The Crusades had been in full swing for 150 years with Christian and Muslim forces pitted against each other in the Middle East – when something rather unexpected happened. A vast army swarmed into the region from the far East. The Mongols had arrived intent on creating a huge empire stretching from China into Europe.
This spectre of the Mongols terrified both Christians and Muslims. But far from uniting them, the Christians sent emissaries to the Mongols. The offer to the invaders went something like this: You hate the Muslim caliphate. We hate the Muslim caliphate. Why don’t we hate them together and divide the spoils?
Unfortunately for Christian Europe, the Mongols were nobody’s fools. They knew a cynical grovel when they saw one. So the idea of a Mongol-Crusader coalition against Islam went precisely nowhere.
Bad news for the Knights Templar as the Mongols seize Baghdad
In 1258, the unthinkable happened. The Mongols took Baghdad. And after massacring the population (some say a million dead though this is likely to be an exaggeration), they killed the Caliph. One macabre account (told by Marco Polo amongst others) claimed that Caliph Al-Musta’sim was wrapped in a rug and then kicked to death. Something about the Mongols not liking to visibly shed the blood of the noble born – from any civilisation – so they packed the caliph in a carpet and brought their boots down on him.
The murder of the caliph ended the five-hundred year Abbasid caliphate. Conservative Muslims even today view the Abbasids having been decadent and blasphemous. Their ignominious end was a divine punishment. But it was under the highly cultured Abbasids that the Islamic world attained its greatest intellectual achievements. After them, that same world went into a slow intellectual decline. Many more liberal-minded Muslims today look back wistfully at a civilisation that was open to all ideas.
Now the Mongols were on the doorstep of the Latin kingdoms of the crusaders. It was time for the crusaders to sort out their differences and recognise a terrible enemy poised to strike.
Knights Templar urge unity in the face of the Mongols
As Damascus and other cities fell to the Mongols, the 20th Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Thomas Bérard, decided to bang some heads together. For years, the Templars had been feuding with the rival military orders – the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights. Now Bérard approached Hugh of Revel, master of the Hospitallers, and Anno von Sangershausen, master of the Teutonic knights, and demanded a united front.
The King of France and the Pope sent letters to the Mongols asking if they would join the crusaders and defeat Islam. The Mongols replied with a stern, boorish demand for tribute and total submission. So that bit of strategy went up in flames pretty quickly.
Bérard (image of his shield below) wrote to the Treasurer of the Knights Templar in England and his letter was full of fear and trepidation about the Mongols. He mentioned the “terrible and awesome arrival of the Tartars” (another name for the Mongols).
DISCOVER: The Templars and the Kabbalah
Mongols inadvertently create a new deadly enemy for the Knights Templar
The Mongols looked invincible. But their successes forced change within the Muslim world and threw up a new leader who would inflict dire defeats on the crusaders – especially the Knights Templar.
Step forward Al-Malik az-Zahir Rukn ad-Din Baybars – but you can just call him Baybars. Everybody else does! He was as low born as you can get. A slave from the north shore of the Black Sea sold by the Mongols to the Sultan in Cairo. That Sultan was Al-Muazzam Turanshah.
The sultan became increasingly concerned at the growing power of ex-slaves like Baybars who were formidable soldiers. Even though Baybars and his type were ethnically Turks and many weren’t even Muslim by birth, they came to exercise ever greater power in Egypt. They were referred to as Mamluks.
DISCOVER: The Knights Hospitaller in north London
Eventually, Baybars assassinated Sultan Turanshah in a particular barbaric way that featured a sword, spear and a burning tower. But I’ll leave you read up on that! That left Baybars and his Mamluks in charge of Egypt and the foremost power in the Muslim world. Baybars now insisted that the crusaders give him right of passage to deal with the Mongols. And incredibly – they did just that.
The result was a stunning Mamluk victory over the Mongols. But what the crusaders and Knights Templar didn’t reckon on was that they had a new enemy in their midst. Baybars didn’t care about polite protocol and diplomacy. In no time at all, he was attacking Templar fortresses. You have to wonder if the knights rather wished they could have the Mongols back!
Postscript: Rather bemused by the comment below that this is a fake news story – I’m sure those of you who study this period will know the above blog post is true.