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.