How to repel a Mongol invasion: the success of Egypt’s Mamluk empire
They swept across Asia with terrifying efficiency. Yet, as 13th-century Europe quaked at the prospect of a Mongol invasion, there was an empire that, as Nicholas Morton writes, learned to beat the invaders at their own game
In 1247, the papal envoy John of Plano Carpini returned home a worried man. During the past two years, he had travelled across the greater part of the vast Mongol empire and his experiences confirmed his fears that the Mongols were both exceptionally dangerous and that they were readying themselves for a second assault on Europe.
“It is the intention of the Tartars [Mongols] to bring the whole world into subjection if they can,” Carpini declared, and the evidence of the past decade appeared to support this observation. Back in 1236 – having established a vast empire spanning from the Sea of Japan to the shores of the Caspian Sea, in one of the most extraordinary feats of conquest in human history, the Mongols had begun a new offensive into western Eurasia. City after city fell to their forces, including Kyiv in 1240. “After they had besieged the city for a long time,” reported Carpini, “they took it and put the inhabitants to death.”
In 1241, the Mongols launched an invasion of the kingdoms of Hungary and Poland, causing widespread destruction and defeating every army sent against them. With advancing troops on the outskirts of Vienna, western Europe appeared to be at the mercy of the Mongol juggernaut. But then, suddenly, they were gone. The Mongol emperor, ÖgÖdei, had died and his armies returned home to elect a new leader.
Christendom’s worst nightmare was averted. But not for long. Now, in 1247, a new assault appeared imminent and Carpini fully recognised that western Europe’s rulers could not offer much of a defence. It was for this reason that he had refused the Mongols’ request that he should return to Europe with a group of their envoys – he didn’t want them to witness just how divided Christendom had become.
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The Mongols were exceptionally dangerous – and now they were preparing for a second wave of assaults on Europe
Carpini had every reason to fear for Europe’s fate. After all, the Mongols rarely suffered defeat. They occasionally experienced setbacks yet for the most part their armies were overwhelmingly successful, achieving victory against an astonishingly wide range of commanders and civilisations.
Still Carpini was not utterly without hope. He spent much of his journey speaking to individuals from across Eurasia and, amid his many enquires and conversations, he had a single underlying question: how could the Mongols be stopped?
Great massed hunts
The root of the Mongols’ success lay in their way of life. As a predominantly nomadic people living in the central Asian steppe, their children learned to ride, shoot, hunt and corral herds from an early age. These skills were essential for their survival, but they also provided an excellent basis for a powerful army, while the Mongols’ great massed hunts taught their riders to co-ordinate their efforts over a broad geography.
These martial qualities were longstanding strengths for the nomadic peoples of central Asia, but the Mongols’ former leader Genghis Khan (died 1227) had proved especially adept at enhancing these advantages. He achieved this by drawing upon the military expertise of specialists from conquered societies – such as siege engineers from China – or by inducting defeated warriors into the Mongol army.
The Mongols also became famous for their military stratagems. A favoured tactic when besieging a fortress was to drive a group of prisoners against their enemy’s defences in the first wave of the assault. These prisoners absorbed the defenders’ ammunition and energies prior to the Mongols’ main assault. Another advantage enjoyed by the Mongols was that their mounted armies could cross huge distances at speed and, because they brought their own herds with them, they didn’t require cumbersome supply lines.
Dusty dogs of war
So, given these conspicuous strengths, how were the Mongols to be defeated? Carpini gathered numerous theories that promised to solve this riddle, some more workable than others. According to one story, there was a place far to the north where men were born in the form of dogs. When threatened by the Mongols, these dog-men defended themselves by rolling on the ground until their fur was thick with dust. Next, they jumped into an icy stream that froze their dirt-thickened fur into a solid carapace. They then charged at the Mongols whose arrows couldn’t penetrate this icy armour.
Carpini also heard that the Mongols encountered problems while crossing a mountain range composed of enormous lodestones whose magnetic power made it impossible for their warriors to direct their metal-headed arrows accurately.
The Mamluks had nowhere to go and no place to retreat. They either had to defeat their Mongol enemies, or be destroyed
The papal envoy diligently recorded all these stories, but such countermeasures could scarcely be replicated. His own recommendations were more down-to-earth. “Whoever wishes to fight against the Tartars,” he counselled, “ought to have the following arms: good strong bows, crossbows, of which they are much afraid, a good supply of arrows, a serviceable axe of strong iron or a battle-axe with a long handle."
Just as significantly, he suggested that any army sent into the field should be organised in the same way as the Mongols’ own armies. Mongol armies were structured according to the decimal system, whereby its forces were grouped into units of 10 soldiers. Ten such units were led by a commander of 100 troops; 10 groups of 100 troops were led by a commander of 1,000 troops and so on. This was a highly effective structure, and one that Carpini felt Christendom’s commanders should emulate.
Carpini was right. Defeating the Mongols required an army with similar strengths in war. But Christian armies wouldn’t be the ones to prove his point. That task was left to an Egyptian-based power that waged a 60-year war against the Mongols, starting in 1260. That power was the Mamluk empire.
The Mamluks were a relatively recent force in near eastern geopolitics. They were originally slave soldiers who had fought for Egypt’s sultans, both against internal rivals and crusaders. By 1250, the Mamluk regiments had become a formidable military force and, when the reigning sultan alienated them, they rose up, killed him, and took power for themselves, establishing their own sultanate.
Ten years later that sultanate was confronted with a major Mongol invasion. The Mongols had initiated an assault on Syria, overthrowing Aleppo before moving south to seize the other regional capital of Damascus. The Mongols now demanded Egypt’s formal submission to their authority, but the Mamluks refused. They executed the Mongols’ envoy and readied their armies.
This marked the beginning of a conflict – one that turned recent history on its head. For, on almost every occasion that Mamluk and Mongol troops met on the battlefield (1260, 1277, 1281 and 1303), it was the Mamluks who emerged victorious. For decades – as they’d overthrown much of China, advanced through western Asia and fallen upon eastern Europe – the Mongols had swept all before them. But now, at last, they had met their match. So what was the secret of the Mamluks’ success?
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One salient point is that the Mamluks fought in much the same manner as their opponents – a factor that Carpini suspected might prove effective back in the 1240s. Many Mamluk soldiers had been enslaved from the various Turkic peoples who had been conquered or displaced by the Mongols in the Black Sea region. These Turkic communities pursued a similar way of life to that of the Mongols and their warriors possessed the same nomadic/military skills. As a result, the Mamluk and Mongol armies that faced one another in Syria were both entirely mounted, dependent on archery, and arranged according to the decimal system.
These similarities effectively neutered the Mongols’ advantages. But how did the Mamluks go one step further and turn this level playing field into a string of battlefield victories? One theory that’s been advanced is that they enjoyed a crucial advantage in armaments. So should we imagine a Mamluk army furnished with immaculate arms and mounts – all supplied by Egypt’s considerable commercial and agricultural wealth – outperforming Mongol warriors fighting with largely wooden weapons on smaller steppe ponies? Probably not. After all, during their decades-long wars of conquest, the Mongols had plenty of opportunity to loot or purchase the best weapons and mounts available.
A more plausible explanation for the Mamluks’ triumphs is the “backs against the wall” phenomenon. They had no place of retreat. They had to win or they would be destroyed. Their forces were largely comprised of warriors who had fled to Egypt in search of refuge from the very armies they were now facing. They were ready to offer fierce resistance and would not go down without a fight.
A crucial moment in this conflict occurred in 1260 when the Mamluks achieved their first victory over a Mongol army at a place called Ayn Jalut near Gaza. The battle was not an epic confrontation between rival empires. Most of the Mongol army had withdrawn to the east on hearing news of the Great Khan’s death, leaving a small force to hold Syria. With both armies roughly matched in terms of numbers, the Mamluks were able to drive back their Mongol opponents, whose leader apparently sought to rally his troops with the words: “Death is inevitable. It is better to die with a good name than to flee in disgrace.”
In a sense, Ayn Jalut was not especially important – the Mamluks had defeated a garrison of 20,000 men, so the vast majority of the Mongol army remained at large. But, in other ways, the victory was a game-changer: it enabled the Mamluks to claim all the territory conquered by the Mongols in Syria, dramatically expanding their empire. Even more importantly, it established a template for defeating the Mongol raiders, proving that they were far from invincible. This fact alone turned the Mamluk empire into a magnet for anyone who wanted to resist the Mongol invasions.
The Mongols would have to endure a long wait before getting the opportunity to exact revenge on the Mamluks – a series of civil wars leading to the break-up of the empire delayed their return to the near east. By the time they renewed their assault in 1280–81, two decades had elapsed since the debacle of Ayn Jalut – and the Mamluks were ready and waiting. In the intervening 20 years, the sultanate had trained their troops intensively, attracted warriors fleeing the Mongols, built fortresses and established lines of communication. The result was another victory over the Mongols – at the battle of Homs on 29 October 1281 – a triumph that hinged on a devastating cavalry charge into the Mongol centre. This time the Mamluks defeated a Mongol army at full strength.
Running on empty
The Mongols’ clashes with the Mamluks weren’t entirely fruitless. They did manage one battlefield victory – at Wadi al-Khaznadar near Damascus in 1299 – but even then they were unable to exploit their success, withdrawing from Syria shortly afterwards. And the reason? That was, as one commentator linked to the Knights Templar put it, a “dearth of fodder”.
Mongol armies were invariably accompanied by huge herds of horses, sheep and goats, which they required for both cavalry mounts and food. These animals needed vast areas of grazing land for their survival. But, while the central Asian grasslands could provide sustenance on this scale, this was simply not the case in other regions.
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The deciduous forests of eastern Europe offered comparatively little food for grazing herds, as did the tropical forests of south-east Asia. In the near east, there were some good grazing areas, especially in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), the Nile delta and the Levantine coastlands. However, overall, the available pasturage here was patchy, a problem compounded by pack animals’ aversion to the heat.
This weak-spot had not been lost on Carpini. He counselled a scorched-earth approach to any Mongol invasion, involving the destruction of all available fodder along their line of march. Carpini reasoned that, if you could starve the Mongols’ animals, then their armies would cease to function. The Mamluks reached similar conclusions and burned the pasturelands along their frontiers. It’s unclear how effective this tactic proved in forcing the Mongols to withdraw from Syria, but it certainly seems to have been a factor.
Carpini counselled a scorched-earth policy, involving the destruction of all fodder along the Mongols’ line of march
For all the Mamluks’ successes, there’s no denying the effectiveness of the Mongol armies. When they were unified, marching across favourable terrain and facing enemies vulnerable to their warcraft, they were irresistible. As their extraordinary wars of conquest in the 13th century prove, they learned to tackle major cities and fortresses very effectively. They also knew the value of terror as a weapon in war – some of their opponents were so riddled with fear that they were already half-defeated even before the Mongol army came into sight.
As it turned out, Christendom’s armies never had to face such terrors in the late 1240s. Despite Carpini’s dire predictions, an outbreak of civil wars across the Mongol empire meant that Europe was spared the second large-scale invasion that he so feared.
We’ll never know what would have happened had the invasion gone ahead. Even if they had defeated Christendom’s armies, the Mongols might have struggled to penetrate far into its deep forests. As Carpini suspected, the Mongols found campaigns against highly motivated, well-equipped enemies fighting in a similar style to themselves on unfavourable terrain a mighty challenge. And, when confronted by the Mamluks, it was a challenge that they couldn’t surmount.
Dr Nicholas Morton is senior lecturer in the School of Arts & Humanities at Nottingham Trent University. His forthcoming book, The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East, will be published by John Murray Press in October 2022
This article first appeared in the August 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
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