Brave Men and Brave Deeds - M. B. Synge

The Last Ride of the Mamelukes


The story of the massacre of the Mamelukes in the Cairo citadel is ghastly enough in all its details, but there is scarcely a more graphic scene in modern history than that of the four hundred and seventy mounted horsemen, their bright-coloured banners fluttering in the morning sunlight, riding unconsciously to their doom!

The Mamelukes have a long and interesting history of their own. Originally slaves, captured in the Turkish market, a large number of them were taken to Egypt by a Sultan of the thirteenth century to act as his bodyguard. They were to defend their master against his innumerable rivals; and loyal servants they were as long as the Sultan lived. But with the death of the Sultan, and the succession of a long line of most incapable Sultans, the Mamelukes, now a fine body of Turkish soldiers, refused to act as bodyguard any more. Indeed, they went so far as to appoint one from among themselves as Sultan of Egypt instead.

From this time—1250—for two centuries and a half, Egypt was governed by Mameluke Sultans. These Sultans lived in immense luxury and dressed royally; they built magnificent mosques and palaces in Cairo. But they were ambitious and greedy of honour. The death of a Mameluke Sultan was the signal for open revolt. Each of the great lords lived as a miniature Sultan—his bodyguard, his battalions all supreme—ready to fight his way to the throne on the first opportunity. Thus Egypt was torn asunder by these constant factions of ambitious chieftains. No sooner was one victorious than he was deposed and slain.

Nevertheless, in the eighteenth century their power had greatly declined. They had wasted their strength and thinned their numbers by fiery charges against new rulers of Egypt. Still, there was no doubt they were a power in the land; and when Mehemet Ali was made pasha in 1805, his first resolve was to extinguish them. On the face of things he was their greatest friend. He prevailed on five thousand of the most peaceable of these warlike horsemen to come to Cairo and settle under his protection. He swore to maintain Siam Bey, chief of the Mamelukes, in his posts of honour. He invited them to take part in an expedition to Mecca against a sect of Arabs who had long annoyed pilgrims journeying to that city with their caravans. The leader of the expedition was to be the pasha's favourite son Tossoon, a clever lad of seventeen, popular with all, and the idol of the wild soldiery.

It was late in February 1811, then, that Mehemet Ali invited Siam Bey to an audience to discuss the approach¬ing campaign against this Arab sect. The pasha said he wished to have his new friends under his standard, and to share with them the honour and the plunder of the holy war. He was frank and open with the bey; he told him his views, and invited him to disclose his. Siam yielded, and laid open his heart to his new friend. He discussed freely the transport of troops past the dangerous coasts of the Red Sea; he boasted of the number of saddles he could fill, of the sabres at his disposal, of the captains loyal to him.

The bey was flattered at the pasha's confidence; his pride was touched; he forgot his former hatred for this usurper—this man who had slain his comrades and kinsmen.

The interview ended by Mehemet Ali inviting the Mameluke chief and all his followers to the Cairo citadel on the following Friday, to make final arrangements and to be present at the ceremony of making the young Tossoon commander-in-chief of this allied army. On his return Siam told his chiefs of his gracious interview with the pasha, and of his promise to help in the expedition to Mecca.

"We are betrayed!" murmured an old, grey-bearded Mameluke who had appeared restless and dissatisfied. "We are surely betrayed!"

But the others laughed at him. Siam bent his brows. "And if there be danger, there is plenty of courage to meet it," he replied.

So he called together all his captains, lieutenants, sergeants, and standard-bearers, and ordered them to be in readiness to follow him to the citadel on the following Friday in the forenoon.

Meantime Cairo was like a hive. Every one was discussing the great army of Mamelukes who were going to march to Mecca together with the pasha's own troops. Everywhere—from Shoolra to Boolak, from the fresh, green fields under the shadow of the pyramids to the great sacred sycomore tree at Heliopolis—the talk was of this new friendship between the pasha and the Mameluke chief. Donkey boys, water carriers, lime sellers, date merchants, one and all talked of nothing save the great ceremony at the citadel on Friday.

Before dawn on that eventful day, the drums were rolling and beating all through the city and through the bazaars, summoning the pasha's troops to a grand parade. There was a seizing of muskets and cartouch-boxes, a great belting-on of swords and tying of scarfs and sashes. The companies hurried from their quarters to form in the squares and open places, to be instantly marched off to the citadel, and placed with extreme care at their vari¬ous stations. Mehemet's captains went down the ranks, strictly charging each man not to quit his post even for a moment on any pretext whatever. Each musket was examined and carefully loaded.

"This day the sun rose the colour of blood," said one who was present.

Meanwhile the Mameluke procession—four hundred and seventy horsemen—came winding across the millet-fields and lupin-grounds between the pyramids and the Nile. Their banners of yellow and crimson fluttered brightly in the morning air. The sun shone on the gold tissue that banded their turbans, on their white-striped silk robes, on the golden flowers that studded their uniforms and half covered their close-linked coats of mail. The March sun-beams glittered on the embossed gold and silver of their pistol-butts, on the handles of their hand-guns and the hilts of their Damascus yataghans. Their saddle-cloths were stiff with lace; their cartouch-boxes and huge stirrups—even the bindings of their high saddles—were gilt.

It was a gorgeous sight, this magnificent body of Mamelukes riding slowly along the raised earthen causeway between the cornfields and clover-fields, riding in the early morning sunlight after the drums and banners—light-hearted, reckless, but riding to their death, Young boys were there, proud of their youth and courage, yet untried, reining in their white Arab stallions side by side with brown and bearded veterans riding grimly on, heedless of the thunder-cloud hanging over their heads.

With a fanfare of trumpets and a roll of kettledrums, the Mamelukes entered the ancient city. They wound through the narrow streets, under the high awnings, past the fountains of the mosque, up, up toward the great citadel with its commanding view. They were led by three of their generals, foremost of whom rode Siam Bey, gorgeous in his uniform, confident, reckless, free. At the gate they were received by the soldiers with full military honours. Unsuspecting, they rode on past the gate, passed on up to the palace on the higher ground between the fortress walls.

The Cairo citadel dates back to the days of Saladin. It is, like a fortress, made up of a series of covered ways between bastion and bastion, with parade grounds be¬tween. At the foot of the steps that led up to a granite columned hall, the four hundred 'and seventy horsemen threw themselves from their horses, shook the dust from their glittering robes, adjusted their swords and pistols with confidence, and entered.

Siam Bey and two other chiefs were summoned to the "Hall of Audience" where Mehemet Ali sat.

He received them courteously. They talked of the coming war, and compliments passed between them. But the pasha was not at his ease. Presently he grew grave, clapped his hands, and Nubians entered with smoking coffee-pots, gold trays, and little cups set in gilt frames, after the Turkish fashion.

Still they all talked on in a friendly manner.

Then more Nubian slaves entered in flowing white, carrying long cherry stems and broad red day bowls with tobacco, and red-hot charcoal in silver censers for the honoured guests—the Mameluke chiefs.

Just then the pasha rose from his divan, thrust his feet into his red slippers, and withdrew as if to leave his guests more at their ease.

But his face darkened as he entered the ante-chamber where the armed captain of the guard awaited his orders. The pasha's hands were feverishly clutching his sword handle.

"These Mamelukes are false," he said. "They have been plotting to seize the citadel, and overturn my power as soon as the army leaves the city."

It had even been proposed in the Mameluke camp he had heard, he added, to seize the pasha himself. Should this be endured longer? No!

"Bar and close the gates of the citadel," he cried to the captain of the guard. "The moment Siam Bey and his two chiefs take horse, let the troops fire on them till every Mameluke within reach is killed. Let not one Mameluke escape alive!"

These were the pasha's orders.

Slaughter of Mamelukes


The three Mameluke chiefs waited in vain for Me¬hemet's return. Anxiously, and a little distrustfully, they waited, till at last they decided to leave.

Scarcely had they thrown themselves into their saddles than a rain of fire broke upon them from behind the ramparts. Bullets whizzed through their ranks from every side. It was a scene of horror, dismay, and confusion. Tossing up their arms and firing vainly at the walls, they were mowed down by hundreds. In vain the maddened Mamelukes spurred up every passage—only to find death awaiting them, for the pasha's troops were concealed upon the ramparts and towers, and behind the walls of the citadel.

Siam Bey himself, some said, was led before the pasha, who was seated on the summit of one of the terraces. He only accused him of treachery, and ordered his head to be struck off. Others said that Siam gained his saddle and dashed down, sword in hand, to the outer gate of the citadel. It was firmly closed, and he fell before it, pierced with innumerable bullets.

The lifeless body of the brave Siam was then dragged through every part of the city with a rope passed round the neck.

The wholesale massacre of the Mamelukes went on. Some of them succeeded in hiding in the house of Tos¬soon. Many of them were dragged forth and killed on the spot. For two whole days Cairo was the scene of bloodshed. Under pretext of seeking for the Mamelukes every sort of violence was committed, and it was not until some five hundred houses had been robbed, much property destroyed, and many lives lost, that at last Mehemet Ali and his son rode out of the citadel to try to check the fury of his people.

No less than four hundred and seventy mounted Mame¬lukes, to say nothing of their servants, who usually served on foot, were slain. The wicket of the citadel gate was opened, and the victims were dragged out one by one to the court of the citadel, where they were first stripped of their gorgeous apparel, of those golden-edged turbans, of those white silk robes and the close-linked coats of mail, after which they were beheaded. Penned in like sheep, these brave old Mamelukes were struck dead one after another. A few boys only were saved for slaves, because they were so young and so beautiful. One old Mameluke chief alone escaped—so says this graphic old Eastern tale—and the story of his escape will never be forgotten as long as the Nile flows through Egypt, or the pyramids stand in their eternal grandeur.

Amim Bey then, for such was his name, had arrived late for the procession. Siam, his chief, had already passed through the citadel gate when he rode up. He therefore took a lower place in the ranks than he should have done had he arrived in time.

Suddenly the gates were shut—the firing began. It occurred to Amim that something unusual was happening. His first idea was treachery. He spurred his horse up a narrow turn to a lofty terrace close to where the great mosque of Mehemet Ali now stands. There was a gap in the old wall awaiting repair. The other side of the wall, a precipice, ran forty feet down to the sandy plain below.

On one side rose the countless minarets of Cairo and the domes of numerous mosques, on the other spread the quiet valley of the Nile with the pyramids in the distance. Certain death lay behind, almost certain death lay before. Better, a thousand times better, to die by his own hand than to fall into the hands of the enemy.

One last look, and Amim spurred his horse madly at the gap in the wall, for this his last chance of life. Away into the air they sprang, and fell. Presently Amim lifted himself up, half-stunned, from his poor, dead horse, and found himself whole and sound under the great precipice of rock from the top of which he had leaped. The long drift of rubbish from the ruined wall had broken his fall; and close to the spot where he fell an Arab had pitched his black tent and picketed his horses. Amim instantly threw himself on his mercy.

It was granted, and the Arab kept the old chief hidden till the fury of the pasha and his soldiers was past.

When rumours of Amim's escape reached Mehemet's ears, the Arab generously gave the Mameluke chief a horse, and he escaped into Syria.

The search for the Mamelukes was very hot and greedy in Cairo, a Mameluke's head being considered worth more than a melon. At the same time, orders were given for the slaughter of all the remaining Mamelukes in Egypt within the course of the next month, and some eight hundred heads were brought in from towns and villages up the Nile. They were exposed daily in Cairo before the citadel gates.

Such was the ghastly massacre of this old established body of Egyptian slaves and rulers. But in judging the conduct of the pasha Mehemet Ali, it must be remembered that he probably slew only that he should not be slain. Treachery was at work in the Mameluke's camp too—so much had been whispered abroad by a servant of Siam Bey, who had been bribed by the pasha. He had forestalled their plot, if plot there really were, and frustrated it by his own treachery.

Be all this as it may, the story of the Last Ride of the Mamelukes will never be forgotten in the East, and the great leap of the old chief Amim will always be told as long as the Nile rolls on.