Detail from a 15th-century miniature showing Tamerlane besieging the Hospitallers’ castle at Smyra in 1402

A stirring tale of delicious complexity

From the Mongols’ conquest of Persia to their defeat by the Mamluks


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 1252 Mongke, the new Mongol ruler, ordered his brother Hulegu to embark on a new push to expand their empire westwards. Having reminded Hulegu to consult his Christian wife Doquz Khatun “in all matters” and to treat those who readily submitted mercifully, he continued, “Grind beneath the feet of your wrath those who resist, along with their wives, children, kith and kin.”

Hulegu would have known what was required. The Mongols had already turned death into a performance art designed to sap their would-be enemies’ morale: his and Mongke’s grandfather, the great Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, had executed one opponent by pouring molten metal into his eyes, mouth and ears. With this in mind, Nicholas Morton starts from the simple proposition that the Mongols’ impact was felt long before they hove into view. It was, he says, “the people fleeing from the Mongols who actually ended up doing the Mongols’ work for them, softening up their future opponents and undermining any chance of an anti-Mongol coalition”.

The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East, Nicholas Morton (Basic Books, £20)

Morton has already written several books on the crusades. This time his scope is wider — a century of upheaval — but his focus remains on the Middle East and Asia Minor, in particular on the three key decades after 1230: from the Mongols’ conquest of Persia to their defeat at the hands of the Mamluks at the “spring of Goliath”, Ayn Jalut. He manages to tell this story, which is wildly complicated, in a clear and illuminating way, by tackling it from different angles. 

Besides that of the Franks (who are rightly peripheral), we see the era’s dilemmas from other perspectives, including Saladin’s successors the Ayyubids, and the Mamluks who usurped them; the Seljuk sultans; the Cilician Armenians; the Nicaean Byzantines; and the beleaguered Latin emperor in Constantinople, who was so short of cash he had to sell to the French the Crown of Thorns and send his son to Venice as security on a loan.

The Mongols were hardy nomadic herders who, it is thought, hailed from the area between the Altai mountains and Lake Baikal. They lived in the saddle, worshipped their ancestors, and admired the majesty and strength of the natural world. They ate too much meat, washed down with fermented mare’s milk, and suffered correspondingly from alcoholism and gout. The favourable climate of the early 13th century, and a consequent need for new grazing for their growing flocks, first enabled and then forced them to expand.

The Mongols first registered in the Middle Eastern consciousness when they made a brief appearance in Anatolia in 1220 in hot pursuit of the Khwarazmian sultan, who had crossed them two years before. A notoriously violent people themselves, the Khwarazmians came from the area south of the Aral Sea. Until the appearance of the Mongols, they had also ruled Persia. 

Having lost this empire they destabilised the Middle East like seawater coursing through a stricken ship. First, they sloshed west into Anatolia, where they were defeated by an unlikely coalition of two warring dynasties, the Ayyubids and Seljuk Turks. Then they washed back towards Persia. Then, after a hammering by the Mongols, they slopped off to find sanctuary and grazing between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Seljuk sultan decided to submit to the distant Mongols so he could get back to fighting his Ayyubid neighbours. However, the Ayyubids, who ruled a territory from Nubia to Lake Van, defeated him. When he died of poison, his successor was unable to stave off the Mongols’ reappearance in Anatolia in 1243. Indeed, in his haste to escape an excruciating death at Mongol hands, the man who called himself “the shadow of God” fled ignominiously, leaving his pet lion, leopard and panther tethered by his tent on the battlefield. 

After the Seljuks’ collapse, the fractious Ayyubid family exploded. As Morton explains, their inheritance tradition (the ruler split his territory amongst his sons) was a recipe for chaos. In a bid to gain the upper hand, Ayyubid sultans in the Levant cut deals with the crusaders to ensure trade continued whilst making obsequious gestures to the Mongols to the east. 

To outdo them all, the Ayyubid ruler in Cairo co-opted the Khwarazmians, who, in the course of their journey out of Iraq towards Egypt, sacked Jerusalem — causing outrage in Europe that would trigger another crusade. In a battle of 1244, the Khwarazmians then defeated the Franks, with quarrelling Ayyubid factions fighting on both sides. 

These intrepid characters returned with strange tales of Mongol customs

The Mongols, who had only just finished a rampage through Ukraine, Poland and Hungary, sent mixed messages to western Europe, demanding homage in one breath and offering help to retake Jerusalem the next. Wondering whether the Mongols might potentially be allies, the Pope and King of France sent emissaries east. They regretted this move when these intrepid characters returned with strange tales of Mongol customs, describing the ravaged countryside, ruined cities and unburied human bones they had seen en route. The French king was duly captured by the Ayyubids during the subsequent crusade.

It was at this point that Mongke directed his brother west, probably to get him out of the way. Hulegu — at the head of an enormous army — elbowed other Mongols off good grazing in Azerbaijan, which created havoc in Anatolia again. In 1258, he seized Baghdad and murdered the Abbasid caliph by having him rolled up in a carpet and trampled to death. In the general massacre that followed, he spared the city’s Christian population, under the influence of his wife.

As the Mongol threat grew, the Ayyubids were overthrown by their own elite cadre of slave soldiers, the Mamluks. Baybars, the most famous of them all, hailed from a Turkic tribe driven west through Ukraine by the Mongols. Shocked into action by the Mongols’ seizure of Aleppo — a city thought to be impregnable, as important then as it is now — in 1260 the Mamluks advanced out of Egypt and defeated the Mongols. 

Baybars seized power by murdering the Mamluk sultan during a hunt. He set about organising the defence of Syria against further Mongol incursions, relying on an impressive signalling system that entailed fires and carrier pigeons. By then the death of Mongke had already led Hulegu to turn east for home. 

A succession crisis caused more Mongol infighting, which Baybars exploited, allying with the Golden Horde (north of the Black Sea) in a shared pursuit of cutting down the Ilkhans (as the Mongol branch in Persia had become known). He and his successors then methodically expelled the remaining Franks.

This book is full of delicious but digestible complexity. It underlines Morton’s point that we should not see the history of this part of the world primarily in religious terms. In an attempt to curry favour with the Mongols, the Armenians turned over the Seljuk sultan’s Christian wife, a provocation that led the Seljuks to ally with the Mongols and invade. The Ayyubid ruler of Damascus had to besiege one of his own castles to force its unwilling garrison to open the gates to the Franks, with whom he had just cut a deal.

Clear-eyed and not judgmental, Morton has written a tremendous book. This is, at heart, a timeless story about the power of the survival instinct. 

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