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.
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.