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The Sultanate drew upon concepts of martial skill, valor and aggression attributed to the Mongol Imperium and its unprecedented conquests. While idealizing these traits, Mamluk Sultans exploited them to thwart Mongol expansion into their territories. They welcomed renegades from Mongol armies (Wafidiyya) to mimic their prowess while limiting their aggression. Mamluk cadets were imported initially from the Qipjaq Steppe in Central Asia, subsequently from Circassia in the Caucasus, with numerous other regions represented. They were instructed in Arabic, Turkish and Islam prior to being trained in arms. The Mamluk military hierarchy consisted of elite Mamluks imported as cadets in the Sultan’s service, Mamluks of senior officers, soldiers of former rulers restive over their loss of status, and descendants of 1st-generation Mamluks who served as infantry and assimilated into Arabic civil society (awlad al-nas). Advancement through the military hierarchy was marked by endemic factional rivalry in which conspiracy was expected not repudiated. Whether conspiracy enhanced the Sultanate’s military prowess or destabilized its governance remains a debated issue.
The Sultanate's political economy evolved continuously. Since the regime presided over an imperial union of territories that differed in their topography and ecology, the process of evolution in these regions exhibited contrasting patterns of change. Agriculture in the Nile Valley manifested procedures unlike crop raising or animal husbandry along the Syrian coast, upland valleys or semi-arid outback of the Syrian Sahel. Commodities imported from South or East Asia transited from ports in Yemen or Western Arabia through entrepôts on the Upper Nile to Alexandria, where they were transferred to European carriers that conveyed them to destinations on the Mediterranean north shore and beyond. Agents in each of these stages answered to differing sponsors, aligned their conduct of business with local politics and extracted revenues at levels fluctuating within the mechanisms that governed inter-regional trade throughout this period. Domestic commerce in both urban and rural settings dealt in the exchange of commodities produced locally in a workshop milieu. Control over (and profiteering from) marketing of lucrative staples that funneled revenues to the regime, such as spices, textiles or sugar, became a principal objective of governmental authority, with results that enhanced the Sultanate’s fisc in the short term but compromised its competitive position in the longue durée. These issues are considered from the perspective of agriculture or animal husbandry in Egypt and Syria, the varying extent of control exercised over them by the bureaucracy, interregional trade and its manipulation by the Sultanate over time, the domestic commercial economy, and finally the overt expropriation or clandestine extraction on which the regime relied as licit sources of revenue diminished in the Sultanate’s final century.
Research has proliferated on several topics that have invited new methodological approaches: the rural setting, gendered relations between men and women, communal status of minorities (Christians and Jews), and religious diversity among Muslims, in particular among those who identified as Sufi mystics. New sources and revisionist interpretations of them continue to transform the field of Mamluk Studies. Yet in many instances, findings on these subjects are confined to discoveries of information on discrete conditions or isolated events that do not lend themselves to comprehensive analysis. They often depend on a single source or fragmentary data set, and require imaginative speculation to formulate hypotheses that apply to questions about their broader contexts in society. The chapter will outline the state of research on these subjects and their potential to open new lines of inquiry by highlighting examples that have influenced revisionist interpretations.
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