In a traditional ceremony, soldiers passed through an arch made of two swords, and Egypt’s Mameluke Sultan Kansuh al-Ghawri swore his officers to loyalty on the Koran. Not far away, the mighty Ottoman army was deployed with its modern weapons ready for battle. The Mamelukes, still maintaining their contempt for firearms on this day in August 1516, believed their traditional ways of battle would lead them to victory.
For 21⁄2 centuries, Mamelukes had ruled the Middle East, but by the start of the 16th century their grip had weakened. Originally serving as slave warriors in Egypt, the Mamelukes seized power in 1249, and in the years following their victory over the Mongols at Ain Jalut in 1260 they became the dominant force in the region. But their glory days had passed by the time they ventured out to maintain a territorial advantage over the advancing Ottoman Turks.
A tradition-bound military society, the Mamelukes stubbornly resisted the introduction of modern firearms such as artillery and arquebuses into their ranks as insulting and dishonorable. That the Ottomans had adopted and mastered such weapons only increased the Mamelukes’ contempt. Aiming to showcase the equestrian skills from which they derived their pride as much as to train his men, Sultan al-Ghawri revived traditional cavalry training exercises and military displays of skill with sword, lance and bow. Visually impressive though they were, those exercises proved to be an intelligence bonanza for the Ottoman envoy in Cairo.
Relations between Egypt and the Ottoman Turks had been deteriorating for some time. Two years earlier, in 1514, Egyptian Mameluke client Ala al-Dawla of Albistan refused an Ottoman request for assistance against the Persian Safavids. The Mamelukes quietly applauded him for that, fearing Ottoman moves and hoping for a Safavid victory to bolster their own position in the frontier region between the two empires.
Consequently, following the Turkish victory in the Battle of Chaldiran in August 1514, Ala al-Dawla was killed by Sultan Selim I, and his land was annexed to the Ottoman Empire, in clear violation of Cairo’s rights. Adding insult to injury, Selim sent al-Dawla’s head to Mameluke Sultan Kansuh al-Ghawri, along with an announcement of the conquest. With the Ottomans also extending their control over Kurdistan, the balance of power in that frontier region was shifting in their favor. Al-Ghawri saw that he must react to the Ottoman provocation, but as he was making final preparations for a military expedition in late May 1516, a courier arrived at the Mameluke camp on Cairo’s outskirts with a message from Selim. It called for peace and offered an explanation about the al-Dawla affair.
After quickly recovering from the blow dealt them by the Ottomans at Chaldiran, the Safavids had raised a new army and had even defeated an Ottoman force. Though Selim had threatened the Mamelukes, his main enemy was the Safavids, whom he passionately hated. Dismissing Selim’s overture as a manipulative ruse designed to free the Ottomans to deal with the resurgent Safavids without Mameluke interference, al-Ghawri continued as planned, setting off for Syria with the main Mameluke force.
Al-Ghawri believed that a confrontation between the Ottomans and Safavids was imminent. Adding credence to that, two Turkish emissaries approached him upon his arrival in Aleppo, Syria, and assured him that the Ottoman dispute was with the Safavids, not with the Mamelukes. They asked that the Egyptians not interfere. Still angry at Selim’s patronizing attitude and certain that the Ottomans would next turn on him, al-Ghawri detained the Ottoman emissaries and treated them poorly.
Meanwhile, as Selim prepared to resume the offensive against the Safavids, he learned that they had pulled back. Memories of the successful scorched-earth tactics that the Persians had employed during their previous confrontation were still fresh in Selim’s mind. In mid-July 1516, it was still not clear to which enemy he would give priority, but he could not ignore the Mameluke force now poised in Syria.
Al-Ghawri’s plans of facing an Ottoman army weary and weakened from battle with the Safavids were starting to backfire. Perhaps sensing the change in Ottoman intent, he released Selim’s emissaries and dispatched an emissary of his own to the Ottoman sultan with a message of neutrality. At that point, Ottoman sources claimed that they intercepted a message sent by al-Ghawri to the Safavids pledging mutual support. Outraged by al-Ghawri’s duplicity, short-tempered Selim decided on war with the Mamelukes. When the Mameluke emissary arrived at Selim’s camp carrying al-Ghawri’s neutrality offer, his entourage was killed, and the emissary was sent back to al-Ghawri with a message: “Meet me at Marj Dabiq!”
Accepting the challenge, the Mamelukes faced the Ottoman army at Marj Dabiq on August 24, 1516. Sultan al-Ghawri deployed at the head of his army. On the right flank was the Damascus regiment, commanded by its governor, Sibay; on the left was Aleppo’s governor, Khayrbak, and his men. Auxiliary infantry composed of Bedouin, Turcomen and Kurds supplemented the force. Ottoman sources estimated the Mameluke force at 20,000 to 30,000 men. Against them, Selim fielded a well-trained, well-organized and experienced body of infantry and cavalry, supported by long-range muskets and artillery. Though awed by the size of the Ottoman army, said to number anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000, the Mamelukes were not intimidated. They remained confident in the superiority of their traditional ways of war.
At the forefront of al-Ghawri’s own contingent were the seasoned veterans— Mamelukes purchased and trained by previous sultans. They were clearly more battle-tested than al-Ghawri’s own Mameluke recruits, but he was later charged with favoritism, sparing his own warriors at the veterans’ expense. There is probably some truth to those charges— with intrigue and conspiracy commonplace in the Mameluke political process, it was common for paranoid sultans to purge their predecessors’ Mamelukes to avoid revolt while favoring their own troops to maintain their support.
The backbone of Mameluke tactics was the cavalry charge, followed by a rapid withdrawal. Mameluke veterans, followed by the horsemen from Aleppo and Damascus, made the first charge while unleashing a deadly hail of arrows. In that ferocious opening assault, they proved their superior horsemanship by ably maneuvering around the Ottoman artillery, breaking through the Turkish ranks and driving back the Kurds and Turcomen on the Ottoman flanks. The Mamelukes even succeeded in capturing seven Ottoman standards and cutting down some of the arquebusiers. In that close combat, Ottoman firearms could not be brought to bear, and as chronicler Ibn Tulun wrote: “[E]arly in the day the Mameluke army had the upper hand. By noon they were busily engaged in pillage and plunder.”
The tide turned when the Ottoman cannons and arquebuses opened fire with a deafening roar that resulting in panic among the Mameluke men and horses. Having fought firearms-equipped enemies in Europe, the Ottomans themselves had become quite adept in their use. “In Marj Dabiq every cannon killed some fifty or sixty or a hundred people until that steppe resembled a slaughter-house from the blood,” wrote Mameluke historian Ibn Zunbul.
Stunned by their heavy losses, the Mamelukes seemed to realize their predicament. Zunbul wrote fatalistically, “[W]e cannot resist the Ottoman army and its great numbers and its firearms.” At that critical moment, when a resolute advance might yet have won success, al-Ghawri and his own Mamelukes remained inactive. When he ordered them to fall back, the veterans, who had borne the brunt of the fighting, felt they were being sacrificed and lost their will. Dissension in the ranks led to a loss of cohesion and, in the ensuing confusion, Governor Sibay was killed, leaving his Damascus contingent leaderless.
With the situation unraveling, Governor Khayrbak added to the confusion by spreading the rumor that al-Ghawri had fallen in battle. Khayrbak had long been in contact with the Ottomans, arranging to defect in exchange for a prominent position with them. Good to his word, he now broke ranks, withdrew his forces in the midst of battle and fled the field. Compounding his treachery, he had also been passing valuable intelligence to the Ottomans and misinformation to his own side. In fact, his instigation is said to have played a large role in convincing Selim to move against the Mamelukes. Khayrbak’s treachery paid off in an appointment as the first Ottoman governor of Egypt.
With the battlefield situation rapidly deteriorating and groups of his army fleeing, al-Ghawri fell from his horse and died minutes later, apparently from a stroke. His body was whisked away and never found. When the Ottomans learned of al-Ghawri’s death, they pressed their attack, and after a brief resistance the last of the Mamelukes broke and fled. All of their battle standards fell into Turkish hands, along with al-Ghawri’s and the senior Mameluke officers’ baggage.
“The plain was littered with mutilated remnants of this confrontation,” wrote Zunbul. “Corpses lay in heaps, many without heads. Faces of the fallen were smeared with blood and grime, disfiguring their features. Slain horses lay scattered about, their saddles thrown from their backs. Gold-embossed swords, steel-mail tunics, tatters of uniforms were strewn all over.”
In a matter of weeks, the Ottomans occupied all of Syria and Palestine. Hoping to avoid the grueling march across the Sinai Desert to take Cairo, Selim proposed to al-Ghawri’s nephew Tumanbay, who had assumed power in Cairo, that he submit to the Ottomans and govern Egypt as the Ottoman viceroy. Rather than agree to that common Ottoman practice, Tumanbay remained defiant. Sultan Selim then ordered the Ottoman army across the Sinai, arriving in the Cairo area in late January 1517.
Tumanbay prepared to make a stand at the Ridaniyya military camp, at the approaches to Cairo. Finally comprehending the need for firearms, the Mamelukes hastily assembled what weaponry they could muster to fortify Ridaniyya. All Egypt had, however, was siege artillery— unsuited for the type of war it was about to face.
When the Battle of Ridaniyya was fought on January 23, 1517, the 20,000- strong Egyptian army was defeated within 20 minutes after the Ottomans swept around and attacked from the rear. Since the Egyptians could not turn their movable heavy siege guns to face the rear, they did not even fire a shot. The Mameluke sultanate had come to an end.
After making Egypt a satellite of their empire, the Ottomans continued on to Arabia. Selim doubled the size of his empire, adding all the lands of the Islamic caliphate, save for Persia (Iran) and Mesopotamia. With sovereignty over all the holy places of Islam, and possessing vast wealth and power, Selim became the most prestigious ruler in the Muslim world. His reign is considered the prelude to the Ottoman Empire’s golden age. Not until World War I—exactly 400 years later—when British General Edmund Allenby defeated the German-allied Ottoman Turks, were its borders reshuffled, bringing an end to Ottoman rule over the Middle East.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.