Tag Archives: The Mamluks

History Behind the Thrones: The Unsullied of Essos and Egypt’s Slave Dynasty

History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!

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As the series currently sits Daenery Targaryen is currently hangin’ out in Mereen, playing queen with approximately the same level of effectiveness that I imagine a bull would run a china shop.

However, in spite of her constant bumbling, fumbling, and stumbling, she has thus far managed to maintain her precarious position of power in a city, society, and culture she knows absolutely nothing about. This is due in large part to The Unsullied: Daenarys’s personal army of highly trained former slaves.

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These highly trained soldiers make up one of the most feared military forces in the world (in spite of their lack of testosterone) and with them behind her Daenarys has been allowed (thus far) to mismanage the cities of the old Ghiscari Empire to her heart’s content. This isn’t exactly uncommon in history. Rulers throughout time have taken, and held power, in spite of their own amble deficiencies because they had a strong military force at their back. However, there is one particular group from history that I am often reminded of when I see The Unsullied; The Mamluks.

For a little under 300 years the Mamluks established a dynasty that expelled the Crusaders from the Middle East, halted the advancement of the Mongol Hordes under Hulagu Khan (grandson of Ghengis Khan), and just generally acted like badasses from their Sultanate in Cairo. What is interesting about the Mamluks, however, is that they are not a particular “house” or “dynasty” but rather a specific rank or caste of slave soldiers in Egypt during the middle ages. They were a military caste under direct control of the Ayyubid Dynasty (the dynasty of Saladin) until they overthrew their masters and established their own Sultanate in 1250.

In the case of the Mamluks they were purchased as young boys (much like the Unsullied) and trained until they had gained mastery in their martial way of life. At this point they were freed, but still expected to stay with and serve the master who had purchased them, only as free men now. The Unsullied are in fact free by Daenerys’s own decree, but rather than choosing to attempt to return to whatever remains of their lives before they were purchased, they too have chosen to stay with their self proclaimed master (Daenerys). In either case, however, the rest of the world still considers the two forces “slave armies” in spite of the fact that they are actually freedmen.

In either case, however, we have a region of our given world which is rich in history, tradition, and culture. In the case of the real world Egypt, one of the cradles of civilization whose famous Nile River was sustaining powerful Kingdoms while Western Europe was simply concerned with the size of their goat herds. And in the case of George R. R. Martin’s world the city of Mereen within the boundaries of the old Empire of Ghis was already old and mighty before the fabled Valyria had even been brought into existence. And in both cases a once disenfranchised, but supremely important martial, servile class has risen up to commandeer and rule this civilization.

Now, the parallel isn’t perfect, but there are several key factors relating the two groups. The Mamluks were never castrated as the Unsullied are. The Mamluks were prized horsemen skilled with a steppe short bow since the boys taken as slaves to be added to the Mamluk ranks were at first largely from the Kipchak Turks on the Steppes of Eastern Ukraine. The Unsullied, in turn, are prized infantry men employing hoplite tactics. In both cases, however, the spear or lance, has been made central to the depiction of these warrior elites.

Mamluk Lances

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Unsullied: Also proficient with the use of pointy things.

Moreover, their reputations as warriors of fabled skill and prowess permeate the whole world int he case of both groups. And perhaps even more interestingly, both groups were compared to Steppe Tribes in order to prove their martial worth. The Mamluks famously defeated a depleted Mongol force in Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, halting the advance of the once unstoppable Mongol Hordes at long last. This victory over the allegedly invincible Mongols allowed Europeans to justify their subsequent defeats at the hands of the Mamluks. After all, they explained, these are the same warriors who defeated the Mongols, its no wonder we were defeated. It wasn’t a fair fight.

The Unsullied, then, when Daenerys is first told about them, are compared favorably to Martin’s own Mongol Horde, the Dothraki. The Slavers in charge of training and selling Unsullied inform her that these are some of the only warriors in the known world who can possibly defeat a Dothraki Khalasaar.

In both situations then we have a caste of elite, world renowned slave soldiers. They are both freed and both rise to immense importance in the political affairs of the world around them (either creating a Kingdom of their own in Egypt as the Mamluks did or as the backbone of a fledgling Empire in the case of Daenerys). The Mamluks eventually fell to the Ottoman Turks whose use of gunpowder proved too much for even an exceptional military tradition such as theirs. It remains to be seen what kind of fate will ultimately befall the Khaleesi and her besieged army in Mereen. However, whereas the Mamluks could constantly replenish their ranks, either with the acquisition, training, and freeing of more slave boys or, ohhh… idk… by procreating… the Unsullied are not so fortunate. So whatever Daenerys does, if she plans to use the Unsullied for it she better act quickly, cuz no matter how powerful these guys are they have a definitely shelf life. *cough* *cough* GO TO WESTEROS ALREADY *cough*

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