Mameluke Jerusalem

In 1250 AD, control of Jerusalem was seized by the Mamelukes (also Mamluk or Mameluke). "Mameluke" means "one who is owned or possessed," an appropriate designation for these Turkish-speaking peoples, who were descendents of slaves from central Asia. They converted to Islam and enlisted in the army of the Caliph of Baghdad, serving as bodyguards and fighting troops. But it was only a matter of time before slaves became masters. The Mamelukes emerged to prominence when they overthrew the Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt, founded in 1174 by Saladin, and inaugurated a line of over 50 independent sultans who ruled for 267 years. For the most part, these slave-kings eschewed the principle of hereditary succession; they governed by might, not right. The throne belonged to the strongest and the next ruler was often determined by bribery or sword.

The Mamelukes were tolerant of other beliefs. Although Christians and Jews were taxed and obliged to wear blue (Christian) and yellow (Jews) turbans to distinguish them from the Muslim population, they lived relatively peaceful lives. In 1267, Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman and a group of Spanish Jews erected a synagogue known as the Ramban—an acronym of the name of Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman—near Jerusalem's Cardo (the main north-south street).

Jerusalem continued to attract Christian pilgrims as well, for accounts of their travels are numerous. A Christian monk and writer named Felix Fabri from Ulm came to Jerusalem on two pilgrimages in 1480 and 1484 and wrote a three-volume book about his experiences. He noted with disgust how Christian merchants, after bribing the guards, spread their goods on the floor: "not just paternosters, beads and precious stone, but damask and silk." He also told of pilgrims who, after making the prescribed tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, "sat down, ate and drank the good strong wine they had brought with them...until the bottles were empty." Fabria also expressed his distaste for the trade in supposed relics—pieces of the stone pillar at which Christ was scourged, a stone from Golgotha, a piece of stone from the Tomb of Christ, and even the "actual" bodies of infants killed by Herod at Bethlehem.

The Mamelukes constructed numerous graceful buildings in Jerusalem during their reign, but overall they treated the city solely as a Muslim theological center and ruined its economy through neglect and crippling taxes.

Mameluke Jerusalem

When the Mamelukes took control in the 13th century AD, Jerusalem's population was around 40,000. But gradually they lost interest in the city which they saw as little more than a provincial town. By the end of the 15th century AD its population had shrunk to around 10,000—the result of famine, epidemic and earthquake.

Remnants and archaeological finds related to the Mameluke era

It is interesting that in the turbulent, bloodstained Mameluke era, the first coordinated renovation of Jerusalem took place since the time of Herod the Great. Great patrons of the arts and great builders, the Mamelukes constructed four Madrasahs (mosques with schools for Koran studies). To the Temple Mount, known by Muslims as Haram esh-Sharif ("Noble Sanctuary"), they added four minarets to the corners so that the muezzins could raise the traditional Muslim call to prayer five times-a-day, and embellished it with fountains and delicate archways (mawazin) at the top of the staircases around the Dome of the Rock.

Although Mameluke buildings are traditional in function, their forms and techniques—superb stonework, brilliantly decorated gates and minarets, complex domes—display a level of sophistication and quality hitherto unknown in the Islamic world. For example:

Above left, possibly the most atmospheric street of the Old City, the tunnel-like interior of the Market of the Cotton Merchants (Suq al-Quattanin) was built by the Mameluke emir Tankiz in 1336-1337 on the ruins of a Crusader market; at the far end are two public baths, the Hammam el-Ain and the Hammam el- Shifa.

Above right, the Market of the Cotton Merchants is connected to the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif), by the splendidly ornate Gate of the Cottonsellers. The alternating blocks of black and white (also red and white) stone are typical of Mameluke handiwork. Non-Muslims cannot enter the Temple Mount through this gate, however, they can depart this way. (Editor's note: I personally found this to be true in Nov. 1999.)

Ramban Synagogue

The Ramban Synagogue is located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, near the Cardo, the main north-south street of the Byzantine period, and next to the minaret of the Sidi Umar Mosque. Ramban is an acronym of the name of Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (Nachnamides), a celebrated scholar who settled in Jerusalem in 1267. At the time he found only two Jews in the city, and dedicated himself to building a synagogue and re-establishment of a Jewish community. Originally located on Mt. Zion, the synagogue moved to its present site about 1400 AD and made use of the ruins of a Crusader church. It was divided into two naves by columns probably reused from the Cardo and it was the first time there had been a Jewish presence in this quarter of the city since the expulsion of the Jews in 135 AD. It served as a rallying point for Jews who came to the city as a result of expulsions from Spain in 1492 AD and Portugal in 1496 AD. In 1523 AD it collapsed and had to be rebuilt. At the time it was said to be the only synagogue in then Ottoman-controlled Jerusalem, but in 1599 AD it was closed by authorities and turned in a workshop. Only after the Israelis took control of the Old City in 1967 did it once again became a house of worship.

Right, Ramban Synagogue with the minaret of the vanished Sidi Omar Mosque (the only minaret in the Jewish Quarter) and the reconstructed "Huerva" arch.

In 1700 AD a group of Ashkenazi Jews arrived from Poland, and they settled in a courtyard north of the Ramban Synagogue. But after the death of their leader, they fell into disarray and into dept. When they could not pay the Muslims took control of their courtyard. As the edifice continued to deteriorate it became known as the "huervah" ("ruin"). It was restored to the Ashkenazi community in 1838; a great synagogue was completed some 20 years later only to be destroyed in 1948 by the Arab league. Aside from the restorations on the arch (right) and the inner courtyard, it was never rebuilt to show future generations the extensive devastation suffered by the Jewish Quarter during the battle to retake the city.

The Mameluke Sultanate survived until 1517 (the year when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Germany) when it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire.

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