On this date in 1711, a Janissary captain in Ottoman Egypt was beheaded in Cairo as the “Great Insurrection” gave way to the last gasp of Mamluk power in Egypt.
Mamluks (or Mameluks) — enslaved soldiers who had evolved into a military caste — had ruled Egypt from 1250 until absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in 1517. Now nominally under the power of the sultan, Mamluks remained as beys (district governors) and were drawn into a labyrinthine political environment that boiled down to a contest for rent collection from the lucrative country.
The relative power in Egypt of the Ottoman viceroy (wali) vis-a-vis Mamluk beys in shifting alliances waxed and waned through the 17th century, but the position of wali was always fundamentally undermined by his short-term appointment and the presence of imperial troops who did not answer to him and therefore became independent players Cairo. The most prominent of these were the Janissaries — elite troops whose original servile composition somewhat mirrored the Mamluks’ own and who had established themselves as the wealthiest (and most arrogant, and most resented) regiment by making profitable commercial partnership with the Cairo artisans.
As we lay our scene in the early 18th century, the Ottoman walis have been thoroughly eclipsed; politically, Mamluk Egypt is independent in all but name. The Mamluks are themselves grouped into two great factions, the Qasimi and the Faqari.*
Each faction was composed of the personal mamluks of the leader, retainers who attached themselves to the leader, bedouin tribes, men of the garrison regiments [that is, the Janissaries and other Ottoman military corps], and private armies composed of free-born Ottoman mercenaries. (From the introduction to this translation of Al-Damurdashi’s Chronicle)
An accelerating cycle of revolts and disturbances culminated in the “Great Insurrection,” (or “Great Sedition”) several years of friction climaxing in three months of armed conflict in early 1711 — “to all intents and purposes, a civil war among the elite” over dividing up spoils, as Afaf Lutfi Sayyid-Marsot puts it.
Ifranj (or Ifrandj, or Afranj) Ahmad — “Ahmad the European,” a distinctive name since the Janissaries were mostly locally born by this point — was a lower officer, but a predecessor in his position had mounted a temporarily successful revolt against the Janissary brass in the 1690’s, and Ahmad (as events would prove) commanded the loyalty of his regiment. A dispute over an attempt to remove him helped precipitate the open fighting in 1711.
Ifranj Ahmad was just an excuse … The main reason was the resentment of the other regiments, primarily the ‘Azab [“armourers” — (distantly) second only to the Janissaries among the military corps], at the privileged position and the profits the Janissaries were enjoying. … Siding with Ifranj Ahmad were the majority of the Janissaries, the pasha [the wali], … the Faqari governor of Upper Egypt who brought with him reinforcements of … bedouins, some elements of the other regiments, and most of the Faqari beys and their Mamluk households. On the other side were almost all the ‘Azab and the other regiments, 600 Janissary defectors, the Qasimiyya beys, and Qaytas Bey, a Faqari grandee who had quarrelled with … the Faqari leader, and had joined the Qasimiyya. (Egyptian Society Under Ottoman Rule)
In short, the Faqari and Qasimi factions, backed respectively by the Janissaries and the ‘Azab.
As one can readily infer from Ifranj Ahmad’s presence in these pages, the Qasimi had the better of the fight; Ahmad was nabbed trying to flee and summarily beheaded, a fate shared with several other Faqari leaders.** Here’s the account from Al-Damurdashi, an ‘Azab officer at the time:
Afranj Ahmad and his colleague had fled through the Mahjar Gate, but as they passed by the guard post … [and] captured and were [being dragged] to the ‘Azab barracks, but one of the [captors] brought [Ahmad] to the ground with a blow on his jugular vein. He then cut off his head, took it to the ‘Azab barracks and received a reward from the senior officers.
Although Istanbul would continue trying to exert its influence, this day’s denouement marked the end of real Ottoman authority on the Nile — the Turks had their hands full fighting the Russians at this moment, anyway — and inaugurated a long sunset of Mamluk power until Napoleon’s quixotic Egyptian adventure overturned it for good.
* There are many different transliterations of both these names — Faqari, Faqariya, Faqariyya … Qasimi, Qasimiya, Qasimiyya
** It was so far from an extermination, however, that the Faqari turned the tables on the Qasimi twenty years later, and the Qasimi thereupon faded from influence.