Mamluk Heraldic Devices in Jerusalem – Parts I & II

One of the most significant events in the history of Islam was the decision by the Abbasid caliph al Mutassim to import young Turks from the Central Asian Steppes as slaves to serve as highly trained, mounted archers. This process of importing these young Turks would continue for centuries and would soon change the course of world history. Known as “Mamluks” (“owned”), these young men spent their childhood and young adulthood training in military exercises and sports, and once a full-fledged soldier, could eventually win freedom, or in exceptional cases, be elevated to the position of amir (Coinage, 5). As slaves, they were owned and supported by their patron and indoctrinated in both Islamic theology and loyalty to their patron; by the 10th century, whole armies were comprised exclusively of these Mamluk soldiers. Due to their intensive military training, Mamluks dominated warfare as mounted archers and proved virtually unstoppable on the battlefield, able to accurately shoot over their backs at a full gallop. With their invincibility came the inevitable confidence that they could make or break the Islamic leadership, which they did from time to time. Mamluk power and influence continued to grow in the Islamic realm until Baybars, himself a Mamluk, received the investiture as sultan from the Abbasid caliph; such investitures continued throughout the life of the Mamluk state, which managed to survive in various parts of the lands of Islam until the Ottomans defeated them under Selim I in January 1517 (Coinage, 7, 11). As the Mamluk influence grew, the Caliph’s power correspondingly diminished to such a point that he eventually ruled as solely a de jure figure-head who in fact served the Mamluk power structure by bestowing legitimacy on their rule. Their unique combination as warrior-rulers meant that Mamluks had significant impact on history-changing battles, both as the decision-makers and as the soldiers who fought and won the conflicts. Under Baybars, the Crusaders were roundly defeated along the Syrian coast, the Mongol army was defeated, and in 1268 the Crusader stronghold of Antioch fell (Coinage, 7). The Sultan Qala’un, a Mamluk, decisively defeated the Mongols near Hims, and then proceeded to drive out the Crusaders to such an extent that by his death, Crusaders held very little remaining territory in the region; Qala’un’s son, al-Ashraf Khalil destroyed the last Crusader stronghold, ‘Akka (Coinage, 7).

It was not, however, exclusively the military victories which earned the Mamluks their enduring place in history; Mamluk architectural achievements which can still be seen in Egypt, Syria and Israel, testify to their permanence as a historical society worthy of study. These architectural achievements include madrasas, mosques, mausoleums, zawiyas, ribats, and minarets. An additional aspect of Mamluk architecture which heightens the appeal of its study is the Mamluk use of heraldic emblems on some of their buildings. In Jerusalem, such Mamluk heraldic devices include chalice, napkin, and polo sticks, among others.

Apart from the handful of buildings in Jerusalem that display Mamluk heraldic emblems, such devices are found in rich abundance on the coinage of the Mamluks, thus a discussion of Mamluk coinage is helpful for a proper understanding of the use of heraldic emblems on Mamluk architecture.
Unfortunately, there are few sources for scholarly investigation of heraldic devices, the main body of knowledge is found primarily in a handful of English language sources including L.A. Mayer’s Saracenic Heraldry, Paul Balog’s The Coinage of the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt and Syria, and to a lesser extent, Michael Burgoyne’s Mamluk Jerusalem.

It is the goal of this paper to discuss those heraldic devices used on Mamluk architecture in Jerusalem and to detail their meaning where possible, and to briefly discuss Mamluk heraldic emblems on Mamluk coinage. This paper will progress as follows: section I will give an overview of Mamluk heraldic emblems; Section II will discuss heraldry on Mamluk coinage, Section III will contain a photographic tour of the buildings in Jerusalem which contain such emblems; and Section IV will offer concluding thoughts.
Section I: Mamluk Heraldic Emblems

In his work, Saracenic Heraldry, L.A. Mayer gives an extensive overview of Islamic heraldry in general, touching upon those emblems employed by Mamluks . Defining his terms, Mayer cites Fox-Davies’s definition of “blazon” as a coat of arms “‘that requires the twofold qualification that the design must be hereditary and must be connected with armour’”, and continues by stating that, based on that definition of “blazon”, Saracenic blazons do in fact qualify as true “blazons” (Mayer, 1). Such blazons were found on “every possible object” including architecture, houses, window-grilles, doors, column capitals, weapons, coins, textiles, plates, coats of mail, and horse armour, just to name several (Mayer, 2). Unfortunately, however, information on such heraldry is extremely limited: in Arabic literature, the occurrences of the word “blazon” number less than fifty, and seals, which provide great insight into the heraldic devices of other countries, carry no heraldic emblems in Saracenic lands (Mayer, 1-2). The shi’ar, or “charges”, fall into several categories (Appleton, 2). The first, the animal, is represented by three animals: the lion passant, the eagle (or falcon), and the horse passant, although there is disagreement among scholars as to whether the horse is actually a blazon, or whether it is just the bearer of the true emblem, the ceremonial saddle (Appleton, 2). The second category of charges is represented by the fleur-de-lis, the crescent, and the bend, although here, too, scholars are uncertain as to how the fleur-de-lis came into Islamic usage, and whether the crescent represents a horse-shoe and, thus, the amir akhur or ‘master of the stable’ or whether the fleur-de-lis is simply a “cant” on a name such as “Hilal” which means “crescent” (Appleton, 3). The third category of charges is also the largest, and is represented by emblems relating to the office held by the bearer, such as the penbox which was used by those holding the office of secretary (Appleton, 3). The remaining categories are represented by symbols about which little is known, such as the “trousers of nobility”, the gubbah, or “ceremonial saddle”, the tamghas, which originated with the Mongols or Turks, and other miscellaneous charges such as the letter aliph (Appleton, 3). Regarding the “trousers of nobility”, Balog presents an interesting hypothesis. This emblem has born numerous descriptive titles, all of which attest to the fact that we know little about it – titles such as the above-mentioned “trousers”, “horns of nobility”, and even L.A. Mayer’s “powderhorn” (“Problematic”, 328). Based on the Mamluk disdain for the use of firearms, believing the use of such weapons to be beneath the dignity of Muslim “noblemen”, Balog argues that it is highly unlikely that a “powderhorn” would have been used as a heraldic symbol, thus another explanation is required (“Problematic”, 329). Balog’s conclusion is that the horns represent the elevated status of certain amirs, especially the tabl-khana, who, as a special class of amirs were entitled to the pomp of a military orchestra three times a day (“Problematic”, 329). Thus Balog reasons that these horns were heraldic representations of the brass horns used in the military orchestra, and would have been an excellent choice as a symbol to show the Sultan’s favor for high ranking officials (“Problematic”, 334).

Saracenic heraldic emblems come in two basic forms: simple in which there is one emblem, examples of which can be seen on page 8 of Mayer’s Saracenic Heraldry, and composite in which there are several simple emblems contained within one heraldic device (Coinage, 24). Granted by the sultan, blazons corresponded to the position the amir held when the blazon was bestowed (Mayer, 3-4). Abu-l-Fida, author of History, identified certain offices with certain heraldic emblems: secretary (dawadar) used the pen-box; the armour-bearer (silahdar) used the bow, the superintendant of stores (tishtdar) used the ewer, the master of the robes (jamdar) used the napkin, the marshal (amir akhur) used the horseshoe, and the jawish used the golden qubbah (Mayer, 4). Furthermore, there are seven blazons which, considered along with the accompanying inscriptions and the biographies of their respective owners, are considered with a high probability to be emblems of a particular office: a cup for the office of cup-bearer (saqi), a napkin for the “master of robes” (jamdar), polo-sticks for the polo-master (jukandar), a round table for the taster (jashnigir), the pen-box for the secretary (dawadar), the sword (most likely also the dagger and scimitar) for the amour-bearer (silahdar), and finally the bow for the bowman (bunduqdar) or for the armour-bearer (Mayer, 5). Several other blazons with no accompanying inscriptions can be identified with particular offices with still a relatively high degree of certainty: the pair of banners for the office of standard-bearer (alamdar), the drum and sticks for the office of drummer (tabldar), the trumpet for another member of the musicians, a rounded, three fielded shield for the office of postman (baridi), and a shoe (some uncertainty remains as to this emblem) for the office of shoe-bearer (bashmaqdar) (Mayer, 5). Interestingly, it seems that amirs kept their original blazons, even when the office they held changed (Mayer, 6). As an example, the emblem employed initially by Bahadur was a six-petalled rosette, but despite the fact that he changed titles/offices over his career, the heraldic emblem on his mausoleum in Damascus, which was built toward the end of his life, was the same rosette (Mayer, 6). While the aforementioned blazons are “simple” in that they represent one charge, composite blazons were also used which combined several charges in one blazon. In fact, prior to the first Circassian sutlan, Barquq, Bahri Mamluk heraldic blazons were fairly simple in that they contained one or two heraldic symbols on a field, or on two-fielded shields (“Problematic”, 326). Beginning with Barquq, Circassian heraldry presented several symbols on a three-fielded shield (“Problematic”, 326). Michael Meineke postulated that the Circassian Sultans able to build up their own Mamluk contingents either “bestowed” their amiral emblem to their Mamluks or permitted their Mamluks to use it as their personal heraldic emblem (“Problematic”, 326). Thus, from Barquq through to the mid-ninth century (Muslim calendar), blazons are believed to have been “individual, personal badges” (“Problematic”, 326).

Composite blazons are also seen on some Mamluk coins (Coinage, 24). As an example, Figure 1 shows two of the composite blazons used by the sultan Barquq: a lion passant on a three fielded shield, and another blazon composed of a cup, polo sticks, and crescent on a three fielded shield (Coinage, 24).

In Mamluk society, the ‘blazon’ was a “prerogative” of the amir, as evidenced by the fact that only sultans and amirs are recorded in literature as having used them, and only sultans and amirs appear in the accompanying inscriptions (Mayer, 3). Interestingly, in Europe, blazons became so important that institutions developed to regulate them including registration, ‘Colleges of Arms’, and protection by law, however, in Saracenic countries, blazons never reached that status (Mayer, 4). Furthermore, in Islam there was no “hereditary caste of nobility” as represented by knights in the west, yet Muslims appointed to important positions in the government and given the title “amir” (“noble”), as well as knighted Mamluks and Mamluks who were granted their freedom formed a de facto class which did use heraldic emblems to identify themselves (Coinage, 2). Much like the heraldic symbols used on the coats of arms of European armies, Islamic and Mamluk heraldic emblems have significant meaning, giving details about the patron who constructed the structure. Unlike European heraldry, however, inaccuracies and deviations occur in the same Islamic blazons, perhaps due to the less regimented view of heraldry in the world of medieval Islam; such deviations, such as Baybars’ lion passant facing both left and right in different emblems, would, in European heraldry, indicate a new blazon (Coinage, 20).
With regard to the question of whether or not Mamluk heraldic emblems were hereditary, there is, according to L.A. Mayer, scholarly difficulty. Mayer held that the emblems were hereditary in cases where the heir held the rank of amir, and Balog concurs with this hypothesis (Coinage, 24). Mayer based his theory on two factors: first, in the instances in which the blazons of both father and son are known, they are identical (Baybars and his son Baraka Qan, Kitbugha and his son Muhammad b. Kitbugha, Sha’ban and his son Haffi, and Sha’ban and his son ‘Ali); second, when the blazon of only the son is known, the blazon is what scholars would expect to have been the emblem of the father (Coinage, 24). Balog adds his own findings to support this theory – namely that many heraldic coins which belong to several generations of the same family bear the same heraldic emblems, which, Balog asserts, is proof positive that the Mamluk blazons were indeed hereditary (Coinage, 24).
Section II: Mamluk Heraldry on Coinage

Heraldic symbols are most commonly seen on the coinage used in medieval Islam, thus it is appropriate to include a brief discussion of such devices on coins as this bears directly on heraldic emblems used in Mamluk architecture. Interestingly, of the 47 Mamluk heraldic emblems identified by L.A. Mayer, Balog was only able to identify 16 of the 47 as appearing on coins (Coinage, 20). It was under Baybars I, the fifth Bahri Mamluk sultan, that Mamluk coinage took its “proper form”, with the blazon as its most prominent feature (Coinage, 12). As an example, a series of Egyptian emissions belonging to al-Nasir Muhammad uses the napkin, or “buqjah” as a heraldic device on the copper fulus coins (Coinage, 13).

After the Bahri Mamluk period ended, the Burji period began. The traditional coinage issues of the Burjis did not differ from certain Bahri issues, however, the first Burji sultan Barquq issued new silver and copper coins, and certain of the copper fals coins displayed heraldic emblems (Coinage, 13). Dinars issued by sultans Faraj, al-Musta’in bi’llah and al-Mu’ayyad Shaykh used the heraldic fesse; some dirhems issued by al-Musta’in bi’llah display the buqjah, similarly, some dirhems issued by Barsbay display a chalice and some dirhems issued by Jaqmaq display a buqjah and chalice (Coinage, 13).
Heraldic devices on coins contain certain components. One such component is the “Legend” (Coinage, 13). The attributions of the coin, the sultan’s name, the caliph’s name, the mint and date, and even the sultan’s genealogy can all appear as part of the legend, which can span both sides of the coin (Coinage, 13-14). Depending on the configuration of the particular coin, there may also, or instead, be found religious invocations for the sultan (Coinage, 15). The value of the coin is also a prominent feature on these early Islamic coins; for example, the gold coins always display that they are valued as a dinar, silver coins as a dirhem, and some copper coins that they are valued at a fals (Coinage,16). Furthermore, the coinage of the Mamluks heralded a new innovation: the sultans had their coats of arms engraved on the copper fulus and less frequently on the gold and silver coins (Coinage, 18). In cases where the same sultan used several different blazons on his coins, it is believed that these different blazons are part of his composite blazon (Coinage, 20).

Read part III here:

Kevin Banks

Geopolitical analyst with extensive background in languages and information technology.
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