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From Slave to Sultan: Baibars I - The Slave Warrior Who Fought His Way to the Top

From Slave to Sultan: Baibars I - The Slave Warrior Who Fought His Way to the Top

Baibars I was a powerful Sultan who is remembered most for his military leadership, especially against Crusaders and Mongols, but also for his diplomatic skills. He is often regarded as the most famous of the Mamluk Sultans who ruled Egypt and Syria during the Medieval period.

Baibars I (also spelled Baybars) was the fourth Mamluk Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and is generally considered by historians to be the founder of the Bahri Dynasty. In addition, Baibars extended the frontiers of the Mamluk Sultanate thanks to his successful military campaigns and skillful diplomatic maneuvers.

Modern representation of Sultan Baibars.

Modern representation of Sultan Baibars. (teutonic)

Baibars Serves the Sultan

Baibars’ full name was al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Rukn al-Din Baibars al-Bunduqdar, and he was born in the country of the Kipchak Turks on the northern shores of the Black Sea. In about 1242, the Kipchak Turks were attacked by the Mongols, and Baibars was one of those captured and sold into slavery. He was eventually bought by Sultan as-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub, the Ayyubid ruler of Egypt and Syria. Baibars was sent for military training on an island in the Nile, just like all the other newly-acquired slaves of the sultan. During his training, Baibars displayed exceptional military prowess, and upon his graduation and emancipation, was appointed as the commander of a group of the sultan’s personal bodyguards.

Mamluk training.

Mamluk training. (Public Domain)

How He Took the Throne

In 1249, the Seventh Crusade, led by the French king, Louis IX, landed in Damietta, Egypt. The port city fell in June, and the crusaders began their march to Cairo in November, around which time the news of as-Salih Ayyub’s death arrived. The crusaders, however, were not destined to conquer Egypt, and in February 1250, were decisively defeated at the Battle of Al-Mansurah. One of the Ayyubid commanders during the battle was Baibars, and this was his first major victory as a military commander.

Battle of Al Mansurah and Louis IX and Ysembart le Queu.

Battle of Al Mansurah and Louis IX and Ysembart le Queu. (Public Domain)

For the Ayyubids, as-Salih Ayyub was the last strong sultan of this dynasty to effectively rule both Egypt and Syria. His successor, al-Muazzam Turanshah, reigned for a short period of time, and was murdered by the Mamluks. With the Ayyubids overthrown in Egypt, the Mamluks came to power. The first Mamluk sultan was Aybak, whom Baibars had offended. As a result, he fled to Syria, where he stayed for several years.

In 1260, Baibars was invited back to Egypt by the third Mamluk sultan, Qutuz. In the same year, the Mongols were preparing to invade Egypt. The conflict between these two forces culminated in the Battle of Ain Jalut, which took place in the Jezreel Valley of Palestine. During this battle, Baibars was a commander of the Mamluk army’s vanguard, and proved himself in the field of battle. The Mamluks decisively defeated the Mongols, though Qutuz was not to enjoy this victory for long. On the way back to Egypt, the sultan was assassinated by a group of conspirators led by Baibars.

Baibars in battle.

Baibars in battle. (Public Domain)

Military and Diplomatic Campaigns as Sultan

Following the death of Qutuz, Baibars became the next Mamluk sultan. One of Baibars’ goals as sultan was to wage holy war against the remaining crusaders in Syria and to have them expelled, as he sought to emulate the great Muslim leader, Saladin. Baibars strengthened the military position of the Mamluks in Syria and attacked the crusaders from 1265 to 1271. One by one, the remaining crusader strongholds, including Arsuf, Jaffa, and Antioch, fell to the Mamluks.

Representational image of Sultan Baibars I.

Representational image of Sultan Baibars I. (Public Domain)

Whilst the crusaders would maintain a minor presence in the Levant (the County of Tripoli, for example, lasted till 1289, slightly over a decade after Baibars’ death), Baibars’ campaigns marked the end of the crusader states as a major player in the politics of the region. Apart from the crusaders, Baibars also conducted military campaigns against the Mongols, the Armenian Christians, the Makurians in Nubia, as well as the remaining members of the Hashshashin sect.

The fall of Tripoli to the Mamluks, April 1289. This was a battle towards the end of the Crusades.

The fall of Tripoli to the Mamluks, April 1289. This was a battle towards the end of the Crusades. (Public Domain)

Although Baibars proved himself to be a brilliant military commander, he was also capable of using diplomacy when it came to dealing with foreign powers. For instance, the sultan succeeded in maintaining cordial relations with the Byzantine Empire. Additionally, commercial treaties between Egypt and foreign states, such as Aragon and Leon and Castile, were signed during Baibars’ reign.

Coins from the Mamluk Sultan Baibars’ reign

Coins from the Mamluk Sultan Baibars’ reign. (CNG Coins/CC BY SA 2.5)

Domestic Affairs and the Sultan Baibars’ Death

Baibars was equally skilled in handling domestic affairs as he was in foreign ones. Amongst his notable achievements on this front were the establishment of a swift postal service between Cairo and Damascus and the appointment of chief justices representing the four main schools of Islamic law. In addition, vital infrastructures such as canals were built and harbors improved.

People on the street, with the Mosque of Sultan Baibars in the background, Cairo, Egypt.

People on the street, with the Mosque of Sultan Baibars in the background, Cairo, Egypt. (CC BY SA 2.5)

The powerful Mamluk ruler died in Damascus in 1277. According to some sources, Baibars death was a grave mistake - he had drunk a cup of poison that was intended for somebody else. His final resting place can be found under the dome of the Al-Zahiriyah Library in Damascus, which he had founded.

Bust of Baibars.

Bust of Baibars. (Ahmed yousri elmamlouk/CC BY SA 4.0)

Top image: Artistic impression of Sultan Baibars I, the fourth Mamluk Sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Bahri Dynasty.  Source: Jangelles

By Wu Mingren

References

Dunn, J., 2017. Baybars al-Bunduqdari, The First Great Slave Ruler of Egypt. [Online]
Available at: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/baybars.htm

LookLex Encyclopaedia, 2017. Baybars 1. [Online]
Available at: http://i-cias.com/e.o/baybars1.htm

Rabie, H. M., 2017. Baybars I. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Baybars-I

Sterling, D., 2015. The Battle of Al Mansourah and the Seventh Crusade, 1251. [Online]
Available at: http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/the-battle-of-al-mansourah-and-the-seventh-crusade-1251-2/

Szczepanski, K., 2016. The Battle of Ayn Jalut. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-battle-of-ayn-jalut-195788

The Crusades Reference Library, Encyclopedia.com, 2005. Baybars, Al-Zahir. [Online]
Available at: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baybars-al-zahir

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