Ain Jalut – A Page From History

This week, more than seven centuries ago, a vast Mongol/Tartar horde numbering 300,000 warriors commanded by Hulagu Khan captured and razed Baghdad to the ground in a week-long massacre. The Mongols cut a swathe through three quarters of the Muslim lands, destroying the Abbasid caliphate and occupying Damascus. It was the most devastating sequence of events in the history of Islam. With the destruction of Baghdad and Damascus , the two greatest centers of Islam, only Cairo, the seat of the actual military power of Islam under the Mamluks, remained unconquered.

Image © Chester Beatty Library

Saif-ud-din Qutuz , the Mamluk ruler of Egypt, recieved a chilling message from Hulagu:

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.

When Salah-ud-Din Ayubi (Saladin) founded the Ayubid dynasty in 1174 AD, he formed an elite military corps of slaves called the Mamluks . In 1254 AD, the Mamluks under Aybak revolted and transformed themselves from slaves to rulers.

The Mamluks too had a formidable reputation as warriors, and despite being heavily outnumbered Sultan Qutuz decided to resist. He started making preparations to defend Cairo against seemingly inevitable destruction. However, divine intervention in the form of the death of the Great Khan Mongke, forced Hulagu to return home to decide his successor as per Mongol tradition.

A supremely confident Hulagu ordered a force of 20,000 men under Kitbuqa/Katabgha to attack Egypt. Once again Qutuz acted decisively and ordered his army to march out to attack the Mongols. The Crusaders, though bitter foes of Islam, recognised the Mongols as a greater common threat and allowed the muslim army safe passage and access to supplies.

The two armies met on the 3rd of September 1260 AD at Ain Jalut (The Springs of Goliath) in modern day Palestine. The Muslim army was at risk of being overrun when Qutuz rode to the thick of the action and launched a fierce attack on the Mongols. Shouting ' O Muslims! / Wa Islamah! ' he threw away his helmet so his warriors could recognize him. His actions had the desired effect and inspired his warriors to defeat the Mongols in close combat, something that no army had previously done.

The clash between Mamluk and Mongol armies at Ain Jalut seven centuries ago was one of the most significant battles of world history. The empire of Islam was within a few sword strokes of being wiped out and Europe, which had already been invaded through Poland, would be next in line to face the wrath of the Mongols. By smashing the myth of Mongol invincibility the Mamluks secured the future of both the Islamic and western civilizations as we know them today.

An interesting sideline is that within 35 years of the battle, Islam had managed to assimilate the Mongols. Hulagu Khan became embroiled in internecine battles with his cousin Berke Khan who had converted to Islam, and never threatened these lands again. Ghazan Khan, ruler of one of four descendant empires of the Mongol Empire (Ilkhanate), converted to Islam after his enthronement in 1295. The Great Mughals , who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from the early 16th to the mid-19th centuries.

Matt Zervas points out that the Mughals were descendents of Timur the Lame, who was a Muslim and claimed descendency from Genghis Khan yet was labeled an enemy of Islam by the Caliphate after sacking and basically exterminating Baghdad (again), Aleppo and Damascus. Another twist.