History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 5)

In this next post, Prof. Bulliet starts off by describing a parallel Mamluk system to that of the Ottoman Empire that developed in India.

11. The Mamluk system in India

There is a parallel simultaneously in India where you have another Mamluk system arising in Delhi in the 1200s often called the “Slave Dynasty”. These are the people who were the Mamluks of the last rulers of the Ghulam (?) dynasty, a group of warlords from northwest Afghanistan. So this is not a complete anomaly in Egypt; rather, it is something that arises within this military system.

12. Military education in the Mamluk System

The Mamluks were brought in, grew up in the barracks, learned how to be soldiers, and adopted Islam, not having been Muslims to begin with. They manifested enormous loyalty towards fellow members of their regiment, towards whoever had trained them in the regiment, and towards the ruler. It was a professional military of very high quality and very strong dedication. It’s sort of like Starship Troopers if you want to look at that movie and see how a model of this sort of thing works, though actually that’s closer to Plato’s Republic, because there the soldiers become citizens (laughter).

The Mamluks in a sense never became citizens because they were always regarded as slaves. When Napoleon comes to Egypt and announces in broadsides distributed at the time of his invasion in 1798 that he has come to free the Egyptians from the tyranny of the Mamluks, the major Egyptian historian who writes a rejoinder to Napoleon says, “Free us from tyrants? They’re slaves! How can you make us free when we are free? How can you free us from slaves, because they are slaves!” There is a total disconnect with the notion of what freedom might mean. Even though the Egyptian had a very good understanding of how the French revolutionary government worked, there were very different notions on what freedom might mean.

In the Ottoman Empire, you get a particular version of this in which you do not have Mamluks, but instead you have two types of professional military. You have a military that comes probably from a tribal origin, but probably also represents to some degree Byzantine notions of military, and this is associated with the holding of land in exchange for military service. There is another form that I am talking about here that as known as Janissaries. A Janissary was a soldier who had been born a Christian (almost all of them are Christians by birth), usually from the Balkans, with a few of them from Greece. Egypt and Syria became part of the Ottoman Empire after 1516 when the Ottomans defeat the Mamluks, and absorbed the Mamluk domains into the Ottoman Empire. The Christians of Egypt and Syria never become Janissaries. They are never burdened or privileged to contribute sons to this military core. The young boys were chosen on the basis of recruiting or evaluation commissions sent out from Constantinople who were to go to the villages in the Balkans, and to select the fittest and most intelligent boys and simply take them to Istanbul.

Prof. Bulliet uses Istanbul and Constantinople interchangeably, although formally the name doesn’t change from Constantinople to Istanbul until the 1920s. The old coins didn’t say “Istanbul” on them they had a placed called Constantania which is the same as Constantinople. Once they had reached the capital, these boys were put in Turkish homes to learn Turkish, they went into military training, they received instruction on Islam, and at an appropriate age they became resident in barracks and became a standing army. They were distinctive originally because they used firearms which were awkward to use for a horseman, and therefore they were infantry. The association of a horseman with military elite was very strong; therefore the cavalry did not wish to use these arms originally. This was simply a temporary technical matter; as the arms were made lighter, they were used by horseman as well. So you had an infantry core specially trained from a socially marginal background, and frankly Prof. Bulliet believes that much of this actually patterned directly on Plato’s Republic, the translation history of which we do not know. We know that by the time of the Ottoman Empire’s origin it had been translated into Arabic, because we know that it’s referred to by philosophers in Spain. Whether it was well known at that time was not clear but the Guardians envisioned by Plato were pretty much what the Janissaries are.

13. The relationship between the military and the government

They are dedicated to the defense of the sheep, the flock, and oddly enough in Ottoman political terminology the general populous was called the sheep, or uriah, with various connections of the sheep of the flock and they are what is protected. The role of the government is to shear the fleece off the flock on a regular basis, that is to say, to extract money. The entire apparatus of administrators, warriors, and the ruler and his family were considered in Ottoman terminology oskari meaning military. Military meant you don’t pay taxes; you eat taxes.

You had a military establishment that lived on the produce of the flock and protected it. Now this notion of the government and its army conceiving of itself collectively as being “the army” goes back to before the Ottoman Empire. You can also find it in India, where the word Urdu for the version of the Hindustani language spoken by and written by Muslims comes from the Turkish word urdu which means “army” and it is the language of the army, namely the language of the court.

The Ottoman Empire had two itinerant judges, one was the Judge of the Army of Europe, and the other one was the Judge of the Army of Asia. There is a famous city in Southwestern Afghanistan called Lashkari Bazar (?) which means “the market of the army”. The notion of the army simply extends beyond the military forces; it refers to the entire court apparatus. The Janissaries are one part of this, but they become an increasingly important part both because they are military efficient and/or effective, and because they are serving twelve months a year, whereas the land-holding cavalry only shows up for during the campaigning season, which started in the spring and went until the end of summer.

The connection with the Plato’s Republic was that the Janissaries did not marry, did not engage in business, and did not own property; they were a separate caste of people. The elite of them received special training and became the administrative elite of the Empire. There was a school in the royal palace in Istanbul and is now called the Palace School of Mohammad the Conqueror, established in the middle of the 1400s after Constantinople was conquered in 1453. That school trained the elite of the children who were brought in to become part of the Janissary core; most of them became Janissaries but the elite were trained in the Palace School. That training taught them both advanced skills and all sorts of administrative skills, but it also taught them every in and out of the organization of the royal family and of the palace, which was a very complex organization. So they go through a series of internships to learn different roles. The people who come out of that school at the very top become the top administrators of the Empire. They become the viziers, and they become the military commanders and they become the most powerful people in the empire after the Sultan himself.

In the next post, Prof. Bulliet describes the origins of the Military-Commercial Complex in the Islamic World by focusing on the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire.  


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