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750th Anniversary of One of the Most Neglected Battles in History/The Battle of Ayn Jalut September 3, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in 1260, Ayn Jalut, Baybars, history, Hulegu Khan, Kitbuqa, Mamluks, medieval period, Mongols.
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On September 3rd of 1260, one of the most important battles of history occurred. Considering the global importance of this battle and its result, I also maintain it may be one of the most neglected battles in history. The conflict involved Muslim Mamluks from Egypt against Mongols under the rulership of Hulegu Khan, founder of the Il-Khan dynasty, grandson of Genghis Khan. Mongols had never lost a major battle. They had depopulated Central Asia during the rule of Genghis Khan, and Hulegu’s forces had more recently reduced Baghdad from one of the world’s great cities to a ruined town surrounded by rotting corpses. A generation earlier, the Mongols had defeated Christians as well, overrunning Russia, utterly destroying the great medieval city of Kiev the way they would devastate Baghdad, as well as overrunning significant portions of Eastern and Central Europe.

After destroying Baghdad in early 1258, the Mongols threatened the very existence of Islam, moving south, taking Aleppo and Damascus, and looking further southwest to Egypt, maybe even to the rest of North Africa and the Mediterranean. They believed they were destined to rule the world and even the third generation of Genghis Khan’s sons/grandsons were fanatically committed to that purpose. They appeared to most in the eastern Mediterranean to be invincible, to be the inevitable ruling power of the region. Many Ayyubid princes, descendants of the legendary champion of Islam, Saladin, submitted to Mongol authority, along with the Christian states in Georgia and Armenia, and including even the Crusader state of the Principality of Antioch.

But in Egypt, Sultan Qutuz, a slave-soldier who had recently seized power, decided to defy the Mongols. He was aware the bulk of Hulegu’s forces had withdrawn from Syria to Azerbaijan to be ready for involvement in the Mongol succession. The Great Khan, Hulegu’s brother Mongke, had died a few months before. So Qutuz sensed an opportunity. He rallied like-minded Muslim warriors, including a bitter rival, Baybars, to move out of Egypt to take on the reduced Mongol forces under the command of the Mongol general Kitbuqa. The Muslim forces negotiated passage through the declining Crusader state, The Kingdom of Acre, and the two forces found and met each other at Ayn Jalut, also known as the Springs of Goliath.

On September 2nd, 1260, Baybars, commanding the vanguard of the Egyptian Mamluk forces, found the Mongols and fought a brief skirmish as his forces retreated. The next day, Mongols and Mamluks fought the main battle. The Mamluks drew the Mongols in with a feigned retreat, ironically a favorite tactic of the Mongols. After the setback of being momentarily fooled by their own tactic, the Mongols fought back, overwhelming the Muslim flank. It looked like the Mongols would gain victory after all. But Qutuz rallied his men with an impassioned plea, and that, along with a key defection of a Muslim prince from the ranks of the Mongols, handed the advantage to the Mamluk forces. Kitbuqa was killed, and Syria lay open to the Mamluks.

The Battle of Ayn Jalut led to the beginning of the Mamluk state in Egypt, a state that would rule significant areas of the Middle East until the early 16th Century, a state that would complete the expulsion of the western Christian “crusaders” from the Middle East by the end of the 13th Century, giving Muslims the final victory in that series of religious battles known as “the crusades.” But most importantly, the perception of Mongol invincibility ended. The zenith of the Mongol influence was established by this battle. The Battle of Ayn Jalut changed the world.

The argument can be made that the battle was an effect more than a cause, that Mongol decline was inevitable. But almost any large event in history can be seen that way. Mongol decline, through overextension and dynastic rivalry probably was inevitable. But the Battle of Ayn Jalut was the specific moment when a defiant, courageous leader chose to test whether the “inevitable” Mongol decline had arrived. It didn’t have to arrive at that time. Submitting Egypt to the Mongols was an easier, safer decision, the way the Ayyubid prince al-Nasir Yusif, ruler of Damascus, had abandoned that city to advancing Mongols and eventually submitted to them himself when taken into custody. If the “inevitable” decline had begun at a different place and time, history would have been different. So this deserves the designation I have suggested—of one of the most neglected battles in history.

The Battle of Ayn Jalut is the setting for the climactic final event of my novel, The Sultan and the Khan, follow-up to my novel about the Third Crusade, The Swords of Faith (now available wherever books are sold). The events leading up to the Battle of Ayn Jalut offer significant, surprising drama. Christianity mixes into the conflict in surprising and exotic ways. Mortal enemies become crucial allies in pursuit of larger goals. The Battle of Ayn Jalut and the events surrounding it make a great story, as well as constituting a key event in history. The story is populated by colorful characters, clashing perceptions of the world, and vicious, ruthless brutality allowing few options for the contending sides between victory and destruction.