Attacked by Mongols—the Tartars—in the east and by Franj in the west, the Muslims had never been in such a critical position. God alone could still rescue them.
The events I am about to describe are so horrible that for years I avoided all mention of them. It is not easy to announce that death has fallen upon Islam and the Muslims. Alas! I would have preferred my mother never to have given birth to me, or to have died without witnessing all these evils. If one day you are told that the earth has never known such calamity since God created Adam, do not hesitate to believe it, for such is the strict truth. Nebuchadnezzar’s massacre of the children of Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem are generally cited as among the most infamous tragedies of history. But these were as nothing compared to what has happened now. No, probably not until the end of time will a catastrophe of such magnitude be seen again.
Nowhere else in his voluminous Perfect History does Ibn al-AthÐr adopt such a pathetic tone. Page after page, his sadness, terror, and incredulity spring out as if he was superstitiously postponing the moment when he would finally have to speak the name of the scourge: Genghis Khan.
The rise of the Mongol conqueror began shortly after the death of Saladin, but not until another quarter of a century had passed did the Arabs feel the approach of the threat. Genghis Khan first set about uniting the various Turkic and Mongol tribes of central Asia under his authority; he then embarked on what he hoped would be the conquest of the world. His forces moved in three directions: to the east, where the Chinese empire was reduced to vassal status and then annexed; to the north-west, where first Russia and then eastern Europe were devastated; to the west, where Persia was invaded. ÝAll cities must be razed’, Genghis Khan used to say, Ýso that the world may once again become a great steppe in which Mongol mothers will suckle free and happy children.’ And prestigious cities indeed would be destroyed, their populations decimated: BukhÁrÁ, Samarkand, and Herat, among others.
The first Mongol thrust into an Islamic country coincided with the various Frankish invasions of Egypt between 1218 and 1221. At the time the Arab world felt trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. This was undoubtedly part of the explanation for al-KÁmil’s conciliatory attitude over the question of Jerusalem. But Genghis Khan finally abandoned any attempt to venture west of Persia. With his death in 1227 at the age of sixty-seven, the pressure of the horsemen of the steppes on the Arab world eased for some years.
In Syria the scourge first made itself felt indirectly. Among the many dynasties crushed by the Mongols on their way was that of the Khwarazmian Turks, who had earlier supplanted the Seljuks from Iraq to India. With the dismantling of this Muslim empire, whose hour of glory had passed, remnants of its army were compelled to flee as far as possible from the terrifying victors. Thus it was that one fine day some ten thousand Khwarazmian horsemen arrived in Syria, pillaging and holding cities hostage and participating as mercenaries in the internal struggles of the Ayyubids. In June 1224, believing themselves strong enough to establish a state of their own, the Khwarazmians attacked Damascus. They plundered the neighbouring villages and sacked the orchards of GhÙÔa. But then, since they were incapable of sustaining a long siege against the city’s resistance, they changed their target and suddenly headed for Jerusalem, which they occupied without difficulty on 11 July Although the Frankish population was largely spared, the city itself was plundered and put to the torch. To the great relief of all the cities of Syria, a fresh attack on Damascus several months later was decimated by a coalition of Ayyubid princes.
This time the Frankish knights would never retake Jerusalem. Frederick, whose diplomatic skill had enabled the Occidentals to keep the flag of the cross flying over the walls of the city for fifteen years, was no longer interested in its fate. Abandoning his Oriental ambitions, he now preferred to maintain more amicable relations with the Cairene leaders. In 1247, when Louis IX of France planned an expedition against Egypt, the emperor sought to dissuade him. Better still, he kept AyyÙb, son of al-KÁmil, regularly informed of the preparations of the French expedition.
Louis arrived in the East in 1248, but he did not immediately head for the Egyptian border, for he felt it would be too risky to undertake a campaign before spring. He therefore settled in Cyprus and spent these months of respite striving to realize the dream that was to haunt the Franj to the end of the thirteenth century and beyond: the conclusion of an alliance with the Mongols that would trap the Arab world in a pincer movement. Emissaries thus shuttled regularly between the camps of the invaders from the East and the invaders from the West. Late in 1248 Louis received a delegation in Cyprus that put forward the tempting possibility that the Mongols might convert to Christianity. Entranced by this prospect, he hastily responded by dispatching precious and pious gifts. But Genghis Khan’s successors misinterpreted the meaning of this gesture. Treating the king of France as they would a mere vassal, they asked him to send gifts of equivalent value every year. This misunderstanding saved the Arab world from a concerted attack by its two enemies, at least temporarily.
Thus it was that the Occidentals alone launched their assault on Egypt on the fifth of June 1249, although not before the two monarchs had exchanged thunderous declarations of war, in accordance with the customs of the epoch. I have already warned you many times, wrote Louis, but you have paid no heed. Henceforth my decision is made: I will assault your territory, and even were you to swear allegiance to the cross, my mind would not be changed. The armies that obey me cover mountains and plains, they are as numerous as the pebbles of the earth, and they march upon you grasping the swords of fate. To bolster these threats, the king of France reminded his enemy of a number of successes scored by the Christians against the Muslims in Spain the year before: We chased your people before us like herds of oxen. We killed the men, made widows of the women, and captured girls and boys. Was that not a lesson to you? AyyÙb replied in similar vein: Foolish as you are, have you forgotten the lands you occupied which we have reconquered, even quite recently? Have you forgotten the damage we have inflicted upon you? Apparently aware of the numerical inferiority of his forces, the sultan found an appropriately reassuring quotation from the Koran: How often has a small troop vanquished a great, with God’s permission, for God is with the good. This encouraged him to predict to Louis: Your defeat is ineluctable. Soon you will bitterly regret the adventure on which you have embarked.
At the outset of their offensive, however, the Franj scored a decisive success. Damietta, which had resisted the last Frankish expedition so courageously thirty years before, was this time abandoned without a fight. Its fall, which sowed disarray in the Arab world, starkly revealed how weak the legatees of the great Saladin had become. Sultan AyyÙb, who was immobilized by tuberculosis and unable to take personal command of his troops, preferred to adopt the policy of his father al-KÁmil rather than lose Egypt: he proposed to Louis that Damietta be exchanged for Jerusalem. But the king of France refused to deal with a defeated and dying Ýinfidel’. AyyÙb then decided to resist, and had himself transported by litter-bearers to the city of ManÒÙra, Ýthe victorious’, which had been built by al-KÁmil on the very spot at which the previous Frankish invasion had been defeated. Unfortunately, the sultan’s health was sinking fast. Racked by fits of coughing so severe that it seemed that they would never end, he fell into a coma on 20 November, just as the Franj, encouraged by the receding waters of the Nile, left Damietta for ManÒÙra. Three days later, to the great consternation of his entourage, the sultan died.
How could the army and the people be told that the sultan was dead while the enemy was at the gates of the city and AyyÙb’s son TÙrÁn-ShÁh was somewhere in northern Iraq, several weeks’ march away? It was then that a providential personality intervened: Shajar al-Durr, or ÝTree of Pearls’, a female slave of Armenian origin, beautiful and crafty, who for years had been AyyÁb’s favourite wife. Gathering the members of the sultan’s family together, she ordered them to keep silent about his death until the prince arrived, and even asked the aged emir Fakhr al-DÐn, Frederick’s old friend, to write a letter in the sultan’s name summoning the Muslims to jihÁd. According to Ibn WÁÒil, a Syrian chronicler and one of Fakhr al-DÐn’s associates, the king of France soon learned of the death of AyyÙb, which encouraged him to step up the military pressure. In the Egyptian camp, however, the secret was kept long enough to prevent the troops becoming demoralized.
The battle raged around ManÒÙra throughout the long winter months. Then on 10 February 1250 the Frankish army, aided by treason, penetrated the city by surprise. Ibn WÁsil, who was then in Cairo, relates:
The emir Fakhr al-DÐn was in his bath when they came and told him the news. Flabbergasted, he immediately leapt into the saddle—without armour or coat of mail—and rushed to see what the situation was. He was attacked by a troop of enemy soldiers, who killed him. The king of the Franj entered the city, and even reached the sultan’s palace. His soldiers poured through the streets, while the Muslim soldiers and the inhabitants sought salvation in disordered flight. Islam seemed mortally wounded, and the Franj were about to reap the fruit of their victory when the Mamluk Turks arrived. Since the enemy had dispersed through the streets, these horsemen rushed bravely in pursuit. Everywhere the Franj were taken by surprise and massacred with sword or mace. At the start of the day, the pigeons had carried a message to Cairo announcing the attack of the Franj without breathing a word about the outcome of the battle, so we were all waiting anxiously. Throughout the quarters of the city there was sadness until the next day, when new messages told us of the victory of the Turkish lions. The streets of Cairo became a festival.
In subsequent weeks, from his post in the Egyptian capital, the chronicler would observe two sequences of events that were to change the face of the Arab East: on the one hand, the victorious struggle against the last great Frankish invasion; on the other, a revolution unique in history, one that was to raise a caste of officer-slaves to power for nearly three centuries.
After his defeat at ManÒÙra, the king of France realized that his military position was becoming untenable. Unable to take the city, and constantly harassed by the Egyptians in a muddy terrain crisscrossed by countless canals, Louis decided to negotiate. At the beginning of March he sent a conciliatory message to TÙrÁn-ShÁh, who had just arrived in Egypt. In it he declared that he was now prepared to accept AyyÙb’s proposal to abandon Damietta in exchange for Jerusalem. The new sultan’s response was not long in coming: the generous offers made by AyyÙb should have been accepted during AyyÙb’s lifetime. Now it was too late. At this point, the most Louis could hope for was to save his army and get out of Egypt alive, for pressure was mounting on all sides. In mid-March several dozen Egyptian galleys inflicted a severe defeat on the Frankish fleet, destroying or capturing nearly a hundred vessels of all sizes and removing any possibility of the invaders’ retreating towards Damietta. On 7 April the invading army tried to run the blockade and was assaulted by the Mamluk battalions, swelled by thousands of volunteers. After several hours of fighting, the Franj had their backs to the wall. To halt the massacre of his men, the king of France capitulated and asked that his life be spared. He was led in chains to MansÙra, where he was locked in the house of an Ayyubid functionary.
Curiously, the new sultan’s brilliant victory, far from enhancing his power, brought about his downfall. TÙrÁn-ShÁh was engaged in a dispute with the chief Mamluk officers of his army. The latter believed, not without reason, that Egypt owed its salvation to them, and they therefore demanded a decisive role in the leadership of the country. The sovereign, on the other hand, wanted to take advantage of his newly acquired prestige to place his own supporters in the major posts of responsibility. Three weeks after the victory over the Franj, a group of these Mamluks met together on the initiative of a brilliant 40-year-old Turkish officer named Baybars, a cross-bowman, and decided to take action. A revolt broke out on 2 May 1250 at the end of a banquet organized by the monarch. TÙrÁn-ShÁh, wounded in the shoulder by Baybars, was running towards the Nile, hoping to flee by boat, when he was captured by his assailants. He begged them to spare his life, promising to leave Egypt for ever and to renounce any claim to power. But the last of the Ayyubid sultans was finished off mercilessly. An envoy of the caliph even had to intervene before the Mamluks would agree to give their former master a proper burial.
Despite the success of their coup d’état, the slave-officers hesitated to seize the throne directly. The wisest among them racked their brains to find a compromise that would confer a semblance of Ayyubid legitimacy on their nascent power. The formula they devised would go down in history in the Muslim world, as Ibn WÁsil, an incredulous witness to the singular event, remarked.
After the assassination of TÙrÁn-ShÁh, he relates, the emirs and mamlÙks met near the sultan’s pavilion and decided that Shajar al-Durr, a wife of Sultan AyyÙb, would be placed in power, becoming queen and sultana. She took charge of the affairs of state, establishing a royal seal in her name inscribed with the formula ÝUmm KhalÐl’ (Ýmother of KhalÐl’), a child of hers who had died at an early age. In all the mosques, the Friday sermon was delivered in the name of Umm KhalÐl, sultana of Cairo and of all Egypt. This was unprecedented in the history of Islam.
Shortly after she was placed on the throne, Shajar al-Durr married one of the Mamluk chiefs, Aybeg, and conferred the title of sultan upon him.
The replacement of the Ayyubids by the Mamluks marked a clear hardening of the Muslim world’s attitude towards the invaders. The descendants of Saladin had proved more than a little conciliatory toward the Franj, and their declining power was no longer capable of confronting the perils threatening Islam from East and West alike. The Mamluk revolution soon appeared as an enterprise of military, political, and religious rectification.
The coup d’état in Cairo did not alter the fate of the king of France. An agreement in principle reached during the time of TÙrÁn-ShÁh stipulated that Louis would be released in return for the withdrawal of all Frankish troops from Egyptian territory, Damietta in particular, and the payment of a ransom of one million dinars. The French sovereign was indeed released several days after the accession to power of Umm KhalÐl, but not before being treated to a lecture by the Egyptian negotiators: ÝHow could a sensible, wise, and intelligent man like you embark on a sea voyage to a land peopled by countless Muslims? According to our law, a man who crosses the sea in this way cannot testify in court.’ ÝAnd why not?’ asked the king. ÝBecause’, came the reply, Ýit is assumed that he is not in possession of all his faculties.’
The last Frankish soldier left Egypt before the end of May.
Never again would the Occidentals attempt to invade the land of the Nile. The Ýblond peril’ would soon be eclipsed by the far more terrifying danger of the descendants of Genghis Khan. The great conqueror’s empire had been weakened somewhat by the wars of succession that had flared after his death, and the Muslim East had enjoyed an unexpected respite. By 1251, however, the horsemen of the steppes were united once again, under the authority of three brothers, grandsons of Genghis Khan: Möngke, Kubilay, and Hülegü. The first had been designated uncontested sovereign of the empire, whose capital was Karakorum, in Mongolia. The second reigned in Peking. It was the ambition of the third, who had settled in Persia, to conquer the entire Muslim East to the shores of the Mediterranean, perhaps even to the Nile. Hülegü was a complex personality. Initially interested in philosophy and science, a man who sought out the company of men of letters, he was transformed in the course of his campaigns into a savage animal thirsting for blood and destruction. His religious attitudes were no less contradictory. Although strongly influenced by Christianity—his mother, his favourite wife, and several of his closest collaborators were members of the Nestorian church—he never renounced shamanism, the traditional religion of his people. In the territories he governed, notably Persia, he was generally tolerant of Muslims, but once he was gripped by his lust to destroy any political entity capable of opposing him, he waged a war of total destruction against the most prestigious metropolises of Islam.
His first target was Baghdad. At first, Hülegü asked the ÝAbbasid caliph, al-MustaÝÒim, the thirty-seventh of his dynasty, to recognize Mongol sovereignty as his predecessors had once accepted the rule of the Seljuk Turks. The prince of the faithful, overconfident of his own prestige, sent word to the conqueror that any attack on his capital would mobilize the entire Muslim world, from India to north-west Africa. Not in the least impressed, the grandson of Genghis Khan announced his intention of taking the city by force. Towards the end of 1257 he and, it would appear, hundreds of thousands of cavalry began advancing towards the ÝAbbasid capital. On their way they destroyed the Assassins’ sanctuary at AlamÙt and sacked its library of inestimable value, thus making it almost impossible for future generations to gain any in-depth knowledge of the doctrine and activities of the sect. When the caliph finally realized the extent of the threat, he decided to negotiate. He proposed that Hülegü’s name be pronounced at Friday sermons in the mosques of Baghdad and that he be granted the title of sultan. But it was too late, for by now the Mongol had definitively opted for force. After a few weeks of courageous resistance, the prince of the faithful had no choice but to capitulate. On 10 February 1258 he went to the victor’s camp in person and asked if he would promise to spare the lives of all the citizens if they agreed to lay down their arms. But in vain. As soon as they were disarmed, the Muslim fighters were exterminated. Then the Mongol horde fanned out through the prestigious city demolishing buildings, burning neighbourhoods, and mercilessly massacring men, women, and children—nearly eighty thousand people in all. Only the Christian community of the city was spared, thanks to the intercession of the khan’s wife. The prince of the faithful was himself strangled to death a few days after his defeat. The tragic end of the ÝAbbasid caliphate stunned the Muslim world. It was no longer a matter of a military battle for control of a particular city, or even country: it was now a desperate struggle for the survival of Islam.
In the meantime the Tartars continued their triumphant march towards Syria. In January 1260 Hülegü’s army overran Aleppo, which was taken rapidly despite heroic resistance. As in Baghdad, massacres and destruction raged throughout this ancient city, whose crime was merely to have stood up to the conqueror. A few weeks later, the invaders were at the gates of Damascus. The Ayyubid kinglets who still governed the various Syrian cities were naturally unable to stem the tide. Some decided to recognize the suzerainty of the Great Khan, even contemplating the futile dream of forming an alliance with the invaders against the Mamluks of Egypt, enemies of their dynasty. Views were divided among the Christians, Oriental and Frankish alike. The Armenians, in the person of their king, Hethoum, took the side of the Mongols, as did Prince Bohemond of Antioch, Hethoum’s brother-in-law. The Franj of Acre, on the other hand, took a neutral position generally favourable to the Muslims. But the prevalent impression in both East and West was that the Mongol campaign was a sort of holy war against Islam, a pendant to the Frankish expeditions. This impression was enhanced by the fact that Hülegü’s chief lieutenant in Syria, General Kitbuga, was a Nestorian Christian. When Damascus was taken on the first of March 1260, three Christian princes—Bohemond, Hethoum, and Kitbuga—entered the city as conquerors, to the great consternation of the Arabs.
How far would the Tartars go? Some people were convinced that they would goall the way to Mecca, thus dealing the coup de grâce to the religion of the Prophet. In any event they would reach Jerusalem, and soon. All Syria was convinced of this. Just after the fall of Damascus, two Mongol detachments quickly seized two Palestinian cities: Nablus in the centre of the country, and Gaza in the south-west. When Gaza, which lies on the edge of Sinai, was overrun in that tragic spring of 1260, it seemed that not even Egypt would escape devastation. Even before his Syrian campaign had ended, Hülegü dispatched an ambassador to Cairo to demand the unconditional surrender of the land of the Nile. The emissary was received, spoke his piece, and was then beheaded. The Mamluks were not joking. Their methods bore no resemblance to those of Saladin. These sultan-slaves, who had now been ruling for ten years, reflected the hardening, the intransigence, of an Arab world now under attack from all directions. They fought with all the means at their disposal. No scruples, no magnanimous gestures, no compromises. But with courage and to great effect.
All eyes were now turned in their direction, for they represented the last hope of stemming the advance of the invader. For twelve months, power in Cairo had been in the hands of an officer of Turkish origin named QuÔuz. Shajar al-Durr and her husband Aybeg had governed together for seven years, but had finally killed each other. There have been many conflicting versions of the end of their rule. The one favoured by popular story-tellers is a mix of love and jealousy spiced with political ambition. The sultana, it says, was bathing her husband, as was her custom. Taking advantage of this moment of détente and intimacy, she scolded the sultan for having taken a pretty 14-year-old girl slave as his concubine. ÝDo I no longer please you?’ she murmured, to soften his heart. But Aybeg answered sharply: ÝShe is young, while you are not.’ Shajar al-Durr trembled with rage at these words. She rubbed soap in her husband’s eyes, while whispering conciliatory words to allay any suspicion, and then suddenly seized a dagger and stabbed him in the side. Aybeg collapsed. The sultana remained immobile for some moments, as if paralysed. Then, heading for the door, she summoned several faithful slaves, who she thought would dispose of the body for her. But to her misfortune, one of Aybeg’s sons, who was fifteen at the time, noticed that the bath-water flowing through the outside drain was red. He ran into the room and saw Shajar al-Durr standing half-naked near the door, still holding a bloodstained dagger. She fled through the corridors of the palace, pursued by her stepson, who alerted the guards. Just as they caught up with her, the sultana stumbled and fell, crashing her head violently against a marble slab. By the time they reached her, she was dead.
However highly romanticized, this version is of genuine historical interest inasmuch as it is in all probability a faithful reflection of what was being said in the streets of Cairo in April 1257, just after the tragedy.
However that may be, after the death of the two sovereigns, Aybeg’s young son succeeded to the throne. But not for long. As the Mongol threat took shape, the commanders of the Egyptian army realized that an adolescent would be unable to lead the decisive battle now looming. In December 1259, as Hülegü’s hordes began to roll across Syria, a coup d’état brought QuÔuz to power. He was a mature, energetic man who talked in terms of holy war and called for a general mobilization against the invader, the enemy of Islam.
With hindsight, the new coup in Cairo could be said to represent a genuine patriotic upheaval. The country was immediately placed on a war footing. In July 1260 a powerful Egyptian army moved into Palestine to confront the enemy.
QuÔuz was aware that the Mongol army had lost the core of its fighters when Möngke, Supreme Khan of the Mongols, died and his brother Hülegü had to retreat with his army to join in the inevitable succession struggle. The grandson of Genghis Khan had left Syria soon after the fall of Damascus, leaving only a few thousand horsemen in the country, under the command of his lieutenant Kitbuga.
Sultan QuÔuz knew that if the invader was to be dealt a decisive blow, it was now or never. The Egyptian army thus began by assaulting the Mongol garrison at Gaza. Taken by surprise, the invaders barely resisted. The Mamluks next advanced on Acre, not unaware that the Franj of Palestine had been more reticent than those of Antioch towards the Mongols. Admittedly, some of their barons still rejoiced in the defeats suffered by Islam, but most were frightened by the brutality of the Asian conquerors. When QuÔuz proposed an alliance, their response was not wholly negative: although not prepared to take part in the fighting, they would not object to the passage of the Egyptian army through their territory, and they would not obstruct supplies. The sultan was thus able to advance towards the interior of Palestine, and even towards Damascus, without having to protect his rear.
Kitbuga was preparing to march out to meet them when a popular insurrection erupted in Damascus. The Muslims of the city, enraged by the exactions of the invaders and encouraged by the departure of Hülegü, built barricades in the streets and set fire to those churches that had been spared by the Mongols. It took Kitbuga several days to reestablish order, and this enabled QuÔuz to consolidate his positions in Galilee. The two armies met near the village of ÝAyn JÁlÙt (ÝFountain of Goliath’) on 3 September 1260. QuÔuz had had time to conceal most of his troops, leaving the battlefield to no more than a vanguard under the command of his most brilliant officer, Baybars. Kitbuga arrived in a rush and, apparently ill-informed, fell into the trap. He launched a full-scale assault. Baybars retreated, but as the Mongol gave chase he suddenly found himself surrounded by Egyptian forces more numerous than his own.
The Mongol cavalry was exterminated in a few hours. Kitbuga himself was captured and beheaded forthwith.
On the night of 8 September the Mamluk horsemen rode jubilantly into Damascus, where they were greeted as liberators.