Genghis Khan & The Battle of Ain Jalut

Reading history never gets boring. Why make it up if one can read up on the real stuff? (There are exceptions to this, but in general I would argue that this is true).

Consider the battle of Ain Jalut.

The year is 1260AD. The place is in modern Israel. The combatants were the Mamluks and the Mongols. On the sidelines: the Crusaders and the eyes of Europe. Firsts: this was the first decisive defeat of the Mongols and it was one of the first battles in which firearms were used (yes, firearms in 1260 AD).

Mongolian warriors were known for their skill
with the bow & arrow – such as the one pictured
here. See it on display in the world premiere
exhibition Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at HMNS.

In 1260, thirty-three years after the death of Genghis Khan, a mighty army was poised to strike into Egypt. Led by Hülegü Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, this army had swept into Iran, Iraq and Syria laying waste to cities like Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus.  Their goal was to expand the Mongol empire as far as they could. Upon the capture of these famous cities, envoys were sent to the court of the Mamluk leader Qutuz in Cairo.

The envoys brought with them a demand for unconditional surrender. Qutuz was urged to “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.”

Qutuz refused to yield. He ordered the Mongol envoys to be beheaded and went on to prepare for war. He faced a Mongol army of more than 300,000 extremely mobile and battle-hardened soldiers. Then the unexpected happened. Word reached the Mongol army that the Great Khan, Möngke, son of Genghis Khan, had died. According to tradition, all princes had to return to elect a successor. The bulk of the Mongol army withdrew, leaving a much more modest force of 20,000 behind to tackle Egypt. The odds had improved tremendously for Qutuz and his cause. Because of this changing situation, he decided to go on the offensive.

A Mongolian siege, depicted in a mural that will
be on display in the world premiere exhibition
Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at HMNS.

On July 26, 1260, the Mamluk army marched northeast. The Mongol leader took his army to meet them. The armies met at a place called Ain Jalut (“the Spring of Goliath”), in the Plain of Esdraelon. This plain was bordered on the south by Mount Gilboa and on the north by the hills of Galilee. Ideal ambush country, it turned out. Qutuz ordered the bulk of his troops to hide in the hills, while the rest of his army moved toward the Mongols.

The Mamluk general in charge of the troops who had engaged the Mongols ordered a retreat at one point. Whether this was a genuine order, caused by the ferocity of the Mongol attack, or a strategic feint, is still up for debateit seems. However, the end result was that this withdrawal drew the Mongols into the area where the bulk of the Mamluk army lay in wait. The Mamluk heavy cavalry rode down from the hills and attacked the Mongol flanks. The retreating Mamluk army stopped and turned around as well. The battle was on.

At first the Mongols proved superior and started to envelop the Mamluk left flank. Qutuz rallied his troops and fate intervened again. The Mongol general was captured, causing the Mongols to experience their first defeat. They abandoned the battlefield, pursued by the Mamluks. Damascus and Aleppo were re-taken by Muslim forces.

Victor Lawson 'Crusader' (1850-1925)
Creative Commons License photo credit: puroticorico

This battle is important and interesting for many reasons. In some cases, one has to wonder “what if” the outcome had been different. The Mongol tide has reached its zenith. In the following years, Mongol attempts to avenge this defeat were rebuffed. Mamluk Egypt remained a force to be reckoned with in the Muslim world for another 200 years. Crusader forces played a minor role in these hostilities. They were very small, certainly in comparison with the overwhelming might of the Mongol army. Most of them were holed up in fortified positions, like the city of Acre. Realpolitikeventually caused the Crusaders to abandon a policy of neutrality and allow the Mamluk army on the march to come through their territory, camp and acquire provisions. Seeing a huge Muslim army camped outside the walls of their cities must have caused many a Crusader heartburn, to say the least.

The battle may also be one of the earliest in which firearms were said to have been used. These handheld devices were extremely primitive, but may have served a purpose of frightening the Mongolian cavalry with loud noises and smoke.

Unfortunately for Qutuz, all was not well in the end. Before he could return to Cairo for his triumphant entry, he was murdered by a close ally, who took over the reigns of his dominion. Without Qutuz’s decisive actions, however, the world would have looked very different today.

Learn more about Genghis Khan and the mighty Mongolian civilization he built in the world premiere exhibition Genghis Khan, opening Feb. 27 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

A Tale of Two Rulers

This is a story of two powerful rulers. They stand apart from most other rulers because of their achievements; they differ from each other for many reasons. One ruler was much respected, the other was feared. Archaeologists know of the whereabouts of one ruler’s tomb, although they have not excavated it. The location of the other ruler’s tomb is unknown, but that could change. This rather enigmatic introductory paragraph refers to Genghis Khan and Qin Shi Huang, China’s First Emperor.

Genghis Khan ruled over the world’s largest contiguous empire about 800 years ago. (The term “contiguous” is important here; as the British ruled over more territory during the heyday of their empire. However, those territories were dispersed across the globe).

Genghis Khan, or Temuchin (the spelling varies) as he was first called, had a very eventful childhood. Born in 1165 AD, he was betrothed at a very early age. His father was poisoned by the Tartars and his bride was abducted. Genghis was able to regain his wife with the support of other steppe tribes. Temuchin officially became Genghis Khan in 1206. It is thought that this title means “Oceanic ruler,” or “Firm, Resolute Ruler.”

Mongolian
Creative Commons License photo credit: asobitsuchiya

By that fateful year of 1206, Genghis Khan had united the tribes of Mongolia into one tribe. The stage was set for him to embark on one of history’s most astonishing campaigns of conquest. Historians suggest that there may have been several reasons why Genghis Khan went down this road: a quest for treasure, seeking revenge for past offenses, even megalomania. His conquests would take him into China and Tibet, as well as farther west into the Khwarazm empire which ruled over most of what is now called Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

In 1226, during a campaign against the Xi Xia in northern China, Genghis Khan fell from his horse. He died from his injuries in 1227 and was buried in a secret location. Numerous scientific expeditions have been mounted to try to locate his tomb. Currently yet another attempt is being mounted to find Genghis Khan’s last resting place.

The Mongol Empire continued after Genghis’ passing and his descendants continued to expand it. By the late 13th century, it reached from Hungary to the Sea of Japan. By that stage, the empire was divided into four nearly autonomous areas called khanates: China, central Asia, Persia, and Russia.

In 1294, after the death of Kublai Khan, the empire broke apart. There was a brief resurgence in the late 14th century when Timur (the Lame), who claimed to be descended from Genghis Khan, conquered Persia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and parts of Russia. On the way to attack China, however, Timur died, and the Mongol era was finished.

Pre-dating Genghis Khan by fourteen centuries, an individual by the name of Qin Shi Huang, rose to prominence in what is now China. In 246 BC, when he appeared in the scene, China was going through what historians call its “Warring States” period. In about twenty years, Qin Shi Huang managed to unify the country under one ruler. Qin Shi Huang became China’s First Emperor.  The old feudal system was replaced with a central government. China’s writing and currency was standardized. Commerce benefited from a vast new network of roads and canals. Last but not least, gigantic construction works got started during this emperor’s reign; among them the Great Wall (which would be extended many times in later years) and the Emperor’s mausoleum.

Soldiers
Creative Commons License photo credit:
SmokingPermitted

The mausoleum complex was – and still is – huge, covering approximately four square miles near the modern city of Xi’an. While the tomb itself is not excavated yet, the accompanying army of terracotta soldiers was found and partially excavated.

Both men have left lasting legacies. Without Genghis Khan, there would be no Mongolia today. Moreover, it is said that about 16 million men today can retrace their ancestry back to Genghis Khan. This has led to some people getting their 15 minutes of fame, occasionally incorrectly. China looks back at Qin Shi Huang as its founding father. Many aspects of modern Chinese culture can be retraced to this time period, more than 2200 years ago.

But there is more.

Aside from both rulers featuring in Hollywood made movies – one more recent than the other – both Genghis Khan and the First Emperor are soon taking up residence at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Come see for yourself what made these two individuals so special.