The Origins of the West

The Origins of the West are complex. Some matters are well known, others less so. I recently watched part of Dr Thomas Ashbridge’s re-examination of the Crusades. Does he remedy this? The Crusades was a three part series. The final episode dealt with the decline of the Crusader States. The Crusader States existed in the vacuum between competing powers. The Mamluks gained supremacy in the Levant, following the battle of Ain Jalut. The Mongols never seriously challenged that part of the world again.

The program felt a history-lite narrative which disappointed me (see it on iPlayer here). Ain Jalut although important, was a bit-part in an epoch changing series of events. Here’s a bit more context…

At that time, the Mongols ruled East Europe (i.e. most of Europe) and much of Asia. They would go on to subjugate virtually all of Asia apart from India and Japan. Baghdad had just been sacked by the Il-Khanate – in 1258. The Mamluks ruled Egypt and it was the only significant power the Mongols had not clashed with. Civilisation all over the world was in chaos.

Asia geophysical - Mongol dominons, significant empires in darker red

Mongol dominions, significant empires in darker red

Tiny Crusader States had been set up on the coast of the Levant. These pinprick states existed in the vacuum between larger powers and weren’t worth taking down. Nevertheless they remained a problem in that they tried to ally themselves with the Mongols. The Mongols rarely suffered allies long; in 1219 the Mongols had offered an alliance with Khwarezm, an empire that few in the present day will have heard of – Khwarezm is best described as a kind of Greater Persian Empire. It’s population was numbered at over 30 million – in just under two years its cities were in ruins and its civilian population slaughtered.

By 1260, the two pre-eminent powers in West Asia were the Golden Horde and the Il-Khans. Each of these Mongol dominions was a ruthless, formidable war machine, changing and adapting to new technology (the first recorded use of gunpowder in Europe was by the Mongols in 1240 – acquired from the Chinese). However the Mongol Empire was beginning to fragment. The Golden Horde and the Il-Khans wouldn’t work together. They were ruled by descendants of Genghis Khan and they schemed against each other. The rivalry went back many years.

The Mamluks were warrior slaves who overthrew their overlords to become masters of Egypt. Many warrior slaves came from lands crushed by the Mongols. The leader of the Mamluks, Qutuz, was Khwarezmian. His homeland covered what is now Iran, Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries including south Kazakhstan. What had survived was controlled by the Il-Khanate.

Another important Mamluk general was Baibars. Baibars was of the Polovtsy who were often blond haired and blue eyed – as was Baibars. The Polovtsy (a Russian term for blond) were a nomadic people who roamed the steppes north of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. These people formed part of a confederation and were also known as Cumans / Kipchak / Turk. They, along with Kievan Rus, were subjugated by the Mongols and that part of the world now lay under the heel of the Golden Horde.

Both Qutuz and Baibars had been warrior slaves of the Mongols; both originated from Central Asia – areas under Mongol control. As warrior slaves they would have known Mongol tactics quite well and would have known of the growing hostility between the Golden Horde and the Il-Khanate.

To finish setting the scene, the grandson of Genghis who ruled the Golden Horde, Berke, was converted to Islam in 1252. Baghdad then, was the jewel of Islam; when it was sacked in 1258 by the Il-Khanate, the irrigation system around it was ruined, its library destroyed and most of its population were brutally put to the sword – the manner in which this was done hardened opinions. The Golden Horde made a secret alliance with the Mamluks.

Oh enemy of my enemy, let us work to a common goal.

The leader of the Il-Khanate was Hülegü, grandson of Genghis Khan. He had just overseen the destruction of Baghdad and the conquest of Iraq and Syria. Now it was time to ride against the only power that the Mongols hadn’t fought; Egypt. He sent the traditional demand. Absolute submission. The Mongols were famously arrogant. In 1260, Hülegü sent envoys to Qutuz in Cairo, demanding his surrender. The demand would be along the following lines:

From the King of Kings of the East and West, the Great Khan. To Qutuz the Mamluk, who fled to escape our swords. You should think of what happened to other countries and submit to us. You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of the disorders that tainted it. We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee? What road will you use to escape us? Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand. Fortresses will not detain us, nor armies stop us. Your prayers to God will not avail against us. We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations. Only those who beg our protection will be safe. Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled. Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then will kill your children and your old men together. At present you are the only enemy against whom we have to march.

Destroyers of empires didn’t write their own threats, they had the pick of eloquent scribes to do this (see the full threat – much longer than the above – on the net). Qutuz responded by killing the envoys and displaying their heads on Bab Zuweila, one of the gates of Cairo. Qutuz was no match yet for the Il-Khan’s but…

Following the death of the Great Khan, Möngke, in 1259, a qurultai (a kind of congress or leaders’ meeting) was called in far off Karakorum. A Mongol civil war was also brewing, so Hülegü set off with the bulk of his force leaving behind a vanguard of two tumens (20,000 +) to guard recently acquired Syria and Iraq.

The Mamluks weren’t a serious military threat to the full power of the Il-Khanate. Back then, the Mongols on campaign were like a nation on the move; as nomads, they took all they needed; horses, whores, artisans, foragers, even families; including those skilled in crafting their mighty engines of destruction. They would scout out an enemy for several years and in this case were fully aware of the hostility between Crusader and Moslem.

The Crusader States existed in the vacuum between conflicting powers. They sometimes allied with the Mongols, but were militarily inept due to infighting. Their savage barbarity hardly endeared them to those conquered. Any military adventure by the Mamluks into the Levant would be harassed by the Crusaders. In the eyes of Hülegü, Qutuz (and Baibars) were little more than renegade Mongols and Hülegü had the measure of them. Given this, Hülegü’s force of two tumens was deemed sufficient.

This was fortuitous. It fit the schemes of the secret alliance between Mamluk and Golden Horde. Qutuz took advantage of the on / off nature of Mongol-Christian alliances and convinced the Crusader States to not attack him. The Mamluks went north and defeated the Mongol guard at Ain Jalut.

Ain Jalut was a close run battle. The two sides were evenly matched in both strength and stratagem. The Crusader States could have turned the tide against Qutuz but they stayed their hand. Eventually Qutuz, and his battle hardened army prevailed.

Eventually word of this defeat got to Hülegü – thousands of miles off in Karakorum. This wasn’t the first defeat the Mongols had suffered. Up to now each defeat had been avenged. He prepared his forces. Eventually they set off.

By then Baibars ruled as Qutuz was assassinated but the alliance with the Golden Horde held. The leader of the Golden Horde, Berke, sent his armies against Hülegü. Il-Khan versus the Golden Horde – evenly matched – maybe a slight edge in favour of the Il-Khanate. Their armies fought titanic clashes in the Caucasian Mountains. The Mamluks – nowhere near a match for either – tipped the edge. War on two fronts disadvantaged the Il-Khanate. To further complicate matters, other parts of the Mongol Empire had also fallen into civil war, so Hülegü could expect no help from the Great Khan.

Before Ain Jalut, the Il-Khanate was intent on the conquest of Egypt, last redoubt of Islam. After Ain Jalut, it was in no position to consider any conquering or even recovering the Levant; it was too busy fighting off the Golden Horde – payback for the slaughter at Baghdad.

Hülegü never got to avenge Ain Jalut. The aura of Mongol invincibility was broken – but it took a Mongol civil war on two fronts to bring about. Their armies had already broken most of the civilised world, now they broke themselves.

Baibars cemented the Mamluk reign by crushing the Crusader States. His tactics were just as brutal as the Mongols.

The heartland of Old World was already in chaos and the collapse of Mongol power left another kind of vacuum. Civilisation was reset; the West had some space to grow..

Just words and barbarians, but it would make a more complete narrative. And heavens above! both Baibars and Qutuz have that ‘barbarian’ narrative. By Crom!!

The above post was originally framed as follows:

How do you start writing?
>Write an article.
An article? What about?
What about the Origins of the West?
>Go for it?

There is a real answer:

The beginning is a step in the dark. What you write is an amazement; you can’t believe the story unfolding before your eyes, yet the words appear. After the first paragraph, you pause and take stock. You haven’t actually introduced a character (that comes a lot later) all you are doing is treading water while your fingers get the feel of typing.
Typing a story is different from say, preparing a report, or the preparing the supporting data that aggregates business activities. You really do need to get your typing head on. This means posture, arms and hands in the correct position etc, etc.
Very early on I tried writing notes in a note pad. Fine for notes but pretty useless for extended periods of creative activity… you need to type it in sometime and to do that you must write legibly. Bad writing leaves a chore that will only get bigger and bigger.
The next issue is speed. You want to get the job done. You know how long your piece should be – but if you don’t get a move on, it won’t be finished until long after the Keeper of the Universe shuts shop at the end of time – every member of every sentient race having long since died off…
Getting your speed to the right level is a kind of chicken and egg situation. How fast can you type? You don’t know as you haven’t written before. Then write something. But how much? Will it make sense?
When you’re particularly rusty, you’ll find that plot and characterisation need a lot of coaxing. the hook that will force them out depends on your – i.e. you and no one else’s – interest in the subject matter. So forget the manacles of a formulaic approach… all irrelevant if it doesn’t make you catch fire. It took me 8,000 words (later discarded) to come up with something that vaguely caught my interest.

What to write?
Hints on writing go way back. Aristotle’s treatise, the Poetics, still has relevance. Read it sometime. To me it brought Plato’s forms to mind.
There’s nothing new under the sun; also true in writing. One school of thought is that the easiest thing to do is read something and regurgitate it the way it ‘should’ have been written. If you do it, do it well, apply your sensitivities. Nothing is new.
On the other hand you can eschew all forms of contact with stuff that you may accidentally emulate, and plot an uncharted course. Creative writing.
I stayed away from my genre long enough (20 years) for the details, plots, themes etc to become a blurry mass of undifferentiated drivel. I started to write, and gradually the ideas came.

About Terence Park

Board games, US Comic books, SF Paperbacks, Vinyl records; I've plenty of them all. I write SF (the serious sort). I also do spreadsheets.
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