Symbols’ Lexicon

The Mamluk emblems (called in Arabic rank, pl. runūk) often used symbols from the Arab-Persian visual and ornamental repertoire. By highlighting them with circles and  field division, they invested these symbols with an emblematic dimension.

The first core consisted of symbols symbolizing court functions occupied by young pages, the khāṣṣakī-s. To them were quickly added symbols recalling nature or various activities of Mamluk society. However, over time, additions and disappearances, the corpus stabilized around forty symbols, the Mamluks having preferred to combine existing symbols rather than using new ones.

Here is a lexicon of the main symbols appearing in the Mamluk emblems:

  • The Cup: emblem of the sāqī, the cup-bearer. It is the most common symbol and it can be found in either early, central or late Mamluk emblems.
  • The Buqja (diamond): emblem of the jamdār, the robe-bearer. Maybe the second most common symbol after the cup, it can also be found in either early, central or late Mamluk emblems.
  • The Pen-box: emblem of the junior dawādār, the pen-box-bearer (the dawādār and senior dawādār positions were held once a Mamluk became an emir and were not symbolic court functions but actual government offices). Often displayed in a combination of symbols, it was used alone by civil officials to remind their position of arbāb al-aqlām, “men of the pen”.
  • The Scimitar (or the Sword): emblem of the silaḥdār, the armor-bearer. Often present until the beginning of the 15th century, it tended to disappear after that.
  • The Bow: emblem of the bunduqdār, the bow-bearer. This is a rare symbol that stops being used during the 14th century.
  • The Polo-sticks: emblem of the jūkandār, the polo sticks-bearer. More common than the bow, it also stops being used during the 14th century.
  • The Khānjā (circle): emblem of the jāshnigīr, the taster. Like the bow, it is a rare symbol that stops being used during the 14th century.
  • The Axe: emblem of the jumaḳdār, the mace-bearer? This is an very rare symbol that may appear less than ten times in all the sources we have.
  • The 3 horizontal fields: a very rare symbol of the early decades of the Mamluk sultanate. Scholars think that it was the emblem of the barīdī, the dispatch-rider.
  • The Trumpet: very rare symbol (emblem of the tabldār, a member of the royal orchestra?).
  • The Pair of standards: very rare symbol (emblem of the
    ‘alamdār, the bearer of the royal standard?).
  • The Ceremonial saddle: a very rare symbol where the horse is represented but is not the most important part (emblem of the javish, the herald?).
  • The Qabaq: the Qabaq was a game popular among the Mamluks during the first ninety years of the sultanate. It consisted in shooting with a bow on a target placed on the top of a mast while being on horseback. 
  • The Pair of horns: the real signification of this symbol is unknown to us. It appears at the beginning of the 15th century and it always displayed in pairs framing another symbol (most of the time a cup). It is one of the key symbol of the Qāytbāy-type emblem of the end of the Mamluk sultanate.
  • The Crescent: a symbol displayed only during the beginning of the Mamluk sultanate. Maybe associated with the shādd al-dawāwīn, the superintendent of the chancelleries.
  • The Tamga: maybe the most intriguing symbol of all as it doesn’t look like the others. Scholars think that they come from Turkic cattle fire marks but no real evidence support this hypothesis. There are different ways to represent this symbol and we only have one exemple of each tamga.
  • The Rosette: this symbol blurs the line between emblem and ornament as it is widely used on Mamluk objects as an ornament but occasionally as an emblem. It was the emblem of the Rasulid dynasty in Yemen.
  • The Fleur-de-lis: a rare but long-lasting symbol that appears occasionally until the middle of the 15th century. Even if it was called fransisiyya in memory of “Fransis”, the king of the Franks, defeated at Al-Mansurah in 647/1250, there is no Western influence on that symbol. The fleur-de-lis was used by Nūr ad-Dīn as he engraved it on the walls of the hospital he founded in Damascus in 549/1154.
  • The Lion: only used during the early decades of the Mamluk sultanate, it is considered to be the first emblem as it was used by sultan Baybars.
  • The Eagle (with either one or two head): more common than the lion, it is the second and last animal symbol used in Mamluk emblems. It disappears from the repertoire during the 14th century.
  • The Bandes (horizontal or in diagonal) and Checks: very rare symbol.