Baybars, Al-Zahir

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Al-Zahir Baybars

c. 1223
Southern Russia

July 1, 1277
Damascus, Syria

Mamluk sultan

"Baybars repeatedly demonstrated quickness of action resolution, courage, shrewdness, prescience [foresight], and determination. He seemed to be able to accomplish many things almost at the same time, and to be always on the move directing affairs of state in Egypt and Syria."

—Mustafa Ziada, "The Mamluk Sultans to 1293," in History of the Crusades. Vol. 2, The Later Crusades, 1189–1311.

Called the "Napoleon of medieval Egypt," al-Zahir Baybars, also known as Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Bunduqdari, or simply Baybars, was the savior of Egypt during the critical years of the thirteenth century when that country faced enemies from both Europe and Asia. Baybars, who rose from slave to soldier to sultan (leader), fought the French during the later Crusades, or holy wars, against Islam, and the Mongols, raiders from the plains of Central Asia who tore through the Middle East and destroyed much of Islamic civilization. An intelligent, spirited, and courageous soldier, Baybars was also an able administrator, bringing the centers of Egypt and Syria back to cultural and artistic life during the seventeen years of his rule (1260–77). He was largely responsible for establishing the Mamluk, or slave, dynasty that ruled Egypt, Syria, and Palestine for several centuries and made Egypt the political and religious center of the Muslim world.

A Trained Mamluk

Baybars was born around 1223 near the north shore of the Black Sea, a region in present-day southern Russia. He was a member of the nomadic (wandering) Kipchak Turks, who hunted in this region. As a young boy his people were attacked by the Mongols, a warrior-like group of nomads who resided in the steppes, or plains, of Central Asia. These Mongols were originally led by Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227) and then later by his sons and grandsons. By the middle of the 1230s the Mongols had reached the Black Sea region. During one battle Baybars was taken prisoner and sold in the slave markets of present-day Turkey.

Purchased by Syrian merchants, the adolescent Baybars was transported farther and farther into the Muslim world, eventually reaching Egypt around 1240, where he was bought by the Egyptian sultan al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub. Al-Salih was to be the last of the Ayyubids, a line of rulers of Egypt established by the great Muslim military leader Saladin (see entry). This sultan made a point of recruiting Mamluks (from the Arab verb for "to own"), or slaves, and then training them to be soldiers. The sultan placed Baybars in the elite Mamluk training school located on an island in the Nile River. After several years of hard and thorough drills, Baybars was put into the Bahriyya Mamluks, the regiment that served the sultan.

In 1250 Baybars first made a name for himself when he defended Egypt from the Crusader invasion of Louis IX (see entry), king of France. This French monarch was a very religious leader and had spent the past several years preparing a Crusader army to free the Holy Land from Islamic control. His Seventh Crusade (1248–54) would be the last major holy war, though many smaller battles would be fought over the next forty years until the Christian Crusaders were finally pushed out of the Holy Land. During the early part of the fighting and eventual standoff between the Egyptians and French, the city of Damietta, located on the Nile delta (mouth) had fallen to the Crusaders. Then the sultan al-Salih died of tuberculosis, a terminal lung disease. His wife, Shajarat al-Durr (see entry), a former Mamluk like Baybars, conspired with two advisers of the sultan to keep the death a secret from the troops, both to keep morale up as well as to keep this information from the enemy. Louis IX, however, found out about it through a spy and also discovered a way to cross over the river that separated his men and the sultan's camp. He sent his brother, Robert of Artois, to attack the Egyptians, chasing them as they retreated into the streets of the nearby town of Mansurah. At this point Baybars and his Mamluks struck, cutting down the Crusaders in the narrow streets of the town and saving the day. A large number of the French king's best knights, or noble soldiers, were killed at the Battle of Mansurah in February 1250, thus turning the tide of the war. With the arrival of the sultan's son, Turan Shah, later that month, the French were finally defeated. Louis IX was captured, and Egypt was saved.

The End of the Crusades

The job of chasing the Christians out of the Holy Land once and for all was left to those Mamluk leaders who ruled after Baybars. The final defeat for the Christian Crusaders occurred at the fortified port of Acre in 1291. On April 5 a huge Muslim force consisting of sixty thousand horsemen and one hundred sixty thousand foot soldiers gathered at the gates of Acre. Though this was not the last Crusader city left in the Holy Land, it was the most important. If it fell, those still remaining—such as Tyre, Beirut, and Sidon—would also surely fall. This enormous Muslim force had been assembled by the Mamluk sultan al-Ashraf al-Khalil; it outnumbered by ten to one the Christian defenders inside the walls.

One thing the Crusaders had in their favor was the fact that their defense was largely being directed by the Christian religious and military orders the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitallers, both of whom had become famous in the Christian and Islamic worlds alike for their courage and honor in battle. The siege lasted almost two months, during which the Templars, Hospitallers, and other Crusaders fought bravely. When it became clear that the city faced defeat, men, women, and children flocked to the docks to try to board ships, for the Muslims were killing every person they captured. Almost thirty thousand people were eventually slaughtered in this final episode of the two-centuries-old Crusades.

During these final tragic moments, Roger de Flor, one of the Templar knights, disgraced the entire Templar order by seizing a ship in the harbor and demanding a high price for any passenger lucky enough to get onboard. Those who did not have the fare, or ticket price—including nuns and children—were left behind to be killed by the Muslim soldiers or taken prisoner and sold as slaves. (He later became known for his harsh treatment of the civilian population.) Roger de Flor's human cargo consisted mainly of noble ladies of Acre who had the necessary funds. Although he created a fortune in this way, he was later stripped of his knighthood by the pope when his cowardly behavior became known. He went on to serve as a soldier of fortune (one who is paid to find and kill specific people) in Sicily and fought the Turks on behalf of the Byzantine emperor. He was planning to set up his own rival kingdom when he was finally murdered on the order of the Byzantine emperor. Roger de Flor's name is usually associated with his ignoble, or dishonorable, actions during the fall of Acre in 1291. His behavior provides an ironic ending to the Crusader movement, which was supposed to have inspired a sense of honor, loyalty, and nobility among fighting men.

A Mamluk Dynasty

Baybars and the other Mamluks now saw their opportunity. All that stood between them and control of Egypt was the sultan's son. On May 2, 1250, they attacked Turan Shah during a feast he was giving. Wounded, Turan Shah managed to escape to a fortified (walled and protected) tower in the Nile River. When the Mamluks set the tower on fire, Turan Shah jumped into the river, and Baybars himself finished him off with his sword. After this assassination, there were no more living relatives of Sultan al-Salih to take the throne. Thus Shajarat al-Durr, the sultan's widow, was declared the sultana. Placing her on the Egyptian throne was a way to make the new rulers seem more legal, for Shajarat could be considered the next in line for the Ayyubid crown. In truth, however, the Mamluks held the power. When the rest of the Islamic world complained at having a female leader in Cairo, it was decided that a male needed to be put on the throne in her place. Unfortunately for Baybars, at this point he was passed over for another man, Aybek, who ruled with Shajarat al-Durr for the next seven years. Baybars and Aybek eventually had a falling-out, and by 1254 Baybars had gone into exile, living as a soldier of fortune in Syria.

By 1260, however, a new threat faced Egypt and all of the Middle East. The Mongols were streaming into the region from their home base in Central Asia. Led by Hulagu, the grandson of the great Genghis Khan, the Mongols attacked Baghdad in 1258, sacking, or robbing, the city and killing at least one hundred thousand inhabitants. This effectively ended the Abbasid caliphate, a religious dynasty that could trace its origins back to the uncle of Muhammad the prophet (the founder of the religion of Islam). The Abbasids had ruled in Baghdad since 749 and were the spiritual heart of Sunni, one of the two main branches of Islam. Unlike the other main branch, Shiite, which takes the legitimate successor to Muhammad only from the prophet's family, Sunni Islam finds legitimacy (authority) in the written words of Islamic law, the Sunna, and in the words of the holy book, the Koran. Although the Abbasids' political and military power had grown progressively weaker since the rise of the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century, their role as spiritual guides for Islam was still an important one. The destruction of their city and their dynasty struck a severe blow to the Muslim world. The Mongols did not stop with Iraq. They moved on into Syria, and it was clear that they had their sights on Egypt itself.

At this important moment Baybars was welcomed back to Cairo by the new sultan, Qutuz (sometimes spelled Kutuz). Together the sultan and Baybars led an army to meet the invading Mongols, commanded by their general, Kitbogha. The two armies met at Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth in Palestine, in September 1260. At this battle Baybars led the charge into the Mongol ranks. The fight was fierce, but in the end the Mamluks were victorious. Legend has it that Baybars personally killed the Mongol general Kitbogha. Disappointed because he was not properly rewarded by the sultan, Baybars killed Qutuz on the way back to Cairo and placed himself on the Egyptian throne as sultan. It had taken two assassinations, but finally Baybars had clawed his way to the top.

Sultan Baybars I

Many historians mark the beginning of the Mamluk dynasty with Baybars, for from his time forward, the Mamluks maintained firm control of Egypt and North Africa, as well as Palestine, Syria, parts of Iraq, and Asia Minor. For the next seventeen years Baybars was almost continually at war with one group or another, fighting the Mongols, Christians, other Muslims, and Armenians. He led thirty-eight campaigns into Syria and fought the Mongols nine times and the Armenians five times. For more than half his reign Baybars was away from Cairo. One historian has calculated that Baybars traveled more than 66,000 miles (106,217 kilometers) during his active career.

After defeating the Mongols, Baybars did something very clever to solidify his hold on Egypt. In 1261 he invited the uncle of the last Abbasid caliph (religious leader) to come to Cairo. The man arrived amid great ceremony and was named the next caliph, al-Mustansir. Cairo became the new home of the spiritual leader of Sunni Islam, making Baybars and his regime seem more legitimate. Next, Baybars took up his sword against the Crusaders. His hero and model was the twelfth-century Muslim military leader Saladin, who also rallied the Muslim world to fight the Crusaders and recapture Jerusalem for Islam. Imitating Saladin, Baybars struck at the Crusader states in Palestine, forcing the two most famous religious fighting orders, the Knights Hospitallers and the Knights Templars, to surrender the fortress cities of Arsuf and Safrad, respectively. In 1268 Baybars took the well-fortified city of Antioch and slaughtered its inhabitants. By 1271 the Crusaders had been pushed nearly into the sea. The next generation of Mamluk leaders would complete the job Baybars had begun.

At the same time, Baybars sent forces north to battle and punish the Armenians, who were allies of the Mongols. The same punishing campaigns were mounted against the Seljuk Turks, who had backed the Mongols. In Syria he roundly defeated the Assassins, a radical Islamic sect (religious group). These Ismaili Muslims, as they were called, held mountain fortresses in Syria and Persia and managed to strike fear in the hearts of people in the Middle East through their use of assassination as a political and religious weapon. By 1273 Baybars had wiped out these groups in Syria, gaining control of the entire region. Closer to home, he secured the borders of Egypt to the south and west.

Those peoples that he could not conquer he befriended. Baybars proved himself capable in international politics, establishing friendly relations with courts in Europe and with the Byzantine Empire, or eastern Roman Empire, which consisted of present-day Turkey, Greece, and part of the Balkans. As if all this were not enough, Baybars also created something of a golden age in Egypt and Syria, reestablishing their leadership in scholarship and art by attracting philosophers and scientists to both Damascus and Cairo. He also unified his growing empire through a network of roads and bridges and created a postal system between Cairo and Damascus, in Syria, with twice-weekly deliveries. Baybars was known as a deeply religious man who strictly followed the teachings of Islam. He outlawed the sale of alcohol and helped people make pilgrimages (religious trips) to Mecca. He also enforced the times of fasting, or not eating, during religious observances and built numerous Muslim schools and mosques (religious buildings).

Even before his death, legends and myths had developed about him, some created by Baybars himself. Court scribes (secretaries) were writing histories of his heroic deeds while Baybars was still battling various foes. At the height of his career he traveled to Damascus, where he died on July 1, 1277, after drinking from a poisoned cup supposedly intended for another person. Following this untimely death, his legend grew even more. The Sirat Baybars is a folk account of his life that is still popular in the Arabic-speaking world.

Baybars, however, does not need fictional accounts to make his achievements seem larger than they were. In a time when much of the Islamic world was falling apart, threatened by Mongols and Christians alike, this former slave who rose to become sultan made Egypt a strong state at the very center of the Middle East. The Mamluk dynasty he helped create survived the Turkish invasions of 1517 and hung on in Egypt, in one form or another, until the French emperor Napoleon (1769–1821) arrived there in 1798.

For More Information


Glubb, Sir John. Soldiers of Fortune: The Story of the Mamlukes. New York: Stein and Day, 1973.

Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades through Arab Eyes. Translated by Jon Rothschild. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.

Muir, William. The Mameluke; or, Slave Dynasty of Egypt: 1260–1517a.d. New York: AMS Press, 1973.

Ziada, Mustafa. "The Mamluk Sultans to 1293." In A History of the Crusades. Edited by Kenneth M. Sultan. Vol. 2: The Later Crusades, 1189–1311. Edited by Robert L. Wolff and Harry W. Hazard. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Web Sites

"Baybars I." Encyclopedia of the Orient. (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Baybars al-Bunduqdari, The First Great Slave Ruler of Egypt." Tour Egypt. (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"The Seventh Crusade." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies. (accessed on June 24, 2004).