Mongols vs Mamelukes at Ayn Jalut — The Most Important Battle You’ve Never Heard Of

The Mongols has spent decades rolling over any army that opposed them. That changed in 1260, when the descendants of Genghis Khan met the Mamelukes. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“All empires over-reach and inevitably decline. That moment came for the Mongols in 1260 at the Battle of Ayn Jalut.”

By Jem Duducu

THE MONGOL EMPIRE was the largest land based empire in history and second only to Victorian Britain’s in overall size. At its peak a person could travel from the edge of Poland all the way to Korea and might never leave Mongol territory. Yet all empires over-reach and inevitably decline. That moment came for the Mongols in 1260 at the Battle of Ayn Jalut (in modern-day Israel.)

The Mongols began their conquest of the Middle East in 1258 when Baghdad, the cultural epicentre and capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, fell in an orgy of violence. Conservative estimates of the sacking of the city put the death toll at 200,000. Along with slaughtering the inhabitants, the invaders also destroyed Baghdad’s mosques and libraries, including the storied House of Wisdom. Eyewitnesses said that when the pillaging was over, the Tigris River ran black, not from blood, but from the ink of all the books that were deliberately dumped into the water. By erasing centuries of learning, the Mongols were clearly trying to destroy all elements of Muslim rule in the Middle East.

The Mongol sack of Baghdad. (Image source: WikiCommons)

With capital of the caliphate in ruins, the only power in the region left to counter the invaders were the Mamelukes.

The legendary slave warriors, who had been bought as Christian boys from the Caucasus, converted to Islam and then trained to fight as an elite mounted corps, were every bit as fierce and skilled cavalry as the Mongols. Just a few years earlier, the Mamelukes had overthrown their masters and established their own empire that stretched from Egypt into the Middle East. Most recently they had been attacking what few lands the Christians still had under the banner of the Crusader states.

While the Mongols were an existential threat to the Mamelukes, they were equally feared by the Christians. The invaders had already annihilated armies in Russia, Poland and Hungary a generation earlier. And with the Mongols continuing their march westward, the unthinkable was about to happen: a truce between Christian and Muslim.

Mameluke in full armour. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In 1260, the Crusader states granted the Mameluke army safe passage through their territory to intercept the Mongols. It was a case of “my enemy’s enemy is an even greater enemy.”

The two sides met on Sept. 3 of that year at Ayn Jalut or “the Spring of Goliath,” named for the infamous giant from the Old Testament.

Exactly how many troops were in action there is unknown, but as the Mongols divided their massive army into units of 10,000 to 12,000 mounted warriors called Tumens. At least one Tumen fought at Ayn Jalut, which likely represented a small detachment of the main Mongol army. The Mamelukes fielded considerably more troops – as many as 20,000.

(Image source: WikiCommons)

By all accounts, it was a bloody affair. The opposing sides employed similar hit-and-run style cavalry tactics and soon the battlefield became a chaotic melee of charge, counter-charge and retreat. Mounted archers on both sides circled the action raining arrows down on the combatants and each other.

Interestingly, Ayn Jalut is also the first battle in history that saw the use of firearms. While it’s believed that the Mongols had first introduced the Chinese invention of gunpowder to the Muslim world in the 13th Century, it was the Mamelukes who deployed several sections of “hand cannoneers” at Ayn Jalut. Although woefully inaccurate by any standard, particularly when compared to the Mongol bow, the weapons made enough noise to frighten enemy horses. And while the Mamelukes use of the hand cannon was not pivotal in the battle, it did show that they tried every possible weapon known to them to try and stop the Mongols.

An example of an early firearm. (Image source: WikiCommons)

As the fighting ranged, casualties mounted. Among them was Kitbuga, the Mongol’s own leader who was reportedly captured and put to death. The Mamelukes fought fiercely, encouraged by their own general, Qutuz who reportedly stripped off his helmet so his men would recognize him and charged headlong into the action. Unlike so many previous opponents of the Mongols, the Mamelukes refused to break and inflicted grievous losses on the enemy. By day’s end, the invaders broke and fled.

With the Mongols vanquished, the Middle East was saved from foreign domination. Five hundred years of Islamic culture and learning – knowledge that would go on to inform Western civilization – was saved. It also cemented the Mamelukes as the premier power in the Middle East.

A generation later, Egypt’s famous warrior slaves would eventually drive the Christians from the region, ending the 200-year experiment of the Crusader states.

For the Mongols, Ain Jalut was the high point of their westward expansion. Within five years, the empire would be fractured by civil war. The age of Mongol supremacy was over.

Jem Duducu is the author of Deus Vult a concise history of the crusades, available now in paperback and is on Twitter and Facebook as @Historygems

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