They were purchased by other former slaves as young boys in the slave markets in Syria and Egypt and educated as a professional military caste. With the completion of their education they were freed and given full military regalia and land to pay for the upkeep of the equipment and horses.
The Mamluks were notoriously disputatious and constantly fought among themselves for succession to the throne. Since there was no principle of hereditary monarchy, any Mamluk could hope to become the ruler if he could overthrow the current sultan.
As a result, the average reign of a sultan was only six years. Mamluks married within the caste to the sisters and relatives of other Mamluks. Their society was based on a feudal hierarchy of allegiance of a vassal to a lord.
Recent converts to Islam, the Mamluks emphasized their rule as Muslims, even though many of them were not personally particularly devout. They allowed the exiled Abbasid caliph from Baghdad to reside in Cairo but successive caliphs exercised no real power.
The Mamluks encouraged metalworking, book binding, and textile industries. But Mamluk attempts to monopolize the trade on luxury goods, coupled with high taxes, discouraged many foreign and local merchants.
As great builders and patrons of the arts, the Mamluks encouraged scholars, including renowned historian Ibn Khaldun, to work in Cairo. Under the Mamluks, Cairo became a major intellectual and artistic center and grew into arguably the largest city in the region.
The Mamluks built hospitals, caravan-saries, public fountains, and massive mausoleums for their families. The mausoleum of Sultan Qaitbay (reigned 1468–96) was particularly impressive. Much of medieval Cairo dates from the Mamluk era.
The Black Death (plague) in 1340 reduced the population throughout Mamluk territories; in Cairo alone over 25 percent of the people perished. They were further weakened by Timurlane’s destruction in Syria. The expansion of Portuguese trading outposts along the African and Indian coasts led to mounting economic competition and as they lost control of trade from the east, the revenues from commerce declined.
In addition, constant disputes over succession weakened Mamluk authority and made them vulnerable to outside attacks. Their failure to forge a united front contributed to their defeat and the conquest of Egypt by the Ottoman Turks in 1517.