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At times in Asian history, circumstances have conspired to bring seemingly unlikely combatants into conflict with one another.
One example is the Battle of Talas River (751 A.D.), which pitted the armies of Tang China against the Abbasid Arabs in what is now Kyrgyzstan. Another is the Battle of Ayn Jalut, where in 1260 the seemingly unstoppable Mongol hordes ran up against the Mamluk warrior-slave army of Egypt.
In This Corner: The Mongol Empire
In 1206, the young Mongol leader Temujin was declared the ruler of all the Mongols; he took the name Genghis Khan (or Chinguz Khan). By the time he died in 1227, Genghis Khan controlled Central Asia from the Pacific coast of Siberia to the Caspian Sea in the west.
After Genghis Khan's death, his descendants divided the Empire into four separate khanates: the Mongolian homeland, ruled by Tolui Khan; the Empire of the Great Khan (later Yuan China), ruled by Ogedei Khan; the Ilkhanate Khanate of Central Asia and Persia, ruled by Chagatai Khan; and the Khanate of the Golden Horde, which would later include not just Russia but also Hungary and Poland.
Each Khan sought to expand his own portion of the empire through further conquests. After all, a prophecy predicted that Genghis Khan and his offspring would one day rule "all the people of the felt tents." Of course, they sometimes exceeded this mandate - nobody in Hungary or Poland actually lived a nomadic herding lifestyle. Nominally, at least, the other khans all answered to the Great Khan.
In 1251, Ogedei died and his nephew Mongke, Genghis's grandson, became the Great Khan. Mongke Khan appointed his brother Hulagu to head the southwestern horde, the Ilkhanate. He charged Hulagu with the task of conquering the remaining Islamic empires of the Middle East and North Africa.
In the Other Corner: The Mamluk Dynasty of Egypt
While the Mongols were busy with their ever-expanding empire, the Islamic world was fighting off Christian Crusaders from Europe. The great Muslim general Saladin (Salah al-Din) conquered Egypt in 1169, founding the Ayyubid Dynasty. His descendants used increasing numbers of Mamluk soldiers in their internecine struggles for power.
The Mamluks were an elite corps of warrior-slaves, mostly from Turkic or Kurdish Central Asia, but also including some Christians from the Caucasus region of south-eastern Europe. Captured and sold as young boys, they were carefully groomed for life as military men. Being a Mamluk became such an honor that some free-born Egyptians reportedly sold their sons into slavery so that they too could become Mamluks.
In the tumultuous times surrounding the Seventh Crusade (which led to the capture of King Louis IX of France by the Egyptians), the Mamluks steadily gained power over their civilian rulers. In 1250, the widow of Ayyubid sultan as-Salih Ayyub married a Mamluk, Emir Aybak, who then became sultan. This was the beginning of the Bahri Mamluk Dynasty, which ruled Egypt until 1517.
By 1260, when the Mongols began to threaten Egypt, the Bahri Dynasty was on its third Mamluk sultan, Saif ad-Din Qutuz. Ironically, Qutuz was Turkic (probably a Turkmen), and had become a Mamluk after he was captured and sold into slavery by the Ilkhanate Mongols.
Prelude to the Show-down
Hulagu's campaign to subdue the Islamic lands began with an assault on the infamous Assassins or Hashshashin of Persia. A splinter group of the Isma'ili Shia sect, the Hashshashin were based out of a cliff-side fortress called the Alamut, or "Eagle's Nest." On December 15, 1256, the Mongols captured Alamut and destroyed the power of the Hashshashin.
Next, Hulagu Khan and the Ilkhanate army launched their assault on the Islamic heartlands proper with a siege on Baghdad, lasting from January 29 to February 10, 1258. At that time, Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate (the same dynasty that had battled the Chinese at Talas River in 751), and the center of the Muslim world. The caliph relied on his belief that the other Islamic powers would come to his aid rather than see Baghdad destroyed. Unfortunately for him, that did not happen.
When the city fell, the Mongols sacked and destroyed it, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of civilians and burning down the Grand Library of Baghdad. The victors rolled the caliph inside a rug and trampled him to death with their horses. Baghdad, the flower of Islam, was wrecked. This was the fate of any city that resisted the Mongols, according to Genghis Khan's own battle plans.
In 1260, the Mongols turned their attention to Syria. After only a seven-day siege, Aleppo fell, and some of the population was massacred. Having seen the destruction of Baghdad and Aleppo, Damascus surrendered to the Mongols without a fight. The center of the Islamic world now drifted south to Cairo.
Interestingly enough, during this time the Crusaders controlled several small coastal principalities in the Holy Land. The Mongols approached them, offering an alliance against the Muslims. The Crusaders' erstwhile enemies, the Mamluks, also sent emissaries to the Christians offering an alliance against the Mongols.
Discerning that the Mongols were a more immediate threat, the Crusader states opted to remain nominally neutral, but agreed to allow the Mamluk armies to pass unhindered through Christian-occupied lands.
Hulagu Khan Throws Down the Gauntlet
In 1260, Hulagu sent two envoys to Cairo with a threatening letter for the Mamluk sultan. It said, in part: "To Qutuz the Mamluk, who fled to escape our swords. You should think of what happened to other countries and submit to us. You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of the disorders that tainted it. We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. Whither can you flee? What road will you use to escape us? Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand."
In response, Qutuz had the two ambassadors sliced in half, and set their heads up on the gates of Cairo for all to see. He likely knew that this was the gravest possible insult to the Mongols, who practiced an early form of diplomatic immunity.
Even as the Mongol emissaries were delivering Hulagu's message to Qutuz, Hulagu himself received word that his brother Mongke, the Great Khan, had died. This untimely death set off a succession struggle within the Mongolian royal family.
Hulagu had no interest in the Great Khanship himself, but he wanted to see his younger brother Kublai installed as the next Great Khan. However, the leader of the Mongol homeland, Tolui's son Arik-Boke, called for a quick council (kuriltai) and had himself named Great Khan. As civil strife broke out between the claimants, Hulagu took the bulk of his army north to Azerbaijan, ready to join in the succession fight if necessary.
The Mongolian leader left just 20,000 troops under the command of one of his generals, Ketbuqa, to hold the line in Syria and Palestine. Sensing that this was an opportunity not to be lost, Qutuz immediately gathered an army of roughly equal size and marched for Palestine, intent on crushing the Mongol threat.
The Battle of Ayn Jalut
On September 3, 1260, the two armies met at the oasis of Ayn Jalut (meaning "The Eye of Goliath" or "Goliath's Well"), in the Jezreel Valley of Palestine. The Mongols had the advantages of self-confidence and hardier horses, but the Mamluks knew the terrain better and had larger (thus faster) steeds. The Mamluks also deployed an early form of firearm, a sort of hand-held cannon, which frightened the Mongol horses. (This tactic cannot have surprised the Mongol riders themselves too greatly, however, since the Chinese had been using gunpowder weapons against them for centuries.)
Qutuz used a classic Mongol tactic against Ketbuqa's troops, and they fell for it. The Mamluks sent out a small portion of their force, which then feigned retreat, drawing the Mongols into an ambush. From the hills, Mamluk warriors poured down on three sides, pinning the Mongols in a withering cross-fire. The Mongols fought back throughout the morning hours, but finally the survivors began to retreat in disorder.
Ketbuqa refused to flee in disgrace, and fought on until his horse either stumbled or was shot out from under him. The Mamluks captured the Mongol commander, who warned that they could kill him if they liked, but "Be not deceived by this event for one moment, for when the news of my death reaches Hulagu Khan, the ocean of his wrath will boil over, and from Azerbaijan to the gates of Egypt will quake with the hooves of Mongol horses." Qutuz then ordered Ketbuqa beheaded.
Sultan Qutuz himself did not survive to return to Cairo in triumph. On the way home, he was assassinated by a group of conspirators led by one of his generals, Baybars.
Aftermath of the Battle of Ayn Jalut
The Mamluks suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Ayn Jalut, but nearly the entire Mongol contingent was destroyed. This battle was a severe blow to the confidence and reputation of the hordes, which had never suffered such a defeat. Suddenly, they did not seem invincible.
Despite the loss, however, the Mongols did not simply fold their tents and go home. Hulagu returned to Syria in 1262, intent on avenging Ketbuqa. However, Berke Khan of the Golden Horde had converted to Islam, and formed an alliance against his uncle Hulagu. He attacked Hulagu's forces, promising revenge for the sacking of Baghdad.
Although this war among the khanates drew off much of Hulagu's strength, he continued to attack the Mamluks, as did his successors. The Ilkhanate Mongols drove towards Cairo in 1281, 1299, 1300, 1303 and 1312. Their only victory was in 1300, but it proved short-lived. Between each attack, the adversaries engaged in espionage, psychological warfare and alliance-building against one another.
Finally, in 1323, as the fractious Mongol Empire began to disintegrate, the Khan of the Ilkhanids sued for a peace agreement with the Mamluks.
A Turning-Point in History
Why were the Mongols never able to defeat the Mamluks, after mowing through most of the known world? Scholars have suggested a number of answers to this puzzle.
It may be simply that the internal strife among different branches of the Mongolian Empire prevented them from ever throwing enough riders against the Egyptians. Possibly, the greater professionalism and more advanced weapons of the Mamluks gave them an edge. (However, the Mongols had defeated other well-organized forces, such as the Song Chinese.)
The most likely explanation may be that the environment of the Middle East defeated the Mongols. In order to have fresh horses to ride throughout a day-long battle, and also to have horse milk, meat and blood for sustenance, each Mongol fighter had a string of at least six or eight small horses. Multiplied by even the 20,000 troops that Hulagu left behind as a rear guard before Ayn Jalut, that is well over 100,000 horses.
Syria and Palestine are famously parched. In order to provide water and fodder for so many horses, the Mongols had to press attacks only in the fall or spring, when the rains brought new grass for their animals to graze on. Even at that, they must have used a lot of energy and time finding grass and water for their ponies.
With the bounty of the Nile at their disposal, and much shorter supply-lines, the Mamluks would have been able to bring grain and hay to supplement the sparse pastures of the Holy Land.
In the end, it may have been grass, or the lack thereof, combined with internal Mongolian dissension, that saved the last remaining Islamic power from the Mongol hordes.
Reuven Amitai-Preiss. Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
Charles J. Halperin. "The Kipchack Connection: The Ilkhans, the Mamluks and Ayn Jalut," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 63, No. 2 (2000), 229-245.
John Joseph Saunders. The History of the Mongol Conquests, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
Kenneth M. Setton, Robert Lee Wolff, et al. A History of the Crusades: The Later Crusades, 1189-1311, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).
John Masson Smith, Jr. "Ayn Jalut: Mamluk Success or Mongol Failure?," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Dec., 1984), 307-345.