Genghis Khan & The Battle of Ain Jalut

February 16, 2009

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).

A Mongol warrior bow and arrow set on exhibition.
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.

The mongol siege of Xixia. One of the many battles undertaken with Genghis Khan at the helm.
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 debate it 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. Realpolitik eventually 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.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

9 responses to “Genghis Khan & The Battle of Ain Jalut”

  1. gao says:

    This may offend some people but for the mongols the defeat was less decisive. One less piece of remote(from the steppes) land that is. Just like the seige of Malta is so exulted in Europe while bing less value-attached in the Ottoman Empire. The same goes as with the battle of Talas in the eye of the Chinese. People just like victory stories and ravel… if the Hungarians weren’t defeated so badly during the Mongolian raid many more epics would have been composed.

    In the East the mongols learned quite a few lessons from their neighours. But who cares about that in the West?

  2. Dirk Van Tuerenhout says:

    Dear Gao,

    Thanks for your comment. I respectfully disagree. Considering that the Mongols in the subsequent years tried to avenge that defeat and could not, this particular battle can be considered as the high mark of Mongolian expansion in that direction. It seems to me that it was not only the victors in that battle exulted in their triumph, the defeated Mongols too seem to have thought it worthwhile to try again to un-do their defeat. If this was truly just an unimportant skirmish on the edge of their empire, they might not have adopted that posture.

    The story of the Mongols is less well known in the West than it is in the East, I agree. That is exactly why we have the exhibit at the museum and this blog online. Our goal is to share what we know, have a respectful discussion and in the end increase people’s awareness of what happened in the past.

    Kind regards,

    Dirk Van Tuerenhout

  3. Matt Harrison says:

    Do you have more information about the types of primitive firearms used in the battle? Were they comparable to the firelances used in China in the 1100’s?

  4. Astrid Leriche says:

    Very interesting blog (:
    I do expect a VIP-tour with the curator when we get to Houston in July.
    So thank you very much for organising the exhibition especially for me ^_^
    Also, which exhibitions are already scheduled for next year? So I know when mom has to book the tickets. =D

    Greetings from your favorite niece (and sister),
    Astrid and mom

  5. terry says:

    i am trying to confirm if Khan or his followers would have reached into the bekka valley of lebanon burning villages along their way ti syria, isreal or egypt. can you confirm?

  6. Dirk says:

    It is more than likely that these forces marched through Lebanon and came close to the Bekaa Valley, possibly even going through the valley on their way south. I do not have access to any sources I can trust to unequivocally say that this was the case. Still I would say that the odds were good that this did happen.

    Thanks for your interest and email


    Dirk Van Tuerenhout

  7. Benjamin Akanson says:

    I want some clarity as to who was the real war strategist in the battle. Quntuz was a skilled former slave soldier, what about Barbais who is said to have been well versed with the terrain of Ain Jalut. surely they would have worked together however shouldn’t the credit go to Quntuz because he was the ruler then and had as part of his responsibility to approve war strategies?

  8. Musa jama Ali says:

    I wonder if Mongolian success in Egypt would they have plan to expand to Africa Sudan to Somalia or not

  9. Mohammad Irfan says:

    Qutuz was a very far sighted general.He collected those veteran soldiers who had fought with Mongols.On the basis of his investigation and discussion with above said veterans,he reached the conclusions that to gain victory against Mongols he must have an Army which is even bigger in number than Mongols.Secondly, each soldier must be a very very trained soldier.Lastly he should fight the Mongols in the open field, since fighting them while sitting in a fort will bring in defeat.With this scheme, he entered in Ain UL Jalut, and in the battle Mongols were totally annihilated.In a few days,Mongols ran away from Syria and Palistine like jackles.Surely ,Mongols were very very inferior things in front of Mamluks.Actually there were some internal rifts within Mamluks, otherwise Mamluks were capable to throw Mongols out of Iran and Afghanistan.Surely Mamluk were the guards of Islam who saved Makkah and Madina at that time.

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