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The Knights of Islam: The Wars of the Mamluks [Hardcover]

James Waterson
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

15 Jun 2007
The Mamluks were, at one distinct point in history, the greatest body of fighting men in the world and the quintessence of the mounted warrior, reaching near perfection in their skill with the bow, lance and sword. They were slave soldiers, imported as boys into the Islamic Empire from the pagan Steppes, but they became its saviour, defeating the Mongols and forming the machine of jihad that destroyed the Crusader kingdoms of Palestine and Syria. They entered the Islamic world as unlettered automatons and through a total application to the craft of the warrior they became more than soldiers. After a bloody seizure of power from their masters, the descendants of Saladin, they developed a martial code and an honour system based on barracks brotherhood, a sophisticated military society that harnessed the state's energies for total war and produced a series of treatises on cavalry tactics, martial training, mounted archery and scientific and analytical approaches to warfare that more than compare to Sun Zi's Art of War, the Western Codes of Chivalry and the Bushido in their complexity, beauty of language and comprehensive coverage of the bloody business of war. Their story embraces many of the great themes of medieval military endeavour: the Crusaders and the deadly contest between Islam and Christendom, the Mongols and their vision of world dominion, Tamerlane and the rise of the Ottoman Empire whose own slave soldiers, the Janissaries, would be the Mamluks' final nemesis. James Waterson is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He worked and taught in the US and China for a number of years and now lives in Italy. John Man has written acclaimed biographies of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Greenhill Books; 1st Edition edition (15 Jun 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1853677345
  • ISBN-13: 978-1853677342
  • Product Dimensions: 3.1 x 14.6 x 22 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 629,634 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James Waterson is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and received his Masters Degree from the University of Dundee. He travelled and worked in the Middle East, the United States and China for a number of years but now calls Tuscany home and Dubai 'the office'. He lives with his wife Michele and a number of spoilt pets and he only ever leaves Italy when he is really, really short of money.
In pursuit of a living wage he has, at various times, been an actor in Chinese movies, a radio host, an oil rig worker [every one of his books is dedicated to '39' the first North Sea rig he ever worked on], the voice of Chinese Steel, a university lecturer, a nurse and a contadino. He still writes and consults on healthcare in areas as diverse as disaster management and children's intensive care.
Defending Heaven, his 2013 history of China's long resistance to the Mongol invasions, is his fourth book -although there are about twelve and half million copies of his Oxford University Press textbooks for Chinese children wanting to learn English spread across the Middle Kingdom, an unpublished but finished novel and an unfinishable detective novel that predate the history books.
He was inspired to write Defending Heaven, a history of the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties by an after dinner chat with Jung Chang at the 2009 Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai.
Sacred Swords, published in 2010, completed a trilogy of books covering the mediaeval Middle East and he likes to think that the idea for it, a history of jihad in the Holy Land during the Crusades period, came to him during a quiet moment in the courtyard of Damascus' Great Mosque but it is just as likely that it was the result of too much shisha smoking and storytelling in the Nogara coffee house just beside the mosque's walls. A Portuguese edition was published in 2012 but he thinks the chances of an all-expenses paid tour of South America to promote it are slim.
The Ismaili Assassins, which grew from his travels in Iran and from a few lines of Dante, was published by Frontline Books in 2008 and has been praised for de-mystifying the sect and yet making them even more intriguing. It was translated into Turkish in 2012 and he hopes the royalties from it will be sufficient to buy a beer in Istanbul airport one day.
His first book, The Knights of Islam, a history of the slave soldiers and sultans of Islam was started on a nearly dead laptop propped up on an ironing board in Shanghai, added to between night shifts in a London bedsit and completed on a building site masquerading as a house in the Appenines, eventually being published in 2007. It was translated into Arabic by the Council of Egypt and a bootleg Polish edition, from which he obtains no royalties, apparently also exists.
He is just completing an historical novel based on the life and deeds of the Crusader, Bohemond of Taranto. He is planning two novels based on the lives of the great Mamluk Sultan al-Zahir Baybars and the condottiere Giovanni Dalle Bande Nere, and is gathering material for a comparative history of the American Revolution and the rise of Islam.
He is convinced he will never write anything as compelling as Robert Fisk's reportage, as important as Benedetto Croce's works, as erudite as Jonathan Sumption's volumes or as beautiful as Joyce's words but he continues to try to make the past reverberate.
The book he really wants to write is a history of the archers of the East from the Kyudo archers of Japan through the crossbowmen of China, the Turks and Mongols of Central Asia to the Arab and Persian archers of the Middle East. He shoots a scythian bow himself and is sure that no publisher would ever consider such a book.

Product Description


James Waterson's book is a significant contribution to the study of the Mamluk Sultanate and the role of slave-recruited mamluk soldiers in medieval Islamic civilisation. In addition to offering his own interpretation of this fascinating and in many ways extraordinary military-cultural phenomenon, the author brings together a wealth of information which has, until now, only been available in highly specialised academic journals and scholarly books. The result should be of major interest, not only to those who want to know more about the Mamluks themselves and medieval Islamic culture in general, but also to those interested in the Crusades, the history of warfare, the Mongols and their rivals --David Nicolle

About the Author

James Waterson is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He worked and taught in the United States and China for a number of years and now lives in Italy where he is writing a book he knows he will never finish on Bohemond of Taranto. The Knights of Islam is his first book on an historical subject and he would be interested to hear from readers on jamesaawaterson@yahoo.com.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A concise yet informative history. 20 Aug 2010
By Valak
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
To be honest, I got slightly irritated with the pace of the early chapters of this work. I was particularly looking forward to a detailed build up to and description of the clash between the Mamluks and Louis IX's Crusaders as well as the clash with the Mongols at Ayn-Jalut but even these felt rushed. However, further into the book the pace balances out and the characters start to get more fleshed out.

The narrative sometimes has the unwelcoming digression in describing some technical information on the training or tradition of the Mamluks but all said and done, the author gives a good account of Mamluk history, so much so, that there is a slight poignancy to their decline and fall with the rise of the Ottomans. The maps are detailed, the family tree/lines of Sultans and Khans come in very handy, not to mention the inclusion of a timeline. The author displays passion and a deep knowledge of his subject. I only wish it was a more riveting read.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good history of the Mamluks 30 Jan 2008
By Peter Lyon - Published on Amazon.com
Waterson's book is a good overview of the Mamluk period of Middle Eastern history. It concentrates on the earlier period 1250-1330 when the state was at its most vibrant and facing many external threats, especially the Mongols. The coverage of the later history is less complete, and almost perfunctory in places, which is a shame as the decay of empires is just as intersting as their time of strength, and in some ways at least as important. Waterson draws from many sources, especially the period manuscripts on combat (the furissiya), and avoids the Eurocentric view of history well.

My main gripe, considering that he is discussing the history of a military dynasty, is that he sometimes is woefully misinformed in military facts and terminology. He does not understand the difference between a compound bow (the term he uses throughout, and which only applies to a type of bow developed in the twentieth century) and a composite bow. On page 270 he states that the muskets deployed at Waterloo had a range on only 130 metres (this should mean effective range only; the maximum range would be over 400 metres) while a light arrow could be fired up to 250 meters (which is correct). In the same paragraph he states that arrows are easily made while bullets require a developed industrial base; good arrows actually require a high skill level to make, and the drawing together of materials from many areas, while bullets are actually easier to make if the lead is available in bar form. The complexity is more in the production, storage and delivery of the powder, and the creation and maintenance of the guns.

Aside from these flaws, which are relatively minor, this is a very readable book that covers the subject well, without becoming pedantic or boring.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Scourge of the Mongols 4 Oct 2010
By Fife and Drummer - Published on Amazon.com
Good military survey of the Mamluks' 300-year run of glory. Nice area maps. Interesting on the balance-of-power politics between the Mamluks, Crusaders, Mongols, Persians, and Turks. The Mamluks are the main reason the Mongols could not dominate the Middle East. Good insights into the training and discipline that made these slave-warriors so formidable.
7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A handful of black-and-white and color plates illustrate this fascinating medieval military history 3 Sep 2007
By Midwest Book Review - Published on Amazon.com
Teacher James Waterson presents The Knights of Islam: The Wars of the Mamluks, a historical chronicle of the Mamluks - perhaps the greatest warriors of the Medieval Age. Originally slave soldiers of Islamic masters, they evolved into a fierce independent force with its own warrior caste and culture. They were the first military power to defeat the Mongols; they waged wars against the Crusaders and the Ottomans; they created a unique martial code comparable to Western chivalry or Japanese Bushido; and they ruled Egypt for hundreds of years. The story of Mamluks is one of strategy, betrayal, the long struggle between Christendom and Islam, courage, and the rise and decline of tenaciously formidable warriors. A handful of black-and-white and color plates illustrate this fascinating medieval military history, enthusiastically recommended for library shelves.
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