Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
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Valerie: al-Zahir Baybars was a Mamluk sultan in the mid-13th century. He was of Kipchak Turkic origins and came to Egypt from Crimea by way of Syria. There are numerous accounts of Baybars odd physical appearance that lent him an almost mythical quality; he was said to be tall and thin, with fair skin and cataracts in one eye that made the whole eye shine a light, glossy blue. He rose in the Mamluk ranks until he became a commander, first truly proving his abilities as an instrumental part of the defeat of the French during the 7th Crusade. In 1259, 10 years after this first major victory, Baybars successfully repulsed the encroaching Mongol forces from Egypt's borders, a victory that many scholars argue was one of the most influential turning points in all of history. He is credited with first organizing the Mamluks into a system of governance and is considered the first sultan of the Bahri Mamluks (see entry).
Baybars organized Egyptian bureaucracy hierarchically, creating three different types of amir (officials and bureaucrats). There were amirs of 1000/100, of 40, and of 10. These numbers corresponded to the amount of Mamluks each amir could have under his patronage. The various amirs were dependent on iqtar (land grants, see entry) for the maintenance of their forces and, under Baybars (and subsequent Mamluk sultans), this allowed for the possibility of limited social mobility as an amir could improve his own economic situation through the productivity of his iqtar and could then afford to be promoted to an amir in charge of more soldiers. Besides military/societal organization, Baybars also improved the infrastructure of Cairo and focused on foreign relations, especially with Syria and the Mongols. Historians have even credited Baybars, the defeater of the Mongols, with influencing many of them to convert to Islam and then spread the religion even further across the Eurasian continent.
Baybars used his (and by extension, the Mamluks) military strength to achieve legitimacy for the new government. A soldier by training, he continued to campaign against foreign enemies for the duration of his sultanate. To further bolster this legitimacy, Baybars reincorporated the Abbassid caliphate into Egyptian government, if only symbolically, giving Mamluk Egypt greater religious authority in the world of Islam.
All of these accomplishments have elevated Baybars to heroic status in Egypt and Syria, as well as in his native Kazakhstan. In fact, Kazakhstan still funds restoration and expansion projects at the mosque of Baybars in Cairo and at his mausoleum in Damascus.