BETWEEN THE MAMLUKS AND THE MONGOLS

1250–1260

With Tturanshah’s bloody heart at Louis’s feet and his body dumped in the Nile, life was draining out of the Ayyubid dynasty. It was the Mamluk regiment created by al-Salih that had massacred the Christians at Mansurah and saved Egypt. This professional military corps had become the power behind the throne, and during the 1250s, they took it. It was a convoluted process that lasted ten years and involved puppet rulers and a contest between different Mamluk factions. They were the source of discord in Cairo. Its citizens came to fear the Turkish presence in their midst. Aqtay, leader of the Bahriyyah regiment, was murdered by a rival, Qutuz, and in 1254, the Bahriyyah, with Baybars increasingly influential, were forced out of Egypt. For the rest of the decade, Baybars honed his leadership and fighting skills on behalf of different Ayyubid princelings in Syria. In Egypt, Qutuz manipulated claimants to the throne and then declared himself sultan in 1259.

Louis, to his great credit, did not shirk the consequences of his failed crusade. Instead of returning to France, he stayed in the Holy Land for four years, ransoming prisoners from the Egyptian debacle and fortifying the remainder crusader footholds at Acre, Caesarea, Jaffa, and Sidon at considerable personal expense. He established a permanent French regiment in Acre, a small but valuable professional force, and also set about seeking out potential allies against Islam.

For a long time, distorted echoes of the advance of the Mongols had been reaching the Christian West—and with it the hope that their kings might become, or even be, Christians. The evidence was otherwise. By the 1240s, eastern Europe was being shattered by Mongol raids. In 1249, while in Cyprus preparing to launch his crusade, Louis had received envoys from the Mongols in Persia. In reply, he dispatched two Dominican friars (one of whom, André de Longjumeau, spoke relevant languages) to encourage their adherence to the Christian faith and “to show and teach the Tartars [Mongols] what they should believe.”1 The missionaries displayed some imaginative insight into the nomadic condition of their potential converts by taking with them a portable tent chapel, embroidered with scenes from the life of Christ, along with chalices, books, and everything needed for the friars to perform mass. The trip took two years and a journey into the heart of central Asia to the Mongol court. Longjumeau returned to find Louis at Caesarea, overseeing refortification of the city after his failure on the Nile. Longjumeau’s somewhat garbled report contained a brisk corrective to any blithe optimism. The friars had witnessed devastation: ruined cities, great heaps of human bones. They had been sent back with the warning that the Mongol khans put all opponents to the sword: “We point this out to warn you that you cannot have peace unless you have peace with us. So we advise you to send us enough gold and silver each year for us to keep thinking of you as friends. If you do not do this we will destroy you and your people as we did those others we mentioned before.” Submit or die: it was a choice that would soon confront the whole of the Middle East. Louis did not reply.

In 1253, Hülegü Khan, brother of the ruler Möngke Khan and a grandson of Genghis, was ordered to advance west with his army, “as far as the borders of Egypt.” The aim was to crush Islam as a step to Mongol world domination. By 1256, Hülegü was in Persia.

Two years later, the Mongols delivered a shattering blow to the Islamic world, one that echoed down the centuries. In January 1258, Hülegü laid siege to Baghdad, seat of the Abbasid Caliphate for half a millennium, repository of scholarship and culture, intellectual center of the Islamic world. With the aid of Chinese siege engineers, Baghdad’s walls were breached in early February. Surrender made no difference. The city was put to utter destruction; mosques, palaces, libraries, and hospitals destroyed. Estimates of the dead have ranged wildly between 90,000 and 800,000. The Tigris ran black with the ink of thousands of books hurled into the water, their leather covers torn off to make sandals. The last Abbasid caliph was rolled in a blanket and trampled to death by Mongol horsemen. The sack of Baghdad shook Islam to its roots.

In September 1259, Hülegü crossed the Euphrates on pontoon bridges with an enormous army, perhaps 120,000 men, his sights set on Syria. The Christian kingdoms of Outremer were in a quandary. Hethoum I, the Christian king of the principality of Cilician Armenia in southwestern Turkey, accepted the overlordship of the Mongols; it was known that Hülegü’s general Kitbuqa had been converted by Nestorians to Christianity, and Hethoum naively believed that the Mongols wanted to recapture Jerusalem for the Christians. He attempted to persuade other Christian enclaves to join the Mongols; only his son-in-law, Bohemond VI, ruler of the small principality of Antioch and count of Tripoli, responded. When Aleppo fell, the Muslims were put to the sword; Armenian Christians burned the great mosque to the ground. Damascus saw what was coming and just opened its gates to the Mongols in March 1260. The city’s Eastern Christians rejoiced intemperately at the discomfiture of their Muslim neighbors: they rang their bells and drank wine during Ramadan—humiliations that would not be forgotten. Soon, almost all of Syria was in Mongol hands. Most of the Ayyubid princes capitulated, and the Mongols were raiding south to the borders of Egypt. The Islamic world was facing collapse.

Acre was also in turmoil. During the late 1250s, it became the epicenter of the growing commercial rivalry between Genoa and Venice that culminated in a full-blown contest in the city, known as the War of St. Sabas. Ostensibly over ownership of the monastery of that saint, which lay on the boundary between the two Italian communes, the war was a reflection of a wider struggle for trading supremacy across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The competition sucked in almost all the city’s factions and those of surrounding crusader states. The Pisans sided with the Genoese before switching allegiance to Venice; the Hospitallers were for the Genoese, the Templars and the Teutonic Knights for Venice; the powerful barons of Outremer similarly took sides. The year-long contest included sea battles, blockades, and siege warfare on an intimate scale. Within Acre, the two sides bombarded each other at close range with catapults, hurling rocks over the walls of fortified enclosures into their neighbors’ quarter. The chronicles record that during 1258, “all that year there were at least sixty engines, every one of them throwing down onto the city of Acre, onto houses, towers and turrets, and they smashed and laid level with the ground every building they touched.… This meant that nearly all the towers and strong houses in Acre were destroyed, except for religious houses. Twenty thousand men died in this war on one side or the other… the city of Acre was utterly devastated by this war as if it had been destroyed in warfare between Christians and Saracens.” Allowing for the probably exaggerated death toll, the contest wrecked large parts of the city. Houses, warehouses, ships, and defensive towers were destroyed before the Genoese were finally expelled and their quarter flattened. They moved up the coast to Tyre. Acre required major reconstruction; its trade had been damaged, its factional divisions exacerbated, and its manpower diminished.

At the same time, the kingdom of Jerusalem was also starting to feel pressure from the Mongol advance. Hülegü’s true intentions were expressed in an order to a commander in 1257 to “advance as far as the coasts of the sea, and wrest those countries from the hands of the children of France and England.” Acre had resisted Hethoum’s urging to join the Mongol cause. That year, it received a blunt demand to submit. The determination, as expressed by the military orders, was resolute: “Let therefore these Tartars [Mongols]—these demons of Tartarus—come on, and they will find the servants of Christ encamped and ready to do battle.” In February 1260, Hülegü’s general Kitbuqa peremptorily ordered them to dismantle their walls. The leading council in Acre ignored him and strengthened their fortifications, going so far as robbing outlying cemeteries of tombstones in a search for suitable building material. There was no reason to feel positive about voluntary submission or alliance. Both Armenia and Antioch had been reduced to vassal status. When the lord of Sidon launched an intemperate raid, Mongol forces sacked the city and razed it to the ground. The Mongol contempt for other groups was absolute. Calls were sent to Europe for aid, not only out of fear of the Mongols but also with the hope that with Islamic power waning and the Mongols increasingly focused on Egypt, there might actually be opportunities to expand. The claim was that

we duly believe that Jerusalem and the whole kingdom of Jerusalem could, with God’s aid, be obtained easily if those who are called Christians were swiftly and manfully to make ready to assist us. For the Saracens, for the most part, are now gone. And as for the Tartars, if they meet with resistance on the part of the Latins, we believe that the more [opposition] they fear they will find, the sooner they will sheathe their bloodstained swords.

But no crusading ventures resulted. Acre played a distrustful and waiting game.

When the Mongol blow did fall, the crusader states were mere onlookers. In early 1260, Mongol ambassadors arrived at Cairo with a familiar message:

From the King of Kings of the East and West, the Great Khan. To Qutuz 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.

Qutuz had only seized power three months earlier. His regime was fragile but his response resolute. He chopped the Mongol ambassadors in half and hung their heads from the city gates. He prepared to go out to fight rather than await a siege. The lesson of Baghdad had not been forgotten.

The army that Qutuz could potentially raise was massively outnumbered by a factor of ten to one, but luck was on his side. In August of the preceding year, Möngke, the Great Khan of the Mongols, died, exposing one of the structural flaws in the Mongol Empire. Each succession contest inevitably required a return of the leading khans to central Asia. When word reached Hülegü in Syria, he prepared to withdraw the bulk of his men, perhaps 100,000, leaving his general Kitbuqa with a holding force of 10,000 to 12,000. In a letter sent to Louis IX, Hülegü himself claimed that the withdrawal of the bulk of his army, with its tens of thousands of horses, had been a logistical necessity. The fodder of northern Syria had been used up, and it was the Mongol custom to withdraw to more temperate lands in summer. The possibility that the Mongols, once across the Euphrates, were campaigning at their operational limit was a vulnerability the Mamluks would later exploit.

The Mongol advance into Syria had displaced many Muslim refugees and Ayyubid soldiers, who now rallied to Qutuz. And these included Baybars and the Bahriyyah Mamluk contingent, battle-hardened by a decade of fighting for and against various factions in the fragmentation of Syria. Among these ventures had been raids and invasion attempts against Egypt itself. There was long-standing enmity between the Bahriyyah and Qutuz over the murder of their leading emir, Aqtay, but the differences were, for the time being, shelved. The Mongol threat created a coalition of rivals. Baybars obtained a guarantee of safe conduct from Qutuz and brought his Mamluks to Cairo to confront the gathering storm. His troops were a welcome addition.

In July 1260, the Egyptian army rode out with a force of perhaps 12,000 men, probably slightly larger than Kitbuqa’s. The Egyptians consisted of a small corps of Mamluks, local Egyptian soldiers, and refugees. As Qutuz moved up the coastal plain toward Acre, he decided to ask for Christian cooperation. Within Acre, there were intense discussions on how to respond. Many were in favor. The sacking of Sidon and the intemperate Mongol threats had rattled the Christians. Qutuz was the third sultan of Egypt in six years; there was no reason to believe that he could provide a threatening stability. They could, at that moment, hardly distinguish this latest ruler from the more easy-going Ayyubids, who had been valuable trading partners. A joint campaign might ease the Mongol pressure too. However, the grand master of the Teutonic Order, Hanno von Sangershausen, argued vehemently against any cooperation and eventually talked the authorities out of it. It was unwise to risk Christian lives, and in the aftermath of a Muslim victory, Qutuz might turn on them; better to conserve their strength and watch two rivals fight it out.

The Christians may have opted for neutrality, but they hedged their bets by granting Qutuz a safe conduct. He could pass through their territory without fear of attack. For three days, the Egyptian army camped in orchards outside the city walls and were provided with provisions. There was nervousness in the town. The leading emirs entered Acre and some kind of compact was made. Among them, according to the Christian sources, was “a great emir called Bendocar, who later became sultan.” The Arabic sources claimed that Baybars came in disguise as a spy to gain information to store against a future opportunity. While camped outside the walls of Acre, Qutuz delivered a powerful speech to his increasingly hesitant collection of troops, now more than wary of the power of the Mongols, to whip up their courage: the future of Islam hung in the balance. Baybars was sent ahead with the vanguard to scout out the disposition of the enemy.

Qutuz and his army met the Mongols at Ayn Jalut—the appropriately named Goliath’s Spring, where David was said to have slain the giant—thirty miles southeast of Acre on September 3, 1260, for a contest that has been claimed as epochal in world history. The central corps of each army, supported by allies and unreliable supporters, was similar. It was a battle between matching detachments of Turco-Mongolian horse archers from the Eurasian steppes, employing similar tactics: mounted attacks, feigned retreat, and mobile encirclement. Baybars led the vanguard charging the Mongols, alternately advancing and retreating. Twice the Mongols came close to crushing Qutuz’s army. At the height of the battle, with the situation critical, Qutuz took off his helmet to show his face to his men and shouted, “O Islam, O God, help your servant Qutuz against the Mongols!” With the red and yellow banners of the Mamluk detachments rallying the men, he was able to stem the rout, regroup, and shatter the enemy. Kitbuqa was killed in the heat of the battle and the Mongols were slaughtered. Those who escaped were pursued by Baybars and beaten again.

It was not the first defeat that the Mongols had incurred nor did it end their ambitions in Syria. Theirs was a relatively small army that had unwisely underestimated an adversary similar to itself. Hülegü considered it a local setback that he intended to redress. The Mamluks had not confronted the full force of Mongol military might; a further riposte was inevitable, yet it had unforeseen consequences. Qutuz’s rallying cry was prophetic of the ability of Turkish-speaking peoples, nomads from the Asian steppes, to unify Islam. The battle of Ayn Jalut conferred prestige and legitimacy on these outsiders.

Qutuz was not destined to enjoy the fruits of victory. Maybe he had made overgenerous promises to his leading emirs—including the offer of the governorship of Aleppo to Baybars—which he failed to keep. In the aftermath of Ayn Jalut, the distrust between the Mamluks of Qutuz and those of the Bahriyyah bubbled to the surface again, and so it was probably just a question of which side struck first. The Bahriyyah had never forgiven Qutuz for the murder of Aqtay. On the way back across the desert to Cairo, Qutuz expressed a desire to stop and engage in his favorite sport of hare coursing. He turned off the road, accompanied by his emirs. When the hare had been caught, it signaled the Bahriyyah contingent to make their move. The most likely version of events is something to the effect that Baybars—or perhaps another emir—approached the sultan to ask a favor. Baybars moved to kiss his hand. This was the signal. Baybars firmly gripped Qutuz to prevent him drawing a weapon. A second emir stabbed him with a sword. Qutuz was finished off with arrows. Baybars did not act alone nor was he most likely the one who struck first; as with the murder of Turanshah, history was possibly rewritten to favor him. In the process of election that followed, Baybars claimed primacy on the basis that he was the one who had struck Qutuz down. Although the position of Mamluk sultan came to depend on a supporting confederacy of leading emirs, Baybars was to set about establishing unfettered personal rule.

From Acre, the murder of Qutuz must have looked like just another sign of the welcome dysfunctionality of the Islamic world—one ruler following another in a bloodbath of fragmenting petty kingdoms. The Christians breathed a sigh of relief. The Mongols were defeated, Egypt and Syria remained divided. What they did not know was that with Baybars, a new Turkish dynasty would unify the Islamic Middle East with an uncompromising commitment to jihad not seen since the days of Saladin, nor that the Mongols, despite sorties, would never return with sufficient desire to provide a counterbalance to Baybars or create the space to play off two more powerful opponents. For Acre particularly, the dislocation caused by the Mongols and the rise of the Mamluks had severe economic consequences. With Baghdad ruined, the long-range trade routes that had ended at Acre and Tripoli moved north. The great days of economic prosperity were over, and the lords of Outremer were no longer so rich. Increasingly, they leased or sold their castles and lordships to the military orders, which would become the only viable defense of the Christian Holy Land. It was Baybars who would slowly squeeze their room to breathe. His stealthy reconnoiter of Acre was to be put to good use.

Baybars himself never forgot the allegiances made by some Christians with the Mongol foes, nor the burned mosques. The remaining crusader states were to confront a stable, unified Islamic dynasty and an unrelenting foe in Baybars, who would rule for seventeen years. The new sultan was said to be short of stature, broad chested, with a powerful voice. In one of his blue eyes there was an unusual white fleck. When he was first sold as a slave, he had fetched a cheap price—one purchaser promptly returned him to the auctioneer as spoiled goods. It was said that there was something evil in his eye. He rarely blinked.