Chapter 7 - The Population's Composition During the Mamluk Period (1260 - 1516 ):Elimination of the Christian Majority Part One

Chapter 7. The Population’s Composition during the Mamluk Period (1260 – 1516): Elimination of the Christian Majority

Part One


The Mamluks were Turkmen from Central Asia. When the Muslims conquered Central Asia, they enslaved Turkmen children, put them through military training and enlisted them as soldiers in their army. The Turkmen children were converted to Sunni Islam. As new Muslims they were known for their orthodoxy and religious fanaticism.

The Mamluk army served the Muslim Caliph, until, following the death of the Ayoub Caliph, several Mamluk officers toppled the Caliph’s young son and took over Egypt in 1249/50.

In 1250, in a battle near Maayan Harod, the Mamluk General Baybars defeated the Mongols who had entered the Land of Israel after conquering Syria. The Mamluks then took over the Land of Israel and Syria. In 1263 Baybars was crowned Sultan Al Malek Al Dhahar. The lower Galilee was conquered in 1263, and the upper Galilee in 1266. The western Galilee was taken in 1271 and the Montfort fortress demolished. Following the conquest, the Mamluk invited Muslims from Damascus to settle in Safed, where they built a mosque, bath houses, and a market place.

The coastal cities, except for Acre, were conquered from 1265 to 1268. The Mamluks had no navy, and, fearing Crusader attempts to take back the coast, they razed the cities. The cities remained in their ruins as pirates raided the coast, but Gaza was later partially rebuilt. It became the country’s port of entry and according to several sources had a large population, although it was more a village than a city.

The Crusaders held on to a narrow strip along the coast, from Acre to Dor, until Acre’s fall to the Mamluks in 1291, ending the Crusader rule in the Land of Israel (the Crusaders were pushed from most of their holdings in the Land of Israel earlier, in 1260, but Acre held until 1291). The Mamluks demolished the city, its forts, and its harbour. Any Christians who survived fled, and the city’s destruction ended the Jewish presence there. A Muslim geographer mentions Acre in the year 1320, but according to Zeev Vilnai’s on Acre in the Ariel Encyclopaedia, the city was in ruins through the 14th and 15th centuries. According to another source the partial rebuilding of the city began around the mid-14th century and Jews returned to live in it then.

The Mamluk Rule

The Land of Israel was part of the A-Sham province. It was divided into two administrative regions: the Kingdom of Gaza included the coastal planes up to the Sharon and the Judaean mountains. The Kingdom of Safed included the upper, western, and lower Galilee, the Carmel, the Jordan Valley, north Samaria, and Southern Lebanon up to Tibnin.
The Judaean mountains, including Jerusalem, south Samaria, and the Valley of Bet Shean were annexed to the Kingdom of Damascus.

Control over the country was handed to the military officers, who became city governors, tax collectors, overseers, and top-level administrators. The Mamluks established a horse-powered postal service, improved the roads, built bridges and horse-changing stations. The Crusaders’ estates were given to the military officers, while the farmers were held as serfs, forced to work the land (which they could not own) and forbidden to leave their villages (Frankel, 1995, p. 32). New settlers, nomad Turkmen, were moved into the eastern Sharon (the area of Kalanswa, Taibe, Tul Karm, Bakka’l Garbiye, and Bakka’l Sharkiye) up to Um El Fahem (Drori, 1989, p. 424).

The Mamluk rule was centralistic and efficient during the reign of Baybars (1260 – 1279). Under Baybars the cities and the roads were safe to live and travel, and the law was enforced against criminals, highwaymen, and Bedouins. Under Qalawun and his sons (1279-1341) conditions worsened. In 1281 the Bedouins in Nablus and the area of Gaza revolted. The area between Acre and Atlit was conquered in 1291, at the time of Qalawun’s son Al Ashraf Khalil. Mongol raids during the last decade of the 13th century were pushed back.

When Al Nasser Muhammed (1310 – 1341) died, his descendents, ambitious officers, and others fought over his legacy. The black plague erupted in 1347 and claimed many lives. Peasants fled to the cities and the cultivated area shrank. The country’s population declined significantly as a result of the plague, but when it was over the Mamluks continued the construction projects begun earlier.

In 1382, Barqouq, a Sultan of Caucasian origin, took over the Mamluk kingdom. Mamluk officers fought and removed him, but he returned to power and ruled until 1390.

From the 15th century on, the Mamluk kingdom began to decline. Internal conflicts among Turkmen and Caucasians increased, pirate and robbers raids undermined security, and the economy deteriorated (Friedman, 1979, pp. 19-22).

From the mid-15th century, following their conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman’s rise hastened the Mamluk kingdom’s decline, and a battle began for control of the Muslim world. To cope with the Ottoman danger, the Mamluks conscripted Bedouins and civilians into military service. Bedouin Sheiks were paid for enlisted men, but the Bedouin conscripts soon defected, preferring to rob and pillage the cities, villages, and travellers. Civilians objected to the conscription as well and the hostility towards the Mamluk rule grew. The Land of Israel was in anarchy, the agriculture was harmed, and the economical conditions worsened.

Bedouin impact on life in the country increased. In Jerusalem, the Banu Zid tribe was in open conflict with the Mamluke governor, tribesmen were executed and their relatives then exacted revenge. Two feuding clans in Hebron called for Bedouin help, and the Bedouins used the opportunity to rob and destroy property. Rabbi Meshulam of Volterra, who toured the country in 1481, tells of the robbery in cities and on the roads.

Vasco de Gamma’s (1497) discovery of the route to India via the Cape of Good Hope and the Portuguese control of the trade with India delivered a hard blow to the Mamluk economy, which had enjoyed the profitable trade with the East via the trade routes in the Mamluk kingdom. This resulted in skirmishes with the Portuguese in the Red Sea.

The decisive battle between the Mamluk and the Ottomans for control of the region took place in August 1516 at Marj Dabek, north of Aleppo. The Mamluks were defeated, and the Ottomans marched to Damascus and took it over. The rest of Syria, and the whole of the Land of Israel to Gaza, were taken by the Ottomans without resistance. Egypt was taken in 1517.

The status of the non-Muslim population

The Mamluks were Muslim zealots. They built mosques and madrassas, renovated the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, and forbade non-Muslims entry to the Cave of Makhpelah in Hebron. Non-Muslims’ status was that of the ‘protected’ according to the "Laws of Omar" (Islamic policy towards non- Muslims) , and the Mamluks enforced it with zeal. In addition to other taxes, non-Muslims paid the ‘infidels’ tax, the Jeziya.

Rules against non-Muslims (Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971) included:
Ban on employing Jews and Christians in the Mamluk administration;
Christians ordered to cover their turban with a blue cloth, the Jews with a yellow cloth, and the Samaritans with a red one;
Ban on horse riding for non-Muslims (this was an old rule restored by the Mamluks);
Non-Muslims forbidden to build taller houses than the Muslims’;
Infidels forbidden entry to the Cave of Makhpelah in Hebron.

The chapter on Mamluks in the Jewish Virtual Library discusses the non-Muslims’ status in the Mamluk kingdom. It appears that despite the ban on employing Jews and Christians in the administration, some still held high positions, but the Mamluk rule gradually became more oppressive and the non-Muslims begrudged their deteriorating status. The deterioration in the treatment of non-Muslims, particularly Christians, had several causes:
The Jihad-centred Mamluk militant rhetoric;
The continuous war against the Crusaders;
The realisation that even though they spoke Arabic, the local Christians were secretly sympathetic of the Mamluks’ enemies;
The economic deterioration since the mid-14th century;
Competition for employment between the educated Muslims and the educated non-Muslims.

The hostility was directed mostly towards the Christians, who were a largest ethno-religious group, and held a larger proportion of administrative positions. When Jews were hurt, it was more as a by-product of steps taken against the Christians. Baybars began to persecute the Christians as soon as he conquered the lower Galilee in 1263. He destroyed their churches and their holy sites, including the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and the Church of Elijah on Mt Tabor. When Safed was conquered in 1266, the Templar Knights who dwelled there were murdered and their wives and children sold into slavery. In Kakoun, conquered in 1267, the Mamluks converted the church into a mosque.

The Mamluks acted to convert the Eastern Orthodox Christian minority into Islam. The long process of Islamization of the Christian population in the Land of Israel was completed during the Mamluk period. (During the Arabic- Muslim conquest, 640 – 1099, only about 10% of the Christian population converted to Islam). It appears that although most of the conversions occurred among Christians, a few Egyptian Jews converted as well. Towards the end of the 14th century, following the Caucasians’ take- over of the Mamluk kingdom, the policy towards non-Muslims became harsher.

Population size – a drastic decline in numbers

Had Mamluk census documents and title registers of fields, orchards, and lands survived to the present, it would have been possible to extract information about the size of the population and its composition. Such documents, however, did not survive, and so the population size and composition must be deduced from the conclusions of a study about the population size and composition during the Crusader period, and at the beginning of the Ottoman period (Frankel, 1995, p. 19).

Two significant changes occurred during the Mamluk occupation:

* A drastic decline in population numbers – from 470,000 (during the Crusader period) to about 120,000 at the end of the Mamluk period (late 15th century – early 16th century).
* The population composition changed – the Eastern Orthodox Christians lost their majority.

Prof Prawer (1971) estimates that, under Crusader rule in the 1180s, 100,000 to 120,000 Franks, i.e., Catholic Crusaders, were living in the Land of Israel. He estimates the rural population at 250,000, including Muslims and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but “most of the population belonged to the Muslim faith” (Prawer, 1971, p. 404). The urban population was mostly Christian, with a very small number of Muslims, following the massacres and Muslim emigration, either forced or voluntary (Prawer, 1971, p. 462). Non-Franks made up about 75% of the country’s total population of 470,000.

Prof Kedar (1990) writes that scholars currently agree on the number of non-Franks, 300,000 to 360,000, made up of 250,000 Muslim and Eastern Christian villagers and about 100,000 urban Eastern Christians and Muslims; the Franks numbered 100,000 to 120,000. No data is given for the number of Jews and Samaritans.

As mentioned above, researchers of the Crusader period estimate that 470,000 people lived in the Land of Israel during the Crusader period.

In the absence of documents about the country’s population during the Mamluk period, the first census conducted by the Ottomans in 1525/26, only eight years following their victory over the Mamluks and their conquest of the A-Sham province, gives an indication of the situation at the end of the Mamluk period.

The A-Sham province included the Land of Israel west of the Jordan River, the Trans-Jordan, and south Syria, but this chapter discusses the situation in the Land of Israel only. According to researchers of the Ottoman period, the first census provides partial information on the population size and composition on the eve of the Ottoman conquest. The census officials’ information collection methods improved from one census to the next.

Bernard Lewis quoted data from the first census in his article, The Land of Israel during the first 25 years of Ottoman rule according to the Ottoman land titles register (p. 172):

In the Galilee region (Sanjak) and its capital, Safed:
5463 households, 360 bachelors, and 86 sick, invalid, or tax-exempt

In the Gaza region and its capital, Gaza:
5183 households, 364 bachelors, and 39 sick, invalid, or tax-exempt

In the region of Jerusalem and Judea:
2673 households, 120 bachelors, and 8 sick, invalid, or tax-exempt

The region of Samaria and its capital Nablus were not included in 1525/6 census, and no data exist for the Bedouin tribes in the Negev and other areas in Lewis’ article.

Lewis calculated the average family size at 6 persons. Based on this, the population size according to the first census was as follows:
In the Galilee, 33,224.
In the region of Gaza, 31,501.
In the region of Jerusalem, 16,166.
In total, 80,891.

The region of Samaria and its capital, Nablus, was the largest Arabic population center during the Arabic- Muslim Conquest (640 – 1099). To gain a better idea of the population size, we add the data for the region of Samaria and Nablus, extracted from the census of 1533/39: 1375 households, 169 bachelors, and 4 sick, invalid, or tax-exempt, and in total – 8,423 residents.

Adding this number to the population numbers recorded in 1525/26, the estimated population size is 89,314 people.

The Rural population:

According to the 1525/26 census, the rural population counted was:
Jerusalem district, 11,496
Gaza district, 26,926
Nablus district, 1,778
Safed district, 27,724
Altogether, in all districts, the population outside the 4 district cities numbered 67,927.

About 1000 villages were counted in total. A village had anything between 2-3 houses to 300. The census distinguished between inhabited, deserted, or ruined-and-deserted villages. Prof Prawer estimated that this was roughly the number of villages during the Crusader period. If the population decreased by 50% from the Crusader to the Mamluk periods, the question arises, what portion were the deserted/ruined villages?

The Urban Population:

In their book, Population and Revenue in the Towns of Palestine in the 16th Century, Amnon Cohen and Bernard Lewis (1978) studied the urban population based on the Ottoman censuses.

According to the 1525/26 census, the coastal cities, except Gaza, were in ruins. Following the Ottoman conquest, 4,575 people were counted in Gaza (Cohen & Lewis, 1978, pp. 127-128). In Ramle, which was included in the Gaza Sanjak, 1,604 residents were counted. In Jerusalem, 934 households, 2 bachelors, and 1 Imam were counted. Estimating the average family had 5 members, the number of residents in Jerusalem was about 4,670 (Cohen & Lewis, 1978, pp. 92-94). Safed had 5,500 residents. In Nablus, the 1533/39 census counted 6,645 residents. The urban population in the four district cities numbered 21,390 in total.

The population of the four Sanjaks in the Land of Israel west of the Jordan River numbered about 89,314 in 1525/26, not counting the Bedouin tribes.

The Bedouin Population:

Prof Moshe Sharon described the growth in power of the Bedouins during the Mamluk period in his article, The Bedouins and the Land of Israel under the Rule of Islam (Sharon, 1988, pp. 43-45):

The tribe of Soulalma settled around Ramle. The tribe of Banu Atta moved from the Trans-Jordan to the area of Gaza, and settled all along the coast, while some members of the tribe situated themselves in the Jezreel Valley and the desert. The tribe of Banu Garim roamed around Jerusalem.

The increase in the Bedouins’ power was the consequence of the Mamluk army’s weakening following the plague which killed many of its soldiers. The army struggled to protect the country’s forts, settlements, and roads. By the end of the 15th century, i.e., on the eve of the Ottoman conquest, the Bedouins controlled the country’s trade routes almost completely, paralysing trade and pilgrimage. Prof Sharon refers to Rabbi Meshulam of Volterra, who toured the Land of Israel in 1481 and described the great fear travellers had of Bedouin attack. Rabbi Meshulam tells of trade convoys that were attacked between Jaffa and Ramle and whose passengers were robbed. He also tells how Bedouins attacked Ramle and set it on fire.

Felix Favri, a Christian traveller who toured the country in 1483, wrote that “the Bedouins at that time were spread over large portions of the Holy Land”. According to Favri, it was impossible to move on the roads without military protection.

Prof Sharon determined that the Bedouins attacked not only Christian merchants and pilgrims, but also Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. In 1494, members of the tribe Banu Lam robbed a Muslim pilgrim convoy near Karakh, in the Trans-Jordan. Official Ottoman records from the beginning of the Ottoman occupation report the Bedouin impact on life in the Land of Israel shortly after 1516.

The Bedouins in the Judean Desert

The Judean Desert lies between the Zeelim stream in the south, the Jerusalem-Jericho road in the north, the mountain ridges in the west and the Jordan Valley in the east. Bedouin tribes roamed this area since the collapse of Byzantine rule in the Land of Israel in 640 CE, when the Arabs conquered the country.

Cohen & Lewis (1978) give the figures for the Bedouin population (p. 17). In 1525/26 there were 30,000 Bedouins in the Gaza Sanjak, and under Ottoman rule their number grew significantly during the 16th century. According to the 1533/39 census, the Bedouins in the Gaza Sanjak numbered 62,500.

In summary, an inspection of 16th century Ottoman censuses and other data concludes the following:

The population of the four Sanjaks in the Land of Israel west of the Jordan river, numbered about 89,314 in 1525/26, and the Bedouin population numbered about 30,000.

A. The populated regions included Jerusalem, Gaza, Nablus, and the Galilee. The coastal planes, from Gaza northwards, and the Valleys across the country were sparsely populated, empty compared to the mountainous regions (Frankel, 1995, p. 20). Frankel proposes a connection between the transition from crops to cotton growing and the decline in the country’s population (p. 25). The decline in demand for grains, he proposes, was the consequence of the decline in population.

B. the 1525/26 census does not give an accurate picture of the size of the population. For example, the 1525/26 census counts only 1000 people in the Galilee, while the 1555/56 counts 10,000. This is a huge increase in a period of eight years, and it is likely the 1533/39 census was done more thoroughly.

C. The population of the four Sanjaks in the Land of Israel west of the Jordan river, numbered about 89,314 in 1525/26, and the Bedouin population numbered about 30,000. The total population on the eve of the Ottoman conquest was about 120,000.

D. according to the 1525/26 census, from a population of 470,000 in the Land of Israel west of the Jordan river at the end of the Crusader period, the population fell to only some 120,000 (90,000 residents + 30,000 nomads) at the beginning of the Ottoman occupation. Of the 470,000, about 100,000 to 120,000 were Crusaders who were killed, massacred, or fled, and about 50,000 were Eastern Orthodox Christians from the coastal cities who faced a similar fate.

E. seeing as only 120,000 people were living in the country at the beginning of the 16th century, how are 180,000 people accounted for? The conclusion is that during the Mamluk period the population declined drastically, and there were several reasons for that:

A. Massacres and persecution of Eastern Orthodox Christians caused their flight from the country. The destruction of the coastal cities, which, according to Benvenisti (19, p. 27) were home to over 60,000 people (mostly Eastern Orthodox Christians) brought their number down by 50,000 at least. There were other massacres, but their exact details are unknown.

B. The black plague of 1347/48 and other epidemics in the early 15th century claimed the lives of many and drastically reduced the population. Precise data on the plague in the Mamluk kingdom are not available, and scholars who studied the subject have reached these conclusions:

Prof Avraham Poliak (1938, p.201) estimated that the population of Palestine, Syria, the Trans-Jordan, and Lebanon numbered 1,200,000 just before the plague broke out, and of these, 150,000 lived in Lebanon. The Muslim scholar Al Maqrizi determined that one third of the population of Egypt and Syria (including the Land of Israel) died during the plague, and about 800,000 survived in the region including Syria and the Land of Israel.

Contemporary data for the Land of Israel are, as mentioned, unavailable, but it is possible to use the data for Egypt and Syria as an indication.

Egypt – Prof Josiah Russell (1966) estimated that out of 4.2 million Egyptians, about 3.15 million survived the plague. Prof Poliak (1938, p. 201) concluded that the population of Egypt shrank from about 3,000,000 to about 2,000,000. In Cairo, the plague lasted nearly five months, from late September 1348 to early January 1349. Dols (1977, p. 215) estimated Cairo’s pre-plague population at 500,000 – 600,000, and the number of victims in Cairo and its environs at over 100,000 (p. 212). In the mid-16th century, Cairo had a population of 430,000.

Syria – As mentioned above, Prof Poliak (1938) estimated the total population of Syria, Lebanon, the Trans-Jordan, and the Land of Israel at 1.2 million before the plague, 150,000 of them in Lebanon. The plague reached Damascus in June 1348 and lasted to the end of March 1349. The city’s population went down from 80,000 to 60,000, or according to another source, 50,000.

Contemporary sources claim that the number of deaths in Greater Syria (including the Land of Israel) reached 400,000, and the population shrank to 800,000.

The Land of Israel – Dols (1977) does not give data for the situation in Palestine, but describes it in general terms (pp. 159-169). The mortality rate in the villages was high: in Jennin, for example, only one woman survived. The negative trend in the rural population continued through the rest of the 14th century and early 15th century, with the rural population’s (and farming animals’) mortality rate damaging the agriculture and reducing crops, with the consequent increase in food prices. The high population density in the cities made them even more vulnerable, and Dols (1977) reports the flight of people from the cities to the villages, on one hand, and on the other, villagers fleeing to the cities in search of medical treatment and food.

Dols (1977) gives numbers for Gaza and Safed only:
Gaza’s residents left and their deserted homes were pillaged (p. 173). Gaza district’s governor reported the death of 22,000 in Gaza between April 2 and May 4, 1348.
Safed’s governor reported 10,000 deaths. Jerusalem’s Mamluk governor fled from the city with his family, but they all died of the plague (p. 174).

Although exact data are missing for the number of deaths resulting from the plagues in the 14th and 15th centuries, it is certain there was a drastic decline in the number of people living in the Land of Israel.

In light of this conclusion, the numbers of the first Ottoman census of 1525/26 may not be unrealistic after all, although scholars believe the census did not depict the situation in the country accurately. We may assume that about 180,000 were plague victims.

Of a population of 470,000 at the end of the Crusader period, 100,000-120,000 Franks and about 50,000 Eastern Orthodox Chrisians (from the coastal cities) were killed, murdered, or fled. Not including casualties in other cities, the population at the time of the Mamluk conquest was about 300,000. If the first Ottoman census counted only 120,000, it may be that 180,000 died in the plagues of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Dols (1977) concluded, based on studies that examined the medical aspects of the plague, that it (and other epidemics that broke out in the region in a cycle every few years) diminished the population’s immunity. Adults 30 to 40 years of age had the highest mortality rates, affecting the country’s birth rate. A high rate of infant mortality (children under 6) affected the population’s natural growth rate as well.

The plague caused a drastic decline in population, and consequently a social and economic regression. Food shortages, following the decline in cultivated land, resulted in hunger and malnutrition, which contributed further to the de-population of the Middle East.

C. Another cause for the great decline in population under Mamluk rule was the deterioration of the economical and security conditions towards the end of the Mamluk period. Wars, political instability, and the rulers’ greedy exploitation of their subjects caused people to leave the country. The plague, the flawed administration, and the political instability severely impacted all aspects of the economy, and Vasco de Gamma’s discovery of the sea route to India made the trade routes of Europe with the Far East via Egypt redundant. International trade between the Mamluk kingdom and Europe declined. There were food and goods shortages, prices rose while the currency devalued. The Mamluk monopoly over various trades exacerbated the situation, and this economical situation caused emigration (specific numbers are not known).


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