A look back at the Mamelukes

When these rulers disappeared, they left behind excellent infrastructures and buildings so splendid that even time has not diminished their beauty.

Road leading to Western Wall 521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Road leading to Western Wall 521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Some time in the ninth century, the caliphs who ruled Baghdad created a monster. That’s when they began seizing promising young teens who belonged to nomadic Turkish tribes, converted them to Islam and trained them in the art of war. So successful were the young Mamelukes (meaning “belonging to others”) that they were given positions of power both in the royal court and in the army. From there, it wasn’t difficult to turn the tables on the despots who had kidnapped them from their homes and turn them into fighting machines. In 870, this military elite seized control of Egypt and later conquered most of the Middle East.
Although they didn’t last long as rulers, Mameluke soldiers continued to retain their importance over the centuries. And in 1250, after a new group of elite warriors had gained control in Egypt, they continued into Mesopotamia, Syria and Israel. Their general was Baybars, who had been sold as a slave at the age of 19 to the sultan of Egypt and trained in military warfare.
By 1260, after devastating the Mongol army in Israel, the Mamelukes were unstoppable. Mamelukes ruled this entire region for almost 300 years.
Aside from being power-hungry, cruel and ruthless, the Mamelukes were disciplined, smart and prolific.
When they disappeared from the pages of history, they left behind excellent infrastructures and buildings so splendid that even the ravages of time haven’t diminished their beauty. Quite a few of them are found along several streets in the Old City, along with some historic Jewish sites on a circular jaunt that begins and ends at Jaffa Gate.
Roman cities were built in Hippodamic style, a method named for the Greek architect Hippodamus of Miletus. Hippodamus, who lived and worked in the sixth century BCE, is credited with introducing geometric elements – especially the rectilinear grid system – into city planning. So when the Romans ruled Israel 2,000 years ago, they designed the Old City in Hippodamic style.
You are about to descend David Street, originally a wadi that was filled in by the Romans to create some kind of byway. David Street runs exactly east and west, and what was the Roman city’s main thoroughfare, the Cardo, north to south. The Old City’s four quarters fit neatly into the grids east, west, north and south of us.
David Street ends with three shop-lined lanes in a complex called Merkaz Hashvakim, which means “markets’ center,” and is the geographical middle of the Old City. The three streets were created during the period of Crusader rule, nearly a millennium ago, when they split the wide, spacious Roman Cardo into separate byways that were considered three separate markets. Look up, and you will see that all three are covered by a structure held up with cross vaults.
The market street straight in front of you is Al- Lahhamin Street (the Butchers’ Market). You turn left on the second, Suq Al-Attarin (the Spice Market). If you hadn’t turned, you would have reached Suq Al-Khawajat (the Jewelers’ Market) which, like the others, bears little or no relationship to the products that are displayed.
As soon as the Crusader market ends and you exit for a moment into the open air, turn right on As- Saraya Ascent. This might be your first time on this street, which is off the tourist track and filled with offices, workshops and homes rather than stores. You will find that the people you meet here are very helpful (and not trying to sell you anything!). At Al-Qirami Street, you are in for a treat. Turn right and begin sniffing the fragrances wafting your way from the little open doorway on your right. Go inside to stock up on fresh baigele (long, thin, soft, sesame bagels) baked in an oven in the wall.
RETURN TO the As-Saraya Ascent and continue your descent. Just past the Industrial Islamic Orphanage School on your left, you will see a closed door. The sign above it, in beautiful Turkish calligraphy, says that this is the Saraya, the Turkish administration center (and possibly governor’s residence) in Jerusalem.
As-Saraya Ascent veers right. As it comes to an end (that is, as you finish your descent), look for a sign that reads “Maharil Diskin Courtyard.” This was the home of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Diskin and the orphans that he sheltered within.
When Rabbi Diskin immigrated to Israel from Russia in 1878, he went directly to the Old City of Jerusalem.
There, he discovered Jewish orphans roaming the streets of the filthy, crowded Old City and was determined to give them a home, especially since the orphanages operating in Jerusalem at the time were run by Christians, many of them missionaries. He took a few of the boys into his home, and when he ran out of space in 1881, he founded the Diskin Orphanage (today located in a large building in Kiryat Moshe/Givat Shaul).
The street ends at another “ascent” – Al-Khalidiyya. Turn right and walk up almost two dozen steps. On your left, another flight of steps leads to a yeshiva run by the Breslov Hassidim and some Arab apartments. Originally, this was home to the Hayei Olam Yeshiva, also hassidic, founded in 1886.
Climb a few more stairs on Al-Khalidiyya and, to your right, you will see an arched doorway. It was once the home of David Ben-Shimon, a rabbi from Morocco who immigrated with some of his followers in 1854. When he saw the terrible conditions under which people of North African descent were living, he created a separate community called Hama’aravim and worked tirelessly to improve their situation. (He also established the first privately financed neighborhood for North Africans outside the Old City in 1867.)
Turn around, go back down the steps and continue descending until the lane ends at Al-Qattanin Street (the Cotton Merchants’ Market). You have reached the Cotton Market, dating back to the 1300s when the city was under Mameluke rule. Mamelukes were not allowed to bequeath the wealth they amassed to their children. But their families needed an income, so they established businesses, including markets, whose profits went to charitable institutions. The latter were run by their wives, children and other relatives, all of whom received generous salaries. Money from the Cotton Market came from its two bathhouses and an inn (called a khan).
Walk through the Cotton Market, one of my favorites, and come to a gate leading to the Temple Mount, which only Muslims can use (to the dismay of many a wandering tourist trying to reach the Dome of the Rock). In the middle of the market, to your left as you walk back to the street, you will see a large gate.
Originally a money-maker for the Mamelukes, it belongs to the Center for Jerusalem Studies and is a branch of east Jerusalem’s Al-Quds University. Note the goblet on the sign, the symbol of the Mameluke Sultan Tankiz, governor of Jerusalem and Israel. It was Tankiz who developed the market and built many of Jerusalem’s stately Mameluke institutions.
Back on the street, turn left and you will be on El Wad Road (Rehov Hagai, in Hebrew) A beautiful sabil (public drinking fountain) called El Wad will be on your left.
The road ends in a passageway leading to the Western Wall complex (that you aren’t going to enter). Turn left up the steps, then take more stairs to the right. You will have landed on a road sometimes called Bab El-Sissileh and sometimes Chain Gate Street (in Hebrew, Rehov Sha’ar Hashalshelet). Turn left and head for the Chain Gate (Sha’ar Hashalshelet). (Occasionally, and on a whim no one can foresee, this part of the street is closed. In that case, turn to the right on Chain Gate Street instead.)
Hopefully, the street will be open and you will be able to approach the gate. As you walk towards it, note lots of colorful symbols on the walls. These were painted by Muslims who visited Mecca and wanted to show where they had been.
Unusually elaborate, Chain Gate was built during the Second Temple era and beautified by the Crusaders (note the fluted pillars on either side).
Suleiman’s Sabil is built into the wall on your left, so named because it dates from the time that Turkish ruler Suleiman the Magnificent restored the walls of the Old City. Note the fluted lintel and the flowery decoration in its center.
Built in 1329 by Sultan Tankiz as a center for religious studies (called a madrase), the structure to your right is also known as the makhame (courthouse). Over the centuries, this particularly splendid building has served as a courthouse for both Mamelukes and Turks, an official guest house for the city’s highest officials, a home for prominent Muslim leaders and a Jordanian school. Today it is a base for the Border Police.
The shell-shaped half dome, recessed entrance and stone benches are typical of Mameluke construction.
But the decorations are unusual: Take particular note of the rows of geometrical shapes and see if you can find at least two goblets in the sculpted stone between them.
NOW TURN around to backtrack on Chain Gate Road. Turba Hurkan Haton is located to your right, not far from the sabil. A turba is a special Mameluke burial structure mainly for the nobility and their families and topped by a raised dome. I couldn’t see any in this turba, but generally there are tombs inside the building in a room fitted with large windows that face the street so that passersby can see the graves and hear the prayers coming from within. This particular turba belonged to Khatune, daughter of the Mameluke Emir Taktai. She died in 1352. Examine the richly adorned façade, covered with asymmetrical stone carved geometric designs. If you stand back, you can see the dome on a pedestal atop the structure.
A splendid Mameluke turba is located on your left, just before Hakotel Road. Turbat Birca Khan, today also serving as the khalidi library, features an outstanding lintel. Check out the windows, one of which features an unusual double S design. Here, you can look inside to view two rectangular tombs.
The turba on your right is a very fancy burial structure for a noble named Kilania. Here you see a great example of the graduated, three-dimensional stone stalactites called mukarnas in the half-dome above the entrance. There are double windows on both sides of the entrance, and inside you can see several tombs.
The bars on the windows, in typical Mameluke design, are joined with iron balls. Note how the double door is covered with iron reliefs. And instead of one dome, this turba boasts three. You can see two of them if you stand on the other side of the road.
Next door, as you ascend, note several wooden balconies built onto second-floor exterior walls. The style is Mameluke, and they are meant to let women sitting outside enjoy activities below without being seen by people in the street.
Not far from Misgav Ladach Street, on your left, look for the sign Islamic Supreme Committee to discover yet another excellent example of Mameluke architecture. Built as both a burial site and a school in 1382 by Emir Tashtamar and today hosting shops and a school, the structure is called Tashtamoriya. Here again, you see the stalactites and a half-dome in a recessed entrance, complete with stone benches.
Above the door, the decorations are in black and white layers, while the façade consists of alternate painted red and naturally beige stone layers. This striped masonry, very special, very unique to the Mamelukes at the time, is called Avlak.
As you reach the end of Chain Gate Road, just beyond Plugat Hakotel Street, turn right at Khan As- Sultan. Pass the women’s public restroom to reach a large and fairly well-preserved inn called Khan As- Sultan. It dates back to 1386 and boasts a very large courtyard in which animals spent the night (the merchants and travelers took the upper story). Most beautiful are the beams leading to the courtyard.
Obviously, the owner borrowed heavily from Crusader remains – or built the khan atop a Crusader base.
You should now be back at the Markets’ Center. Turn right (you know you are in the right place if you see a men’s restroom), then immediately left at the baigele and sweets stand. You are on an extension of David Street, so continue straight ahead, and you will soon begin the long walk up the steps to Jaffa Gate.