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Monday, October 17, 2022

Mongols and Mamluks: The Changing Face of the Middle East

While Louis’ diplomatic successes continued the long tradition of securing survival for the crusader states via truces with the fragmented Saracen territories threatening them, the very foundations on which such truces had been built were melting away. A decade before King Louis’ surrender, a new Asiatic power had intruded upon the already complex scene: the Mongols. 


The Mongols were unlike any previous invader in that they flatly rejected compromise and peace, demanding complete and unconditional surrender instead. When the pope asked why they were invading without provocation or grievance, the Mongols replied that they ‘did not understand his words’ — they conquered because they could and because ‘God’ had given the entire earth to them.[i] The savagery and brutality of Mongol conquests were unprecedented; they terrified Christians and Muslims alike. 

The Mongols invaded and laid waste to the Rus between 1236 and 1242, the climax being the capture and sack of Kiev in 1240. A year later, the Mongols obliterated a German army at the Battle of Leignitz and defeated the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohi. Further expansion into Europe was only prevented by internal rivalries among Mongol leaders, which ultimately resulted in them shifting their focus to Asia Minor and the Middle East. In 1243 they crushed the Seljuks at the Battle of Kosedag, leading to the conquest of Anatolia, Armenia and Georgia. The King of Cilician Armenia and the Prince of Antioch surrendered their independence and did homage to the Mongols to avoid destruction. In 1256, after a pause to deal with internal issues, the Mongols advanced again, this time eliminating the stronghold of the Assassins. In 1258, they captured and pillaged Baghdad in one of the most shocking excesses of violence known to history. The savage sack was characterised by wanton destruction that obliterated wealth as well as priceless cultural monuments and treasures, including mosques, palaces, hospitals and no less than thirty-six libraries. The Mongols executed the Caliph, allegedly by rolling him into a rug and trampling him with their horses, thereby ending the 500-year-old caliphate. The number of civilians slaughtered is estimated at over 100,000 and possibly twice that, leaving the city a shattered and depopulated ruin for generations afterwards. Two years later, the Mongols captured and sacked first Aleppo and then Damascus. The Ayyubid empire had been destroyed, and many of the survivors fled to the territories controlled by the Franks for safety. 

The Mongols, meanwhile, turned their eyes to the rich prize of Egypt. They sent ambassadors demanding submission, but the new rulers of Egypt, the Mamluks, were not inclined to submit. Instead, they sought an alliance with the Franks. The Franks declined to participate in a joint offensive but granted the Mamluks permission to march through Frankish territory to confront the Mongols. On 3 September 1260, the Mamluks met the Mongols southwest of the Sea of Galilee in what had once been part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at the Battle of Ain Jalut. After hours of fighting, the Mamluks feigned flight and lured the Mongols into a trap. The Mongol army was obliterated, and the Mongol threat receded. Yet in its place was a new, dynamic and triumphant power: the Mamluks. 

The Mamluks were slaves, purchased as children and trained rigorously to become elite troops. Ethnically they were predominantly Caucasian, increasingly drawn from the Turcomen tribes inhabiting the region north of the Black Sea, but they were indoctrinated in Islam from the time of their capture. Their education included rigorous religious instruction by Islamic scholars but did not extend much beyond religion. As they grew up, the amount of time spent training for war increased. They were drilled in horsemanship and mounted combat with the lance, sword and bow. They also learned hunting, wrestling, polo and rudimentary veterinary skills. Although freed at maturity, they remained soldiers for life. They made up the bodyguards and elite units of the various Ayyubid princes and emirs for generations. They were famed and feared for their loyalty, devotion to duty and religious orthodoxy. The latter did not stop them from murdering each other as unscrupulously as they broke treaties and broke their word. 

The Mamluk regime in Egypt had been established through the assassination of Turan Shah — before the eyes of King Louis and the other French captives. It is described in detail by the eyewitness Joinville: 

[Turan Shah’s] bodyguard hacked and slashed… . one of these men gave him [the sultan] a lance-thrust in the ribs. He continued his flight with the weapon trailing from the wound… . So they came and killed him, not far from the place where our galley lay…  Faress-Eddin-Octay cut him open with his sword and took the heart out of the body. Then, with his hands dripping with blood, he came to our king and said: ‘What will you give me now that I have killed your enemy?[ii]

Furthermore, the Mamluks were not a dynasty, rather they were a professional elite. This meant that power belonged to the strongest. The initial beneficiary of the assassination of Turan Shah was a certain Aybeg, but he was murdered on 10 April 1257. His son briefly ruled, but by 12 November 1259, he had been replaced by the Sultan Qutuz. The latter won the battle of Ain Jalut, only to be stabbed to death shortly afterwards by a group of his emirs led by al-Din Baybars. 
Baybars managed to retain power for seventeen years from 1260-1277. He controlled both Syria and Egypt, but unlike his Ayyubid predecessors, he did not do so as the ruler of a loose coalition of princes and emirs whose loyalty had to be courted, but rather as the commander-in-chief of a highly centralised state dedicated to war. This state depended on the support of the religious elites to keep the government functioning, and it purchased their loyalty with religious bigotry. 
Yet there was no question in anyone’s minds that the Mamluks were usurpers — and former slaves. To stay in power, they needed to establish new legitimacy, and as soldiers, the most obvious means of doing so was to declare war, or more specifically, ‘jihad’. The Mamluks employed ‘jihad’ to distract their subjects from their illegitimacy and unite them against a ‘common enemy’. As a result, the Mamluk period was characterised by increased hostility to non-Muslims inside and outside the territories they controlled. Religious minorities in the Mamluk states, particularly Christians, suffered increasingly harsh discrimination and oppression. Once the Mongol threat was banished, the Mamluks turned their attention to active ‘jihad’ against the crusader states with the stated intention, as recorded by Baybars’  biographer Shafi bin Ali, of ‘waging war until no more Franks remain on the surface of the earth’.[iii] 
Breaking with the Ayyubids and placing religion above economic expediency, Baybar’s objective was the absolute destruction of the crusader states, including their economies. He pursued military tactics that explicitly targeted economic assets, destroying crops, orchards, livestock, aqueducts and other infrastructure. He slaughtered or enslaved the population of the territories he conquered, making no distinction between Franks (Latin Christians) and native Christians. When he succeeded in taking cities, as he did in 1265 with the capture of Caesarea, Haifa and Arsuf, he destroyed them so they could not be used as bridgeheads for future crusades — and in so doing, destroyed their economic value to his own state as well as the revenue that derived from them to his people.  
Having split the Kingdom of Jerusalem in half with the above conquests, Baybars next attacked the Templar fortress of Safed in 1266. Despite having promised to spare the inhabitants if they surrendered, he massacred them. In 1268, he captured Jaffa and again brutally sacked and razed the city after slaughtering and enslaving the population. The same year, he took Antioch. He ordered the gates of the city closed while his troops slaughtered every single living thing inside — and then sent a letter bragging about his brutality to the Prince of Antioch, who had been absent when the attack and sack occurred. This letter was very long, very detailed and very triumphant in tone. Below is only a tiny excerpt:

 The churches themselves were razed from the face of the earth, every house met with disaster, the dead were piled up on the seashore like islands of corpses… . You would have seen your knights prostrate beneath the horses’ hooves … your women sold four at a time and bought for a dinar of your own money … your Muslim enemy trampling on the place where you celebrate mass, cutting the throats of monks, priests and deacons upon the altars … your palace lying unrecognizable. [iv]

 The scale of destruction shocked the world, including the Muslim world. It was recognised at the time as the worst massacre in crusading history, similar in scope to the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols a decade earlier. It also ended the economic prosperity of the city, turning it into a ghost town for generations to come — indeed, reducing its status to that of a provincial backwater to this day. 

In 1271, Baybers captured the illustrious Hospitaller fortress of Crac de Chevaliers and the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights in the Holy Land, Montfort. In 1277, he died of poisoning; whether it was accidental is impossible to know. After two years of vicious infighting among the Mamluk emirs, Qalawun emerged as the new sultan. He had pushed aside two of Baybars’ sons to get there and immediately faced a revolt from a fellow Mamluk emir in Damascus, which he put down militarily only to ally himself with his rival to defeat a new Mongol threat. The Mongols were again defeated at the Battle of Homs on 29 October 1281. Thereafter, Qalawun turned his attention to dismantling the remnants of the crusader states with a combination of threats, extortion and outright force.

[i] See note 6, Jotischky, Crusading and the Crusader States, 238.

[ii] See note 7, Joinville, The Life of Saint Louis, 252.

[iii] See note 4, Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades, 168.

[iv] Baybars’ letter, translated by Francesco Gabrieli in Arab Historians of the Crusades (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), 311.


The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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1 comment:

  1. Yes, being united under a single commander can work wonders.

    A lesson the "Christian kings" never seemed to learn.

    Another excellent lesson, Professor!


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