Mamlūk-Ottoman Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Mamlūk and Ottoman sultans fought two major wars to dominate Syria. The second war concluded with the destruction of the Mamlūk sultanate and the elevation of the Ottoman Empire to the status of a world power.

Summary of Event

Eccentric in format, yet traditional, indeed hidebound in outlook, the Mamlūk Mamlūk Dynasty[Mamluk Dynasty] sultanate controlled Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, and portions of southern Anatolia. Facing few serious rivals since the 1400-1401 invasion of Syria by Tamerlane (also known as Timur), the so-called slave soldiers who dominated the Mamlūk Empire supported a Middle Eastern status quo. Drastic change, however, was sought by the Anatolia-based Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire;rise of . Mamlūk-Ottoman Wars (1485-1517)[Mamluk Ottoman Wars (1485-1517)] Qāytbāy Qānṣawh II al-Ghawrī Bayezid II Selim I Azbak min Tutukh Bayezid II Qāytbāy Azbak min Tutukh Mehmed Karagoz Paşa Davud Paşa Hadim Ali Paşa Qānṣawh II al-Ghawrī Ismāՙīl I Selim I

The Ottomans’ imperial project seemed to be doomed in the early fifteenth century, when Tamerlane’s great victory over them at Angora (1402) nearly destroyed their empire, realigned the balance of power in Anatolia, and allowed many small states to emerge. However, with Tamerlane’s death in 1405 and the rapid dissolution of his empire, Ottoman power enjoyed a remarkable resurgence. Moreover, the fifteenth century also saw the conduct of Middle Eastern machinations by Venice, Florence, Genoa, and the Hospitaller Knights of Rhodes, as a result of which Anatolia and Syria were more likely poised for volatile change than a continuation of the status quo.

The Mamlūk sultans, when not focused on the turbulent politics of their power base in Egypt, viewed Syria as a vital interest. They maintained several client states in southern Anatolia as buffers and guardians of the mountain passes that funneled north-south travel in the region. Karaman and Dulkadir (Dhū al-Qadr) were good examples of such crucial client states. Both states were also targets for Ottoman expansion starting in the 1470’.

Ottoman sultan Bayezid II initiated hostilities in 1484, when he sent an army into Dulkadir. His Mamlūk counterpart, Qāytbāy, had spent the previous decade propping up a client government there, and he was unwilling to abandon his interests. The result was the First Mamlūk-Ottoman War (1485-1491). A complex struggle that featured radically different military machines, it included naval operations, sieges, and set-piece battles.

Ottoman armies comprised a mix of professional soldiers—the Kapikulu, which included the famous Janissaries (yeni çeri), heavy cavalry, and artillery—and provincial troops. The latter were mainly cavalry forces and included newly acquired provincials of dubious loyalty. One outstanding feature of Ottoman soldiery was the use of gunpowder weapons. Matchlock muskets were employed in quantity and provided significant firepower. With its strong economic base, the Ottoman state could afford large armies equipped with such weapons.

Mamlūk armies were smaller, elitist, and conservative. All power and prestige went to the cavalry, especially the Julban, the personal guard of the reigning sultan. Armored and trained to employ bows plus a variety of bladed weapons, Mamlūks liked to boast that they were “equal to a thousand other soldiers.” Even their enemies agreed that Mamlūks were the best horsemen in the Middle East, but they also noted tremendous internal rivalry and poor discipline caused by the constant struggle for status in the Mamlūk system. Another problem in the Mamlūk army was a complete disdain for infantry. As artillery, and the only effective handguns of the 1400’, were designed for foot soldiers, Mamlūk cavaliers disdained all gunpowder weapons. Finally, as the purchase and training of Mamlūk slave soldiers were tremendously expensive, they were few in number.

Ottoman forces started the war with a rapid occupation of Tarsus, Adana, and key fortresses in the ancient land of Cilicia. The Ottomans’ superior resources presented the Mamlūks with a considerable challenge. First, Qāytbāy’s treasury was hard pressed to fund a war, so his mobilization was slow, allowing the Ottomans time to rebuild damaged fortresses and prepare a strong defense. Also, Mamlūk politics placed great value on residence at the seat of power, Cairo, so no leader, from the lowest emir up to the sultan, would support a long campaign far from the capital.

Demonstrating his status as the last great Mamlūk sultan, Qāytbāy produced a significant force, one that included more than half of his Julban. Under the command of Azbak min Tutukh (also known as Ozbeg or Uzbek min Tutuh), this army moved north in October, 1485. On February 9, 1486, they attacked a poorly prepared Ottoman force near Adana, Adana, First 1486 Battle of scattering these troops, and then laid siege to the city. Mehmed Karagoz Paşa directed an Ottoman relief force but was smashed at the second Battle of Adana on March 15. Adana, Second 1486 Battle of Several other Mamlūk victories followed.

Having defeated the immediate Ottoman forces, Mamlūk troopers, always a difficult body to discipline, demanded a bonus, plus rapid demobilization. Despite the need to complete several sieges and organize against a possible Ottoman counterattack, Azbak was unable to keep his army on the field, and most Mamlūks returned to Cairo by the end of 1486. Bayezid, meanwhile, organized a new army. He augmented the army by opening peace talks with Hungary, freeing experienced Balkan troops for deployment to Anatolia. During the spring and summer of 1487, commanded by Grand Vizier Davud Paşa, the Ottoman forces smashed Turkoman clans who had traditionally supported Mamlūk authority in the Taurus Mountains.

Spring of 1488 marked the start of a renewed Ottoman offensive into Cilicia. Hadim Ali Paşa commanded the invasion, designed, as Turkish contemporary historian Idris Bidlisi wrote, “to free the entire land of Syria from . . . the vile Circassian people.” With the Turkoman crushed a year before and no effective Mamlūk field army, the Ottomans quickly reoccupied key cities, forts, and mountain passes.

Qāytbāy dug deep into his treasury and produced what eyewitness Ibn Iyas described as “the largest army produced by Egypt in a hundred years.” About forty thousand strong, again commanded by Azbak, it faced an Ottoman defensive screen that included fortresses, a field army, and a fleet hovering off the Cilician coast.

Azbak benefited from a turn in the weather that sank or drove away the enemy ships and opened up the Bab al-Malik, the sea coast pass for north-south traffic into Cilicia. Deploying his army at Aga-Cayiri, Azbak set up the largest battle of the war. On August 16, 1488, Ottoman forces arrived and fighting began at noon. Although it exacted the heavy price of eight thousand casualties, Aga-Cayiri Aga-Cayiri, Battle of (1488)[Aga Cayiri, Battle of (1488)] was a Mamlūk victory. Azbak next took his army to raid Ottoman Anatolia. Bayezid, facing the possibility of renewed conflict in the Balkans, was now willing to end the war. Qāytbāy, nearly bankrupt, was anxious to do the same. A treaty of peace on September 11, 1491, returned the Anatolian frontier to the antebellum status quo.

Mamlūk power declined rapidly after 1491. Internal discord continued, while plagues ravaged the highly urbanized warrior elite. Financial hard times, already evident at the end of Qāytbāy’s reign, continued into the 1500’, as Portuguese mariners established themselves in the Indian Ocean, creating a different trade route between Asia and Europe.

When Qānṣawh II al-Ghawrī became sultan in 1501, he inherited a Mamlūk kingdom on the verge of financial and political collapse. Threats in the Balkans and Iraq distracted Ottoman attention until their decisive victory over Shah Ismāՙīl I Ṣafavid at Chāldirān in 1514. Having chastised the Iranians, Selim I, called Yavuz (“the Grim”), turned his superb army toward Syria.

Again, control of Dulkadir sparked conflict, but this time Ottoman commanders were competent, their soldiers well trained, and the technological disparity between the two armies even greater. The armies met at Marj Dabiq (August 24, 1516) Marj Dabiq, Battle of (1516) , where twenty thousand Mamlūks faced at least sixty thousand Ottomans. Massed artillery and matchlock fire devastated the Mamlūk cavalry, which broke after Sultan Qānṣawh suffered a fatal stroke. The Ottoman victory was so complete, Selim disdainfully sent a lame clerk to demand the surrender of nearby Aleppo. Several battles followed Marj Dabiq, the most significant being Raydaniyah, Raydaniyah, Battle of (1517) near Cairo, on January 22, 1517. All featured Mamlūk defeats, and the war concluded with the incorporation of the Mamlūk sultanate into the Ottoman Empire.


Concluding these wars with total victory, the Ottoman Empire became a great world power. Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Arabia provided not only financial and military assets but also an equally important level of prestige, as these provinces contained the holiest cities of Islam. This combination allowed Selim, and future Ottoman sultans, to stand as leaders of the Muslim world. In addition, eliminating their last Middle Eastern rival made it possible for the Ottomans to extend their power into the Balkans, Central Europe, and the Mediterranean.

Although the Mamlūks continued to play a role in Egyptian affairs until 1811, they never seriously influenced regional politics after 1517. Egypt itself remained under the direct control of the Ottomans until Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 invasion, and it was considered a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1914. Syria, Arabia, and Palestine were imperial provinces until the empire’s demise in 1918.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ayalon, David. Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Kingdom: A Challenge to Mediaeval Society. London: F. Cass, 1978. Important work examining why the Mamlūks failed to employ gunpowder technology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Har-el, Shai. Struggle for Domination in the Middle East: The Ottoman-Mamluk War, 1485-91. Boston: E. J. Brill, 1995. The best work in any language, with detailed coverage of diplomatic, economic, political, and military aspects of the first conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petry, Carl F. Protectors or Praetorians: The Last Mamlūk Sultans and Egypt’s Waning as a Great Power. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Examines the disintegration of the Mamlūk army, economy, and society in the late 1400’s through the end in 1517.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petry, Carl F. Twilight of Majesty: The Reigns of the Mamlūk Sultans al-Ashrāf Qāytbāy and Qanṣnh al-Ghawrī in Egypt. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993. A strong biography by a leading scholar, placing Mamlūk leadership from both wars under intense scrutiny.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petry, Carl F., ed. Islamic Egypt, 640-1517. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge History of Egypt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Extensive coverage by experts on all aspects of late Mamlūk Egypt.

1454-1481: Rise of the Ottoman Empire

1478-1482: Albanian-Turkish Wars End

1481-1512: Reign of Bayezid II and Ottoman Civil Wars

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

1520-1566: Reign of Süleyman

1525-1600: Ottoman-Ruled Egypt Sends Expeditions South and East

1529-1574: North Africa Recognizes Ottoman Suzerainty

Oct. 20-27, 1541: Holy Roman Empire Attacks Ottomans in Algiers

1578-1590: The Battle for Tabrīz

Categories: History