The hot summer sun beat down upon al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, forty-ninth sultan of the Mamluk dynasty, as he reviewed his troops for battle. Since the founding of the dynasty in 1250, the Mamluks had ruled over the oldest and most powerful Islamic state of its day. The Cairo-based empire spanned Egypt, Syria, and Arabia. Qansuh, a man in his seventies, had ruled the empire for fifteen years. He was now in Marj Dabiq, a field outside the Syrian city of Aleppo, at the northernmost limits of his empire, to confront the greatest danger the Mamluks had ever faced. He would fail, and his failure would set in motion the demise of his empire, paving the way for the conquest of the Arab lands by the Ottoman Turks. The date was August 24, 1516
On this day, Qansuh was about to engage in battle with the ninth Ottoman sultan, Selim I (r. 1512–1520), nicknamed “the Grim.”
The Mamluks fielded a great army, but the Ottoman force was greater by far. Its disciplined ranks of cavalry and infantry outnumbered the Mamluks by as much as three to one. Contemporary chroniclers estimated Selim’s army to number 60,000 men in all. The Ottomans also enjoyed a significant technological advantage over their adversaries. Whereas the Mamluks were an old-fashioned army that placed much emphasis on individual swordsmanship, the Ottomans fielded a modern gunpowder infantry armed with muskets. The Mamluks upheld medieval military values while the Ottomans represented the modern face of sixteenth-century warfare. Battle-hardened soldiers with extensive combat experience, the Ottomans were more interested in the spoils of victory than in gaining personal honor through hand-to-hand combat.
As the two armies engaged in battle at Marj Dabiq, Ottoman firearms decimated the ranks of the Mamluk knights. The Mamluk sultan, Qansuh al-Ghawri, watched in horror as his army collapsed around him. The dust on the battlefield was so thick that the two armies could hardly see each other. Qansuh turned to his religious advisors and urged them to pray for a victory he no longer believed his soldiers could deliver. One of the Mamluk commanders, recognizing the hopelessness of the situation took down the sultan’s banner, folded it, and turned to Qansuh, saying: “Our master the Sultan, the Ottomans have defeated us. Save yourself and take refuge in Aleppo.” As the truth of his officer’s words sunk in, the sultan suffered a stroke that left him half paralyzed. When he tried to mount his horse, Qansuh fell and died on the spot. Abandoned by his fleeing retinue, the sultan’s body was never recovered. It was as though the earth had opened and swallowed the fallen Mamluk’s body whole.
Victory at Marj Dabiq left the Ottomans masters of Syria. Selim the Grim entered Aleppo unopposed and went on to occupy Damascus without a fight. News of the defeat reached Cairo on September 14, some three weeks after the battle. The surviving Mamluk commanders gathered in Cairo to elect a new sultan. They chose Qansuh’s deputy, al-Ashraf Tumanbay, as his successor. Tumanbay was to be the last Mamluk sultan, his reign lasting only three and a half months.
Selim the Grim wrote Tumanbay from Damascus, offering him two options: to surrender, and rule over Egypt as a vassal of the Ottomans, or to resist and face total annihilation. Tumanbay wept with terror when he read Selim’s letter, for surrender was not an option. Fear began to grip the Mamluk sultan’s soldiers and subjects alike. In a bid to preserve discipline, Tumanbay issued a proclamation forbidding the sale of wine, beer, or hashish, under penalty of death. However, the chroniclers claim, the anxious inhabitants of Cairo paid no attention to his orders and sought relief from the imminent threat of invasion in drugs and alcohol.
When Selim reached the northern outskirts of Cairo on January 22, Tumanbay’s soldiers showed little enthusiasm for the fight. Unpaid, lacking in confidence, and largely unreliable, the Mamluk army approached the day of battle as a group of men fighting for their own survival rather than victory.
Within one hour the Mamluk defenders had suffered heavy casualties and were in full retreat. Tumanbay fought on longer than most of his commanders before he too retreated from the battle, vowing to fight again another day.
Selim did not rest easily in Cairo while the Mamluk sultan was still at large. So long as Tumanbay lived, the Ottomans knew that his partisans would plot his restoration. Only a very public death would dash those hopes forever. Selim the Grim was given the opportunity in April 1517, when the fugitive Tumanbay was betrayed by Bedouin tribesmen and handed over to the Ottomans. Selim forced Tumanbay to march through the center of Cairo to dispel any doubt that he was in fact the deposed Mamluk sultan. Tumanbay’s procession ended at Bab Zuwayla, one of the main gates of the walled city of Cairo, where he was taken by his executioners and hanged before the horrified crowd. The hanging rope broke—some say it broke twice—as if reflecting divine reluctance to permit regicide. Once he surrendered his soul, a loud cry went up from the crowd, the chronicler recorded, capturing the sense of public shock and horror at this unprecedented spectacle. “Never in the past have we witnessed such an event as the hanging of a sultan of Egypt at Bab Zuwayla, never!”
For Sultan Selim, the death of Tumanbay was cause for celebration. With the termination of the Mamluk dynasty, Selim completed his conquest of their empire and the transfer of all their wealth, lands, and glory to his own dynasty. He could now return to Istanbul having added Syria, Egypt, and the Arabian province of the Hijaz to the Ottoman Empire.
Excerpt From: Rogan, Eugene. “The Arabs.”