1260: From Mongol to Mamluk Control in the Near East

The following update has been inspired by an article I read by Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) regarding the year 1260 and the incredibly important consequences that this date had for Europe and the Mediterranean world. Vincent declared this to be a dramatic year which is often overlooked despite the serious political change it brought to more than one civilisation, but particularly the changes to the Mongol empire. I have been in a very “oriental/Asian” mood lately – in fact I am writing this whilst listening to some Mongolian throat singing – so I decided to pick up on this topic which I had looked into a while back, so we can all share the mood.

Vincent’s article was mostly focus on the Battle of Ain Jalut, which took place in the Kezreel valley near Jerusalem the 3rd of September 1260. The result was the clash of two great fighting forces. By this moment in time the Mamluk had consolidated power very quickly in the area of Egypt and extended their area of influence all along the Mediterranean coast in the Near East. This was of great threat to the Mongols, who has already started suffering from this shift in power since their ransacking of Baghdad in 1258, thus ending 500 years of Abbasid rule. The leader of the Mongol army at this moment in time was Hülegü Khan – sometimes referred to as Hulagu Khan, who was the grandson of our dear friend Temujin. Hugalu is responsible for the formation of the Ilkhanate of Persia, which will lay the foundations for modern-day Iran. And he was also the man responsible for the siege of Baghdad and the following conquest of Syria. So, as you can see, it is not like the Mamluks were just going against any whatever general. Now the reasons why with this background the Mongols were caught off foot at Ain Jalut are multiple, and there are more than I could cover in a blog post – with intrinsic details I would leave to military historians, a field that as you know is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, I will give you an outline of the issues at this scenario that leads to the Mamluk control of the area and the reason why Vincent determines this was a decisive moment in history.

First of all, the army that Hugalu was commanding ranked around 20,000 people who needed to eat.  Reuven Amitai-Preiss discusses in his study of this period that this proves to be an issue and leads Hugalu to withdraw from Syria. Traditional viewpoints suggest this was due to the unrest that appears in the central domains of the Mongol empire following the death of Mongke Khan, who was Hugalu’s brother. This opens a window for the classic political manoeuvres of succession that end in civil wars. However, Reuven thinks that this was not so much Hugalu’s concern, but rather the fact that with such a big army, he finds himself in an area where supplies are scarce – Syria is not particularly well-known for its grazing fields! There is an exchange of correspondence between him and Louis IX of France where this is discussed. So, although there is evidence that food and graze for the horse was an issue, the fact that Iran was suddenly very exposed to the potential threat of the leader of the Golden Horde, and Hugalu was without his brother as protector, most likely led him to retreat part of his troops over to the eastern border of the Ilkhanate. In addition, it seems that, despite all his military might, Hugalu also made a strategic mistake: he completely undermined the threat that the rising powers in Egypt supposed to his realm. Turns out that the force that was marching over towards Hugalu on behalf of the Mamluk Sultanate was bigger – current estimates range from around 24,000 to the 100,000s…the reason for this disparity in the sources, however, escapes me. Regardless, the thing is the Khan simply did not take his enemy seriously, and the consequences were devastating. Baibars, commander of the Mamluk army, took advantage of the mobility of their units to exercise hit-and-run tactics to lure the Mongols to where the main force lead by Qutuz, the sultan of the Mamluk dynasty at the time. The first attack was gained by the Mongols and they did hurt the Mamluk forces significantly. However, the retaliation of the enemy was great, and their superior knowledge of the area – and presumably the considerably larger army – eventually turned the tables and destroyed Hugalu’s force. In the process of doing so, his designated deputy commander, Kitbuqa, was captured and his head was cut off and sent over to Cairo as a souvenir and proof of the Mamluk prowess.

The thing is, that with the defeat of the Mongols in 1260, and the growing tensions elsewhere in their domains in what is known as the Berke-Hugalu War (as you can see they really did not get along…), they were never able to secure back the area, with the resurgence of Egyptian power to extents that could be compared to the previous Abbassid rule. In fact, it only took the 30 years for the pressure from the Mamluks to be so prominent in the Near East that the Crusader armies started to give up and evacuate the area. This led the crusading efforts towards the Baltic and left the Mongols in a state of crisis and civil war. Interestingly, and despite his amazing victory, Qutuz did not enjoy his success for much longer. On his way back to Cairo, he was assassinated at El Salheya, seemingly due to the scheming of our ambitious friend Baibars, although it appears several Emir’s unhappy with Qutuz own raise to power and policies may have actually been the cause of his death. In any case, Baibars becomes the new sultan and with him a consistent rule, that lead to the consolidation of Mamluk power in the Levant area, and the defeat of the Seventh Crusade.

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