A gunsmith in 15th-century Cairo

The Mamluks’ affinity to firearms, both handheld (muskets, rifles) and mounted (cannons) has been long debated in the field. Personally, I find Robert Irwin’s (2004) interpretation much more convincing than other studies, which presume a stubbornness on the Mamluks’ part against adopting this new kind of weapon.

As Irwin can indeed show, the Mamluks did see the potential of firearms of all sizes early on, as one would expect of professional soldiers. Yet, they also saw that they did not really suit their own established fighting style. 15th-century muskets were just not made to be used on horseback. Thus, the Mamluks would conscript other soldiers to carry them into battle or to man their cannons. One famous case are the ʿabīd, a regiment of African slaves raised by sultan Qānṣūh al-Ghawrī, but in the earlier campaigns on the Northern front, conscripts from among the rural and urban population of Syria seems to have played a more decisive role. They apparently kept these weapons – more often than not – after one war and would use them also against the Mamluks in internal strifes (Toru 2006).

Ibn Tulun showed himself astonished, in his chronicle, by the Ottoman display of firearms, in particular the wagons on or between which cannons were mounted (Wollina 2016). In his entries on the rebellious governor Jānbirdī al-Ghazālī’s siege of Aleppo in 926 AH, he even shows some advanced knowledge of different calibers of cannons and their ability to knock down gates or walls (Ibn Tulun: Iʿlām, 249). His interest in the technological aspects of firearms seems to go beyond their simple effect on event-based political history.

Still, it is somewhat surprising that Ibn Tulun brings up the same issue in his biographical dictionary al-Ghuraf al-ʿāliyya fī tarājim al-mutaʾakhkhirī al-ḥanafiyya. Perhaps, however, this may serve to demonstrate the fascination these weapons – the cannons in particular – held for him. The biography in question is on one Ibrāhīm b. Aḥmad al-Ḥalabī al-Ḥanafī, who later moved to Egypt and gained as well the nisba al-Miṣrī. There, he built a makḥala for sultan Khushqadam (reg. 1461-1467) “which could propel a missile of one Damascene qinṭar, i.e. four Egyptian qinṭār, over more than two postal mīl”. Yet, the sultan deemed his price to high; so he went bankrupt. His contraption finally only served the chief judge al-Dayrī to shoot sparrows.

The following is a transcript of the full biography. While it is based on the Istanbul MS of the text (MS Şehid Ali Paşa 1924, f. 14b), which is a copy, I have compared it as well to its counterpart in the partial Dār al-Kutub MS (MS Taymūr Tārīkh 631, p. 21). The one difference I found is in the spelling of the name of “al-Ḥajar”. I must admit that neither interpretation I have given here fully convinces me, based on the script. I presume that the copyist was facing similar problems and did his best to transcribe the signs from the original.

ابراهيم بن احمد الحلبي ثم المصري الحنفي كان عنده فضيلة و لازم الحجر بن الحفم/الشحنة(؟) وهو الذي عمل المكحلة للسلطان خشقدم التي ترمي بقنطار دمشقي وهو اربع قناطر بالمطري الي بعد نحو ميلين سدس بريد ورمي عليها لكن لم ينصفه السلطان فانه قيل انه انفق عليها نحو اربعماية دينار فاعطاه السلطان نصفها وهذا البعد العظيم يستفاد من طول عنق المحكلة و كان قاضي القضاة السعد بن الديري اخذ ذلك من الزبرطانة وهي عصا طويلة جدا مجوفة يوضع فيها بندقة وتنفخ فيبعد مداها ويصاد بها العصافير ونحوها من الطير وتوفي في المحرم سنة سبعين وثمانماية ودفن بالقرافة.


  • Ibn Ṭūlūn, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn ʿAlī. Iʿlām al-warā bi-man waliya nāʾiban min al-Atrāk bi-Dimashq Aal-Shām al-kubrā. Edited by Muḥammad Aḥmad Duhmān. Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 1984.
  • Irwin, Robert. “Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Sultanate Reconsidered.” In The Mamluks in Egyptian and Syrian Politics and Society. Edited by Michael Winter and Amalia Levanoni. The Medieval Mediterranean. Leiden; Boston, MA: Brill, 2004, 117-139.
  • Toru, Miura. “Urban Society in Damascus As the Mamluk Era Was Ending.” Mamluk Studies Review 10, no. 1 (2006): 157-193.
  • Wollina, Torsten. “Sultan Selīm in Damascus: The Ottoman Appropriation of a Mamluk Metropolis (922-924/1516-1518).” In The Mamluk-Ottoman Transition: Continuity and Change in Egypt and Bilād Al-Shām in the Sixteenth Century. Edited by Stephan Conermann and Gül Şen. Göttingen: Bonn University Press 2016, 199-224.