Baibars is one of Egypt’s most important Sultans, a Mamluk warrior, and an influential figure in the Middle East during the 13th century. Baibars’ rule was marked by constant warfare with the Christian Crusaders sent from Europe and Mongol invasions from the East. Baibars’ Mamluk armies were able to stop both of these enemies from spreading their influences further westward into Islamic territory.
Read on to learn about the rule and the heroic deeds of Sultan Baibars.
Sultan Baibars was born in the land of the Kipchak Turks in 1223 AD and died on July 1, 1277 AD, in Damascus, Syria. His full name was al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Rukn al-Dīn Baibars al-Bunduqdārī, or Al-Ṣāliḥī, that in Turkic means “great panther” or “lord panther.” He used this frequently on his blazon, or coat of arms.
Throughout his reign as sultan, he put the image of a panther on currency and buildings throughout his empire. Some depictions also showed a panther chasing a rat, which may represent his military victories against the Crusaders.
Baibars, who ruled as sultan from 1260 to 1277 AD, is considered the most important of the Mamluk sultans of Egypt and Syria. He is most known for his military campaigns fighting against the Mongols and Crusaders, along with many domestic reforms that strengthened the Egyptian and Mamluk influence in the region.
In the Arabic world, a folk account of his life story, called the “Sirat Baibars,” is still popular today.
– Early Life
Historians still debate about Baibar’s exact birthplace, with some claiming he was born north of the Black Sea, in Crimea, and others claiming he was born in the Dasht-I Kipchak, located today between the Volga and Ural rivers.
Baibar was a Kipchak, an ethnic group of Turkic nomads and pastoralists that lived in the Eurasian Steppe. Within the Kipchak ethnic group, he belonged to the Barli tribe, which settled in the Second Bulgarian Empire during Baibar’s childhood after fleeing from invading Mongol armies.
This migration did not save the Barli from the Mongol armies, as the Mongols invaded Bulgaria and slaughtered the Barli settlers in 1242 AD. Baibars witnessed the killing of both of his parents during the massacre and was sold into slavery at a Sīwās slave market in the Sultanate of Rum, in modern day Turkey. This incident created deep hatred for the Mongols.
He was reportedly sold soon after to a wealthy Egyptian named Alā’ al-Dīn Īdīkīn al-Bunduqārī in modern day Syria, who brought him to Cairo, Egypt. Turkish speaking slaves were a prized possession and were usually used as troops in the military. Baibars came under the possession of Sultan al-Ṣāliḥ Najm al-Dīn Ayyūb of the Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt after al-Bunduqārī was arrested.
– Baibar’s Rise in the Military
Under the control of the sultan, Baibars was sent to an island on the Nile River to train for the Egyptian army, and quickly proved to be a skilled soldier. After the completion of his military training, he commanded the Sultan’s personal guards. Baibars may have fought in the Egyptian army during the aftermath of the Sixth Crusade, in the victorious Battle of La Forbie, in 1244 AD.
Baibars quickly rose through the ranks and became a military commander of the Ayyūbid army, winning his first victory while defending the city of Al-Manṣūrah in 1250 against Louis X’s crusader army.
During this decisive battle, Baibars showed his skills as a brilliant military tactician. He strategically opened the gates of the town and allowed the crusader troops to rush into what they thought was a deserted town.
Once the knights were trapped inside the city’s gates, they were ambushed and besieged from all directions by both his Mamluk warriors and the town’s population. The troops of the Knights Templar took devastating losses, with several important leaders dying in the battle.
– The First Steps in Politics: Overthrowing the Sultan
After participating in the Battle of Fariskur — the final and major battle of the Seventh Crusade — Baibars played a leading role in the Mamlūk overthrow of the new sultan, Tūrān Shāh, who would be the last Ayyūbid sultan.
This assassination caused mass confusion and unrest throughout Egypt, and the assassinated sultan’s widow became sultana. Baibars and other Mamlūk leaders were forced to flee to Syria until 1260 AD, when the reign of the first Mamlūk sultan, Aybak, finished.
After that, fugitives were able to return when the third sultan, al-Muẓaffar Sayf al-Dīn Quṭuz, took power. Qutuz gave the fugitives many leading positions in the military and government.
– The Battle of Ain Jalut, or “Goliath’s Spring”
In September 1260 AD, Baibars led a Mamlūk army to victory against Mongol forces in the Battle of Ain Jalut. The place was also called “Goliath’s Spring”, as it was said to be the location of the David and Goliath story from the Christian Bible’s book of Samuel.
As such, this battle had an important symbolic value. Baibars’ leadership played a decisive role in the battle, as he had lived in the area during his exile from Egypt and knew the terrain well.
Using a Mongol-favorite battle tactic, the “feigned retreat,” Baibars led a small unit of Mamluk troops to meet the Mongol army while the rest of his troops hid concealed in the trees and hills behind him. Baibars and his small unit preoccupied the Mongols for hours by repeatedly making small attacks and pretending to retreat, drawing the Mongols in towards the hidden Mamluk troops.
When the Mongols fell for the trap and rushed towards Baibars’ men, the hidden Mamluk troops sprang on the Mongols, attacking from all sides with cavalry and archers. Despite this well-timed trap, the Mongols fought through the onslaught and eventually broke the left wing of the Mamluk troops.
Only after the Mongol general was killed did the battle begin to shift towards the Mamluks favor, ending in a Mongol retreat back to Besian, where they were decisively defeated.
This victory effectively stopped the westward expansion of the Mongols into Islamic land. Many important Mongol military leaders were killed in the battle and Baibars distinguished himself for his military leadership and bravery.
– The Rise to the Sultanate
After the victory at Goliath’s Spring, Baibars expected to be rewarded with the governorship of the city of Aleppo. Instead, he received nothing from Sultan Qutuz, who was growing nervous about Baibars’ increasing influence.
Baibars, with the help of other Mamluks, devised an assassination plot against Qutuz. On their way through Syria, Baibars asked the Sultan for a captive Mongol woman as a reward for the victory. When the Sultan agreed, Baibars kissed his hand, which was the signal for the assassination. A group of Mamluks ambushed Qutuz, with Baibars stabbing him in the neck.
Baibars immediately became the fourth Mamluk Sultan of Egypt after the assassination.
Upon taking the throne of the sultanate, Baibars immediately set out to eliminate any dissension or resistance to his rule. His most serious opposition was from a Mamluk noble named Sinjar al-Halabi, who controlled the city of Damascus. Baibars marched his troops into Damascus and quickly put down a revolt led by Halabi, thus solidifying his control of the city.
Baibars also had to decide what to do with the Ayyubids, who dissented to his rule. This was resolved peacefully, as Baibars allowed them to control their respective areas as long as they recognized him as Sultan.
The Turkic Sultan
As a Turkic, Baibars was characterized as having a much lighter skin complexion than the Egyptians he now found himself ruling. He was described as a tall figure with a broad face and small eyes, of which one had a cataract. Some descriptions even claim he had blue eyes.
Aside from his strict adherence to Islam and his skill on the battlefield, he was an avid sportsman who enjoyed athletic activities.
When Baibars took the throne, one of his main objectives was to replicate the success of Saladin, the first Ayyūbid sultan, who waged a holy war on the Crusaders in Syria. This goal of completely expelling the Crusaders from the region largely stemmed from their partial alliance with Mongol armies, along with the threat of Christian influence spreading further into Muslim territory.
Baibars immediately took to strengthening his military by rebuilding defensive forts destroyed by the Mongols ,and built up the Egyptian military arsenal.
Baibars: A Skilled Diplomat and Politician
Baibars also showed great skill as a diplomat and politician, uniting Egypt and Syria into a single powerful Islamic state and establishing friendly relations with powerful kingdoms far beyond the Middle East.
Baibars sought to establish diplomatic relations with the Byzantine Empire, sending envoys to Constantinople to meet with Michael VIII Palaeologus. This established friendly relations between Baibars and the Byzantines, so that Egyptian traders and ambassadors could sail through the Hellespont and Bosporus.
In 1261 AD, an envoy was sent to Sicily, and other trips to Italy followed. In 1264 AD, Charles of Anjou sent a collection of gifts to Cairo. Baibars would also set up commercial treaties with James I of Aragon and Alfonso X of León and Castile.
Domestically, Baibars brought immense improvements to livelihoods across Egypt. He improved harbors, built canals, and greatly decreased the amount of time it took for postage to go between Cairo and Damascus. In Cairo, he built both a large mosque and religious school and was the first sultan to appoint chief justices that represented the four schools of Islamic law.
Initial Campaigns Against the Crusaders
In 1263, Baibars led his army to Acre, which was considered the capital of the remnant of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. His troops laid siege on the city, but eventually decided to attack Nazareth instead. The time period of 1265 to 1271 was marked by nearly continuous raids on the crusaders in the region, which encountered Baibars’ strenuous resistance.
– The Battle of Arsuf
The town of Arsūf, controlled by the Knights Hospitalers, was surrendered to Baibars in 1265. The town was defended by 270 knights and fell under siege by Baibars’ troops after 40 days. Baibars convinced the knights to surrender by promising the immediate release of the knights, but instead immediately broke his promise and took them captive as slaves and burned the town’s castle to the ground. Baibars then took the crusader-controlled cities of Atlit and Haifa and burned their citadels to the ground.
– The Siege of Safed
In July 1266, Baibars besieged and took the town of Safed from the Knights Templar. Safed had been taken by Sultan Saladin’s troops in 1188, but the Kingdom of Jerusalem had recovered the town in 1240.
Baibars allowed the outnumbered knights defending the town safe passage to the Christian town of Acre after their surrender. Instead of razing the fortresses to the ground, Baibars chose to rebuild and improve the fortifications due to the town’s strategic location.
– Baibars’ Deeds in Cilician Armenia
Later that year, Baibars invaded Cilician Armenia, a Christian country that was given to the Mongol Empire by King Hethum I. The Mamluk forces defeated Hethum’s outnumbered forces in the Battle of Mari. Brutal pillaging took place at the hands of the Mamluks during the aftermath of the battle, as they destroyed three of Cilicia’s most important cities and its harbor, Ayas.
By the time the king arrived with Mongol reinforcements, the main cities were destroyed and he was forced to negotiate with Baibars for the return of his son, who was captured during the Battle of Mari. This resulted in the Mamluks gaining control of many of Armenia’s important border fortifications. By 1267, Baibars had effectively conquered Cilicia and gained control of the city of Acre.
– The Storming of Antioch and Jaffa
Baibars besieged and took the town of Antioch in May 1268, which was a vastly important city in the region. The surrender of Antioch’s population to Baibars was one of the most brutal massacres of all of the Crusades.
Despite promising to let the city’s inhabitants live, Baibars killed much of the city’s population after the surrender, including women and children. According to accounts of the massacre, Christian priests were killed in churches and the survivors were sold into slavery.
Later on that year, Baibars took the city of Jaffa in only 12 hours. While the Mamluks slaughtered much of the city’s population, Baibars allowed the city’s defenders to go free. He conquered Ashkalon and Caesarea soon after.
– The Final Battles Against the Crusaders
In 1271, Baibars focused his troops on small Christian fortifications in the Levant, including the Chastel Blanc and Krak des Chevaliers castles. The Krak des Chevaliers was besieged by the Mamluks for 10 days, with the eventual surrender of the defenders and inhabitants. Baibars spared their lives and converted the castle’s chapel into a mosque.
Baibars then attempted to siege Tripoli but chose to abandon the siege when Prince Edward of England arrived in Acre, allying with the Mongols and starting the Ninth Crusade. Baibars chose to call a truce with both Prince Edward and Tripoli, although there is evidence that he tried to have Edward assassinated.
By the end of 1271, the Crusaders had been effectively defeated and they would not be able to recover their lost territory during Baibars’ lifetime.
During his reign, the warrior sultan also wiped out a fanatical sect in Syria called the Assassins, a Nizari sect of Shia Islam that conducted covert assassinations throughout the region. By 1273, Baibars had virtually eliminated all its members in Syria.
– The African Campaign
In 1272, Baibars brought his military focus back to the African continent to invade the Kingdom of Makuria, which had raided the city of Aidhab in Egypt.
To enhance the security of Egypt’s South and West borders, Baibars personally led expeditions into Nubia and Libya, proving to be a highly courageous military leader during the four-year campaign against the Makurians.
By 1276, all of Nubia was under Baibars’ control. Nubians were forced to pay jizya tribute, a tax levied on non-Muslims, but were allowed to keep their own religion. Baibars personally installed a new king of his choosing, named Shakanda, making Makuria a vassal kingdom.
Baibars’ Battles Against the Mongols
Another one of the major objectives of the sultan was to keep the Mongol armies out of the region. He hoped to ally with the Mongols of the Golden Horde, located in Southern Russia, to fight against the Mongols of Persia.
Throughout his 17 years of rule, he fought nine battles against the Ilkhanate Mongols, including the Battle of Elbistan. In April 1277, Baibars marched across Syria into the Mongol-controlled Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm to meet the Mongol forces at Elbistan. The battle was fierce and costly on both sides, with the Mamluks eventually overtaking the Mongol forces.
With the possibility of a new Mongol threat looming, Baibars decided to bring his troops back to Syria, as his supply lines were overstretched.
Death and Legacy
Baibars died in Damascus on July 1, 1277. There is some contention over how Baibars died, with some claiming he drank a cup of poison intended for a different person. Others claim that he died from a battle wound or from an illness.
Baibars was buried under the dome of the Al-Ẓāhirīyah Library, which he had established years before.
The reign of Baibars not only solidified the Mamluk military as a dominating force in the region, but also began a period of Mamluk political dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Baibars laid the groundwork for the eventual permanent expulsion of the Crusaders from the Levant and secured the area from further Mongol invasions. He also made enormous political strides during his lifetime that strengthened the Egyptian empire internally and externally.
In this article, we have covered the highlights of the life of Sultan Baibars. Let’s go over the central points to help you remember them:
- Baibars was sold into the Egyptian military as a slave. At the time, Turkic speaking-slaves were ideal soldiers.
- He quickly rose through the military ranks as a superb military strategist.
- He gained power as Sultan of Egypt after the assassination of Sultan Qutuz.
- Baibars improved the Egyptian military and infrastructure and created diplomatic relationships with powers far beyond the Middle East.
- He delivered decisive defeats to the Crusaders and Mongols, bringing their expansion into the Islamic world to a halt.
- His rule affirmed the Mamluks’ dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean region that his successors would build upon.
Baibars is an essential figure in the history of the Medieval Middle East. His leadership — both on the battlefield and in politics — significantly shaped the region and established Egyptian dominance for years to come.