Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Sultan for a day, founder for ever

Subproject of "Eurasian Empires. Integration processes and identity formations"

2011 - 2016
Jeroen Duindam

The Mamluks

The Mamluks are commonly known as a regime of slave-soldiers who based their power on excellent military skills and masterful horsemanship. The Mamluk sultans, however, relied on much more than swords and horses. As pioneering studies makes clear, cultural practices and phenomena were just as helpful and formative. A symbol could communicate power faster than the fastest horse and some object could even represent the sultan where he was not. Inspired by a new focus on the cultural aspects of Mamluk rule, I argue that the establishment of so called waqf foundations constituted a crucial vehicle for the mediation and communication of Mamluk power within the urban space. Case-studying a number of royal, funerative sites in Cairo, this research also wants to connect to ongoing research on foundations in the pre-modern world.

Waqf foundations

Waqf foundations are, mutatis mutandis, the equivalent of pious foundations in the West. Waqfis, in Islamic law, the inalienable endowment of (a part of) one’s wealth to a charitable cause. In the case of the Mamluk sultans and emirs, this took the form of impressive buildings with a charitable or pious destination. The salvation of the founder´s soul was expected in return.

The religious concepts surrounding the practice of waqf foundation made it a particularly suitable tool for the Mamluk sultans – or those aspiring to became sultan – to shape and communicate a royal image. In and around the foundations, visual props and recurring rituals expressed the founder’s identity within a clear spatial context, enticing specific groups to the up-keep of his memory until the Day of Judgment. This commemoration was crucial because it preconditioned the salvation of the founder´s soul. At the same time it helped to substantiate a political persona, with the foundation providing a locus for its support and celebration. The link between the eschatological and the political is especially apparent in those architectural commissions that were both pious foundation and royal mausoleum. These structures represent the best examples of commemorative architecture and were most prominently located in the city. But how did space, people and architecture interact in the expression of a royal image at these sites? Who was involved in the (re)creation of this image? To what – and whose --expectations of political authority did this image connect? These are central questions.


I restrict my research mainly – but not exclusively – to funery foundations in Cairo. The vast majority of royal mausolea was built in this city along its most important north-south thoroughfare: This space shaped the monuments as much as these monuments shaped itand offers a consistent context for analysis. The timeframe of my research comprises, roughly, the first century of Mamluk rule, from the shaky beginnings of the Sultanate in the 1250s to the apogee of Mamluk rule during the third reign of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad ibn Qalāwūn (rr. 1293-1294; 1299-1309; 1309-1341) and his direct successors. Adopting a hybrid methodology, my sources include the buildings itself -- epigraphy, architectural features and heraldic signs – as well as extant foundation deeds (waqf documents), and other sources, to get a better insights into the live in and around these sites.

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