The history of the world turns on small events. One bright day in September in 2001 about 3000 people died when Muslim terrorists hijacked airliners and crashed them into buildings. If things had gone differently on another day in September, a little more than 700 years earlier, September 11 would never have happened.
In the thirteenth century, the Mongols were conquering the world. Under Genghis Khan, they had spread over most of Asia, including all of modern day China, and were poised to conquer the Middle East.
The Mongols were impressive warriors. At a time when the typical European army was made up mostly of untrained masses of peasants, the Mongols were a disciplined and well-trained fighting force. In pursuit of achieving the goals of Genghis Khan, his armies razed most of the major cities of Asia to the ground, leaving pyramids of human skulls in their wake. Even domestic animals were usually slaughtered, so as to leave nothing of value for what few people escaped. The Mongols were pragmatic: they realized that the only means by which they could control populations by which they were outnumbered a hundred or more to one was by terrorizing them. Only those who surrendered peacefully were left unmolested.
In 1258, one of the grandsons of Genghis Khan, Hulegu Khan captured Baghdad and slaughtered 250,000 of its inhabitants—essentially every man, woman and child, and burned the city to the ground. He also destroyed the region’s irrigation system and turned the center of Muslim civilization, what had been known as the fertile crescent, into a bleak, barren desert.
The only people left alive were the few Christians who lived in
Baghdad, and this, only because one of Hulegu’s wives happened to be a Christian and pleaded for them to be spared.
Following the destruction of
Baghdad, the only thing standing between the complete end of Islamic civilization and Mongol victory was . With an army of 200,000 men, Hulegu sent ambassadors to Cairo, Egypt Cairo, demanding surrender. The Sultan in Cairo, Qutuz, had barely 20,000 soldiers at the time. Despite this, Qutuz’s reaction was defiant. He refused the offer to surrender and told his advisers, that even “if no one else will come, I will go and fight the Mongols alone.”
Qutuz then ordered his guards to arrest Hulegu’s ambassadors. Qutuz knew that the Mongols considered ambassadors to be untouchable. They always had treated those sent to them with respect and they expected theirs to be treated the same in return. To harm an ambassador was something the Mongols considered an unforgivable treachery. So, Qutuz commanded his guards to kill the Mongol ambassadors by cutting them in half at the waist. Afterwards, Qutuz decapitated them and put their heads on poles atop one of
Cairo’s city gates. The ancients tended toward a lack of subtlety when they declared war on one another.
Enraged, Hulegu Khan gathered his army and headed for
Cairo. Qutuz knew he had little hope, but then the unexpected happened. Hulegu Khan, with most of his army, turned back to Iran. The Great Khan Mongke, Genghis Khan’s successor, had died. Hulega and all of the heirs of Genghis were called back to the Mongol capital to elect a successor. Hulegu left only a small force of 15,000 Mongol cavalry and ten thousand allies from Armenia behind.
Qutuz realized this was just the opportunity he needed. He gathered his forces and advanced into
Palestine. With Hulegu gone, the Mongols, were led by the general Kitbuqa, a Christian who claimed descent from one of the Three wise men who had visited the infant Jesus. He ordered his small force to attack the Muslims.
Their armies met at a place called Ain Jalut, Arabic for “the Spring of Goliath,” where legend said that David had slain Goliath thousands of years before. And so, on September 3, 1260 one of the most crucial battles in the history of the world was fought. Surprisingly, it is rarely mentioned in western civilization history classes, despite the fact that its significance for the survival and spread of western civilization ranks with the battles at
Marathon and Tours. Had the Mongols succeeded that day, they not only would have been free to march on Cairo, they would have been able to invade Europe at will from several directions. It is unlikely that any European army could have held them back. Additionally, Islam, as a religious force in the world would have been exterminated as the Mongols would have then easily conquered all remaining lands ruled by the Muslims and, as was their custom, would have mostly slaughtered them all, leaving few survivors.
Instead, the Mongols were routed, the general Kitbuqa was captured and executed, and both Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East survived, while the Mongols went into decline and ultimately faded from history.