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Mamelukes and Mongols: 1250-1260

The decade beginning in 1250 provides a succession of dramatic events in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. In 1250 the last sultan of Saladin's dynasty is murdered in Egypt by the slaves of the palace guard. This enables a Mameluke general, Aybak, to take power. He rules until 1257, when his wife has him killed in a palace intrigue. His place is immediately taken by another Mameluke general, Qutuz.

In the following year, 1258, Baghdad and the caliphate suffer a devastating blow. Mongols, led by Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, descend upon the city and destroy it. The Middle East appears to be open to conquest and destruction.

In 1259 Hulagu and the Mongols take Aleppo and Damascus. The coastal plain and the route south to Egypt seem open to them. But in 1260 at Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth, they meet the army of the Mameluke sultan of Egypt. It is led into the field by Baybars, a Mameluke general.

In one of the decisive battles of history Baybars defeats the Mongols. It is the first setback suffered by the family of Genghis Khan in their remorseless half century of expansion. This battle defines for the first time a limit to their power. It preserves Palestine and Syria for the Mameluke dynasty in Egypt. Mesopotamia and Persia remain within the Mongol empire.

Baybars and his successors: 1260-1517

Baybars is ruthless - in the best Mameluke tradition. Seized as a boy from the Kipchak Turks, north of the Caspian, he has been brought to Egypt as a slave. His talents have enabled him to rise to high command in the Mameluke army. In 1260, the year of his great victory at Ayn Jalut, he defeats and kills his own Mameluke sultan. He is proclaimed in his place by the army.

During his reign of seventeen years Baybars crushes the Assassins in their last strongholds in Syria, drives the crusaders from Antioch, and extends the rule of Egypt across the Red Sea to control the valuable pilgrim cities of Mecca and Medina.

In exercising this extensive rule, Baybars takes the precaution of pretending that he does so on behalf of an Abbasid refugee from the ruins of Baghdad - whom he acclaims as the caliph. His many successors maintain the same fiction. These Mameluke sultans are not a family line, like a traditional dynasty. They are warlords from a military oligarchy who fight and scheme against each other to be acclaimed sultan, somewhat in the manner of the later Roman emperors.

But they manage to keep power in their own joint hands until the rise of a more organized state sharing their own Turkish origins - the Ottoman empire.

The Ottomans, cautious about Mameluke military prowess, tackle other neighbouring powers such as the Persians before approaching Egypt. But in 1517 the Ottoman sultan, Selim I, reaches the Nile delta. He takes Cairo, with some difficulty, and captures and hangs the last Mameluke sultan.

Mameluke rule, spanning nearly three centuries, has been violent and chaotic but not uncivilized. Several of Cairo's finest mosques are built by Mameluke sultans, and for a while these rulers maintain Cairo and Damascus (500 miles apart) as twin capitals. A pigeon post is maintained between them, and Baybars prides himself on being able to play polo within the same week in the two cities.

The Ottoman centuries: 1516-1917

Ottoman rule over the region of Palestine and Syria lasts for four centuries from the arrival of the sultan and his army in 1516. The region is ruled for most of that period by a provincial administration in Damascus. From time to time there is unrest, turmoil and violence - but as if in a vacuum. Firm Ottoman control seals the area from outside influence or intrusion (apart from a few dramatic months in 1799, when Napoleon arrives in the district).

A longer and more significant interlude is the period from 1831 to 1840, when Mohammed Ali - the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt - seizes Palestine and Syria from his own master, the sultan.

The military campaign is conducted by Mohammed Ali's son, Ibrahim Pasha, who becomes governor general of the area. He rules rather better than the Ottoman administration, allowing a degree of modernisation. But Britain, Austria and Russia come to the aid of the sultan in 1840, forcing Mohammed Ali to withdraw his armies to Egypt.

During the following decades the most significant development is the beginning of European Jewish settlement in Palestine, from 1882. But it is World War I which changes the region out of recognition, ending the Ottoman centuries and bringing into existence the modern territories of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (the now region including Israel), Jordan and Iraq..

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