The Last Throw of the Dice

The Battle of Wadi al-Khaznadar, also known as the Third Battle of Homs, was a Mongol victory over the Mamluks in 1299.

Mongol operations in the Levant, 1299-1303, showing the location of the Battle of Wadi al-Khaznadar (3rd Homs)

After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the Holy Land, shock waves traveled through Europe. Every bishop summoned the faithful to tell them that Christ’s Sepulchre had been irretrievably lost to them. Among the people there was no rage, only a vague sense of loss. For two hundred years they had been hearing about the Crusades, their triumphs, and their failures, and they had little emotion left for the dead who lay buried among the ruins of Acre. The days of the Crusades were over, and they had other matters to attend to. Moreover, they were grateful that they were no longer to be taxed to pay for the Crusades.

But the Crusades were not yet entirely a thing of the past. To end the story with the fall of Acre is to leave out the last brilliant flaring-up of the Crusader spirit, the sudden emergence of a new, heaven-sent opportunity to establish God’s kingdom firmly in the Holy Land. The Mamelukes might seem to be in total control; they had reduced most of the seacoast cities to rubble; they stabled their horses in Jerusalem; but they were not in any practical sense ruling over Palestine, which had become a desert. There remained Armenia, which would survive for 175 years, almost forgotten by the West, under Christian kings who descended from the family of Lusignan. There remained the armed Templars who had taken refuge on the island of Cyprus. There were not very many of them, but they could call upon the Templars in Europe to swell their ranks. Above all, there remained the Mongol army of the Ilkhan Ghazan, and this army, when well led, could sweep everything in its path. Ghazan had been converted to Islam, but he felt kindly toward the Christians and unkindly toward the Sultan of Egypt.

In the summer of 1292, a year after the fall of Acre, the Templars on Cyprus elected a new Master, Jacques de Molay, who was the Marshal of the Templar army, and expert in all military affairs from the construction of fortresses to tactics and strategy. His election was fraught with extraordinary consequences.

Jacques de Molay, who would bear an extraordinary weight of destiny on his shoulders, was a man almost without a history. He was born near Besançon in eastern France to a family of the minor nobility. He was about twenty-one years old when he entered the order, in 1265, at Beaunein the wine-growing region near Dijon. Thereafter, he spent his whole life in the service of the Templars. He was one of those steadfast soldiers who disappear into the army, for nothing very much was heard of him until he became Marshal.

He quarreled with King Henry of Lusignan, because he wanted to retain complete control of the Templars, while the king wanted to command all the forces on the island. The quarrel became violent, and in August 1298, the pope came out openly on the side of the Master. The pope urged Henry of Lusignan, King of Cyprus, to set aside his quarrels with the Templars, because it was beyond doubt that they contributed to the safety of the kingdom and an open break would only jeopardize the lives of everyone in Cyprus. Boniface VIII was not overstating the case on behalf of the Master of the Temple. The number of Templars on the island was probably no more than five hundred, but they were a disciplined force. Jacques de Molay was a fighting knight, and if the Crusaders ever fought again they would need someone like him to lead them.

For nearly seven years the Mameluke army remained quiescent, partly because Egypt was being ravaged by a plague and partly because the army needed time to absorb the treasure it had pillaged from Palestine. Then suddenly two fully equipped Mameluke divisions stormed Alexandretta and advanced into Cilicia to attack Sis and Adana, slaughtering as they went. One by one, the castles of Armenia were demolished. King Constantine of Armenia, acting on behalf of Hethum, the rightful king, who had been wounded in a palace intrigue, summoned the help of the Mongols. The Ilkhan Ghazan offered to lead a combined Armenian and Mongol army against the Mamelukes.

Messengers were sent to Cyprus to warn the king of the coming battles. A small army was hastily put together and ferried to the port of St. Symeon in the autumn of 1299. Here they made contact with Mongol forces encamped in the ruins of Antioch. Jacques de Molay was given command of thirty thousand Mongol soldiers. Hethum, recovered from his wounds, took command of the Armenian army. He had been partially blinded during the palace intrigue, but his sight had returned and he was able to see the immense army brought up by the Mongols. Altogether there were more than a hundred thousand troops: three or four thousand from Cyprus, perhaps fifteen thousand from Armenia, a small army of Georgians, all the rest Mongols. Ghazan decided that the time had come to rid Syria of the Mamelukes.

Hethum, who knew the Mongol emperor well, and indeed was related to him—Ghazan had married a princess of the Armenian royal family—accompanied the huge army on the march to Wadi al-Khaznadar. Ghazan was very small and he had the wizened features of a Mongol. Hethum thought that in all his army there were not two thousand men as small as the emperor, and there were few who were as ugly; neither were there any so generous, brave, high-minded, or sweet-tempered. Ghazan told Hethum that his intention, once he had swept Syria and Palestine clear of the Mamelukes, was to give that land to the Christians.

Wadi al-Khaznadar, halfway between Aleppo and Damascus, was a large walled town on the Orontes. It was well fortified, with walls of black stone, and was famous for its orchards and the beauty of its people. The Mameluke army was camped in and around the town, ready to do battle. The Mongol-Armenian-Christian army rode along the plain in the shadow of the Lebanon mountains until it was a day’s march from Wadi al-Khaznadar. Ghazan called a halt, saying he would remain there until his horses were fully rested. He set up his camp, busied Wadi al-Khaznadarelf with his own affairs, and seemed totally indifferent to the presence of the enemy a day’s march away. There was an abundance of fodder and water, and provisions came from the surrounding villages.

The news that Ghazan was resting in his camp came to the ears of the Sultan at Wadi al-Khaznadar on December 22, 1299. He decided to attack immediately, reached Ghazan’s camp toward evening, and sent his cavalry to destroy the army of the Mongol emperor. Caught by surprise, Ghazan ordered his own cavalry to dismount. They were not to attack the enemy, but to use their horses as a wall and to shoot arrows at the enemy as soon as they came within range. The Mongols were superb archers. They broke the charge, and by nightfall the Mamelukes had fled.

During that night, the Mongols and their allies advanced on Wadi al-Khaznadar. The battle was resumed at dawn, and this time the Mongols had no need to kneel behind their horses. Armenians, Templars, Hospitallers, and contingents of the Cypriot army, Georgians, and Mongols, spent the day slaughtering the Mamelukes until there was scarcely any part of the battlefield uncarpeted by dead bodies.

The allied losses were small; the Mamelukes lost three-quarters of their army. The sultan fled to Cairo with a small bodyguard of Bedouin, while the survivors fled in the direction of Tripoli and were cut down by Christians living in the mountains of Lebanon. The Sultan’s treasure was found intact. Characteristically, Ghazan ordered that the spoils should be divided among the soldiers, and he kept for Wadi al-Khaznadarelf only the sultan’s sword and a pouch containing the seals of the sultanate.

The army rested for five days and then advanced on Damascus. While they were on the march, the governor of Damascus sent ambassadors with costly presents and the keys to the city. Ghazan received the ambassadors, accepted their gifts, and told them he would set up his camp near the city and perhaps make it his capital. Capchik, a Saracen who had ingratiated Wadi al-Khaznadarelf with Ghazan, was made governor of Damascus, while Cotulossa, a Mongol chieftain, was made second-in-command of the army. Toward the end of February 1300, Ghazan had to return to Persia to put down an uprising. Before he left, he summoned King Hethum, and said the time had come for the Christians to take possession of their castles and restore them to fighting strength. Ghazan said he had given orders to Cotulossa to help them in every way.

For six months the Christians, with the help of the Mongol army, were in effective control of the Holy Land. Everything was restored to them. Dazed, they saw the country over which they had fought for two hundred years given back to them. Armenia belonged once again to the Armenians; the cities of the seacoast as far south as Gaza and Jerusalem itself belonged to the Crusaders. At Easter, services were held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Templars and Hospitallers had entered the city in triumph, and no one had tried to stop them. Ghazan, before leaving Damascus, sent ambassadors to the pope and the sovereigns of Europe, urging them to pour men, money, and armaments into Palestine, which was his gift to them. He wanted an alliance between the Mongols and the countries of Europe against the Mamelukes, and he was prepared to back up the alliance with his vast army.

The Armenians drifted back to Armenia; the Christian knights surveyed the shattered seacoast cities and wondered whether help would come in time. There were less than five thousand of them now, and they realized that it was beyond the power of a handful of men to make a kingdom. Jacques de Molay sent out columns in all directions, pretending to have a force much greater than the one he possessed. The pope told the Mongol ambassadors that the time was not ripe for another Crusade, and the sovereigns of Europe said the same. Ghazan remained in Tabriz; Jacques de Molay took up residence in the Templum Dei in Jerusalem, and fretted over the impossibility of the task entrusted to him. The kingdom was in his hands, but where were the people to till the fields, guard the frontiers, rebuild the churches? The seacoast cities must be rebuilt brick by brick: towers, castles, gates, city walls. Where were the women? Where were the children? With a Mongol army to protect them, with thousands upon thousands of immigrants coming from Europe under the good offices of the pope and the sovereigns of Europe, the kingdom might be restored, but it would have to be done quickly and decisively.

It was the year 1300, the Jubilee Year commanded by Pope Boniface VIII, the most imperial of popes, to celebrate the achievements of the Church and his own power. Enormous crowds flocked to Rome, where the pope sometimes appeared in procession with two swords held before him, representing both spiritual and temporal power. In the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the few remaining Crusaders were desperately seeking help and the pope did not listen to them.

In Palestine the summer was unusually hot. The trees withered; the roads were thick with dust. As usual, there were conspiracies, counterconspiracies, secret agreements. Quite suddenly Jacques de Molay was confronted with a conspiracy designed to shatter his last hopes. Capchik, the Saracen governor of Damascus, the close and trusted friend of the Ilkhan Ghazan, who had innocently raised him to high position, entered into secret correspondence with the Mameluke sultan, offering to place Damascus under Egyptian sovereignty in exchange for a vast treasure, the sultan’s sister in marriage, and the governorship of Damascus to be held by him and his family in perpetuity. Dictating his memoirs to his friend Nicolas Falcon seven years later, in a convent in Poitiers, the monk Haiton, formerly Hethum, King of Armenia, records in his rather haphazard manner the events of that summer and autumn:

When Molay saw that the entire country was in a state of rebellion, he knew he would be unable to make headway with so few men, and that is why he rode to the kingdom of Mesopotamia by the shortest route, and related in great detail everything that had passed in the kingdom of Syria. Ghazan could do nothing because it was summer, but with winter coming up he made all his preparations on the banks of the Euphrates and sent Cotulossa with thirty thousand Tartar horsemen, ordering them, when they reached the country of Antioch, to send word to the King of Armenia and other Christians in the countries of the Orient and Cyprus to join him. While they were waiting for Ghazan Wadi al-Khaznadarelf to march into the kingdom of Syria with all his forces, Cotulossa followed the emperor’s orders.

Cotulossa reached Antioch with his thirty thousand Tartars and sent word to the King of Armenia to join him. The King agreed to march and went to find him; and the Christians in the kingdom of Cyprus, having heard of the arrival of Cotulossa, sent forces to the island off Tortosa. Among them was the Lord of Tyre, brother of the king of Cyprus, who was Generalissimo, and the men in charge of the Hospital and the Temple with their brethren. While they were all preparing themselves to do their Christian duty, there came the rumor that Ghazan was ill and the doctors despaired for his life.

So it came about that Cotulossa returned to Ghazan with the Tartars, and the King of Armenia returned to Armenia, and the Christians who had assembled at Tortosa returned to Cyprus. In this way the expedition to save the holy land was totally abandoned. This happened in the year of Our Lord 1301.

This was not quite the end, because the Mongols and Armenians went on fighting. There were continual small battles and skirmishes, and then at last, in 1303, at Marj as-Saffar, a great plain twenty miles south of Damascus, the combined Mongol-Armenian army was defeated. The remnants of the army retired to Nineveh, where Ghazan received them, promising to continue to wage war against the Saracens and giving King Hethum a sum of money, sufficient to support a thousand Armenian horsemen and a thousand Mongol soldiers to be used in the defense of the kingdom of Armenia. The king returned to Armenia, raised an army and won a victory over the Mamelukes at Ayati, near Tarsus. It was a decisive victory. Of the seven thousand Mamelukes who took part in it, only three hundred survived. The sultan called for a truce. King Hethum was happy to give it to him. Thereupon, remembering that he had always wanted to be a monk, he set his affairs in order, put a nephew on the throne, and traveled to the West.

The monk Haiton was not entirely correct when he said that all the Christian forces returned to Cyprus. He left out of account the handful of Templars who had remained on Ruad. From this small waterless island, the last remaining possession of the Templars, Jacques de Molay had hoped to send landing parties along the coast to recover the Holy Land. The island was well fortified, it had a good harbor, a fine church, tanks for storing rainwater. One day in 1303, the Mamelukes sent twenty ships to the island with ten thousand soldiers. They forced a landing, massacred most of the Templars, and sailed away. Only a few of the Templars on Ruad were able to reach Cyprus.

With the battle of Marj as-Saffar and the fall of Ruad, the Crusades truly came to an end. There would be raids on Tortosa, Acre, and Alexandria by ships based on Cyuprus, and from time to time popes and kings would announce forthcoming crusades either because it suited them to do so for political reasons or because they genuinely felt that such things were possible. Whatever their intentions, these crusades never took place.

Throughout the Crusades there had been a strange sense of fatality, a sense of doom. Even when the Crusades were at their height, when the kings of Jerusalem appeared to be in full control, there seemed to be something wanting. Seen from the villages and cities of the West, Jerusalem appeared in men’s eyes like a dream in shimmering Oriental colors, remote and inaccessible; and even those who walked through the streets of Jerusalem sometimes wondered whether they had really reached the place they had so desired to see. They had heard it called “Jerusalem the Golden,” and they imagined a city made of gold and rubies and emeralds. Instead, it was a dusty place, though the stones were the rich color of crusts of bread. No city created by man could live up to Jerusalem’s reputation. For two hundred years, proud men from the West fought a continuing battle for the city set on one of the mountains of the Judaean desert. For two hundred years, kings, princes, knights as well as the common people suffered from thirst and scorching heat to win and hold a city in the wilderness. Then at last they discovered that Jerusalem was not a geographical place. It was a place in the human heart.

Mamluks vs. Mongols



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.


Jebe (on the ground) alongside Genghis (on the horse)

One of Chinggis Khan’s most brilliant yet overlooked generals, Jebe first encountered Chinggis Khan on the battlefield during the wars of unification in Mongolia, when he was a warrior among the Tayichiut Mongols and thus an enemy. After Chinggis Khan defeated the Tayichiut in 1201 a few of them joined his forces.

In “The Battle of the Thirteen Sides” Genghis had to fight against the chief of the Tai’Chiyud tribe, which was under the control of Targhutal Kiriltugh. During the battle, one of the Tai’Chiyud horsemen shot and injured Genghis himself, where most sources claim that he was hit in the neck. After the battle was victoriously over, Genghis gathered the remaining men of the opposing tribe.

In an attempt to not show weakness, Genghis commanded the man who had shot his horse to confess. A young warrior stepped forward and confessed that it was him who shot the arrow that hit Genghis, not the horse. That warrior’s name was Zurgadai, and he also added that he did not fear death, and that his fate lied in the hands of Genghis. But should he receive mercy, then he would be the most loyal soldier to ever serve him.

Genghis valued the bravery and loyalty that the young man showed, and he also liked the answer. He pardoned the soldier, and gave him a new name under which he can serve… “Chepe” meaning “Arrow” in Mongolian. Chepe gradually turned into Jebe, and this new general gradually became one of best in the empire.

In 1206, when Chinggis Khan formally became the unquestioned master of Mongolia, Jebe was one of 88 commanders named as a mingan-u noyan. Throughout the wars in Mongolia he was also known as one of the dörben noqas or ‘four hounds’ of Chinggis Khan along with three other mingan-u noyad – Sübedei, Jelme, and Qubilai (not to be confused with Chinggis Khan’s grandson Qubilai Khan). The dörben noqas and their units constituted an elite brigade that served with distinction at Chakirmaut, where the opponents of Chinggis Khan’s mastery of Mongolia made their last stand.

The dörben noqas were particularly noted for their tenacious pursuit of fleeing opponents, which may be one reason why Jebe led so many pursuit missions. In 1209 he and Sübedei pursued the Naiman and Merkit who fled Mongolia to the Irtysh River, and then again to the Chu River. Jebe was also responsible for hunting down Güchülüg, a Naiman prince who became ruler of Kara-Khitai in modern Kazakhstan. From there, Güchülüg would have been a threat to Chinggis Khan’s nascent kingdom in Mongolia. But Jebe is perhaps best known for his part in the pursuit of Muhammad Khwarazmshah during the Khwarazmian War. Although Muhammad successfully yet narrowly eluded the two generals, he died alone from illness and exhaustion on an island in the Caspian Sea shortly afterwards. Although Jebe and Sübedei were often paired together on missions, it appears that Jebe was the senior commander of the two, probably due to his experience and innovative strategies.

Yet Jebe did more than hunt down enemy leaders. Against the Jin Empire, he served as commander of Chinggis Khan’s vanguard in 1211, capturing the strongly guarded Chabchiyal Pass through a perfectly executed feigned retreat. Jebe also became well known for his deep incursions into enemy territory, feigned retreats that were carried out over days, and of course for the tenacity that allowed him to cover several days’ travel in one. Jebe died in 1223 during the famous reconnaissance en force that he and Sübedei conducted following the death of Muhammad Khwarazmshah in 1220.

The Mongol Reduction of Northern China I

Just as the Jin were being challenged by the Song on their southern border, the man whose ambition would bring about their destruction was being hailed as universal ruler or great khan by a confederation of Mongol tribes to their north. Chinggis Khan was not a great general or warrior, but he was a skilled and compelling political strategist who had used these talents to unite the disparate and often-warring tribes of the steppes. It seems likely that his plan was to use this confederation rapidly, and before it disintegrated like so many tribal alliances before it, to plunder the lands of northern China on a vast scale.

The Mongol raids on China began in earnest in 1209, with a campaign against the Tangut state of Xi Xia. The Tangut emperor ruled over a multi-ethnic population that included Chinese, Tibetans and many Turkic groups, in addition to the Tangut themselves. Indeed, when we use the term Tangut, as with Jurchen, Kitan or Mongol, we should remember that we are really only naming the leadership of these states or confederations. In reality, each of these entities were multi-ethnic and, particularly in the case of the Mongols as their empire grew, the leading group was very much a minority.

The Tangut emperor’s state also bordered the Jin state along the northwestern reaches of the Yellow River and extended into the Gobi desert and modern Ningxia. In the past the Tangut had lived a nomadic existence, with their only ties to the settled state being their trade in horses with the Song and their raiding of Song merchant columns. The nomadic past of the Xi Xia state, its largely Turkish population and its extension into the steppe made it a natural first target of the nascent Mongol confederation of Chinggis Khan. Its subjugation would give the Mongols access to the northwestern flank of the Jin state, from which they could raid the Yellow River plains, and if the Xi Xia state could be brought to full submission the Mongols would also gain access to its army of horse archers. Added to this was the fact that the Xi Xia state had never fully escaped the orbit of steppe politics, and the Mongol conquest of the state was also part of a ‘tidying up’ of loose ends, as all the Turco-Mongolic peoples on China’s perimeter were absorbed either voluntarily or otherwise into the Mongol ordus or horde. That Xi Xia could never escape its own steppe history is obvious from the fact that many Turkish princes seeking refuge from Chinggis Khan’s father found dubious refuge at the Xi Xia court and that royal daughters of the Xi Xia state were not uncommonly married to members of Chinggis’s own family. To add to this confused mesh of amiability and animosity, one Kereyid prince sought refuge from Mongol vengeance with the Tangut, but then gave a daughter in marriage to Chinggis’s son, Tolui, and she bore the great khans Mongke and Qubilai and the Persian Ilkhan Hulegu. Another of the dissident prince’s daughters married into the Tangut royal family and an unlikely romantic tale has her beauty being the catalyst for Chinggis Khan’s final annihilation of the Xi Xia state. Be that as it may, the Mongols certainly used the harbouring of Kereyid royal fugitives by the Xi Xia court as a pretext for their first extensive incursions into Xi Xia territory. Mongol raids across the Xi Xia state began in 1205 and the presence of their troops in an area bordering Jin also drew the Onggid tribes, a grouping of previously loyal barbarians whom the Jin had relied on to stabilise their northwest frontier, to join Chinggis’s horde.

The Mongols stayed in Xi Xia territory for the next two years and the Xi Xia sent a series of embassies to the Jin emperor, calling for alliance against the Mongols. These appeals were rebuffed by the Jin emperor with the curt comment, ‘it is to our advantage when our enemies attack one another. Wherein lies the danger to us?’

The autumn of 1209 saw Chinggis launching a major invasion of Xi Xia and defeating three Tangut armies before investing the capital Chong Xingfu. The Mongols then attempted to divert the waters of the Yellow River’s irrigation canals to flood the city, but succeeded only in deluging their own camp, which effectively broke the siege. However, they had done enough damage to the Xi Xia state to ensure its capitulation, and in 1210 the Tangut emperor, Xianzong, became a vassal to the Khan.

That Chinggis was only interested in Xi Xia’s submission as a prelude to the greater havoc he wished to wreak upon the Jin is evidenced by his almost immediate employment of Tangut horsemen in raids upon Jin borderlands. By 1214 Xi Xia troops, under Mongol direction, were extensively raiding Jin’s southwest provinces. By this point the Jin were becoming more and more dependent on this region for finances and for horses, as the Song had ceased the payment of the tribute that they had agreed to in 1207 and the Mongols were pressing hard from the north and gobbling up Jin pastureland. The city of Lanzhou slipped from effective Jin control in 1214, as the Xi Xia sponsored a rebellion there against them, and then the Xi Xia sent proposals to Song for a joint action against Jin in the west. At this juncture the Song sat on their hands and did not, in fact, act against Jin in alliance with the Xi Xia until 1220, and even then only in a half-hearted fashion. Perhaps it seemed more logical to the Song to let the Mongols destroy the ‘auld enemy’ for them than to engage the Jin directly themselves or even ally with them against the new foe. The lessons of the past and the debacle that had followed Jin’s conquest of Liao with Song complicity had evidently either not yet been learned or simply forgotten.

The encroachment by the peoples of the northern steppe on Jin lands had begun almost at the beginning of the Jin dynasty. In some ways, the Jurchen’s descent into ‘China proper’ in the first quarter of the twelfth century had created a power vacuum in the northern lands beyond the Middle Kingdom’s borders, and this had been rapidly filled by new confederations. As early as the 1130s, the Jin had been compelled to send punitive expeditions into the hinterlands at the edge of the Gobi. They suffered many reverses on these expeditions, but through them they also managed to retard any progress towards unification by the tribes as they exterminated much of the leadership in the steppe. Possibly as a result of this policy, the words ‘a Jin Emperor killed one of my forefathers. Let me have my revenge!’ have been put into the mouth of Chinggis in traditional Chinese histories to explain the Khan’s invasion of Jin. We can be certain that no such justification was in fact required for the ensuing carnage meted out to Jin by Chinggis Khan and his descendants; invoking the will of Tenggeri the Sky Father or Eternal Heaven would have been sufficient. But there is tenuous evidence to support the fact that Chinggis could have been intent on revenging the death of Ambaghai Khan, whom the Tatar tribe had handed over to their Jin overlords for execution after they captured him. Chinggis Khan considered himself a legitimate successor of Ambaghai as leader of the Mongols. In 1194 Jin had also made a temporary alliance with the man who became Chinggis Khan. This had helped to stabilise the border but had also unfortunately increased the Mongols’ power, as it aided their elimination of tribal rivals. Chinggis Khan’s unification of the tribes was, then, in many ways, begun by the Jin’s actions in the steppes, and it was at the head of a vast confederation army of Mongols, Kitan and Tangut3 that Chinggis set out in March 1211 to launch what was in effect a vast raid or chevachee across the Jin state.

The word chevachee is the most apt way of describing the Mongol raiding tactics in 1211, for it is an act of plundering on a relentless and extensive scale, in order to make control and rule over a region untenable for the enemy. It also deprives the enemy of legitimacy if they cannot effectively respond to the terror inflicted upon their citizens. The taking of territory would have rendered Chinggis’s forces open to a Jin riposte, so the tactic of ‘burn and move on’ also served Chinggis well at this juncture. It is arguable that it failed the Mongols later, when they moved on to attempt to conquer Song, through Sichuan, a region that would not support the rapid movement of cavalry, and they then became bogged down in the garrisoning of territory and a long war of attrition. Later the genius of Qubilai Khan and his commanders was shown in their co-opting of Chinese infantry and engineers to operate where cavalry could not, thereby freeing up the horsemen to go where they could be most effective and to stretch the Song’s defences by lightning strikes. On a more philosophical plane Mongol warfare is a perfect paradigm of Clausewitz’s theory of ‘total war’, in which the ends of war are consumed by the means taken to achieve them. The brief lives of both the Yuan Dynasty and the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia are both, perhaps, partly explainable by the ‘total war’ origins of both states, and we will look a little later in more depth at how an inability to muzzle the dogs of war once they had been allowed to slip the leash completely contributed to the Yuan’s rapid demise. That such all-enveloping concepts of warfare were alien to China before the Mongols’ rise seems evident, given Sunzi’s five governing factors, the first of which is the Moral Law, which requires accord between the ruled and the ruler, and the fact that the Confucian definition of war was that it was a punishment for both the defeated and the victor.

In the spring of 1211 two Mongol armies totalling about one hundred thousand warriors entered China from the northwest, through lands formerly ‘guarded’ for the Jin by the Onggids, and from the northeast, through mountain passes near modern Beijing. They devastated great portions of the northern provinces and the northwestern army essentially split the Jin army of Shensi from the rest of the Jin forces in the east. This northwestern army, however, failed to take the key border fortresses as the Jin forces in the region outnumbered them by about four to one and the Jin garrison infantry were well equipped with cavalry pikes and crossbows. Initial defeats in the open field and a devastating famine across the entire state seem to have decided the Jin on a defensive strategy by which they hoped either to bring about the break-up of the Mongol army or to bring Chinggis to a negotiation where a modus vivendi similar to that enacted between the Mongols and Xi Xia could be formed. Given that Mongol warriors were unpaid and that therefore commanders were entirely reliant on booty for paying them, the Jin might have been hoping that Chinggis’s horde would disintegrate for lack of plunder. Certainly this was the norm for such barbarian confederations, but unfortunately the tribal army that had invaded China this time was perhaps exceptional in that it was composed of men who were ‘more obedient to their masters than any other men in the world, be they religious or secular’.

The strategy therefore failed. The Jin could keep the Mongols from taking their fortified cities through the technological advantages they held over them, the chief of these being gunpowder and trebuchet-fired ‘thunder crash’ bombs–some of which were moulded from wax to burn slowly, whilst others were hollow ceramic creations holding molten metal or barbs that would stick in wooden shields and make them impossible to carry. Naptha or ‘Greek fire’ was thrown in pots at the enemy and fire-arrows could also break up Mongol attacks, but the Jin could not match the Mongols in the field; the Jin had long ago abandoned the ‘battue’ or nomadic hunt and their stature as mounted archers had gone into decline. The slow-moving, often largely infantry-based field armies the Jin deployed against the Mongols, perhaps a product of the long, static, cold–hot war the Jin had fought against the Song, were easily defeated by the Mongols, and those Jurchen among the Jin armies who did retain the warrior skills of the steppes soon enough joined the Mongols. The cavalry that the Jin did retain was also denied pasture by the Mongols’ continual traversing of the northern plains. Each Mongol trooper had about six horses, and one ‘tumen’ of ten thousand troopers also meant the presence of forty thousand ‘civilians’ and six hundred thousand sheep or goats. Additionally, Bactrian camels and giant carts pulled by as many as twenty oxen were part of the Mongol army’s train. This vast caravan had been known to travel up to six hundred miles in nine days and its capacity for consuming pasture would have been almost locust-like. To worsen matters, the Jurchen homeland of Manchuria, from which they drew horses, cattle and Jurchen warriors, then slipped from the Jin’s grasp as leftovers of the old Liao Dynasty took the opportunity of Jin’s misfortune to desert their cause. Virtually all the Liao–Kitan cavalry and soldiers that had formerly fought with the Jin army swore their allegiance to Chinggis Khan in 1212. A Jin punitive expedition failed to regain Manchuria from the rebels in 1214 and, to make matters worse, its commander then went on to set up his own independent state in northeast China.

The Mongols withdrew for the winter, which gave the Jin forces some respite, but soon enough the Mongols were back again, and over the course of the next two years they also began to enrol Han Chinese deserters into their army. The engineers among these men would make a very valuable contribution to the later Mongol campaigns.

The poor showing of the Jin in this early contest lured the Mongols further into China than they may have planned to go. Certainly, by the time they had taken the Juyong pass and the environs of Beijing, they had in fact overreached themselves. They were unprepared for the siege of such a large city, and what was almost certainly meant as a simple large-scale raid had now got them wrapped up in a territorial war in China. The equipment of the Mongol troopers of this period makes it clear that there was no developed weapons industry available to the army that could produce siege weapons capable of tackling the walls of Beijing; in fact, even with the later acquisition of Chinese centres of industry, many Mongol troopers still lacked crafted metal weapons. The average Mongol soldier wore a simple heavy coat with a belt sword, dagger and axe, and carried dried meat and curds for rations, along with a stone sharpener. The heavy cavalry had lamellar armour, presumably purchased or looted from Chinese manufacturing centres, and every trooper carried a composite bow of yak horn, sinew and bamboo. Other weapons–round wooden shields and lassoes–were decidedly crude compared to the crafted and cherished Mongol bow. The myth that Mongol silk undershirts ‘wrapped’ arrowheads and prevented injury to the wearer has long ago been exploded, but the lamellar armour that the Mongols favoured was certainly more effective than mail against arrows, and this may have been particularly significant given the Jin and Song reliance on archers and crossbowmen.

The Mongol Reduction of Northern China II

By 1213, with Beijing resisting them even though it was effectively cut off, the Mongols were simply roaming the central plains of northern China and had lost the initiative. They were therefore fortunate that the Jin court was in the act of imploding at this juncture. The Emperor Weishao Wang had been assassinated in 1213 by Hu Shahu, a general who had lost the western Jin capital of Datong to the Mongols. Hu Shahu may have decided to strike first, as the punishment for such failure was bound to be harsh. A new emperor, Xuanzong, was installed, but the Jin state was unravelling fast and, in an attempt to replace the high-ranking Jurchen who were deserting the dynasty for service with the Mongols, the normally xenophobic court opened military and civilian posts to all races within the state. A further symptom of the collapse of Jin confidence was seen in the spring of 1214 when the Jin sent peace envoys to Chinggis, and offered a daughter of the late emperor for the khan’s marriage bed. The breathing space this gained them was used by the court to abandon Beijing and desert the troops left there. The court fled to the southern capital of Kaifeng which, it was hoped, was beyond the reach of both the Mongols and of the drought and famine that had struck the north and had once again crippled the logistics of the Jin army.

The Mongols marched on Beijing but could do little except sit beneath its walls and terrorise the surrounding environs. The city was encircled and defended by four fortified villages with four thousand Jin troops in each. Each village also had its own granary and arsenal and was linked by tunnels to Beijing. The city was also protected by three moats fed from Kunming Lake and a 15-kilometre rectangle of rammed earth walls that were 15 metres thick at their base and 12 metres high. Each of its thirteen gates and nine hundred guard towers was protected by double and triple crossbows, capable of hurling 3-metre quarrels over a kilometre, and traction trebuchets with a range of some 300 metres for 25-kilogram projectiles. The Mongols had units in their army trained to use both siege crossbows and trebuchets, the so-called nujun and baojun, but the technology they used was, at this juncture, almost certainly not a match for that of their opponents.

The Mongols suffered enormous losses through pestilence during the siege, which lasted a year, but then the city suddenly surrendered in May 1215, as it was evident that no relief force was coming from Kaifeng. The capitulation, it seems, did not temper the Mongols’ rage at the city’s long defiance, and even in 1216 a visiting envoy could still attest the fact that the bones of the slaughtered formed mountains and the soil was greasy with human fat. Sixty thousand maidens had thrown themselves from the walls rather than fall into Mongol hands and only masons, carpenters and–oddly enough–actors were immune from the risk of summary executions.

By now the Jin were ready to accept having the khan as their overlord, but Chinggis seems to have interpreted the dynasty’s move to Kaifeng as a dangerous act of separatism and he responded with further devastations of the Jin’s Chinese provinces. Elsewhere, control was slipping away from the Jin too. The grain supplies of northern Hubei were gone and the refusal of Song to pay its yearly tribute had reduced the Jin to near penury. The collapse of local government that this and the Mongols’ rapine had precipitated reduced whole provinces to chaos and in Shandong it made bandits the only form of authority. Many of these groups sought Song support and proclaimed loyalty to the dynasty in exchange for secret supplies of food and money. The Song particularly favoured a large confederation of outlaws called the Red Coats, possibly because red was the traditional ‘fire’ colour of the Song court. If this was so, then the Song were sorely misled, as the Red Coats, in fact, showed no particular loyalty to anyone but themselves. However, they resisted all Jin efforts to bring Shandong back under control, and this was probably reason enough for the Song court to support them. In 1218, with the Yellow River flooding and Shandong effectively beyond Jin control, the Song went further and recognised the ruthless Red Coat commander Li Quan as their ‘prefect’ of Shandong.

Song’s sponsoring of bandits such as Li Quan was a direct response to Jin assaults on Song in 1217 as the Jin went to war to try to extract payments from the Song government. Making the Jin fight a proxy war in their own lands would certainly distract them from assaults on Song lands. However, the policy also had a secondary aim: by maintaining a viable state in Shandong the Song may have hoped to prevent a mass movement of Jin’s Han citizens to the south, which would have effectively swamped Song with refugees or even with a mass movement of Jurchen households. It is impossible to make a judgement on the great unanswered question about this period of Jin history: where did all the people go? The drop in population was immense and there was, no doubt, massive emigration from north to south and also death through disease and famine. How many were simply slaughtered by the Mongols and how many died as a result of the invaders’ damage to agricultural infrastructure and destruction of cities is impossible to decide. Certainly nowhere was safe; cities were refuges of a sort, but were also the key strategic goals of the Mongols and were wealthy enough to attract them for plunder alone. The number of refugees fleeing to Song must have been immense; if any member of the ‘local elite’ fled there would also be a movement of his kinsmen, retainers and tenants as an organised community of several hundred households. Certainly there are other occurrences of this phenomenon of a ‘tsunami’ of people in Asian history, and there was never a pleasant outcome for either the displaced or the settled peoples involved. For example, the Jurchen destruction of the Liao’s Kitan state in 1125 had pushed immense numbers of Turkish tribesmen into settled Islamic lands and had within only two decades sounded the death knell of the great Saljuq sultanate of Iran.

The Jin assaults on Song served them badly; they offered peace for tribute, but made little progress in their war and in 1218 the Song were so confident of their ability to resist that they did not even allow the Jin envoys to enter their territory. A third and final Jin offensive was launched in the central border region in the spring of 1221. Initially, the Jin met with success and penetrated over 200 kilometres into Song territory, but the Song, in partnership with Li Quan, then counterattacked and pushed the Jin out.

Jin morale was eroded by their defeat in this campaign and was damaged further by news from other fronts. Despite the Mongols being distracted by their need to complete outstanding ‘steppe business’ with war against, and assimilation of, the Naiman and Merkit peoples of Mongolia, Chinggis’s lieutenant, Mukhali, had used the opportunity of Jin’s war on Song to take the cities of Taiyuan and Daming in 1218 and 1220 and to enter Shandong in 1220. The army that Jin had mustered to eradicate Li Quan was then destroyed by Mukhali. Western Shandong effectively fell to the Mongols and a three-sided war, fought through proxies recruited among bandit clans, ensued between the Mongols, Jin and Song in eastern Shandong. Li Quan attempted to exploit the war for personal gain and, in this increasingly dirty little war, the Song accepted his false proclamations of loyalty to their camp whilst attempting to break up his army by extending generous offers to his subordinates. Song chicanery of this ilk came to Li Quan’s ears whilst bandits in the Mongols’ employ were besieging him at Qingzhou in 1226. He therefore turned to the Jin for support in 1227, but when it became obvious that they were a failing star he opted for the Mongols.

Meanwhile, in the west in 1218 the Tangut of Xi Xia, after attacking the western borders of Jin but failing to make any headway, had then refused to honour troop agreements they had made with the Mongols. Speedy Mongol correction in the form of a punitive invasion forced the Tangut to send troops to serve with Mukhali in the east but this arrangement collapsed once again in 1223 amid mutual recriminations. The Xi Xia were then finally driven by the Mongols’ depredations to parley with their old foe, the Jin. Negotiations ended in the autumn of 1223 with a peace accord, no doubt forced through by mutual fear of the Mongols and by Jin’s need to obtain horses from the Tangut breeding grounds.

The Jin had attempted to secure peace with the Mongols as early as 1220, when envoys were sent far to the west where Chinggis was campaigning against the Khwarazm shah of Persia. However, the offer of recognising the khan as an older brother of the Jin emperor was rejected by Chinggis, and the Jin emperor refused to be ‘demoted’ to king of Henan. Peace negotiations with the Mongols had therefore ended in 1222. Having secured a pragmatic peace with one set of previously inveterate enemies, the Xi Xia, in 1223, the Jin looked now to secure peace with the Song. It was as if China was going to unify, however tardily, in the face of the Mongol onslaught. The last ‘true’ Jin emperor, Aizong, came to the throne in 1224 and his much-reduced empire made peace with Song in the same year, on the basis of Jin giving up its claim for tribute and on an equality of titles between the two emperors. In amongst all this chaos and action the Song emperor, Ningzong, passed quietly away on 17 September 1224. He had been an emperor very much in the background of his own reign; the minister Shi Miyuan had run the country, and the last act he carried out for the dying emperor was to write an edict elevating a new heir to the throne. Ningzong’s children had all died young and one adopted son, Zhao Hong, who was the heir expectant, was replaced by another adoptee, Zhao Yun, almost at the last moment. The succession and enthronement of Zhao Yun as Emperor Lizong went without a hitch despite the odd character of his accession, and the whole affair made the Song state appear as calm as the eye of the storm that was tearing through every other part of China.

Chinggis Khan repaid Xi Xia for its peacemaking with Jin by the near-obliteration of their army in 1226 in a series of battles, one of which was fought upon the frozen waters of the Yellow River, and by a siege of their capital, Zhongxing, in 1227. The siege dragged on, but the liquidation of the Xi Xia state was essentially completed by the time of Chinggis’s death in August 1227.

Jin obtained some respite from the Mongols following the death of the khan, as a regency under Chinggis’s wife attempted to settle the succession issue. This was tricky because, despite some undoubted influence on Mongol polity by Chinese imperial customs, Turco-Mongolic custom had always been for a ‘patrimonial share-out’ of a successful father’s lands and wealth. The apparent solution to this was that Chinggis’s son, Ogedei, was created khagan, or khan of khans, and his brothers were all made khans in their own right. In practice this meant that Ogedei was a primus inter pares and that his writ did not run too far geographically in an empire that already reached to southern Russia and would soon solidify those gains and expand further into the Middle East. His election was also held up for some two years because of an ongoing opposition to his election and animosity from his brother Tolui. Ogedei managed finally to quell all the overt opposition to his reign but the fact that the ‘great khan’ had only limited power over the ‘junior’ khans and that this authority was diminished with each subsequent reign would become more and more apparent as the Mongol empire reached its end.

Ogedei was in a position to recommence the war on Jin in 1230 and from the pool of fifteen- to sixty-year-old males that the Mongol nation made available to him he formed a personal bodyguard of ten thousand men and deployed armies of thirty-nine thousand men in the west and centre under his truculent younger brother Tolui and sixty-two thousand more in the east under his own command. The armies also included Chinese engineers who had defected from the Jin, along with their gunpowder weapons. The Mongol armies met near the Yellow River during the winter of 1231, where, under the command of Subetei, probably Chinggis’s most trusted lieutenant, the army crossed the fords despite the stout defence of some thirty thousand Jin troops. Subetei’s outriders made it to the walls of Kaifeng by February 1232. The Song court had refused passage through Sichuan to the Mongols of Tolui’s western army, but the Mongols journeyed through the province anyway and there was no Song response to the incursion.

A demand for the surrender of the capital was refused by the Jin court and a siege began in April. Further negotiations ended in July when two Jin officers murdered the Mongols’ envoy along with thirty men of his entourage. This apparent act of madness on the part of the Jin officers is more easily understood against the backdrop of Kaifeng’s misery and chaos in the summer of 1232. Disease and famine are of course natural sequelae to any war, but the total collapse of governance and recriminations within the court, with summary executions commonly following a few days after any man’s promotion, were the street theatre of the dying city. The music accompanying the city to its grave was made by the ‘thunder crash’ bombs of both sides and by the fire-lance rockets of the Jin engineers. Arguably, the Jin’s superiority in technology was the only thing that kept the Mongols from rapidly capturing the city. The fire-lance rocketeers would certainly have had an effect on Mongol cavalry, with their long reinforced paper pipes spewing flames over 3 metres long.

February 1233 saw the Jin emperor flee the doomed city for Henan, where he holed up in Caizhou (modern Runan). Kaifeng was left under the control of several generals, and General Xu Li took overall command in May by virtue of his elimination of any dissenting official or general. He then offered the city to Subetei. His act may have constrained the Mongols in their sacking of the city and the massacre that ensued was at least limited to only the male members of one clan. Xu Li was, however, a victim of the Mongol victory as he was murdered by a fellow Jin officer.

Then, in the summer of 1233, rumours spread to the Song court of a Jin plan to cut through the Song border and form a route of escape for Aizong to Sichuan. However, when the Jin crossed the border they were rapidly defeated by General Meng Gong, and the Song counterattack effectively cut the Jin forces at Caizhou off from any hope of relief. The Song army was now fully in control of southern Henan. The confidence this gave the Song meant that Jin emissaries seeking a pact were sent home, without even the courtesy of an audience being extended to them.

Aizong sent more desperate missives to the Song court, begging for at the least supplies, and at the best armed support against the Mongols who were closing on Caizhou by December 1233, but the Song were by this time already plotting with his enemies for the destruction of Jin. Aizong committed suicide and handed the reins of power, worn out though they were, to a distant relative, Mo Di.

The siege of Caizhou saw the entire populace of the region crowded into the city, for fear of the Mongols, and famine quickly ensued. The Song supplied the Mongol army with grain and no Jin relief army would come to the new capital’s aid, as all strategy had broken down and the armies of the Jin were still defending patches of land across the now dead empire. The rainy season was also in full flow and floods slowed those forces that did respond to the Jin emperor’s pleas. In September 1233 the Song had begun retaking their former prefectures from the Jin and their massing on the border of a large army also drew Jin forces away from the war for the heartland.

Before his death Aizong had attempted to buoy his troops defending the southern border with these words:

The fact that the Tatars unleash their forces and often win battles is because of their northern style and because they use the tricks of the Chinese. It is very difficult to fight against them. As to the Song, they are really not our match! They are weak and not martial, just like women. If I had three thousand armoured soldiers, we could march into Chiang and Huai provinces. Take courage

The Jin then defeated the Song at the battle of Changtu Tian and this Song failure must have made it obvious to the Mongols that the Song state was defended by an army that was, despite its size and sophistication, at times, a paper tiger.

By this time, cannibalism had broken out in Caizhou, and the Song, under General Meng Gong, joined the Mongols in besieging the city in November 1233 with ten thousand men. They breached one wall, but were driven out. Then, on 8 January 1234, the Mongols broke the banks of the Lien River and Song engineers diverted the Ju River away from Caizhou. This effectively denuded Caizhou of its western and southern defences and by 20 January the Mongols were in the western part of the city. Mo Di was killed in house-to-house fighting as the Mongols stormed Caizhou on 9 February 1234. A large body of Jin soldiers, loyal to the last, had desperately tried to defend him and perished with him. General Meng Gong seized the Jin imperial seals and part of Aizong’s burned body as proof of the end of the dynasty, and Song garrisons were placed in southern Henan.

The Song had now outlasted two enemy dynasties, the Liao and the Jin, though they themselves had defeated neither and had even failed once against the armies of the dying Jin. Now they faced another invader from the north, one with which they had made common cause with in the last few months of Jin’s demise. A Chinese proverb that predates the Song dynasty tells us, ‘When the lips are gone, the teeth soon become cold.’ The Jin were gone and Song now faced the Mongols alone.

The Mongol Invasion of Hungary 1241 and its Consequences I


“In this year, after existing for 350 years, the kingdom of Hungary was annihilated by the Tatars.” This terse statement by the Bavarian monk Hermann of Niederaltaich appears in the annals of his monastery for the year 1241. At almost the same time, the Emperor Frederick II wrote to the English King: “That entire precious kingdom was depopulated, devastated and turned into a barren wasteland.” Contemporary witnesses and chroniclers still called the Asiatic attackers “Tatars”, although these already identified themselves as Mongols.

The “Mongol storm” had been in progress in Asia and Eastern Europe for half a generation, buffeting Russians, Cumans and Poles, yet Hungary was the first to be hit with full force by Genghis Khan’s successors. On 11 April 1241 at Mohi by the confluence of the Sajó and Hernád rivers, the Mongol horsemen led by Batu Khan annihilated the numerically superior but ill-led and barricaded Hungarian forces. Amid indescribable chaos the majority of the country’s religious and lay dignitaries were slaughtered, and it was as if by a miracle that the king and some of his young knights escaped. The Mongols followed in Béla’s tracks as far as Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, and finally even besieged the Dalmatian island city of Trogir, where he had taken refuge: in the Mongols’ eyes a country was not definitively vanquished while its rightful ruler still lived. For months the siege of Trogir continued, and the king and with him Hungary—indeed probably the West itself—were only saved by the sudden death of the Great Khan in far-away Karakorum. When this news reached Batu Khan in the spring of 1242, he promptly turned his Mongols around to be present at the contest for the succession. They pulled out of Hungary, laden with plunder and numerous prisoners: even thirteen years later, the missionaries Carpini and Rubruquis, travelling through the region of Karakorum, met Hungarian slaves still in bondage.

The Mongol storm resulted in a deep disruption for the Magyar population from which, according to medievalists such as György Györffy, Hungary never completely recovered. Györffy calculated that some 60 per cent of the lowland settlements were destroyed. The inhabitants who survived the massacres and abductions were threatened by starvation and disease. Failed harvests caused by destruction of the fields and the impossibility of tilling them added to the catastrophe. The situation was somewhat less severe in the regions west of the Danube, as these were only plundered and torched during the Mongols’ advance and never occupied; here the population loss amounted to about 20 per cent. The Slavs of Upper Hungary as well as the Székelys and Romanians of the Transylvanian mountains had come off fairly lightly. In all, according to older estimates, about half of Hungary’s 2 million inhabitants in 1240 became direct or indirect victims of the Mongol invasion.

The attack did not take Béla IV by surprise since he, alone in Hungary and perhaps in all the West, had recognized the deadly danger posed by the Mongols’ obsessive expansionist dreams of world domination. Owing to its still existing relationships with the Russian principalities, Hungary was quickly informed of events in the East, including the ruinous defeat of the Russians and Cumans by the nomad horsemen in 1223. Moreover, while still crown prince Béla had despatched a group of Dominican monks to the East in order to convert to Christianity the Hungarian tribes who, according to tradition, had remained in the old homeland; in his search for Magna Hungaria, the land of the early Magyars, Friar Julian actually came across people beyond the Volga with whom he could communicate in Hungarian, and it was from these “relatives” that he heard of the Mongols’ unstoppable westerly advance. After their return in 1237 one of the friars wrote an account of his travels and sent it to Rome. When Julian set out a second time on his adventurous journey to the East to scout out the Mongols’ intentions, he could no longer reach the ruined homeland of the distant tribesmen, who had by then been overwhelmed. Julian hurried back to Hungary with the terrible news and accurate information about the Mongols’ military preparations. Furthermore, he brought a threatening letter from Batu Khan to King Béla, calling upon him to surrender and hand over the “Cuman slaves” who had taken refuge in Hungary. Béla did not reply to the ultimatum. However, unlike the Pope and the Emperor, who had for years been entangled in a controversy over the primacy of Rome, the King took the Mongol threat seriously, being fully aware that if the charges and demands were ignored by those threatened, a devastating campaign would always follow.

Béla IV therefore suspected what was in store for his country, and prepared for battle. He personally inspected the borderlands, had defence installations prepared on the mountain passes, and tried to assemble a strong army. It was not his fault that, despite these precautions and warnings to the Hungarian nobles, and appeals to the Pope, Emperor Frederick II and the kings of Western Europe, the Mongols descended upon Hungary and wrought devastation following their victory at Mohi. Though intelligent and brave. Béla was not a general and did not have a powerful professional army at his disposal. Even before his father’s Golden Bull the nation’s warriors, formerly ever ready for battle, had become “comfortable landowners” and were no longer a match for the Mongol hordes operating with remarkable precision and planning.

Another factor was present, with consequences hardly ever considered by Western historians with no knowledge of the Hungarian language although it had decisive consequences already in the earliest days of the Hungarian state, and contributed to other great disruptions in the nation’s history—defeat by the Ottomans and Habsburgs. This factor was an ambivalence towards everything foreign. Oscillation between openness and isolation, between generous tolerance and apprehensive mistrust was probably the main cause of the essentially tragic conflict with the ethnic group which would eventually form the backbone of the Hungarian army: the Cumans. Although this Turkic people had repeatedly attacked Hungary in the past, they later sought refuge and support from the Magyars, especially in view of the unstoppable advance of the Mongols. While still crown prince, Béla endorsed the Cumans’ conversion by the Dominicans and accepted the oath of allegiance of one of their princes who converted together with 15,000 of his people—a bishopric was established for these so-called “western” Cumans. Ten years later the “eastern” Cumans also fled from the Mongols across the Carpathians, giving Béla the support of another 40,000 mounted warriors against the impending invasion from Asia. Before admitting them he had them baptized, yet the integration of this nomad people into the by then Christianized and westernized Hungarian society led to tensions and rioting. When the Mongol offensive was already approaching, the distrustful Hungarian nobles attacked and murdered the Cuman Prince Kötöny, whereupon his soldiers, swearing vengeance, took off to Bulgaria leaving in their wake a trail of carnage and destruction. Thus four weeks before the crucial battle at Mohi the King lost his strongest allies.

The same groups of nobles who had aggravated existing tensions in the early phase of the Cumans’ assimilation then complied only hesitantly and reluctantly with the king’s appeals to be in readiness with their contingents. In their accounts the two important witnesses of the Mongol onslaught, Master Rogerius and Thomas of Spalato, revealed clearly the profound differences between the king and a section of the magnates. According to a contemporary French chronicler, Batu Khan heartened his soldiers before the battle of Muhi with the following derogatory slogan: “The Hungarians, confused by their own discords and arrogance, will not defeat you.” The barons, as already mentioned, were incensed mainly by the fact that Béla sought to withdraw his father’s prodigal donations, and that he overrode their opposition in bringing the Cumans into the country and then giving them preferential treatment. They even spread the rumour that the Cumans had come to Hungary, as the Mongols’ allies, to stab the Hungarians in the back at the first opportunity.

The Italian cleric and chronicler Rogerius, who lived through the Mongol invasion, saw this differently. He praised Béla IV as one of the most notable of Hungary’s rulers, who had done a great service to the Church by his missionary work among the pagan people: he had tried—as they deserved—to subdue the “audacious insolence” and insubordination of his barons, who did not balk even at committing high treason. Rogerius defended Béla against the accusation of not having taken steps in time to avert the danger from the Mongols. On the contrary, the nobles had been urged early and repeatedly to gather their regiments and rally to the King. Despite Béla’s obvious inability to impose order on the army, Rogerius blamed the nobles whose antagonism to the King not only denied him vital support in the battle, but virtually willed his downfall—“because they thought that the defeat would only affect some of them and not all.”

Added to the mistrust of foreigners and the discord within their own ranks was the indifference of a silent Western world. The priestly chronicler accuses the European princes of failure to answer the Hungarian King’s calls for help; none of Hungary’s friends had come to its aid in its misfortune. Rogerius does not exclude even the Pope or the Emperor from blame; all had miserably failed. In a letter to Pope Vincent IV Béla wrote in 1253: “We have received from all sides…merely words. […] We have received no support in our great affliction from any Christian ruler or nation in Europe.” The Mongol nightmare determined, consciously or unconsciously, not only the King’s exchange of letters with the various popes and potentates, but also his foreign policy. By far the most important and lasting psychological consequence of the Mongol invasion was the inference “We Hungarians are alone”. The sense of isolation, so characteristic of Hungarians, hardened from then on into a “loneliness complex” and became a determining component of the Hungarian historical image. The calamities of the sixteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries set this reaction into concrete.

The Mongol Invasion of Hungary 1241 and its Consequences II



Fear of a second Mongol invasion was bizarrely echoed even in King Béla’s dynastic policy. He wrote in a letter to the Pope: “In the interests of Christianity, we let our royal dignity suffer humiliation by betrothing two of our daughters to Ruthenian princes and the third to a Pole, in order to receive through them and other foreigners in the East news about the secretive Tatars.” Clearly an even greater sacrifice, mentioned in the same letter, was the marriage of his firstborn son to a Cuman girl; this was supposed to bind the warlike nomad horsemen, called back a few years after the Mongol attack to the depopulated areas of the Danube-Tisza plains, even closer to the House of Árpád, and hasten their absorption into the Western Christian community.

The aversion to foreigners, even when they were urgently needed as allies; the friction within their own ranks, even in times of extreme danger; and finally the justified sense of aloneness and being at the mercy of others, formed the background to the first catastrophe in the history of the Christian Hungarian kingdom. That the Hungarians felt misjudged, betrayed and besieged by enemies was probably also, or perhaps primarily, the result of what is unanimously criticized in international historiography as “brazen blackmail”. The Austrian Babenberg Duke, Frederick II, set a trap for the fleeing King of Hungary (his cousin and neighbour, not to be confused with the Hohenstaufen Emperor) robbed and imprisoned him. The Austrian was already nicknamed “the Quarrelsome” because he had fallen out with most of his neighbours, even having been temporarily outlawed and divested of his fief in 1236 by the Emperor.

Rogerius, who—as mentioned above—had lived through the Mongol invasion as an eye-witness and was himself imprisoned for a year, described this deed in the thirty-second chapter of his account:

After his flight from the hordes the King rode day and night until he reached the Polish border region: from there he hurried, as fast as he could, by the direct route to the Queen, who stayed on the border with Austria. On hearing this the Duke of Austria came to meet him with wicked intentions in his heart, but feigning friendship. The King had just laid down his weapons and, while breakfast was being prepared, lain down to sleep on the bank of a stretch of water, having by an act of divine providence made his long escape alone from many horrible arrows and swords, when he was awakened. As soon as he beheld the Duke he was very happy. Meanwhile the Duke, after saying other comforting words, asked the King to cross the Danube, to have a more secure rest on the opposite bank, and the King, suspecting no evil, consented because the Duke had said that he owned a castle on the other side where he could offer more befitting hospitality—he intended not to entertain the King but to destroy him. While the King still believed he could get away from Scylla, he fell victim to Charybdis, and like the fish that tries to escape from the frying pan and jumps into the fire, believing that it has escaped misfortune, he found himself in an even more difficult situation because the Duke of Austria seized hold of him by cunning, and dealt with him according to his whim. He demanded from him a sum of money which he claimed the King had once extorted from him. What then? The King could not get away until he had counted out part of that money in coin and another part in gold and silver vessels, finally pledging three adjacent counties of his kingdom.

According to Rogerius, Duke Frederick robbed the Hungarian refugees and invaded the defenceless country with his army. He even attempted to capture Pressburg (now Bratislava) and Györ, which however managed to defend themselves. The chronicler did not realize that Duke Frederick II and Béla IV had old scores to settle. Frederick had attacked Hungary several times since 1233, and had supported an uprising by Hungarian magnates against their King. When András II and his sons. Béla and Coloman, resisted and chased him back to Vienna, the duke could obtain a peace agreement only in return for a costly fine. He had never forgotten this humiliation, and now, against the admonitions of Pope Gregory IX, exploited the Hungarians’ desperate situation.

The historian Günther Stökl referred to the “understandably very negative impression” which “the treachery of its western neighbour left in Hungarian historical consciousness”.5 As is well-known, none of the Central and East European states have school textbooks that treat in a particularly balanced way their own and their region’s history. Still, the chasm is rarely as wide as in the depiction of the episode described by Rogerius. Thus the Hungarian historian Bálint Hóman (1935): “Frederick… capped the disgraceful offence against the right of hospitality to the greater glory of Christian solidarity with an attack on the country suffering under the Tatars.” The Austrian historian Hugo Hantsch (1947) saw the role of the Babenberg Duke differently: “Frederick… stops the Tatars’ advance to Germany… Austria once again proves its worth as the bulwark of the Occident, as the shield of the Empire.”

It was an irony of fate indeed that the moribund kingdom was successful against the expansionist attempts of Duke Frederick of Austria in particular. After Frederick’s death in the battle at the Leitha in June 1246 Béla even got involved in the succession struggle of the Babenbergs and brought Styria temporarily under his control, his son and successor becoming its prince for some years. However, after a serious defeat by Ottokar II of Bohemia at Marchegg in Austria, the Hungarians were no longer able to assert themselves. The “annihilation of the kingdom of Hungary”—never actually came to pass. On the contrary, Béla IV steeled himself after his return for the enormous task of rebuilding the ravaged country, especially the depopulated lowland and eastern areas, which he did with considerable energy, resolve and courage.

Béla, not unjustly dubbed in his country as its second founder after St Stephen for his statesmanship and achievements, still had twenty-eight years ahead of him after the departure of the Mongols. Like Stephen, he was a ruler who practised openness, and the prime mover in an extensive policy of colonization. His realm extended over the entire Carpathian basin and embraced Croatia-Slavonia, Dalmatia and part of Bosnia. The reason why he so quickly regained his political power is partly that the most densely populated western areas of the country were those least affected by the Mongol depredations. Still, his entire domestic and external politics were always haunted by the nightmare of a renewed Mongol incursion, which led to the organizing of a completely new defensive system. The fact that only some castles had withstood the Mongol attacks showed that only well-built forts offered genuine security. That is why the King wanted to see so many cities and smaller places encircled by stone walls. He created a new powerful army, replacing the light archers with a force of heavy cavalry.

Béla managed to resettle the Cumans on the Great Plains, and this foreign tribe came to play an outstanding role in the new army. In his previously cited letter to Pope Innocent IV he wrote: “Unfortunately we now defend our country with pagans, and with their help we bring the enemies of the Church under control.” The Alan Jazyges, originally also steppe horsemen from the East, settled in the country with the Cumans. A royal document of 1267 states that the King had called peasants and soldiers from all parts of the world into the country to repopulate it. German colonists as well as Slovaks, Poles and Ruthenes thus came into Upper Hungary (today’s Slovakia); Germans and Romanians, but also many Hungarians, moved to Transylvania. Soon French, Walloon, Italian and Greek migrants moved to the cities. The Jewish communities of Buda (newly fortified as a royal seat), Esztergom and Pressburg were under the King’s personal protection. Already by 1050, according to the Historical Chronology of Hungary by Kálmán Benda, Esztergom was a centre for Jewish traders who maintained the business connection between Russia and Regensburg and are said to have built a synagogue. Minting was assigned to the archbishopric of Esztergom, which in turn entrusted the task to a Jew from Vienna named Herschel.

King Béla finally had to pay a high political price to the predominantly narrow-minded, selfish oligarchs for the surprisingly fast reconstruction, the promotion of urban development and—his priority—the establishment of a new army. The disastrous concentration of power in the hands of the great magnates remained in force, and in stark contrast to Béla’s radical measures and the reforms passed before the Mongol attack, they were able to assert their old privileges and, even more serious, they were not after all required to return the royal estates and castles, but even received further endowments. This soon created chaotic conditions.

During the last decade of his reign Béla was already embroiled in a serious conflict with his son, the later Stephen V, who was strong in military virtues but power-hungry. Stephen’s rule as sole king lasted only two years; he could not control the mounting tensions between the power of the oligarchs—who by now were feuding among themselves, as were some of the senior clergy—and the lower nobility, who had been supported by Béla as their counterbalance through the granting of privileges. But it was the particularly explosive and unresolved issue of the absorption of the Cuman horsemen into the Hungarian environment which once again impinged disastrously on the royal house itself. Although the Cumans were a mainstay of the new army, especially in campaigns outside Hungary’s borders, the complete socio-religious and linguistic assimilation of the tens of thousands of former nomad horsemen took another two to three centuries.

The marriage of Béla’s son Stephen to Elizabeth, daughter of the treacherously assassinated Cuman prince Kötöny, was meant to seal a lasting reconciliation with this ethnic group. The plan was to give the Cumans parity of treatment with the nobility, but Stephen’s untimely death brought an abrupt end to these endeavours.

Stephen’s son Ladislaus IV (1272–90) was still a child, and the Queen Mother Elizabeth, who called herself “Queen of Hungary, daughter of the Cuman Emperor”, proved to be a puppet in the hands of the power-hungry oligarchs and blatant favourites, and thus totally unfitted for the task of regency. She and her son trusted only Cumans, hindering rather than fostering the precarious process of integration by their exaggerated and demonstrative partiality towards the steppe warriors.

Only once did the young King Ladislaus IV show his mettle—by a historic action at a decisive moment for Austria’s future. It happened on the battlefield of Dürnkrut, where the army of Hungarians and Cumans, estimated at 15,000 men, resolved the conflict between Rudolf of Habsburg and Ottokar II of Bohemia. In the words of the Hungarian historian Péter Hanák, “In the battle of the Marchfeld [Dürnkrut] Hungarian arms helped establish the power-base and imperial authority of the Habsburgs.” Apart from this, the life of the young King, already known in his lifetime as “Ladislaus the Cuman” (Kún László), was an uninterrupted series of scandals, intrigues and bloody settling of scores. The passionate, spirited and, according to tradition, continuously love-struck King for some reason refused to produce a successor with his wife, the Angevin Princess Isabella of Naples, and had her locked up in a convent. When his pagan following and numerous mistresses resulted in a papal interdict, the psychopathic monarch threatened (as the Archbishop expressed it in a letter to the Pope) “to have the Archbishop of Esztergom, his bishops and the whole bunch in Rome decapitated with a Tatar sabre”. Incidentally, Ladislaus IV is supposed to have performed the sex act with his Cuman mistress during a Council meeting in the presence of the dignitaries and high clergy. He was excommunicated, and finally killed at the age of twenty-eight by two Cumans hired by the Hungarian magnates.

Ladislaus died without issue and anarchy followed. Groups of oligarchs ruled their spheres of interest as if they were family estates, and considered the entire country theirs for the taking, dividing it up between themselves. The last Árpád king, András III, was unable to re-establish central authority or prevent the country’s disintegration. He died in 1301, leaving only an infant daughter, and with him the male line of the Árpáds died out. Years of struggle for the coveted throne of Hungary, by now recognized as a member of the European community of states, resulted in 1308 in the victory of the Angevin Charles Robert, grandson of Mary of Naples, sister of Ladislaus IV.

In the long run the politically and, above all, psychologically most significant heritage of the time of “Ladislaus the Cuman” was the “new historical image” of the Hungarians, invented from A to Z by his court preacher Simon Kézai. In his famous letter to the Pope, King Béla still compared the Mongols with Attila and his murderous and fire-raising Huns. Barely a generation later, between 1281 and 1285, the grandson’s court scribe saw the Huns in a quite different light. Kézai, a gifted storyteller, perceived Attila as a worthy ancestor of the Christian kings. From sources he found “all around Italy, France and Germany” this court cleric, a man of simple background, calling himself in his preface an enthusiastic adherent of King Ladislas IV, concocted the evidently desired historical image. He produced the surprising theory of a “Dual Conquest”: the original 108 clans had in the distant past already made up the same people—who at that time were the Huns, and were now the Hungarians. Coming from Scythia, they had already occupied Pannonia once before, around the year 700, and under Attila conquered half the world. They then retreated to Scythia, finally settling permanently in Pannonia. The 108 clans of 1280 were thus, according to Simon Kézai, the descendants of the original community—without any mingling. Thus was born a historical continuity which had never existed.

Mongol: Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics




When the Mongols engaged an opponent’s field army, they used a wide array of tactics to achieve victory. One such tactic, usually the opening one, was a barrage of arrows from a distance. Although this opening volley often inflicted little harm, it allowed the Mongols to see how the enemy would react. To remain in a position under constant fire probably became frustrating, especially for elite units. For massed infantry, often haphazardly armored, it became precarious.

From the Jürcheds, the Mongols adopted a troop composition of roughly 60 percent light cavalry and 40 percent medium-to-heavy cavalry. Army formations essentially consisted of five lines. The first three lines were light cavalry, and the last two were heavy cavalry. During battle the light cavalry released numerous barrages of arrows upon their opponents before retiring to regroup behind the heavy cavalry. After the opponent had become sufficiently disorganized, or after the Mongol commander decided to deliver the final blow, the heavy cavalry would trot forward in silence, accompanied only by the pounding of drums. Just before contact, the riders would release a terrific, collective scream, intended to frighten their opponents.

The key element in battle remained the Mongol barrage, or “storm,” of arrows, after which the Mongols would base their ensuing actions on their observations of their enemy. They would opt either for an enveloping maneuver or for a continued arrow barrage, at a closer, more destructive range. Another tactic was the mangutai, or the so-called suicide attack. In this maneuver a select group of Mongols would harass the enemy lines, showering them with arrows at close range until the enemy finally broke ranks and charged. The Mongols would then flee, still firing their arrows by turning backward in their saddles, a technique known as the Parthian shot, perfected and made famous by Parthian warriors of ancient Persia. After the pursuing forces became strung out and disorganized, the majority of Mongol forces would then charge. Often these forces had been waiting in ambush along the flanks, or were in fact the mangutai troops, who had mounted fresh horses. The pursuing forces would be unable to withstand the cohesive force of the Mongol charge. This maneuver-the feigned rout-was an old steppe trick, one that the Mongols raised to perfection. In the encircling maneuver the Mongols often left a gap between their lines. Eventually, the encircled foe would detect the gap and attempt to escape through it, inevitably leading to a rout, during which the Mongols would pursue and cut down the fleeing soldiers.

The Mongols conducted the majority of their battles at a distance. They possessed a great advantage in the power of their bows and believed in the principle of massed firepower, coordinating their fire arcs through the use of banners, torches, and whistling arrows. Much like that of modern directed artillery fire, the effect of massed Mongol firepower could be devastating.

Mongol use of massed firepower also applied to sieges. At Aleppo in 1400, the Mongols arranged twenty catapults against one gate. The Mongol use of massed firepower-decades before the English use of massed longbow archers-reduced enemy armies, and with catapults and ballistae, demolished city defenses.

Other Mongol tactics included psychological maneuvers. The Mongols often lighted more campfires than normal to make their camps appear to be larger than they were. At times they also mounted dummies on their spare horses, so that their armies would appear from a distance to be larger than they were. Tamerlane contributed the trick of tying branches to the tails of his horses, so that enormous clouds of dust could be seen from a distance, deceiving his enemies. Merchants who served as spies spread rumors far in advance of the army. Furthermore, Mongols treated with leniency cities that surrendered, whereas they crushed mercilessly those that opposed or rebelled.

In terms of strategy, the Mongols had a set method of invasion that varied only slightly from campaign to campaign. The Mongol army invaded in several, usually three, columns: a center force and two flanking corps. The flanking units, in some instances, went into neighboring territories before a rendezvous with the center army, as in the Mongol invasion of Hungary in 1241. Armies sent into Poland distracted the Poles, the Teutonic Knights, and the Bohemians from joining the Hungarians. A screen of scouts and outriders constantly relayed information back to the column. Their preplanned schedule and use of scouts allowed the Mongols to march divided, but to fight united. Furthermore, because their forces marched in considerably smaller concentrations, the Mongols were not impeded by columns stretching for miles. They used their mobility to spread terror on many fronts at the same time; their opponents were rarely prepared to concentrate their forces against them.

The Mongols’ use of many-pronged invasions also fit in with their preferred method of engaging the enemy. The Mongols preferred to deal with all field armies before moving deep into enemy territory. Because the enemy usually sought to meet the Mongols before they destroyed an entire province, reaching this goal was rarely difficult. Furthermore, the Mongols’ use of columns and a screen of scouts enabled the gathering of intelligence that usually allowed the Mongols to unite their forces before the enemy was cognizant of all the different invading forces, thus better concealing their troop strengths. This arrangement also meant that an embattled force could receive reinforcements or, in the advent of defeat, could be avenged.

By concentrating on the dispersion and movement of field armies, the Mongols delayed assault on enemy strongholds. Of course, the Mongols took smaller or more easily surprised fortresses as they encountered them. The destruction of the field armies also allowed the Mongols to pasture their horses and other livestock without the threat of raids. One of the best examples occurred during Genghis Khan’s Khwarizm campaign (c. 1220). The Mongols took the surrounding smaller cities and fortresses before capturing the principal city of Samarqand, in modern Uzbekistan. This strategy had two effects. First, it cut off the principal city from communications with other cities that might provide aid. Second, refugees from these smaller cities fled to Samarqand, the last stronghold. The sight of this streaming horde of refugees, as well as their reports, reduced the morale of the inhabitants and garrison of the principal city and also strained its resources. Food and water reserves were taxed by the sudden influx of refugees. Soon, what once had seemed a formidable undertaking became an easy task.

After conquering the surrounding territory, the Mongols were free to lay siege to the principal city without interference of a field army. Smaller forts and cities could not harry the Mongols, who either foraged or pursued other missions during the siege. Most important, the many Mongol columns and raiding forces had prevented the main city from effectively assisting its smaller neighbors without leaving itself open to attack. Finally, the capture of the outer strongholds and towns provided the Mongols more siege experience as well as raw materials in the form of labor either to man the siege engines or to act as human shields for the Mongols.

The Mongols also strove to destroy any hopes their opponents had to rally by harrying enemy leaders until they dropped. Genghis Khan first did this during his unification of Mongolia. In his first few encounters, the enemy leaders had escaped, which continually haunted him. After this lesson, the Mongols habitually hunted down opposing leaders. In Khw3rizm Sultan 4Al3 al-Din Muwammad (r. 1200- 1220) died alone on an island in the Caspian Sea after being hounded by Jebe and Sabutai. Mongol units relentlessly pursued Jalal ad-Dtn Mingburnu (r. 1220-1231), Muwammad’s son. Béla IV (1206- 1270), king of Hungary, barely escaped the Mongols, led by Batu Khan (died 1255), in 1241, as his boat pushed off of the Dalmatian coast into the Adriatic Sea.

Constantly on the move to avoid the Mongol forces, an enemy leader was unable to serve as a rallying point for his armies, who were also required to keep moving in order to find him. In many reports, the enemy leaders were only a few steps ahead of the Mongols. This strategy also allowed the Mongols opportunities to acquire new intelligence on other lands, because fleeing leaders ran in the opposite direction of the Mongols. The pursuing Mongol forces could then wreak havoc in new territories. Local powers would keep their forces at home, instead of sending them to help their overlords. In many instances the Mongols would defeat local armies they encountered along the way while avoiding the strongholds, another example of the Mongol method of destroying field armies before laying siege. The most important aspect of these pursuit columns was their capacity for destruction and intimidation, which created a buffer between the currently occupied territories and those that recently had been subdued. Thus, the main army could finish its mission of subjugation while the surrounding environs were devastated and rendered harmless.

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