Battle of Ain Jalut

By Bloodswan

Prelude to the battle : Mongke, Hulegu & the campaign against the Hashashim

In 1251 Mongke, grandson of Genghis Khan became the Khan of the Mongol empire. One of his primary objectives was conquering the people of the Middle East. He appointed his brother Hulegu as leader of the expedition and soon began the summoning of the largest Mongol army ever assembled. One man in every five throughout the whole empire was summoned to serve in Hulegu's army. It took two years to assemble and it was not until 1253 that Hulegu prepared to begin his invasion. The size of the army was probably in excess of 200 000. Mongke Khan's first orders were to head south from the Mongol base in Persia and destroy the Hashashim, an Islamic cult sect from which the English word for assassin was derived. After this Hulegu would force the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad to surrender or be destroyed, move into Syria then head for the Mamluk state in Egypt.

Hulegu began his advance into Hashashim territory in late 1253 and with him he brought over a thousand Chinese siege engineers. The Hashashim had built a series of seemingly impregnable fortresses in the mountains of Northern Persia and had successfully defied all attempts by their enemies to remove them. One by one they attacked the "eagle nests" within the mountains. The Mongols used Chinese style siege crossbows constructed by Khitan tribesmen and launched massive rocks from catapults at the defences. Trebuchets too were present as they had just been adopted by the Mongol army after conquering part of Persia. Eventually all of the Hashashim fortresses fell and their inhabitants put to the sword.

A picture of a Mongol officer and Naccara drummer

The sack of Baghdad & expansion into Syria

Next the Mongol army crossed into Abbasid territory. Most of the rulers of Iran had submitted to the Mongols but the caliph of Baghdad remained refused. The Mongol army laid siege to Baghdad in 1258 and after bombarding the city for a week it fell. The Mongols rounded up any people of use and killed the rest. It was said 800 000 people were killed in Baghdad but this is most probably an exaggeration. The caliph was killed though there are conflicting accounts of how he really died. The most common is that he was wrapped up in a fine rug and beaten to death by Hulegu himself. After the week long looting of the city the Mongols left. Baghdad was left in ruins and the once wealthy city never recovered.

Hulegu then crossed in Syria, only one man was foolish enough to defy him, a Muslim prince named al-Kamil. He expressed his discontent for Hulegu by having the Mongol envoys crucified. Hulegu's revenge was horrific. When al-Kamil's castle fell, Hulegu forced him to cut off his own flesh and eat it until death released him from his pain. At this point Hulegu was joined by Louis IX's Armenian Crusaders. In 1259 Aleppo fell to this alliance of Mongol and Christian and Damascus was abandoned. The sultan Nasir fled to Egypt and the Mongols entered without lifting a sword or firing an arrow.

The Mongols now looked to Egypt but in 1259 Mongke Khan died in Szechuan, China and armed conflict had broken out over his succession. Hulegu along with most of his army would have to return to Persia to await further news from the East. Before leaving Hulegu delivered an ultimatum to Saif ad-Din Qutuz, sultan of Egypt - to put it simply, it basically called for the Mamluks to bow down to the Khan or be destroyed. The sultan responded by cutting off the Mongolian envoy's heads and displaying them in Cairo. Only two tumens ( 20 000 men) were left behind by Hulegu and he placed his best general Kitbuqa in charge. Qutuz allied with Baibars, a fellow Mamluk and decided to confront Kitbuqa's army.

The battle of Ain Jalut

The Mamluks were originally slave soldiers of Turkish origin who took control of Egypt in 1250. Their military styles and training were similar to the Mongols but probably more importantly so was their discipline. On September 3rd, 1260 the two armies clashed Ain Jalut (Goliath's spring).

Kitbuqa's army was probably slightly outnumbered but the Mongols had won almost all of their major field battles whilst being heavily outnumbered. But this battle was different. Not only were the Mamluks great horsemen but they were also of Turkic or Circassian origins and were used to the same steppe style warfare as the Mongols.

The battle began with the Mamluks drawing out the Mongol cavalry using a feigned retreat (signature tactic of the Mongols themselves) but they were almost overwhelmed by the savagery of the Mongol attack. Qutuz rallied his troops for a successful counterattack and it was then that the concealed heavy cavalrymen of the Mamluks joined the battle and defeated the Mongols in close combat. Kitbuqa was captured and after bravely threatening the sultan, beheaded. On the way back to Cairo, Qutuz was murdered by Baibars and his followers and became sultan himself.


Hulegu himself never returned to Egypt despite his threats to the Mamluk sultan. He was caught up in an arguement with his cousin Berke, Khan of the Golden horde. Berke was a Muslim and greatly opposed Hulegu's actions in Baghdad. After gathering another substantial army to invade Syria and take revenge on the Mamluks, Hulegu was attacked by Berke. This was the first open war between Mongols and signalled the end of the unified Mongol empire. Hulegu died in 1265 and his descendants would found the Il-Khans of Persia. He was succeeded by his son, Abaqa.

Baibar's successors would eventually remove all Christian states in Syria by 1291. The Mongols under Abaqa Khan were defeated soon after at the battle of Homs and completely driven out of Syria.


The battle of Ain Jalut is significant because it was the first time a Mongol army had been significantly defeated in a field encounter and it shattered the myth of Mongol invincibility. It did not however prevent further Mongol invasions into Syria and in 1300 the Mongols actually drove all Mamluk troops out of Syria but the Mongols never stayed in Syria long. Syria marked the edge of the Il-Khan Empire and the further most reach of the Mongol expansion into the Middle East.

The battle of Ain Jalut in a way ended the Mongol expansions westwards but it was not the decisive factor. It was inter-family fighting and the break up of the empire into smaller Khanites was the main reason for the slow decline of Mongol expansion. The battle of Ain Jalut did however prove that the Mongols could be defeated in an open battle.


The Mongols by David Morgan
The Mongols by Stephen Turnbull
Genghis Khan and the Mongols by Michael Gibson
Genghis Khan and the Mongol conquests by Stephen Turnbull
Various internet sources