In 1260, the Mongols were riding as high as they’d been at any time since Genghis Khan’s death in 1215. In less than 10 years, their armies had stormed through Iran and Iraq, crushing the notorious “Assassins” sect and ending the over 700 year old Abbasid Caliphate in the process. With the empire also expanding into eastern Europe and southern China, it must have seemed like the Mongols would go on expanding until they ruled the entire world. The architect of this latest round of expansion was the Great Khan Möngke, who had come to power in 1251, after something of an internal coup d’etat forced the descendants of Genghis Khan’s third-eldest (of four) son, Ögedei, out of the Great Khanate (Ögedei had been Genghis’s chosen successor and his son Güyük had succeeded him) and installed the descendants of Genghis’s youngest son, Tolui (Möngke was Tolui’s son), in their place.
It’s really at that point, in 1251, that the Mongol Empire stopped being one empire and started devolving into four empires: the Golden Horde on the Eurasian steppe (Russia, Kazakhstan, eastern Europe), ruled by descendants of Genghis’s oldest son (though his paternity was questioned) Jochi; the Chaghatai Khanate in Central Asia (any country that ends in “-stan” today, plus parts of China and India), ruled by descendants of Genghis’s second-oldest son Chaghatai; the Ilkhanate in the Middle East (Iran, Iraq, and Turkey), ruled by descendants of Tolui; and the Empire of the Great Khan in China (where it was known as the Yuan Dynasty) and Mongolia (plus Korea, Indochina, Myanmar, Bhutan, parts of Siberia), also ruled by Toluids. Nominally the Great Khan, who first reigned from Mongolia but later from the Chinese city of Khanbaliq (modern Beijing), was the “khan of khans” who ruled over these other empires, but in practice all four were separate entities and frequently went to war with one another.
The Ilkhanate, just so we’re clear, didn’t exist yet in 1251. It was the product of the Mongol invasion of Iran and the rest of the Middle East that Möngke ordered when he came to power (see below). The title “Il-Khan” means something like “subordinate khan,” so its relationship with the Great Khan is explicit. Nevertheless, by the end of the 13th century it was independent in all but the most formal sense and had already fought a war with the Golden Horde.
Although the forces that would eventually split the empire apart were unleashed in 1251, in 1260 the whole thing still looked mostly like one big family enterprise. Upon his succession, Möngke had ordered major new military expeditions into southern China and the Middle East. He put one of his brothers, Hulagu, in charge of the Middle Eastern expedition and put another brother, Kubilai, in charge of the China campaign–though Möngke went with him and was directly involved in that offensive. Hulagu, on his own, swept through Iran and into Iraq, sacking the Assassin base at Alamut in 1256 and Baghdad, where he executed the last widely-accepted Abbasid Caliph, in 1258. By September 1260 his armies were in Syria, having taken Aleppo and Damascus, and were poised to push south into Egypt. Hulagu sent envoys to Cairo demanding Egypt’s surrender, but the envoys’ heads were later seen decorating Cairo’s city walls.
Two things conspired to ultimately stop the seemingly unstoppable Mongol advance in 1260. First, Egypt’s desperately weak Ayyubid ruling house had been overthrown by its slave soldiers (the Mamluk Dynasty) in a slow-moving coup (it took years to fully sort out) that began in 1250. Where the Ayyubids had lost any ability to inspire an army or achieve significant military success, the Mamluks were invigorated and very well-trained. To be more specific, they were trained in the same Central Asian style of warfare as the Mongols, since the Mamluks at this time were mostly Kipchak steppe nomads who’d been sold as slaves to the Ayyubids (in many cases by Mongol traders). While Mongolian horse archery and battle tactics (like the infamous “feigned retreat” that Genghis Khan used so effectively) were unfamiliar and confusing to most armies the Mongols encountered in the Middle East, the Mamluks knew them quite well. The Mamluks also benefited from very capable leadership, between their Sultan, Qutuz, and his chief general, Baybars, who commanded their vanguard.
The second complication for Hulagu’s forces was the eccentricity of Mongolian politics and the untimely death of Möngke in August 1259. Mongolian custom meant that a tribal kurultai (council) had to be called, where all the leading Mongol princes would gather to select a new Great Khan. Hulagu had to attend. As Möngke’s brother, he was a candidate to become the new Great Khan (it would almost certainly be either him, Kubilai, or their brother Ariq Böke), and at the very least he wanted to be there to defend his own interests. Of course, no prince could just show up to a kurultai alone–you had to bring your army with you to be taken seriously. So Hulagu left a small residual force with his top general, Kitbuqa, and took the rest of his army back east to stake his claim. When Qutuz found out about this, he knew it was time to go on offense. He assembled an army and marched it north into Palestine, and Kitbuqa obligingly marched his army south to meet it.
There were still Crusader kingdoms in the region at this time. One, Antioch, became a Mongolian vassal alongside its Cilician (in southern Anatolia) Armenian sovereigns, and participated in Hulagu’s conquests of Aleppo and Damascus. The Mongols made diplomatic overtures to the Crusaders at Acre, but as Mongolian diplomatic overtures generally took the form of Mafia “protection” deals, the Crusaders didn’t take them up on their offer. The Mamluks also approached Acre about an alliance, and while the Christians were more amenable to a deal with the Mamluks, they decided to remain technically neutral. In reality this was more of “neutral, but” policy, as they allowed the Mamluks to pass unmolested through Acre’s territory on their march. The Mamluks almost marched right past the Mongols, in fact, before turning around at Acre and quickly moving south to intercept the Mongols at Ayn Jalut.
Ayn Jalut means “the Spring of Goliath” in Arabic, and when the two armies faced off there (in the Jezreel Valley, in the Lower Galilee region of modern Israel), you could have made an argument that either one was the David to the other’s Goliath. The Mongols were the Mongols; they’d conquered much of the world by that point, and surely anybody who stood against them was the underdog…right? On the other hand, this was a tiny Mongolian army (10,000-20,000 fighters by most estimates) facing what is generally believed to have been a substantially larger Mamluk force that knew the terrain and was fighting with religious zeal (the Mongols were a hodgepodge of animists, Buddhists, some Muslims, and Nestorian Christians, plus they’d already sacked the caliphal capital and executed the caliph, so Qutuz styled himself and his men as Defenders of Islam). The Mamluks also appear to have been using some kind of very early firearms, which didn’t do much in terms of killing people but scared the hell out of the Mongols’ horses (and probably the Mongols themselves).
Whatever combination of numeric superiority, technological superiority, ideological zeal, etc., was responsible for the outcome, the upshot of Ayn Jalut is that the Mamluks won. They did it by, of all things, confusing the Mongols with tactics that the Mongols themselves used all the time, in particular a feigned retreat by Baybars and his vanguard that suckered Kitbuqa and his army into a Mamluk trap. Even at that, the Mongols put up such a fight that Qutuz had to personally lead his reserves into the battle, shouting Islamic slogans all the while, to ensure victory. The Mamluks suffered heavy losses, but the Mongol army was almost completely annihilated, including Kitbuqa. Egypt was preserved from the Mongolian conquests, and eventually Syria (which proved impossible for the Mongols to hold) and the rest of the Levant were absorbed into the Mamluk sultanate as well.
Qutuz is still revered today as the man who defended Islam’s last bastions against the surging Mongols, but he didn’t live long enough to bask in his glorious victory. He was assassinated on the way back to Egypt, probably by Baybars. The general was expecting Qutuz to promote him to some lofty position like Governor of Aleppo as a reward for his performance in the battle, but Qutuz had Baybars pegged as an ambitious threat and refused to enhance his position. While he was right about Baybars, it turns out that he was probably wrong not to promote the guy.
Whether Baybars was directly involved in the assassination or not, he’s the one who benefited, by becoming the new sultan. As such, he immediately went after the Crusaders–ostensibly because Antioch had aided the Mongols, but he even besieged Acre despite the fact that Acre had actually been friendly toward the Mamluks. He captured a number of cities, including Antioch and Jaffa in 1268, and Ascalon (which he had destroyed) in 1270, and these losses put the Crusader states into a death spiral that ended with the Mamluk capture of Acre, the last Crusader state left standing, in 1291. Baybars died in 1277, so he didn’t live to witness this final elimination of the last Crusader state.
Hulagu backed his brother Kubilai’s appointment as Great Khan against the rival claim of Ariq Böke, then returned west while his brothers prepared to fight a civil war that would last until 1264 and would really spell the end of Mongol unity. Hulagu was obviously itching for another crack at the Mamluks, but instead he was sucked into a war with his cousin Berke, the ruler of the Golden Horde. Berke had converted to Islam sometime in the 1240s, and watched in horror when Hulagu sacked Baghdad and executed the caliph. He also believed that Hulagu had taken territory in the southern Caucasus that really belonged to him, and he supported Ariq Böke in the civil war back east. So Berke signed a treaty with the Mamluks, and then went to war with his fellow Mongols. Hulagu suffered a serious defeat to the Golden Horde in the northern Caucasus in 1263, really the only serious fighting of the war, and then died in 1265 (Berke died the following year).
The Battle of Ayn Jalut is an event of serious importance in world history, a genuine turning point. It stopped the Mongols’ westward expansion and protected a “mainstream” Islam at a time when the entire religion seemed to be in desperate straits. Although later Ilkhans would convert to Islam, in 1260 there was no reason to believe that this would happen, and in fact it might not have happened without Ayn Jalut. And considering that the Mamluks struggled to win the battle against a severely weakened Mongol force led by a guy who (kind of inexplicably) fell for the oldest trick in the Mongols’ own book, there’s a case to be made that history turned on Möngke’s death and Hulagu’s decision to go back east before dealing with the Mamluks himself.
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