In 1260 at the spring of Ayn J¯al¯ut in Palestine, an Egyptian Mamluk army handed invading Mongols a bitter cup of defeat.
In September 1260 an Egyptian Mamluk army, led by Sultan Sayf al-Din Qutuz, deployed around the Ayn J¯al¯ut spring in north- ern Palestine’s Jezreel Valley. The arrival of the Mamluk force did not impress Kitbuqa Noyan’s waiting Mongol horsemen. Mongol armies had already met and defeated many a formidable army, from Asian warriors to heavily armored European knights. Kitbuqa’s force was part of an army that had already won a string of victories on its march into the Middle East.
To throw the Mamluks off balance before they could make an advance, the Mongols launched an early morning offensive. Mounted archers charged the Mamluks, unleashing an initial barrage from their deadly composite horn-and-wood bows. As they turned and galloped away to prepare another charge, a second wave immediately moved forward and unleashed a salvo. As intended, the hailstorm of arrows threw back the Mamluks, softening up their formations to allow Mongol cavalrymen, in tough boiled-leather armor, to charge in for the kill. The Mamluks were getting their first taste of the characteristic organization, speed and ferocity for which the Mongols were known, justifying their anxieties about standing up to the undefeated invaders. If the Mamluks failed to check them, Egypt would likely suffer a similar fate as Baghdad, which lay in ruins after being sacked and pillaged by the Mongols in February 1258. The once-splendid city’s schools, libraries, mosques and palaces had been utterly destroyed, and the Mongols had killed nearly the entire Muslim population, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Such was the fate of those who refused to submit.
Leading the Mongol inva- sion of the Middle East— the southwestern thrust of the greater Mongol expansion—was Hülegü, a grandson of Genghis Khan. Departing Mongolia in 1253, Hülegü’s forces took Persia and the Baghdad-based Abbasid caliphate before moving against Syria, which was in Mongol hands by 1260. Believing his forces would easily steamroll through Palestine and into Egypt proper, Hülegü sent envoys to Qutuz in Cairo carrying a letter that demanded submission. “You cannot escape from the terror of our armies,” it threatened. “Where can you flee?”
The Mamluks—a class of slave-warriors (mamluk means “property”) who seized power from their Egyptian masters in 1250—saw the Mongol advance as both an existential military threat to Egypt and an assault on Islam. It was cause for alarm and dread in a country still in disarray after a turbulent decade of civil strife, intrigue and murder.
Qutuz was defiant. He had the Mongol envoys cut in half, their heads displayed at the city gate. The sultan then rallied his people under the banner of holy war, putting together an army comprising his own regular forces, auxiliaries, refugee Syrian troops and others who had fled the Mongol onslaught, and readying everything from body armor and javelins to bows and arrows, lances and swords. Though well armed and trained, the Mamluks knew of the Mongols’ seeming invincibility, and as their army marched out of Egypt, the troops and their leaders were apprehensive.
A year earlier Mongol plans to invade Egypt were derailed when Hülegü received word of the death of his brother, the Great Khan Möngke. Compelled to return to Mongolia for the Khuruldai, or council of Mongol-Turkic chiefs and khans, to elect a new great khan, Hülegü withdrew the bulk of his forces east to his power base in Persia. He left Kitbuqa with only a token force— perhaps two 10,000-man units known as tumens—to maintain control of Syria. The Mamluks may have had slight numerical superiority over the Mongols, though accounts of the size of the opposing forces and details on the course of battle differ considerably.
Qutuz deferred command of the Mamluk vanguard to a political rival named Baybars, to either reward him for his support or put him in the line of danger. After crossing the Sinai, Baybars force encountered forward elements of the Mongol army at Gaza, which quickly withdrew to alert Kitbuqa. Qutuz and the main Mamluk force joined the vanguard and moved northward up Palestine’s Mediterranean coast. Along the way Qutuz bypassed entrenched Crusaders in coastal cities and inland fortresses. The sultan made it clear they would regret any attempt to ally with the Mongols. Trapped between two enemies and still smarting from past defeats at the hands of the Muslims, the Crusader leaders chose to watch from the sidelines, even allowing the Mamluk army to camp outside Crusader-held Acre for several days.
Kitbuqa learned of the Mamluk encampment at Acre and, anticipating his enemy’s route southeast toward the Jezreel Valley, moved his forces south to intercept. Though the Mongols traveled light, carrying little equipment and making do with few provisions, they moved slowly to allow their thousands of warhorses to graze their fill in preparation for the coming battle.
That momentous battle erupted at Spring”) on Sept. 3, 1260. With its open landscape and plentiful water supply the plain at the foot of Ayn J¯al¯ut (“Goliath’s Mount Gilboa was an ideal battleground for the two cavalry-based forces.
Though skilled themselves, the Mamluk mounted archers were hit hard by the “devils’ horsemen,” as the Mongols were known. With their hardy horses and superior bows, the Mongols had perfected tactics of harassment, attack and evasion against counterattack, as well as pursuit and encirclement. Successful execution required a high degree of organization and cooperation, at which the disciplined and efficient Mongols excelled.
When the Mamluks did muster a counterattack, the Mongol horsemen retreated to the safety of their rear ranks, where men on fresh horses waited to charge. Though better equipped and riding larger mounts, the Mamluks soon exhausted their horses in attempts to catch the Mongols and bring their heavy weaponry to bear. Recognizing the need to conserve his horses and instead rely on his cavalry’s expert archery, Qutuz ordered his soldiers to calmly fire in place rather than undertake a futile chase of their elusive enemy.
Reading the Mamluks’ failure to pursue as a sign of weakness, the Mongols mounted another lightning assault. In a nearly overwhelming push, the Mongol right threatened to overpower the Mamluk left. As his forces wavered, Qutuz is said to have climbed atop a large boulder, tossed aside his helmet and shouted, “Wa, Islamah! Wa, Islamah!” (“Oh, Islam! Oh, Islam!”). The sight of their commander so courageously invoking their faith evidently inspired the Mamluks to hold their ground and fire steadily at the attacking Mongols. Shooting faster and straighter than the Mongols and unleashing deadly long-range fire from atop their stationary horses, the Mamluks exacted a heavy toll on their foe. When the Mongols halted, the Mamluks went on the offensive with their larger, stronger horses. Qutuz led the charge into the enemy ranks and was credited with killing a number of enemy riders. In the course of battle Qutuz’s horse was hit, but the sultan was unscathed.
As the Mamluks sought the upper hand, Kitbuqa’s tactical situation took a further hit with the desertion of al-Ashraf Musa, a Syrian emir who had gone over to the Mongols. Al-Ashraf had conveyed his intentions to the Mamluks in advance, and when his troops abruptly quit their positions on the Mongol left flank, the Mamluks drove through the gap to their enemy’s heart.
Some modern historians claim the bulk of the Mamluk army laid in wait while Baybars, leading a small detachment, alternately engaged the Mongols and feigned retreat—drawing them into an ambush. But the false retreat was a known Mongol tactic, casting doubt on claims they would have fallen for their own trick. It was also Mongol practice to send out large scouting parties, so they were bound to have known the true size of the Mamluk force they would be facing.
Whichever version of events is accurate, the results are not in dispute. By day’s end the Mamluks had slain Kitbuqa and devastated the Mongol army—killing some 1,500 men and wounding far more. The Mongol remnants fled the battlefield, pursued by Baybars’ vengeful Mamluks. Riding hard on the would-be invaders’ heels, the Mamluks chased down the fleeing enemy, killing any they caught. Some Mongols did manage to escape northward, though Baybars’ force pursued them into Syria.
Ayn J¯al¯ut marked the Mongols’ first true defeat. The Mamluks had routed the army that had terrorized so many before them and about which Hülegü had bragged, “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.”
When news of the Mongol defeat reached Damascus, its Muslim population rose against the Mongol occupiers. In disarray following the power transition in their capital, the Mongols were unable to stabilize the collapsing situation in Syria, and internal power struggles prevented them from seeking vengeance. The Mongols pulled back, creating a power vacuum that left the Mamluks masters of Palestine and Syria. Ironically, the Mongol hordes that had laid waste to Baghdad—a pearl of the Muslim world—largely embraced Islam in 1300 under Hülegü’s great-grandson Ghazan.
On the return march to Egypt in October 1260, Baybars added another chapter to Mamluk Egypt’s decade of turbulence by stabbing Qutuz to death. Baybars’ motive may have been disappointment at not receiving Aleppo as a reward for his support and exemplary service in the conflict, or perhaps the murder simply resulted from pure, calculated ambition. On returning to Cairo, Baybars declared himself sultan, assuming the title al-Malik az-Zakir (“Triumphant King”). Though not the first Mamluk sultan, by virtue of his extremely capable leadership and ability to govern Baybars is considered the true founder of the Mamluk sultanate. Ruling from 1260 to 1277, Baybars laid the groundwork that enabled the Mamluk state to become the center of Muslim power, wealth and learning for more than 250 years.
Gary Rashba writes about Israel’s military and aviation history. He is the author of Holy Wars: 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land. For further reading he recommends Reuven Amitai-Preiss’ article “Ayn J¯al¯ut Revisited” in Tarih: Papers in Near Eastern Studies, and John Masson Smith Jr.’s “Ayn J¯al¯ut: Mamluk Success or Mongol Failure?” in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.