Battle of Ain Jalut: Mamluks Beat Mongols at Goliath's Spring

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Battle of Ain Jalut: Mamluks Beat Mongols at Goliath's Spring

Thirteenth century depiction of the battle of Ain Jalut
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 3, 1260

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

Today's spotlight conflict is another of those macro-historical battles that changed the course of human history. The Mongols conquered an empire that threatened all of human civilization. A nation ruled by slave-warriors met them in battle near Jerusalem, and beat the Asian horsemen at their own game…

Background to the Battle

In the 30+ years since the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire continued to expand.  In eastern Asia, nearly all of China and Korea fell to the steppe armies. The Abbasid Caliphate was conquered in the Middle East. To the west, Russia was invaded, Hungary and Poland raided and their armies defeated. Finally, in about 1258 the Ayyubid Dynasty of Syria was conquered by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis and primary general of Mongke Khan, the reigning "Great Khan." The next victim on the Tatars' list of kingdoms to conquer was the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt.

However, in 1259 fate stepped in, as it always seemed to do with the Mongols. In that year, Mongke Khan died during the siege of a Song Chinese city (various chronicles state he died either from disease or a projectile from a Chinese counter-siege weapon). Under Mongolian custom, all princes of the royal blood were required to immediately return to their homeland and hold a grand conclave to select a new "Great Khan." Word of Mongke Khan's death did not reach Syria until the following year. Taking the bulk of his army with him, Hulagu left between one to three divisions called tumans (10,000-30,000 men) behind to continue his policy of subjugation. Their commander was Kitbuqa Noyan, a Nestorian Christian Turk, who had the complete confidence of Hulagu.

Prior to leaving for Mongolia, Hulagu sent several emissaries to Kotuz, ruler of the Bahri Mamluk sultanate of Egypt, with a message. It stated:

From the King of Kings of the East and West, the Great Khan.
To Kotuz the Mamluk, who fled to escape our swords.

You should think of what happened to other countries and submit to us. You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of the disorders that tainted it. We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee? What road will you use to 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 God will not avail against us. We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations. Only those who beg our protection will be safe. Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled. 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. At present you are the only enemy against whom we have to march.

Messages similar to this one had persuaded many other rulers to submit to the Mongol yoke. However, Sultan Kotuz was made of sterner stuff. He killed the Mongol emissaries (one historian says he cut them in half at the waist) then beheaded them, displaying their heads on one of Cairo's city gates. He then proceeded to gather his forces to confront the Mongol army that would soon be marching to Egypt.

Background: Mamluks

"A Mamluk Soldier in Full Armor" by Georg Moritz Ebers (c. 1870); (if you disregard the pouch with pistols on his left hip by the shield, he Would look like a Mamluk from the 13th century)
"A Mamluk Soldier in Full Armor" by Georg Moritz Ebers (c. 1870)
(if you disregard the pouch with pistols on his left hip by the shield, he
Would look like a Mamluk from the 13th century)

Mamluks were a part of the military forces of Muslim rulers from the ninth through the nineteenth century. [The word comes from the Arabic "mamālīk" meaning "owned."] The Koran states that the only legitimate sources for slaves are the children of slaves and prisoners of war. Mamluks were slaves bought from certain conquered areas of the Middle East and western Asia, primarily Circassians and Armenians from the Caucasus, and Kipchak Turks north of the Black Sea.

These slaves were forcibly converted to Islam, then trained as cavalry soldiers. Mamluks had to follow the dictates of furusiyya, a code that included values such as courage and generosity, and also cavalry tactics, horsemanship, archery and the like. [The code of furusiyya was very similar to the European concept of chivalry.] When their training was completed, they were officially discharged and freed. However, they still owed a personal bond to the sultan and all Mamluks continued their service with their former masters. The mamluks eventually achieved a heightened status in Egyptian society. Many Egyptians sold themselves into slavery in order to become Mamluk soldiers.

Many Muslim rulers sought Mamluk slave-soldiers because they were loyal to their new masters personally, rather than to their tribes or families. These slave-troops were strangers of the lowest possible status who could not conspire against the ruler and who could easily be punished if they caused trouble, making them a great military asset. Every Mamluk worked his way up from recruit to a higher position based on merit alone. Every commander of the army and nearly all of the Mamluk sultans started life in this manner. The result was a succession of rulers of unrivaled personality, courage and ruthlessness.

After the Mamluks made themselves masters of Egypt and Syria, they continued the same policy of recruitment. Agents were sent to buy and import boys from Central Asia for their armies. Mamluks looked on their Egyptian-born sons as socially inferior and would not recruit them into regular Mamluk units, which only admitted boys born on the steppes.

In addition to their military duties, many Mamluks were skilled administrators, earning positions of trust and power. In fact, in the year 1249, the sultan of Egypt died, but his wife Shajar al-Durr (which means "string of pearls" in Arabic) kept the news quiet for four months, issuing orders in her dead husband's name. She eventually married Izz al-Din Aybak, who founded the first Mamluk sultanate of Egypt.

Mamluk Army

Sultan Kotuz gathered together his available forces, which totaled about 12,000 soldiers – mainly heavy cavalrymen – altogether. [Some historians have exaggerated the size of the Mamluk force to 120,000, but this is probably the result of a mis-translation of the original source.] In addition to his Mamluk heavy cavalry, he also recruited some Bedouins, some Turcoman Mamluks and Arabs who had deserted the Mongol forces, and members of the semi-barbarous Hawwarah tribe of Libya. During the early preparations, Kotuz sent emissaries to the Crusaders, asking for permission to camp and re-supply near one of their cities before attacking the Tatars. This was a calculated and risky move, considering that the Crusaders had been trying to extinguish the Muslim threat to the less-than-two-centuries-old Crusader states.

Mongol Army

Reenactment of 13th century Mongol cavalrymen; Image courtesy of
Reenactment of 13th century Mongol cavalrymen
Image courtesy of

The composition and even actual size of the Mongol force is very speculative. There is evidence to suggest that besides regular Mongol horsemen – mostly light cavalry archers and some heavy cavalry – Kitbuqa's army also included Armenian horsemen, Christians who had submitted to Hulagu within the previous few years. There were also probably some Syrian Mamluks, who joined the Tatar army when the major cities of Syria surrendered to Hulagu. If Kitbuqa's army had been launching raids throughout Palestine prior to the final encounter, his two tumans were probably understrength and may have numbered between 10,000 and 15,000 effectives.

Prelude to the Battle

With the bulk of the Mongol army traveling back home to settle dynastic problems, Kitbuqa resumed Hulagu's campaign against the Egyptian sultanate in August of 1260. He led his 20,000-man force from the city of Baalbek in modern-day Lebanon, traveling southward. He kept his army east of the Sea of Galilee and the northernmost tributary of the Jordan River. He sent small raiding parties throughout Palestine, attacking Jerusalem and possibly as far south as Gaza, the very gateway into Egypt proper.

During this time period, Kitbuqa also tried to form an alliance with the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem, which was now centered on the coastal cities of Acre, Tyre and Sidon. Some of the Crusader leaders had made their homage to Hulagu, and had even sent some soldiers to join his army prior to Hulagu's trip back to his homeland. [There is no evidence that any Christians were in Kitbuqa's force at the coming battle.] However, Pope Alexander IV had banned any further contact with the Tatars. Even so, the Crusaders finally realized that the Mongols now posed the bigger threat to their existence than did the nearby Mamluks of Egypt.

On July 26, 1260 Kotuz and his force began marching toward Palestine to meet Hulagu's army. In late August, the Crusaders contacted the Mamluks, and gave them permission to camp near the city of Acre, to rest and re-provision their forces. Several days later, scouts reported to Kotuz that the Mongols had crossed the Jordan River and were headed toward Egypt. Kotuz broke camp and head southeast to intercept the Mongols.

Campaign movement leading to battle of Ain Jalut; Map created by MapMaster of Wikipedia
Campaign movement leading to battle of Ain Jalut
Map created by MapMaster of Wikipedia

The Battle of Ain Jalut

The Mamluk force managed to get ahead of the advancing Tatars. Kotuz and his emir Baibars, his second-in-command, selected the Plain of Esdraelon to the north of Jerusalem as the chosen ground for their fight. The plain was dominated by Mount Gilboa to the south, and the hills of Galilee to the north. The hills were cut through with a variety of deep valleys. The most singular landmark of the plain was the Wadi Ain Jalut, the "Spring of Goliath." It was believed by both Christians and Muslims that this fresh-water well was the site of the Biblical encounter between David and Goliath.

Kotuz arranged the bulk of his force near Ain Jalut, giving command of this vanguard to Baibars. He then concealed some units of his Mamluk heavy cavalry in valleys of the surrounding hills, out of sight of the Mongols. Before the start of the fighting, Kotuz gave a speech to his men, which historians said brought tears to the eyes of his men. He reminded them of the nature of Tatar savagery. There was no alternative to fighting, he said, "except a horrible death for themselves, their wives and their children." It hardened the souls of the Mamluks for the coming battle against an enemy that had never tasted defeat.

Baibars advanced quickly and made contact with Kitbuqa's force coming towards Ain Jalut. Seeing Baibars' force, Kitbuqa mistook it for the entire Egyptian army and ordered his men to charge, leading the attack himself. For several hours, the Mamluk army held off the attacks of the Mongols, using a variety of hit-and-run attacks between showers of arrows to keep the Asiatic horsemen off balance. Finally, Baibars ordered his command to retreat in the direction of the spring. The Mongols rode triumphantly in pursuit, victory seemingly in their grasp.

When they reached the spring, Baibars ordered his army to wheel and face the enemy. Only then did the Mongols realize they had been tricked by one of their own favorite tactics : the feigned retreat. As Baibars re-engaged the Mongols, Kotuz ordered his Mamluk reserve cavalry out from its hiding places in the foothills, slopes, and valleys against the flanks of the Tatar army. In a matter of moments, the Mongols were completely surrounded. [Baibars is credited with forming the battleplan which tamed the Mongols, as it was said he had grown up in the region. The Mamluk emir also had the additional knowledge of Mongol strategy and tactics, as he had once been captured and enslaved by the Tatars as a youth, before behind sold to Egypt]

Realizing that he was now committed to a battle with the entire enemy army, Kitbuqa ordered his heavy cavalry to charge the Muslim left flank, where some of the lesser Egyptian troops were likely placed. The flank initially held, wavered, but eventually was turned, cracking under the ferocity of the Mongol assault.

As the Egyptian left wing threatened to dissolve, and it appeared the entire army might be routed, Sultan Kotuz rode to the site of the fiercest fighting and threw his helmet to the ground so the entire army could recognize his face. "O Islam!" he shouted three times in loud, stentorian tones. His shaken troops rallied and the flank held. As the line solidified, Kotuz led a countercharge sweeping back the Mongol squadrons.

Kitbuqa was now faced with a deteriorating situation. When one subordinate suggested a withdrawal his response was brief: "We must die here and that is the end of it. Long life and happiness to the Khan." Despite the relentless Mamluk pressure, Kitbuqa continued to rally his men. Then his horse was wounded by an Egyptian arrow and he was thrown to the ground. He was quickly swarmed and captured by nearby Mamluk soldiers. As the battle continued, he was taken to the Sultan amidst the continuing sounds of battle.

A short discussion between the two army commanders ensued, and yielded nothing but anger. Then, Kitbuqa said, "All my life I have been a slave of the khan. I am not, like you, a murderer of my master." No doubt enraged by the insult, the Mamluk sultan then ordered Kitbuqa executed and his head sent to Cairo as proof of the Muslim victory.

With their leader gone, the remaining Mongol formations broke and fled to the town of Beisan where they drew up to face the pursuing Mamluk cavalry. The resulting clash broke the remnants of the Mongol army, as they continued to rout until they crossed the Euphrates River. The battle of Goliath's Spring was over.


There are no casualty figures available for either army. Considering the fierce fighting, the Egyptian army likely suffered heavy casualties, while the Mongol invasion force was likely wiped out. Only a remnant of the Tatar army made it across the Euphrates River.

Within days the victorious Kotuz re-entered Damascus in triumph, and the Egyptians moved on to liberate Aleppo and the other major cities of Syria. The Mongols never seriously threatened Egypt again.

Footnote #1: This battle is credited with one of the first uses of "hand cannons" in history. These explosives (called midfa by Arabic sources) were employed by the Mamluks in order to frighten the Mongol horses and cause disorder in their ranks.

Footnote #2: Sultan Kotuz and his emir Baibars had struck a deal prior to the battle, wherein Kotuz promised Baibars the governorship of Syria once the Mongols were defeated. When Kotuz gave Syria to another underling, Baibars formed a plot to assassinate Kotuz before he reached Egypt and assumed the sultanate of Egypt. He died in 1277 under mysterious circumstances, either from a poisoned drink or an infected wound.

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I have always been intrigued by this battle, which is clearly one of the most relevant in all history. Thank you for this excellent summary!!

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