Slaves, Wealth and Fear: An Episode from Late Mamluk-Era Egypt
By Nur Sobers Khan
Oriens, Vol. 37 (2009)
Introduction: In the spring of 1446 a group of African slaves gathered in the fields of Giza, outside of Cairo, and set up their own imitation Mamluk court. These slaves appointed their own sultan, as well as governors, wazīrs, and other court officials. They built a tent and throne for their sultan, and engaged in factional fighting just like the Mamluks, even going so far as to cut at least one member of a dissenting group of slaves in half.
In addition, the slaves seem to have had a sizeable amount of gold coin. These are the basic details on which the major 15th-century chroniclers, al-ʿAynī, Ibn Taġrī-Birdī, al-Sakhāwī, and Ibn Iyās agree.
As for the other details of this story, the chroniclers provide somewhat differing accounts. Al-ʿAynī claims that the slaves had, literally, “a pile of gold” and relates that a royal Mamluk went to the African slaves’ encampment to retrieve his own runaway slave. The story finishes when the rebellious slaves cut the runaway slave in half before the eyes of his master, who is terrified both by the act of violence and the sight of so many slaves gathered in one place.
Top Image: Textile Fragment with Mamluk Emblem, late 15th–early 16th century. image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art