The Mamluk rank: Quasi-heraldic emblems in the Islamic world

Lamp from the emir Aydakin Al Bunduqdar’s mausoleum. The bow was the emblem of the bunduqdar (the bow-holder), a palatial office. It seems that the emir chose to integrate its former position to his name. (Photograph by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

In Islamic culture, ‘mamluks’ were elite slave soldiers that served the Muslim caliphs, sultans and emirs. Recruited at a young age from the Turkish tribes of the steppes of central Asia, they first appeared in the ninth century under the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutasim near Baghdad. By the thirteenth century, buying and training mamluks had become a common practice in the Middle East. In Egypt, the first sultan to make intensive use of mamluks was the Ayyubid sultan Al-Salih Ayyub (1240-1249). In 1250, however, the Mamluks took advantage of their victory over the Frankish troops of King Louis IX at the Battle of Al-Mansurah. They overthrew the Ayyubids and established their own rule over Egypt until the eventual Ottoman conquest in 1517. As a Turkish ruling class in a land where most of the population was Arab, the Mamluks tried to distinguish themselves. Part of such strategies of distinction weas the so-called rank, which functioned somewhat like the European coat of arms, although in contrast to its remote relative the rank vanished with the demise of the Mamluk sultanate in 1517.

Visual Parallels

Spherical incense burner

Spherical incense burner, brass with silver inlays. (Photograph by British Museum, London)

The word rank (pl. runuk) comes from the Persian word reng meaning ‘color’ or ‘tincture’. The emblems were stylized representations of objects and were most of the time displayed in a circle, which like its European counterpart seems to have been derived from the shield of the soldier. As the number of rank bearers multiplied, the shield was first divided in two, then three fields, in each of which one of more figures could be displayed. The emblems of the beginning of the Mamluk sultanate were simple – one field with on figure – but as time went by they became more complex – three fields and five figures or more. There was a striking diversity of figures. Some came from an old pre-Islamic repertoire (crescent, rosette, fleur-de-lis, etc.) and others from the Persian visual tradition (lion and eagle), but most of them came from the palatial world (cup, scimitar, polo sticks, inkstand, bow, etc.). Some figures thus reminded of European heraldry, but most of them remain unique to the rank. Tincture does not seem to be have been as important as it was in heraldry, even though the rank was almost always displayed in colour.

Not unlike the early days of heraldry, the exact origins of the rank are not yet known, also because scholars keep repeating the same theories without rigorously questioning them and proposing alternative explanations. The earliest trace (for now) are the emblems representing palatial offices of Ala Ad-Din Muhammad ibn Takash, shah of the Khwarazm (a region east of the Caspian Sea) between 1200 and 1220, but this case also needs further investigation.

Functional Similarities

Textile fragment with rank

This fifteenth-century textile fragment is a good example of a rank of the end of the Mamluk sultanate. It has three fields and five figures (from top to bottom: a diamond, an inkstand within a cup framed by a pair of horns, a cup). (Photograph by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Although much more research is needed, it seems that the rank had two main purposes: Firstly, to have a rank showed that its bearer was a Mamluk and thus a member of the ruling class, which distinguished the Mamluk from other non-Mamluks. Secondly, a rank showed to which particular Mamluk group one belonged, and thus located the bearer within the Mamluk elite class. As the Mamluks had created a society that relied heavily upon loyalty to the master that freed them (most of the time the sultan) and upon solidarity between soldiers that were freed together, the visualization of such networks was vital, and the rank was the tool of choice.

Paths for Future Research

So far, the rank as a visual phenomenon has not been explored in depth, and a lot of knowledge still waits to be uncovered with regards to their historical origin, geographical development, contexts of display, and social functions. In this process, I believe, a close comparison with European heraldry might prove to be a fruitful. This blogpost is therefore meant as a brief introduction to the Mamluk rank and conversation starter. Its main goal is to raise awareness and show that someone, namely me, is working on the matter. I would be most grateful to you, the Heraldica Nova community, if you could share your thoughts, remarks, suggestions and questions with me.

Cite the article as: Simon Rousselot, "The Mamluk rank: Quasi-heraldic emblems in the Islamic world", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on Hypotheses.org), published: 18/10/2017, Internet: http://heraldica.hypotheses.org/5947.

12 Responses

  1. Miguel Metelo de Seixas says:

    J’ai beaucoup aimé de lire votre article sur l’héraldique mamelouk, mes compliments. Votre approche de l’héraldique en tant que culture visuelle me semble très bien placée, et l’exemple mamelouk révèle jusqu’à quel point il est essentiel de comprendre ces images dans leur fonctionnalité concrète.
    João Portugal et moi venons par ailleurs de faire une présentation sur les influences réciproques entre emblématique islamique et heráldique chrétienne au Portugal pendant le Moyen-âge, dans laquelle nous avons touché quelques-unes des questions fondamentales que vous présentez.

    • Simon Rousselot says:

      Cher monsieur, je vous remercie pour votre commentaire. Je suis curieux de savoir comment vous avez traité l’emblématique islamique. Vous pouvez me contacter à l’adresse suivante : simon.rousselot@gmail.com
      Simon Rousselot

  2. Anna Borewicz-Khorshed says:

    Few years ago I recorded number of Mamluk heraldry examples from the objects being on display in Islamic Museum in Cairo. They were mainly pieces of ceramic , glass jars and lamps , brass and copper vases , as well textiles.The whole range of objects representative of this era.

  3. David B Appleton says:

    There is a brief introductory article on-line at http://www.appletonstudios.com/MamlukHeraldry2001.pdf

    • Simon Rousselot says:

      Thank you for this article. I didn’t know about it and I will read it with attention. Can I know how and where you found the Arabic words ? I don’t remember them being used by scholars.

  4. Rachel Ward says:

    I agree that this is a promising area for research, not just for the history of heraldry but also to shed light on the workings of the Mamluk court. I am giving a paper entitled ‘Allegiance by Design: Mamluk Blazons’ at a conference called Material Culture Methods in the Middle Islamic Period in Bonn Germany, 8-10 December (10.30am on Saturday 10 December if anyone wants to come!) which will focus on the role of ‘blazons’ as visual indicators of allegiance in Mamluk society. Hopefully that will move the discussion on a bit. Rachel Ward

  5. James Dempster says:

    A possible source (rather old) of more examples.

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Saracenic-Heraldry-L-Mayer/dp/019817120X

    James Dempster

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