It’s small and largely unknown in the wider circles of historical study. But, boy oh boy, was it important.
Name: The Battle of Ain Jalut, sometimes spelled “Ayn Jalut”, Arabic for “Springs of Goliath”
The War: The Mamluk-Mongol War in Palestine of the late 13th century
When: 3 September 1260
Where: A spring in the Jezreel Valley, central Palestine
Forces/Commanders: Circa 10’000-20’000 Mamluks under Sultan Said ad-Din Qutuz against an indeterminate amount (between 8’000 and 20’000, see below) of Mongols, with Georgian and Armenian contingents, under Kitbuqa Noyan
You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee?…Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains…Your prayers to God will not avail against us. We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations…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.
–Mongol envoys to Cairo, sent before the battle, demanding surrender. They were all executed.
“Wa Islamah! Wa Islamah!” (“Oh my Islam! Oh my Islam!”)
The Mongols were on a roll.
Under Genghis, Ogedai, Guyuk and Mongke Khan, they had invaded and largely conquered Central Asia, the Caucasus region, China, Russia and Eastern Europe. And now, they began to look at the Middle East.
Persia fell, then the Hashshasins, then the Abbayids. Those who submitted to the approaching armies were spared. Those who resisted were massacred, most notably at Baghdad in 1258, one of the most tragic city-sacks in recorded history. Even Antioch, one of the tiny remaining Crusader Kingdoms, had submitted to Mongol authority.
The last major Islamic power in the region was the Mamluk Sultanate, based out of Cairo. Up to that point, the main geopolitical struggle was with the Crusader Kingdoms clinging to life on the Mediterranean shores. Some of the Christians thought the Mongols could be a worthwhile ally against the Mamluks, though the Mongol opinion of the Christians was hardly on an even basis.
Before the Mongols could begin their campaign into Palestine, the death of Mongke forced the army’s commander, Hulagu, to return home as per tradition (not the last time the tradition would twart Mongol invasions). He left his best general, Kitbuqu, in command but took a sizable part of the army with him.
The Mongols has sent the usual threats of annihilation, but these had been rejected by Sultan Qutuz. Now, the Mongols began to advance down through Palestine, skirting the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was late August, 1260.
Any potential Christian-Mongol alliance soon fell to the wayside after a number of incidents led to the Mongol sack of Sidon, within the Kingdom of Jerusalem (not to mention Papal condemnation of the idea). Instead, Jerusalem choose an outward face of neutrality.
However, recognizing that the Mongols did not have Christianity’s interest at heart, the Crusaders took the odd step of allowing the advancing Mamluks to march and camp within their territory. With the Mongols marching through the Jezreel Valley, Qutuz went out to meet them.
The Mamluks had a crucial advantage with their knowledge of the local terrain. Baibars, one of the Mamluk commanders, was from the area in question and with his knowledge, Qutuz formulated the strategy that would beat the previously invincible Mongols.
He split his force in two, putting the larger in hiding among the highlands, with a smaller contingent, under Baibars, to engage and bait the Mongols into pursuing them.
Baibars men engaged the Mongol army, with small probing attacks and retreats. Following several indecisive hours, Baibars sprung his master stroke, feigning a headlong retreat into the highlands. The Mongols fell for it. Advancing into the hilly, tree-filled area, they were ambushed by the majority of the Mamluk force.
With their heavy cavalry and archers, the Mamluks soon had the Mongol army surrounded. Desperate, the steppe men attempted a breakout, focusing their strength on the Mamluk left flank.
The force of the assault nearly broke the flank. Qutuz, surveying the battle from the rear, throw aside his helmet and charged headlong towards this crucial point, screaming “Wah Islamah! Wah Islamah!” The left regained some of its spirit and held on.
Soon, most of the Mongol army were retreating. Others, including Kitbuqa, fought to the death.
There has been some confusion about the size of the Mongol force. Some historians put at an even strength with the Mamluks, while others have put forward the idea that it was just a small part of Hulaga’s larger army. The distinction has its importance, as any army so outnumbered in unfamiliar terrain could not have been expected to prevail. Still, that should not take away from its decisiveness, as I will now discuss.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
The Mongol advance into the Middle East was dealt a crippling blow. Defeated again the following year at Homs, they were pushed out of Palestine and Syria by the Mamluk forces. With the typical internecine conflicts engulfing the Mongols thousands of miles away, the Khans could not gather a big enough force to gain vengeance.
The closest they came was an attempted invasion by Hulagu two years later, which failed due to the intervention of another Mongol leader, who had recently converted to Islam.
As for the Mamluks, Qutuz didn’t get long to celebrate his momentous victory, being assassinated on the way back to Cairo. Bairbars succeeded him, having probably led the plot.
The Mamluks were able to use one of the Mongols favoured tactics – the false retreat that leads to an ambush – against them. Their use of local knowledge and natural terrain to gain an advantage was exemplary and Qutuz maintained his mens morale with his reckless charge.
Ain Jalut is also one of the first recorded battles which showcased the use of hand cannons, a precursor to small firearms. These midfa, as they were called in Arabic, were used not so much as an anti-personnel weapon, but as a device to wound and scare the Mongol cavalry, creating disorder in their ranks.
Perhaps the most of any battle. Ain Jalut was the first defeat of any significance that the Mongols suffered in their advance outward from central Asia. Following it, the Mongols fell apart into separate nations and kingdoms, and never retained their former power.
It’s important to note that Ain Jalut was far from the sole cause of that, but it had an immense effect. Muslim (and Christian) morale skyrocketed, as the previously invincible Mongols had to retreat. The Mongols, if they had won, would almost certainly have wiped out both the Mamluk state and the Crusader Kingdoms. From there, the road through North Africa would have been wide open. Even with the trouble back home, they had no serious opposition in front of them after Cairo. It is not beyond possibly that they could have penetrated as far as the Iberian peninsula, as the Caliphate had done previously. Other authors, especially Cecelia Holland in the excellent What If? have outlined a European world where the Mongol conquests destroy every facet of life we take for granted today.
It’s not a modern world where we’re all speaking Mongolion, but one with no literature, art or culture that began pre 13th century.
If the western peoples hadn’t started getting their act together, starting with Ain Jalut, it could have become a reality.
Ain Jalut began a series of defeats and set backs for the Mongols on nearly all fronts of their advance. Within a generation, they would be focusing their efforts on maintaining several smaller, more manageable, empires. We can trace that retreat to Ain Jalut.
In National Consciousness
It’s hard for any nation to lay claim to Ain Jalut considering the vast political changes in the region. Both Qutuz and Baibars are revered within Islam for their roles in defending the Mamluk Sultanate with many mosques named in their honor. Though, as I have found (or rather, failed to find) during my research of this post, few visual representations of the battle exist.
Modern Mongolia does, as you would expect, venerate and idolize the Khans of that era and all they achieved. In that respect, they have little time for the few defeats.
Ain Jalut’s true place is in the world of strategic and macro-historical study, as a crucial turning point in the geo-political development of Eurasia.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.