by NADER MASARWAH and ABDALLAH TARABIEH for TIRN on MARCH 3, 2014:
This paper focuses on the post of *al-saqi or cupbearer, whose responsibilities included seeing to the sultan’s table and drink, during the Mamluk period (648-923 H; 1250-1517 A.D) in Egypt.
The Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517) emerged from the weakening of the Ayyubid realm in Egypt and Syria (1250–60). Ayyubid sultans depended on slave (Arabic: mamluk, literally “owned,” or slave) soldiers for military organization, and the Mamluks of Qipchaq (Turkic origin) eventually overthrew the last Ayyubid sultan in Egypt, al-Malik al-Ashraf (r. 1249–50) and established their own rule. 1
The Mamluk capital, Cairo, became the economic, cultural, and artistic center of the Arab Islamic world. The Mamluks, who had been taken from their families in their youth and had no ties of kin in their new homelands, were personally dependent on their master. This gave the Mamluk state, divorced as it was from its parent society, a solidity that allowed it to survive the tensions of tribalism and personal ambition, through establishment of interdependency between the lower orders and sergeants and the higher lords. 2
The post of al-saqi was one of oldest and most basic jobs in the sultan’s palaces over centuries. He was the one who would be assigned to serve the drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, to the sultan and the ministers. Thus his job title was based on the nature of his work. This post occupied a high status and played an important role in the palaces of the Mamluk rulers. Many cupbearers gained respect and status during the Mamluk period as is evidenced from the numerous painted signs and marks signifying the al-saqi on walls and tombs. Al-saqi paintings changed later on in the Mamluk period and began to have distinctive marks of their own.
The number of cupbearers also increased during the Mamluk period as the post became more important, and as the Mamluk state allocated a number of new tasks, specializations and roles for them. Al-Qalqashandi, author of Subh al-A’sha, considers it one of the modern jobs despite being one of the oldest ones. 3 Continue reading