MORE THAN 700 YEARS AFTER THE EVENT it is still difficult fully to appreciate the massive geographical scale upon which the Mongols had fought their campaign; how, with such extraordinary precision, they co­ordinated so many separate army corps, developed and maintained long and complicated supply lines, operated communications systems over hundreds of kilometres, and then fought with courage and imagination against an enemy defending its own territory. The Asian armies ­ Mongol, Chinese and were unquestionably the masters of the art of war during the medieval period. Europe could barely comprehend what had happened, and was left in thrall as to what would follow.
Europe's first military encounter with the Mongols had been no more one­sided than that of the armies of China and Persia during the first half of the thirteenth century. However, the psychological impact was in every sense far more traumatic and long­lasting. Civilizations in both China and Persia had a long history of encounters with nomadic armies, whereas Europe had lived in blissful ignorance of the rest of Asia and nothing had prepared them for the Mongols. Europe in the thirteenth century w as completely ignorant of the lands to the east of the Urals. Although there had been trade with the East dating back to the pre­Christian era, this had always been conducted through merchants who plied between the Latin world and China without ever enlightening the one about the other.
The best-known product from the East was of course silk, which the Romans were convinced had been combed from the leaves of trees. India was a country that was only vaguely known, and even this chiefly because of Alexander's legendary march into the great subcontinent and the many weird and wonderful tales that had been spun about his exploits there. These tales, probably invented by merchants to enhance the exotic quality of their wares, were taken up by historians and had been perpetuated right up until the time of Marco Polo (1256-1323). India, which was then synonymous with most of what we call Asia, became a land occupied by men with the head of a dog (Cynocephali), or a single foot (Monopodes), or whose feet pointed backwards with their heels facing the front (Antipodes). There were creatures with neither neck nor head, but with a face set into the middle of their chest. There were wild hunters who lived on the mere smell of flesh. And there were curious pygmies who were supposed to live a thousand years, Satyrs, Amazons, Brahmans and Gymnosophists, enchanted mountains, unicorns, griffins and ants that dug for gold. It was also the land of rare jewels, pearls, aromatic woods and spices.
All these fantastic creatures became a feature in medieval art and literature, and their likenesses were carved in perpetuity on the exteriors of Gothic churches. We know them today as gargoyles, but 700 years ago they were imaginative stone likenesses of the inhabitants of the East.
Europeans were not unique in depicting such fantastic creations; the Chinese had a remarkably similar pantheon of creatures which they believed inhabited the unknown West. These included the creatures with the head of a dog, the single­footed beings and the headless beasts with their faces in their chests. The Chinese also had fanciful notions about the origins of cotton, a commodity they imported from western Asia, and which was supposedly clipped from the fleece of 'water sheep'.
The reasons why these curious fantasies survived for so long was the complete lack of cultural exchange between the two hemispheres. The Roman empire had never extended further than the River Euphrates, beyond which were fierce nomadic horsemen, rugged mountain and deserts; a realm the Romans failed to penetrate. It is claimed that the Chinese made a number of attempts to contact the civilizations in the West, though there is a record of only one: Kan Ying, an envoy despatched in AD 97. He reached the Persian Gulf but was warned by his Arab hosts, keen to maintain their privileged position as international go-betweens, that the rest of his voyage would take two years and that most who ventured into those uncharted lands perished. Kan Ying turned back. By the seventh and eighth centuries, with the rise of Islamic power in the Middle East, both land and sea routes had fallen under the control of the Muslims. Islam's inevitable confrontation with the Christian West led to Europe becoming even more isolated; though trade in silks and spices continued at higher and higher prices through Arab middlemen.
It was not just ignorance that sustained ideas of a land populated with monsters and fantastic beings; they were also given credence by the writings of early Christian scholars. St. Augustine had written about the existence of monsters, declaring their creation to have been an important part of God's great plan, so that man would not be perplexed by the birth of the malformed or insane. Under the authority of Christian teaching the regions to the east also became associated with certain biblical localities, like Terrestrial Paradise and the land inhabited by Gog and Magog; the latter being the land beyond Alexander's Gate (the Derbent Pass in the Caucasus Mountains) where Alexander is said to have imprisoned the two foul giants, Gog and Magog. According to the Book of Revelations, they would be released by Satan to destroy Jerusalem and bring destruction upon the world. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that contemporary chroniclers, reporting the Mongol attacks, laced their accounts with flesh­devouring monsters, and that congregations were told to expect the imminent apocalypse. The tall tales of travelling merchants became part of the Christian view of the real world.
But there was another Christian fantasy, a far more recent one, that both disarmed and confused European monarchs about the origins and purpose of the invader. This had its origin in the story of the Magi; the three wise men from the East invested with the dignity of kings, as described by St. Matthew. This was supported by stories which claimed that St. Thomas had journeyed to India, where he had preached the gospel, met the Magi and baptized them. Out of these stories developed the conviction that, somewhere in the vast uncharted Orient, ruled a number of Christian kings. Add to this rich brew the great literary tradition that developed around the heroic exploits in India of Alexander, who had become an important figure in the world of chivalry and courtly love, and you soon have a medieval picture of Asia as a land inhabited by grotesques, and in some part of which there reigned heroic Christian kings who performed romantic deeds.
WITH THE ENTHRONEMENT OF MONGKE, the empire was once again in the hands of an expansionist. The motivating force behind the empire had lain dormant since Ogedej's reign and during that time it had shown distinct signs of decadence and internal decay. Mongke Khan was set to change all that. this new sense of purpose moved through the Mongol capital, the Pope and his advisers struggled to decipher the confusing signals their envoys had delivered on the intentions of the 'Tartar hordes'. Louis's experience had been a bitter lesson.
However, though Europe waited to see what the fates delivered, this did not mean the end of European contact with the Mongol court. Among King Louis's entourage was a young Flemish monk by the name of William, who was soon to find himself at the very heart of the great empire just as it was about to make another stride on the world stage. Very little is known of young William, except that he was born in the French town of Rubruck around 1217, that he lived for some time at a friary in Paris, that he was passionately devout and that he had been in Louis's service at least since his departure for Egypt in 1248.
William of Rubruck enters the story because of his remarkable account of life and customs at the Mongol court. Far more detailed than previous accounts, it describes the workings of the empire's capital at a critical time for both the empire and the rest of the world.
Friar William turned up at the Mongol court because of his own personal mission to preach the gospel among the pagans. He had been inspired by the stories of Andrew of Longjumeau and the writings of Carpini, amongst others, which described Mongol tolerance towards foreign religions. Rubruck had become concerned in particular about what he presumed was the pernicious influence of the 'Nestorians'. He had also been greatly moved by accounts of German slaves who were apparently labouring for one of the Mongol princes. This passionate friar saw it as his calling to travel the breadth of Asia, bring succour to the European slaves and, during this time of great evangelical fervour, convert the Mongols to the true Christian path.
Naturally Louis was reluctant to offer much encouragement to Rubruck's plan. He insisted that the friar should make quite clear to all Mongol officials the unofficial nature of his mission, in case they mistook his presence as an indication of Louis's submission to the Great Khan. However, in return for an account of Rubruck's observations from within the empire, Louis was prepared to give the monk a letter of introduction to Prince Sartaq, one of Batu Khan's sons and a recent convert, requesting safe conduct for the monk to fulfil his mission.
Rubruck set off from Acre at the beginning of 1253 with a party that included the Italian Franciscan Bartholomew of Cremona, a royal secretary named Gosset who brought with him gifts for the Khan, and a Syrian named Omodeo who was to act as guide and interpreter. They travelled by way of Constantinople, across the Black Sea and into Mongol territory, which Rubruck described as like 'stepping into some other world'. They arrived in July at Sartaq's camp, where the locals immediately presumed they were emissaries from King Louis; they were then sent on to Batu Khan's camp, three days' journey away. Batu also found Rubruck's explanations of a religious mission less than convincing' and he too sent them on to the seat of the great Mongke Khan himself, at Qaraqorum.
During the three and a half months it took to get there, Rubruck made careful notes on the landscape and people he observed along the way. His extremely detailed account became one of the most important descriptions of Central Asia ever recorded by a European. Fascinated by the customs and beliefs of all the peoples he encountered, he was forever making enquiries of the whereabouts of the monsters and other strange creatures that were supposed to inhabit these lands. The friar was constantly astonished to find no evidence of such beings anywhere.
By October Rubruck and his party were south of Lake Balkhash where he recorded that large numbers of villages had been destroyed 'so that the Tartars could feed their flocks there, for it is very fine pasturage'. Clearly old habits died hard. As with all journeys across me Asian steppe, the going was hard and gruelling. At times they were close to starvation, forced to eat raw mutton because of the lack of fuel. They kept on, driven by Rubrick's obsession to penetrate deep into this heathen wasteland and transform it into the new Eden. However, this proved more difficult than he had ever imagined ­ especially as his guide and interpreter, Omodeo, was more of a liability than an asset, having virtually none of the local languages.
Just before Christmas they arrived at Mongke's camp, a few miles west of Qaraqorum, and almost immediately the friars were granted an audience with the Great Khan. Once again the Mongols found it haul to swallow William's declaration that he simply wanted to live at court and preach the gospel. It seems that Mongke was untroubled by the lack of precious tribute and accepted that they were not royal emissaries from Louis. However, given the Mongols' own heavy reliance upon spies and informers, they were naturally suspicious of someone from Europe requesting permission to wander about the countryside. For the next two months William and his party were regularly interrogated by the Great Khan's misters, who were never entirely satisfied with their explanations. Mongke, on the other hand, treated his guests with great courtesy. He granted them many audiences and listened intently to William's sermons.
Some of the eastern Christians at court even maintained that it was simply a matter of time before the Great Khan was baptized; after all, his mother, Sorghaghtani Beki, a niece of the Kereyid King Ong Khan, had been a Christian all her life. Be that as it may, Sorghaghtani had nevertheless always practiced the traditional Mongol policy of religious impartiality, and had instilled these virtues in her son. Although a Christian, she was also remembered for having founded a richly endowed Muslim college in Bukhara.
Rubruck was sufficiently observant to notice that Mongke Khan paid equal attention to all the venous foreign religions represented in his realm, making certain to attend all the important ceremonies. In a conversation with Rubruck, he was once reported to have explained his religious impartiality thus: 'We Mongols believe there is but one God, by Whom we live and by Whom we die, and towards Him we have an upright heart.... But just as God gave different fingers to the hand so has He given different ways to men.' Despite Mongke's highly sophisticated views on religion, the fact is that he remained fundamentally a shamanist, dependent upon fortune­tellers who burnt the shoulder­blade of a sheep to divine the future.
At the beginning of April the Great Khan moved his court to Qaraqorum and Rubruck and his party followed, thus becoming the first Europeans ever to visit the capital of the largest empire that the world had ever seen. He was not impressed. After spending time in Batu's capital, he wrote: 'I was overcome with fear, for his own houses seemed like a great city stretching out a long way and crowded around on every side by peoples to a distance of three or four leagues.' Qaraqorum, on the other hand, had not flourished to quite the same degree, and Rubruck declared that he found it no bigger than the village of Saint Denis to the north of Paris. Nevertheless, he was impressed by the uniquely international population; there was not another city like it anywhere. According to Rubruck it was divided up into various quarters: one for artisans, one for clerics, another for builders and engineers, and so on. There was a 'European colony', which apparently comprised craftsmen, merchants and scribes from Germany, Poland, France and Hungary, and even an Englishman called Basil, all of whom mingled with artisans, scientists and builders from Persia and China. Within its confines there were no fewer than twelve Buddhist temples, two mosques and a church. Along the many highways that linked the far reaches of the empire with Qaraqorum there flowed an unlikely traffic of priests, ambassadors, mystics and charlatans, come to beg indulgences or to take advantage of the Mongols' legendary superstitious nature. In the midst of this cosmopolitan society Rubruck and his entourage set about preaching the gospel.
Even by his own account Rubruck found his mission something of a struggle. Part of his problem was his own overzealous approach. His teaching was shackled with academic dogma, and his arguments often reduced to threats of hellfire. Eventually even the local Christian community began to tire of him, especially after he threatened the Great Khan himself with eternal damnation. It is reported that Mongke responded to Rubruck's haranguing with the wisdom of a sage:
The nurse at first lets some drops of milk into the infant's mouth, so that by tasting its sweetness he may be enticed to suck; only then does she offer him her breast. In the same way you should persuade Us, whom you claim to be sototally unacquainted with this doctrine, in a simple and rational manner. Instead you immediately threaten Us with eternal punishments.
Rubruck succeeded in converting just one Nestorian to the Church of Rome, and baptized six children. He did, however, take part in a debate between all the religions at the court, presented before an amused Great Khan and his courtiers. In a remarkable atmosphere of religious freedom, the representative of each creed was expected to challenge the others while at the same time presenting a rational explanation of the virtues and benefits of his own doctrine. In any other regime it would have been an exercise fraught with dangers; at the Mongol court it was an event of some entertainment. As might be expected, William took up the spirit of the debate and immediately launched into an attack against the Buddhists. In the meantime the eastern Christians took on the Islamic representatives, who were not much interested in a debate and refused to respond; so the eastern Christians rounded on the Uighur Buddhists instead. The Taoists seemed to have escaped unscathed; however, the proceedings soon dissolved into a raucous carouse, leaving a disillusioned Rubruck to record that his arguments had captured not one single convert. With his Christian work a complete failure, Rubruck resigned himself to the secondary aspect of his mission, that of gathering intelligence on behalf of King Louis.
If he was not well suited to the role of evangelist, he was even less well equipped to be a spy. Apart from his valuable observations of Mongol life, which were never properly appreciated until they were rediscovered by scholars in the nineteenth century, Rubruck gleaned little of Mongol policies or plans that they were not willing for him to know. The most obvious development taking place throughout his stay at Qaraqorum was the preparations being made for a massive military undertaking. Rubruck learned that, at a qariltai held in 1252, Mongke Khan had set out the objectives of his reign: a campaign against the Sung in China and, at the same time, a separate and even larger expedition into Persia and Syria, 'as far as the borders of Egypt', which was to be led by his younger brother Hulegu.
The decision to extend the empire deep into Persia would have tremendous political ramifications in western Asia. Ever since Genghis Khan had swept through Transoxania and Khurasan, the Mongols had maintained no more than a partial military presence. Under the first military commander, Chormaghun, the remnants of the Khwarazm Shah's empire had been swept away and with it all civil administration. During Batu's great expansion to the west the land between the Caspian and the Black Seas, Azerbaijan, came solidly under Mongol control; the next military governor of the area, Baiju, pushed Mongol influence into Rum, now Turkey, and crushed the Selluks. When Baiju was replaced by the devious Eljigidei there was talk of a campaign against Baghdad, but nothing came of it. With the accession of Mongke, Elligidei was swept away with the old regime and Baiju was reinstated as governor. However, Baiju made no sign of any move upon Baghdad, being fully occupied quelling uprisings in Asia Minor and Georgia. Throughout this period there were no substantial Mongol forces garrisoned further south than Azerbaijan and the Araxes valley, so control remained sporadic and chaos reigned.
From the Mongol perspective, a campaign into Persia and Syria was the logical pursuit of their philosophy of world domination. But the essential point behind Mongke's objectives was that further expansion in She west was going to happen in the Middle East, not in Europe. For centuries the Mongols had been familiar with the great influence chat Muslim merchants from Persia and the Gulf area enjoyed throughout Asia. More significant was the reputation of Persian scientists, astronomers, astrologers, mathematicians and technologists, who were without equal anywhere in the world. Apart from the sciences, there were also the arts: painting, carpetmaking, music and poetry. The Islamic Middle East was by any standards a vastly sophisticated, wealthy and advanced civilization, and the Mongols could hardly allow it to flourish outside of their sphere. Mongke's objectives were obvious: by invading both She Sung empire in southern China and Persia, he was attempting to place the two great civilizations of the era under Mongol control. It stands as one of She most grandiose plans for world domination ever conceived.
One obvious conclusion that can be drawn from Mongke's decision was that the Mongols appeared to have lost interest in Europe. Indeed, there is no evidence that after Batu's withdrawal from eastern Europe the Mongols ever saw Europe as a prize worthy of the effort it would have taken to conquer it. Although the pronouncements of the Great Khans continued to reiterate the conviction that it was the Mongols' God-given right to rule the world, and that all kings were obliged to offer tribute to the Great Khan, the reality was that in global terms Europe really did not matter that much.
Rubruck never imagined that the proposed expedition to the Middle East would benefit the cause of the crusaders In Palestine; on the other hand the eastern Christian community had become convinced that the Mongols were about to unleash a holy war against their ancient enemies, the Muslims. The Mongols' prime objective was the Caliph of Baghdad, but before confronting him they meant to eliminate the other major power in the region, the Ismailis or Assassins. They had emerged because of a schism in the Shia Muslim sect and established themselves in northern and eastern Persia by taking and controlling a series of mountain fortifications. Behind their walls they lived a contemplative life, producing beautifully wrought paintings and metalwork, but beyond their retreats they terrorized those civilizations they deemed heretical and so earned the enmity not just of the rest of the Islamic world but eventually of Europe. The local Ismaili leader had done little to enhance their reputation. Rather than confront his enemies in open combat he preferred to sponsor a campaign of political murder, usually executed with a dagger in the back, as the means to his end.
The Mongols had their own reasons for launching a campaign against the Assassins. First, they had received a plea of help from an Islamic judge in Qazwin, a town near the Assassins' stronghold at Alamut, who had complained that his fellow citizens were forced to wear armour all the time as protection from the Assassins' daggers. According to Rubruck, another reason that determined Mongol attitudes was the discovery of a plot to send no fewer than 400 dagger­wielding Assassins in disguise to Qaraqorum with instructions to murder the Great Khan. The Assassins had encountered the Mongols once before, during Chormaghun's terror raids through northern Persia in 1237, which led them to send an envoy to Europe begging for help.
Gradually the new imperial army took shape. It would be the grandest expedition since Batu's invasion of Europe. Mongke Khan allocated one-fifth of the entire Mongol force to Hulegu's command. One thousand 'teams' of Chinese engineers were recruited to manufacture and operate the siege machines, while fifth­columnists were sent ahead to prepare the way. This meant appropriating vast tracts of grazing land for the herds, stockpiling reserves of flour, grain, wine and other stores, building roads and bridges and then organizing a massive round-up of the thousands of horses that grazed across the steppes of western Asia. In the spring of 1253 the first contingents left Mongolia, and in the autumn Hulegu rode out at the head of an enormous army which then moved gradually across central Asia to the outskirts of Samarqand, where it made ready for the final march.
As preparations continued throughout 1254 and 1255, the Eastern Christian community became ever more enthusiastic for a war they believed would soon return them to their original home, the lands of Mesopotamia, from which they had emigrated to escape persecution under the Muslims. Soon contingents of Eastern Christians arrived from Batu's Golden Horde; there were Georgians, Turks and Alans; all wanted to ride with Hulegu's tumens. It also happened that Hulegu's most senior commander, Ked-Buqa, was a Christian Naiman, while Hulegu's chief wife, Doquz Khatun, was renowned for her Christian convictions. To a community that had suffered under the Muslims for centuries, Hulegu's campaign had all the hallmarks of a Christian holy war; however, Rubruck knew better. His observations of the Mongol court told him a religious war was as alien to the Mongol generals as were the concepts of mercy and forgiveness. Although the character of Hulegu's army was, in parts, heavily Christian, the commander himself was a Buddhist.
While the great army was encamped near Samarqand, Rubruck finally began his long journey home. Mongke gave the friar a letter for Louis in which the Great Khan repudiated the earlier diplomatic missives sent by Guyuk Khan and his regent Oghul-Ghaimish. He explained to Louis: 'How could that wicked woman, more vile than a dog, know about matters of war and affairs of peace?' Mongke goes on to describe his visions of a united world 'from sunrise to sunset' under Mongol rule, and, although he urged Louis to send peace envoys, he did not make any demands for tribute. It was a far more conciliatory letter than previous communications, and one might speculate that perhaps Mongke could see some advantage in trying to win Europe's trust.
Rubruck delayed his departure as long as possible, in the hope that he might glean a clearer signal of Mongol attitudes towards Europe. He had heard that King Hayton, from Armenia, was travelling secretly to Qaraqorum in order to see the Great Khan in connection with the planned expedition, and Rubruck imagined he might learn more of the expedition's real objectives from a fellow Roman Christian. However, by the beginning of July he had tired of waiting and decided to leave. Friar Bartholomew remained behind. Too ill to travel, he remained in Qaraqorum; it is presumed that he died there, the first Italian to die in the Far East.
A few months after Rubruck's departure, King Hayton finally arrived at Qaraqorum. Having heard of the planned campaign, Hayton had immediately realized that an flout war against the main Islamic powers would have tremendous advantages fur Christian Asia. He was received by Mongke and eventually spent five days at the capital, during which time he convinced the Great Khan that the entire expedition would be assured of allies in Palestine if it was made clear that Hulegu's expedition was nothing less than a Christian Crusade. Hayton then returned with a yarligh, an edict that, in effect, enfranchised the Christian Churches throughout the empire ­ and in those areas not yet conquered. He returned to Armenia, and made preparations to join Hulegu's force.
Had Rubruck managed to encounter King Hayton, he might have delivered a completely different report to Louis. In the event, his was yet another depressing account of Mongol intransigence. His mission both as an evangelist and as a spy had been a failure. He brought no accounts of fabled monsters, nor of Prester John. He bitterly regretted not having managed very many conversions and railed against the 'pernicious influence' that the Church of the East, in preference to Rome, enjoyed at the Mongol court. He did, however, confirm that a massive army was currently advancing upon Persia and Syria, but he made no recommendation of an alliance, quite the opposite. He had become so disenchanted with the Mongols that he saw only one policy for Europe. 'Were it allowed me,' he wrote, 'I would to the utmost of my power to preach war against them throughout the whole world.' Rubruck's report had a tremendous influence, not just on the French King, but on the rest of the courts of Europe. It dealt another blow to the Prester John legend; but, perhaps more significantly, it was a great discouragement to those who still imagined the possibility of an alliance with a great eastern Christian king against the Muslim nations.
On 1 January 1256 Hulegu's army crossed the Oxus River and brought into Persia the most formidable war machine ever seen. It possessed the very latest in siege engineering, gunpowder from China, catapults that would send balls of flaming naphtha into their enemy's cities, and divisions of rigorously trained mounted archers led by generals who had learnt their skills at the feet of Genghis Khan and Subedei. As news of Hulegu's army spread he was soon presented with a succession of sultans, emirs and atabaks from as far apart as Asia Minor and Herat, all come to pay homage. lit sheer presence brought to an end nearly forty years of rebellion and unrest in the old lands of Khwarazmia, but to the inhabitants of Persia and Syria it was the dawn of a new world order.
The Mongols made first for the Elburz Mountains, where the Assassins lay in wait behind what they believed to be their impregnable fortresses. With extraordinary ingenuity the Mongol generals and their Chinese engineers manoeuvred their artillery up the mountain slopes and set them up around the walls of the fortress of Alamut. But before the order was given to commence firing the Assassins' Grand Master, Rukn ad-Din, signalled that he wanted to negotiate. Hulegu countered that he must immediately order the destruction of his own fortifications; when Rukn ad-Din prevaricated, the bombardment commenced. Under the most devastatingly accurate artillery fire, the walls quickly tumbled and Rukn ad-Din surrendered. Hulegu took him prisoner, transported him to every Assassin castle they confronted, and paraded him before each garrison with the demand for an immediate surrender. Some obliged, as at Alamut; while others, like Gerdkuh, had to be taken by force. Today the spherical stone missiles fired by the artillery teams at the walls still litter the perimeter of the ruins. Whether each 'eagle's nest' surrendered or was taken, the Mongols put all the inhabitants to the sword ­ even the women in their homes and the babies in their cradles.
As this slaughter continued, Rukn ad-Din begged Hulegu to allow him to go to Qaraqorum where he would pay homage to the Great Khan and plead for clemency. Hulegu agreed, but when he got to Qaragorum Mongke Khan refused to see him. It was effectively a sentence of death. On the journey back his Mongol escort turned on the Grand Master and his attendants, who were 'kicked to a pulp' . The Persian historian Juvaini commented that 'tine world has been cleansed'. Five hundred years later Edward Gibbon echoed those sentiments, claiming that the Mongols' campaign 'may be considered as a service to mankind'. It took two years for the Mongols to dislodge over 100 'eagles' nests', but in the process they virtually expunged the Assassins from Persia.
In 1258, the first objective accomplished, Hulegu turned his army to the west into Mesopotamia and began the march on Baghdad. Since Hulegu had received the submission of all the petty warlords in Baiju's territory, the military governor was free to lead his tiumensoverland to link up with the main army. With further reinforcements from Christian Georgia, keen to be part of an attack upon Baghdad, Hulegu's force was virtually doubled. Demands for surrender were sent to the Caliph and refused.
The young man who currency reigned as the thirty­seventh commander of the faith was an unfortunately incompetent and cowardly individual by the name of Mustasim. His weaknesses were exploited by ruthless officials who had got used to running the city while Caliph Mustasim concentrated on spiritual affairs. As leader of the entire Sunni community he could have tried summoning Muslim armies from as far away as Morocco to defend Baghdad; instead he preferred the advice of his chief minister, Ibn al-Alkami, who assured him that the danger was not great and that the Baghdad defences were adequate. Ibn al­Alkami was at the same time sending secret messages to the approaching army, urging them to attack and describing the pitiless state of the Baghdad defences. Persian accounts of this treachery explain that the chief minister, a Shia Muslim, had been motivated by his resentment of the Caliph's persecution of his Shia brethren. In the meantime ambassadors rode back and forth, offering to pay tribute to Hulegu but refusing to surrender, while behind the city walls there was growing fear and confusion.
When Mustasim finally gave the order that the city should be defended properly, the Mongols were just a day's march away. A contingent of some 20,000 of the city's garrison rode out to confront the enemy, but as they camped in the fields in sight of the city walls the Mongols surprised them by smashing the dams and dykes nearby and flooding the encampment. Those who did not drown were cut to pieces by the Mongol heavy cavalry.
Meanwhile Baiju's tumens had occupied the western suburbs which, once filled with vast warehouses, had been the great commercial heart of the city. On the opposite side, in the eastern Shia suburbs, Hulegu's engineers were constructing a ditch and a rampart that eventually surrounded the city. On 30 January the bombardment of Baghdad began. Events had moved so swiftly that the bullock carts bringing up ammunition, hewn from the Jebel Hamrin Mountains, were still three days away. So the artillery units improvised with stumps of palm trees and foundations from the occupied suburbs. Seven days later the Mongols stormed and took the east wall. There they remained, as gradually the city surrendered. As the garrison filed out, laying down their weapons, they were led away and slaughtered one by one. The Caliph eventually emerged with his family and 3000 courtiers. On 13 February, the sack of Baghdad began.
Though the city had lost its commercial importance, it remained an important cultural, spiritual and intellectual centre. Within the city's walls were magnificent mosques, vast libraries of Persian and Arabian literature, the greatest university in the world, plus numerous palaces belonging to the Caliph and his family and perhaps one of the greatest personal treasures to be found anywhere. It was the greatest city the Mongols conquered in the Middle East, and into this oasis of civilization they brought sword and torch. None of the invaders set about their task with more relish than the Christian contingent from Georgia. The Eastern Christian community hiding inside their churches were spared, but the Muslim population, Shia or Sunni, were ruthlessly dispatched. Most of the women and children were herded together and transported to Qaraqorum, as was the wealth of the Caliph's treasure house.
As the mosques and palaces burned and the cries from the street echoed into the night, the Caliph and his family were treated to a banquet with Hulegu. Afterwards they were sewn up in the customary Mongol carpet and then trampled to death under the hooves of Mongol horses, and so ended the dynasty of the Abbasid caliphs that had survived for 500 years. The treacherous chief minister, Ibn al-Alkami, was rewarded by being allowed to retain his position under the Mongol rule. Persian accounts claim between 800,000 and 1 million killed within the city walls. At any rate, the stench from rotting corpses was so great that, not for the first time, the Mongols had to evacuate their campsites. Nevertheless, Persian historians tend to exaggerate the slaughter of Baghdad, for commercial evidence shows a thriving economy just two years later.
Hulegu marched his army north-east towards Tabriz, where he planned to make his base in Persia. He paused briefly by the shores of Lake Urmiyeh and was impressed by the rugged beauty of a rocky island crag that loomed out of its waters. On Shai Island, a largely barren monolith heavily pock-marked with ancient rock tombs, Hulegu built a treasure house where he stored his portion of the spoils. He set up his encampment near Tabriz and waited as news of the fall of Baghdad swept through Syria and Palestine. It was one of the greatest catastrophes that had ever befallen the Islamic world. But the impact was felt far beyond Islam, for the virtual obliteration of one of the greatest cities of the world sent shock waves right across all civilization. The Mongols were again on the march.
Soon the eastern Christians who had lived under the Muslim yoke for five centuries were hailing Hulegu as a latter-day saviour, for the enemies of Christ were about to be thrown into the sea. An Armenian chronicler declared: 'During the time of Baghdad's supremacy like an insatiable bloodsucker she had swallowed up the whole world. Now she has been punished for all the blood she has spilled and the evil she has wrought, the measure of her iniquity being filled.'
As Hulegu marched into Syria, there appeared a long procession of princes come to offer rich tribute and their submission to the new lord. The Prince of Mosul presented Hulegu with a set of gold earings, amongst other treasures, which he placed in the Mongol's ears himself. It was by way of a private joke between his ministers and himself, for he had once boasted that the Mongols would be no threat and that one day he would take the upstart Hulegu by the ears. Another who came with gifts, Prince Kai-Kawus, presented Hulegu with a pair of slippers painted with the prince's own portrait on the soles, so that the Mongol might walk on his face.
In return the princes were being offered the privilege of becoming vassal lords to Hulegu and providing him with soldiers to augment his already massive host, and soon there was barely a single Muslim prince east of the Tigris who ruled without Mongol approval. There were exceptions, of course; the Prince of Mayyafarakin, Kamil Muhammad, had sworn allegiance to the Great Khan in Qaraqorum but had also provided soldiers to help defend the Caliph. When Hulegu learned of Kamil Muhammad's treachery, and that he had recently crucified a Christian priest travelling through his city on a Mongol passport, he commanded that the prince and all the inhabitants of Mayyafarakin be made an example of, a task he gave to some of the Christian contingents. King Hayton's 16,000 Armenians plus a large number of Georgians were despatched to take Mayyafarakin, which they did with some efficiency. The Christian commanders then dealt with Prince Kamil Muhammad with particular relish, first trussing the unfortunate victim like a chicken and then slicing off pieces of his flesh and feeding them to him until he was dead.;
Before Hulegu set out to invade Syria the Sultan of that country, al-Nasir, sent his son to negotiate with the Mongol commander. He came claiming that his father wanted to make peace and to offer tribute to the Great Khan in Qaragorum. Hulegu's reply, written in the most eloquent and flowing Persian prose, simply informed Sultan al-;Nasir that he was 'doomed to fall'. Submission would not be enough; Hulegu meant to rule Syria. The Sultan's resources< were in a terrible state since he had recently fought and lost a war with the Mamluks of Egypt, causing him to cede territory in Gaza and Jerusalem. Now the Mongols, with an army fast approaching a staggering 300,000, were demanding his immediate surrender, an act he knew would result in his execution. In desperation the Sultan turned to his erstwhile enemies in Cairo, thinking that as fellow Muslims they would come to his aid. In the meantime he had sent a suicidal letter, rejecting Hulegu's terms and defiantly demanding that the Mongols depart from his kingdom. But it all went terribly wrong when the Marks, who were just as intimidated by the Mongol presence, showed no interest in coming to the Sultan's defence.
Meanwhile, the mighty citadel at Aleppo had digested the news from Baghdad and defiantly prepared for the coming onslaught. On 12 September 1259, Hulegu swept across the Tigris, marching through Harran, Nasibin and Edessa. As news spread chat they had crossed the Euphrates on a pontoon bridge at Manbij, the Church of the East hailed its imminent return to Jerusalem. Sultan al­Nasir had long since fled to Damascus, leaving the Aleppo garrison in the hands of his elderly uncle, Turan Shah. The old man had reasoned that the best form of defence was attack and despatched a large contingent of his force to confront the Mongols in the open. As had happened at Baghdad, the defenders were ambushed and destroyed.
Outside Aleppo, the Mongols drew up a score of artillery teams to demolish the city walls. The bombardment lasted seven days, and on 20 January 1260 they occupied the city. Inside the great citadel the elderly Turan Shah and what remained of the garrison held out for another four weeks, while in the streets below Muslim men were being put to the sword and the women and children were herded out to be transported to Qaraqorum as slaves. Eventually the citadel surrendered. As a mark of respect for the way the old man had defended his post, the Mongols spared Turan Shah's life. When news reached Damascus that Aleppo had fallen, the Sultan abandoned that city too.
As al-Nasir made his way towards Egypt, the only sanctuary left to him, the great city of Damascus surrendered itself to the forces led by Ked-Buqa. His triumphant entry was made into an all-Christian affair, as Muslims were made to bow before the cross which was carried in procession through the streets. Behind it marched a unique Christian alliance: Ked-Buqa, a true eastern Christian; King Hayton of Armenia; and his father-in-law Count Bohemund, the veteran crusader from Antioch. To add insult to injury, a mosque was converted into a church in which was held a celebratory mass.
In the meantime Hulegu's patrols had been despatched to hunt down their quarry, the Sultan al-Nasir. He was pursued through Samaria and as far soup as Gaza, where he was finally captured. As al-Nasir was being transported to Hulegu's camp, the Mongol had already sent a final threat to the last remaining Islamic force of any consequence ­ the Mamluks:
You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of disorders which tainted it. It is for you to fly and for us to pursue, and whither will you fly, and by what road will you 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 heaven will not avail against us.
Then he reminded them (as if they needed it): 'At present you are the only enemy against whom we have to march.' The rapidly changing situation was giving some pause to the remaining crusader forces still entrenched behind their vast fortifications along the Mediterranean coast. Count Bohemund's loyalty during the campaign in Syria was rewarded when Hulegu bequeathed to him the lands between Aleppo and the narrow strip of coast he already occupied. It seemed as though Christendom's prayers were being answered. But even as this news reached Rome, it was followed by the report that Bohemund, under Hulegu's direction, had installed a Greek Orthodox bishop as patriarch of Antioch in place of a Catholic. To Rome this was a heresy; to Hulegu it was simply traditional Mongol impartiality towards all religions. Nevertheless it sent a confusing signal to the western Christian community, especially that small band of crusader states along the Palestinian coast who had become locked in a fierce debate about the Mongol invasion and what it meant to their future.
To everyone in the Middle East it was obvious that Islamic power stood at the precipice: one more significant Mongol victory, and Islam as a political power would be finished. The eastern Christian forces that had campaigned with the Mongols were convinced that the entire expedition was nothing less than a Christian Crusade to rid the Holy Land of Islam, or so they had believed since King Hayton's secret visit to Qaraqorum. So far the campaign had every appearance of having been Christian-inspired:
Christians had been spared in Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus; Christian churches were being repaired and the Mongols were giving every indication that they wanted an alliance with the crusader states in the next phase of their campaign. Hulegu, King Hayton and Count Bohemund were at that very moment planning the march on to Jerusalem and its long­awaited return to Christendom.
However, behind their crusader castle walls, from Krak des Chevaliers to Acre, the argument raged: should western Christendom throw its lot in with this new superpower, or stand back and remain impartial? Those crusaders like Anno van Sangherhausen, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, who were more familiar with the eastern Christian community, were inclined to encourage an alliance. However, the signals from Rome itself were unequivocal: the Mongols were pagans and were not to be trusted. Whatever the views of the eastern Christians, they were of no consequence when the crusaders took their orders from Rome.
There was good reason for Rome's intransigence, for there had been a fresh Mongol incursion into Europe, rekindling old fears of another invasion. Four years after Mongke had come to the throne in Qaraqorum, Batu Khan of the Golden Horde had died. Over the next three years the khanate passed from Batu's son to his grandson in quick succession, until in 1257 it finally rested with Batu's younger brother Berke. During this period of instability, and especially while much of the army was abroad with Hulegu in Syria, a number of Russian princes saw an opportunity to overthrow the Mongol yoke. Prince Daniel of Galicia, supported by Prince Mendovg of Lithuania, had driven out the Mongol outposts in Volhynia but failed to gain any further territory and retired their forces to the fortified cities of Galicia.
When Berke Khan finally came to power, he wasted no time in gathering together a force large enough to mete out the appropriate punishment. Burundai, the Mongol commander in charge of the exercise, swept through Volhynia and Galicia, forcing all the cities there to destroy their fortifications. In pursuit of the errant princes, and perhaps also to warn off any neighbouring state still harbouring similar ambitions, Burundai took his army into Poland. The destruction he left behind was far greater than that caused during the invasion of 1241. All the towns and villages of northern Poland were destroyed, as were the cities of Lublin, Sandomir and the hapless Cracow, which had hardly recovered from the last encounter. Thousands were slaughtered before Burundai rode back into Russia, having encountered virtually no opposition.
The new Pope, Alexander IV, had implored the neighbouring states to come to Poland's aid, but once again there was no response. In desperation he proclaimed yet another Crusade against the Mongols, which would have meant in effect an invasion of Russia; but there were no volunteers. The only significant act he could accomplish was to excommunicate Count Bohemund for having fought beside the pagan Easterners in Syria, and it was this which had the greatest influence upon the crusader states in Palestine. The news arrived just as the crusader lords were debating an alliance and virtually sealed the issue. At any rate, all the evidence suggested that the Mongol forces were about to deal the death blow, so crusader neutrality would be of no consequence.
Then, around February 1260, just as Hulegu and his generals were calculating the next stage of their campaign, the march on Jerusalem, a rider entered the Khan's camp with news from China. Since autumn the year before messengers had been making their way along the great Mongol Yam,the system of highways and staging posts that embraced the breadth of Asia, to bring the news to the farthest outposts of the empire. While engaged in the campaign against the Sung, Mongke Khan had contracted dysentery and died. In an uncanny repetition of history, Mongke Khan's death saved Islam from certain extinction just as Ogedei Khan's demise had saved Europe from Batu's hordes, for upon hearing the news Hulegu immediately withdrew the bulls of his forces from Syria and regrouped around Maragheh, where he sat and pondered the situation.
With Hulegu's withdrawal the military landscape was transformed. He had left his redoubtable commander, Ked-Buqa, in Damascus with a small fragment of the once great army to stand at the frontier of his empire. The first to test the Mongols' strength were two crusader lords, Julian of Sidon and John of Beirut, who led raids into Mongol territory. Ked-Buqa's retaliation led to the sack of Sidon and the total destruction of an army of Templars led by John of Beirut. The crusaders reeled in fright. But the Mongol action had fully revealed their strength, or, more to the point, their weakness, and news soon spread. As the Mamluks were pondering Hulegu's demand for surrender, sent before his withdrawal from Syria, they learned that a much­depleted contingent was all that held the Mongol frontier. Having assumed they would soon have to defend their capital, the Mamluks now decided to throw caution to the wind and march out to meet the Mongols on their own territory. There would never be a better opportunity to throw back the invader, and they signalled their intentions by executing the Mongol envoys and impaling their heads on the spikes of one of Cairo's gates
The Mamluk commander, Qutuz, had become fired with what he saw as his mission to save Islam and civilization. In an audacious move he sent emissaries to the crusaders, asking for an alliance against the Mongols. Barely able to believe this token from Islam, the crusaders struggled to produce a response. Despite the recent Mongol raids, there were still Christian voices arguing that an alliance with the Mongols was the best chance of ridding the Holy Land of Islam. Whether they realized it or not, as they debated the merits of an alliance with either the Mongols or the Muslims the crusaders were in fact weighing up the future of Christianity and Islam in the Middle east. In the event, the memories of Sidon were too fresh for the pro­Mongolists to have prevailed, and while the crusaders found it impossible actually to fight with the Mamluks, they did eventually send word to Qutuz that they would at least not impede his army's journey north into Syria. It was an absolutely crucial decision.
Qutuz led his army north through Gaza, where they encountered and destroyed a small Mongol force out on a long-range patrol. Encouraged, the Mamluks moved further north, passing through Christian-held territory where they received supplies and fresh horses. While Qutuz and his generals were enjoying crusader hospitality at Acre, Ked-Buqa led his two tumens, perhaps no more than 15,000 men, out of Damascus and headed south-west. Amongst his army was a large contingent of native Syrian conscripts. On 3 September 1260, Ked-Buqa crossed the River Jordan and began his final march towards the Mamluk army.
Qutuz in the meantime had also advanced, and the two forces drew up in the valley where legend held that David had slain Goliath. At Ayn Jalut, Goliath's spring, the Mongols finally encountered the Mamluk vanguard. Ked­Buqa ordered a charge, and the Mamluk vanguard turned and Bed. But the Mongols had fallen for one of their own tactics, for they were led straight into the main Mamluk force spread thinly across the 6 km (4 mile) wide valley. Accounts vary about the sizes of the two forces, but what is known is that at some point in the proceedings, possibly as the Mongols discovered they had charged into a trap, the Syrian contingent broke ranks and fled the field. From that moment the Mongols were at a great disadvantage.
Realizing that he was now committed to engaging the entire Mamluk force, Ked-Buqa ordered his ranks to charge the Mamluk Bank. This they did, turning it and eventually destroying the Mamluk wing. Qutuz despaired at the lost advantage as the battle swung first one way, then the other. For either side it was a fight to the death, and for most of the day the result might have gone either way. But then two events occurred that decisively turned the tide. As the Mamluk ranks appeared in danger of being routed, Qutuz is reported to have thrown his helmet to the ground and implored his troops to regroup and renew the fight. He reminded them that they were fighting not simply for their lives, but for the very future of Islam. Fired by his call, the Mamluks regrouped and charged the Mongols' ranks. At the same time, fortune struck against the Mongols as their commander Ked-Buqa fell in combat. There is a conflicting report that he was actually captured by the Mamluks and executed on the battlefield; but whatever the case, the result was the same. Against overwhelming odds the Mongol generals finally lost their nerve, turned the army and retreated. They were pursued for 12 km (8 miles) to the town of Beisan, where they drew up to face the Mamluk cavalry. But they had already lost the momentum, and the resulting clash decimated the Mongol ranks. Within days a Mamluk messenger, bearing Ked-Buqa's head on the end of a staff, returned to Cairo to spread the news. Qutuz was about to enter Damascus in triumph.
What had happened in the valley of Ayn Jalut was one of the most significant battles in world history. Although the battle itself was not conclusive - it did not sweep the Mongols from the Middle East - it nevertheless utterly smashed the myth of Mongol invincibility. They were just as fallible as any other army, and subject to the same twists of good and bad fortune. Ayn Jalut also marked the end of any concerted campaign by the Mongols to conquer that part of the world. After Damascus was taken by the Mamluks, and soon afterwards Aleppo, the Mongols sent contingents back into Syria to conduct revenge raids ­ but there was no sign of a coordinated reconquest. All this was not, however, due to Mamluk hegemony alone. The Mamluks had not encountered the full weight of the Mongol force, and never would. There were other reasons for Hulegu's reticence ­ reasons related to events that were unfolding on the other side of Asia.