On War And Warfare

The Mongols Meet Their Match: The Battle of Ain Jalut

David W. Tschanz

Thirteenth century Cairo glistened jewel-like on the banks of the Nile. The winter of 1260 had given way to spring and the first touch of the coming summer heat hung in the air. Most of the city's inhabitants went about their daily business unaware that anything special was happening. A few other gossiped, gesturing towards the Sultan's palace and speculating on the meaning behind the strange envoy that now had the attention of Sultan Saif Al-Din Qutuz and his generals.

In the palace, Qutuz shifted uneasily in his chair and beheld the four men before him with a mixture of hatred and justifiable anxiety. The emissaries represented the Mongol prince Hulegu Khan and they laid before Qutuz a letter. It was not written in the tone by which one head of state normally addressed another:

From the King of Kings of the East and West, the Great Khan. 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. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where 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. Fortresses will not detain us, nor arms stop us. Your prayers to God will not avail against us. We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations. Only those who beg our protection will be safe. Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled ... Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then we will kill your children and your old men together. At present you are the only enemy against whom we have to march.

The Mongol ambassadors and Qutuz considered one another for long moments.Then Qutuz withdrew, commanding his Mamluk generals to follow him. The Mongols merely smiled.

The impromptu council of war was a somber affair as Qutuz's principal officers recounted the sober facts of the Mongol advance Qutuz reflected on the situation. A proud, decisive man he was not used to being addressed in terms of a coldly arrogant ultimatum. But he was also a realist, to his generals he admitted the Mamluks were probably no match for the Mongols. The commanders agreed and recommended capitulating to the Mongol demands.

But Qutuz's own opinion differed. The Sultan had come to power by knowing how and when to act. Observing the dissolute and vapid character of the 15 year old Ayubbid Sultan Nur al-Din Ali ibn Aibak in the face of the Mongol threat, Qutuz had deposed him the previous October. "Egypt needs a warrior as its king," he explained. To submit now would be an act of cowardice and treachery. He would not surrender, he defiantly told them. "If no one else will come I will go and fight the Tatars alone."

He barked out orders to his guards, who promptly seized the envoys. The Mongols, he knew, considered ambassadors to be untouchable. They treated those sent to them with utmost respect and expected theirs to be treated the same. To harm one they considered an act of unforgivable treachery. Qutuz commanded the ambassadors be cut in half at the waist, then decapitated and their heads placed on Cairo's great Zuwila Gate. The Mamluks were now bloodily and irrevocably committed to war with the Mongols.

In the ensuing months, the events triggered that day by Qutuz would create a maelstrom whose center would come to rest at Ain Jalut, the Spring of Goliath, where legend held that the shepherd David slew the Philistine giant Goliath.

Enraged Hulegu Khan gathered the horde for war for war while Qutuz made peace with old enemies and prepared Cairo for the inevitable onslaught. The fate of Islam as a political force was hung by a thread.

Then fate intervened. Hulegu Khan fell back to Iran on the news of the death of the Great Khan Monge, leaving a portion of the army under the command of a Christian general, Kitbuqa, who claimed descent from one of the Three Wise Men who visited the infant Jesus, while he contested for Mongol leadership. Emboldened Qutuz advanced, making overtures to the Crusader leaders who were being courted into an alliance by the Mongols against the "hated Muslims". As they wavered a papal decree, based largely on the opinions of a clerical spy, arrived in the Holy Land settling the issue.

The battle that followed was epochal, not in the way it was fought, but in the outcome and the ripples it sent through the world and the shaping of its history.

The clash of Mongol and Mamluk at Ain Jalut was one of the most significant battles in world history, yet it is a rare Western history class that even hears mention of it, even though it was as important for Western civilization as those fought at Marathon, Salamis, Lepanto, Chalons and Tours. Had the Mongols succeeded in conquering Egypt, they would have been able to storm across North Africa to the Straits of Gilbraltar. Europe would have been clamped in an iron ring all the way from Poland to the Mediterranean. The Mongols would have been able to invade from so many points that it is unlikely that any European army could have been positioned to hold them back.

Instead, the Mamluks stopped the westward Mongol advance and smashed the myth of Mongol invincibility. Qutuz's superior generalship had shown the vaunted Mongols were just as fallible as any army. The psychological impact worked both ways.

The Mongols were shaken. Their belief in themselves was never quite the same and Ain Jalut marked the end of any concerted campaign by the Mongols in the Levant. Except for a few small contingents sent into Syria to conduct revenge raids, the Mongols never attempted a reconquest of the lands that Sultan Qutuz had wrested from them.

The Muslim victory also saved Cairo from the the fate of Baghdad; destroyed the last hope of a Christian restoration in the Middle East; doomed the remaining Crusader states; and raised Mamluk Egypt to the status of leading Muslim power and the home of what was left of Arabic culture and learning.

The Mongol Response

In mid-February Hulegu's vast army once again began to stir to life as he made preparations for the march on Egypt. The Mamluks, who numbered about 20,000, took steps to defend Egypt against the expected assault. Then fate intervened.

A messenger brought word to Hulegu that the Great Khan, Monge, had died. In keeping with Mongol tradition all the princes, including Hulegu, were summoned to Mongolia to attend a Kuriltai (Council) to elect his successor. Ironically the death of the previous Khan had caused the westernmost armies to pull back after conquering the Poles.

Qutuz also gained an unexpected ally. During his rise to power the sultan had murdered the leader of the Bahri Mamluks, Aqtay, earning the lasting enmity of the faction and its leader, Baibars. Baibars had withdrawn with a group of supporters to Syria from where he had been launching raids on Egypt. Qutuz and Baibars looked on each other with contempt, loathing and distrust. Nevertheless they realized that a Mongol victory would mean their mutual destruction. When Damascus fell, Baibars offered his support, which Qutuz accepted in early March.

Meanwhile Hulegu pulled his main army back to Maragheh, leaving Kitbuqa in Syria with two tumens or about 15-20,000 Mongols. Kitbuqa was ordered to press on to Egypt. A raiding party was sent into Palestine, cutting the usual Mongol path of pillage and slaughter through Nablus all the way to Gaza, but on Kitbuqa's orders, it did not attack the narrow strip of Crusader-held territory along the coast.

The Crusaders, who were too weak to provide any significant resistance against the Mongols on their own, were embroiled in a bitter debate over whether or not to ally themselves with the invaders. Some, like Anno von Sangerhausen, Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, favored a Christian-Mongol coalition; others were as vehemently opposed. Kitbuqa hoped his show of charity would sway the argument in favor of the Mongols. He badly misunderstood them.

Two Crusaders leaders, John of Beirut and Julian of Sidon, responded with raids on the new Mongol-held territories. Kitbuqa sent a punitive expedition against Sidon. On entering the town the Mongols plundered the town and massacred its citizens. Only the Castle of the Sea and its garrison held out. Christian ardor for the Mongol cause cooled considerably. It turned frigid when word reached the Crusaders that another Mongol army under Burundai had invaded Poland. Almost simultaneously the French king Louis IX's envoy to the Mongols, William of Rubruck, returned from Mongolia with a complete report on the invaders. After reading it Pope Alexander IV sent word throughout Christendom. The Mongols were pagan, brutal savages who were not to be trusted he declared. Anyone making an alliance with them would be excommunicated. The matter of a Mongol alliance was settled for the Latin Christians.

Qutuz Advances

When news reached Qutuz of Hulegu's withdrawal, he realized the military landscape had been completely transformed. He ordered a halt to defensive preparations and commanded his men to prepare to advance against the Mongols. In another audacious move he sent envoys to the Crusader leaders in Acre asking for safe passage and the right to purchase supplies.

For the surprised Franks the request presented a thorny question. To cooperate with Qutuz would mark the Crusaders as enemies of the Mongols, opening all their territory to the wrath of the Hordes - the full strength of which they knew they could not resist. On the other hand, Qutuz was the only hope of ridding the region of the foreign invaders. After a lengthy debate the Egyptian request was agreed to.

On July 26, 1260, the Egyptian army began its advance. Near Gaza, Baibars, in command of the vanguard, encountered and destroyed a small Mongol force on long range patrol. The war had begun.

Kitbuqa, from his base at Baalbek in modern Lebanon, assembled his army and began a march to the south, moving down the eastern side of Lake Tiberias.

Qutuz led his army north and eventually reached the outskirts of Acre. There, while the nervous Crusader leaders watched his army pitch their tents in the shadow of the city, he planned his next move and purchased supplies. Word soon arrived that the Mongols, and a large contingent of native Syrian conscripts, had circled Lake Tiberias and were approaching the Jordan River, following the same invasion route used by Saladin in 1183. Qutuz ordered the army southeast to meet them.

On September 3rd, Kitbuqa turned west across the Jordan and up the rising slope to the Plain of Esdraelon. Qutuz established positions at Ain Jalut, the Spring of Goliath (where local tradition held that David had slew Goliath). There the vast plain narrowed to just under five kilometers wide, protected on the south by the steep slope of Mount Gilboa and by the hills of Galilee on the north. Qutuz placed units of Mamluk cavalry in the surrounding hills, while ordering Baibars and the vanguard forward.

The Mamluks approached the coming battle with a desperate sense that there was no alternative to victory. One more significant Mongol victory and Islam, as a political power, was finished.

Ghengis Khan's policy of remorseless brutality and no mercy might have been effective in paralyzing lesser men, it had stiffened the resolve of the Mamluks and reinforced their determination. Before the advance, Qutuz, in a speech that brought tears to the eyes of his men, reminded them of the nature of Tatar savagery. There was no alternative to fighting, he said, "except a horrible death for themselves, their wives and their children." It steeled the souls of the Mamluks for the coming battle against an enemy that had never tasted defeat

The Spring of Goliath

Baibars advanced quickly and made contact with Kitbuqa's force coming towards Ain Jalut. Seeing Baibars' force, Kitbuqa mistook it for the entire Mamluk army and ordered his men to charge, leading the attack himself. The two armies collided and both seemed to stop in the fierce clash that followed. Then Baibars ordered a retreat. The Mongols rode triumphantly in pursuit, victory in their grasp.

When they reached the springs, Baibars ordered his army to wheel and face the enemy. Only then did the Mongols realize they had been tricked by one of their own favorite tactics: the feigned retreat. As Baibars re-engaged the Mongols, Qutuz ordered the reserve cavalry out from its hiding places in the foothills and slopes and against the Mongol flanks.

Realizing that he was now committed to a battle with the entire Mamluk army, Kitbuqa ordered his ranks to charge the Muslim left flank. The Mamluks held, wavered, held again but eventually were turned, cracking under the ferocity of the Mongol assault.

As the Mamluk wing threatened to dissolve and it appeared the entire army might be routed, Qutuz rode to the site of the fiercest fighting and threw his helmet to the ground so the entire army could recognize his face. "O Muslims" he shouted three times in stentorian tones. His shaken troops rallied and the flank held. As the line solidified, Qutuz led a countercharge sweeping back the Mongol squadrons.

Kitbuqa was now faced with a deteriorating situation. When one subordinate suggested a withdrawal his response was brief: "We must die here and that is the end of it. Long life and happiness to the Khan."

Despite the relentless Mamluk pressure, Kitbuqa continued to rally his men. Then his horse took an arrow and he was thrown to the ground. Captured by nearby Mamluk soldiers he was taken to the Sultan amidst the sounds of battle. "After overthrowing so many dynasties you are caught at last I see," Qutuz exulted.

Kitbuqa, for his part, was still defiant - "If you kill me now, when Hulegu Khan hears of my death, all the country from Azerbijan to Egypt will be trampled beneath the hoofs of Mongol horses." In a move calculated to insult his captor, Kitbuqa added "All my life I have been a slave of the khan. I am not, like you, a murderer of my master" Qutuz ordered Kitbuqa executed and his head sent to Cairo as proof of the Muslim victory.

With their leader gone, the remaining Mongols fled 12 kilometers to the town of Beisan where they drew up to face the pursuing Mamluk cavalry. The resulting clash broke the remnants of the Mongol force and the few that could escaped crossed the Euphrates. Within days the victorious Qutuz re-entered Damascus in triumph, and the Egyptians moved on to liberate Aleppo and the other major cities of Syria.


For Qutuz, the ecstasy of victory was relatively short lived. After Aleppo was retaken, Baibars suggested that he be given the emirate of the region as recognition of his contributions. Qutuz refused. Baibars sulked.

When the Mamluk army was only a few days from its triumphal return to Cairo, Baibars went to see Qutuz on a matter of state. Reaching out in greeting he grabbed the Sultan's sword hand and withdrew a dagger from his belt then drove it into Qutuz' heart. When the army entered Cairo, Baibars rode at their head as Sultan - destined to be the greatest of all Mamluk warriors. But that is another story.

The Mongol Tide

In the early part of the 13th century a new power appeared on the world stage, as Genghis Khan, the Mongolian warlord, organized his people for war and conquest. From a tiny insignificant kingdom in north central Asia, in less than two generations all the land from Vietnam to Poland would be trodden beneath the hooves of their cavalry, and the Mongols would leave an indelible mark on history - one characterized by slaughter, destruction and savagery. The medieval Islamic civilization would suffer crippling blows from their appearance and the ripples of the Mongol avalanche of destruction.

As the Mongols encountered the eastern Islamic world they wrought havoc. Samarkand, Bukhara and countless towns in between were leveled, their populations killed or enslaved. Nothing was able to stem the Mongol advance.

In 1253 Hulegu Khan, brother of the Great Khan Monge and a grandson of Ghengis Khan, had been told to gather his forces and move into Syria "as far as the borders of Egypt." His mission to conquer and annex the lands as part of Ghengis Khan's schema -- the entire world united under Mongol rule. Scholars debate the exact size Hulegu's force but it was enormous by the standards of the time. The ordu (horde) was comprised of approximately 300,000 warriors, who rode their ponies across the steppes to great effect. Adding women, children and other noncombatants the entire host numbered, by conservative estimate, about 2 million in all. It was not an army, it was more like a force of nature.

The Mongols arrived in Persia in 1256 and set about settling an old score. A few years earlier the Mongols had discovered a plot to send 400 dagger-wielding Assassins in disguise to their capital Qaraqorum with instructions to murder the Great Khan. It was a formidable task the Mongols had taken on, for over 100 years this Ismaili sect had terrorized the region. Their leader, Rukn ad-Din, was preceded by a herald who declared, "Make way for he who holds the life of kings in his hands." The 200 Assassin fortresses, called "eagle's nest" were placed in inaccessible locations atop mountains and rocky crags and considered impregnable. Crusader princes, atabeqs, emirs and even Saladin himself had been forced to come to terms with them or suffer the consequences.

Now the Mongols moved through the Elbruz mountains remorselessly seeking them out. For two years the Mongols moved from fortress to fortress with workmanlike efficiency. Chinese engineers set up siege engines and one by the one the eagle's nests fell. Hulegu showed no mercy, when a fortress was taken all the occupants, whether able-bodied men or babies in their cradles, were put to the sword. By the end of the campaign the Assassins were totally destroyed and Rukn ad-Din taken in chains to the Great Khan who had him executed.

The Assassins eliminated, Hulegu turned his attention to Mesopotamia and Baghdad. The Abassid capital was no longer the center of political power in the Islamic world, but it was still its intellectual heartland. Through a combination of Mongol skill, caliphal foolishness and treachery, Baghdad was captured, sacked and burned to its foundations in February 1258.

Hulegu now fell back to Tabriz while the aftershocks from Baghdad's fall shook the entire Islamic world. Emirs and sheiks along the Mongols' line of advance came and did homage. One, Kai Kawus, gave Hulegu a pair of sandals with the emir's face painted on the soles so the Khan could walk on his face.

Among those offering an alliance to Hulegu was Hayton, the Christian king of Armenia. Hayton thought of the Mongols as a new Crusade to free Jerusalem from the Muslims. This perception was encouraged by Hulegu's chief lieutenant, Kitbuqa who was not only a Christina but claimed to be a direct descendant of one of the three Magi who had brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Following his visit to the Mongol leader Hayton sent messages to his Crusader neighbors that Hulegu was about to be baptized a Christian and strongly urged they too ally themselves with this new force and turn it to the Crusader cause.

Only Kamil Muhammad, the emir of Mayyafarakin, had defied the Mongols, responding to their envoy's demand for submission by crucifying him. Hulegu dispatched a part of his army to the town and quickly breached its walls While Kamil Muhammad watched every living thing was killed. Then he was bound and pieces of his skin cut off, broiled over an open flame and fed to him piece by piece.

In September 1259 Hulegu moved again, gathering up all of Mesopotamia east of the Tigris in a lightning operation, then crossing the Euphrates on a pontoon bridge made of boats at Manbij. Word of the Mongol movement reached Sultan Al-Nasir, lord of Syria, who offered to submit to the coming army. Hulegu brushed it aside. Submission was not enough, the sultan was told, he was "doomed to fall."

Al-Nasir organized the defense of Aleppo then fell back to prepare Damascus. The Mongol army, 300,000 strong, arrived on January 13, 1260. Engineers set up catapults and the city fell in a matter of days. Aleppo suffered Baghdad's fate. The men were put to the sword and the women and children were marched to the slave markets of Karakorum. The city citadel, under the command of the elderly Turan Shah, held out for another month. Then, realizing there was no hope of rescue, it finally surrendered. In a rare act of compassion Hulegu ordered Turna Shah's life spared in recognition of his age and courage. The rest of the garrison was executed.

The fate of Aleppo rested heavy on Damascene minds and the citizens drove Al-Nasir out of the city, then sent their unconditional surrender to the advancing Mongols. Hulegu entered the city accompanied by Kitbuqa, Hayton and the Crusader Prince of Antioch, Bohemond IV, who had heeded Hayton's advice. A mosque was hastily converted to a church and a service celebrated there. Then Hulegu, with typical Mongol indifference to religion forced Bohemond, a Latin Christian, to name a Greek Orthodox Patriarch religious head of Antioch.

Al Nasir fled towards Egypt but Mongol soldiers hunted him through Samaria finally catching up with him near Gaza where he was captured and taken to Huelgu's court in chains.

Hard on their heels the Mongol envoys had come to Egypt and handed Qutuz a demand for submission.

The Destruction of Baghdad

In 1258, Genghis Khan's grandson, Hulegu Khan, turned his army of 300,000 southwards from Azerbaijan. The orders of the Great Khan were clear. All the land southwards was to be placed under Mongol rule. The first major city in his path was Baghdad, indisputably the greatest city in the Islamic world.

For several years the Abbasids, under the Caliph Mustansir had repulsed Mongols raids into Mesopotamia. But with Mustansir's death in 1242, the caliphate had passed to his son Mustasim. Frivolous and cowardly he was exploited by ruthless officials who had gotten used to running the city while Mustasim concentrated on spiritual affairs.

Mustasim's vizier, Ibn al-Alkami assured him that the oncoming Mongol threat was small and Baghdad's defenses more than adequate. Bolstered by this assessment Mustasim scoffed at the Hulegu's demand that the caliph do obeisance and dismantle Baghdad's walls, telling the khan's envoy "When you have pulled off the hoofs from your horse's feet, we will demolish our fortresses." But unknown to Mustasim, al-Alkami was sending secret messages to Hulegu, urging him to attack and describing the true and pitiful state of the city's defenses. Persian accounts of this treachery contend that the chief minister, a Shia Muslim, had been motivated by his resentment of the Caliph's persecution of his Shia brethren. In the meantime ambassadors rode back and forth, offering to pay tribute to Hulegu but refusing to surrender, while behind the city walls there was growing fear and confusion.

Hulegu finally grew impatient with Mustasim's temporizing and commenced military operations. Joining Hulegu were Christian Georgians who saw an opportunity for plunder and revenge -- and since Hulegu's wife Doquz-khatun, was a Christian, some of them believed the Mongols were really on a new Crusade to free the "holy land" of the infidel.

With the Mongols only a day away, Mustasim finally woke to the peril. Orders were given to repair the walls and a contingent of 20,000 troops was sent to confront the enemy. As they camped in the fields in sight of the city walls the Mongols surprised them by smashing the dams and dikes nearby and flooding the encampment. Those who did not drown were cut to pieces by the Mongol cavalry.

The Mongol forces next moved into the western suburbs. On the eastern side, Hulegu's engineers used immense gangs of prisoner-slaves to construct a ditch and a rampart that eventually surrounded the city "like a bracelet round the arm of a girl." On January 30th the bombardment of Baghdad began. Events had moved so swiftly that the carts bringing up ammunition, hewn from the Jebel Hamrin Mountains, were still three days away. So the artillery units improvised with stumps of palm trees and foundations from the occupied suburbs.

Mustasim sent a message to Hulegu accepting all the khan's terms, but was curtly told the time for negotiation was past. The heaviest bombardment was directed against the southeast corner of the walls and by February 1st, the third day of the bombardment, the Persian Tower was in ruins. On February 6th, the Mongols stormed and took the east wall. There they remained, as gradually the city surrendered.

Mustasim continued to send envoy after envoy to Hulegu to beg for terms, but they were refused an audience. Instead Hulegu demanded that the commander of the caliph's army and the deputy vizier order the withdrawal of the Muslim army from the city. The two leaders accomplished the task by telling the troops that they would be allowed to march away to Syria. As soon as the whole army was assembled on the plain outside the walls, the Mongols closed round them and killed them all, then the army commander and deputy vizier were also killed. Baghdad, without one soldier left to defend it, lay entirely at Hulegu's mercy.

On February 10th, Mustasim, his three sons and a retinue of about 3000 nobles went to Hulegu's camp. They were received courteously. Mustasim was commanded to order the inhabitant to evacuate the city. The caliph sent messengers to Baghdad proclaiming that all who wished to save their lives should come out of the city unarmed. Vast crowds of people herded out through the city gates. As soon as they were gathered together on open ground they were mercilessly butchered. The number killed varies according to the source Persian accounts claim between 800,000 and 2 million slaughtered, while Hulegu, in a letter to Louis IX of France, boasted of 200,000 slain. In a display of the discipline which explains much of their success, Mongol troops had stood on the walls of the helpless city awaiting orders. On the 13th the Mongols entered the city in several columns at different points and told to do as they wished. What they wished was destruction and mayhem. Magnificent mosques were toppled; palace after palace was looted in the orgy of destruction that was the sack of Baghdad.

Though the city had lost its commercial preeminence, it remained an important cultural, spiritual and intellectual center. The city held more than thirty colleges, among them the Mustansiriya, the best appointed university in the world. The cityscape was dotted with magnificent mosques, vast libraries of Persian and Arabian literature, plus numerous palaces belonging to the Caliph and his family and perhaps one of the greatest personal treasures to be found anywhere. It was the greatest city the Mongols conquered in the Middle East, and into this oasis of civilization they brought sword and torch. Books were dumped into the Tigris until it ran black from their ink.

Most of the surviving women and children were herded together and transported to Qaraqorum, as was the wealth of the Caliph's treasure house.

On the 15th, while the pillage was underway, Hulegu visited Mustasim's palace and forced the caliph to host a banquet for the Mongol leaders while the city burned and the cries from the street echoed into the night. Mustasim was forced to surrender all his treasures of gold, silver, and jewels. A Muslim Mongol had warned Hulegu against killing Mustasim, saying that if "a drop of the caliph's blood touched the earth it would mean eternal damnation." Hulegu heeded the warning. When dinner was over he had Mustasim and his sons sewn into Mongol carpets then trampled beneath the hooves of the Mongol cavalry. The caliph's blood did not touch the earth.

Baghdad's agony lasted for seven days. On February 20th Hulegu was forced to strike his tents and march his army away because of the stench of rotting corpses hanging over the smoking rubble that marked what was left of the once great city.

Civilization Undone

The Mongols would move south from Baghdad, destroy Aleppo and occupy Damascus, only to be turned back on their way to Cairo by the Mamluks at ´┐ŻAin Jalut. The nomad rulers from the steppes would control the land east of the Euphrates for several more decades before being driven out.

The havoc the Mongols wrought was not limited merely to the cities and townspeople. The complex irrigation systems of places like Khurasan (north of Persia), Persia itself, and Iraq (Mesopotamia) -- the product of up to 5,000 years of collective efforts that turned desert and grassland into probably the most productive agricultural lands on earth -- sustained extensive damage. In many places the irrigated area has still not returned to pre-Mongol level. Aerial photography, indicates that Iraq today probably irrigates and farms no more than 60% of the agricultural land in use under the Abbasid caliphs ca. 800.

Mongol rule, with its casual attitude toward farming and heavy taxation of peasants also discouraged repair. Iraq, which had enjoyed millennia of agriculture surplus as long ago as 3500 BCE drifted down to an agriculture that barely provided for subsistence. The evidence, suggests a catastrophic population drop which was every bit the equivalent of the worst disasters in history. Studies of the Iraqi province of Diyala, near Baghdad, indicate that this province, which probably had almost 900,000 inhabitants in the days of the Abbasids ca. 800, supported only around 60,000 persons ca. 1300 under Mongol rule. This 90% drop in population put the province back to the population levels of 1500 B.C. Apparently, less than half the land which had been cultivated in that province under the Abbasids could still be farmed in 1300. Nor was this province an isolated or extreme case. An Ottoman census of 1519 in what is modern Syria and Palestine shows fewer than 600,000 people living in an area that had a population of about 4 million in the days of the Arab Empire.

Military historian James Dunnigan showed that the impact of the Mongol invasions was world wide (see Table 1). In addition to outright slaughter, disease and starvation always followed in the wake of Mongol armies. Houses and farm equipment were destroyed on a vast scale. Since medieval farmers lived on the edge of survival; one or two bad harvests almost guaranteed mass starvation and death from disease. And this was not an accident, "the Mongols saw such destruction of agricultural resources as a means to prevent their victims from recovering and fighting back."

The wide ranging campaigns of the Mongols brought an even more deadly force into play. Epidemic diseases that had long stayed in one region, were now carried by the rapidly moving Mongol armies to places where the locals had no resistance to these alien plagues. The Black Death is the best known of these afflictions, but certainly not the only one.

The Mongol invasions and their subsequent rule in the lands east of the Euphrates left a legacy of shattered cities, population decline, and overturned technology that undercut the basis for prosperity and success that had sustained the Middle East for five thousand years.

Table 1. Population (in millions) for various regions at the beginning of 13th & 14th centuries
Region AD 1200

AD 1300 % Change
East Turkestan2.202.304.5%

Mongol Tactics

The Mongols were like a force of nature: unstoppable, punishing and devastating. In less than two generations they had spread from their tiny, insignificant homeland to trample all the land from Korea to Poland beneath the hooves of their cavalry.

The keys to this string of Mongol victories were superiority in training, discipline, reconnaissance, mobility, and communications, each honed to a level unheard of in any other pre-twentieth century army.

All men over the age of fourteen were enrolled in the military. When summoned they were expected to leave their flocks and homes, taken with them four or five changes of horses and travel to wherever the unit happened to be located. Wives and children were expected to follow with the herds.

The military camp was always laid out in a standard pattern and the troops grouped in units organized in decimal fashion. The basic group of ten was called an arban, ten arban made a jagun and so on up to 100,000 men called an ordu (from which came the word horde).

Training and drilling in riding and archery were primary components of the Mongol way of war and the troops were magnificently disciplined at a time when most armies were little more than quasi-organized rabble.

Mongol troops dressed and traveled very light. Each man wore a silk undershirt, atop which he wore a tunic. Members of the heavy cavalry would also wear chain mail and a cuirass made of leather covered iron scales. Each man carried a leather covered wicker shield and a helmet of either leather or iron depending on his rank. Weapons consisted of two composite bows, sixty arrows. Light cavalry carried a small sword and two or three javelins while the heavy force was equipped with scimitar, mace and a 4 meter (12 foot) lance. Soldiers also carried clothing, cook pots, dried meat, water and other smaller material. The saddlebag was made from a cow's stomach which, being waterproof and inflatable, could be used as a float when crossing rivers. The lightly encumbered cavalry was thus able to consistently advance up to 100 miles per day.

One of the great advantages the Mongols had was an extremely effective and reliable system of communications and coordination based on flags, torches and riders who carried messages over great distances, often changing horses in mid-gallop. Hence all Mongol units were able to remain in near constant contact with each other and, through their corps of couriers, under the control of a single commander even over thousands of miles. This level of integration of mobility and communication would not be equaled again until the combination of mechanized vehicles and radio communication in World War II.

Genghis Khan himself had stressed the importance of intelligence gathering. Before opening a campaign, he collected from merchants, travelers and spies exact information respecting conditions in the enemy country and roads, bridges and other thoroughfares were kept in constant repair to ensure rapidity of movement and communication. Scouts were sent forward, sometimes as much as a thousand miles away and sent back regular reports.

As the Mongol army advanced, they impressed the young men from the countryside into labor gangs to transport supplies and keep open the highways. The trained artisans or engineers among them were used to construct and maintain siege machinery.

The grimmest feature of Mongol military policy was the deliberate use of terror to frighten his foes into submission. If a place surrendered without resistance, it was commonly spared; if the garrison refused to capitulate, it was then surrounded with a rampart and ditch built by the prisoner-slaves. Catapults bombarded the walls. When a breach was made, the prisoners were forced to fill in the moat and lead the assault, while the Mongols followed.

When the city was captured, all the inhabitants were marched into an open space outside the walls and the town was given up to plunder. If the populace as a whole had manned the ramparts, every man, woman and child was put to the sword, and in at least one case the very cats and dogs as well were slaughtered. The policy, while savage, often meant the next towns along the way would surrender rather than resist.

On the battlefield the normal Mongol strategy was a direct rapid assault. Because their mobility and intelligence gathering systems were so much greater than their normally feudal opponents, the Mongols could usually concentrate quicker and overwhelm their foes. If this failed and they found themselves faced by an equal force, a strong enemy position, or by superior numbers, they would then utilize their superiority in maneuver and communications in order to bring the enemy on to more favorable ground. One favorite method was the feigned withdrawal, intended to lure an enemy holding a strong position into pursuing the Mongol force into a carefully prepared trap. Another tactic was to attempt to bypass or side step the enemy position and catch an enemy in the open while they try to reorient to the new Mongol position.

Mongol commanders would also send portions of their force well past and around the enemy lines while the main body engaged the enemy army. At a signal from the commander these detached units would wheel and strike their opponents on the flank or in the rear. One recurring result of this combination of mobility and communication revealed by careful analysis of Mongol battles is that they were normally close to achieving their objectives long before the enemy had any clue what those objectives were.

Who Were the Mamluks

Mamluk means "owned." The term was originally applied to boys from the tribes of Central Asia who were bought by the Abbasid caliphs for training as soldiers. After their seizure of Egypt in 969, the Fatimids adopted the same practice as well.

When Saladin supplanted the Fatimids and founded the Ayyubid dynasty in 1174, he formed them into a distinct military body. Since the Ayyubids were strangers in Egypt, they probably felt more comfortable with the support of their fellow foreigners.

Dealers bought children of conquered tribes in Central Asia, promising them great fortunes in the West. After their purchase Mamluk boys were given several years of rigorous training in horsemanship and archery. They were then used both as bodyguards and to offset the dominating influence of the Arab military in the state. Eventually the Egyptian Mamluks moved from mere slaves to masters of the court and toppled the Ayyubid dynasty, seizing control of the country.

Power in the Mamluk realm was not based on heredity. Every Mamluk arrived in Syria or Egypt as a slave recruit. Converted to Islam he worked his way up from recruit to his eventual position based on merit alone. Every commander of the army and nearly all of the Mamluk sultans started life in this manner. The result was a succession of rulers of unrivaled personality, courage and ruthlessness.

After the Mamluks made themselves master of Egypt and Syria, they continued the same policy of recruitment. Agents were sent to buy and import boys from Central Asia for their armies. Mamluks looked on their Egyptian born sons as socially inferior and would not recruit them into regular Mamluk units which only admitted boys born on the steppes.

This constant influx of new blood provided a check on degeneration when the Mamluks became the rulers and possessors of wealth and power. An autocratic military caste they ruled with considerable harshness, imposed heavy taxation and held all political and military powers in their own hands. The Mamluks made use of the native born population in civil posts and many achieved high rank and honors in the civil administration.

The Mamluks held uncontested power in Egypt until 1517 when Cairo fell to the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman ruler, Selim, put an end to the Mamluk sultanate but did not, however, destroy the Mamluks as a class; they kept their lands, and Mamluk governors retained control of the provinces and were even allowed to keep private armies. In the 18th century, when Ottoman power began to decline, the Mamluks were able to win back an increasing amount of self-rule. In 1769 a Mamluk leader, Ali Bey, proclaimed himself sultan, declaring independence from the Ottomans. Although he fell in 1772, the Ottoman Turks still felt compelled to concede an increasing measures of autonomy to the Mamluks and appointed a series of them as governors of Egypt. The Mamluks were defeated by Napoleon Bonaparte during his invasion of Egypt in1798, and their power as a class was ended in 1811 by Muhammad Ali.


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