Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri

Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri (الأشرف قانصوه الغوري) was the last of the Mamluk Sultans. One of the last of the Burji dynasty, he reigned from 1501 to 1516.On the disappearance of Sultan Al-Adil Sayf ad-Din Tuman bay I, it was not till after some days that the choice of the Emirs and Mamluks fell upon Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri. As Circassian slave, he had served Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qaitbay; was over forty before he was raised to independence as Emir of ten; and then, rapidly promoted to command of Tarsus, Aleppo and Malatia, he became Emir of a thousand, Chamberlain of the Court, and chief Vizier. At first he declined the throne; but being pressed by the Emirs, who swore faithful service, he at last consented. He was now 60 years of age; but, still firm and vigorous, soon showed the Emirs that he was not to be overruled by any of them.

Consolidation of Power

The reign began as usual with the removal of all Tuman bay’s I adherents. As dangerous to the throne, they were laid hold of, imprisoned or exiled and their property escheated; while the opposite party were restored to freedom and raised again to power and office. Tuman bay I from his hiding-place was found to be plotting against the new Sultan; after some weeks, betrayed by his friends, he was murdered by the Mamluks of an Emir whom he had put to death; and so Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri was saved from that danger without arousing the hostilities of his predecessor's party. On the other hand, the remains of Sultan Al-Ashraf Janbulat were brought from Alexandria where Tuman bay I had caused him to be executed, and royally interred at Cairo.

Present danger thus averted, Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri turned to the revenue administration. To replenish the empty treasury, exorbitant demands were levied on every kind of property to the extent of from seven to ten months' income; even religious and charitable endowments not escaping. This was exacted with such severity, not only from Jews and Christians, but from every class, as to create outbreaks in the city. In Cairo, the tax-gatherer was pursued with stones, and the Governor of Damascus slain. Besides depressing duties on commerce and trade, the coinage was largely depreciated; and death-rates so heavily imposed that little was left for the survivors. An imprudent Counselor having suggested a tax on slaves, the Sultan at the first approved; but such a storm was roused against the project that he not only dropped it in alarm, but suffered its author to have his tongue cut out; then, led all naked on a camel through the city,he was flogged and almost stoned to death; a significant mark of the prevailing barbarity and of the Sultan's inhumanity.

The money thus wrung from the people was lavished first on the Mamluks by whose help it had been raised, and then on the purchase of a multitude of slaves on whom, as fresh from abroad, the Sultan could the more safely confide. Next, there was much spent on public improvements; fortifications at Alexandria, Rosetta and elsewhere; watercourses in Egypt; a grand Mosque and College at Cairo; and new structures within the Citadel, which was now surrounded by groves of shrubs and flowers from Syria. The revenues were also largely devoted to the beautifying of Mecca, and increasing the supply of water at the Holy shrines and on the Pilgrim routes. But what surpassed all else was the brilliancy of the Court of him who but yesterday had been purchased from the Slave-dealer. It was maintained in the utmost luxury and pomp of equipage, stud, and all surroundings. Fine gold was used, not merely at the royal table, but throughout the Palace down (we are told) to the very kitchen. The Sultan's own dress and toilet were adorned with all that was costly, grand and beautiful; while poets, singers, musicians and story-tellers flocked to the Court, and flourished on the portions of the orphan and the poor.

There is not much of importance to tell of the earlier years of this reign. The outrages of the royal Mamluks must have become intolerable, for twice while Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri took fresh oaths of loyalty from his Emirs, he also on his own part swore upon Quran, that he would no more suffer his Mamluks to do them harm. We read also of some suspected treason, which led to punishments of more than ordinary barbarism. Till near the close of the Sultanate, much was not done in fighting. The Bedouins attacked Kerak and Jerusalem, but were repulsed by the Syrian Emirs. Rebellion and rival factions at Mecca and Yanbu also rendered measures necessary for chastising the Sharifs and restoring order.

Portuguese-Mamluk Wars

The chief concern was the fitting-out a fleet which should protect the Eastern seas from Portuguese attack. For it was at this time that Vasco da Gama, having in 1497 CE found his way round the Cape and obtained pilots from the coast of Zanzibar, pushed his way across the Indian Ocean to the shores of Malabar and Kozhikode, attacked the fleets that carried freight and Muslim pilgrims from India to the Red Sea, and struck terror into the potentates all around. The Rulers of Gujarat and Yemen turned for help to Egypt. Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri accordingly fitted out a fleet of 50 vessels under his Admiral, Hussein the Kurd. Jeddah by forced labor was soon fortified under Barakat II bin Muhammad better known as Barakat Efendi as a harbor of refuge from the Portuguese; now Arabia and the Red Sea were protected. But the fleets in the Indian Ocean were at the mercy of the enemy.

Various engagements took place; in one of these, an Egyptian ship belonging to Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, and in the following year a fleet of seventeen vessels from Arabian harbors- were after a hard struggle taken by the Portuguese, the cargo seized, the pilgrims and crew slain, and the vessels burned. The Sultan was affronted and angry at the attacks upon the Red Sea, the loss of tolls and- traffic, the indignities to which Mecca and its Port were subjected, and above all at the fate of his own ship, and he vowed vengeance upon Portugal. But first, through the Prior of Zion, he threatened the Pope that if he did not check Ferdinand and Manuel I of Portugal in their depredations on the Indian Seas, he would destroy all christian Holy places, and treat Christians as they were treating the followers of Islam. Foiled in this demand, a naval enterprise was set on foot and carried out with various successes. In Battle of Chaul in 1508, Lourenço de Almeida was discomfited and lost his life; but in the following year the defeat was avenged by a terrible discomfiture of the Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Diu in which the Port city of Diu was wrested from the Gujarat Sultanate of India by Francisco de Almeida. Some years after, Afonso de Albuquerque took Aden, while the Egyptian troops suffered disaster in Yemen. Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri now fitted out a new fleet to punish the enemy and protect the Indian trade; but before its results were known, Egypt had lost her sovereignty, and the Red Sea with Mecca and all its Arabian interests had passed into Ottoman hands.

Ottoman-Safavid intrusions

Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II was still engaged in Europe when there suddenly in 1501 appeared a new ground of hostility with Egypt. It arose out of the relations of the two kingdoms with the Safavid dynasty in Persia. Shah Ismail I of Persia was a Shia Muslim who had embarked on a war with the Sunni Ottoman Sultanate over the Caucasus and religious differences. Many Sufi sects had been arrested or exiled by Sultan Bayezid II as dangerous to his rule; and Shah Ismail I's request, that instead they should be allowed free transit into Europe across the Bosporus, was rejected. Upon this, Shah Ismail I sent an Embassy to the Venetians via Syria inviting them to join his arms and recover the territory taken from them by the Porte. Sultan Bayezid II, angry with the Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, complained bitterly that this Embassy had been suffered to pass through Syria. To appease him, Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri placed in confinement the Venetian merchants then in Syria and Egypt. And although, fearing reprisals from Venice, he after a year released them, yet the relations between Egypt and the Porte remained peaceful for a time.

On the succession, however, of Selim I to the throne of Ottoman Sultanate, things took a very different turn. Not only had the attitude of Shah Ismail I become more threatening, but Sultan Selim I himself was more of the warrior than his Father.Selim I set out against him, and the Battle of Chaldiran was fought near Tabriz on August 23, 1514. The fanaticism of the Sufis, which led even to their women joining in the combat, failed against the cavalry and artillery of the Turks, and Ismail after a disastrous defeat fled and escaped. Selim I, his provisions failing, returned westward and spent the winter at Amasia. In the spring taking the field again, he attacked the Bey of Dulkadir who as Egypt's vassal had stood aloof, and sent his head with tidings of the victory to Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri. Selim I later overran Diyarbakır and Iraq, taking Roha, Nisibin, Mosul and other cities. Secure now against Shah Ismail I, a larger project dawned upon Selim I; it was the conquest of Egypt, and the fact that the invasion must be made from Syria. With no anxieties toward the North, he could now safely make the advance, and so in the spring of 1516 CE he drew together for this end a great and well-appointed army; and with the view of deceiving Egypt, represented his object to be the further pursuit of Shah Ismail I.

Fall of the Mamluk Sultanate

Leaving Al-Ashraf Tuman bay II the Vizier, in charge, Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri marched against the Ottoman Turks. He was defeated by Selim I at the Battle of Marj Dabiq, north of Aleppo, on August 24, 1516; the betrayal of two Mamluk leaders Janberdi Al-Ghazali and Khayr Baig led to the Mamluk defeat and to the death of the Sultan Qansuh. This marked the end of Mamluk control of the Middle East that eventually passed to the Ottomans.Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri himself fell upon the field and his head was carried to the Conqueror.

Accounts however vary to how he met his end. It is said that Khayr Baig spread report of his death to precipitate the Egyptian flight. According to some the Sultan was found alive on the field, and his head cut off and buried to prevent its falling into the enemy's hands. The Ottoman account is that he was beheaded by a Turk whom Sultan Selim I would have put to death, but afterwards pardoned.

Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri had reigned a little more than 15 years. Of his private life and domestic administration we know but little, for as we reach the later years of the Mamluk Sultanate, details become too scanty for a judgment. He could, as we have seen, be cruel and extortionate, but so far as our information goes, there is less to say against him than against most of the previous Sultans.


The Mameluke; Or, Slave Dynasty of Egypt, 1260-1517, A. D. - By William Muir

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