epidemics and droughts broke out during his rule, which was seen by many as God's dissatisfaction with him. And so the songs began:
“Our sultan is only partly firm
While his viceroy is beardless
Where shall we get our water from?
Bring us the lame one! The water will come!”
(In an ideal world, I would find some transcribed music for this song, update it and use it as my unofficial theme tune.)
Despite the traditions of the Mamluk state relying on slaves rising through the ranks, the people wanted to see the Qalawunid dynasty (ie an-Nasir's family) stay in power, and as much as Beybars II tried to kill people until they liked him (a flawed plan) influential amirs were switching to an-Nasir's side. The people would taunt him, even when he threw money at them to distract them. (!?)
Beybars II wrote a proclamation to be read out from the pulpits of the mosques at Friday sermons to try to solidify his position, saying that the previous sultan had “failed to protect his Muslim subjects” and instead demanded respect for his reign.
This was not a successful plan. The whole thing turned into something close to a pantomime, with the crowd cheering at any mention of an-Nasir and booing when Beybars II cropped up.
Beybars II was forced to flee, and an-Nasir Muhammad returned for reign number 3 (revenge of the reign).
He’d been constantly dominated and only in charge nominally in both his previous reigns, and was determined not to let that happen again. There were also plenty of plots to dethrone him (again) and he (maybe naturally) became quite paranoid and suspicious. He gradually increased his power as sultan and tried to crack down on corruption, and is understood to have fundamentally changed the way the entire Mamluk empire worked, as he promoted the people he liked rather than the best soldiers.
He immediately got rid of all the people who had contributed to the whole ‘you put your sultan in, your sultan out etc’ situation, made his own mamluks amirs and interfered in the appointment of a new caliph and where he was allowed to go, whilst also redistributing all the farmable land in Egypt.
However he was preoccupied by two major concerns by the time he was returning for reign number 3:
1) He was the sultan of an empire ruled by elite Mamluks who had risen through the ranks, but he was just another sultan's son
2) Where do you get a constant stream of new Mamluks from and make sure they stay loyal to you?
Number one in particular was a concern of his, even though he was very popular with the public. In rules one and two he was there purely due to dynastic succession, but by the third he was called back by the people due to his talents as a soldier and statesman, as if he had risen through the ranks.
Nevertheless he was constantly trying to distance himself from his predecessors and their decisions, including his father, and generally seemed perfectly fine with ignoring Mamluk traditions. Perhaps this is due to watching everyone else ignore it during his first two reigns.
As for the problem of finding more Mamluks, this had been an issue before. There are a number of accounts of sultans buying Mamluks/using people taken as prisoners, training them so they work up the ranks and are given command of other Mamluks, then they take their soldiers and flee back to their homeland. It seemed people weren't keen on being kidnapped and forced to be soldiers.
An-Nasir adopted new ways of training and advancing the Mamluks based on a policy of permissiveness. He was working on the assumption that if he could buy the loyalty of his mamluks, by allowing behaviour others would not, it would secure his mamluks and therefore his reign. It was written that “the mamluk and his master are mutually satisfied in this way, moreover, when the mamluk sees riches with his eyes and in his heart, he forgets his country and follows his master.”
He quickly advanced people he liked and increased their pay far above previous levels which led to much laxer discipline among the rank and file mamluks, and many believe this had a destabilising effect on the basis of the entire empire, and after his rule ended the economy even though it flourished during his reign.
An-Nasir Muhammad wanted to be seen as one of the greatest sultans, and to be fair he is. There were no major external threats to the empire, but the position of the country grew vastly as a political power. He was also responsible for numerous public works projects, including the al-Ablaq Palace and the mosque named after him. Eight of his sons and four of his grandsons were throned as sultans after him, and Mamluk historian (and eyewitness to the Ottoman Invasion of Egypt) Ibn Iyas wrote that “his name was mentioned everywhere like no other king's name. All the king's wrote to him, sent gifts to him and feared him. The whole of Egypt was in his grasp”.
So I guess he got what he wanted.
And of course I'm writing about him now, so that proves it.
“Popular Culture in Medieval Cairo” Boaz Shoshan, 1993 Cambridge University Press
“The Rise and Fall of a Muslim Regiment: The Mansūriyya in the First Mamluk Sultanate 678/1279-741/1341” Amir Mazor, 2015 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
“A Turning Point in Mamluk History: The Third Reign of al-Nāsir Muhammad Ibn Qalāwūn 1310-1341” Amalia Levanoni, 1995 EJ Brill
“The Patronage of al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun 1310-41” Howayda al-Harithy, 2000 University of Chicago
“Mamluks of Mongol Origin and their Role in Early Mamluk Political Life.” Reuven Amitai, 2008 Mamluk Studies Review
“Mamluk Elite on the Eve of an-Nasir Muhammad's death (1341): A Look behind the Scenes of Mamluk Politics.” Jo Van Steenbergen, 2005 Mamluk Studies Review