As I watched coverage of the protests in Cairo I was astonished by the scenes of men riding camels into the crowd beating people all around them with sticks. Such scenes have been part of life in Cairo for centuries as the following excerpt from Spices, Saints, and Saracens shows. In this (2.87b-2.88a) passage, Felix Fabri describes a tour of the city he and his fellow pilgrims made under the escort of a Mamluk guard. He had remarked before that the streets in this thriving city were so crowded you could barely move, but he had not yet seen how the ruling clique made way for themselves. Like the Egyptian Security Forces and their supporters today, the Mamluks kept order and maintained their control through intimidation and violence. The lesson, however, is clearly that violence begets violence.
The pilgrims are probably traveling south on al-Muizz Street, one of the principal thoroughfares of medieval Cairo, and pass through Bab Zuwayla.
October 14 1483, the feast of Pope Callistus. In the morning Tanguardinus mounted his horse and as he rode out of the court forbade us from leaving the house. He returned after a little while and brought with him two Mamluk horsemen and Saracens with as many asses as there were pilgrims. We mounted the asses, left the house, and went down a long, crowded street. We came to an iron gate, large and very old, through which we entered another very crowded street—so much so that we could not cross or move forward on our asses. The Mamluks in front of us therefore raised their staffs and put the obstructing crowd to flight with shouts and threats in order to make way for us. This happened often, but sometimes there was such a commotion and crush of people that neither the shouts nor the threats of the Mamluks turned them. In such cases they began to strike and beat the crowd with their staffs, and a way was made through the people by the falling of blows and the push of horses. They rushed into the crowd with their horses and raised staffs, caring less about injuring a man than if they were going through a herd of swine. The Mamluks are the rectors of the city and of that people, as will be seen. Everyone trembles at their shouts and threats, and when they are struck, shoved, injured, or touched they dare not strike back or shout or murmur, or even frown.
Since the way was given like this, by injuring the people, and because the people made note that they were receiving this insult because of our passage, many of them came running after us, shouting, insulting, sticking their tongues out at us, and throwing dirt (since there are no stones there). Some tugged at our clothes, others pulled our asses’ tails and, running around us in circles, frequently knocked over the animal and its rider. We did not care about harmless insults, but if a pilgrim was injured by blows or dragged from his animal, his other companions shouted to the Mamluks in front who turned and put the attackers to flight. Thus we made our way through the crowd, there and in other places, with toil and danger.
As we proceeded, two Saracens got in our way—older and seemingly upstanding men, moving through the crowd on asses. Our two Mamluk guides attacked them, fell on them with their staffs, threw them from their asses to the ground, and had a lengthy row with them as a crowd of people gathered. We were amazed at this, since [2.88a] at first we did not understand the mystery of the deed. The reason why the two of them were knocked from their asses was that they had violated the law of the sultan’s court: there is a statute that when a Saracen meets a Mamluk knight of the court, the Saracen, if he is mounted on an ass or a horse, should take his feet from his stirrups and let them hang; if he does this, good; if not, he is immediately thrown from his ass.
It is truly remarkable to see scenes like this happening today, right in front of the cameras.