When the Mongols invaded the land of Khwarezmia, south of the Aral Sea, they sent a wave of ferocious refugees who had been the toughest kids on the block until the Mongols showed them up. Bands of Khwarezmian fighters went to northern Mesopotamia, to the slice of land between the rivers that the Arabs called Jazirah. In another storyline, they might have settled down to be farmers, but not in this story.
Sultan al-Kamil left his kingdom to his son al-Adil when he died in 1238, but a more aggressive and troublesome son, al-Salih, soon seized power. This son had been Emir in the Jazirah region, and he had made an alliance with the leaders of the Khwarezmian fighters. He now wanted to use his power base in Cairo to take over Syria, too, from his uncles.
Al-Salih increased the Mamluk army quickly by buying Kipchak Turks from Italians who’d been given slaving rights to Crimea by the Mongols. But he wanted even more Turkish mercenaries, so he sent a message back to the Jazirah region and invited a Khwarezmian army to make its way through Syria. Any damage they could do there would help weaken Al-Salih’s uncles and cousins in Damascus and Homs.
In July 1244, the Khwarezmian band came to Jerusalem. It was governed by Frederick II’s officials at that time, and had been spared from war damage by several cycles of negotiated truces. However, its local military alliance was with Damascus, so the Khwarezmians considered it fair game. Much of the population fled as refugees, but only 300 arrived alive in Jaffa. When the Khwarezmians broke down the city gates, they vandalized and looted at churches and tombs. They gruesomely executed priests and others in the churches. The city was left a ruin, barely fit to live in.
Al-Salih’s uncles reached out to all of the local powers to form a joint defensive army. The Emirs of Damascus, Homs and Kerak (Jordan) joined all of the Christian military orders: Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonics, and the smaller order of St. Lazarus. The current Kingdom of Jerusalem officials joined: the Count of Jaffa, the Constable of Jerusalem, and the Lord of Cyprus. The Crusaders amassed their largest field force since the Third Crusade, perhaps about 7000 men, while the Muslims contributed about 4500.
The Khwarezmians were roving into Gaza, where they joined Egyptian forces under the Mamluk officer Baibars. The Egyptian forces were professional and disciplined, but the Khwarezmians were comparatively barbaric and riotous. In the Crusader/Syrian camp, the Emir of Homs suggested that the best strategy against them was to set up a fortified camp and wait. He thought there was a very good chance that the Khwarezmians would quarrel with the Mamluks or just veer off on their own, looking for more loot. Once they were gone, the Mamluks could more easily be attacked. He believed they could defeat either the Mamluks or the Khwarezmians, but probably not both.
But that’s not the sort of advice that French knights wanted to heed. The Count of Jaffa had been elected commander, and he saw only that the local alliance had more men in the field. And so they launched an assault at the Gazan town of Hiribya, known to the French as La Forbie.
The battle lasted two days, in October 1244. Baibars kept the Khwarezmians out on the first day, so the battle was more evenly matched. But the second day, the Khwarezmians charged wildly at the Franks and Syrians and broke their battle line. After that, it was a rout. From over 400 Teutonic Knights, only 3 survived. The army of Homs brought home only about 300 men. Most of the leaders were killed or captured, though the Emir of Homs survived.
The small number of survivors fled to Acre. They were in shock, stunned at the amount of death they had just witnessed. They sent warnings to the Latin governments of Cyprus and Antioch. To the Pope and the kings in Europe, they sent desperate pleas for help. Not only was their range reduced again to Third Crusade size, but the ferocious Khwarezmians and ambitious Egyptians were likely to come back and wipe them out completely. And worst of all, Jerusalem had been destroyed again.