Mongols Suffer First Decisive Defeat

On this day in 1260, the great Mongol cavalry, one of history’s most fearsome military forces, suffered its first decisive and irrecoverable loss to the Mamluks at the Battle of ‘Ain Jalut which took place in the Jezreel Valley southwest of the Sea of Galilee.

The defeat is of significant historical importance as it was the first Mongol defeat and territorial loss that was not avenged; it broke the cloak of “invincibility” the Mongols had gained wielding their immense power; and it halted the Mongol advance into North Africa and their potential containment of Europe.

In the early 1250s Hulago Khan, the brother of the leading Great Khan Mongke and the grandson of Genghis, was instructed to build a great army, conquer the western lands all the way to Cairo, and achieve what the Khans liked most of all: World domination.

Hulago and his force of approximately 300,000 cavalrymen and archers proved up to the task. They revengefully defeated the Assassins, who had attempted to murder Genghis, took Persia, and headed to Baghdad, the cultural heart of Islam at the time. In 1258 Hulago sacked Baghdad, sending a chilling signal to Cairo, the Islamic power center of the time.

In 1260 the Mamluk leader and Sultan of Egypt, Saif ad-Din Qutuz received a group of Mongol emissaries delivering a letter from Hulago. The letter stated in no uncertain terms that the Mamluks would have to submit to the Khan or face their wrath:

“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.”

Thus went 13th century ultimatums.

Qutuz, a warrior in his own right, convened his war council and discussed submission. However, news came that the Great Khan Mongke had met his death and that Hulago and his fellow Khans would have to convene to decide upon the successor. Confident of his threatening prose, Hulago pulled back his own army and ordered that of another general to keep an eye out for the Mamluks. Qutuz sensed a path to victory, improbable as it may have been.

Qutuz prepared his cavalry and picking up allies along the way rode northeast to meet the Mongols. On 3 September 1260, Qutuz received word that the Mongols were preparing to cross the River Jordan, and he positioned his horsemen west of the crossing at ‘Ain Jalut and waited.

Each cavalry fought with 10,000 to 20,000 men, but Qutuz’s Mamluks proved fresher and better armored. Qutuz’s tactics and archers managed to break the Mongols and the Mamluks prevailed. The defeat was as decisive physically as it was psychologically. The invincibility of the Mongol cavalry was broken, Cairo was never taken and the Mongols began to retreat from the Levant.