The Advance of the Mongols: 6 Campaigns That Built the World’s Largest Land Empire

The Advance of the Mongols: 6 Campaigns That Built the World’s Largest Land Empire

Kurt Christopher - July 13, 2017

The Advance of the Mongols: 6 Campaigns That Built the World’s Largest Land Empire
Mamluk warriors at the Battle of Ayn Jalut. Pinterest

The Battle of Ayn Jalut

After destroying Baghdad Hulegu hunkered down for a time, collecting his spoils and receiving new offers of submission and troops from the surrounding region. Once again reinforced, he set out in 1259 to complete the task that his brother Mongke had given him by pushing to Egypt. They crossed the Euphrates on a pontoon bridge and made for Aleppo. While Aleppo fell quickly the soldiers in the central citadel continued to defend their last refuge for four weeks before surrendering. In a show of respect for their courage Hulegu allowed the survivors of the citadel to live.

From Aleppo the Mongols advanced to Damascus, which gave in without a fight. Now only the only significant authority capable of challenging the Mongols remaining in the region were the Mamluks of Egypt. Hulegu sent an emissary to Sultan Qutuz carrying a message that read, “You have heard that we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of the disorders that tainted it. It is for you to fly and for us to pursue…. We mean well by our warning, for now you are the only enemy against whom we have to march.”

The Mamluks, descendants of slave soldiers who had unseated their masters, were not interested in being enslaved once again. They responded to Hulegu’s threat by killing the emissary. With this action Qutuz could expect to face the Mongols’ full wrath, but then fate intervened. As Hulegu was preparing his advance towards Egypt a rider arrived with news from China: Mongke Khan had died of dysentery. Fearing that the Khan’s death might destabilize the empire Hulegu withdrew along with a considerable portion of his force, leaving his lieutenant Kitbuga to chastise the Mamluks.

Back in Cairo Qutuz had decided that his capital could not endure a Mongol siege, and that his best chance for success was to meet the Mongols in the open. The Mamluks crossed Gaza and positioned themselves to intercept the Mongols in Galilee at a place called Ayn Jalut, which quite appropriately is also the site where David is said to have slain Goliath. Upon arriving Qutuz hid a portion of his army in the highlands nearby to surprise the Mongols if given a chance.

Once the battle began the Mamluks were able to lure the Mongol force into this trap by repeatedly hitting them and then withdrawing closer to the highlands. The unexpected appearance of Mamluk archers and cavalry from the hills overwhelmed the Mongols, surrounding them. Not easily discouraged, the Mongols fought fiercely to break out of the encirclement, prompting Qutuz to personally join the battle to try and prevent a breach. Despite Qutuz’s efforts some of the Mongols did manage to escape and regroup, but he held the battlefield. The Mamluk’s had done what no other power had been capable of – they had stood up to a Mongol advance and won.

The Advance of the Mongols: 6 Campaigns That Built the World’s Largest Land Empire
Depiction of Mongol soldiers facing Song Chinese rockets. Quora

The Subjugation of Song China

While Mongols were engaged in subduing the Jin Chinese they had maintained an alliance with the Song Dynasty in southern China, but a territory dispute between the two over the spoils of the defeated Jin precipitated a war between the former allies in 1235. Unlike previous Mongol campaigns, the Song Chinese would prove resilient and hold out against the Mongols for over forty years. For sixteen years the Mongols struggled just to get a handhold in the Song territories near Chengdu. When Mongke Khan came to power in 1251 he would reenergize the Mongol efforts to master the Song dynasty.

While Mongke Khan had charged his brother Hulegu with incorporating the Middle East into the empire, for Mongke that was more of a side show. China was far more important to Mongke, so much so that he would personally lead the campaign there along with his brother Kublai. Together the brothers would take Tibet and the Kingdom of Dali, but the Mongols would suffer a disaster in 1259 when Mongke succumbed to an illness during a failed attack on the Diaoyu Fortress in Sichuan.

Kublai would take up the position of Khan after Mongke’s death, committed to pursuing the campaign against the Song to its conclusion. He found an unlikely ally in the general leading the Diaoyu Fortress that had just defeated Mongke. Unhappy with the Song dynasty’s chilly reaction to his defense against the Mongols, this general defected to Kublai and guided them to the Song weak point at Xiangyang. Kublai heeded this advice and, with the help of some Arab siege engineers imported from Hulegu’s conquests, captured the city.

The siege of Xiangyang had been a long ordeal for the Mongols, the city had managed to hold out for years. But it was even more exhausting for the Song Chinese. One attempt to relieve the city after another had been massacred by the Mongols. After Xiangyang fell the Song would commit to one final decisive battle at Yuhue, but their forces had been so seriously depleted at Xiangyang that they no longer had the ability to put together real resistance. In 1276 the Song dynasty capitulated to the Mongols, and Kublai Khan took on the title of Emperor of China.