Fatimid Criminals, Mercenaries and Slave Soldiers

FATIMID MILITARY'S ETHNIC MIX

Introduction

No one would suggest that Palestine and Syria were a rural idyll before the arrival of the Crusaders. Criminality was already rife. But the distorted demographic surges from the 1070s onwards (distorted to massively over-represent the ‘usual suspects’ of medieval criminality) made a bad situation far worse.

It was not just the Franks who encouraged large numbers of foreign men to enter the region and take up military service. Their Egyptian enemies (and occasional allies) had a similar interest in boosting the number of testosterone-filled soldiers in the area.

The Forgotten Army

The Fatimids were a rich Shi’ite Muslim regime who controlled Egypt and, until shortly before the Crusaders arrived, Palestine. Their army lacked the glamour of the Turks or the Crusaders, and as a result is relatively little known today – but for much of the period it was the largest, best-equipped force in the region. It was also, for most purposes, the only one which might approximate our modern definition of a ‘regular’ army.

Significantly, this army, like most others, consisted largely of foreigners. Their mercenaries were pulled into the army from far afield, both from the south (Africa) and from the northeast (Armenia). Like many of their enemies, their recruits were young men driven into the region by desperation, money, opportunity or piety.

Soldiers of the Sudani

Militarised slave soldiers were to be found in sub-Saharan Africa – the Fatimids used their money and diplomatic connections to buy as many of these as they could. The main source of these troops were the two Nubian kingdoms to the south of Egypt, Alwa and Makuria, both of which were largely Christian. They provided good infantry and gave additional access to manpower from the lands beyond, further into Africa.

These men were available in very large numbers and were organised into ungainly brigades of perhaps some 5,000 men each. It has been estimated that there were approximately 30,000 men in these ‘Black’ (Sudani) units by the 1160s and early 1170s. Their martial qualities were often unappreciated, however, and there seems to have been an element of institutionalised racial prejudice against the sub-Saharan regiments. The itinerant Syrian prince and jobbing diplomat, Usama Ibn-Munqidh, himself an officer in the Egyptian military in the early 1150s and writing for a primarily Arab or Turkic audience, contemptuously described them as ‘defenceless, useless fools’.

Armenians

The Fatimids also sought the service of Armenian mercenaries. The Armenians formed the core of the Egyptian army’s cavalry in the first half of the twelfth century. They were mainly Christians, famous for their skills as archers, both mounted and on foot. There were so many of these foreign troops that they had to build their own churches in Cairo.

Steppe warriors were also sought but were never consistently available. This was partly because of religious, racial and cultural tensions between the Shi’ite Fatimid state and their rival Turkic-dominated Sunni regimes in northern Palestine and Syria. Scarcity was also compounded by geography – warriors coming off the steppes would generally find more culturally compatible employment long before they reached Egypt. The lack of good pasture in Egypt did not help either, as Turkic cavalry traditionally needed to support large strings of ponies.

Turkic Trouble

Efforts to keep attracting steppe mercenaries into the region continued until the end of the Fatimid regime. In 1150, for instance, Usama ibn Munqidh was sent on a recruitment drive to Syria. Significantly, although he was only given access to the poor quality nomadic mercenaries in the vicinity who had already been rejected for service in the local armies, within a relatively short period of time Usama had recruited no less than 860 cavalrymen.

This anecdote, mentioned as a casual aside, reveals a shocking and fundamental truth. In just this area, at this particular time, there were almost a thousand nomadic warriors readily available for hire, even after the vast majority of their compatriots had already been absorbed into the armies of Nur al-Din, the Zengid ruler of Syria (1146-1174), and his competitors. It is not clear what would have happened had they not been hired by the Fatimids. Rejected by local employers, they would probably have been quickly reduced to criminality. The entire region was clearly awash with armed but dangerously underemployed foreign men.

…And Bedouin Bandits

As if this influx was not dangerous enough, the other main option for the Fatimid government in its efforts to improve its light cavalry arm was to recruit large numbers of Bedouin tribesmen – and in doing so they had no choice but to acquiesce to nomadic Arab tribes operating in what would normally have been areas of primarily sedentary occupation.

After a battle, the Bedouin would generally look to exploit the weakness of the losing side, regardless of whether or not that was their employer. They were also notoriously ‘neutral’ when dealing with stragglers, civilians or villagers, as likely to rob and kill their side as the enemy. But, once invited in and given official status, they could maintain a semi-independent existence within Egypt, if only because the Fatimid administration lacked the light-mounted troops to police them effectively.

Criminality and social disruption were thus inevitable if unwanted, corollary of the unending search for recruits. As always, the demographic influx had an unintended impact.

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Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble
Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble

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SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2023). Crusader criminals: How knights went rogue. Yale University Press.

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