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Islam during the Crusades


I could not possibly cover all of Islam in twenty Web pages, nor even medieval Islam. In any case, I have not studied the subject, except by way of studying the Crusades and the Middle Ages in general. What I will attempt here, then, is only an introduction to that portion of the Islamic world that impinged on the Crusader States and those aspects of the religion that seem necessary for this class. For a proper understanding of Islam, I will rely heavily on the references given at the end of this essay.

I will begin with a very quick sketch of the history of Islam from Muhammed up to the 11th century, with particular attention to an explanation of Shi'a and Sunni, and the relation of Muslims to the other "peoples of the Book." I will then describe the major political powers in the Near East at the time of the First Crusade. The bulk of the essay will then be devoted to a survey of the 12th and 13th centuries.


The prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570 AD. We know very little about his early life, but we do know that in mid-life (610 AD) he experienced a series of revelations from the angel Gabriel. Soon afterward, he began preaching publicly. The people of Mecca were pagans and they did not like Muhammad's harsh criticisms of their practices; in 622, he and his family emigrated to Medina. This move is called the hijra (or Hegira) and marks year 1 of the Islamic calendar.

Muhammad was much more successful at Medina. It was here that he began preaching that his followers were commanded by God to convert or else conquer the neighboring tribes. Expansion followed rapidly, and in 630 they had conquered Mecca. Muhammad himself died in 632.

He was recognized by his followers to be what he claimed to be: the final and true prophet, following in a direct tradition from Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. We have nothing from Muhammad's hand. The sacred book of Islam, the Koran (Quran), was written down in final form in 651 and 652, by his followers who knew him directly and intimately.


The word "Islam" means submission. A Muslim is one who submits to God (Allah = the God), to the will of God, and to God's law. The first obligation of the Muslim is to acknowledge Allah and to recognize him as the one and only God, and to acknowledge that Muhammad is his prophet. Anyone, therefore, can be a Muslim; like Christianity, it was a religion that from the beginning sought out and welcomed converts.

The tone of the Koran is highly moralistic, emphasizing ethics and proper behavior. There is very little in it that is theological or abstract, but there is much about diet, charity toward the poor, and various ceremonies. Muslims were to treat one another with justice and mercy, for unity within the faith was paramount. Non-believers were to be given the opportunity to convert, but should they refuse, the Koran recommends holy war (jihad).

The foundation of the faith is the "five pillars": the shahada, or profession of faith; the salat, daily worship consisting of praying five times daily; the sawm, which is the fasting during the month of Ramadan; the zakat, or the giving of alms; and the hajj--the pilgrimage to Mecca which every Muslim is supposed to undertake at least once.

The Koran was written in Arabic; in fact, it can fairly be said that the Koran helped create Arabic as a written language. The Koran is not supposed to be translated; or, at least, the faithful are supposed to read the holy book in Arabic, not in translation. Moreover, prayers must be in Arabic. This emphasis on one language created a unity within Islam. Even after the common people learned to pray in their own tongues, Arabic continued to be the only language of the religiously educated, much the same way Latin was in the West, or Greek in the East. An educated Muslim gentleman could go anywhere the the Muslim world, from Spain to India, and find not only a ready welcome but people who spoke a common language and shared a common faith.

Despite bitter political divisions, and even despite religious divisions, Islam was a single cultural entity. Leaders were supposed to at least pretend they were trying to protect and further that unity, or to restore it.

The First Four Centuries

Islam was an uncomplicated religion, easily adopted and readily understood. This helps explain the rapid expansion of the religion. Also important was the zealous fervor of the early converts, and the relative weakness of their neighbors. Even so, the expansion of Islam in its first decades remains one of the most remarkable military and political and cultural accomplishments of any people in any era.

The Muslims conquered Mecca in 630.By 635 they were in Damascus. The following year, at Yarmuk, the Muslims routed a Byzantine army and most of Syria was opened to them. In 637 they defeated a Persian army and had conquered the entire Persian Empire by 650. Expansion continued eastward in the following decades, until the Muslims had spread through Afghanistan and India, up to the borders of China.

Jerusalem fell in 638, Egypt in 641 (Alexandria held out until 642). The Muslims swept across North Africa, conquering Tripoli in 647, Carthage in 698, and entering Spain in 711. They were at the gates of Constantinople in 673 and again in 717, but the Byzantines managed to drive the Muslims out of Asia Minor again, and that area remained Greek until the 11th century.

These conquests were achieved under the Umayyad caliphs. Caliph means "vicar" or "successor," the title taken by Abu Bakr who succeeded after Muhammad died. He was followed in 634 by Omar and then Uthman, after whom the dynasty is named. The Umayyads ruled a single, unified Islam until the middle of the 8th century.

In 750, rebellion broke out. The descendants of Abbas, an uncle of Muhammad, managed to kill the caliph and most of his family. The Abbasids set themselves up at Baghdad, but rivals arose elsewhere and Islam fragmented politically. The one surviving member of the Umayyads fled to Spain where he continued to claim to be caliph at Cordoba (755). Another caliphate arose in Morocco in 788, one in Tunisia in 800, in Persia in 820, and in Egypt in 868. Each was ruled by a man who called himself caliph--successor.


There was another division within Islam, however; a religious division that appeared almost from the start and which continues to this day. This division would have a significant affect on Islamic history during the Crusades.

Muhammad died without naming a successor. After his death in 632, his followers gathered and discussed among themselves who should assume the mantle of leadership. None of these men claimed to be another prophet, only that the leadership of the faithful. Abu Bakr was chosen, but he died two years later. He was succeeded by Omar (634-644), who led the faithful to their most rapid and remarkable victories. On November 4, 644, Omar was at Medina, about to lead as imam in prayers. A captive Persian Christian (Persian had just been conquered) rushed forward and fatally stabbed Omar. As he lay dying, he appointed six men to decide who would succeed him.

The choice fell on Othman, a nobleman from Mecca. The other likely candidate was Ali, a cousin to the prophet and like Othman, one of the earliest converts, who was married to Fatima, Muhammad's daughter. I will not go into details here. Suffice it to say that Othman was murdered in 656 and three different men all claimed the succession, including Ali. A civil war ensued, during which Ali managed to win many adherents, but many enemies as well. He died in 661, likewise murdered. The party of Omar was victorious, but the followers of Ali went into hiding and continued to adhere to his son, Husein.

Out of this civil war came the split between the Sunni and the Shi'ites.  Sunni means the way or customs of the Prophet, a reference to the body of secondary literature that discussed the many aspects of life not directly dealt with in the Koran. The followers of Omar were Sunnites. Those who followed Ali were "Shi'a" and they claimed that the three caliphs who preceeded him (Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman) were all usurpers. Ali was the first, true caliph. The fundamental position of the Shi'ites was that succession after the Prophet must remain in the family of the Prophet (Ali was Muhammad's cousin).

Since Ali's descendants were in hiding, tracing a line of authority became problematical. The result was, over time, a variety of competing claims emerged, splits within the ranks of the Shi'ites. Outwardly, they center on the question of the Imams (religious leaders), each group claiming a different founder. The Shi'ites have in common that they oppose Sunni dynasties, but the Shi'a is more of a variety of movements under one heading.

The most notable outward, political success of the Shi'ites came in 909 when Abu Abdallah produced a "hidden Imam" and proclaimed him Caliph. This marks the beginning of the Fatimid dynasty, which eventually was based at Cairo (969), though the Fatimids conquered much of North Africa as well. In the same century, the Buyids, a Persian clan that was also Shi'ite in loyalty, managed to take over the ailing Abassid caliphs in Baghdad. The Buyids never themselves claimed the caliphate, but their advent marks the high tide for the Shi'ites.

The situation in the 11th century, then, was that Islam was theoretically one community of the faithful, but in reality it was divided into several caliphates. Some of these were fierce rivals, others went their way independently. The caliphate of Egypt was Shi'ite, the one in Baghdad was controlled by Shi'ite viziers, and the rest were Sunni. None, except the far western ones, were strong in the 11th century.

The Turks

The Turks were another of those fierce, nomadic peoples produced every few centuries in the steppes of Asia. They began to filter into Muslim Persia in the 9th century, mainly as mercenaries and adventurers. Success in these roles brought land and titles to some, and so the Turks began to settle within Islam, converting to the faith. During the 10th century, most of the Turkish tribes converted to Islam, so when they began migrating in the 11th century, it was as Muslims, specifically as Sunnite Muslims.

By 1040, the Turks were moving into Persia in large numbers, sweeping away every opponent. Their conquests are known today as the Seljuk Empire, named after the leader who first united the tribes. In 1060 they drove the Shi'ite ruler from Baghdad, propping up the failing Abassid caliph there. Now, though, the Caliph was under the thumb of a new power: the Turk who ruled in the name of the Caliph took the title of Sultan. From that point on, the Caliph in Baghdad was a religious leader only, and it was the Sultan who ruled.

The Turks aimed in two directions: Byzantium and Egypt. The former was Christian and so ripe for conquest and conversion, while the latter was heretical (Shi'ite) and so open to attack. Under Alp Arslan, the Turks invaded Armenia and Georgia. In their train came thousands upon thousands of Turkish nomads, following after their victorious warriors. These settled in such numbers in Anatolia that gradually Asia Minor became known as Turkey.

The key event in this process was the battle at Manzikert in 1071, when Alp Arslan defeated and killed the Byzantine Emperor Romanus Diogenes. The Turks were still busily settling in to this area when the First Crusaders arrived, twenty-five years later.

To the south, at first it appeared the Turks would be equally successful. After a terrible six-year famine (1067-1071) caused the Fatimids to lose much of their empire, including Sicily and Palestine, Egypt recovered her strength. She was led by Badr al-Jamali, an Armenian who took the title of Amir (Commander of the Troops). He recovered Palestine, including Jerusalem, so it the city was under the control of Arabs and Egyptians when it fell to the Latins in 1099.

The Turks were unable to respond. They had no tradition of centralized government and from the 1090s on, their lands were never united but were ruled by independent princes who took various titles and quarreled with one another incessantly.


Most of the Muslim world cried out in dismay when Jerusalem was captured by the Christians, partly because of the loss of the city but also because of the dreadful butchery that accompanied its fall. The outcry was mostly rhetorical, however; in practical terms, none of the leaders of Islam cared much. The Syrian and Palestinian coast was very much a backwater frontier, far removed from the centers of Muslim life. Egypt stood to lose or gain the most, but Cairo proved unable to field an army able to root out the Latins.

The first sign of a serious counter-offensive did not appear until 1110, when the Seljuk Sultan appointed one of his officers, Mawdud, as governor of Mosul. The Sultan specifically directed Mawdud to take the field against the Franks and drive them out. He attacked Edessa and defeated a Frankish army near Tiberias, but he was murdered in 1113 at Damascus.

Mawdud may have been killed by Assassins, new factor in Islamic politics at this time. When the Fatimid caliphate appeared to be hopelessly weak in the later 11th century, a Shi'ite leader emerged--Hassan i-Sabbah--who embarked on a bold new programme. He returned to Persia with a plan. In 1090, he seized the fortress of Alamut by a ruse. Over the next few years, his followers captured several more castles, all in northern Iraq. In 1094, he proclaimed that he was in possession of the current hidden Imam and that he was the Imam's guardian. His cult was called the New Preaching, and belonged to the Nizar Isma'ili, but his followers are known as the Assassins. The name stems from stories, which cannot be proved one way or the other, that the fida'is smoked hashish before embarking on their attacks. The fact that the story was so widely believed is a measure of the fear they instilled.

The Assassins were unable to penetrate into the cities and the centers of power; their strength was always in rural areas. They soon resorted to the device of political murder to gain allies and terrify their enemies, a technique not new to them. The Assassins flourished until well into the 13th century. Their daggers changed the course of many states, including those of the Crusader kingdom. Mawdud was only one of many victims, though an early one.


The next leader to emerge was Zengi, atabeg of Mosul. He was appointed to that position by the Caliph at Baghdad,  al-Mustarshid, in 1127. An atabeg is a Turkish term for a governor, something akin to a count (comes) in the Latin west. He expanded his rule to Aleppo in 1128 and captured Hama in 1129. This made Zengi the most powerful Muslim commander in Syria, though the Turks to the north were a constant threat to his position.

In the 1130s, Zengi was preoccupied with Damascus. In 1136, the Mamluk Bazawash occupied Damascus and began trying to expand into Palestine. It was he who killed Pons of Tripoli in 1137. Zengi saw Bazawash as a rival and tried to move against him. In general, over this period, Zengi's task was to expand southward while keeping his northern borders secure. It was a delicate balancing act.

He moved against Homs in June 1137, but Count Raymond of Tripoli advanced, forcing Zengi to raise the siege. King Fulk came up to help and Zengi won a great victory against the Christians, capturing the Count and nearly capturing Fulk.  The following year, though, Emperor John invaded in the north, attacking Aleppo itself, forcing Zengi to return to its defense. That same year, 1138, Zengi married Zumurrud, the mother of the atabeg of Damascus. He received Homs as her dowry, displacing Unur, the governor there. In exchange, Zengi sent Unur to rule in Damascus. In 1139, following the murder of the atabeg, Unur took over direct rule of Damascus as vizier. In some circles, Zengi was accused of having instigated the murder, but Unur proved to be an inconstant ally. By December 1139, Unur was in open revolt against Zengi's authority, and Zengi laid siege to the city, without success.

In March 1140, Unur sought alliance with Fulk of Jerusalem, leading to a battle in which Damascenes and Christians fought together against the Turk Zengi. They were able to force Zengi to retire to the safety of Aleppo and Unur actually paid a call on Fulk at Acre.

Capture of Edessa

Zengi now turned his attention north, where wars among the Turks seemed to provide an opportunity. He attacked Kara Arslan, prince of Diarbekir in 1144, a man who was allied with Joscelin of Edessa. Joscelin raised an army and marched out in November, hoping to trap Zengi between himself and Kara Arslan. Instead, Zengi turned unexpectedly and marched on Edessa, arriving there on November 28.  Joscelin retreated to Turbessel, unwilling to risk open battle. After a siege of four weeks, Edessa fell.

This victory made Zengi famous, for he was responsible for the elimination of one of the four Crusader states. He appointed a Turk as governor, killed all the Franj males and sold the rest as slaves. He closed all the Latin churches, but he left all the native Christians in peace. He then moved on to take a number of other Edessan fortresses. Trouble in Mosul forced him to break off his conquest of Edessa, but he was back in Aleppo in May 1146, preparing to invade Syria.

In September he was besieging the Muslim town of Qalat Jabar because it would not recognize him as overlord. On September 14, he caught a Frankish eunuch drinking from his cup and severely upbraided the man in public. That night, the man stole into Zengi's tent and murdered him while he slept.

Zengi's career is important because of his conquest of Edessa, but it is important even more for the fact that he couched his actions against the Christians in terms of a Muslim holy war. He is the first Muslim leader to use the jihad against the Latins as a means of mobilizing forces, gaining popular support, and enforcing unity and obedience among his emirs. It was a formula that would be employed even more effectively by Nuradin, Zengi's second son and successor, and by later Muslim leaders as well. When Islam stood united, the Franj would always be defeated (the Byzantine Empire was a different matter), but Islam was notoriously difficult to unite.

Zengi showed that the jihad was an effective tool. He had the imams proclaim the holy war in sermons and prayers, the matter was discussed in the schools and in princely courts; it was, in short, a propaganda tool.  This is not to imply that Zengi was cynical in his use of jihad; on the contrary, he believed strongly in its need. Zengi had given the Turks and Arabs its first permanent victory and a vehicle for achieving more.

Nur ad-Din

Zengi was succeeded by his second son, Nuradin. The eldest son, Saif ad-Din, ruled in Mosul, and the Kurdish lords Shirkuh and his brother Ayub held Aleppo. Nuradin would continue his father's use of the jihad against the Christians and enjoyed even greater successes. He was famous for his wisdom and piety and won the respect of the whole Muslim world.

On learning of Zengi's death, Unur of Damascus immediately occupied Baalbeck and made Hama and Homs his vassals. This created a state powerful enough to be worrisome to the Christians as well as to Nuradin. At the same time, and for much the same reasons, Raymond of Antioch and Joscelin of Edessa advanced separately toward Edessa. Joscelin actually broke into the city, but could not take the citadel. Nuradin was moving against Raymond, but when he learned of the city's peril, he returned and nearly trapped Joscelin. The Count escaped on November 2 and Nuradin pursued him. He caught the Franj the next day and defeated them, wounding Joscelin.

Because the Armenians of Edessa had conspired with Joscelin to betray the city, Nuradin now returned and massacred the entire male Christian population. The women and children were sold into slavery. He so ruined Edessa that it has never recovered to this day.

In 1148, Raymond of Antioch was able to surprise Nuradin at Famuja, between Antioch and Marash, forcing him to retreat. But he returned the following year and turned the tables. He caught Raymond, with his ally, the Assassin leader Abi ibn Wafa, at the Fountain of Murad. He surrounded the Franj during the night. When they tried to fight their way out in the morning, Nuradin crushed them. Abi was killed. Raymond was killed by Shirkuh personally. Nuradin sent the Prince's skull in a silver case to the Caliph of Baghdad. The victory at Murad in 1149 opened most of Antiochene territory to Nuradin. He had taken a vow before his men that he would bath in the waters of the Mediterranean; the time was right to fulfill that vow.

Nuradin and Damascus

In 1150, Nuradin raided well into Antiochene territory. He had a truce with Joscelin, but in April, while riding to Antioch, Joscelin became separated from his escort and was captured by some Turcoman freebooters who wanted to sell him for ransom. When Nuradin heard of this, he sent cavalry to take Joscelin from the mecenaries. He had the Count blinded and put in prison, where he died nine years later.

Nuradin did not besiege Antioch itself. The city was too strong and he feared to attract the attention of the Byzantines. But he took just about everything else in sight, including Apamea. It was now, in 1150, that he drove all the way to Saint Symeon and made good his promise to bathe in the Mediterranean. He attacked Turbessel, but Countess Beatrice defended the fortress successfully. Soon after, she sold it and six other fortresses to Emperor Manuel. In spring 1151, he and the Seljuk Sultan Mas'ud attacked these remaining fortresses, dividing them between themselves. The last traces of the County of Edessa were gone.

The emir was also interested in Damascus. He made one demonstration in its direction in 1150 and another in 1151, but both times he withdrew when the Franks advanced.  Count Raymond II of Tripoli was assassinated in 1152, prompting Nuradin to attempt the capture of Tortosa, but he was unable to keep the city. Over and over again, he was able to raise an army, but he was unable to command sufficient forces to carry out any sort of long-term campaign.

He did manage Damascus, however. In 1154 he advanced yet again, but this time the city was betrayed from within. This was the high-point in his career. In the later 1150s, he suffered a series of setbacks. Terrible earthquakes caused extensive damage in many cities in 1156 and 1157, and he and his emirs were busy with repairs. Then, in October 1157, he fell ill and for a time believed he would die. He did recover by January 1158, but he seemed to be more cautious after that and did not campaign as he had earlier.

Nuradin and Egypt

The Fatimids in Egypt were falling apart in the 1150s. A series of seemingly endless murders within the palace had put one caliph after another in place, none of whom actually ruled (most were mere boys); instead, Egypt was run by its viziers, who were the instigators (and victims) of most of the murdering.

In December 1162, the latest in the parade of usurpers was Shawar, governor of Upper Egypt. He was driven out of power in 1163 by his own chamberlain, Dhirgham. By this time, the plotting between the various factions was so thick that Dhirgham was putting to death anyone who even looked suspicious. The result of months of this left the Egyptian army with few of its experienced officers still alive.

King Amalric tried to go fishing in these waters in 1163, and while he was gone, Nuradin attacked Krak. Count Raymond called for help. Bohemond III of Antioch responded, accompanied by Byzantine troops under Constantine Coloman. They surprised Nuradin in camp and dealt him a sharp defeat. At this point, Shawar appeared to appeal to Nuradin for help in Egypt. After some delay, he sent his most trusted general, Shirkuh, along with a large army. In his company was the general's nephew, Salah ed-Din. They were immediately victorious. Dhirgham was killed and Shawar re-instated as vizier.

Shawar now refused to honor his agreement with Nuradin and ordered Shirkuh to leave. Instead, Shirkuh seized Bilbeis. Worried now, Shawar sent to Amalric for help. Together they besieged Shirkuh for three months.


[In preparation.]

Sultan in Egypt

[In preparation.]

Sultan in Damascus

[In preparation.]

Return of Jerusalem

[In preparation.]

Victories and Setbacks

[In preparation.]


Saladin had seventeen sons. His eldest, al-Afdal, tried to move into his father's position as Sultan, but though he was accepted at Damascus, other brothers were not long in asserting their independence. In truth, Saladin had succeeded in imposing his authority, but had failed to create unity. The traditional centers of power, with their old rivalries, soon reappeared. In Egypt, al-Aziz proclaimed an independent sultanate. Az-Zahir in Aleppo refused to recognize al-Afda's authority there.

The Ayyubids quarreled throughout the 1190s, as the various sons, plus an uncle, contended with one another over Damascus. The eventual victory, by 1201, was the uncle, al-Adil (known among the Christians as Safadin). Al-Adil was faced with almost continual crusades, in the face of which he pursued a policy of peace in Palestine, trying to avoid giving Christendom a reason to unite against him. This left him free to attend to keeping in line his contentious nephews.

The Ayyubids were alarmed by the fall of Constantinople With Christendom united, the Franks and Greeks would surely proceed against Islam with alarming consequences. But, of course, this never happened. The true danger for the Ayyubids was not from the Christians, Greek or Latin, but from within, from their own divisions.

Ironically, the immediate result of the Fourth Crusade was peace for Palestine. The truce between Jerusalem and Damascus was undisturbed for ten years. A further, five-year truce was signed in 1212.

In 1216, a new crusade was in preparation, and al-Adil received a letter from the Christian pope that he should return Jerusalem while he could, to save himself from the great invasion. The Sultan had no intention of doing this, but he certainly had cause to be concerned. In the first place, the Franks were said to be amassing great armies, led by many kings. At the same time, the political situation within Islam was less than ideal.

Egypt was ruled by al-Malik al-Kamil, the son of al-Adil.  He was caught quite unprepared for the Fifth Crusade, thinking that the truce would not be violated. The Franks had been on the march in 1217 but nothing had come of it. Both al-Kamil and his father hoped the Christians would not attack Egypt and believed they were in any case too poorly organized to be successful.

Damietta fell to the Franks in August 1218. That same month, the Sultan's son al-Muzzam had re-taken Caesarea. But within days of hearing of the loss of Damietta, al-Adil was dead. He was succeeded in Damascus by al-Muzzam and in Cairo by al-Kamil.


Al-Muzzam sent help to his brother in 1218, to hold the Franks away from Cairo. He also made the decision to dismantle the walls of Jerusalem, as well as several fortresses in the neighborhood. He stayed in Egypt until 1219, when he felt compelled to return to Damascus. He tried without success to attack the Frankish strongholds while the Crusader army was pinned down in Egypt. This pulled John of Ibelin back to Palestine, but al-Muzzam was unable to capture anything. In 1221, he began raising a new army to return to Egypt. The help was not needed, however, for al-Kamil defeated the invaders at Mansourah.

No sooner had the Ayyubids defeated the Fifth Crusade than they fell once more to conspiring against one another. Al-Muzzam died in 1228 and al-Kamil moved immediately to take over his lands. He invaded Palestine and, after some maneuvering, arranged to divide the territories between himself and his brother al-Ashraf of Aleppo, who likewise had designs on Palestine. The city of Damascus itself was held by a nephew, an-Nasir. Neither al-Muzzam nor al-Ashraf felt strong enough to besiege the city.

Thus, when the Emperor Frederick showed up on the Sixth Crusade, al-Kamil was inclined to negociate rather than to fight. The Sultan still held Jerusalem, and he knew it was a powerful bargaining chip. He did not mind letting the Franks have the city back, for its walls were gone and the city itself could not be defended. Moreover, al-Kamil controlled most of the fortresses in the area.

He was not prepared for the reaction. The Sultan was criticized throughout Islam for having given up a sacred city to the infidel without a fight. In vain he argued that he could take the city back any time he pleased. His forebears had done their work too well: the Sultan was the Defender of the Faith, and al-Kamil had not done his duty.

But, like Frederick, who endured a storm of protest in Europe over his strangely peaceful Crusade, al-Kamil was strong enough to wait things out. His later years were spent contending with the Khwarismian Turks in the north and keeping one eye on the Mongols.  Al-Kamil died in 1238. No strong leaders emerged after him from the family of Ayub. Within fifteen years of his death, the Ayyubids were eliminated as a dynasty, replaced by Mongols, Turks and Mameluks.

Islam in the later 12th Century

Before talking about the Mongols directly, I'm going to back up a bit and talk about other developments in Islam, starting in the later 12th century. The Mongol invasions were of paramount importance in the 13th century, but to get a good picture of this, we need to consider the Muslim world more broadly than from Cairo and Damascus.

Saladin accomplished much more than replacing the Fatimid dynasty with his own.   His brother Turanshah subjugated Nubia and conquered the Yemen in the 1170s. Saladin himself brought Mosul under his sway in 1186. This brought Ayyubid interests into contact with Persia, Armenia and Georgia, and the Indian Ocean.

Saladin was a Sunni Muslim, and his overthrow of the Shi'ite Fatimids greatly angered the Assassins. Rashid al-Din Sinan (1163-1193), known as the Old Man of the Mountain, was Saladin's inveterate enemy. Twice his men penetrated into Saladin's own tent. One even succeeded in wounding the Sultan. More significantly, the Assassins became a great power in their own right in Persia and Syria, and their enmity thwarted Saladin's plans more than once.

In Baghdad, the Caliphate enjoyed a resurgence of authority under Nasir (1180-1225). He made alliances with the Alids and with the Isma`ili Imam at Alamut (Sinan), consciously trying to heal the schism between Shi'a and Sunni. He also opposed the Khwarizmian Turks, who had succeeded the Seljuks in Asia Minor and who now were trying to make Nasir subject to them. The Khwarismians themselves were great warriors, and they recruited heavily among the Kipchak tribes of the lower Volga, the same tribes that provided Egypt its Mameluks. Their leader took the old Persian title of Shah, and it was Muhammad Shah (1200-1220) who was leading the drive on Baghdad.

In 1217, Muhammad Shah succeeded in driving Nasir out of Baghdad, bringing one of the Alid family in to serve as a properly obedient and harmless Caliph. He was at the height of his power, but he was not to enjoy it for very long.

In 1218, a caravan of merchants arrived at Utrar, on the Persian frontier. The Khwarismians by this time had conquered Transoxiana as well, bringing them into direct contact with the tribes of Russia. The governor of the town claimed these merchants were spies and had them executed. This was a mistake, for the merchants (spies or not) had come from the land of the Mongols and were under the protection of one Ghengis Khan. When the Great Khan learned of the incident, he swore revenge. The days of the Khwarismians were numbered, and Islam was about to be invaded by the Mongol hordes.

The Mamluks

Many of the Ayyubid rulers were using slaves as soldiers, a practice that became widespread in the 12th century. The Sultan and various emirs recruited boys from southern Russia--the Kipchak Turks of the lower Volga River was a favorite source. The boys were slaves, but they were brought up in the Faith and their lives were devoted to military instruction. By the time they were of fighting age, they were well-trained and were utterly devoted to one another and to their commanders.

This system worked well so long as the leaders were strong, but the Ayyubid dynasty degenerated quickly after the death of al-Kamil, especially at Cairo. When the Seventh Crusade came along, it precipitated a rebellion, led by the Mamluk chieftain Baibars. He killed the Sultan and the Caliph, and ensured that the Caliph's place was taken by a small boy who would not question Baibars' position. That revolt is recounted elsewhere.

The revolt ended the Ayyubid sultanate at Cairo, founded by Saladin. In Baibars, Islam found a new champion who proceeded vigorously against the Christians. In many other ways, however, the Mamluk revolution changed little in Egypt. The Mamluk Sultans inherited most of the Ayyubid political program, fiscal policies, and so on. They continued to recruit soldier-slaves and these continued to form the foundation of the army. The Mamluks produced a series of strong leaders in the 13th century who were responsible both for driving the Franj out of Syria and Palestine, and for turning back the Mongol advance that was devastating the lands of Islam.


His name was Rukn ad-Din Baibars Bundukdari. He was a big man, recklessly brave with a reputation for ferocity, but he was also an outstanding field commander. Not long after the Battle of Ain Jalut, he murdered Kutuz with his own hands and became Sultan himself. He vanquished a rival at Damascus in January 1261, whereupon Homs and Hama submitted peacefully. After occupying Aleppo later that same year, Baibars was in command of nearly as much territory as Saladin had been.

Prince Bohemond of Antioch, along with King Hethoum of Armenia, had allied with Hulagu and the Mongols. Baibars swore revenge for this, and was raiding as far as the port of Saint Symeon by 1262. He threatened Antioch itself, but King Hethoum called for help from his Mongol allies and Baibars was forced to withdraw.

In 1263 he captured Nazareth and raided up to the walls of Acre. He returned in 1265 and captured Caesarea. Haifa fell soon after, and its citizens were massacred. He then attacked the great citadels of Athlit and Arsuf; the former held, the latter fell.   Everywhere he went Baibars slaughtered the Christians if they resisted, and either killed or sold into slavery everyone in the military orders, for he understood that the Templars and Hospitallers were his most dangerous enemies.

Hulagu died February 8, 1265. The Mongol empire in the west divided between the Golden Horde, which was now Muslim, and the heir of Hulagu, Abaga. This freed Baibars to move even more energetically against the Christians. In 1266 he besieged Safed and eventually captured it. Toron followed soon after.

Further north, Baibars' best general, Kalavun, was leading an army into Armenia, in alliance with al-Mansur of Hama. They routed the Armenians in Cilicia on August 24, 1266, and captured the capital, Sis, in September. This effectively eliminated Antioch's only remaining ally.

Baibars himself attacked Acre again in 1267, but again he was turned back. He march once more in 1268, capturing Jaffa in March. The castle of Beaufort followed in April. He arrived before Antioch on May 14, 1268. Prince Bohemond was at Tripoli. His constable was captured in the first day of fighting, and the city itself fell on May 18. The Muslims destroyed the great city. One of the emirs ordered all gates locked, so that no one could escape. All those not killed were enslaved. Depopulated and destroyed, Antioch never recovered. Of the Principality, on Lattakieh survived.

The Sultan made a run at Acre in 1269, trying to lure the defenders into a trap, but they stayed within the walls. The next year, he was relieved to learn that the great crusade of King Louis had been diverted to Tunis and that the king himself had died there.  

Meanwhile, the Mongols were still a threat. Abaga, Hulagu's son, married Maria of Byzantium. But he was so occupied in the north and east that he was never able to send significant military forces against Baibars, who, for his part, was careful not to attract the anger of the Khans.

In 1271, Baibars captured the White Castle of the Templars, and then the Krak des Chevaliers, the famous Hospitaller stronghold. He then made a ten-year truce with Bohemond at Tripoli, then went south and captured Montfort in June. That fall, at the request of Prince Edward of England, who was in the Holy Land on Crusade, Abaga sent ten thousand horsemen into Syria. This was as close as anyone ever came to the much-discussed alliance between the Mongols and the Christians. They raided Aleppo and Apamea, but could capture neither. When the Sultan led a large army north in November, the Mongols retreated and did not return.

In 1272, he accepted Edward's offer of a ten-year truce. Baibars had captured many key cities and fortresses, so he may have felt that he could finish the job later. In the meantime, he was still very much concerned about the Mongol threat. And, in any case, he had other tools to hand. In June, the Sultan had an Assassin try to murder Prince Edward. He nearly succeeded; Edward was sick for months, and returned to England not long after his recovery.

Meanwhile, he spent the next few years invading Cilicia and Armenia. The Seljuks here were nominally under the Mongols. When Baibars defeated the Mongol garrison in 1277, Abaga himself led the retaliation. Baibars retreated to Syria and Abaga was able to recover Anatolia. The Sultan died July 1, 1277.


Baibars' sons were unable to succeed their father. Instead, his great general, Kalavun, seized power in December 1279. Abaga tried to take advantage of the situation by raiding in force, capturing Aintab, Baghras and Aleppo. But Kalavun raised a large army and again the Mongols retreated in the face of the Mamluks. In September 1281, Abaga tried again, invading Syria with two full armies. One, commanded by the Ilkhan's brother, Mangu Timur, went by way of Aleppo to the Orontes River. Kalavun marched north and met Mangu Timur at Homs on October 30. He won, but was unable to follow up and was unable to advance against Abaga and the other army.

Abaga simply had too many men committed on other fronts to be able to invade effectively, or to risk pitched battle with the victors of Ain Jalut. The Euphrates River now became the more or less permanent frontier between the Mameluks and the Mongols.

The following year came news of the Sicilian Vespers. There was now no leader in the West who could pose a serious threat to Islam. The ten year truce of Baibars was ending. It was time to sweep the Christians into the sea.

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