Battle of Ain Jalut: Mamluks Beat Mongols at Goliath’s Spring
September 2nd, 2010 by Siggurdsson
Today in Military History: September 3, 1260 Today’s spotlight conflict is another of those macro-historical battles that changed the course of human history. The Mongols conquered an empire that threatened all of human civilization. A nation ruled by slave-warriors met them in battle near Jerusalem, and beat the Asian horsemen at their own game… Background to the Battle In the 30+ years since the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire continued to expand. In eastern Asia, nearly all of China and Korea fell to the steppe armies. The Abbasid Caliphate was conquered in the Middle East. [For an earlier BurnPit post, kindly see February 12, 2010: “Mongol Siege of Baghdad Ends, Pillage Begins.”] To the west, Russia was invaded, Hungary and Poland raided and their armies defeated. Finally, in about 1258 the Ayyubid Dynasty of Syria was conquered by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis and chosen general of Mongke Khan, the reigning “Great Khan.” The next victim on the Tatars list of kingdoms to conquer was the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. However, in 1259 fate stepped in, as it always seemed to do with the Mongols. In that year, Mongke Khan died during the siege of a Song Chinese city (various chronicles state he died either from disease or a projectile from a Chinese counter-siege weapon). Under Mongolian custom, all princes of the royal blood were required to immediately return to their homeland and select a new “Great Khan.” Word of Mongke Khan’s death did not reach Syria until the next year. Taking the bulk of his army with him, Hulagu left between one to three tumans (10,000-30,000 men) behind to continue his policy of subjugation. Their commander was Kitbuqa Noyan, a Nestorian Christian Turk, who had the complete confidence of Hulagu. Prior to leaving for Mongolia, Hulagu sent several emissaries to Kotuz, ruler of the Bahri mamluk sultanate of Egypt, with a message. It stated: From the King of Kings of the East and West, the Great Khan. To Kotuz 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. Messages similar to this one had persuaded many other rulers to submit to the Mongol yoke. However, Sultan Kotuz was made of sterner stuff. He killed the emissaries (one historian says he cut them in half at the waist) then beheaded them, displaying their heads on one of the city gates of Cairo. He then proceeded to gather his forces to confront the Mongol army that would soon be marching to Egypt. Historical Background: Mamluks Mamluks were a part of the military forces of Muslim rulers from the ninth through the nineteenth century. [The word comes from the Arabic “mamālīk” meaning “owned.”] The Koran states that the only legitimate sources for slaves are the children of slaves and prisoners of war. Mamluks were slaves bought from certain conquered areas of the Middle East and western Asia, primarily Circassians and Armenians from the Caucasus, and Kipchak Turks north of the Black Sea. These slaves were forcibly converted to Islam, then trained as cavalry soldiers. Mamluks had to follow the dictates of furusiyya, a code that included values such as courage and generosity, and also cavalry tactics, horsemanship, archery and the like. [The code of furusiyya was very similar to the European concept of chivalry.] When their training was completed, they were officially discharged and freed. However, they still owed a personal bond to the sultan and all mamluks continued their service with their former masters. The mamluks eventually achieved a heightened status in Egyptian society. Many Egyptians sold themselves into slavery in order to become mamluk soldiers. Many Muslim rulers sought mamluk slave-soldiers because they were loyal to their new masters personally, rather than to their tribes or families. The mamluk slave-troops were strangers of the lowest possible status who could not conspire against the ruler and who could easily be punished if they caused trouble, making them a great military asset. Every Mamluk 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. In addition to their military duties, many mamluks were skilled administrators, earning positions of trust and power. In fact, in the year 1249, the sultan of Egypt died, but his wife Shajar al-Durr (which means “string of pearls” in Arabic) kept the news quiet for four months, issuing orders in her dead husband’s name. She turned the reins of state over to her step-son, who was not up to the task of defending the realm, so he was assassinated a month later. At that point, Shajar married Izz al-Din Aybak, who founded the first Mamluk sultanate of Egypt. Early Campaign Moves With the bulk of the Mongol army traveling back home to settle dynastic problems, Kitbuqa resumed Hulagu’s campaign against the Egyptian sultanate in August of 1260. He led his 20,000-man force from the city of Baalbek in modern-day Lebanon, traveling southward. He kept his army east of the Sea of Galilee and the northern tributary of the Jordan River. He sent small raiding parties throughout Palestine, attacking Jerusalem and possibly as far south as Gaza, the very gateway into Egypt proper. During this time period, Kitbuqa also tried to form an alliance with the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem, which was now centered on the coastal cities of Acre, Tyre and Sidon. Some of the Crusader leaders had made their homage to Hulagu, and had even sent some soldiers to join his army prior to Hulagu’s trip back to his homeland. [There is no evidence that any European Christians were in Kitbuqa’s force.] However, Pope Alexander IV had forbidden any further contact with the Tatars. Even so, the Crusaders realized that the Mongols now posed the bigger threat to their existence than did the nearby Mamluks of Egypt. Sultan Kotuz gathered together his available forces, which totaled about 12,000 soldiers altogether. [Some historians have exaggerated the size of the Mamluk force to 120,000, but this is probably the result of a mis-translation of the original source.] In addition, to his Mamluk heavy cavalry, he also recruited some Bedouins, some Turcoman Mamluks and Arabs who had deserted the Mongol forces, and members of the semi-barbarous Hawwarah tribe of Libya. In a calculated and risky move, Kotuz sent emissaries to the Crusaders, asking for permission to camp and re-supply near one of their cities before attack the Tatars. On July 26, 1260 Kotuz and his force began marching toward Palestine to meet Hulagu’s army. In late August, the Crusaders contacted the Mamluks, and gave them permission to camp near the city of Acre, to rest and re-provision their forces. Several days later, scouts reported to Kotuz that the Mongols had crossed the Jordan River and were headed toward Egypt. Kotuz broke camp and head southeast to intercept the Mongols. The Mamluk force managed to get ahead of the advancing Tatars. Kotuz and his emir Baibars, his lead general, selected the Plain of Esdraelon to the north of Jerusalem as the chosen ground for their fight. The plain was dominated by Mount Gilboa to the south, and the hills of Galilee to the north. The hills were cut through with a variety of deep valleys. The most singular landmark of the plain was the Wadi Ain Jalut, the “Spring of Goliath.” [It was believed by both Christians and Muslims that this fresh-water well was the site of the Biblical encounter between David and Goliath.] Kotuz arranged the bulk of his force near Ain Jalut, giving command of this vanguard to Baibars. He then concealed units of his Mamluk heavy cavalry in valleys of the surrounding hills, out of sight of the Mongols. Before the start of the fighting, Kotuz gave a speech to his men, which historians said brought tears to the eyes of his men. He 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 composition and even actual size of the Mongol force is very speculative. There is evidence to suggest that besides regular Mongol horsemen, Kitbuqa’s army also included Armenian horsemen, Christians who had submitted to Hulagu within the previous years. There were also probably some Syrian Mamluks, who joined the Tatar army when the major cities of Syria surrendered to Hulagu. If Kitbuqa’s army had been launching raids throughout Palestine prior to the final encounter, his two toumans were probably understrength and numbered between 10,000 and 15,000 effectives. The Battle 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. For several hours, the Mamluk army held off the attacks of the Mongols, using a variety of hit-and-run attacks between showers of arrows to keep the Asiatic horsemen off balance. Finally, Baibars ordered his command to retreat in the direction of the springs. The Mongols rode triumphantly in pursuit, victory seemingly 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, Kotuz ordered his Mamluk reserve cavalry out from its hiding places in the foothills and slopes and against the flanks of the Tatar army. In a matter of moments, the Mongols were completely surrounded. [Baibars is credited with forming the battleplan which tamed the Mongols, as it was said he had grown up in the region. The Mamluk emir also had the additional knowledge of Mongol strategy and tactics, as he had once been captured and enslaved by the Tatars as a youth, before behind sold to Egypt] Realizing that he was now committed to a battle with the entire Mamluk army, Kitbuqa ordered his heavy cavalry to charge the Muslim left flank, where some of the lesser Mamluk troops were likely place. The flank initially held, wavered, held again but eventually was turned, cracking under the ferocity of the Mongol assault. As the Mamluk left wing threatened to dissolve and it appeared the entire army might be routed, Sultan Kotuz 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 loud, stentorian tones. His shaken troops rallied and the flank held. As the line solidified, Kotuz 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. He was quickly swarmed and captured by nearby Mamluk soldiers. As the battle continued, he was taken to the Sultan amidst the sounds of battle. Kotuz was ecstatic at this turn of events. According to Muslim histories, Kotuz said to the captured Tatar commander, "After overthrowing so many dynasties you are caught at last I see.” Kitbuqa, for his part, was still defiant, replying, "If you kill me now, when Hulegu Khan hears of my death, all the country from Azerbaijan to Egypt will be trampled beneath the hoofs of Mongol horses." In a move calculated to insult his captor, Kitbuqa then added "All my life I have been a slave of the khan. I am not, like you, a murderer of my master." Kotuz then ordered Kitbuqa executed and his head sent to Cairo as proof of the Muslim victory. With their leader gone, the remaining Mongols fled 7 miles 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, as they continued to run until they crossed the Euphrates River. Within days the victorious Kotuz re-entered Damascus in triumph, and the Egyptians moved on to liberate Aleppo and the other major cities of Syria. The Mongols never seriously threatened Egypt again. Footnote #1: This battle is credited with one of the first uses of “hand cannons” in history. These explosives (called “midfa” by Arabic sources) were employed by the Mamluks in order to frighten the Mongol horses and cavalry and cause disorder in their ranks. Footnote #2: Sultan Kotuz and his emir Baibars had struck a deal prior to the battle, wherein Kotuz promised Baibars the governorship of Syria once the Mongols were defeated. When Kotuz gave Syria to another Mamluk, Baibars assassinated Kotuz before he reached Egypt and assumed the sultanate of Egypt. He died in 1277 under mysterious circumstances. Footnote #3: With the defeat of the Mongols, the Mamluks re-conquered their territory, even expanding their sultanate on the Red Sea shores of the Arabian peninsula.
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