The history of the world turns on small events. One bright day in September in 2001 about 3000 people died when Moslem 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 Ghengis 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 Ghengis 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 Ghenghis 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 Moslem civilization, what had been know 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 Cairo, Egypt. With an army of 200,000 men, Hulegu sent ambassadors to 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 Monge, Genghis Khan’s successor, had died. Hulega and all of the heirs of Ghengis 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 Moslems.
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 Septmber 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 Moslems 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 Moslem Middle East survived, while the Mongols went into decline and ultimately faded from history.
I’m currently in the rewrite stage on a historical novel about this event. Here are the first few paragraphs from chapter one:
“When I lead my army against Baghdad in anger, whether you hide in heaven or in earth I will bring you down from the spinning spheres; I will toss you in the air like a lion. I will leave no one alive in your realm; I will burn your city, your land, your self. If you wish to spare yourself and your venerable family, give heed to my advice with the ear of intelligence. If you do not, you will see what God has willed.”Hulegu Khan to the Caliph of Baghdad
January 1258, Baghdad
Like a comet against the sky, the flaming ball of naphtha flashed overhead, embers sparking, falling like burning hail and trailing black smoke. The shout of men loading the trebuchets, the pop-splat as the naphtha took flame, followed by the crack and thump of another release, mixed with the clang of sword and distant screams. Smoke and vomit, the sweat of horse and rider, urine and dung, all abused the air.
Kitbaku let his eyes follow the latest volley. He coughed and wiped his face with his soot-blackened hands. Dozens of fire-balls were crashing upon Baghdad. They disappeared behind its walls, swallowed by the engulfing orange glow of a city burning and dying. It was nearly noon, but the sun glowed weakly through the obscuring smoke like a bloodshot eye peering from beneath a blanket too early in the morning. Soot drizzled from the sky; gray flakes dusted the sleeves of Kitbuqa’s coat.
What had the priest said? “The moon will be turned to sackcloth and the sun to blood on the great day of the Lord.” Isaiah had been describing the end of the world. Kitbuqa grinned. Indeed, the world of the Caliph in Baghdad was ending this day, and Kitbuqa’s lord Hulegu Khan was making it happen. Obviously the prophet Isaiah had seen a city or two burned: “Darkness at mid-day,” he muttered. Another phrase from that ancient Jew.
Kitbuqa crossed himself, then glanced again at the bloody sun. The Apocalypse was turning out better than he had hoped.
* * *
Dokuz Khatun stared at her face in the mirror. The smooth metal returned her image clearly, but faded. It was the only way she knew herself. Her dark brown eyes gazed back at her from a smooth round face, framed by long, straight black hair which at the moment was hanging around her bare shoulders. A snort from behind her made her turn, startled, but it was only her husband, snoring rather loudly, lost in the piles of furs. Hulegu had been victorious once again, or so he had claimed. From the noises she had heard outside, and the whispers of servants, it seemed as if the enemy was not yet quite so convinced of his defeat. There had as yet been no victory dinner; she had not seen the opposing king humiliated. Caliph, he was called.
She returned to focus on her face. Her thin lips were colored slightly; when she smiled, bright white teeth, mostly straight, gleamed. She knew she was beautiful. As the first wife of the Khan, she could be little else but flawless. There was no shortage of women in the world, and since her lord ruled most of it, he could have any he wished. He had wished for her.
She slowly pulled her robe back up, covering her shoulders and breasts; her lord was sleeping now, satisfied. She had been told that all men fell asleep right after, though Hulegu had not this time. Instead, they had talked, as he cradled her in his arms:
“Of course,” he murmured softly, whispering into her ear, touching it gently with his lips; his breath was warm, laden with the sour sweet odor of the kumis, the fermented mare’s milk he had drunk just before they had retired to his chamber.
“And they are all dead?”
“Indeed. Though they still fight. They still need more convincing just how dead they are.”
“And what of the Christians?”
“Do not worry my flower; I told you they will be spared. Only those who don’t follow your way are dead.”
Still she sighed. That so many had died today, that so many would die tonight and in the days to come: it was almost more than she could bear, but at least the faithful would live, those that could be identified, those that were not slaughtered in the indiscriminate flames and thick smoke that had kept the day away even at noon. But she knew she could rely on her husband. He was not one to prevaricate; he loved her, and he listened when she spoke. He recognized the wisdom in her words. And with Kitbuqa as the general in charge, she really need not worry. She crossed herself. He would be motivated to see that the soldiers followed her lord’s command.