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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Oct 11, 2021

    The Mongols were famous for their ultimatums of destruction and submission. No shortage of thirteenth century states received demands for their unconditional surrender to the Great Khan granted divine mandate to rule by Eternal Blue Heaven. Initially, the Mongol imperial ideology was extremely black and white: you could submit to Mongol rule, or face total annihilation. There was no room for other relationships, for the Great Khan had no allies, only subjects. But as the thirteenth century went on and the dream of Chinggisid world hegemony slipped away as the divisions of the Mongol Empire went their separate ways, the Mongol Khans in the west began to seek not the capitulation, but the cooperation of western Europe to aid in their wars against Mamluks. For the Ilkhanate’s sixty-year struggle against the Mamluk Sultanate, the Il-Khans sought to bring the Popes and Monarchs of Europe to a new crusade to assist in the defeat of the Mamluks, an ultimately fruitless endeavour, and the topic of today’s episode. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    The first Mongol messages to the Kings of Europe came in the late 1230s and 40s, accompanying Batu and Sube’edei’s western invasion, asking the Hungarians how they possibly could hope to flee the grasp of the Mongols. We know the Mongols sent a number of envoys to European monarchs and dukes, and employed a variety of peoples in this enterprise, including at least one Englishman. Over the 1240s and 50s, European envoys like John de Plano Carpini or William of Rubrucks to the Mongol Empire returned from Karakorum with orders for the Kings and Popes to come to Mongolia and submit in person.While Rus’ and Armenian lords and kings did do so, there is little indication that European rulers even responded to these demands. For the Mongols, who seemed poised to dominate everything under the Eternal Blue Sky, there was little reason to adopt more conciliatory language. From their point of view, the Europeans were only stalling the inevitable: soon Mongol hoofbeats would certainly be heard in Paris and Rome. The Mongols treated the European states as their diplomatic inferiors, subjects basically in a state of rebellion by fact that they had not already submitted. Cruel, threatening and demanding letters were the norm, and it’s safe to say any future efforts at alliance were greatly hampered by this opening salvo.

The rare diplomatic exception was an embassy sent to King Louis IX of France during his stay in Cyprus in 1248 just before the 7th Crusade. There, messengers came from the Mongol commander in the west, Eljigidei, an ally to the reigning Great Khan, Guyuk. Headed by two Christians in Eljigidei’s service, the embassy bore letters from Eljigidei. These letters called Louis ‘son,’ and had no demand of submission, but mentioned Mongol favouritism to Christians, urged the French King not to discriminate between Latin and non-Latin Christians as all were equal under Mongol law, and wished him well in his crusade. The two Christian representatives of Eljigidei asserted that he was a Christian and that Guyuk himself had already been baptised. The urged Louis to attack Egypt, and prevent its Ayyubid prince from sending forces to aid the Caliph in Baghdad, who the Mongols were soon to attack. 


 Louis, is should be noted, almost certainly had not been anticipating any cooperation from the Mongols; he had  been well aware of their attacks on Hungary only a few years before, learned of Mongol demands and treatment of foreign powers from travellers like Carpini, and apparently received Mongol ultimatums for his submission in 1247. Further, a devout Christian, it is unlikely he would have gone looking for allies among “pagans,” even for fighting against Muslims. Still, he reacted well to Eljigidei’s messengers and sent a return embassy with gifts with them back to Eljigidei which were to be sent on to Guyuk, while the initial letter was forwarded back to France and ultimately to King Henry III of England. Ultimately, it was for naught. Guyuk was dead even before Louis received Eljigidei’s letter, and  Eljigidei himself was soon put to death in the following political turmoil. Little is known of the embassy Louis sent back with Eljigdei’s representatives, but from the little heard of it through William of Rubruck a few years later, it seems to have achieved nothing beyond meeting Guyuk’s widow and the regent, Oghul Qaimish, who portrayed Louis’ gifts as tokens of the French King’s submission.  Following the meeting on Cypress, Louis IX suffered a humiliating defeat in Egypt at Mansura, captured and was ransomed by the newly emerging Mamluks. By the time he returned to France and received Oghul Qaimish’s reply, not only was she dead, but the responding letter was essentially another demand for his surrender. This first non-threatening Mongol embassy succeeded only in making the King of France feel like he had been tricked, especially since the new Great Khan, Mongke, sent a letter back with William of  Rubruck that disavowed Eljigidei’s embassy. It has been speculated that Eljigidei was using the embassy to spy on Louis, as he was wary of the sudden arrival of Louis’ army in Cyprus, and a desire to find out his military intentions, rather than any genuine interest in cooperation at this point.  His hope may have been to ensure that this new army attacked Mongol enemies, rather than get in the way of the Mongols.


    The halting of the Mongol advance at Ayn Jalut by the Mamluks, and fracturing of the Empire into independent Khanates after Great Khan Mongke’s death left the new Ilkhanate in a precarious position. Surrounded by enemies on all sides, the only direction they could expand not at the expense of fellow Mongols was against the Mamluks, who fortified their shared border with the Ilkhans. Even a small raid could trigger the arrival of the full Mamluk army, a dangerous prospect against such deadly warriors. Yet the Ilkhans could not bring their full might to bear on the shared border with the Mamluks in Syria, as it would leave their other borders open to attacks from the Golden Horde, Chagatais or Neguderis, in addition to the trouble of provisioning an army in the tough, hot and dry conditions of the Levantine coastline, a route the Mamluks secured and fortified. Opening a new front against the Mamluks was necessary, and there were already convenient beachheads established  in the form of the remaining Crusader States.


A shadow of their former selves, the Crusader states were represented by a few major coastal holdings like Antioch, Tripoli, and Acre, and inland fortifications like Krak de Chevaliers and Montfort, as well as the Kingdom of Cyprus, whose ruler, Hugh III of Cyprus, took the title King of Jerusalem in 1268. The Crusader States had shown neutrality to the Mongols, or even joined them such as the County of Tripoli did in 1260 after the Mongols entered Syria. In early 1260, the papal legate at Acre sent an embassy to Hulegu, most likely to discourage him from attacking the Crusader holdings. Along with information from the Kings of Armenian Cilicia, their most important regional vassals, the Mongols would have had a vague knowledge of western Europe and their crusading history. The Ilkhanate’s founder, Hulegu, sent the first letter to the west in 1262, intended once more for King Louis IX, though this embassy was turned back in Sicily. This letter was friendlier terms than most Mongol missives, but still contained threats, if rather subdued. Pope Urban IV may have learned of the attempt, and the next year sent a letter to Hulegu, apparently having been told that the Il-Khan had become a Christian.  Delighted at the idea, the Pope informed Hulegu that if he was baptised, he would receive aid from the west. In reality, Hulegu never converted to Christianity, and died in 1265 without sending any more letters.


    His son and successor, Abaqa, was the Il-Khan most dedicated to establishing a Franco-Mongol alliance and came the closest to doing so. Due to conflict on his distant  borders with the Golden Horde and Chagatayids, as well as the troubles of consolidating power as new monarch in a new realm, for the 1260s he was unable to commit forces to the Mamluk frontier. As a good Mongol, Abaqa was unwilling to allow the enemy total respite, and made it his mission to encourage an attack from the west on the Mamluks. His first embassy was sent in 1266, shortly after becoming Il-Khan, contacting the Byzantines, Pope Clement IV and King James I of Aragon, hoping for a united Christian front to combine efforts with the Mongols against the Mamluks, inquiring which route into Palestine the Christian forces would take. The responses were generally positive, Pope Clement replying that as soon as he knew which route, he would inform Abaqa.


    Abaqa sent a message again in 1268, inquiring about this progress. James of Aragon found himself the most motivated by the Il-Khans requests, encouraged by the promises of Abaqa’s logistical and military support once they reached the mainland. James made his preparations, and launched a fleet in September 1269. An unexpected storm scattered the fleet, and only two of James’ bastard children made it to Acre, who stayed only briefly, accomplishing little there. 


    Not long after, King Louis IX set out for Crusade once more, making the inexplicable choice to land in Tunis in 1270. Despite his well planned efforts, the Crusade was an utter disaster, and Louis died of dysentery outside the walls of Tunis in August 1270. Prince Edward of England with his army landed in Tunis shortly before the evacuation of the crusaders, and disgusted by what he saw, set his fleet for the Holy Land, landing at Acre in May 1271, joined by Hugh of Lusignan, King of Cyprus.  Edward’s timing was good, as Abaqa had returned from a great victory over the Chagatai Khan Baraq at Herat in July 1270, though had suffered a major hunting accident that November.


    The Mamluk Sultan Baybars was campaigning in Syria in spring 1271, the famous Krak des Chevaliers falling to him that April. Tripoli would have fallen next, had Baybars not retreated back to Damascus hearing of the sudden arrival of a Crusader fleet, and was wary of being caught between European heavy cavalry and Mongol horse archers. Soon after landing Edward made his preparations for an offensive, and reached out to Abaqa. Abaqa was delighted, and sent a reply and orders for Samaghar, the Mongol commander in Anatolia, to head to Syria. Edward did not wait for Abaqa’s reply, and there is no indication he ever responded to Abaqa’s letter. He set out in mid-July, ensuring his army suffered the most from the summer heat, while missing the Mongols who preferred to campaign in the winter. Suffering high casualties and accomplishing little, he withdrew back to Acre. In mid-October Samaghar arrived with his army, raiding as far as to the west of Aleppo while an elite force of Mongols scouted ahead, routing a large group of Turkmen between Antioch and Harim, but was soon forced to retreat with the advance of the Mamluk army under Baybars.


    Missing Samagahr by only a few weeks, in November Edward marched south from Acre at the head of a column of men from England, Acre, Cyprus, with Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights. They ambushed some Turkmen on the Sharon plain, forced the local Mamluk governor to withdraw, but with the arrival of large Mamluk reinforcements the Crusaders fled, losing their prisoners and booty.  That was the closest the Mongols and the Franks came to proper coordination. Edward helped oversee a peace treaty between the Mamluks and the Kingdom of Jersualem, but the heat, difficulties campaigning, political infighting and an assassination attempt on his life permanently turned him off of crusading. By September 1272, Edward set sail for England. A  few weeks after his departure the Mongols again invaded, besieging al-Bira but were defeated by the Mamluks in December. 


    Edward’s brief effort in Syria demonstrated the difficulties prefacing any Mongol-Frankish cooperation. The Mamluks were a cohesive, unified force, well accustomed to the environment and working from a well supplied logistic system and intelligence network, while the Franks and Mongols were unable to ever develop a proper timetable for operations together. The European arrivals generally had unrealistic goals for their campaigns, bringing neither the men, resources or experience to make an impact.


    Abaqa continued  to organize further efforts, and found many willing ears at the Second Council of Lyons in France in 1274, a meeting of the great powers of Christendom intended to settle doctrinal issues, the division of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and plan the reconquest of the Holy land. Abaqa’s delegation informed the Council that the Il-Khan had secured his borders, that peace had been achieved between all the Mongols Khanates, and he could now bring his full might against the Mamluks, and urged the Christian powers to do likewise. The current Pope, Gregory X, fully supported this and made efforts to set things in motion, but his death in 1276 killed whatever momentum this process had had. Abaqa sent another round of envoys, who reached the King of France and the new King of England, Edward. The envoys brought the Il-khan’s apologies for failing to cooperate properly during Edward’s crusade, and asked him to return. Edward politely declined. This was the final set of envoys Abaqa sent west. Perhaps frustrated, he finally organized a proper invasion of Syria, only an army under his brother Mongke-Temur to be defeated by the Mamluks at Homs, and Abaqa himself dying soon after in 1282. His successors were to find no more luck that he had. 


    The most interesting envoy to bring the tidings of the Il-Khan to Europe did not originate in the Ilkhanate, but in China: Rabban Bar Sawma, born in 1220 in what is now modern day Beijing, was a Turkic Nestorian priest who had set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before being conscripted to act as a messenger for the Il-Khan, in a journey which is a fascinating contrast to that of his contemporary Marco Polo. Even given him his own dedicated episode in this podcast series, but we’ll give here a brief recount of his journey. Writing his accounts down upon his return to Baghdad later in life, he described how he brought messages and gifts to the Byzantine Emperor Andronicos II Palaiologus, marvelled at the Hagia Sophia, then landed in Sicily and made his way to Rome, having just missed the death of Pope Honorius IV. Travelling on to France, he was warmly welcomed by King Phillip IV, and then on to Gascony where he met the campaigning King Edward of England, who again responded kindly to the Il-khan’s envoy.  On his return journey, he met the new Pope Nicholas IV in 1288 before returning to the Ilkhanate. 


Despite the generous receptions Rabban Sauma was given by the heads of Europe, and despite the Il-khan’s promises to return Jerusalem to Christian hands, the reality was there was no ruler in the west interested, or capable of, going on Crusade. By now, the act of Crusading in the Holy land had lost its lustre, the final crusades almost all disasters, and costly ones at that. With the final Crusader strongholds falling to the Mamluks in the early 1290s, there was no longer even a proper beachhead on the coast for a Crusading army. The sheer distance and cost of going on Crusade, especially with numerous ongoing issues in their own Kingdoms at hand, outweighed whatever perceived benefit there might have been in doing so. Further, while Rabban Sauma personally could be well received, the Mongols themselves remained uncertain allies. From 1285 through to 1288, Golden Horde attacks on eastern Europe had recommenced in force. Even the new Khan of the Golden Horde, Tele-Buqa, had led an army into Poland. For the Europeans, the distinctions between the Mongol Khanates were hard to register; how could messages of peace from some Mongols be matched with the open war other Mongols were undertaking? All evidence seems to suggest that the western Franks did not understand that the Golden Horde and Ilkhanate were separate political entities. Recall earlier the conflicting letters Louis IX had received in the 1240s, where one Mongol general offered friendship, only to be tricked in seemingly submitting to the Mongols and then receive letters in the 1250s telling him to discount the previous envoys. Together these encouraged unease over perceiving the Mongols as allies, and served to further dampen interest to pursue these alliances.


    In contrast, the Mamluks had somewhat greater success in their own overseas diplomacy: in the 1260s Baybars initiated contact with the Golden Horde, ruled by the Muslim Berke Khan, encouraging him to keep up his warfare with his Ilkhanid cousins. Sultan Baybars also kept good relations with the Byzantine Empire and the Genoese, allowing him to keep the flow of Turkic slave soldiers from the steppes of the Golden Horde open, the keystone of the Mamluk military. There is also evidence they undertook some limited diplomacy with Qaidu Khan during the height of his rule over Central Asia and the Chagatayids. While the Mamluks and Golden Horde never undertook any true military cooperation, the continuation of their talks kept the Ilkhanate wary of enemies on all borders, never truly able to bring the entirety of its considerable might against one foe least another strike the Il-Khan’s exposed frontiers. But, did the Golden Horde, in the 1260s, perceive this as an alliance? We only have Mamluk accounts of the relationship, but scholarship often supposes that the Golden Horde Khans perceived this as the submission of the Mamluks, and any cooperation was the cooperation between overlord and subject. As many of the Mamluk ruling class were Qipchaqs, so the Mongols had come to see as their natural slaves, it may well be that Berke saw the submission of the Mamluks as a natural part of their relationship, especially since he already ruled the Qipchaq homeland. This alliance, alongside never resulting in direct cooperation, was also never always amicable. When the Jochid Khans grew annoyed with the Mamluks, they would halt the trade of Qipchaq slaves and threaten to deprive the Mamluks of their greatest source of warriors. During the long reign of Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, a daughter of the Golden Horde Khan Ozbeg was wed to him, in an effort to cement the relationship after a rocky start to the 1300s. Al-Nasir soon accused her of not actually being a Chinggisid, insulting her and infuriating Ozbeg. Yet the relationship survived until the invasions of Emir Temur at the close of the fourteenth century, when the Mamluks and Golden Horde once again took part in a doomed west-Asian effort to ally against Temur.


    Ilkhanid-European contacts continued into the 14th century, but with somewhat less regularity after Rabban bar Sawma’s journey. An archbishopric was even founded in the new Ilkhanid capital of Sultaniyya in 1318, and Papal envoys would travel through the Ilkhanate to the Yuan Dynasty in China until the 1330s. A few envoys came from the Il-Khans still hoping to achieve military cooperation; Ghazan Il-Khan continued to send them before his invasions, including the only one that actually defeated the Mamluk army and led to a brief Mongol advance down the coast, occupying Damascus. News of Ghazan’s successes did spread rapidly, for the Spanish Franciscan Ramon Llull learned of it and promptly sailed all the way across the Mediterranean, hoping to be among the first missionaries to land in the newly reclaimed Holy Land. But upon arriving in Cypress, Llull learned of Ghazan’s equally quick withdrawal. The combined news of a Mongol victory followed by sudden Mongol withdrawal must have only affirmed the opinion of many of the futility of taking part in any more crusades with the Mongols.  Military operations against the Mamluks mostly ceased after Ghazan’s death, until a formal peace was achieved between them and the Ilkhanate at the start of the 1320s. Naturally, no further messages for alliances with the powers of Europe were forth coming, and consequently putting an almost total end to European interest and contacts with the Middle East for the next five centuries. European-Mongol relations would continue for some time longer in the territory of the Golden Horde, where the attention of our podcast moves next, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast for more. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us continue bringing you great content, then consider supporting us on Patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.