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The 18th-century Mamluk regime



The early 18th century witnessed important changes both in Istanbul and in Baghdad. The reign of Sultan Ahmed III was marked by relative political stability in the capital and by extensive reforms--some of them influenced by European models--implemented during the "Tulip Period" (Lale Devri, 1718-30) by Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha.

In Baghdad, Hasan Pasha (1704-24), the Ottoman governor of Georgian origin sent from Istanbul, and his son Ahmed Pasha (1724-47) established a Georgian Mamluk (slave) household, through which they exercised authority and administered the province. The Mamluks, or in Turkish kölemen, were mostly Christian slaves from the Caucasus who converted to Islam, were trained in a special school, and were then assigned to military and administrative duties. Hasan Pasha made himself indispensable to the Ottoman government by curbing the unruly tribes and regularly remitting tribute to the treasury in Istanbul, and Ahmed Pasha played a crucial role in defending Iraq against yet another Iranian military threat. These pashas extended their authority beyond the eyalet of Baghdad to include Mardin, 'Urfa, and much of Kurdish Shahrizor, thus dominating the northern trade routes and securing additional sources of revenue. They also held sway over Basra and the trade lanes leading to the Persian Gulf, Arabia, and India. Mosul retained its separate provincial status and from 1726 to 1834 was governed by members of the powerful Jalili family. But, whereas the Jalilis, whose relationship to the sultan had some characteristics of vassalage, regularly made military contributions to Ottoman campaigns beyond their provincial frontiers, the pashas of Baghdad did not. The military forces at their disposal remained in Iraq, guarding against tribal unrest and threats from Iran.

The collapse of Safavid power in 1722 saw first the Afghans and later Nadir Shah (1736-47) seize power in Iran, leading to a resumption of hostilities in Ottoman Iraq. In 1733, before assuming the title of shah, Nadir unsuccessfully besieged Baghdad. He also failed to capture Mosul in 1742, and a settlement was reached in 1746 that confirmed the terms of the Treaty of Qasr-i Shirin. The assistance provided by the pashas of Baghdad and Mosul in countering the Iranian threat further enhanced their value in the eyes of the sultan's government and improved their position in their respective provinces.

When Ahmed Pasa died in 1747, shortly after the death of Nadir Shah, his Mamluks constituted a powerful, self-perpetuating elite corps of some 2,000 men. After attempts to prevent these Mamluks from assuming power failed, the Ottomans were obliged to accept their rule. By 1750 Süleyman Abu Layla, son-in-law of Ahmed Pasha and already governor of Basra, had reentered Baghdad and been recognized as the first Mamluk pasha of Iraq.

In the second half of the 18th century Iraqi political history is largely the story of the autonomous Georgian Mamluk regime. This regime succeeded in suppressing revolts, curbed the power of the Janissaries, and restored order and some degree of prosperity to the region. In addition they countered the Muntafiq threats in the south and made Basra a virtual dependency of Baghdad. Following the example set by the Afrasiyabs in the preceding century, they encouraged European trade by permitting the British East India Company to establish an agency in Basra in 1763.

Their failure to develop a regular system of succession and the gradual formation of several competing Mamluk households, however, resulted in factionalism and instability, which proved advantageous to a new ruler of Iran.

Karim Khan Zand ended the anarchy after Nadir Shah's assassination and from 1765 ruled over most of Iran from Shiraz. Like the Mamluk rulers of Iraq, he was interested in the economic returns derived from fostering European trade in the Persian Gulf. His brother, Sadiq Khan, took Basra in 1776 after a protracted and stubborn resistance directed by its Mamluk governor, Süleyman Aga, and held it until Karim Khan's death in 1779. Süleyman then returned from Shiraz, where he had been held captive, and in 1780 was given the governorship of Baghdad, Basra, and Shahrizor by Sultan Abdulhamid I. Known as Büyük (The Great) Süleyman Pasa, his rule (1780-1802) is generally acknowledged to represent the apogee of Mamluk power in Iraq. He imported large numbers of Mamluks to strengthen his own household, curbed the factionalism among rival households, eliminated the Janissaries as an independent local force, and fostered trade and agriculture. His attempts to control the Arab Bedouin were less successful, and Wahhabi incursions from Arabia into Al-Hasa and along the fringes of the desert, climaxing in the sack of the Shi'ite shrine Karbala' in 1801, added to his difficulties.


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