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.