Emmanuel Piloti was born in 1371 to a Venetian family living in Crete, which was a Venetian colony at that time. At age 25, he began traveling around the eastern Mediterranean region as a merchant. He spent significant periods of time trading in Alexandria, the chief Mediterranean port of the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt and Syria. His relationship with the Mamluk state was complex. On one hand, he served as a diplomat on behalf of Sultan Faraj in 1408 to negotiate the release of 150 Muslims captured by pirates and sold to the Venetian duke of Naxos. On the other hand, he composed this treatise encouraging a renewal of the crusade movement and offering advice for how best to attack the Mamluks. The first version, which Piloti composed in Latin in 1420, was addressed to Pope Eugene IV. In 1441, Piloti produced a French version addressed to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, who was known to be interested in crusading.

Translated from the French by Valentin Skald. Pierre-Herman Dopp, ed. Traite d’Emmanuel Piloti sur le Passage en Terre Sante (1420) (Louvain: Editions E. Nauwelaerts, 1958), 52-56. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

33. The second class of the population: the mamluks

The second nation of Egypt is the sultan, amirs, and mamluks, who govern and lord over Cairo, Damascus, and all the state of Syria; of which all are of the Christian nation, bought slaves and renegades. That nation is born and grows in this form, as was noted before in this book, for at the appointment of the sultan, their caliph, that is to say their pope, gives him the robe which is the confirmation of the sultanate, if he first swears by the great God and by Muhammad to attend, with all his strength and his power, to the ruin of Christianity and increase and growth of the faith of Muhammad, and furthermore, that all creatures of the Christian faith who are presented to him for sale, that he promises to purchase them all, and pay for them immediately, and also to send out to buy everywhere and all of those that he can obtain. And those he obtains are held at the school, beneath masters, for at least 4 years, so that they can submit to and learn to love the faith of Muhammad. And with these main oaths, the sultan is confirmed in his state.

34. Buying the mamluks

….before leaving Turkey, and the court of the Great Turk, which is in Nandrinopoli (Adrianople) and Gallipoli, one may find many great pagan merchants, who deal in no other merchandise than young male slaves and young female slaves of the age that they may do the will of the sultan, in order to deliver them to Cairo. Those merchants find no less than 100 to 200 souls, and carry them to Gallipoli, and load them on ships belonging to pagans, and sometimes on ships belonging to bad and ill-disposed Christians. And they lead them sometimes by the route of Damiata (Damietta) but more often by the route of Alexandria, and from there they are carried to Cairo. And when they have arrived in Cairo, in the presence of the Sultan, there are some old, experienced estimators, who estimate so much per head. And a great difference is made from one nation to the other; such that those with the highest estimation are Tartars. Because one Tartar will be worth one hundred and thirty or one hundred and forty ducats, a Circassian will be worth one hundred and ten or one hundred and twenty ducats, a Greek 90 ducats; Albanian, Slavs, Serbs, from 70 to 80 ducats, more or less, according to the heads. But all the estimations are made to the advantage of the merchants who deliver them. And having made the estimate and the sum of that which they bring, all present measure their gold, and are paid, and make charters of payments. And then the sultan dresses the aforementioned merchants in robes of cloth of gold, and makes them ride from the citadel on horses to the sound of drums, trumpets, and minstrels, and go out to the city, and the sultan’s guards go saying in a high voice, “These merchant lords brought 300 souls, or more or less to what it will be, of the Christian nation and faith to the sultan, and he bought them and paid for them, who now live and die in the faith of Muhammad. Thus, the faith of Muhammad multiplies and increases, and that of Christians thus fails.” And in these and other words they go out into the city, praising and magnifying the faith of Muhammad, and despising the Christian faith, to comfort their people.

Again, the sultan sends his agents and servants in groups to Kaffa (Caffa, Feodosia), and they buy Circassian, Tartar, and Russian slaves, just as they come to them by the hands. And they cannot be taken if they are not presented in Kaffa, which is a city of Genoa, where it is demanded of them whether they want to be Christians or pagans. And those that say they want to be Christians are retained, and those that say they want to be pagans are allowed to go and travel to Cairo, and placed close to others of the faith of Muhammad.

By these similar routes noted hereafter, the sultan acquires every year 2,000 souls, more or less according to the times, which Christian souls become pagans, they go against the Christian state in acquiring and ruining them. And this is because their chief and head of the pagans dispenses his treasure for the growth and multiplication of the faith of Muhammad. Which is the opposite of what the pope of Rome does, who is the chief of the Christian faith, who dispenses his ducats to make men-at-arms to destroy Christians.

35. Education of the mamluks

By the methods noted above, the state and the power of the sultan of Cairo, chief of the pagan faith, is born and grows, such that it never fails that he has in his citadel less than 5 or 6 thousand young male slaves, housed in a great palace, which contains 3 or 4 floors and is covered with beautiful mats of woven rushes instead of carpets. And there the great masters, which are tavassi [ṭawāshī], that is to say they are castrated [eunuchs], are the chiefs and governors of this quantity of slaves––he who is chief of one hundred, and he who is chief of two hundred, and he who is chief of more or less––each possessing his own separate hall and his own separate school. In this way, each of these schools is held by the school masters, and each master has 25 boys under his government. And each makes it his duty that he can teach them and reduce them to the perfect love of the faith of Muhammad. And when he has completed and taught them well, it is ordered that the master brings his students before the sultan, and there they are examined by greater masters whether they have been well converted to the bestial faith. And if they have been well converted, the sultan takes them and gives to that master such provision that he has an honorable life, and after his death such grace which he had been given by the sultan resides with his children or his other relatives.

36. Advancement and career of the mamluks

It was ordered by antiquity that every year during the month of August, when the river has crested and the city is joyful, that all the boys that are at school, which are 5 or 6 thousand, are brought out and led to a great courtyard of the citadel, and placed in order of turn by turn, in the manner of a dance, one after the other. Then the sultan in person, with three old amirs, goes throughout visiting his slaves. And, observing those that seem to him to have sufficient power and ability of horsemanship, and who are sufficient, he separates them from the others and leads them to the middle of the courtyard. And when he has searched them well and withdraws those that he can, a slave gives a great voice and commands that those residing there return to their rooms and schools. And so, each eunuch leaves with their students and returns to the customary places; and because the hour is late, the aforementioned slaves remain and sleep the night in the middle of the courtyard. And the morning after, the sultan sits in his customary place, and they all present themselves there, and a person writes each of their names. They write for him how many ducats of provision per month and a horse for him, and another for his valet, and this much meat and this much oats every day; and his valet goes to the ordained places every day, and they give him everything. And when the writing is completed, they are given license that they may go out of the citadel, and they go to the city, and find rooms to rent, and reside apart from others. The aforementioned slaves receive about 700 or 800 per year, more or less. And once they are at their liberty, it is ordered that 3 days of the week, 100 of them go by horse to the citadel, at a certain ordained place, with lances without iron, and split in 2 groups. And they send up one per group, and they meet one another at the tip of the lance, across their bodies. And when the first two are done, he appoints the second pair, and then the third pair, and all subsequent, until they all do so in this way. The sultan is therefore in a portion of the courtyard, and watches all for his pleasure. And when any of them proves himself skilled in such movements of the lance, the sultan provides and gives him the honor of 20 horses and more, according to his pleasure, and the rent of a village, so that he can sustain the expense of those 20 horses. And so it goes from time to time: as he sees the valorous who demonstrate their great courage, thus the number of their horses and villages increases, such that they have to sustain their horses and their mamluks. And acting in this manner, they empower themselves, and are known as villains and wise men; and from time to time they increase their honor and state, and make for themselves great captains of 300 horses. And those who will have 300 horses will have as many villages, that give him every year 30,000 to 35,000 ducats, because he gives provision to his slaves and expenses for food, and arms and horses; and with this triumph and custom, it is born and grows. And of that Christian nation which has been guardian of all manner of beasts, it is by the intervention of their luck they become sultans and lords of such a noble country. Of which all Christian souls have need of him, for their souls and for the holy lands, and whoever by trade, to sell and to buy and to sustain their life; which at least is not possible that he can do it.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the similarities and differences between Piloti’s description of mamluk slavery and other historical accounts of mamluks?
  2. Discuss how to analyze historical letters and treatises. What are Piloti’s intentions in writing this treatise, and to whom is it addressed? How might Piloti’s description of mamluk slavery be influenced by the purpose of his treatise?

Related Primary Sources


Children, Elite Slaves, Eunuchs, Labor, Religion, Trade