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May 9, 2004 4:44 am


The Last Mamluk



I’ve been to Baghdad twice after the war. The second time was last March where I made a tour of antique shops looking for old photographs of the city. I didn’t find any, but I found something else, a street named after Suleiman Faiq, one of the most prolific historians of nineteenth century Iraq. The son of a Georgian convert to Islam who had entered the Ottoman bureaucracy in the early nineteenth century, Faiq was sometimes a caustic critic of Ottoman rule in Iraq.

Suleiman Faiq was also a representative of the Georgian Mamluk dynasties that ruled in Baghdad and Basra for over one hundred years. The “mamluks” (literally “owned” in Arabic) were originally Georgian youths whom the Ottomans had bought or captured on the battlefield in the southern Caucasus and then trained and educated to become part of the palace guard or bureaucracy in Istanbul, and further afield. These young men, who converted to Islam, eventually grew to become the governors of Arab provinces such as Iraq and Egypt. Suleiman Faiq descended from just such a “mamluk” father, one Talib Agha, a Georgian slave of the Sultan who had been integrated into the Ottoman system as a defterdar or keeper of the books. Talib Agha had arrived in Baghdad with the retinue of Dawud Pasha, himself a Mamluk and the last governor of his line in Iraq.

Faiq was never to forget his Georgian origins; indeed, because of his proto-nationalist sympathies with Russian-annexed Georgia, Ottoman governors, under whom Faiq worked, were suspicious of him from the start. In at least two of his histories (which he wrote in Turkish), Suleiman Faiq complained of the petty injustices done to him in his professional career and the difficult missions that the Ottomans forced him to undertake. Any scholar who reads his histories of Ottoman Iraq in the nineteenth century cannot but note the bitterness that spills out at every turn.

And yet Suleiman Faiq did very well in Iraq. Although continually nostalgic for his lost homeland, he carved out a niche for himself and his family that was to enshrine his name among the notability of his adopted city, Baghdad. For present-day Iraqis, he will forever be known as the father of important Iraqi statesmen, among them Mahmoud Shawkat Pasha, the famous Ottoman general in the last days of the Empire, and Hikmat Suleiman, who became Prime Minister of Iraq under the monarchy. And so it was that Suleiman Faiq, the son of a Georgian slave and Mamluk administrator, a man who spoke and wrote in Turkish, and whose career spanned the last years of the Ottoman Empire in Iraq, was now remembered as the father of Iraqi statesmen, undoubtedly one of the most interesting devolutions of identity formation in the contemporary world. That is probably only one reason why a street was named after him in Baghdad!

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