Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Īlkhānid War, 1260-1281

  • Book Title:
 Mongols And Mamluks
  • Book Author:
Reuven Amitai-Preiss
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A Monetary History of the Ottoman Empire



For sixty years, commencing in AD 1260, the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria were involved in a more or less constant struggle with the İlkhanid Mongols of Persia. During this period, the Mongols made several concerted efforts to invade Syria: in AD 1260, 1281, 1299, 1300, 1303 and 1312. With one exception, ali the Mongol expeditions were failures.

Even the one Mongol victory on the field, at Wadı al-Khaznadar in AD 1299, did not lead to the permanent Mongol occupation of Syria and the ultimate defeat of the Mamluks, as the Mongols evacuated Syria after an occupation lasting only a few months. Between these major campaigns, the war generally continued in a form which in modern parlance might bedescribed asa “cold war”: raids over both sides of the border, diplomatic maneuvers, espionage and other types of subterfuge, propaganda and ideological posturing, psychological warfare, use of satellite states, and attempts to build large-scale alliances against the enemy.

Here, as in the major battles, the Mamluks usually maintained the upper hand. Yet, in spite ofa conspicuous lack of success on the part of the Mongols, they continued to pursue their goals of conquering Syria and subjecting the Mamluks, until their efforts began to peter out towards the end ofthe second decade of the fourteenth century. it was only then that the Mongols initiated negotiations which Ied to a forma) conclusion of a peace agreement in AD 1323.

The study of this conftict is essential to understanding both the Mamluk and İlkhanid states. The early history of the Mamluk Sultanate is inextricably bound up with the Mongols. As will be seen, the establishment of the Sultanate was indirectly influenced by the early Mongol invasions of the lslamic  and the steppe region north ofthe Black Sea.

The Mongols were the Mamluks’ greatest concem in the realm of foreign relations during the formative first decades of the Mamluk Sultanate. This was not only because the İlkhanid Mongols were its greatest enemies, but also because the Mongols of the Golden Horde were its most important allies, not the least because it was from the territory of the latter that the vast majority of young mamluks were imported to the Sultanate.2 it is thus impossible to understand the development of the Sultanate without first analyzing the nature of the relationship with the Mongols.

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The İlkhanids, on the other hand, may have had more pressing matters on their minds than their conflict with the Mamluks, yet over the years it stili remained a major concem, to which they repeatedly retumed. If nothing else, an analysis of their failure to defeat the Mamluks should lead to a greater understanding of the İlkhans and their army.

Both the Mamluks and Mongols were military elites of Eurasian Steppe origin who ruled over large sedentary Muslim populations, and based their armies on disciplined masses of mounted archers. Yet fundamental differences existed between the two groups.

First, the Mongols continued to maintain a tribal and pastoral nomadic way of life, whereas the Mamluks, bom as pagans, had been plucked out ofthe nomadic environment, converted to Islam and functioned as an urban military caste. While the Mamluks were Muslims, the Mongols entered the Islamic world holding a mixture of Shamanistic, Buddhist and Eastem Christian beliefs.

The Mamluk sultans saw themselves as defenders of Islam and the Muslims, and portrayed themselves as such, whereas the early İlkhans blithely killed the Caliph, destroyed mosques and sought alliances with local and Westem Christians against the Muslims. Even with the eventual conversion ofthe Mongols to Islam, towards the end ofthe thirteenth century, the religious dimension of the conflict did not completely disappear.

The purpose of this study is to present a political and military history of the Mamluk-İlkhanid war from the first clash, at the battle of ‘Ayn Jalüt in AD 1260, until the second battle of Homs in 128 l.

The plethora of evidence and the lack of space precluded dealing in a single volume with the entire war to l 320 and its subsequent resolution. it is my hope that in the future I will be able to publish further studies which will deal with Mamluk-İlkhanid relations from 1281 to the demise ofthe İlkhanid state in the 1330s.

Previous scholarship

For all the interest and importance ofthe İlkhanid-Mamluk war, it has until now only been partially studied. The general works on Mamluk history in European languages – most noteworthy being those by G. Weil,3 P.M. Holt4 and R. lrwin 5 – usually mention the war only in passing, perhaps discussing at length one of the battles or certain other aspects. The same can be said of the surveys ofllkhanid history, such as those works by A.C.M. D’Ohsson, 6 J.A. Boyle,7 B. Spuler 8 and D.O. Morgan. 9

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The standard narrative histories ofthe Crusades – by R. Grousset,10 S. Runciman1 1 and J. Prawer1 2 – discuss the Mongols only in as far as they are relevant to their central subject. This does not mean that these works are without value. They provide a historical framework in which to view the Mamluk-ilkhanid war, and offer much information and many insights into the conflict itself. They do not, however, fili the need for a detailed study on the subject.

There are several specialized studies which have proved invaluable for this work. D. Ayalon, in a series of articles on the yasa, or Mongol law code,13 discussed some of the salient features of the conflict, while analyzing possible Mongol influence, including the yasa, on the Mamluks.

 Many of Ayalon’s other studies supplied important relevant information. P. Jackson hasgiven us two lengthy studies, 14 which provide a clearer understanding of some of the important aspects of the early stages of the war. J.M. Smith, Jr.’s article on….

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