Mamluk is the Arabic for `owned' or `slave', and slave soldiers were a distinctive feature of Islamic armies from the 9th century. Captured in childhood, trained in warfare, they were brought up as devout Moslems with an extensive education. Turkish and Mongol slaves were bodyguards of the Ayyubid sultan al-Salih, who died in 1249. In 1250 the Ayyubid Turan Shah was assassinated in Mansura in northern Egypt. The Bahri(yya) mamluks elected one of their own, Baybars, as Sultan al-Malik al Muizz, the Ayyubids were reduced first to purely formal roles, and later stripped of even these. Turkish Bahri sultans began in their turn to acquire Burji slaves, largely Circassians from the Caucasus. In 1390 al-Malik an-Nasir became the first of the Burji sultans who ruled until 1517.

Mameluke rule extended over a prosperous Middle East from Egypt to Syria erecting magnificent structures primarily in Cairo but also elsewhere. They traded across Africa and the Indian Ocean as far as Java. In 1517 the Ottoman Turks under Selim ‘the Grim’ overthrew the Mamluks, though they later re-established themselves in Egypt, which they ruled, with a brief interlude in 1798 when Napoleon conquered the country, until Muhammad Ali took over in 1811.