In Xanadu did Kublai Khan: the Yuans, 1271

“In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.” — Samuel Purchas (1614) paraphrasing Marco Polo (1299).

Kublai, the youngest son of Genghis Khan’s youngest son, nominally ruled the entire Empire, but specifically, he ruled China. Northern China had been conquered in Genghis Khan’s time, but Kublai and his brothers pushed Mongolian rule until it encompassed all of China. As we’ve seen before, Mongolian war tactics couldn’t survive the tropical climate of Southern China, so Kublai had to innovate. He conquered China by becoming “more Chinese than the Chinese,” according to Jack Weatherford (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World).

The Chinese were consciously proud of their culture, but they had been torn apart by civil war countless times. Kublai made his government appealing by adopting all of the cultural markers of former Imperial courts. He named his new dynasty the Da Yuan (“Great Beginnings”) Dynasty and created a back-dated Chinese history: Chinese names and Imperial portraits for his Mongolian ancestors four generations back. They needed an ancestral temple, so he built one. If you’ve ever looked at a portrait of Kublai or Genghis Khan and thought to yourself, “He looks very Chinese,” you were right. It’s effectively the equivalent of medieval portraits of Biblical characters dressed like medieval townsmen.

Kublai began with a palace in Shangdu (Xanadu), but to extend his power, he built the new city of Beijing; he called it Khanbalik and his subjects called it Daidu. He created it as a modern city, somewhat like Karakorum with its right-angle intersections and wide streets. Main streets had to be wide enough for 9 mounted men to ride abreast! Because the streets were straight, guards could see from one city gate to the other. Both of these traffic details would make it easier for a Mongolian army to subdue a rebellious citizenry. Like Karakorum, the new city had specific quarters for Muslim, Christian, and Mongolian nomadic residents.

Here’s the most interesting part: the new city was designed around the open land that Mongols prized most. The origin of the Imperial “Forbidden City” was apparently as an enclosed parkland complete with Mongolian gers/yurts. Just as Xanadu had a large enclosed forest, Beijing’s inner enclosure had an artificial lake and a small mountain. There was plenty of grazing space for horses and sheep, and the park may have been stocked with wild animals for hunting, too. Mongolian children of Kublai’s officials were born in gers and grew up speaking Mongolian while riding ponies. Mongolian customs were kept alive, especially the ones that shocked the Chinese.

For example, in Chinese Imperial culture, the knife was a kitchen tool, not a dining utensil. Food came to the table ready to eat (and nicely spiced as well). But in Mongolian “cuisine,” big chunks of meat were roasted or boiled, then brought to the table (actually a white felt rug on the ground) where the diner used his own knife to cut it up. Inside the Forbidden City, they could wipe their mouths on their sleeves and eat unseasoned legs of mutton. The Chinese subjects were not allowed to watch. Anywhere they were permitted, the Mongolian rulers followed Chinese etiquette.

The Forbidden City’s secret culture eventually turned out very important, when the Yuan Dynasty was overthrown and the survivors came back to Mongolia as refugees. They were spoiled rotten (and terrible hunters) by Mongolian standards, but at least they knew the language and customs so they could try to fit back in.

Perhaps Kublai’s most brilliant achievement was to reform Chinese law to make it both uniform and compatible with the laws laid down by Genghis. Contrary to what we think of the Mongols’ wild cruelty, Kublai’s laws shifted away from whippings and execution, toward fines and encouraging repentance. His legal code required officials to use logical analysis to figure things out and only resort to torture after other avenues were exhausted. The Chinese had often tattooed a criminal’s forehead, but the Mongols believed this too cruel because the forehead was the seat of the soul. They discouraged the practice of tattoos at all, and transitioned the locals instead to a system of placing a billboard in front of a criminal’s house to shame him.

The Chinese had pioneered printing paper money, an innovation that the Mongols enthusiastically adopted and expanded. Yuan Dynasty China floated almost entirely on paper currency. Of course, Genghis Khan’s emphasis on a good postal system continued too, so the Chinese were the first to send paper money to each other, carried by paid riders.

Officials in Kublai’s China were always a mix of ethnicities, the way Genghis Khan had mixed them in his armies. He promoted Muslims from the west, Europeans like Marco Polo, and a quota-based mix of regional Chinese. During the Yuan Dynasty, the rigid Chinese system of mandarin exams was suspended. Instead, Kublai began a system of licensing other professions, ensuring some minimal level of competency. Local governments were also pushed to create councils that operated somewhat like the Mongolian kurultai assemblies. Peasants were organized into administrative groups to solve problems and promote literacy. Kublai’s China even had some basic public schools, about 20,000 of them according to Mongol court records.

Kublai also put on public shows of theater, which had been neglected in previous dynasties. He wanted acrobats, bright colors, and action. At one point, Weatherford reports, he staged an epic retelling of Mongolian history with thousands of actors, going on for days. The Yuan Dynasty became a period of rapid growth in Chinese literature; if there is a Chinese Shakespeare, he lived during the Yuan years.

Effectively, Kublai’s Mongolian-China became the place anyone and everyone would want to live. He competed with the old Song Dynasty so effectively that it eroded from within, as officials, peasants, and regions deserted to serve the Yuan. He always had an army operating in the southern region, picking off towns and winning small battles. In 1276, this Mongol army finally entered the Song capital of Hangzhou. The heir to the Song throne was sent to Tibet (another Mongolian holding) to become a monk.

 

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The Eighth and Ninth Crusades, 1270-2

The Mamluk Sultan Baybars had a field day in the Holy Land during the 1260s. War between Venice and Genoa had drawn the remaining Crusader towns into war with each other, exhausting the region one more time. Mamluk forces, which already held Jerusalem, destroyed the cathedral of Nazareth and took Ascalon, Jaffa, Arsuf, Caesarea and Haifa. It was time to call a new Crusade.

The first volunteer was Louis IX, whose religious faith made him truly devoted to the Holy Land cause. He had never stopped trying to guide and support the Crusader states after his family returned to Paris. Now, in 1267, he took the Cross. He was 53 in a time when 60 was a very ripe old age, and his aging process had been sped by past serious illness and austere living. He had nine living children, the eldest now Queen of Navarre, the youngest seven years old. The King of Navarre, son of the leading Barons’ Crusader, also took the Cross. The King of Aragon attempted to join, but storms forced his ships back. The Crown Prince of England, Edward, also planned to join when he could, but he came from a greater distance.

Louis wanted to go straight back to Acre and help win back more cities from the Mamluks, but his brother Charles had become King of Sicily. If Louis went to Sicily, then to Tunis, he could conquer territory that would help Charles and weaken Egypt. It wasn’t a very good plan. Louis may have wished to convert the Muslims of Tunis to Christianity, and he’d already had his fill of Egypt’s obstinacy on that count.

The Pope devoted some of the Church’s income in France and Navarre to funding the royal expeditions, and in July of 1270, the two kings sailed with large fleets to Tunisia, where they camped on the ruins of Carthage. While they waited for the new King of Sicily or the Crown Prince of England to arrive, they call caught dysentery. Jean Tristan, the baby born in Damietta, died, and his father soon after. When the King of Sicily arrived, he negotiated a truce with Baybars. It worked out well for Sicily: trade with Tunis was opened, with a cash payment and Egypt’s promise not to harbor rivals for the Sicilian crown.

Prince Edward of England arrived after all this was over, so he wintered in Sicily but was determined to go on, to Acre, with King Charles of Sicily. This effort became the Ninth Crusade. Meanwhile, Baybars had taken even Antioch, the well-fortified city that had given the First Crusaders so much trouble.  There was not much left of the Latin Holy Land.

The joint force sailed into Acre while Baybars was besieging Tripoli, the last Crusader “state” in existence. The Mamluks backed away from Acre for the time being, allowing the Crusaders to establish a strong camp there. From this camp, Edward and Charles led raids against the Galilee, taking Nazareth in a no-prisoners battle. More men came from England and Cyprus, with Edward’s younger brother. In 1271, the largest Latin force in years was occupying the land, looking about for possible victories to push back Mamluk governance.

One soft target was a group of recent Turkic immigrants who may have come with the Mongols but stayed behind. The Mamluks had given them land and titles, but they did not know the land and could easily be routed by Crusaders. During 1271, Prince Edward sent an embassy to the Ilkhan, Hulegu’s son Abagha. The Ilkhan agreed to an alliance against the Mamluks and sent a new Mongol force of 10,000 horse.

This was good as far as it went, but the Ilkhan was not committed to resettling the land in any way. His cavalry spent one month in the Holy Land and then rode back to Iran with their spoils. When the Mamluks arrived to push them back, they were gone.

Baybars planned one more large attack to get rid of the Christian armies. Disguising some Egyptian ships as Christian, he sent them to Cyprus to make a surprise attack on Limassol. It wasn’t a bad plan, and it would have materially weakened the Christian forces to lose their supply base on Cyprus. However, the Mamluks lost this one.

By now, it was clear to Prince Edward that the biggest obstacle to taking back the Holy Land was that the “native” Christian rulers were too divided. The Jerusalem royals had died out and been diverted into the Hohenstaufen dynasty of Germany, but other smaller families had taken up the power that remained. Hugh III of Cyprus, descended from Hugh of Lusignan, fought continually with the Ibelin family, the last Franks to defend Jerusalem. And it was time for Prince Edward to return home. He negotiated a truce with Baybars, concluding a 10 year truce in 1272.

Before Edward could embark for England, an assassin with a poisoned knife stabbed him. Edward, however, was a strong young man. He killed the assassin and gradually recovered from the toxic wound, staying on Sicily until he regained his strength. By then, his father had died, so the new King Edward returned to England, covered with Crusader glory.

To the people on the scene, it was not obvious that the Crusade was really over. The King of Sicily bought the rights to “King of Jerusalem” from the last survivor of the old family. The last years of the truce were wasted by civil war among factions. Further Crusader energy was squandered on a last attempt to hold onto Constantinople against the Byzantines who were finally winning it back. Can anyone be surprised that in 1291, the city of Acre at last fell to the Mamluks? Even then, small Crusade attempts dribbled along, but no territory was ever won again. In hindsight, Edward’s Ninth Crusade retaking of some towns like Nazareth was the last success the Latin Crusaders would ever see.

 

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West African Empires, 1269-1312

The Almohad dynasty had been ruling in Marrakesh and much of Spanish Andalusia for the last century. It wasn’t materially different from the Almoravids before or the Marinids after it; at this point, West and North Africa had settled into a theological and cultural way that didn’t change. In earlier centuries, it had been a volatile area that swung from Sunni to Shi’ite and back, so that it birthed the Fatimid Shi’ite dynasty that built Cairo. But after the Medina-based Maliki theology took root, it stuck.

So the change, in 1269, from the last Almohad Caliph Idris to the first Marinid Caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub, wasn’t a sea change for the population. It would have had a big effect on the ruling class, who needed to bend the knee to a new set of officials. The seat of government, too, drifted from Marrakech to Fez, where the Marinids built up wealth and power. Fez’s height of intellectual influence was during the 1300s, when the Marinids were at their peak.

During this time, the Empire of Mali also arose. It had been established roughly in 1230, but its power took time to grow. Its conquest of Sosso, a caravan-trade-route kingdom of the 12th century, established it as the new receiver of oasis fees and taxes. The ruler of the Mali Empire was called the Mansa, a Mandinka word for Sultan. They were devout Maliki Muslims, like the Marinids to the north. Mansas went on Hajj to Mecca, traveling through Timbuktu and Egypt. They had friendly relations with the Sunni Mamluks of Cairo.

Mansa Musa Keito, who was born around 1280, was the most famous Mansa of Mali. He was made Regent when the Mansa before him decided to explore the Atlantic Ocean and never came back. In 1312, Musa became Mansa on his own. He was one of the richest men in history, apparently controlling the world market price of gold with his own personal actions (by giving too much, he devalued it, and had to fix this by borrowing a lot of it back). Mali was the leading producer of gold at this time.

Timbuktu’s population began to increase during the Mali Empire period. In the time of Mansa Musa, it probably had 10,000 people living on the edge of the Sahara. (Its odd location seems to have marked the outside limits of the annual Niger River flood.) Its famous mosque made entirely of mud and straw was built during the 14th century, though the one we see now was probably a renewed model built when the population had grown even larger, in the 1500s. Of course, it was a center for Maliki scholarship. In our time, its residents made a huge effort to rescue most of the books and scrolls from the mosque before rebels in Mali’s civil war could burn them.

 

 

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The Reconquista in Spain, 1236-1265

The Reconquista moved into final stages when King Ferdinand III of Castile and Toledo inherited the kingdoms of Leon and Galicia, in 1230. He was the wealthiest, most powerful Spanish king yet: he married first a princess from the Hohenstaufen dynasty of Germany, then the Countess of Ponthieu. Both wives brought him both wealth and children; his second wife’s daughter Eleanor became the English Queen to whom the “Eleanor Crosses” are dedicated.

Ferdinand began a concerted sweep of all remaining Muslim cities, at the end of which only the Kingdom of Granada remained. In 1236, he picked up the first really significant conquest: Cordoba, the former capital of Andalusia under Abd al-Rahman. Parts of Cordoba had already been occupied by Almogavars, who were independent fighters of common birth. They were a cross between mercenaries and guerillas; they fought in small groups with surprise attacks, imitating the tactics of Muslims. Ferdinand conquered the Medina, the downtown Old City of Cordoba, when he came with his official royal army. Over the next few years, Cordoba was divided into estates and counties, handed out as rewards to family and friends.

The city of Murcia (“Myrtle”) became a Castilian protectorate (in other words, conquest) in 1244. Its location on the Segura River, which flows into the Mediterranean Sea, gave Castile its first port access. Christian Aragon to the north and Muslim Granada to the south both would have swallowed up Murcia if possible, so Castile really did need to protect its protectorate. But two years later, Castile took the port city of Cartagena (“New Carthage”) as it moved south along the coast. Water access could rapidly increase Castile’s wealth.

Ferdinand’s army moved inland, then, to take the towns around Seville. They occupied these regions to begin a loose siege, then tightened it into a real siege when a general sailed up the Guadalquivir River to destroy the bridge that still connected Seville to Muslim lands. Ferdinand entered Seville in time for Christmas, 1248. It was the most important city in south-central Spain, so Ferdinand began transforming it into his Christian capital with public buildings and cathedrals. Compared to the long period when Christian kingdoms could manage only in the northern mountains, Castile had really arrived.

King Ferdinand appears to have been very attentive to his domestic rule, as well. In his time, the University of Salamanca grew, and he established houses for the new reforming mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans. His son Alfonso X’s reign had even more cultural achievements, showing that the Reconquista had moved from a tenuous hold to secure dominance. Alfonso later established the first sheep-breeders’ association, the Mesta, to coordinate and improve wool export. Alfonso was also in line to become the Holy Roman Emperor, or at least the King of the Germans/Romans, through his mother. The German electors were bitterly divided, liking none of their options. At one point, Alfonso was elected, but later Richard of Cornwall, one of the brothers who had married sisters of Louis IX’s Queen Margaret, was elected and actually traveled to Germany to claim his crown.

Closer to home, a number of Muslim cities that had paid tribute to Ferdinand refused to acknowledge his son. Alfonso X saddled up and headed out to conquer them. Jerez was besieged in 1261, but fairly quickly its citizens negotiated to resume tribute rather than see their vineyards and orchards damaged. One by one, the rebel towns submitted and became permanently part of Castile.

In the end, only Granada was left as the southernmost Muslim kingdom. It was a recent kingdom, established by a strongman after the Almohad Prince Idris sailed to Morocco to claim its crown. In 1246, Granada established a 20-year truce with Castile, with tribute payments, in exchange for military alliance in the defeat of Seville. Somehow, despite periodic rebellions, Granada managed to survive as a tribute-paying state for two more centuries.

 

 

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Hulegu Khan and Goliath’s Well, 1260

Möngke Khan died in 1259. The Mongolian procedure for selecting a new Great Khan was not an automatic succession by Möngke’s son, but a massive family gathering called a kurultai. The kurultai was usually organized with an obvious purpose by one candidate, so voting was done primarily by attending (or not attending). Möngke’s successor would be one of his brothers, so Hulegu had to leave his Ilkhanate to travel to Mongolia and “vote.”

In the year when Möngke died, the Mongolian Empire was enormous. It covered half of China, with Korea and Vietnam as tribute-paying vassals, and all of Siberia and Central Asia, though still excluding most of the subcontinent of India (but including Tibet). Near the end of Möngke’s life, the province of Sindh (modern Pakistan) came under Mongol protection. It ran west through Iran and Iraq, including half of Syria and most of Turkey. It covered all of Russia and Ukraine, with an arm sticking into Poland and Hungary. The three obvious next fronts were the remainder of southern China ruled by the Song Dynasty, India, and the rest of the Holy Land as a gateway to Egypt and North Africa.

Hulegu began to push past Baghdad and into the remaining areas of Syria not yet under Mongol rule. As at Baghdad, the forces included representatives of Christian Antioch, Armenia, and Georgia. In 1260, they entered Aleppo and Damascus, and the Christians held a Mass in the great mosque. Envoys had already been sent to Cairo with the usual message of submission or destruction when Hulegu left for the kurultai. It wasn’t clear if he’d ever come back, or if he’d stay on in Karakorum as Great Khan.

Only two Mongol tumens (units of 10,000), or perhaps less, had been left in Syria under a Nestorian Christian general. In 1980, a scholar looking in the National Library archives at Vienna found a 13th century manuscript that appears to preserve a letter that Hulegu sent to King Louis IX. This letter suggests that Hulegu took most of his army back to Mongolia not just for the kurultai, but because they were again bumping up against the limits of geography. Mongols were all mounted cavalry, so grasslands were absolutely necessary. In Iraq and Syria, their horses quickly over-grazed. So Hulegu may have been intentionally leaving behind the largest force he thought likely to be sustainable in the desert climate.

When the Mamluk Sultan Qutuz heard that Hulegu had personally left the scene with so many men, the time seemed right to make a really significant effort to stop the Mongol advance. A very large Mamluk force left Egypt to challenge this smaller Mongol force somewhere in the Holy Land.

The other Mamluk general was Baybars, who had been born in or near Crimea. He was a Kipchak Turk; his name means “Great Panther” (pars = panther/leopard in Persian). Baybars had been a bodyguard to the last powerful Ayyubid Sultan, and a commanding general at the Battle of La Forbie in Gaza, as well as at al-Mansurah when the Templars were trapped and slaughtered in the town. Baybars was in the inner circle of revolutionary Mamluk leaders.

Qutuz and Baybars split their forces; Qutuz’s larger force stayed in mountainous areas where it was hard for the Mongol scouts to spot them, while Baybars marched openly. The Mongols had been camped in Lebanon but were moving southward in August as the hot rainless summer came to an end. Both armies put out feelers to the small Crusader contingent at Acre, seeking alliance. The Crusaders remained neutral but allowed the Mamluks to march and camp in territory they controlled.

The armies met at the spring/oasis town of Ayn Jalut, which means the Well of Goliath in Arabic. It’s fanciful to imagine that the battle was actually fought on the same plain where David used a sling to bring down the Philistine giant, but the Philistines were a coastal and southern people, and this place was inland and well north of Jerusalem.

The Mongol general made an unforced error in the battle, one that’s surprising for someone who may have fought with Genghis Khan himself. Baybars put on a staged retreat that would lead pursuers straight to the main Mamluk forces under Qutuz, and they fell for the trick. The same trick they had used time and again! Chasing means winning, right? Perhaps they had gotten used to the tactics of the west and never considered that their own tactical strategy might be used against them.

Even then, the Mamluks had a hard fight on their hands. Surrounded, the Mongols and their vassal knights fought ferociously. Muslim troops that began as part of their forces may have defected to the Mamluks during the battle. In the end, the Mamluks won and the Mongol army was destroyed. There was no easy retreat to safety, so stragglers and escapees could be hunted down.

Qutuz and Baybars returned to Cairo as joint conquerors, but Qutuz did not arrive home. They were rivals in the Mamluk inner circle, and Baybars chose this moment of vulnerability to murder Qutuz. Baybars entered the city as the sole conqueror of the great Mongol Army and became the Sultan. His line of descendants was more successful than other Mamluk lines at hanging onto power in this very fluid “survival of the fittest” regime.

Hulegu the Ilkhan brought his main force back from Mongolia in 1262. He planned to continue the fight with the Mamluks, trying again to extend his frontier, but now his cousin Berke, Khan in Russia, flew into action. He began attacking Hulegu’s northern territories, creating serious enough invasions that Hulegu had to give up advancing toward Egypt. Their northern border was already “disputed” as we say today; both claimed the Caucasus mountains, both tried to tax its trade. Both were sure they were right.

Berke and Hulegu had another serious conflict as their territories developed competing economic interests. When Batu and his brothers had conquered Crimea, Ukraine, and parts of Hungary previously, they had allowed for the Italian colonies on the Black Sea to keep up a slave trade. In this way, the Golden Horde’s territory was providing most of the slave boys that the Mamluks trained as soldiers. Slavs, Kipchak Turks, and Circassians were much taller than the average Mongol or Arab. If Berke didn’t stop the slave trade, Egypt’s army would keep swelling and then the Ilkhan’s western borders could be pushed back. Mamluks might even take back Baghdad. Of course, this was exactly what Berke wanted.

At first, Berke felt very conflicted about fighting against his cousin Hulegu. It was a prime directive of his grandfather that Mongols must not fight each other, and even more, members of the Golden Family must stay united. But once fighting gets started and trade sanctions begin to take their bite, enmity hardens. And things were just as bad back in Karakorum, where both of Hulegu’s surviving brothers vied to be Great Khan. Berke supported one, Hulegu the other. Kublai tried to get both of them to attend a kurultai in the homeland, but neither would attend.

Both Berke and Hulegu soon died. Hulegu was succeeded by his son Abaka who had already been ruling a city in Iran. The throne in Sarai went to Berke’s nephew, Möngke-Timur, grandson of a different brother. After four years of civil war in Mongolia, Kublai Khan became the Great Khan. He imprisoned his brother Arik Boke and purged his supporters.

But Mongolian civil wars continued: the lineage of Ögedei in Transoxiana was led by Kaidu, Ögedei’s great-grandson. He refused to attend Kublai’s kurultai, which was a tacit vote “against” and a declaration of war. Kublai sent a son of the fourth lineage, Chagatai, to replace him, and it was open war. Eventually the two made a peace treaty and began attacking the Ilkhanate’s Persia. Kaidu never made peace with Kublai, though. Their territories were at war for 30 years, and the Mongol Empire was split. The western lands in Sarai and the Ilkhanate governed themselves separately, while Kublai’s family established the Yuan Dynasty in China.

The different Mongolian branches took on the coloration of the regions they governed. Kublai’s family adopted Chinese culture and Confucianism. The Forbidden City in Beijing started as the inner walled zone where Mongols could still live as Mongols and speak Mongolian without their Chinese subjects watching. Whenever they were in public, they spoke Chinese and acted in an assimilated way. The other lineages gradually adopted Islam, since it was the dominant culture in their regions. There were no more unified attacks on the eastern or western kingdoms by descendants of Genghis Khan, although that culture would create one last ravaging invader, Timur, in the next century.

 

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The Fall of Baghdad, 1258

The last Caliph of Baghdad ascended to his throne in 1242. The position had been powerless for a long time during the Turkish migrations, ruling in name while the cities were virtually independent, but then a series of energetic Caliphs had begun to assert military might in the region. Caliph al-Mutasim allied with the Nizaris before their fall; he had traveled to Güyük Khan’s crowning and tried to ally with both Mongols and Christians against each other, but neither attempt worked. Al-Mutasim is also remembered for his consternation when, during Egypt’s Mamluk Revolution, the widow Shajar el-Durr became Sultan. He is remembered for asking, “Has Egypt run out of men? We can send them some.”

Hulegu Khan had checked off two of his major tasks by 1257: the Lur people of western Iran were easily conquered, and Alamut had surrendered more easily than expected. West of Baghdad, several of the cities had proactively surrendered, so the Ilkhan’s army already had units from Georgia, Armenia, Antioch, Aleppo, and Mosul. Hulegu sent a Mongol embassy to Baghdad demanding submission and tribute. In one of history’s great acts of folly, Caliph al-Mutasim refused.

The Caliph was following his vizier’s advice. The vizier said that the Mongol army was smaller than it really was and assured him of assistance from other Muslim rulers which, in fact, they could not send. They may have been obligated by old treaties, but the realities had changed. Egypt’s Mamluk government might have helped, but they were not willing to extend themselves for a man who had mocked them. Was the vizier’s bad advice intentional treason or incompetence? Judging the past by the present, incompetence and rigidity of thought seem most likely. We’re always fighting the last war, just like Foolish Hans.

The siege began at the start of 1258. Baghdad was ill-prepared. The Caliph believed he had 50,000 fighting men at his disposal, but it turned out to be only 20,000 and not as disciplined or armed as he had thought. After the Mongols were camped on both sides of the Tigris River (a bad sign), the Caliph ordered a sortie to break up the encampment before it could harden into a siege. This went badly.

Moreover, the Mongols had learned a lot about cities by now. First lesson was to delegate strategy and engineering to those with long urban experience. Hulegu’s artillery was commanded by a Han Chinese who came from a many-generational military family. General Guo Kan had sappers attacking the river’s dike system; they opened a flood of river water, cutting off the city’s cavalry retreat. The Caliph and then some leading citizens,began begging to surrender, but Mongols did not reward those who asked too late.

Guo Kan supervised the formal siege of the city. They dug ditches and built a palisade, as had become Mongol practice. Chinese siege engines rolled up behind the palisade and began the bombardment. It took only about ten days for the city to be fully in Mongol hands. Then the city was systematically destroyed.

Effectively all of Baghdad’s population was put to the sword. Nobody is sure how many that was; a low estimate is about 100,000, since the city was not at his peak by 1258. They say Hulegu moved his camp upwind so they wouldn’t have to smell the decaying bodies. But one small sector of the population was apparently spared, the community of Nestorian Christians. Hulegu had a Christian wife, Dokuz Khatun (“Princess Nine”), traveling with him, and she personally interceded.

The Caliph was executed in the way that the Mongols believed proper for royal blood: rolled into a carpet and trampled by horses. This way, no blood reached the Earth to offend it. (Marco Polo heard a different story years later: that the Caliph was locked into a treasure room to starve on the gold he had refused to spend for his city’s defense.) One of his sons went to Karakorum as a hostage, while the others were executed.

The city was carefully looted; it yielded riches like those found in Genghis Khan’s time. When it was empty, historic buildings were burnt and torn down. The city walls and towers were dismantled, the irrigation canals blocked and filled. The loss that really kills the modern heart was the way the Mongols treated the library. The unoffending books were carted out and dumped in the Tigris River, which was already choking with blood and corpses. They say the water turned black as the ink dissolved in a million ancient manuscripts.

What’s surprising about this decision is that Hulegu and his brothers had been educated by a Persian scholar. They were literate and they also spoke at least two or three languages. Their grandfather had set an example of taking scholars back to Karakorum, rather than killing them. Perhaps Hulegu disdained the history of other nations, valuing only the oral histories told by Mongol singers. To us, the Baghdad collection of books was equally valuable as the Alexandrian library. (People often assume that early Muslim invaders burnt the library, but it may have just burned down in the ordinary way.) Alexandria probably had original copies of Aristotle’s books, Greek plays and poems now utterly lost, and irreplaceable Egyptian historical records. Baghdad had books in Sanskrit and perhaps other Indian languages, brought back by the first Muslim conquerors. What price could we put on the original manuscripts for the invention of digit-based mathematics?

When the city was utterly leveled, Hulegu ordered it to be rebuilt. He wanted a trading town in that place, he just didn’t want it to be the fabled Round City, capital of Islam. Symbolically, the Caliphate of Islam was dead and would never rise.

Hulegu had fulfilled the mandate laid on him by Möngke Khan and now the attention of Karakorum would turn to pushing the boundaries of their Chinese empire farther, under Kublai. But there was one glaring problem that Möngke had not foreseen. Their cousin Berke, Batu’s brother, began to rule in Sarai, Russia in 1257 after Batu died. The sons of Tolui (Möngke, Hulegu, Ariq Boke, Kublai) had always gotten along well with the sons of Jochi (Batu, Berke, Orda). But Berke had become a Muslim.

Batu’s Golden Horde had built Sarai in Russia and another Sarai, “Little Sarai,” eastward in Kazakhstan. Before Batu’s death, Berke was the ruler in Little Sarai, where most of the trade traffic was among Muslim cities like Bokhara and Samarkand. As he conversed with Muslim traders, he had experienced a sincere conversion.

This change of heart in Berke was so strong that it threatened his Mongolian identity. The generation he belonged to had a split identity between Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism. Möngke formally became a Buddhist before his death, but always encouraged pluralism of faith as his grandfather had done. Berke was the first prominent Mongolian convert to Islam, and you might think that he’d continue to be pluralistic since it was such a big part of his culture. You’d be wrong. In later Mongol conversions, too, putting on Islam meant putting off tolerance and pluralism.

Berke, now Khan at the main Russian Sarai, was as outraged as any imam at the destruction of his new faith’s holy city. He never forgave Möngke and Hulegu, and he swore revenge. He intended to declare his Golden Horde for Islam and join Mamluk Egypt against his cousins. However, Möngke Khan’s power was too strong at this time for him to take action. Berke brooded and waited.

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The Ilkhan and the Fall of Alamut, 1256

Between 1251 and 1254, Mongol armies subdued the Goryeo Kingdom of Korea, though not without drama. Under military pressure, the Korean king sent them a hostage who was supposedly his son, but it turned out to be a stepson not of the royal blood. This was apparently a deliberate deception, an attempt to cheat the system. Möngke Khan was furious; he held the entire court responsible and ordered the land to be razed. The Goryeo court fled to islands, reasoning that Mongols didn’t sail. But Mongols could order and pay Koreans to sail ships for them. Now with naval experience, the Mongols finally retreated with the actual crown prince as hostage and the land thoroughly cowed (that is, burnt, starved, destroyed). The Korean kingdom served Mongol officials after that.

China’s inland Dali Kingdom in modern Yunnan Province was next on the list. Möngke’s brother Kublai conquered the capital city of Dali then sent a column south, where there was another route through Vietnam to get at the Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty should have fallen to Genghis Khan long ago, by Mongol reasoning; but it had retreated south, leaving only North China open. Vietnam was uncooperative, so it was conquered; Hanoi was sacked and occupied. But as before, the climate of Vietnam was terrible for Mongol health. The Tran dynasty accepted Mongol overlordship and paid tribute, so all of the Mongols but a few unlucky tribute officials left behind could race north to the dry, cool air again. (Kublai had wisely gone no farther south than Dali.)

After a few years, Möngke Khan was looking for a conquest zone that was not tropical, and apparently his eastern limits had been reached for now (Japan was out of their range). To the west, he’d received the submission of western Armenia and Antioch, the Sultanate of Rum, and the Emirs of Aleppo and Mosul, almost without lifting a finger. The last Mongol invasion had made it amply clear to these rulers that it was much, much better to be an ally of the Mongols than a lone, proud, hold-out waiting for the siege to arrive.

In 1255, following the great census, Möngke named his brother Hulegu as Ilkhan of this southwestern region. This Vice-Khanship wasn’t defined by borders but by its dynastic range. It was defined as being for the family of Hulegu; they were allowed to make it much larger as long as they didn’t encroach on the lands of Batu’s lineage based in Sarai or Kublai’s lineage in China. The Ilkhanate included Afghanistan, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Pakistan, and India, really as much as Hulegu wished to conquer before he’d get done in by the climate.

Hulegu had a special mandate to subdue remaining Muslim states. This meant the Lur people of coastal Iran, the Nizaris of Iran and Iraq’s mountains, and the Caliph of Baghdad. Everyone else had been conquered or had submitted. And so the Third Mongol World War began.

We’ve talked about the Nizaris before; they were Persians converted by missionaries from Ismaili Egypt. Their Ismaili belief system conflated the spiritual ruler, the Imam, with the political leader, the Caliph. They rejected all Fatimid Caliphs after a certain point and believed that their leadership continued the true Imam line. As such, they were perpetually at war with both Baghdad and Cairo. They put a lot of effort into building a state in eastern Iran, but they couldn’t maintain rule over a contiguous region. Instead, they had about 50 castles, in cities or on mountains, but the Sunni Turks controlled (taxed) the land between. I suppose Nizari towns carried their taxes secretly to Alamut, the Eagle’s Nest, dodging other patrols.

With the 25th Imam, Nizari strategy had suddenly changed. The 24th Imam had married a Sunni wife who raised her son to disbelieve in his own divine appointment. So this 25th one, Jalaluddin Hasan, burned the Nizari holy books at Alamut and cursed his ancestors. In exchange, he received the official blessing of Baghdad as Emir. Was he sincere? Or was it a survival strategy of taqqiyah? If he wasn’t sincere, he sure burned a lot of books for nothing. But in any case, it meant that during the years of Mongol invasions, the Nizari fortresses were at least at peace with Baghdad, not weakened by in-house Muslim fighting too. So far, they survived.

The turncoat Imam Hassan III died in 1221, probably poisoned. His son inherited the Imamship in spite of his father’s teaching; he was a child, but with a strong vizier who set about to reverse the Sunni-ization. Sunni teachers, the Imam’s widows, and some of his other relatives all met the axe. But a general alliance with Baghdad persisted; in 1238, the Nizaris and Abbasids joined in sending an embassy to the western Christians, to see if they could form an alliance against the Mongols. It didn’t work out. Then in 1246, the Imam and Caliph traveled to the installation of Güyük Khan in Karakorum, hoping to be seen as peaceful neighboring rulers who were kind of submitting the the Mongols but not actually sending tribute.

The Mongols had many cities in the region by Möngke’s time, and those local rulers all complained about the Nizaris. The Nizaris were again openly Ismaili Shi’ites, which the Turks did not like; they were perpetual rebels in strongholds that could never quite be conquered. Hulegu Ilkhan agreed to clean out the Nizaris for them.

I’ve read various accounts of what happened; some stories like to say that the Mongols came in there and really got the job done, unlike the Mama’s boys who had tried before. It seems more likely that the Ismaili network was terribly weak already. The Imam who restored its Shi’ite theology had, sadly, turned out to be crazy. He was assassinated (how ironic! the chief assassin assassinated by assasins) and his son found himself the new ruler of Alamut just as Hulegu sent word to surrender. Imam Rukn ad Din saw no alternative, so he agreed.

There was a tragic misunderstanding then, apparently. Rukn ad Din ordered his men to start dismantling the towers and walls of Alamut and another key fortress, but Hulegu was a nomad who still didn’t quite “get” this whole stone walls business. He thought Rukn ad Din was stalling, so he ordered siege weapons to move in. Catapults surrounded the Eagle’s Nest and began to bombard. Rukn ad Din could only wave the white flag again, seeking safety for his family. He sent out word to the other Nizari fortresses that it was all over.

And just like that, the great Assassin Kingdom adventure was over. It had begun far away in Cairo, when Nizar’s supporters believed they had a chance to prove the rightness of their cause. In the short run, they had many successes by inventing the “suicide bomber” (knifer) strategy we’re so familiar with today. They didn’t have sufficient foundation for the type of state that has territory and an army, though. But after Rukn ad Din saved his family’s life, his lineage survived and with it, the Ismaili Nizari faith. He gave up secular rule but retained spiritual prestige. Today, Nizarism is an association with adherents all over the world. They are still “ruled” by an Imam who now uses the Tatar-Mongol term Agha Khan. The Imams have directed their followers to be very peaceful and focus on charitable projects. They don’t like to be associated with nothing but assassins, and they are offended by the notion that their killers ever needed hashish to work up courage.

 

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The Splendor of Karakorum, 1251

In 1251, the Mongol Empire went through an internal coup. Temujin’s son Ögedei had died in 1241, and his widow got their son Güyük installed as Great Khan. But when Güyük died and his widow tried to do as her mother in law had done, installing her son, she was thwarted by the other family branches. Batu Khan, leader of the Golden Horde in Sarai, Russia, colluded with the widow of Temujin’s youngest son Tolui. Batu’s family could not inherit the Great Khanship, but it could help select who did. Batu’s clear choice was another grandson who had ridden out with them in Russia and Poland: Möngke.

When Tolui’s widow and Batu succeeded in transferring the Great Khanship away from Ögedei’s lineage, rule passed to Tolui’s four sons, who (like Batu) were all more capable than the average Mongol grandson. Their mother Sorkhokhtani had been one of the first princesses married into the family (remember when Temujin and his men were starving in the Gobi Desert and a rebel chief’s brother rescued them? that was her Nestorian Christian Kereyit father). Her sons Möngke, Hulagu, Ariq Böke, and Kublai received much better educations than any of their father’s generation. They had tutors in reading the new Mongol script and Chinese and Persian languages, in addition to learning the traditional Mongol manly arts of archery and riding.

In the wake of Möngke’s election, some of his other cousins attempted a coup. Sorkhokhtani held a trial for Güyük’s widow, who was convicted of black magic and executed accordingly: sewn into a sack and thrown into the river. Many of the Golden Family cousins were executed, leaving open ruling positions for the families of Batu Khan and Sorkhokhtani’s younger sons. After 1252, only those two lineages ruled Mongol lands. Hulagu became a subordinate Khan, or an Il-Khan, in Iran. Kublai was given North China to rule.

Möngke Khan retrenched and reformed the central government, putting an end to the spendthrift luxury of Ögedei’s lineage. His cousin Güyük had issued paper money as IOU’s, and to everyone’s surprise, Möngke insisted on honoring and paying them off to keep Mongol credit good. He printed new paper money with a new Department of Currency and sent out officials to make a full tax census of the entire area of conquest. The poll tax he set forth was a cut for some, and increase for others, but it was predictable and universal. No clergy of any religion was taxed, nor was any church or monastery—or any medical doctor!

Louis IX sent an ambassador to Karakorum in 1254, seeking an alliance against the Muslims and to convert the Tatars and Mongols to Catholic Christianity. William was a Franciscan friar in Rubruck, Flanders. William’s party came first to the western Mongol lands of Batu Khan at Sarai. Batu Khan declined to convert, but sent him with an escort to Möngke Khan at Karakorum.

Karakorum meant Black Stones; it was the only stone city the Mongols built or maintained. Each khan had added to it, and Möngke’s addition was the stupa temple wall that now encloses the oldest monastery in Mongolia. He also commissioned a Parisian goldsmith and sculptor to make a tree of silver and gold. The tree became the central wonder of the palace, shown to visitors.

The tree was a machine that used medieval technology to make announcements and serve drinks. Its tall silver trunk supported branches and silver leaves and fruit, but four golden snakes were also wrapped around the trunk. An angel sat at the top, with a trumpet. Möngke Khan could signal for the angel’s mechanism to raise his arm and blow the trumpet. At this signal, the golden snakes poured piped-in wine into a silver basin.

Father William of Rubruck was otherwise unimpressed. Louis IX had recently built the Chapel of St. Denis and nothing in Karakorum could come close to its grandeur. He described a city with four gates and one large palace, of which the silver tree was really the only thing worth describing. There was a Muslim quarter and a Chinese quarter, as well as craftsmen from every part of the Mongol conquest. Every religion had a church or temple in Karakorum: Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and possibly some the priest could only identify as “pagan.”

Möngke Khan explained to the Franciscan that the Mongols believed in one God who gave different ways to men. The Mongols had shamans, the Catholics had their Bible. “To you God has given the Scriptures and you Christians do not observe them,” he added. The Khan’s interpretation of God’s will was very direct: sending an army against his rule would be rebellion against God, and he would deal with it quickly. He was doubtless disappointed that King Louis had not sent tribute.

Father William spent Christmas with Möngke and his wife, who gave out gifts after the Christmas Mass (at this time in Europe, nobody gave gifts on Christmas). Christmas dinner was mutton and carp, with copious amounts of grape wine, rice wine, and airak.

William also participated in a debate with Muslims and Buddhists, for the Khan’s appreciation and entertainment. They had to form teams—the Franciscan had to work with Armenians, Assyrians, and Byzantines!—and the Khan appointed 3 judges. Debate topics included whether reincarnation was real, how had evil come into existence if God made the world, and whether animals have souls. In keeping with the Mongol tradition of wrestling competitions, fermented mare’s milk (airak) was passed around between rounds. Gradually everyone got drunk. The Christians grew frustrated and began to sing a hymn. The Muslims felt this was very unfair because they did not use music in worship. The Buddhists just started to meditate. Finally, the judges called it a draw and passed the airak again. (with thanks to Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World!)

During all these centuries, we have sometimes noted the Armenian kingdom in Cilicia made up of refugees who fled Turkish invasion of their original mountain home. By the 13th century, these Armenians were tightly tied to the Christians of both Antioch and Constantinople. In 1252, King Hethum traveled to Karakorum to offer submission of their small Armenia to the Mongols, in exchange for protection. He was graciously received by Möngke Khan, who patiently explained that the Mongols would never force their entire conquest to follow the Christian religion. However, he said, he planned a new expedition to march on Baghdad. Should the Armenians join him in victory, he would gladly give them Jerusalem. Prince Bohemund IV of Antioch and Tripoli joined the Armenian king in submitting to the Mongols.

And so the ground was laid for what we might call the Mongol Crusade, though historians never use that term. As Möngke Khan’s kingdom came into better order, he began to look about and plan the next wave of expansion.

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The Mamluk Revolution, 1250

Under the last real Ayyubid Sultan, as-Salih, the Mamluk corps was built up to unprecedented size and strength. They were a neat solution to a political problem because as slaves, they did what they were told, but as people with high social status, they were motivated to uphold the political order that privileged them. The Mongols had given some Italians slave-trading rights to Crimea during the quiet years, so a steady stream of Kipchak/Cuman Turks poured out of the Black Sea. Slavers were also selling Circassians, Slavs, Armenians, and Georgians. With supply high, prices had to be low.

Mamluks were typically boys between 8 and 10 when they were purchased, and they were carefully indoctrinated to adopt a Mamluk identity. They forgot their home languages and religions. They learned Arabic and the Koran, while they trained in elite fighting skills. They were given wives and fine homes; they had good lives and high status, just not really full freedom to stop being Mamluks. Their children did not automatically get their status unless they went through the same training, but the Mamluks themselves could rise as high in government as was possible. They were viziers, generals, governors and supervisors.

Sultan as-Salih built a fortress and palace for them on an island in the Nile. This group became known as the River Mamluks, the Bahri. From their origins as a personal bodyguard and house soldiers, they increased to a corps of 10,000, and then again to about 40,000.

Sultan as-Salih died during the Seventh Crusade. His wife Shajaret al-Durr  worked with his top Mamluks to conceal his death until his heir, Turanshah, could get there. The commander of the Bahri Mamluks raced to fetch Turanshah from Hasankeyf (Turkey) while another helped Shajaret pantomime the Sultan’s continuing life. Before he died, he had signed a number of blank papers that they could use as proof of life. They told everyone he was just too sick to come out of his tent. Meals were sent in, dirty dishes came out. Signed orders went out (written by Shajaret and another top Mamluk, Aybak).

When Turanshah arrived to lead the troops at al-Mansurah, they could let the cat out of the bag. It looked like Shajaret and the Mamluks had stage-managed a peaceful transition in time of war. But as the Crusaders negotiated for King Louis’ freedom, Turanshah began to offend the Bahri Mamluks by appointing his own commanders, demoting the Mamluks who were already filling those roles. He clashed with Shajaret by demanding that she turn over all jewels his father had given her. Within just a few months, Turanshah was thoroughly hated.

In May 1250, Turanshah gave a feast. At the end of it, the top Mamluks rushed in and murdered him. The Crusaders were very interested in these events; Jean de Joinville left a detailed account of how Turanshah fled to a tower but the Mamluks set it on fire, and so on. In the end, the widowed Queen Shajaret declared herself Sultan.

The Caliph of Baghdad could not accept this regime change, nor could the Ayyubid rulers of cities in Syria. The top Bahri Mamluk commander, Aybak, removed Shajaret from being Sultan but married her, so that she was still in the power loop. Sultan Aybak reigned for seven years.

During this time, Shajaret became more jealous of power. She began taking various matters away from Aybak and quarreling about other wives. At length he married a third wife to make an alliance, and Shajaret paid servants to help murder Aybak in his bath. She claimed that he had just drowned. The other top Mamluks didn’t buy this; they tortured the servants to get confessions. Shajaret was beaten to death and thrown into a moat.

Aybak’s son was briefly made Sultan, but the kind of government that was emerging was not a father-to-son monarchy. One of Aybak’s top Mamluks took over; he may have been a displaced Khwarezmian, sold into slavery by Mongols. He ruled for a few years, then was assassinated by another Mamluk leader, Baibars.

From 1250 until the Ottoman conquest in 1517, the Sultan of Egypt was always the most powerful Mamluk. Sometimes it was a Sultan’s son, but other times, it wasn’t. In a pure monarchy, genetic descent matters most, but in a Mamluk dynasty, it didn’t matter apart from the privilege a Sultan’s son could use to build his own power base. The 10th Mamluk Sultan was actually an Oirat tribe member of the Mongol confederation, captured in a Middle Eastern battle and sold into slavery (the Oirats were the Siberian fur-hunters).

The Mamluk government became the most stable dynasty since the Ptolemies. Mamluks were promoted by merit, so the top Mamluk was always physically strong, intelligent, and socially clever.

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The Saint and the Seventh Crusade, 1248-50

Of course, the Pope called a new crusade. But Europe was in bad shape for a Crusade. In the Sixth Crusade, the King of Hungary had led, but now Hungary was in ruins. Europe’s bad boy Frederick was not only excommunicated but deposed by the Pope (not that he really lost power). The only king who was interested was Louis IX of France, who had recently vowed to go on Crusade if he survived a serious illness.

In fact, France as a state was stronger than ever, thanks to the Crusade against Cathars. The final settlement of that business left Provence and Toulouse as part of the French crown. Louis IX had recently built the Chapel of St. Denis to house the Crown of Thorns, a stolen relic he purchased from bankrupt Crusaders. (Side note: there was no stigma to stolen relics, since they presumed that the saint permitted the theft to punish the last owners.) The King was outstandingly devout and had enormous riches at his disposal.

We know a lot about the Seventh Crusade because a young knight, Jean de Joinville, traveled with the king and later published a biography of the king based on his Crusade journals. One of the surprising choices Louis made was to bring his wife Margaret.

Margaret was one of four sisters who grew up in Provence just as the Cathar Crusade was winding down. Although their father the Count of Provence was impoverished by the wars, his status was high enough that after the King of France chose the oldest daughter, Margaret, the King of England chose the second daughter, Eleanor. Then both kings’ brothers married the remaining two daughters. At one point in time, between 1257 and 1261, all four of them were crowned queens due to the Pope’s attempts to break up Frederick’s lands. One was Queen of Sicily, the other Queen of Germany. But in 1249, the younger two were just Countesses. The brother of the King of England had already been involved in the Barons’ Crusade. For this Crusade, the Count of Anjou and his wife would sail with their brother and sister of France.

Another surprising choice was to send a Papal embassy to the Mongols, trying out whether an alliance could be formed. Güyük Khan was not impressed. He invited the Europeans to submit to the Mongol yoke, instead.

Louis IX considered pleas from Latin Constantinople for help against the government-in-exile Byzantines; he also heard pleas from Templars in Syria. But by this time, the Egyptian campaign discussed in the Third Crusade and tried in the Fifth seemed the only logical way to go. France raised a large sum of money so its king could set out by ship for Damietta. The Crusade was officially launched in July 1248, sailing for Cyprus, where they wintered over and rested. In May 1259, the French flotilla set sail for Egypt.

Damietta was probably still very shaky since its Fifth Crusade starvation and ruins. But Sultan as-Salih now had ample warning of the Crusader invasion, so he had troops on shore and ships in the harbor, ready to defend. The Crusaders had to make an amphibious landing in shallow-draft longboats, in full view of the defenders. As they established beach-heads with shield walls thrust into the sand, King Louis himself came ashore. The Muslim forces began losing. As the day ended, they abandoned Damietta. The Crusaders were able to move in directly.

It was easy for the French to take that city, but then THIS happened, as the click-baiters say. The Nile flooded, right on time! Who could have seen that coming? The Crusaders were perched on a safe part of the Delta with floodwaters all around them streaming into the Mediterranean Sea, and this went on for six months. Six months is plenty of time to eat up the food you brought while spending your gold on food and wages for soldiers and sailors to just stay put.

In November, Louis set out for Cairo, the target of previous Crusades. Once he held Cairo, he could use Egypt as the breadbasket while his army headed for Ascalon and Jerusalem. The Ayyubid dynasty had its power drained away by constant extended-family rebellions in Syria, and Sultan as-Salih had been gravely ill, carried about on a stretcher, for much of the last year. When he retreated to the town of al-Mansurah, the Crusaders followed him. Louis was now surrounded by three brothers, one who had just arrived with more fresh troops. They marched near the Nile with supply ships moving in parallel, as Richard Lion-Heart had done. The Crusaders camped at the same place the Fifth Crusade had camped when the floods rose, but this time it was winter, so they felt safe.

A Muslim deserter told them about a nearby ford over the Tanis River, permitting an attack. They had tried other crossing methods but nothing was working, and the Muslim defenses were ferocious enough that they should have realized something had changed. But Louis led a select force to the ford, with one of his brothers, before dawn on February 8. As the force was still straggling over the crossing, Louis’ brother started a premature attack on the Muslim camp. Emir Fakr al-Din was killed in this assault. Muslim survivors ran for the town of al-Mansurah, and Count Robert followed them, still leaving behind the main force in the crossing. They rode into the unlocked town. But in the town, the Crusaders faced the Mamluks. In house to house fighting, most of the Templars and Count Robert were killed. Then the Mamluks poured out of the town toward the remaining French troops under King Louis. There a ferocious battle took place on the Tanis riverbank. Louis and his men hung on under the assault and at nightfall, the King was still alive and they had not retreated.

Obviously, the Crusaders would have to retreat, since their losses had been so heavy. However, Louis did not want to go straight back to Damietta, squandering what little gain they had made. He fortified the camp and stayed. The Mamluks assaulted again. Again, with great losses, the Crusaders held their ground.

Louis hoped to negotiate: Damietta for Jerusalem. He sent envoys with this idea, but the political situation in Egypt was changing more rapidly than he could know (more about that soon). Now the Sultan’s death was announced, with the Sultan’s son ready to take charge, having come from Syria with reinforcements. These new forces rolled ships overland, dropping them into the Nile between Damietta and the Crusaders so that they were cut off. Supplies could not get through. The whole Frankish army began to starve and lose hope of ever returning home. Their wounds were infected, they had scurvy, and unburied corpses were spreading disease.

On April 5, Louis and his men tried to retreat at night, but the Egyptians forced battle, and on April 6, the king and his two brothers were captured, with other commanders. Thousands of French soldiers went into a POW camp while the royals were locked in a house. Then, in Muslim captivity, many of them fell ill with dysentery, including the king. It seemed likely that King Louis would never make it back to Damietta, let alone Paris. The new Sultan Turanshah set a high price for ransom of the King and his brothers: it would certainly take all the Crusade’s remaining funds to buy them back.

Queen Margaret in Damietta had to begin the process of raising ransom money, but she was in desperate straits too. On April 8 she gave birth to her sixth child, a boy named Jean Tristan (“sorrow”). The Genoese sailors who manned their ships very nearly abandoned her; she had to bring them into her bedchamber within hours of the birth and plead with them, promising them gold. The Queen could not collect a large enough sum.

News of the King’s capture reached France and caused an uproar. The King was thought of as a saint, and many common people thought the official Church (which was very wealthy) was abandoning by not rescuing or ransoming him. A new mob of common people, again led by a shepherd, converged on Paris to demand action. Queen Regent Blanche, Louis’ mother, tried to break them up. Their march turned into anti-clergy riots in Rouen, Tours, and Orleans, lasting into 1251. As they straggled farther into central France, they also began attacking Jews. The Queen Regent had to send forces to arrest them, and many were executed. We know this episode as the Shepherds’ Crusade.

King Louis IX was ransomed and allowed to leave on May 8, 1250, long before the shepherds had spent their fury. He was not sent back to Damietta, but to Acre. What about the other prisoners? By then, many of lower rank had been executed. From the original 20,000, only about 12,000 still lived. Louis was able to ransom most of them, and this effort became his main project in Acre.

The royal family stayed in Acre for a few years. It wasn’t clear to them if they could perhaps restart their Crusade, although Louis had vowed not to return to Egypt. Would Frederick commit any troops to retaking Jerusalem? Would any other kings find resources to join? The Damietta baby, Jean Tristan, was joined in Acre by babies Pierre in 1252 and Blanche in 1253. The king acted as head of state and strengthened fortresses.

In 1254, the family sailed home. In France, King Louis IX became austere as penance for his failures. He wore a hair shirt and ate only a fast-day diet. This is when the really became “Saint Louis” to the common people, although of course it was not until after his death that the Pope made him an official saint. He ruled his kingdom as his mother died and his family increased. He never gave up the hope of going on Crusade again, and before his death, he did. We’ll get there.

Queen Margaret de Provence

 

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