HANDS ON Traditional Crafts at The City of the Dead in Cairo

Qaitbey was from the Circassian nation, and of slave origin; but his admirable courage combined with good fortune made him well deserving of his suzerainty, which he exercised and increased with exceptional glory for twenty-[eight] years.

 

Sultan Qaitbey reigned from the Citadel of Cairo between 1468 and 1496 over a regional empire that comprised Egypt, Nubia, Syria along with Lebanon and Palestine, and the Hejaz. The Mamluks who formed the ruling elite of this dominion were brought to Cairo as young slaves, given military training and religious instruction, and finally freed to enter the service of their masters. The most able rose through the ranks and commanded their own fiercely loyal Mamluks. The rulers were elected from the most powerful of such amirs, non-hereditary princes. During more than 250 years of Mamluk rule in Egypt between 1250 and 1517, thirty-five out of forty-nine sultans suffered deposition, exile, and violent death, often at a young age. Constantly competing and quarrelling dignitaries often put young sons of previous rulers on the throne and manipulated them as mere puppets.

 

Al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qaitbey was one of the few truly great Mamluk sultans who enjoyed a long reign, commanded admiration and respect, and died peacefully at an old age. 

 

His name indicates that he was so weak at birth that he was feared to die. Nevertheless, in his youth he so excelled in archery and horsemanship that at the age of twenty (older than was usual for young Mamluks) he was brought to Cairo by a slave merchant and sold to Sultan Barsbay  for the modest sum of 50 dinars. He was freed by Barsbay’s successor Jaqmaq, and after his master’s death advanced rapidly in his career, serving six sultans consecutively, among them al-Ashraf Inal. Eventually, in 1468, he was made commander of the entire Mamluk army by his old companion Sultan Timurbugha. Qaitbey routed young Mamluks who soon mutinied against the ruler, and afterwards the troops declared him sultan, to which Timurbugha readily agreed. The companions parted in tears, and Qaitbey then sent Timurbugha into honourable retirement in Damietta, sparing his friend the harsher fate suffered by many deposed sultans.

 

More than fifty years old when he ascended to the throne, Qaitbey cunningly appointed the most powerful amirs to posts of equal authority, thereby balancing their influence and preventing any single one from challenging his rule. Reigning in troubled times, he indeed needed strength and authority. The unruly Mamluks conspired and rioted, outbreaks of plague visited the country, revolts by Turkoman and Bedouin tribes had to be put down, and the rising power of the Ottoman Empire was a deadly challenge to the Mamluk sultanate. Yet Qaitbey steered astutely through all difficulties and ruled over a stable and prosperous country while gaining renown for his charitable acts, until he died peacefully, aged around eighty.

 

Qaitbey is best remembered as a great patron of architecture. During his reign the distinct and indigenous architectural style that had developed in Mamluk Cairo reached its apex of glory, marked by refined elegance and perfect craftsmanship. His funerary complex at the Eastern Cemetery is a superb example. More than thirty monuments in Cairo date from the time of his reign, and those are only a portion of the more than two hundred buildings that the sultan founded in Cairo, Alexandria, Rosetta, Fayyum, Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Aleppo. Qaitbey was known to personally inspect and take interest in all his building projects, so he would certainly be pleased to know that more than five hundred years on, his architectural creations still inspire marvel and admiration.

"The Great Qaitbay, Sultan of Memphis", a woodcut by Tobias Stimmer in Eulogia virorum bellica virtute illustrium, (Praise of Men Illustrious for Courage in War) by Paolo Giovio, Basel 1575. [In fact, Qaitbey ruled for 28 years.]