The Mamluk rank: Quasi-heraldic emblems in the Islamic world
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.
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.
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.
Andalusia, during the rule of the Muslims, had a wide culture of what is known today as the coats of arms, and there were many manuscripts and records dealing with documenting them because they were also used more widely than the limited scope in the West, but unfortunately most of those manuscripts were destroyed and burned in the Inquisition and few of them survived to the Some noble Arab families who fled from Andalusia before it was divided into 22 kingdoms until the fall of Granada.
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.
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 : email@example.com
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.
Dear Ms. Borewicz-Khorshed, I’m curious of what you have recorded as I have only few images of objects coming from the Islamic Museum of Cairo. Would you like to share it with me ?
Certainly ,just let me know how I can reach you .
You can reach me at the following email address : firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you again.
There is a brief introductory article on-line at http://www.appletonstudios.com/MamlukHeraldry2001.pdf
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.
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
Dear Rachel, thank you very much for this information. This sounds very interesting!
Here is the Call for papers for the conference: https://networks.h-net.org/node/7636/discussions/187482/cfp-material-culture-methods-middle-islamic-periods-bonn-8-10
and here some more details about the venue: https://www.menalib.de/en/event/material-culture-methods-in-the-middle-islamic-periods/
Dear Ms. Ward, I thank you for this information. I’m very interested by this conference and I will try to attend it.
A possible source (rather old) of more examples.