How to marry right

Searching for a royal spouse at the Mamluk court of Cairo in the fifteenth century [DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 21, February 2017]

by Albrecht FUESS

“Whoever does not marry an Egyptian woman, says Imam al-Shafi‘i, will never obtain the full wisdom” (Abdar-Raziq 1973, 123). This saying introduces the topic of the current paper well as choosing a spouse will always have direct consequences, in this case it is meant that whoever does not choose an Egyptian will stay somehow dumb unless he divorces and corrects his error. In other cases choosing a non-fitting spouse might have worse consequences for the couple and their families, the Mamluk royal households were no exception to this.

In previous research I did find out that, it was usually not the old sultan organized marriage arrangements for potential successors. Most of the Mamluk sultans of the fifteenth century actually became in-laws of a previous sultan once the predecessor has already died and potential successorsare in the process of preparing or bolstering their claim. Therefore, the marriage with a female member of the household of the previous sultan sets place in the period immediately after the grand emirs have agreed on the real successor, instead of the interim son of the previous sultan. In this paper, I will to try to look more at the role of the royal princesses and female spouses. The question is if we can find out about the exact process of how these marriages came about. A reconstruction of these events will be attempted, despite the fact that not much is to be found in the sources about actual royal wedding arranging procedures. We know for example much more about festivities and the sums of the dowry. Everything prior to the official engagement announcements stays so far still very much in the dark, but maybe this can be researched further in the course of the DYNTRAN project.

At this point, the function of a marriage as political act in order to transmit authority will be analysed using three case studies. Apparently, it was only of minor importance to found a family through marriage.

Fāṭima bint ʿAlā al-dīn ʿ Alī ibn Khaṣṣbak

According to Carl Petry the ancestor of Fāṭima Safy al-Dīn Khaṣṣbak al-Nāṣirī (d. 1333) had been a very important Mamluk officer in the first half of the fourteenth century and it seems that the family then had other prominent members and managed to stay in the enlarged Mamluk nobility (Petry 2004, 278). However, little is known about her father ʿAlī besides that he died in 1493 as a man of high prestige and learning at the age of around 70 (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, III, 302; Ibn Iyās, II, Histoire, 341). The most prominent member of her family was her sister Zaynab the wife of Sultan Inal (r. 1453-1461). A third sister was married by another officer climbing the career ladder, a certain Aqbardī, who was a kinsmen of Qaytbay. Therefore, the Khassbakiya girls were clearly situated in the Sultan Īnāl camp. During the reign of his successor Sultan Khushqaddam (r. 1461-67) they had to keep a low profile, as he tried several times to lay hand on the belongings and family foundations of Sultan Īnāl’s widow Zaynab (Reinfandt 2003). When Emir Qaytbay managed to become sultan, the threats of financial losses and exhortations stopped for Zaynab with the help of her royal sister. However, finances of the Khaṣṣbakiya-family were again in danger after the death of Sultan Qaytbay in 1496. Zaynab had passed away by now and the family fortunes were endangered, even more so as the son of Qaytbay, al-Nāṣir Muḥammad (r. 1496-1498), was not the son of Fāṭima but of Aṣalbāy, a slave girl of the sultan. According to Ibn Iyās, al-Nāṣir Muḥammad however did help the widow of his father against the Mamluks who wanted to loot her belongings (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, IIII, 427; Ibn Iyās, II, Histoire, 467). Fatima’s sister, the wife of the above-mentioned Great Dawādār Aqbirdī, suffered similar incidents, as Aqbardī had lost the power struggle against al-Nāṣir Muḥammad and had to flee to Syria were he finally died in 1499. (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, III, 420 f.; Ibn Iyās, Histoire, II, 460.) Both sisters were even imprisoned shortly after that at the end of 1499 by the new Sultan Qānṣuh Qānṣuh (r. 1498-1500) as he wanted their money as well (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, III, 427; Ibn Iyās, II, Histoire, 467). In this context the marriage of the former Sultana Fāṭima bint ʿAlī ibn Khaṣṣbak to the next Sultan al-ʿAdīl Tumānbāy (r. 1501) in 1501 can be seen as a measure to protect her properties, as she appears in her financial documents, which Carl Petry has analyzed, as a woman who was very well versed in financial matters (Petry 2004). After all she must have been around 60 years at the date of her second marriage and would die four years later (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, III, 472; Ibn Iyās, Histoire, II, 512).


Now, as some of the important family members of the royal households of the period have been already introduced, we will examine two further royal weddings, which had happened in the aftermath of Qaytbays death in 1496. Besides his official wife Fāṭima, sultan Qaytbay had a relationship with the Circassian slave girl Aṣalbāy with whom he fathered his son al-Nāṣir Muḥammad. After the death of his father al-Nāṣir Muḥammad tried to hold on to power, which was unusual in the fifteenth century as in normal succession procedures the son would step down after a transition period leaving the place for a powerful emir of his father. At the beginning of his reign he was very much backed by his maternal Oncle Qānṣuh the brother of his mother. Together they had defeated the powerful Grand Dawādār Aqbardī.

But during the year 1498 there had been apparently a row between the young sultan and his maternal uncle Qānṣuh. In order to calm the tension the sultan’s mother Aṣalbāy had them both summoned to the Citadel in February 1498 [Rajab 903] in order that they swore in her presence on the Quran copy of the third Caliph ʿUthman (r. 644-656) that they would not fight each other. But this oath turned out meaningless. (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i. vol. 3, 387; Ibn Iyās, Histoire, II, 428). Al-Nāṣir Muḥammad apparently looked out for new alliances and therfore he made wedding plans which displeased his mother. In September 1498 [Safar 904] sources speak of a heavy dispute of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad with his mother about his marriage to the Circassian lady Miṣirbāy, the widow of Kurtbāy, the former governor of Gaza and brother of the former DawÁdÁr Āqbardī. Ibn Iyās says in this context that this marriage did nothing but bring al-Nāṣir Muḥammad bad luck as he would be killed less than a month later. (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, III, 399; Ibn Iyās, II, Histoire, 441.) But why would his mother been so upset by his marriage? We can only guess. One thing that comes to mind, is that al-Nāṣir Muḥammad wanted to re-open a channel towards Āqbardī who was with his men still in Syria as he would die only one year later. Moreover, it could have brought him nearer to the Khaṣṣbakiya sultanic widows and their impressive estates. Both factions could help him to outplay his uncle Qānṣuh. Maybe this was the reason for the anger of Aṣalbāy as she knew that this would deepen the rift between her son and her brother.

However as we have already heard by Ibn Iyās, the marriage of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad backfired. After the murder of her husband, Miṣirbāy was now married in turn by the new sultan and uncle of the former, Qānṣuh, who himself had been involved in the murder. But she brought no luck as well as he was toppled a year later and apparently imprisoned. (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, III, 426, 436; Ibn Iyās, Histoire, II, 466, 476).

The question, which remains here, is what role Miṣirbāy the Circassian did play in all of this. Had she an active part in it or was she just a token?

What we do know about her is that she married again in the summer of 1517 immediately after the Ottoman conquest and was brought up to the citadel by procession for the third time. Her new husband was Khā’ir Bek, the new Ottoman governor of Egypt, who was a former high official of the Mamluks who had defected to the Ottomans (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, V, 211). Still there was no happy end for Miṣirbāy. According to Ibn Iyās her husband beat her up once so hard that she almost died. Then he made her descend from the citadel, where she lived in downtown Cairo until she died in autumn of 1522 (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, V, 439, 483).


As stated above Aṣalbāy was a slave girl of Circassian origin. At a certain time she was purchased by Qaytbay, presumably during his sultanate and then they had a son together, the above mentioned al-Nāṣir Muḥammad ibn Qaytbay. So how did she come to know Qaytbay? Presumably she was given to him as a gift or he selected her himself from a slave trader. What we might assume is that he felt in somehow attracted to her and developed some kinds of feelings. If she liked him is of course not known, but as leading concubine she had a high political standing and was free to act for herself, especially after her manumission after the death of Qaytbay. We recognize her in the midst of the power struggle of her son and her brother and sadly she witnessed first the murder of her son and then the downfall of her brother. Still this did apparently not diminish her role at court. Already during the reign of her brother she had married the Atabek Jānbulāṭ at the beginning of the year 1500 (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, III, 429/ Ibn Iyās, Histoire, II, 469). Just six months later he then became the new sultan after the defeat of her brother and so she became sultana in her own right and had her own procession back to the royal harem up to the citadel. Now she was the real sultana at least for a year, but it is unclear if she was really glad about it given the circumstances which had accompanied these developments.

When now her royal husband was toppled in January 1501 and later strangled in the fortress in Alexandria (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, III, 462; Ibn Iyās, Histoire, II, 502), she had to leave the Citadel again, only to be replaced by her old companion at the side of Sultan Qaytbay, the new sultana Fāṭima ʿAlī ibn Khaṣṣbak as wife of Sultan al-ʿAdīl Tumānbāy in 1501. This might be seen as ironic but presumably, it was not how Aṣalbāy nor Fatima perceived it. Aṣalbāy lived then for some years in Cairo before she was forced to stay in exile after a pilgrimage to Mecca by Sultan Qānsūh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501-1516) in 914/1508. She died in Mecca one year later (Ibn Iyās, Badā’i, IV, 131, 159).


To conclude: I have to come back to the question of how the transmission happened. In this case, it is the transmission of power and the claims to succession through marriage. The whole “How” process however still needs further research. Many details were taken by the contemporary actors into their grave. However we perceive that marriages are concluded because of political reasons and women seemed to be involved only to a certain extent themselves. Still their might have been was some influence in the how of power transitions. It seems for example that a stable network which the Khassbakiya women enjoyed through a long ancestry, estate accumulation and, the marriage with two sultans kept them apparently more independent, than the Circassian slave girl Aṣalbāy or the Circassian wife Miṣirbāy.

On the other hand, it is remarkable that all three women depicted here apparently acquire a royal aura through their marriages or relationships with sultans. This aura makes them apparently special and well sought after if it comes to bolster a claim to the sultanate. Marrying a royal woman is therefore worth a sultanate.

Albrecht Fuess (February 2017)

Quoted bibliography

  • Ahmad Abdar-Raziq, La femme au temps des Mamlouks, Cairo: IFAO 1973.
  • Ibn Iyās, Badā’i‛ al-zuhūr fī waqā’i‛ al-duhūr, ed. by Mohamed Mostafa, 5 vols., Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner 1960-1975.
  • Ibn Iyās, Histoire des Mamlouks Circassiens, translated by Gaston Wiet, 2 vols., Cairo: Imprimerie de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale 1945
  • Lucian Reinfandt, Mamlukische Sultansstiftungen des 9./15. Jahrhunderts. Nach den Urkunden der Stifter al-Ašraf Īnāl und al-Mu’ayyad Amad Ibn Īnāl, Berlin: Schwarz 2003.
  • Carl Petry, “The Estate of al-Khawand Fatima al-Khassbakiyya: Royal Spouse, Autonomous Investor,” in: The Mamluks in Egyptian and Syrian Politics and Society, ed. by Michael Winter, Amalia Levanoni, Leiden: Brill 2004, 277-94.

To quote this publication:

Albrecht Fuess, “How to marry right: Searching for a royal spouse at the Mamluk court of Cairo in the fifteenth century”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, n° 21, online edition, February 2017, available at:

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