The Mongolian Empire

While Christians and Muslims fought each other for Jerusalem, the Mongolian Empire gobbled up Asia. It would become the largest empire the world has ever known, even today.

In spite of, or maybe because of the battles raging over control of Jerusalem, many Christian traders were able to connect with Mongolian silk traders at ports where the twain would meet. Those included Constantinople, Tyre, and the inland city of Damascus. But apparently the Europeans mistook business for friendship. They assumed that since the Mongolians wanted to smash the Muslims, they, the Europeans, could step back and let the Mongolians do all the dirty work. The reality was, every empire for herself.

Evolution of the Empire

The earliest Mongolians lived in a landlocked area above what is now China. In 1206, the armies of a ferocious chieftain named Temüjin swept Asia and conquered all the Mongolian tribes, uniting them as one force. Temüjin took on the name Genghis Khan [aka Jenghiz]. The title khan meant emperor.

Genghis Khan died in 1227, twelve years after the Fifth Crusade, and one year before the Sixth Crusade. He was succeeded by his third son, Ögedei Khan (1186-1241), who reigned for fourteen years. The Third Great Khan was Ögedei Khan’s eldest son Güyük Khan (c1206-1248). During Güyük Khan’s short two-year reign, the empire took over Russia and Korea. Güyük Khan died prematurely in 1248, possibly by poison, but more likely from bad health due to alcoholism, which apparently ran in the family. Möngke Khan served as the Fourth Great Khan. Möngke Khan was the son of Genghis’ fourth son, Tolui [making him Genghis’ grandson]. As the Seventh Crusade headed east in 1250, Möngke Khan, his brother Hulagu Khan, and their general Kitbuqa(1) were leading the Mongolians westward to finish taking over the world. Their warriors spread terror wherever they went.

In 1257, the Mongolians conquered Persia. In 1258 they took Baghdad. In 1259 they added Aleppo. That same year, far from home, Möngke Khan died. The next in line, his brother Kublai, become the Fifth Great Khan.

Meanwhile, Hulagu Khan turned back to Mongolia after the death of Möngke Khan, but his commander, General Kitbuqa moved on. After trouncing Syria and Damascus in 1260, Kitbuqa headed for the biggest prize of all, Cairo, Egypt. We have already discussed why the Crusaders and the Muslims considered Egypt to be so important. If the Mongolians controlled Egypt, they controlled the Middle East, which would enable them to have a monopoly of trade along the silk roads from China to the Mediterranean Sea, a distance of over 4,600 miles.

It did not happen. The Mongolians met their match. Cairo was in the hands of a fearless Muslim tribe of warriors called the Mamluks(2) led by the ruthless Emir Baibars. Baibars’ Mamluks had taken control of Egypt’s sultanate(3) a few years earlier. When the Mongolians moved in, Baibars’ armies annihilated them. The Mongolian front was forced to retreat to Iran and Turkestan.

Kublai Khan

The Great Kublai Khan became the Emperor of Mongolia and China in 1260. Within eleven years, he transformed the two countries into the Yuan Dynasty. When his forces overcame the Southern Song Dynasty, Kublai became the first non-Chinese Emperor to conquer all of China.

By 1279, nine years after the last crusade, the Mongolian Empire was the largest contiguous empire in world history. It reached from present day Poland in the west, to Korea in the east, and from Siberia in the north, to Vietnam in the south. The Mongolian Empire covered thirteen million square miles and contained 100 million people. That is twenty-two percent of the earth’s total land area. The civilized world did not even know about North and South America yet.

The Demise of the Outremer

The defeat of the Mongolians in Egypt left the Christians of the Outremer in big trouble. The Mamluks were displeased that the Christians had sided with the Mongolians. To make things worse, the countries of the Outremer were also fighting among themselves. The Knights Templar sided with the Venetians against the Hospitallers. The Hospitallers sided with the King of Jerusalem and the remaining Christian states against the Knights Templar. While they quibbled, the Mamluks had no trouble “pushing the Christian Outremers back into the sea” from which they seemed to have come.

The state of Acre fell in 1291. Tyre capitulated the next day. Three months later Sidon surrendered, followed by Jaffa [or Jaifa] and Tortosa. The very last Christian outpost on the mainland of Asia, a castle at Athlit, surrendered in August. The Knights Templar had nowhere to go except a small castle on the island of Ruad just west of Tortosa. Since there was no fresh water there, a decade later, in 1303, the knights abandoned that, too. [We will get back to the flight of the Knights Templar and their treasure later.]

Kublai Khan ruled until his death in 1294. He was the last khan to win new conquests. He was the first khan to make friends with a Western European, or so a man named Marco Polo would claim. The Mongols and the Mamluks continued to struggle until 1323, when they signed a peace treaty. The Christians were thrust from the Holy Land for the next five centuries.

Notes

  1. Sometimes written Kerbogha.
  2. Sometimes known as mamlouks, mamluqs, mamlukes, mameluks, mamelukes, mamalukes or marmelukes.
  3. A sultanate was more like a dictatorship than a kingdom.

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