Mamluke Period, 1295-1517


Jerusalem was now back under the control of the Egyptian court, but only for a little while longer under the Ayyubids. After the death of Ayyub in 1249, control was seized by Aybak, a Mameluke, and he started a line of sultans who were to rule the region for 267 years.


The dilemma every Mameluke ruler faced was over the choice of commander to defend a distant region. An able man with an adequate army at his disposal would be tempted to rebel and threaten his master’s power. An inept commander might fail to repel an invasion. The problem was mostly resolved by appointing two commanders, one to be governor of a district and the other to command the citadel—and to change the governors frequently.

That is what happened to Jerusalem. Since the governor was insecure, and his term of office brief, he usually made the most of it, sometimes for his own pocket, sometimes for the city—and his own glory. Taxation was always heavy, but the proceeds were at times put to good purpose.

The Mamelukes were great builders and patrons of the arts, and though their architectural programs were applied largely to their main cities, Jerusalem too felt their influence. They rebuilt the walls of the city, which had been allowed to fall into disrepair, and from a map of 1321 in “The Book of Secrets for Crusaders concerning the Recovery and Preservation of the Holy Land” prepared by a Venetian, Marino Sanuto, and presented to the Pope, we see that the walls were allowed to crumble. They reconstructed the Citadel (on the site of the old Palace of Herod) in the form with which we are familiar today. And they expanded the city’s water supply, repairing an aqueduct which brought water from the Hebron hills, and adding pools.

Their main beautification work was directed to Moslem buildings. They built four handsome Madrasahs (a combination of mosque and school), hoping to turn Jerusalem into an important seat of Moslem learning, but though these produced a number of pious scholars, Jerusalem never became a center of Islamic theology. They greatly adorned the Haram esh-Sharif area, adding fountains, arcades, minarets, and small houses of prayer. Some of the present gates are Mameluke. So are several of the buildings at the western end of the area which now contain tombs of Moslem leaders and were originally schools. El-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock were kept in repair and embellished. The Mamelukes furnished the marble pulpit of the Dome, and the graceful arcades at the top of the steps giving entrance to the platform on which the Dome stands.

While Moslem building flourished, church building declined. To build new churches and repair the old required a permit, and bribes to acquire a permit were often beyond the purse of many Christian sects, particularly those belonging to the Eastern Church. In addition, several churches were converted into mosques, the most notable being the Church of St. Anne. (It was restored to the Christians in the nineteenth century.)

Nevertheless, the Mamelukes were by and large tolerant of other religions. They were not themselves religious fanatics. Christians and Jews were allowed freedom of worship, though they were subject to such restrictions as the payment of a poll tax and the wearing of distinctive dress—yellow turbans for Jews, blue ones for Christians. Life for them was far from ideal, but the Jews were better off than they had been under the Crusaders, and the Christians fared better than the Moslems had under them.

The Jewish experience during the Mameluke period was one of frequent pilgrimage and of continued settlement in Jerusalem, with the size of the community fluctuating from generation to generation.


Moreover, during the two and a half centuries of Mameluke rule, the country suffered an unusual incidence of natural disasters—famine, drought, plague, earthquake. The Black Death which smote Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century also ravaged Palestine. Buildings shattered by earthquakes remained in ruins. Houses collapsed in exceptionally heavy rains—the records show that more than three hundred tumbled in Jerusalem during the winter of 1473, and da Bertinoro mentions the famine.

With effective government, recovery would have been possible. Under later Mameluke maladministration and indifference, the population dwindled and became impoverished. It has been estimated that Jerusalem numbered forty thousand at the beginning of their rule. At the end, the population had shrunk to ten thousand.

Mameluke dominion over Jerusalem was swept away by the Ottoman Turks in the very last days of 1516, their conquest being marked by the entry into the city of the Turkish sultan, Selim I. For the next four hundred years, Jerusalem was to remain part of the Ottoman Empire.

Excerpted from Under the Mamelukes 1250-1517, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.

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