3 September 1260

This illustration of an early medieval cannon appears in Stories from Swedish History by the Swedish historian Otto Sjogren (1844–1917). The first primitive cannon, such as the devices used at Ain Jalut, were more likely to intimidate the enemy than to do serious harm.

The Battle of Ain Jalut, fought in the Jezreel Valley in southeast Galilee, in present-day Israel, signalled the end of the threat posed by the great Mongol khans to the Middle East and Europe. It also marked the start of a remarkable age of military innovation. During the encounter, small cannon, which used explosives developed first in China and possibly diffused to the Arab world from Mongol sources, were deployed for the first time in the recorded account of a battle. They did not win the battle – artillery would become important only centuries later – but they defined a moment of transition to a type of warfare that would culminate in the giant guns of the twentieth century, long after the Mongol threat was no more than a fading folk memory.

Beginning with the conquests of Genghis Khan across Asia, the Mongol overlords had ambitions to dominate the whole of the known world. For decades, the march of Mongol armies west and south from their Asian heartland had seemed unstoppable. In 1251, Möngke Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, became Great Khan. His ambition was to complete the imperial conquest of the Christian and Islamic worlds and establish a Mongol world empire.

He assembled a vast army, supplied by many of the vassal states that the Mongols had already conquered, and put it under the command of another grandson of Genghis Khan, Hülegü Khan. In 1256, after five years of preparation, the Mongol army moved out from its stronghold in Persia to complete the conquest of the world.

The huge force swept aside Islamic states in its path and destroyed Baghdad, the heart of Islam and the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate, which had ruled from there for 500 years. The population was slaughtered and the cultural and architectural treasures of the city destroyed. Next, Hülegü moved on to capture Damascus, seat of the Muslim Ayyubid dynasty. He planned to move south through Palestine to destroy the last remaining Islamic power in the Middle East, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt.

This would open the way to Mongol domination of North Africa and the Mediterranean. In 1260, Hülegü sent envoys to Cairo to demand the sultanate surrender or suffer the consequences. ‘Resist,’ wrote Hülegü, ‘and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes.’ The Mamluk Sultan Qutuz replied by murdering the envoys and displaying their heads on the gates of Cairo. This was a declaration of war.

Just as Hülegü prepared to move south, news arrived that Möngke Khan had died. Hülegü hurried eastwards with much of his army in the hope that he could claim the Great Khanate for himself. The remains of his army, an estimated 10–20,000 men, was placed under the command of a Christian Turk, Kitbuqa Noyan. The army moved south through Palestine, crossing the River Jordan in late August 1260. Qutuz formed an alliance with another Mamluk leader, Baibars, and moved northwards with an army of approximately the same size, 20,000 horsemen and archers. When news arrived of Kitbuqa’s approach, Qutuz advanced to meet him at the spring of Ain Jalut, in the Jezreel Valley.

The Egyptians had the advantage that they knew the terrain well. It was decided that Baibar’s army would stand and face the Mongols, but engage only in small punitive sallies, provoking the Mongols, but not risking the whole Mamluk force. The rest of Qutuz’s army hid in the highlands around the valley, unobserved by the Mongols, and waited for Baibars to bait the enemy enough to provoke an advance into the valley.

The Mongol army responded angrily to the failure of Baibars to stand and fight and finally, believing that the weaker Mamluk force was retreating, Kitbuqa ordered the whole Mongol army to pursue the enemy into the valley ahead. The trap was sprung. The Mongol army found itself the object of fierce attack from Mamluk soldiers and cavalry hidden in the trees on the valley sides, and an easy target for the many Egyptian archers. The Mamluks used small explosive hand cannons (midfa) for the first time in battle, designed to frighten enemy horses and horsemen, though not capable of inflicting serious damage.

The Mongol forces nevertheless fought a desperate hand-to-hand battle to escape and almost succeeded until Qutuz, at the head of his own elite unit, rushed into the battle to rally the Mamluks. Qutuz was heard to shout out ‘Oh my Islam!’ to urge his followers to the defence of the faith. The tide turned in his favour, and while some Mongol troops fled, Kitbuqa fought to the end until he and thousands of his men were slaughtered.It was a historic victory.

Although Hülegü planned to avenge Ain Jalut on his return to Persia in 1262, the Mongol Empire was splitting up and his own lands were threatened by the Muslim Khanate in Russia. A second small expedition sent against the Mamluks was driven back. The Mamluk victory marked the end of Mongol expansion, broke the spell of Mongol invincibility and preserved the Islamic world.

The triumph did Qutuz little good. He was murdered on his way back to Cairo by emirs almost certainly in the pay of Baibars, who feared that Qutuz would not honour his pledge to grant Syria to him in the event of a Mamluk victory. Baibars became the new sultan. Under his rule, the Mongols were expelled from Syria and the remaining Christian crusaders from Palestine, and Islamic rule placed on a firmer foundation. The decisive battle had been won through a simple act of battlefield deception, but the use of small cannon had a much greater implication. From this meagre start began the long evolution of gunpowder weapons that made the battlefield a more lethal environment and threatened the immunity of fortified cities. Qutuz could never have realized how rapidly this modest innovation would change the nature of battle.