Epic tales can teach lessons to invaders

November 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Just as politicians in the Middle East create their own “modified” version of the Crusades for their own benefit, ordinary people have their own version, modified to meet their aesthetic criteria. A king who acquired his throne through mere chance becomes a destined hero, by whose hands the salvation of the nation is to be achieved. Heroes are thus more created in the lines of poetry than in the lines of battle. Yet, it is always interesting to see how the transformation takes place. While comparing history and imagination is difficult in cases like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, tracing the process of legend-making could actually be done in the case of Seerat Al-Zaher Baybars (the Epic of Al-Zaher Baybars) still chanted, sung and told in many of the coffeehouses in the cities of the Levant.

In reality, Baybars was a mamlouk. The word mamlouk literally means “the one owned” by someone else. While mamlouks were bought and sold, they were not exactly slaves. In the ninth and 10th centuries, white Caucasian boys were bought from Central Asia and brought to the Middle East. Rather than manual labor, they were trained to become professional fighters. The tradition started at the hands of Al-Muttassem, the eighth Abbasid caliph, who wanted to create a military totally dependent on him. Based in Baghdad, the caliph did not want his army to be made of Arabs, who could, in cooperation with their own tribes not far away in Arabia, be stronger than him. Neither did he want his army to consist mainly of Persians, who had connections with their own villages and cities just to the east of the caliph’s capital. Two hundred years after Muttassem’s death, most of the Islamic armies in the Middle East consisted of mamlouks.

Baybars was brought to Syria at the time of Saladin’s successors. The latter had been succeeded by his brother, then by his nephew and lastly by his nephew’s son Najm al-Din Ayyoub. Baybars was bought into Ayyoub’s army, by the time Louis IX started his attack on Egypt. He proved to be a worthy warrior; victory was achieved in the Battle of Mansoura in the Nile Delta. However, Ayyoub died of illness before the battle was over. Baybars participated in a conspiracy headed by the sultan’s wife, to kill the legitimate heir to the throne of Egypt. The sultan’s wife then stupidly claimed the throne that was brought to her by the hands of the mamlouk military. Her body was thrown over the walls of Cairo’s citadel, and she was never buried.

In the epic, however, the death of the sultan’s wife is a chapter in a long love story. She had fallen in love with a mamlouk officer, and after the death of her husband and the assassination of his heir; she wanted to keep the relation secret. Yet, when the caliph in Baghdad found out that Egypt was ruled by a woman, he sent a message mocking the mamlouk army, saying: “If men were so scarce in Egypt that the army had to bring a woman to power, please inform us, we can send you plenty of men from Iraq.”

The message angered the officers, especially Baybars, who, in the epic, had nothing to do with the treacherous murder of the legitimate heir to the throne. When the sultan’s wife married her mamlouk lover, Baybars was further angered by the revelation that the whole thing was a plot. The rest was a well deserved punishment for the treacherous wife.

In reality, though, Baybars did not come directly to power. His superior in rank, Saif-al-Din Mahmoud Qutuz was declared sultan of Egypt and Syria, just in time to face the sweeping Mogul attack that had already claimed Baghdad, the throne of the caliph and the dearest city to all Muslims after the holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

Qutuz was the first Muslim prince to defeat the Moguls in the battle of Ain-Jalut in northern Palestine, not far from the site of the battle of Hitteen where Saladin had defeated the Crusaders 80 years before. As the victorious Qutuz was crossing Sinai on his way back to Cairo, Baybars killed him. And, armed by the battalion he commanded during the battle of Ain-Jalut, he declared himself sultan of Egypt and the Levant. As a sultan he was not exceptionally honest or merciful. Nevertheless, he was able to protect Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon from the Moguls, and diminish the Frankish presence to a symbolic outpost in Acre, though the Europeans kept calling it the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

While the fall of Baghdad might have not been the most important event in Baybars’ life, the epic starts with it, for it is definitely the most emotional event in the collective memory of the audience. Baybars’ life becomes little more than a divine answer to the fall of Baghdad. All his ruthlessness is forgiven as a reaction to the ruthlessness of the Moguls, who killed tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants, looted it for 40 days and burnt its invaluable library.

Baybars was not by any means a perfect ruler. After all, a perfect ruler might be a contradiction in terms, but given the hardships of his time, he was lucky enough to be one of the very few rulers the people loved. Like Saladin, his image has been haunting both the rulers and the ruled in the Arab world. Both figures derive their legitimacy from the confronting the invaders and protecting the world of Islam. This theme of fending off the invader has been widely accepted as the cornerstone for legitimacy in the Arab world ever since. Throughout history, it did not help much to claim that prosperity or even just rule (democracy?) will be brought about by the invaders. Every invader since Napoleon made the same argument and every invader got the same unwelcoming reaction. But, unfortunately our invaders never read our epics.

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