What is it about?

This paper revises current understandings of the organization of the leadership of the Syro-Egyptian sultanate in the long ninth/fifteenth century, away from the traditional bureaucratic state model. It examines the case of the court position of ‘the Chief Head of the [sultan’s] Guards’. We explore narrative source reports both to identify the sultanate’s sixty ‘Chief Heads’ and to reconsider what they did in this capacity and what this tells us about the sultanate's organization.

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Why is it important?

We use the analytical categories of the court, social infrastructures and military entrepreneurialism to understand better the participation of military strongmen (amirs) in the sultanate's politics. This is important because current approaches to this political history continue to be dominated by a bureaucratic paradigm that is ahistorical and arguably even anachronistic. In this paper, we demonstrate how alternative readings are possible, and how they can make more sense of the era’s complex practices of resource accumulation, violence-wielding, courtly reconfiguration, and state formation.


We hope this article may inspire colleagues, students and other interested readers to consider more carefully the rich complexity of fifteenth-century Syro-Egyptian history. In the first place, we have wanted to present alternative thinking tools and to demonstrate the many potentials these tools have to offer, both to move the field forward and to connect with other fields of late medieval and early modern history.

Jo Van Steenbergen
Universiteit Gent

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Social Infrastructures, Military Entrepreneurship, and the Making of the Sultan’s Court in Fifteenth-Century Cairo, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, September 2022, Brill,
DOI: 10.1163/15685209-12341583.
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