Mongol Empire






History Decided At The 'Spring Of Goliath': The Battle Of Ain Jalut

Near the Middle Eastern city of Nazareth lies a fresh-water well not unlike hundreds of others located throughout that region of the world. Yet this unassuming place has a special place in world history; it has been the scene of actions that, had they occurred otherwise, would have had an inexorable effect on not just the region, but on the fate of much of the earth, both directly and indirectly. Its name? The English-language version of the Arabic name is Wadi Ain Jalut, the 'Spring Of Goliath', and it was here that, in the 13th century AD, both Arab and European civilization were spared from the most perilous threat to face either one…..EVER.

Ain Jalut has been, as far back as biblical times, a place known more for the blood shed there than for anything else. The very name 'Spring Of Goliath' comes from the belief that it was the site of the famous battle between the Jewish shepherd David and the Philistine warrior Goliath- a story that, it should be noted, is as renowned in Islam as it is in Christianity and Judaism. Because of its location near some of the region's most revered cities (Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem) and its geographic layout (the vast plain that dominates the region narrows to just five kilometers in width at Ain Jalut, with Mount Gilboa to the south and the hills of Galilee to the north), it saw more than its fair share of combat, including several battles between Arab and Crusader armies during the 11th and 12th centuries. However, the confrontation for which Ain Jalut became famous occurred on September 3rd, 1260 AD, during the holy month of Ramadan. It was then that the Muslims of the Middle East, a fractured lot of autonomous city-states that had barely been able to show enough unity to stem the incursions of the 'Franj' (Crusaders) from Europe, found themselves face-to-face with a foe infinitely more dangerous, a foe whose very name evoked terror: the Mongols.

If ever there was an unlikely group of would-be world conquerors, it was the Mongols. Originating from the lands in north-central Asia that are now called Mongolia, they were little more than a loose collection of ethnically-related nomadic tribes, more inclined to fight amongst themselves than join forces for any common cause. But a young warlord named Temujin- known to posterity as Genghis Khan- united them by a combination of guile and force in the early 13th century, setting in motion what would become the most efficient- and most successful- war machine the world has ever seen. Virtually born in the saddle, trained in the use of the compound bow from childhood, possessed of great stamina and physical courage, the Mongols were unparallelled cavalrymen, and Genghis Khan & his generals molded them into a military force without peer. In an age when the typical European army consisted of heavily-armored, immobile knights and ill-trained masses of peasant footsoldiers, the tremendous speed- they could travel ten times faster than their European counterparts- discipline, and innovative tactics of the Mongol cavalry allowed them to utterly destroy opposing armies several times their size. And destroy they did: in pursuit of Genghis Khan's goal of making the world into one vast steppe, where 'Mongol mothers can once again suckle free & happy children', the Mongol armies conquered a total land area vastly greater than the Roman Empire- and in one-fifth the amount of time. They reduced Imperial China to nothing more than a vassal state, then advanced westward, razing some of the world's most renowned cities- Bukhara, Herad, Samarkand - to the ground, leaving little but pyramids of human skulls in their wake; even domestic animals were sometimes killed, so as to leave nothing of value for what few survivors might remain. Such tactics were- and still are- seen as unchecked blodlust, but the pragmatic Mongols viewed it as the only means by which they could control populations by which they were outnumbered 100-to-1 or more, and used such terror tactics in a very calculating way. For the most part, cities and nations that willingly accepted Mongol suzeirenty were left largely untouched, and often found themselves surprised by their conquerors' level of tolerance in terms of internal government and religious freedom. But woe to those that dared their wrath…..

In the 13th century, Baghdad was the 'jewel of the world', a metropolis of over 100,000 that served as the seat of the Abassid Caliphate, the religious leader for the majority of the world's Muslims. So, when Hulega, one of Genghis Khan's grandsons, demanded that the Abassid caliph, al-Musta'sim, accept Mongol sovreignity, the caliph haughtily refused, and threatened to organize a 'jihad' against the Mongols. Hulega was not impressed. Organizing a massive army of 300,000- the largest field force ever mobilized by the Mongol Empire, Hulega advanced westward in 1258 and utterly destroyed Baghdad, levelling the city to the ground and massacring the entire population, save the Christian faction, which was saved by the entreaties of one of Hulega's wives. The Mongols then turned their attention on Syria and the rest of the Middle East, and the various city-states of the region- which were so prone to quarrel among themselves that they had even allied themselves with the infidel 'Franj' on occasion to fight one another- had no choice to capitulate. With a Mongol expeditionary force of just 20,000 running rampant through Russia, Poland, and Hungary, and with most of the European monarchs divided among themselves as to whether they should fight the Mongols or ally with them against Islam, it appeared that Mamluk Soldierthey would soon control the 'civilized world' (as they knew it during the 13th century) from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Only one obstacle stood in the Mongols' path: the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt.

Even just two years before, the idea that Egypt could pose an obstacle to anyone, much less the most powerful war machine in existence, was laughable. Centuries of caliphal lethargy had reduced the country to whipping-boy status: it was successively invaded by the Franj and by its Syrian neighbors, who took control in 1174. The rulers of Egypt had become completely dependent on foreign-born slave-soldiers from Central Asia- Mamluks, from the word meaning 'owned'. This would be their undoing as the Mamluks ultimately overthrew them and took control of the country for themselves, with one of their own, Qutuz, as the new sultan (a temporal ruler equivalent to 'king'). The Mamluks were a far cry from the likes of Saladin and Nur al-Din, Arab rulers renowned for their refinement and sense of honor; in fact, in terms of their utter lack of scruples, they were far more like the Mongols themselves, willing to do whatever it took to ensure success. But that the Mamluks also possessed courage was not in doubt: when Hulega sent emissaries to Cairo with demands for Egypt's surrender, Qutuz heard them out, then had them beheaded- the greatest possible insult to the Mongols. Qutuz took this action not out of a misguided belief that his army could match the Mongols- he fully realized that they had little chance of survival- but because the Mamluks had been slaves all their lives, and were determined to hold onto their newly-found power until the bitter end. An enraged Hulega began preparations to advance on Egypt, only to have fate intervene: Mongke Khan, Genghis' successor, died, and all of his heirs were called back to the Mongol capital of Karakoram to elect a successor. Hulega withdrew the bulk of the Mongol army to Iran, leaving only a small force of 15,000 Mongol cavalry & 10,000 allies from Armenia behind. It was just the opportunity that Qutuz needed. The Mamluks Battle Scenegathered their entire army- about 120,000 men total- and advanced into Syria; the Mongols, under the general Kitbuqa, rode out to meet them, and the two forces met at Ain Jalut.

Having arrived first, Qutuz and the Mamluks had time to lay a trap: they hid the bulk of their forces in the hills to either side of the narrow plain, then baited the trap with a vanguard under the command of his lieutenant, Baybars. When the Mongols attacked, the vanguard slowly gave ground, drawing the Mongols in with a feigned retreat- a tactic the Mamluks actually learned from the Mongols themselves. And it worked. By the time Kitbuqa realized his mistake, the 25,000 Mongols were surrounded by the entire Mamluk army. Even so, the Mongols nearly carried the day, launching a furious attack on the Mamluk left wing that actually caused it to collapse, and the day was only saved by the appearance of Qutuz himself, who rallied his forces. In the end, the Mongols fought and died to a man, and the Mamluks carried the field. The results of the Battle of Ain Jalut had consequences far greater than the destruction of a Mongol expeditionary force. Though the Mongols had acquitted themselves admirably in the face of overwhelming odds, they had still lost, and the Mongol myth of invincibility was shattered forever. Due to power struggles within the Mongol royal family that ultimately divided it, they never returned in sufficient force to seriously threaten the Middle East, and, while the Mongols retained power from Russia to China for several hundred more years, they would no longer pose a threat to Europe. As for the Mamluks, they would rule over Egypt until 1798, when they were defeated by another would-be world conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte. And so, in a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is rampant throughout Western civilization, it is ironic to think that Western civilization might have been inexorably altered if not for the actions of a Muslim power more than two hundred years before Columbus came to the New World.

Mongol Empire map courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art












Ain Jalut
 War: Mongol Wars
 Other name(s): Ayn Julut



3 Sep 1260




Mamluk victory over Mongols  Decisive Battle Decisive battle




A decisive victory by the Mamluks led by Baybars over the Mongol army led by Kitbuga. Baybars' army of 120,000 troops were able to trap the 10,000 man Mongol army at Ain Julut. The Mamluks completely destroyed the Mongols. Their victory stopped the westward expansion of the Mongol empire.