Salah ad-Din 6: The Ayyubids

The Army of Salah ad-Din - 14th century manuscript


  • Abulafia, David. Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. Oxford University Press, 1992

  • Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot. A History of Egypt: From the Arab Conquest to the Present. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

  • Humphreys, R. Stephen. From Saladin to the Mongols. State University of New York Press, 1977.

  • Lyons, Malcolm Cameron & Jackson, D.E.P. Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War. Cambridge University Press, 1982.


It’s 1193, and Salah ad-Din is dead. Carried out of conflict as a newborn child, he’d risen from his status among the Zengid emirs, to found a sultanate in the wreckage of Fatimid Egypt and then join it to Syria, stretch along the north African coast westward into what is now Libya, southeast along the coast of Arabia, north into Anatolia, and east into northern Iraq.

The Zengids’ power was greatly reduced, the Fatimids essentially no more, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem the same. All that remained of the Crusader States was Antioch and Tripoli, Beirut down to Jaffa, a narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean. All the old rivals were gone, and the figureheads of the Third Crusade had ebbed with that tide. There was no Richard the Lionheart left on those shores, no Nur ad-Din or equivalent to oppose him.

To his family, Salah ad-Din left this very agreeable situation, and he left important lands. In Damascus and its substantial dependencies, his eldest son al-Afdal; over two Jordan valley fortresses, a nephew; over Egypt, his second son, al-Aziz Uthman; over Aleppo and its lands, a third, al-Zahir Ghazi; over areas of Transjordan, Diyar Mudar, and Diyar Bakr, his youngest brother al-’Adil, and so on, with other cities, fortresses, and regions administered by various relatives, mamluks, and emirs. These were perhaps not intended to be permanent arrangements. But he had to a great extent trusted and relied on his family and allowed them to oversee important centres of power in the sultanate he was now passing on. 

However, Salah ad-Din was not passing on an established dynastic empire, and that was important. This was power, but what guaranteed its continuance? No mandate of heaven or similar underpinning idea, the authority from Baghdad perhaps, but then how much could Salah ad-Din’s heirs rely on that to be supportive? Not much when it mattered, the deceased sultan might have answered, if he could. And indeed, the caliphs would have little to do with the doings of his descendants. 

Hello and welcome. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, a podcast following the journeys of medieval travellers of all kinds. My thanks go out this time to new Patreon members, Tony, Nicholas, and Daniel, for helping keep this ship afloat, and to everyone on the Patreon for your patience, kindness, and support. It means a lot to me.

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This episode is a little what-came-next for the Salah ad-Din series. And it is little, and it is only one; I’m not rebranding this as the Ayyubid History Podcast. But I do want to draw that line of connection between Maimonides and Salah ad-Din in the late 12th century and those travellers to Mongol lands, those Friar Carpines and Marco Polos in the mid to late 13th. I want to tell you what became of the Ayyubids once Salah ad-Din had left the scene, how they coped in the decades after, and how it came to pass that the Mamluks took power. 

I should note here before we begin that one particular source I’ve made heavy use of here is R. Stephen Humpreys’ From Saladin to the Mongols, and also that this is a bit of an unusual episode for me, covering a much broader stretch of time and there are, by necessity, quite a few names here. That warning aside, let’s get started.

Know first that Salah ad-Din’s legacy did not immediately disintegrate. Other family aside, he left behind 18 children, 17 of them sons, not a quantity the later Ottomans would allow to kick about or cause trouble. But it did not dissolve into warring successor emirates that struggled against one another until some larger minnow might swallow them up. The sultanate held. 

That’s not to say there wasn’t struggle though. There was quite a bit of that. 

As mentioned at the end of the last Salah ad-Din episode, in Damascus, his son al-Afdal sent to Baghdad for recognition of his inheritance, and he accepted vows of allegiance. But as we’ll see, they didn’t quite stick. 

A large portion of the blame for that failure seems to lie with Al-Afdal himself. I don’t meant to judge him too harshly - it’s quite possible that those who’ve chronicled his shortcomings have already done so - but it very much appears that he was not cut out for his new role. 

To be fair, al-Afdal had difficult work cut out for him; really, all of Salah ad-Din’s sons did. In Aleppo, al-Zahir Ghazi dealt with local lords who were themselves pretty established in their own power, some having been granted their lands under Zengid rule, and besides that he was threatened by Cilician Armenia and the Seljuks. Al-’Aziz ‘Uthman in Egypt benefited from the richest region and the administration to oversee it, but plague, the failure of the Nile to more fully flood, and famine, along with financial problems dating back to his father’s rule, all conspired against him. As for Al-Afdal, in Damascus he had the most prestigious post, but not the most prosperous, never able to support armies of the size that Egypt had; those in power within it owed their positions not to him, but to his father; and his territories were, on the one hand, not contiguous, while being, on the other, particularly exposed to renewed outbreaks of crusade. There were challenges ahead for all.

The first threat the post-Salah ad-Din sultanate dealt with would be Zengid aggression - there still being Zengid lords floating about - towards the territory of al-Afdal’s uncle, al-’Adil. The Ayyubids responded successfully; they cooperated rather than collapsed, and that was good. But they did so not under the command or direction of al-Afdal, instead contributing troops to the efforts of the most directly involved Ayyubid leader al-’Adil. And that wasn’t necessarily bad. Indeed, it may have made the most sense, but it hardly cemented the status of Sultan al-Afdal as supreme leader.

And that supreme leader had other problems too. As I said, those who wielded power in his personal realm did so thanks to his father; they owed him nothing, and his vazir told him so in no uncertain terms, pointing out that in contrast to these established men, “outsiders [would] be content with anything [he gave] them, and they [would] acknowledge [his] rights and exalt [him].” The dangerous suggestion to install his own people may have been the correct one, but it would not go well for him. 

Those displaced in power did not just accept retirement and disappear. They reestablished themselves in Aleppo, Cairo, and elsewhere. Those who came to Cairo urged al-’Aziz to unseat his older brother, and tensions, whatever their status had previously been, simmered up, until in 1194, al-’Aziz was indeed demanding the sultanate and marching demonstratively toward Damascus. There would be no fighting though, not right away. If there was disagreement over rulership, these Ayyubid inheritors of Salah ad-Din’s world were bound by something still that kept them back from outright warfare. 

Nonetheless, pressure built, and al-Afdal began withdrawing from the unpleasant business of rule, increasingly surrendering responsibilities to that vizir. There are actually indications that he would have been quite content to turn the office over to his brother, to sit in Damascus as emir but not sultan. But those new appointments of his, the men of that circle around him, were more invested than he in his holding his position of power. They pressed him to keep his hold, and so he held it, for now.

As brother was positioned against brother, as 1194 rolled into ‘95, the figure that emerged as the real power was not one of the brothers at all, but their uncle, al-’Adil. He had faced the Zengid challenge, been instrumental in negotiating peace during the first brotherly standoff, and would be the man al-Afdal would call upon for aid in 1195, the “sultan” even allowing his uncle to  ride first in processions and take over governance of Damascus while he was in the city.

Al-’Adil was going to use the military jockeying that followed to arrange a peace that put him in Egypt, one of its wealthy provinces added to his own holdings. There, just like his brother al-Afdal had, al-’Aziz turned over administration of his lands to his uncle, and soon uncle al-’Adil would be talking his nephew into campaigning for a third time to unseat al-Afdal. This time, al-’Adil would not be standing in his way. 

Though troops of two other Ayyubid princes were set to defend Damascus, the storming of the city went on almost unresisted with gates opened to the attackers. Inside the city, al-’Aziz and al-’Adil waited until al-Afdal came down from the citadel and accepted his consolation prize: not the sultanate and not Damascus, but the isolated fortress of Salkhad in southern Syria. The vizir who had talked him into uprooting the old emirs and then fighting for his hold on power would exit the city in fear for his life, concealed among al-Afdal’s baggage. And in 1196, not so very long after the death of Salah ad-Din, the Ayyubids had their second sultan since. Interestingly, it would not be al-’Adil, who appears to have been very capable of taking power for himself, not yet at least, but al-’Aziz Uthman. 

The following years saw peace, for the most part, among Ayyubid rulers, though there were threats from outside. There was al-’Adil’s raid on the Artuqids of eastern Anatolia. There was the 1197 return of German forces to Acre, their expedition occupying the coast before 1198 brought a renewed treaty to last 5 years and 8 months.

And then, on November 19th, 1198, al-’Aziz died in Cairo, a victim of the classic hunting accident. He’d had time to make arrangements to declare his son his successor, and there was a willingness to respect this, but that son was only 10. There would need to be a regent, and there were going to be two candidates. The first, not so surprisingly, was al-’Adil; the second, rather more so was ex-sultan al-Afdal. 

With each candidate having their partisans, the situation called for an arbitrator, and for that, those involved looked to a familiar figure. They sought the advice of an aging al-Qadi al-Fadil, familiar to us from the Maimonides episodes, and even though he’d previously left al-Afdal’s service and contributed money to efforts to bring him down, he now chose the former sultan to be regent. And maybe the choice had more to do with with who al-’Adil was than al-Afdal. There were times when a distinct lack of ambition in a man was a valuable asset, so by early 1199, al-Afdal was in Egypt to take up his office, but then by early 1200, al-’Adil was in Cairo and making no mention of any child-sultan. He was the sultan himself, but how had it happened?

As al-Afdal had closed in on Egypt he’d become very aware that there were forces at work which did not welcome his arrival as regent. In fact, on his way in, he’d happened to intercept a courier carrying a message to that effect out, and then he realized that some emirs of his court had slipped away and abandoned him. He wouldn’t have needed to think long on where they might go to, on who the threat was likely to come from. He likely saw the writing on the wall, and, perhaps unwisely, he resolved to strike first.

The conflict that was kicked off was not another work of diplomatic theatre in which armies marched about in precursors to familial negotiation; things had now heated up beyond that point. There was a siege of Damascus al-Afdal and his brother and ally attacking al-’Adil there; there was al-’Adil’s usual craft in his bribery and letter writing campaigns, spreading distrust and cultivating deserters; there were raids on the surrounding iqtas, hoping to drain the will of al-’Adil’s supporters. But at Damascus, it was the besiegers’ wills that would drain away first. Likely stirred up by their uncle, disagreements between al-Afdal and al-Zahir led to the breaking of the siege, and al-Afdal withdrew towards Egypt, al-’Adil on the hunt after him. He turned to face his pursuer, but he had too few soldiers to do so, for many of his men had already returned to their homes. His army was crushed, and he fled for Cairo. 

Out of options, al-Afdal made a final play, offering Cairo in exchange for Damascus to no avail; then, Harran and Edessa, but again, no. Finally, he was promised some minor marches in the north of the empire, where he could cause little further trouble. On the 5th of February, 1200, he left, and four days later, al-’Adil was in Cairo. 

Had he planned all along to make himself sultan? It’s not entirely clear. He had pursued power for himself and his children at every step but not the sultanate, and there had been prior opportunities. But now, though he did not have broad support, though many, including those who had come to him to oppose al-Afdal’s regency, were against his seizing of the sultanate, he took it. 

There would be armed resistance to the act. His nephew al-Zahir would react with alarm and come to al-Afdal’s aid, but it would all fall apart, and al-’Adil would be sitting as sultan for a good long time. 

In al-’Adil, the Ayyubid dynasty had, if not a son of Salah ad-Din himself, a source of lasting stability, a ruler who would stick around for more than a year or two. In fact, he’d stick around until 1218, and in some ways he’d accomplish something greater than his much more beloved brother Salah ad-Din. Hard to build an empire, arguably harder to hold it together after the founding figure’s death.

With the passing of the sultanate into al-’Adil’s hands, the history of the Ayyubid realms took a turn. Al-’Adil was going to almost entirely replace his brother’s sons with his own, marrying his daughter to perhaps his most threatening nephew - Az-Zahir Ghazi in Aleppo - and when you look at the dynasty to come, it would be his family line, not his brother’s.

But before we get to that dynasty to come, a quick break.

I want to start to zoom out a little now, now that we’ve seen the Ayyubids survive their first decades and settle somewhat comfortably in, seen them consolidate and then expand their hold, and I want to pick up the historical pace a little, to take up a couple of threads that will bring us to the end.

The first of those threads is crusade. Of course, it had already almost broken the entire Ayyubid project. When the Third Crusade had reached their shores, the cost had been enormous, in money, lives, and alliances. The strain it had brought upon Salah ad-Din, his emirs, and family, had been immeasurable, and al-’Adil had been there for all of that, for the long, shattering loss at Acre, for the whole thing, and it can be viewed as shaping his entire policy. 

He’d seen the whiplash response to his brother’s greatest victories, a response that had mired his people in bloody and expensive wars. So when elements of the Fourth Crusade arrived in 1204, he did take a combined army out to meet them, but he didn’t use its overwhelming force to destroy them, didn’t strike back at local Latin Christians. He used it to negotiate, and he made some small concessions, willing to give up a town or its profits here or there so as not to invite more violence, which is not to say he avoided violence entirely. In 1207, he was responding to raids by besieging the Crac des Chevaliers and Tripoli, but there too, he would not go all in. Like his brother, he wouldn’t be caught up in long sieges if he could help it. Unlike his brother, he would try to avoid inspiring a massive response from Latin Christian Europe.

But for all his apparent efforts to avoid crusader conflict, his soft touch in retaliation, and his openness to trade, it was almost all undone in the next decade as the forces of the Fifth Crusade arrived. It was a multi-year effort with raiding across the Jordan and an attempt on Egypt where al-’Adil’s oldest son al-Kamil oversaw the defence. The sultan himself was dealing with a Seljuk threat from the north where al-Afdal had been convinced to take the Seljuk side against his uncle. Oh, and there was also a Khwarizmian delegation come to see about a new enemy that was threatening their territory, a threat which manifested itself quickly enough that when a pair of Ayyubid envoys made the return trip, they found the Khwarizmian shah had already been forced to make his escape. The Mongols had arrived in the region and were making themselves known. And in the midst of all this, in 1218, al-’Adil died.

It was a most inauspicious time for him to die, what with the dangers by which they were beset, but maybe it was for the best. Three of Al-’Adil’s sons essentially oversaw the family empire, with al-Kamil among them the acknowledged leader, and they did not allow it to collapse under the pressure, did not grasp after the opportunity to turn on one another. 

As it was, they had more than enough to deal with without such strife. The fortifications of many vulnerable positions were dismantled lest they be lost to the crusaders and used as footholds, most alarmingly Jerusalem itself. Damietta at the Nile mouth was taken, and a march made on Cairo. Al-Kamil in Egypt needed his two brothers’ help in defending it, and the one, al-Mu’azzam, called first on the other, al-Ashraf who had been untroubled in his territories and doing quite well for himself really, to convince him to finally provide some substantial aid. It’s worth noting that al-Ashraf also received an appeal for help from the Georgians who at this point were also dealing with that new, little-known enemy called the Mongols. More on them later. 

For now, al-Mu’azzam and his rather more reluctant brother arrived in time to take part in the August 1221 defeat of the crusading army. They were also in time to stop al-Kamil’s peace efforts, his offers to the crusaders which would have traded away no small portion of Salah ad-Din’s conquests and al-Mu’azzam’s territories.

The crusade had other features of interest. It was the occasion for St Francis of Assisi to meet with Sultan al-Kamil, and there were whispers of intervention by a Prester John type figure, but from an Ayyubid perspective, though it had nearly brought disaster, it had at least amounted to internal peace. And that internal peace would end with the crusade. Disputes over Hama would lead to bruised egos, and there were the ambitions of younger siblings to be accounted for. Maybe it would have been better if that Fifth Crusade had just rolled right along. 

Feeling increasingly the odd man out in the family, and anxious at his brother’s power, al-Mu’azzam engaged in a series of alliances against al-Ashraf who was again not the sultan but was really thriving. He took sides with a younger brother and then with the Khwarizmian shah’s son along with a motley collection of other allies. He essentially imprisoned al-Ashraf for a lengthy time, trying to squeeze from him the concessions he wanted, but he was not the only Ayyubid lord willing to look outside the family for help. Sultan al-Kamil had been in touch with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in Sicily, invited him in to intervene in the situation, and now, again, there were crusaders coming ashore at Acre, this time an imperial crusade. 

Both plans however, were to be ruined, for later that year al-Mu’azzam was dead of dysentery. He’d had his brushes with anti-familial misadventure, but then he’d never challenged his brother al-Kamil’s rights as sultan. Either way, 1227 was proving little calmer than previous periods of Ayyubid existence.

Still, though Frederick’s arrival was going to be a bit of an embarrassment for the sultan - he had after all invited in a Latin Christian army in to deal with a troublesome brother who no longer breathed - his was to be another reign of significant length and stability, from 1218 until 1238. There’d be squabbles between brothers and fighting between al-Kamil and one of al-Mu’azzam’s sons, but the sultanate held, as it had in the aftermath of Salah ad-Din’s death, as it had under the rule of al-’Adil. 

Perhaps the most striking event of that long reign concerned what to do about Frederick. His brother out of the way, and negotiations concluding with al-Ashraf, the sultan would have been keen to come to a quick arrangement and turn to solidifying domestic affairs. Across the table from him was, to say the least, quite the character.

Frederick II, the twice excommunicated “wonder of the world,” polylingual patron of arts, animals, and sciences, and noted falconer, had been much delayed in travelling from his renowned court at Palermo. He’d pledged to participate in the Fifth Crusade, but troubles at home had kept him away and then a recent sickness had provided another setback, simply an inexcusable one in the view of the antagonistic Pope Gregory IX. Indeed, he now crusaded unblessed by the pope, a contradiction in terms.  

Also unlike many crusading leaders before him, Frederick arrived in late 1228 already willing to talk to the Islamic leaders of the region, maybe because of his pre-existing contacts with them, al-Kamil included. Immediately, he was on the diplomatic offensive. All he needed, he pressed al-Kamil, all he needed to return home and hold his head high before kings and pope, was the return of Jerusalem, an unfortified husk of a city that was in any case far less important to al-Kamil than to Frederick. Astonishing both Christians and Muslims, he would eventually get what he asked for.

To Christians, that the long-awaited awaited imperial crusade should conclude without combat was an inglorious affront to the ideal of crusade as a physical struggle and sacrifice through which grace was granted. That the holy city should simply be handed over and a ten-year truce agreed to after a series of rigorous chats was pleasing to neither side, but that was exactly what al-Kamil did. He gave Frederick a strip of villages running a route from Acre to Jerusalem and the city itself, though its defences were not to be rebuilt. He retained the villages around Jerusalem, its Islamic holy places, and all religious rights for Muslims within the city, and he waved goodbye to another crusade without all the death and loss that previous ones had caused. He trumpeted the benefits of the move and the ease of taking the city back once the truce was done to all who would listen, but one does not simply hand over a holy city whose acquisition had been the public goal of Nur ad-Din and Salah ad-Din without public criticism. Of that there was plenty. 

The early 1230s were defined by cooperation between the two poles of Ayyubid power, Damascus and Cairo, al-Ashraf in the one and Sultan al-Kamil in the other, facing threats both internal and external, the latter including confrontations with Seljuk armies and with the last acts of a Khwarizmian leader before he was swept away by Mongols and then murdered. Those Mongols were getting closer, entering eastern Ayyubid territories in present-day Iraq. They were not pressing the Ayyubids yet, but their impact was felt long before their attack. The displaced Khwarizmians, for example, were going to continue to be a force in Ayyubid affairs for some time still. 

In the late 30s, the problems were more internal in nature. Within that delicate web of independent emirates, there was building dissatisfaction with al-Kamil’s rule, and leading the charge was al-Ashraf in Damascus who had, after all, contributed a great deal to his sultan’s causes in recent years and with more loss than gain to himself. Fascinatingly, the demand this coalition delivered to Cairo was no threat to the sultan’s own seat of power. Instead, they demanded that he stay there, that he “should never again leave Egypt nor mount an expedition into Syria.” But al-Ashraf’s death, and the clashes of his successor with other coalition members prompet al-Kamil to leave Egypt in force and mount an expedition into Syria to besiege Damascus. Al-Kamil stuck grimly to the siege through winter and loss, and he entered as conqueror in January 1238. Only two months later though, he also was dead of dysentery and the sultanate, in a moment of strife, in need of a sultan. As one would expect, the uncertainty of selecting a new one would not bring peace to the Ayyubid domains.

Al-Kamil had left instructions for heirs to be installed in Egypt and in the Jazira, the northeastern territories, and a council of emirs from his army, still in Syria at the time - and yes, it is a dangerous step for these things to be decided by a military council - respected those wishes, but Damascus, Damascus was always something else. The minor prince who they gave the city to, probably because they thought him most easily controlled, had to immediately fight off a challenger who felt himself infinitely more worthy, and who had in fact been promised the place by the late sultan. Then that minor prince, the no longer so minor al-Jawad, had his name included in sermons along with the sultan, positioning himself as an equal and independent ruler, sounded out his fellow Syrian princes as to how they might feel about standing up to Cairo. It was ever that way in Ayyubid politics: the power and resources in Egypt and in Syria the will not to be dominated by it.

In this case, it was al-’Adil II looking on from Cairo and becoming immediately concerned with the Damascene governor those emirs had saddled him with. He dispatched someone to Damascus to bring the unruly al-Jawad to heel, but that someone was promptly murdered, given the old “here’s a petition for you to look at,” and then “here’s a knife to stab you with while you do that.” Al-Jawad was absolutely appalled in public, appropriately so, though his immediate confiscation of the dead man’s wealth and attempt to hire on his mamluks seems less seemly.  

Having picked this fight, al-Jawad evidently felt he didn’t have the strength to keep it up. Maybe part of that was down to his having emptied the treasury in Damascus and then having made himself very unpopular by employing a harem servant in extorting the citizenry to replace it. Whatever the motivation, he now invited the ruler of Jazira to Damascus, to replace al-’Adil’s name in the sermon and to take power in Damascus. The man he was inviting to replace him, who would soon be replacing al-’Adil too, was al-Kamil’s son, Sultan al-’Adil’s brother, al-Salih. 

Al-Salih was extending himself in coming to the city, was leaving his lands to the east somewhat vulnerable, but he was gambling for a greater goal. He immediately began to explore the possibility of a move on Egypt.  

And he did not have long to ponder it before an invitation came his way; people were ever inviting him places. Here, it was his father’s old emirs who called on him to replace his brother. And he seems to have been inclined to accept that invitation. 

He moved towards Egypt gathering support, but before he could reach it, Damascus was snatched up behind him. The attempt’s success came too quickly for him to bring relief to the city, though he rushed to do so. Much of the support he had gained on the promise of near-future glory now evaporated, leaving him with but a small following, small enough to nearly be taken by a group of Bedouin as he and his men sought safety in Nablus, between Nazareth and Jerusalem. Things did not improve there. 

The prince he sought safety with took al-Salih prisoner, for his own safety he claimed. An agreement was reached that would allow the two to work in alliance, but even combined, their immediate forces were no match for sultan’s in Cairo. That much was clear when the two sides initially closed. Al-Salih withdrew, despairing, to a shrine, looking for divine inspiration. Then he received another invitation. 

He learned that the sultan had been captured by his own soldiers. They were holding him prisoner and now, in the spring of 1240, called on al-Salih to come to Cairo and be their sultan. As we know, he was not one to turn down such an invitation. 

But once installed in Cairo, he was in a tricky situation. His cousin, who had seized him and then helped him, was rumoured to have tried bribing his mamluks and was in no way to be relied upon. His scheming uncle, who had stolen Damascus from him, still held that city, and that uncle had also reached an agreement with Theobald of Champagne, leader of the Barons’ Crusade, a thus far ineffectual effort that had nonetheless brought a substantial heavy cavalry force into the situation. And as for his soldiers, who now could al-Salih trust? He knew there were divisions among the men, knew that there had been disagreements over installing him in power, knew that certain contingents were now conspiring to replace him. He locked himself away in the citadel and kept his heir a safe distance from Egypt. He ordered mass arrests, made mass purchases of enslaved Kipchaks produced by the Mongol invasions, and increasingly he depended on these mamluks, these enslaved soldiers, in all things. Other Ayyubids had always used them before - Salah ad-Din had himself - but not to this extent, and it was going to be a problem. Not for al-Salih himself, but it was going to be a problem, and not just any problem, it was going to be the one that brought a sudden end to Ayyubid rule in Egypt.

Al-Salih was going to juggle dangerous forces to deal with his fellow Ayyubid royalty, those mamluks on the one hand and Khwarezmian fighters on the other, the Khwarezmians even being allowed to sack Jerusalem at one point. Actually, his reign, from 1240-1249, was notable for a number of reasons such as being the first Ayyubid in some time to be officially acknowledged as Sultan by the Abbasid caliph, such as the sultan in Egypt finally governing over Damascus as an imperial province rather than a semi-independent emirate and home to a rival member of the family, such as more, much more, of the interminable Ayyubid civil wars, these ones poisonous enough to, quote, “dissolve the family solidarity which had so characterized the Ayyubids,” such as the actions of an appropriately paranoid ruler who viewed any family member as a potential magnet for violent disloyalty. But what I’m more interested in here, is what came after.

When al-Salih died in November 1249, just five months after a new crop of crusaders under Louis IX had arrived in Egypt, his widow Shajar al-Durr correctly assessed the risks involved and informed hardly anyone, continuing to issues decrees in his name until the heir Turanshah could be called for. And that part went well. Turanshah safely reached Damascus with a small group of companions, was declared sultan, spread the money around, and headed for Egypt in time to participate in a victory over the crusaders and the capturing of Louis IX. But then, like others before him, he made the mistake of replacing the old guard, which had been quite supportive of him so far, with his own people. And soon he was further alienating those around him, even drunkenly issuing threats; he was antagonizing nearly every important emir, and also the leaders of al-Salih’s two mamluk corps, which was not good.

Al-Salih had come to rely too heavily on those mamluks. He’d broken the old rule to always create a balance of different groups within the military that could be played off against one another. It had worked for him, but what reason did those mamluks have to transfer their loyalties to his heir? This was a man who al-Salih had seen as a potential rival and kept at a distance, just another Ayyubid relative really. And the mamluks had a lot of experience in fighting against Ayyubid relatives. Circumstances did not exactly encourage dynastic loyalty.  

So maybe it was all too predictable that on one monday night in May of 1250, Turanshah was happily banqueting in his pavilion when a reported 500 mamluks rushed in, swords out and intentions clear. The sultan ran to a wooden tower, already bleeding, but the tower would not hide him; the mamluks set it on fire, forcing him out and spearing him as he fled. He ran now to the river, but that did nothing for him either and he was shot with arrows from the shore. He stood in the shallows begging his attackers to spare him, but it was too late for that. One of them stepped out into the water and killed him, and his body was dragged out and left beside the river for three days before being buried.

In the aftermath of Turanshah’s death, al-Salih’s widow, Shajar al-Durr, was named in the sermons as sultana and a mid-level mamluk officer chosen to rule with her, an office that was first refused by several senior emirs who saw realistically they could not control the mamluks and likely did not want to share Turanshah’s fate. Soon after, Shajar al-Durr was married to that mamluk officer, Izz al-Din Aybak, and he was declared as sultan of Egypt, the first Mamluk sultan of Egypt.

By this time in the plotline, our friend from the Mongols series, Friar Giovanni, had been east and back again, and Friar William would make his journey in just a few years. About a decade after that, the monk Bar Sauma would come west from Kublai Khan’s lands to the court of Ilkhan. 

Shajar al-Durr, the widow who had held things together and then, for a time, the sultana, would eventually fall out with her husband, Aybak, and have him killed. For her part in it, she would in turn be murdered. There would be some further Ayyubid traces in Egypt - 6-year-old Ayyubid boy would even be plucked up to briefly serve as puppet - but the descendents of Salah ad-Din would no longer be ruling from Cairo. That was done. In Egypt, the age of the Mamluks with a capital M had begun.

The Ayyubid dynasty would stagger on in Syria. Salah ad-Din’s great grandson, al-Nasir would unite much of it under his rule in opposition to Mamluk Cairo. He would hold sway there until the Mongols came along. But that wasn’t so far away now either. In 1258, the Mongols under Hulagu Khan took Baghdad and put an end to that era of the Abbasid Caliphate, an end entirely bar the Abbasid relatives installed as religious leaders in Egypt by the Mamluks. And in 1260, the Mongols were in Syria and conquering Aleppo and Damascus, capturing al-Nasir himself and later executing him. The Ayyubids, turned out of Egypt by their mamluks, would then be truly finished in Syria too, by this force sweeping in from the east, a force which only those Mamluks were going to stand up to. And they would stand up, again and again to Mongol attempts at expansion, until the Ilkhanate took shape on their borders, ever hostile, but never able to take much of Syria from them for very long. But that’s another story.  

This has been a quick wander through Ayyubid history, very quick in parts, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it and didn’t find the barrage of new names too much to deal with. If you’re listening to the Transcontinental Friar Patreon feed, then in a moment I’ll be going into detail on a particular moment of Ayyubid upheaval that I didn’t have space for here. If not, thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with a new medieval traveller.