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A General History of the Middle East


1212 to 1405

This chapter covers the following topics:

The Fifth Crusade
Vanguard of Genghis Khan
The Sixth and Seventh Crusades
The Mameluke Coup
Hulegu's Expedition
Baybars the Ruthless
The End of the Crusades
Zenith of the Mamelukes
The Ilkhans of Persia
The Origin of the Ottoman Turks
Murad I
Bayezid the Thunderbolt
The Last Fury of the Steppes
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The Fifth Crusade

In 1212 a dreadful thing happened, the so-called Children's Crusade. The crusading fever that no longer infected most adults spread to the children of Europe. A French peasant boy, Stephen of Vendome, recruited thousands of boys and girls, many of them under the age of 12, and led them to Marseilles. There they secured passage for the Holy Land, hoping to succeed where their elders had failed so dismally. Once on the ships, however, unscrupulous skippers took them to Egypt and sold them into slavery. Another group of thousands of German children, led by a boy preacher named Nicholas, went to Italy; many of them died of hunger or disease, or simply got lost.

Pope Innocent III had a lot to say about this strange business. "The very children put us to shame," he said, and began whipping up enthusiasm for a Fifth Crusade. This time the Crusaders sailed to Egypt, not to conquer it permanently but to swap it for Jerusalem.

The Crusade's most important participant, Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire (1212-50), sat it out entirely. At first people expected him to lead it, because he had promised Innocent he would go in return for papal support in his election as emperor. However, when the Crusaders started gathering he asked the next pope, Honorius III, to excuse him so he could settle affairs in Germany; the expedition left without him.

The fleet left the Netherlands in May 1218, under the leadership of John of Brienne. In August they landed in Egypt and began besieging the port of Damietta (modern Dumyat). French reinforcements arrived in September with the papal legate, Cardinal Pelagius. Since Pelagius regarded all Crusaders as under the authority of the Church, he refused to accept John's leadership and interfered in military matters, which caused more than a little trouble.

By February 1219 the Egyptians were seriously alarmed and offered peace terms that included giving up Jerusalem. John of Brienne was eager to accept, but Pelagius refused. They finally took Damietta in November 1219. After that they made no progress for over a year, though the cardinal remained optimistic. He was expecting Frederick II to show up eventually, and believed rumors that Prester John, a mythical Christian "King David," was coming from the Far East with a vast army (actually there was an army heading westward to attack the Moslems, but it belonged to Genghis Khan!). In July 1221 he ordered an advance on Cairo, but the summer flooding of the Nile forced him back again. Finally he agreed to an eight-year truce and an exchange of prisoners, terms far less favorable than those he had previously rejected. The pieces of the True Cross in Jerusalem were handed over to the Crusaders as a sort of consolation prize.

The Fifth Crusade was an impressive effort that came close to success, only to fail because of divided leadership and the unwise decisions of Pelagius. Overall, it was a dreary episode, except for the fact that St. Francis of Assisi came with the Crusaders, on an evangelizing "crusade" of his own. Francis persuaded many Crusaders to become Franciscan monks, and because he was widely respected by both sides, he crossed battle lines and had a friendly meeting with Egypt's sultan, al-Kamil (1218-38). Afterwards, the sultan actually gave written permission to Francis and his followers, to freely preach the Gospel in Moslem lands.

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Vanguard of Genghis Khan

In Central Asia, a new Turkish dynasty arose out of the chaos that followed the Seljuk Sultanate of Merv. The Anushtiginids had been governors of a province named Khwarizm, near the mouth of the Amu Darya (Oxus River), since 1077. Now their current leader, 'Ala-ud-Din Tekish (1172-1200), united the local Turks under his rule and adopted a Persian-style government, creating a state called the Shahdom of Khwarizm. In 1194 it advanced into Iran and conquered the Sultanate of Hamadan, leaving the Sultanate of Rum in Turkey as the last remnant of the Seljuk legacy.

The second Shah of Khwarizm, 'Ala-ud-Din Mohammed II (1200-20), continued the empire's rapid growth by conquering Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. To an outside observer Khwarizm must have looked like the most promising new nation of its time, but it had not yet stabilized. In fact, it went to pieces when Mohammed picked on an opponent his own size.

Shahdom of Khwarism, 1190-1220.

The Shahdom of Khwarizm at its peak, around 1200. From Wikimedia Commons.

The steady rumble of events in medieval Mongolia was too distant for Western ears to hear, and though an occasional grand eruption sent tribes flying across the Eurasian steppe, by the time they found a new homeland they had lost contact with their place of origin, keeping it beyond the reach of Western knowledge. That changed in the early 13th century, when a Mongol chieftain named Temujin fused the warring nomad tribes into an invincible weapon, creating a nation powerful enough to strike at either China or Europe without shifting its center. Temujin began his next project, the conquest of the world beyond Mongolia, by taking the title of Genghis Khan, lord of the earth. By any standards except his own he was a successful man, for he spent the rest of his life in one victorious campaign after another.

In 1215 the Shah of Khwarizm sent a spy to China, to find out its current strengths, see if it was worth invading, and so on. As the spy approached Beijing, he saw what looked like a white mountain. It turned out to be a great pile of human bones, and the ground surrounding it was wet from the grease of decaying corpses. This artificial marsh, and the foul stench it produced, forced the spy to take a wide detour around the "hill," and he went on to find that Beijing, a city that probably was home to a million people, and surrounded by a mighty wall with towers, had been taken and sacked. For the Shah, this was the first warning that something very wrong was happening in the Far East.

Genghis Khan concentrated his attention on northern China and tribes near Mongolia like the Uygurs, until an act of amazing stupidity turned his attention to the west. In 1218 he sent envoys to Khwarizm, offering to trade, and a local governor put them to death with the Shah's approval. Khwarizm, to use a modern expression, decided not to "recognize" Genghis Khan. For Genghis no reply was possible but war. In 1219 he launched a three-pronged attack with 200,000 men. Mohammed reportedly had a larger army, but he did not trust his own troops, and had them strung out along the border in groups too small to start revolts. Genghis Khan had no trouble breaking through this kind of defense, and inflicted a frightful slaughter in Central Asia. The Mongol army pillaged any city that did not surrender, and only spared engineers and artisans (they were recruited). The Shah fled to an island in the Caspian Sea, where he died; his son, Jalal-ud-Din Mangubarti, escaped to India in 1221.

Genghis Khan did not travel farther west than Afghanistan, but he sent two major scouting expeditions to explore beyond. One went into India, in unsuccessful pursuit of Jalal-ud-Din; the other, commanded by the two best Mongol generals, Jebe Noyon and Subotai, first chased Mohammed II, then continued in a vast loop around the Caspian. In western Iran the second expedition sacked the cities of Rai, Qom and Hamadan, sparing only Tabriz because it paid up when the Mongols demanded tribute. Then they beat up the Georgians, ravaging the southern half of their country, but being in a hurry, they skipped Tbilisi. Passing through the Caucasus, they inflicted a series of crushing defeats on the Alans, Kipchaks, and finally the Russians near the Sea of Azov. The expedition returned to Mongolia in 1223, by following the Caspian's northern shore.

In the unconquered Iranian portion of the Shahdom, Jalal-ud-Din returned and rapidly revived Khwarizmenian rule (1224), and while he could not challenge the Mongols he partly made up for his father's losses by seizing Azerbaijan and most of Georgia. However, he inherited his father's inability to get along with other Moslem rulers. When he took an Ayyubid fortress in Greater Armenia, the Seljuks and Ayyubids combined to stop him, and he fell back defeated into the jaws of the Mongolian dragon.

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The Sixth Crusade

The Sixth Crusade was the strangest Crusade of all, in view of what caused it and how it got results. The cause was European politics: Frederick II had evaded his vow to go on a Crusade. The idea of crusading probably bored him, since he got along well with Moslems and had some very modern ideas concerning the relationship between church and state. For over a decade he spent his time reorganizing the government of Sicily, his favorite province, though he had hinted before he became emperor that he would give up this territory. Pope Honorius did everything he could think of to get Frederick moving; he did not want anyone besides himself ruling Italy. Frederick finally packed his bags when he married Isabella, heiress to the kingdom of Jerusalem. In September 1227 he sailed from Italy to claim his prize.

Old Honorius did not live to see the Crusade; if he had, the outcome would have surely killed him. Frederick fell ill and returned only three days after he departed. But the new pope, Gregory IX, was less forgiving than his predecessors. He excommunicated Frederick, proclaimed a crusade against him, and sent troops into his Italian territories. That persuaded the emperor to sail to the Holy Land. He went as a Crusader under the ban of the Church, protected by Moslem bodyguards, leading a Christian army on a mission of holy war.

The Crusade paused briefly at Cyprus, then continued east, arriving at Acre in September 1228. Yet word of his excommunication had gotten there first, and most of the Crusaders refused to support him. That left Frederick with only the 1,000 German knights he had brought with him. Consequently he chose to negotiate with his opponent, al-Kamil of Egypt. The emperor and the sultan both preferred talking to fighting, and it turned out they had much in common. They compared literature, discussed the pope, and debated what to do about the Mongols, who were a threat to everybody. Finally they signed a ten-year treaty, which gave the Crusaders Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and a road to the coast. They made an exception for the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, which remained under Moslem control. Both agreed this would prevent any more pin-pricking Crusades for the time being.

Fundamentalists on both sides denounced the treaty. There was something unnatural about a Crusade without bloodshed or loot, and Westerners wondered about a supposedly Christian emperor sharing sherbet and chatting in Arabic with an enemy of Christianity. A ludicrous scene followed when Frederick, still under excommunication, crowned himself king of Jerusalem. Jerusalem's Catholic patriarch locked up the holy places and ordered all clergy out of the city when Frederick arrived. Frederick had to settle for a purely secular coronation, taking the crown from the altar with his own hand while one of his knights read the ceremony. Then he hastily returned to Europe and persuaded the pope to revoke the excommunication.

The Seventh Crusade

The treaty expired in 1239, and hostilities were promptly renewed. Five years later a Khwarizmenian army in Egyptian pay captured and sacked Jerusalem. In 1245 the saintly King Louis IX of France volunteered to lead a Crusade to regain Jerusalem, and Pope Innocent IV gave it his support.

Both pious and brave, Louis was the ideal Crusader. He was beloved by the French and respected by everyone else. He believed the Crusade was truly God's work, and disapproved of the pope's use of Crusade propaganda against the agnostic Frederick II.

Louis was not ready to go until 1248. He had to make peace with England, raise funds, and find enough ships to transport his men. As it turned out, it was the best prepared and most expensive of all the Crusades. Leaving Marseilles in August, he arrived in Cyprus a month later but waited until May 1249 to attack Egypt, since a winter campaign was not feasible. Fortune did favor him at first though, and he quickly captured Damietta. The Crusaders then tried to advance and take Cairo in February 1250, but they only got as far as the delta town of al-Mansurah before scurvy, dysentery, and the Egyptian army stopped them. Louis tried to retreat, but was captured with most of his forces. The French queen, Margaret, left at Damietta in an advanced state of pregnancy, surrendered Damietta and began negotiating a ransom to pay for her husband's release.

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The Mameluke Coup

Before Louis IX regained his freedom, his captor was overthrown. The Ayyubids, like other Moslem rulers, used Turkish slaves, known as Mamelukes, for their personal bodyguards. It started in the previous century when Saladin disbanded the African infantry he inherited from the Fatimids, replacing them with 500 Kipchak Turks from the Ukraine. As in Abbasid and Fatimid days, the guards were first useful, then indispensable, and finally they dominated their supposed masters. Foremost among them was the sultan's elite corps, known as Bahris because their garrison was on an island in the Nile River, Bahr al-Nil, just outside Cairo.

It was the Bahris who won the Seventh Crusade and captured King Louis. In a letter written shortly before his death in November 1249, Sultan as-Salih Ayyub encouraged his son and successor, Turanshah, to treat the Bahris well: "I strongly recommend them to you. I owe them everything." Yet Turanshah had his own slaves, black Sudanese soldiers as well as Turks. He started appointing them to key posts, ignoring the resentment this caused among the Bahris. When he was warned that this might lead to rebellion, he reportedly drew his saber and began chopping the tops off candles, shouting, "So shall I deal with the Bahris!"

They struck first. On May 2, 1250, a group of Bahris, led by an officer named Baybars, burst into the sultan's tent and tried to cut him down. Turanshah escaped, but they pursued him to a wooden tower by the Nile, forced him out by fire, and killed him. The Bahri commander, Aqtay, cut out his heart and took it, dripping, to the captive French king. "What will you give me now that I have killed your enemy?" he demanded. "Had he lived, you can be sure he would have killed you." Louis maintained a dignified silence, and was released five days later.

The next four years were chaotic ones for Egypt's empire. Shajar al-Durr, as-Salih's widow, proclaimed herself sultana and married a non-Bahri Mameluke named Aybak, to check the power of the Bahris; she also had the support of the Egyptian people. The Ayyubid princes of Syria refused to recognize the authority of either a woman or an ex-slave, and declared independence. The Bedouin tribes of Upper Egypt likewise revolted. At home the streets of Cairo were terrorized by the Bahris, who created disorder, robbed citizens, and even raided the women's public baths. Many thought Cairo would be better off under the Franks than these rowdies.

All this time Louis IX stayed in Egypt. He felt personally responsible for the failure of the Crusade, and duty-bound to gain the release of as many of his countrymen as possible. He finally went home in 1254.

In the same year Aybak killed Aqtay and forced most of the Bahris, including Baybars, to flee to Syria. He was now the undisputed master of Egypt, but he did not enjoy his throne for long. In 1257 Shajar al-Durr suspected that he was going to replace her as chief wife, and had him strangled in his bath; Aybak's concubines retaliated by beating her to death with their slippers. The throne at first passed to Aybak's son, then in November 1259 it was seized by Qutuz, another Mameluke officer. Qutuz took over just in time, because the Mongols were on the warpath again.

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Hulegu's Expedition

For a generation Genghis Khan's successors were more interested in conquering Russia and China than the Middle East. During this time their Middle Eastern campaigns were a series of small steps, using armies that numbered no more than 30,000 men. The first step, the conquest of Iran and the elimination of Khwarizm, took place in 1231. Jalal-ud-Din followed his father's example, running away until a Kurdish peasant killed him in the mountains of northern Iraq. Georgia was conquered in 1239, and the Seljuks were defeated and forced into servitude in 1243.(1)

When Mongke (Mangu) Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson, inherited the empire in 1251, his primary goal was the completion of the conquest of China and the Middle East. He personally directed the campaign against the former, while his brother Hulegu was placed in charge of the latter. Preparations got underway, and Hulegu was finally ready in 1256.

The first objective was the destruction of the Assassins; those characters were so nasty that even the Mongols did not want them for neighbors! They besieged Alamut, and the citadel that had resisted the Seljuk Turks for more than a century was child's play for Hulegu. He exterminated every Assassin he could get his hands on, leaving only a remnant that lingered in Syria until the Mamelukes got rid of them in 1273.(2)

Hulegu next marched into Azerbaijan, establishing his headquarters there; either Tabriz or a nearby city would serve as the Mongol capital for the rest of the time they were in the Middle East. In 1258 the campaign reached its terrible climax when the Mongols marched into Iraq. Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate, and Iraq's 4,000+ year old irrigation system were utterly destroyed. Estimates of the death toll range from just over 200,000 (Hulegu's casualty count) to two million. The damage to the countryside was so severe that Iraq has not completely recovered in the seven hundred years since.

Among the dead was Al-Musta'sim, the last Abbasid caliph. He surrendered, and for a while Hulegu dined with him, discussed theology, and generally pretended to be the caliph's guest. When he got tired of playing around, he locked the caliph in a room filled with treasure, brought him gold on a tray, and told him to eat; the caliph protested that he could not eat gold. Then Hulegu asked the caliph, if he could not eat his wealth, why did he hoard it, instead of spending it to strengthen his army, or why did he not at least melt down the iron doors of the palace, to make arrows to keep the Mongols out of Baghdad? The caliph's only response was, "That was the will of God." To that Hulegu said, "What will happen to you is the will of God, also," and he had the caliph executed. However, the stories disagree on how the Mongols did it. The most credible account states that they wrapped the caliph in a carpet and trampled him to death with horses. This agrees with Mongol custom; they had a taboo against killing royalty in any way that involved the shedding of blood. The caliph probably did not appreciate the last compliment, though.

The fall of Baghdad was the worst defeat in Islamic history, but Hulegu was not only destructive. His wife Dokuz, and his chief general, Kitbugha, were both Christians, and they encouraged him to tolerate Christianity, sparing the Christians of the cities he captured while massacring the Moslems. For a while it looked like the Crusaders and Mongols would unite and destroy Islam. Europeans dreamed of converting the Great Khan to Christianity, and sent missionaries to Mongolia for that purpose, but without success. King Hethum I of Lesser Armenia and Bohemond VI of Antioch-Tripoli sent troops to join the Mongols. The Crusaders of Acre, however, cast their lot with the Mamelukes; they decided they were safer with the known devil of Islam than with the little-known and terrifying Mongols.

Hulegu's steamroller now rumbled into Syria, removing the local Ayyubid princes effortlessly. The Mamelukes were now Islam's last hope. Qutuz and the Bahris put aside their quarrel and prepared for the showdown. News from the Far East saved them; Mongke Khan had died there in 1259, and his brothers Kublai and Arik-Boge were now fighting for the throne. Hulegu headed east to support Kublai, taking most of the army with him. He left 10-20,000 men with Kitbugha. This gave the Mamelukes a 10:1 numerical advantage, but even that did not seem enough when measured against the fearsome Mongol reputation.

Qutuz rode out of Cairo on July 25, 1260; Baybars joined him at Gaza. They marched to Acre, where the Crusaders granted them free passage and provisions. When they learned that Kitbugha was camped in Galilee, at a place called Ayn Jalut, they desperately attacked with everything they had; there the fate of the Middle East was decided.

Ayn Jalut was an overwhelming victory for the Mamelukes; Kitbugha was killed there, along with most of his troops. The world now knew that the supposedly invincible Mongols could be beaten--at least when their forces were seriously depleted. The Euphrates became the boundary between Mongol and Mameluke, and while the Mongols often raided Syria, they never occupied it for long.

The same year (1260) saw the breakup of the Mongol Empire. Kublai was generally acknowledged as ruler over the whole thing, but he could only directly control the Far Eastern part of his realm: Mongolia, China, and Korea. Kublai's cousins got Russia and Central Asia, while Hulegu and his successors (known as the Ilkhans after this) inherited the Middle Eastern provinces. The four sub-empires were not as formidable as Genghis Khan's original creation, but each was still strong enough to deal with any non-Mongol opponent. They forgot their kinship remarkably quickly; already in 1261 a border war broke out between Hulegu and his Russian counterpart, Berke Khan of the Golden Horde. The Mongols in Russia had already become Moslems, and Berke was appalled at what Hulegu had done to Islam. The Mamelukes took advantage of this situation by allying themselves with the Golden Horde; not only did this keep the Ilkhans in their place, but it also kept open the trade route between Russia and Egypt, which was important because the Russian steppe was the source of the soldier-slaves on which the Egyptian regime depended.

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Baybars the Ruthless

Qutuz did not enjoy his victory for long. After the battle, Baybars asked to be made governor of a Levantine province, and Qutuz turned him down. On October 23, while they encamped near Gaza, a conspiracy led by Baybars attacked and killed Qutuz. An argument followed over who should rule next, until an emir came up with a simple, barbaric, solution: "He who kills the ruler should himself be ruler."

Baybars was a man of ferocious energy, with none of the scruples or chivalry that made Saladin admired by all. Among the Mamelukes, all he needed to keep his throne was to be stronger than any of his rivals, but he looked for ways to make his position legitimate in the eyes of all his citizens. The shrewdest idea that he came up with was to revive the Abbasid Caliphate. He looked for and found a man who claimed to be an uncle of the last caliph, brought him to Cairo, and had his name mentioned in public prayers and stamped on coins. Unfortunately, this caliph was unwilling to be the sultan's puppet, so Baybars sent him on a deliberately underequipped expedition to retake Baghdad. After the Mongols predictably slaughtered the caliph and his followers, Baybars installed a new caliph who also claimed Abbasid kinship, but this time he placed him under house arrest, bringing him out only on ceremonial occasions.

Baybars also had problems with his spiritual guide, Sheikh Khadir al-Mihrani. A professed Sufi, he had fled his native Iraq to evade a noble who wished to castrate him for sleeping with his daughter. In Aleppo he made more romantic conquests, aroused the wrath of their male relatives, and hastily moved to Damascus, where Baybars, then still an emir, fell under his influence. After Baybars became sultan, Khadir became a national embarrassment, who diverted money intended for the sultan into his own pockets. In 1263 a group of nobles put him on trial, charging him with embezzlement, fornication, and sodomy. Found guilty, he escaped a death sentence by predicting that the sultan's death would come shortly after his own, and the nervous judges commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.

Between these events, his diplomacy and his foreign wars, Baybars found time to reorganize the army and navy, strengthen forts, dig canals, and improve major harbors. His two capitals, Cairo and Damascus, were linked by a pony express-type system that carried mail between them in four days, and urgent messages got there even more quickly by carrier pigeon.

Early in his reign, the exiled Seljuk sultan of Rum asked Baybars to march into Turkey and liberate his realm from the Mongols. Baybars, however, was too busy to take up the challenge until the spring of 1277. He handily defeated the first Mongol army he met, swung west, occupied Caesarea (modern Kayseri), and had himself crowned sultan of Rum. However, the second army sent by the Ilkhan was larger than anything he could handle, and he felt compelled to retreat to Damascus. That June he fell ill after taking kumiss, fermented mare's milk--one account says it was a poisoned drink he had intended for someone else--and died thirteen days later.

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The End of the Crusades

When the Mamelukes were camping at Acre in 1260, Baybars noted the weakness of the Frankish stronghold and suggested to Qutuz that they capture it before tackling the Mongols. Qutuz, however, was thankful for the help of the Crusaders and dismissed the idea. Baybars had to wait until he became sultan and the Mongol threat faded away before he could carry out his plan. Although he did not live to see the end of Outremer, he managed to reduce it to a few coastal outposts.

The offensive began in 1265 with the taking of Caesarea, Haifa, and Arsuf. The following year saw Mameluke armies in Galilee and Lesser Armenia. Baybars' greatest and most brutal victory was the capture of Antioch in 1268. Most of the city's population was massacred, while the rest were enslaved--so many that the bottom nearly dropped out of the slave market. The great Hospitaller castle of Krak des Chevaliers fell in 1271.

These disasters prompted Louis IX to come to the rescue. This venture, the Eighth Crusade, never even reached the Middle East. For political reasons that are obscure to us, the king's brother, Charles of Anjou, persuaded him to go to North Africa first. They landed at Tunis in the summer of 1270, but before they could go any farther, disease struck the troops and killed Louis. Charles arrived with a Sicilian fleet just in time to evacuate the survivors.

England's Prince Edward arrived in North Africa in 1271 with reinforcements, but found no Crusader army waiting for him. He sailed on to Acre with intentions of continuing the Crusade where Louis left off, but his plans were cut short when Baybars sent an Assassin to stab him with a poisoned dagger. The prince spent several months recuperating from his wound and then went home to become king of England.

Although Europe was aware of the deteriorating situation, it sent little aid to the Crusaders after this. The Mongols even sent embassies to the West, offering to help in a joint campaign against Islam, but got no response. The reason was that the solidarity that had produced the First Crusade no longer existed. The Genoese-Venetian rivalry spread to the Italians in Acre, and the disputes that would soon cause the Hundred Years War made sure that there would be no more English-French cooperation. Finally, Crusading had become too expensive, and Europe was beginning to experience a population decline and economic depression that would keep Europeans at home throughout the fourteenth century.

The next important sultan after Baybars, Qalawun, exploited the differences between Venice and Genoa to capture Tripoli in 1289. Acre, the last Crusader stronghold on the mainland, fell after a bloody six-week siege in 1291. That left only Cyprus to the Crusaders. The Hospitallers moved to Rhodes, and were simply known as the Knights of St. John after this. In 1344 they took the Aegean port of Smyrna, giving them a foothold on the mainland.

The Templars were not so lucky; they were no longer needed, now that Christendom no longer had anything in the Holy Land for them to guard. However, they were filthy rich, and that made others envious of their wealth. In 1307 the French king, Philip IV, was low on money, and he solved that problem by arresting Jacques de Molay, the grand master of the order in France, on charges of blasphemy and Satanism. Molay and several other officers in the order were tortured into giving confessions, then burned at the stake. By 1312 Philip, with the help of Pope Clement V and King Edward II of England, had suppressed the order; the property of the Templars was confiscated, and the two kings gave to the Hospitallers what they could not keep for themselves.

What lasting impression did the Crusaders leave on the Middle East, other than a collection of imposing castles? The answer is little that was positive.

In an economic sense, Christianity was affected more than Islam. Europeans discovered that there was a big world beyond their little corner of it, and commerce thrived when they brought home the tastes they developed for spices, Oriental textiles, and other exotic fare. The Italian merchants got so rich off this trade that their banks became indispensable to popes and kings. Moslem leaders believed this was to their advantage, at first. Saladin said as much when he wrote to the Abbasid caliph in 1183: "The Venetians, the Genoese and the Pisans bring into Egypt choice products of the West, especially arms and war materials. This constitutes an advantage for Islam and an injury to Christianity." The Church agreed and threatened to excommunicate Christian merchants who did business with Moslems. This had no effect at all. In later centuries, when the balance of trade swung decisively in favor of Christendom, Moslem authorities came to regard commerce with the West as a threat to their culture. By then, however, they lacked the power to suppress it.

In one major way the Crusades adversely affected Islamic society. Previously the Moslems had been tolerant of Jews and Christians, and left the Dhimmi alone if they paid their taxes. But the brutal treatment Sunni Moslems had suffered at the hands of the Crusaders and Mongols made them suspicious of any non-Sunni, because he might be an enemy agent. The Mameluke era saw regular persecutions of Jews, Christians, Shiites, Ismailis, and Druze for this reason. When the Crusaders first came to the Holy Land, Islam was superior to Christianity in its tolerance and intellectual pursuits. By the time the last Crusaders had been thrown into the sea this was no longer so.(3)

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Zenith of the Mamelukes

The secret of the Mameluke success was that it was not a hereditary dynasty. Nor could it be, really. According to Islamic law, slaves became free men when they converted to Islam, and the children of slaves could not inherit slave status. The Mameluke leaders imported and hand-trained their successors from Russia--usually Kipchaks or Circassians. Sons of Mamelukes were encouraged to pursue military careers, and enjoyed a higher social standing than native Egyptians, but they spoke Arabic rather than Turkish as a first language and were Moslems from birth; consequently, they were not expected to be as capable or zealous as the newly civilized/converted. A few times a sultan's son managed to succeed his father, but he only held the throne until another Mameluke built up enough support to seize it for himself. The real principle of legitimacy was force, and a sultan could only expect to rule if he possessed a stronger army than his rivals. The average reign lasted only five years, and at one point (1412) the situation became so chaotic that an Abbasid caliph was briefly installed as sultan.

This system guaranteed that the monarch would be an able leader, without the gradual degeneration that marks hereditary dynasties. Whereas most countries had to suffer under a system of government that was just as likely to produce bad rulers as good ones, the Mamelukes had a meritocracy--though it was admittedly a meritocracy dominated by the most ruthless.

Two years after Baybars' death the Mamelukes overthrew his son and crowned a senior and respected emir, Qalawun. An old companion of Baybars from Ayyubid days, he was more cautious than Baybars but just as ruthless--and equally unpopular among the Egyptian people (like Baybars, he had been a bully in Cairo in the early 1250s). When he first dared to ride in ceremonial procession through the streets of Cairo, the crowds pelted him with offal.

One year after he came to power, Qalawun marched into Syria to attack Sunqur al-Ashqar, an emir who declared himself the independent ruler of Damascus during the turbulent period between Baybars and Qalawun. Qalawun won the first round, but Sunqur fled north and called for help from the Mongols (Sunqur had a Mongol wife). Abaqa Khan, Hulegu's son, was happy to exploit the Moslem rift, and sent his brother into Syria at the head of 80,000 men (50,000 Mongols, with Armenian, Georgian, Turkish and Frankish auxiliaries). Qalawun waited for them at the city of Homs, and while waiting he persuaded Sunqur to switch sides by promising him land in northern Syria.

The armies that met on October 29, 1281, were roughly equal in size and tactics. When the battle began the right wing of the Mameluke formation successfully pushed back the Mongol left while the Mongol right inflicted a similar defeat on the Mameluke left. The two forces went around each other in a counterclockwise circle, and both sides thought they were losing. Then a Mameluke emir galloped into the Mongol center and announced he was a deserter. Brought before the Mongol commander, he drew his sword and wounded the general before the guards cut him down. Encouraged by this bravery, the Mamelukes launched an all-out attack at this point, and the Mongols lost their nerve. By the end of the day Qalawun was master of the field, and he had scattered the enemy. Nevertheless, it was a costly victory; one chronicler claimed that only 500 of the sultan's horsemen survived (this is probably an exaggeration).

Whatever the casualty count, Qalawun spent the rest of his reign rebuilding his army. Eventually his personal Mameluke corps numbered 12,000--more than that of any sultan before or after him and possibly one third of all military slaves in the realm. This and other reforms made for a terribly expensive military establishment--just the stables, which kept 7,800 horses, cost a fortune to maintain. Qalawun paid for this by raising taxes, and by levying a heavy tribute on King Leo II of Lesser Armenia, an ally of the defeated Mongols.

Qalawun died in 1291, just before his troops took Acre from the Crusaders. The next twenty years saw six sultans. The political philosophy they shared was simple and explained everything they did: "Have him for dinner before he has you for breakfast."

Stability came with al-Nasur Mohammed, a son of Qalawun who ruled for a remarkable thirty years (1310-40). In his days the Mameluke Sultanate reached its peak. Ruling Egypt, Cyrenaica, the entire Levant, western Arabia, and Yemen, it was now the world's most powerful Moslem state. In 1375 Lesser Armenia was conquered and added to this list. At home they developed new techniques in masonry, glasswork and metalworking. The Mamelukes filled Cairo with new mosques, colleges, retreats for Sufi mystics, and free hospitals. Cairo grew to house 500,000 people, replacing Baghdad as the largest city outside China.

When al-Nasur died the violence resumed, this time becoming open warfare between the Kipchak and Circassian factions. As the Mamelukes quarreled among themselves their quality as soldiers declined. They neglected traditional fighting skills, and innovations such as gunpowder did not catch on until all of the neighboring countries had them. Meanwhile, the economy was ruined by Mongol raids in Syria and depopulating plagues. Government mismanagement, Bedouin revolts, and finally competition with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean further impoverished the empire. By 1500 the government's revenue from taxes and commerce was only one fourth of what it had been in 1250.

Despite all these problems, the Mamelukes grimly hung onto power until 1517. What finally overcame them was not internal division but a Moslem rival: the Ottoman Empire.

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The Ilkhans of Persia

For nearly forty years the Mongols in the Middle East remained prejudiced against Islam. As mentioned previously, Hulegu was friendly to Christianity; the Nestorian Church never enjoyed better years than it did under Hulegu and his immediate successors. Hulegu himself favored Buddhism, imported Buddhist monks from Tibet, and built Buddhist pagodas. However, Hulegu's conversion couldn't have been very deep, because the funeral following his death in 1265 featured human sacrifices (it was the only Ilkhanid funeral to do so).

Hulegu's son Abaqa (1265-82) followed in his father's example, patronizing both Christianity and Buddhism. In the year he came to power he married the princess Mary, daughter of Byzantine emperor Michael Paleologus. Like Hulegu, he also claimed to be nothing more than a lieutenant of the great Kublai Khan, though by now that was only a formality.

Abroad, Abaqa was kept busy with foreign wars for most of his reign. In 1266 he ended the border war with the Golden Horde, but in 1269 he had to face an invasion of his eastern territories by Baraq, the Chagatai khan of Central Asia. He drove Baraq back across the Oxus river the following year, and in 1273 he completed his revenge by sacking the Central Asian city of Bukhara. That ended his eastern troubles for a little while, but the Ilkhan-Chagataite border would remain in dispute for the rest of the time that both khanates existed. In 1277 the Mameluke sultan Baybars invaded his Seljuk holdings in Turkey. Abaqa recovered Turkey quickly enough, but as we noted in the previous section, he came to grief when he attempted a counterattack in Syria in 1281. His subsequent death stopped whatever plans he had for a rematch.

Teguder (1282-84), Abaqa's brother and successor, broke with the policy of his house. Although he was baptized as a Nestorian Christian, after they crowned him he declared himself a Moslem, changed his name to Ahmed and sent the Mamelukes offers of peace and alliance. The Buddhist and Christian factions in his court protested to his uncle in China, Kublai Khan, and encouraged Abaqa's son Arghun to revolt. Teguder put down the rebellion, only to be overthrown and killed by a conspiracy of army officers three months later.

Arghun (1284-91) halted the slide toward Islam. He entrusted many civil service jobs to Jews and Christians, especially ones involving financial matters. The most important of these administrators was Sa'd al-Dawla, a Jewish minister who served as finance minister and chief advisor from 1288 to 1291. He succeeded in balancing the books, and went a long way toward turning a purely military government into a civilian administration, starting with serious tax reform.(4) He also caused legal disputes between Moslems to be resolved according to Islamic law and not Mongol custom. Finally he encouraged endowments to schools, scholars, and pious institutions. Nevertheless, Moslems resented him because he was a Jew, and Mongols resented him for taking away their fun and profits. When Arghun became terminally ill the minister's enemies arranged for his fall and execution, depriving the state of a truly great administrator.

Arghun was succeeded by his dissolute brother Gaikhatu (1291-95), who was addicted to wine, women, and sodomy. To replenish a treasury emptied by royal extravagance and a great cattle plague, his minister proposed the introduction of a recent Chinese invention called chao--paper money. Kublai Khan's ambassador in Tabriz showed how the system worked, and the bills produced imitated the Chinese ones so closely that they even had Chinese words printed on them, though they also included the Moslem confession of faith as a sop to local sentiment. The plan was to get the people to use only paper money and concentrate all precious metal in the hands of the government, but it didn't work. Merchants refused to accept it, bazaar riots broke out, commerce stopped dead and the chao had to be withdrawn. Gaikhatu was assassinated shortly after that and succeeded by his cousin Baidu, but after reigning only five months Baidu was in turn overthrown by a son of Arghun, Ghazan.

Ghazan (1295-1304) introduced so many reforms that he became the most important Ilkhanid ruler after Hulegu. He started by prescribing the rates and methods of payment for taxation. In addition he reformed coinage, weights and measures, regulated the activities of Islamic judges, offered incentives to make people cultivate land that had fallen out of use from war or neglect, and tackled the problem of finding a way to pay the army (besides plunder!). Unfortunately Ghazan's hand was not on the tiller for long, and his successors constantly had to restrain officials who tried to slip back into their old habits, using their power as an excuse for committing extortion against the peasantry.

Ghazan's most important change was a personal one. He had gained the throne with the help of Nawruz, a Mongol general who was a Moslem convert, and he showed his thanks by becoming a Moslem in the first year of his reign. This time the conversion was permanent; the rest of the Mongols became Moslems too, and they showed it by wearing the turban. Now that Islam had converted the conquerors, Moslems stopped asking why Allah had allowed the destruction of Baghdad. A brief period of religious zeal followed among the Mongols, who normally tolerated every creed around them. In Tabriz the order went out to destroy churches, synagogues, Zoroastrian fire-temples, and Buddhist pagodas. Buddhist idols and Christian icons were smashed, or tied together and paraded in mockery through the streets of Tabriz. Buddhist monks were forced to embrace Islam or get out of the country. They did not convert Christians and Jews, but required them to wear distinctive forms of dress in public. The venerable patriarch of the Nestorian Church, Mar Yahballaha III, was imprisoned and beaten, and his life was spared only because the empire's most loyal vassal, King Hethum II of lesser Armenia, intervened, persuading the khan to reinstate him instead.

One consequence of Ghazan's conversion was that the Mongols were never driven out of the Middle East--they were absorbed instead. Since the Mongols were always few in number, and practiced a similar culture and religion, they were easily assimilated into the Turkish elite that dominated the Middle East during this age.

Ghazan's successor was his younger brother Uljaitu (1304-16, also spelled Oljeitu). Uljaitu had the unusual distinction of belonging at one time or another to almost every available religion. Presumably a pagan at birth like the other Mongols, he followed Buddhism at one point in his youth and was baptized at another, receiving the Christian name of Nicholas. After he was crowned, he practiced both the Sunni and Shi'a forms of Islam. He continued Ghazan's reformist policies, though with less vigor. The main event of his reign was the moving of his capital from Tabriz to nearby Sultaniyeh. His magnificent domed tomb still stands there today, as evidence that the Mongols could build as well as destroy.

Uljaitu's son Abu Sa'id (1316-35) was only twelve years old when he inherited the throne, but guided by able ministers, he ruled competently. Few details of his reign are available, but we know that he ended the on-and-off raiding between the Mongols and Mamelukes by signing a permanent peace treaty in 1322. Upon his death, however, the empire suddenly disintegrated. Abu Sa'id left no son by any of his many wives, and factions arose to claim the Ilkhan throne by force. However, no one was strong enough to grab and hold the entire realm.

Among the post-Ilkhan factions the most successful was the family of Hasan the Jalayir, a Mongol governor of Turkey. His rivals won the first round and he could only hold onto Iraq, but his son Uwais I (1356-74) prevailed over them all in 1358, uniting Azerbaijan and the western half of Iran with Iraq to form a state known as the Jalayrid Sultanate. Meanwhile the Golden Horde staged border raids across the Caucasus, and Georgia declared independence. A nomadic tribe called the Black Sheep Turks (Qara-Qoyunlu) established itself in Greater Armenia, took Kurdistan from the Jalayrids in 1374, and captured Tabriz. Another tribe, the Artena-Oghlou clan, set up an emirate in ancient Cappadocia.

The eastern half of the Ilkhan empire was divided between three emirs of Persian ancestry. The Muzaffarids, based in Shiraz, got southeastern Iran, while Afghanistan and half of Turkmenistan went to the Karts. In the rest of Turkmenistan were the Sarbadarids; they were a series of ex-governors, instead of a hereditary dynasty, and they proudly called themselves Sarbadar (literally "head-on-the-block") because they got started as rebels against the Mongol regime. The Sarbadarids and the Karts fought constantly because the Karts were Sunnis while their rivals were Shiites.

All these bitter contests were still going on when Timur (also known as Tamerlane) erupted onto the scene.

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The Origin of the Ottoman Turks

The moribund Seljuk royal house finally became extinct in 1307. Their realm in central Turkey was divided into two emirates, Kastamuni in the north and Karaman in the south. The western third of Turkey, which had been Byzantium's stronghold while the Crusaders were in Constantinople, was overrun in the last two decades of the 13th century by newly arrived bands of Turks fleeing from the Mongols. The result of this migration was that all of ancient Anatolia was now predominantly Moslem and Turkish in character, though a sizeable population of Greeks, Jews, and Armenians remained in the towns, with descendants of even more ancient peoples who by now had forgotten their heritage. The southwestern corner of Turkey was divided between six clans, while the northwest, ancient Bithynia, was shared by two, the Osmanli (Ottoman in western languages), and the Karasi. Among this plethora of petty emirates Karaman was at first the strongest, since it inherited the Seljuk cities of Konya (Iconium) and Kayseri (Caesarea), but gradually power shifted to the Ottomans.

The origin of the Ottoman Turks is shrouded in legends, written more than a century after the important early events had taken place. These legends state that the clan was originally named the Kayi, and that it held a small territory in northeast Iran in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Led by one Sulayman Shah, they fled west to avoid death and slavery at the hands of Genghis Khan. Sulayman drowned in the Euphrates and his son Ertoghrul took over, leading 400 followers into Turkey. There they found a battle in progress between the Mongols and Seljuks, and got involved just in time to insure a Turkish victory. The grateful sultan thanked them by giving them the village of Sogut, neighboring Eskishehir ("Old City"), and the surrounding pastures.

This story seems calculated to make the Ottomans legitimate heirs to the glorious Seljuk dynasty, and it can't all be true since we have already seen that the Mongols won when they encountered the Seljuks. It is more likely that Ertoghrul and his followers were forced into the far northwest by the Seljuks, who were nervous of the impact these uncouth nomads might have on their sophisticated state.(5)

Ertoghrul set up an emirate much like the rest, run by warriors zealous to practice ghaza--the Turkish word for jihad or holy war--against all Christian dominions. Turkish warriors thus became known as ghazis, and the Seljuk sultan honored a ghazi who won an important victory by giving him the title of bey, or prince. The new prince also received appropriate symbols of authority: a robe, flag, horse and drum. We do not know if Ertoghrul ever received this distinction. He died around 1280, and his small fief went to his son Osman, called Uthman in Arabic. Since Turkish tribes were usually named after their leaders, the ghazis who served Osman no longer called themselves Kayis, but Osmanlis, or Ottomans.

The stories we have about Osman, like those of Ertoghrul, were written long after his death, and by then he had become the stuff of legend. One story tells us he got started on the road to success when he received a blessing from Sheikh Edebali, a popular dervish (Sufi) leader. Osman wanted to marry Edebali's daughter, but the sheikh refused. He probably did not think the young chief would amount to much, for at this date Osman's domain was so small that a man on horseback could cross it in a single day. Then one day Osman told Edebali that he had a dream in which a tree grew out of his loins with leaves that lengthened into sword blades and pointed in the direction of Constantinople. The sheikh knew how to interpret dreams, and this one clearly seemed to mean that Osman's descendants would rule the world. Edebali promptly reversed his decision, giving Osman his daughter's hand in marriage and a ghazi's sword.

As it turned out, geographic and political factors worked in Osman's favor. First, his neighbor to the west was the Byzantine empire, giving him a non-Moslem opponent to attack and plunder. Second, there were plenty of Turkish warriors looking for dynamic leadership and a holy war to fight in. Third, Byzantium was too weak to offer serious resistance; beset by Serbs and Bulgarians in its European territories, it neglected its Asian holdings, sending only a few mercenaries to defend the eastern frontier. In the days of Osman there were three important Byzantine cities left in Turkey, all within a couple of days' march from Eskishehir: Brusa (also called Bursa or Prusa), Nicaea (Iznik), and Nicomedia (Izmit).

For nearly twenty years Osman left the cities alone, but he kept himself busy by attacking small Byzantine garrisons during the winter and retiring to his highland pastures in the summer. Meanwhile he enlarged his army, adding not only Turkish recruits but also Greeks who defected because they were tired of Constantinople's negligence. By 1299 he had 4,000 men and he felt ready to take on Byzantium in a one-on-one fight. He started by moving his headquarters to a town he renamed Yenishehir ("New City"), right between Brusa and Nicaea; that cut off communications between those two Byzantine cities.

The first major clash took place in 1301, when Byzantium sent 2,000 mercenaries to relieve ghazi pressure on Nicomedia. The Ottomans were probably surprised when the two armies met, for instead of using the standard Turkish defensive tactic--shooting arrows at a distance--they mounted a desperate charge that broke the Byzantine line. Ghazis from all over Turkey flocked to Osman's banner after news of this victory spread. According to later Ottoman accounts, the Seljuk sultan in Konya heard about it, and rewarded Osman by proclaiming him a bey, the ruler of a vassal state.

After that Osman sent his troops north to the Black Sea and west to the Sea of Marmara. The Byzantine cities were isolated, but they could not be taken by force, since the Turks lacked siege equipment, so Osman resorted to a long-term blockade. Brusa surrendered to him in 1326, after a nine-year siege, and that became the new Ottoman capital. A few months later Osman died, and he was buried there. Because he had transformed his people from a wandering tribe to a secure nation, the Ottoman Turks would mention his name in their prayers every time a new sultan came to the throne: "May he be as good as Osman."

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Osman's successor was Orhan, the younger of his two sons and already a proven military commander. One story tells us that Orhan offered to share his rule with his elder brother, Ala al-Din. A peaceful and scholarly man, Ala al-Din declined, and Orhan declared: "Since you will not rule, be my vizier, and bear the burdens of the organization of the state." Ala al-Din did so, spending the rest of his life administering the Ottoman lands. Meanwhile, Orhan dispensed with the title of bey, which was now out of date since the Seljuks were gone, and took for himself the titles "Sultan, son of the Sultan of the Ghazis," "Ghazi son of Ghazi," "Marquis of the Horizons," and "Hero of the World."

Sunni Islam was the state religion, but the Ottomans owed much to the various dervish orders of Turkey. The dervishes motivated the ghazis to make war against the infidel and built hospices for travelers. Because the dervishes and anyone living on their property was tax-exempt, the hospices grew into villages, becoming centers for civilization in a manner similar to the role played by the monasteries of Christendom.

Orhan built the Ottoman army into a formidable military machine. He used it to capture Nicaea in 1331 and Nicomedia in 1337. In 1345 he annexed the neighboring principality of Karasi, located where ancient Troy had stood, and gained an outlet on the Aegean Sea. Orhan's ghazis now stood on the eastern shore of the Dardanelles, ready to follow in Xerxes' footsteps and invade Europe.

As it turned out, Orhan did not have to force his way into Europe; he was invited there. By this time the Byzantine realm had shrunken until all that was left was classical Thrace--an area twice the size of modern Turkey-in-Europe--plus some isolated enclaves in Greece. The western provinces came under the control of a Serbian prince named Stephen Dushan, who singlehandedly put together an aggressive Yugoslav empire. To the north was Bulgaria, while Serbs, Crusaders, and Venetians divided non-Byzantine Greece between them. The Byzantine throne itself was under contention as well. Emperor Andronicus III had died in 1341, leaving his son John Paleologus in the care of his prime minister, John Cantacuzene. However, Cantacuzene had no intention of giving up his power when his charge grew up, and he turned to the Turks for military assistance against his opponents, giving Orhan his daughter in marriage. Orhan crossed into Europe with his troops three times in the 1340s, each time accomplishing a specific task for Byzantium's usurper.

After the third mission, Cantacuzene ran out of money to pay his mercenaries. Instead he resorted to taking the wealth he needed from the churches of Constantinople, and promised his Ottoman son-in-law a minor fortress called Tzympe, on the European side of the Dardanelles. In 1354 an earthquake threw down the walls of Gallipoli, a major fortress next to Tzympe. The Turks immediately seized Gallipoli, interpreting the earthquake as a signal of approval from Allah to spread warfare into the Christian world.

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Murad I


Orhan was succeeded by his son Murad. After putting down a rebellion in the east, he crossed into Europe to continue what his father had started. In 1361 he captured Adrianople, a major Byzantine city; he renamed it Edirne and moved the Ottoman capital there. The Pope called for a Crusade, but Catholic-Orthodox animosity was now so great that many Catholics saw Islam as a lesser evil than Greek Christianity, so the response was only halfhearted. Meanwhile the Turkish advance gathered speed as it fanned out across the Balkans. It was helped by the Black Death, which decimated Christian-populated cities, while largely sparing the countryside, where the Turkish army was likely to be camping. Attempts by the Serbs and Bulgars to dispute the Ottoman conquest of Thrace led to their defeat and Bulgaria's vassaldom (1371). Surrounded by Turks on all sides and bereft of allies, Constantinople had no choice but to sign a treaty with Murad where the Byzantines agreed to pay tribute and assist the Ottomans in their military endeavors.

Murad ruled his new subjects wisely. He tolerated the Christians--who in fact now made up at least half the population in his realm--and even officially recognized the Orthodox Church, which further widened the schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Although he was the leader of a holy war dedicated to spreading Islam as far as possible, he realized that converting everybody would be impractical, so he followed the example of the first caliphs; he let Christians to worship in peace if they submitted to Moslem rule and paid special taxes. He even allowed some Christian vassal princes to serve in his army, giving them tax exemptions and small land grants.

Murad's willingness to accept Christian soldiers came about because of a shortage of recruits from his thinly populated Moslem lands, but he doubted the loyalty of men who fought for money instead of Allah. His solution was to create a standing army made up completely of ex-Christian slaves. It turned out to be extremely effective. They enslaved teenage Christian boys and took them to Brusa, where they were taught Turkish, the tenets of Islam, and the skills of war. The most promising of them went to special palace schools where they received training for jobs in the government or imperial household. Most of them, however, were enrolled in the sultan's personal elite infantry, known as the Yeni Ceri, or New Force; the West called them Janissaries.

Though these men were technically slaves, there was nothing servile about them, any more than there was with previous soldier-slaves like the Mamelukes. They were the absolute property of the sultan; they could not marry or engage in any trade while they were soldiers, and after they died everything they owned went back to the sultan. But as we saw previously, being a slave in Moslem society did not automatically make one a social inferior. Anyone, including the sultans themselves, might have a slave mother. Moreover, they soon had an extraordinary amount of power, since they held the highest positions in both administration and the military.

One unique characteristic of the Janissaries was that they belonged to the dervish order of the Bektashis, founded in the late 13th century by a Sufi named Hajji Bektash. Incorporating many heterodox elements, the cult soon became popular among both Christians and Moslems. Initiates joined lodges and attended meetings where they could drink alcohol and women could participate unveiled, on an equal status with men; of course this shocked good Sunnis. The Janissaries made Bektash their patron saint and made Bektashi clergy their chaplains. Perhaps as a dim memory of their Christian origins, the Janissaries also venerated certain Greek Orthodox saints, and some went into battle carrying lucky charms inscribed with biblical quotations.

The sultans saw considerable advantages to the Janissary system. Being recent converts, the Janissaries were more zealous to spread Islam than somebody born and raised in the faith. Cut off from their families and home communities, their only loyalty was to the sultan, to whom they owed both life and property. Yet the Janissaries could also be a liability. Christians resented them because of the way they were recruited; every few years the sultan would send his troops into the Balkans to take more boys from their homes to the training barracks, and Christian taxpayers had to pay for their traveling expenses. Moslems saw the system as a violation of Islamic law, since the Janissaries were not freed after their conversion to Islam; they also resented seeing every important job in the government go to them. Furthermore, because the Janissaries were loyal to the sultan rather than to the state, they became a dangerous sort of goon squad when a poor ruler was in charge. Finally, having the Janissaries around all the time made the sultan regard even freeborn Moslems as his slaves, whom he could put to death without a trial. Thus the Ottoman regime eventually became a total despotism, even when an incompetent weakling occupied the throne.

Murad I suffered his first and only defeat because his new army was strong enough to fight a two-front war. In 1382 he annexed a minor emirate in southwestern Turkey. His main rival to the east, the emir of Karaman, opposed this move, and in 1386, while Murad was campaigning in Europe, the Karamanians occupied the disputed territory. Murad hastily returned with a force composed mostly of Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgarians, led by his Christian vassals. They fought an indecisive battle outside Konya, and then after that the Christian troops went home, disgusted because Murad had forbidden them to loot Turkish property. Back in the Balkans the Serbian prince Lazar used these disgruntled soldiers to start a rebellion against the Ottomans. The prince of Bosnia and the king of Bulgaria quickly joined him, and together they crushed an Ottoman army at Plochnik in Bosnia (1388).

Murad was still in Asia when news of this reverse reached him, and he chose to wait until the enemy alliance came apart. It did so in early 1389, and Murad began his counterattack with a lightning campaign against Bulgaria. Then he marched on Serbia, with the Bulgarians and Lazar's Serbian rivals in tow. They fought the main battle on June 15, 1389, on the plain of Kosovo, also known as "The Field of the Blackbirds." Here the anti-Ottoman coalition was wiped out, Lazar was killed, and Serbia's independence ended.

However, Murad died at Kosovo too--he was assassinated. The most credible account of this deed states that Milosh Obravitch, Lazar's son-in-law, did it. Accused of treachery by Lazar just before the battle, he pretended to desert to the Ottomans, gained an audience with the sultan, and stabbed him with a concealed dagger.

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Bayezid the Thunderbolt


Murad's son Bayezid I (also called Bajazet) successfully led the right flank of the Ottoman forces at Kosovo, and took command before the battle was over. To ensure that his reign would be a stable one, he immediately ordered the strangulation of his younger brother Yakub, who was also a hero of Kosovo; thus he became the first Ottoman sultan to use fratricide as a political tool. An even more ferocious warrior than his predecessors, Bayezid had a talent for moving troops swiftly; for this he earned himself the nickname Yildirim, meaning "Thunderbolt." However, he lacked his father's tolerance and statesmanship, and this gave him enough enemies to keep him busy.

Bayezid also differed from his father in his policy toward non-Ottoman Turks, accusing them of sabotaging the holy war against Christendom. In 1390 he launched a highly successful campaign that conquered the remaining five emirates of southwestern Turkey, and Murad's rival, the Emirate of Karaman. With him went John Paleologus, the unlucky Byzantine emperor. As an Ottoman vassal he helped Bayezid in the siege and capture of Philadelphia, the last predominantly Greek city in Asia; 15th century Byzantine historians had some bitter words to say about that episode! John died in February 1391, and his son Manuel, a hostage in Brusa, escaped and crowned himself emperor in Constantinople, without the sultan's permission. Bayezid called off the Asian campaign, issued an ultimatum to Constantinople, and when Manuel did not give in, he put the city under siege. Seven months later, with no hope of relief in sight, Manuel agreed to increase the annual tribute and ceded one quarter of his city to Moslem settlers; two mosques were now built in the capital of eastern Christianity.

Once that matter was settled, Bayezid went east again, conquering the Emirate of Kastamuni in 1393. He returned when he learned that his Bulgarian vassal Sisman had revolted; with the help of King Sigismund of Hungary, Sisman captured the city of Nicopolis, the chief Ottoman stronghold on the Danube. A Turkish army retook both Nicopolis and Tirnovo, the Bulgarian capital, and Bayezid had Sisman executed; from now on Bulgaria would be directly ruled as an Ottoman province. Then Bayezid got the idea that Emperor Manuel was plotting to become his next problem, so in 1394 he put Constantinople under siege again. Manuel rejected an offer of asylum from Venice and chose to sit it out, relying on the strength of the city walls and a Western Crusade to get him off the hook.

Western knights were on the way, not because of Constantinople's plight but because of the threat the Turks posed to Hungary, which was now the main Christian power on the Ottoman frontier. The Duke of Burgundy, uncle of France's half-mad King Charles VI, raised funds and recruited an army of French, English, Scots, Germans, and Italians, with a fleet sailed by Venetians, Genoese, and the Knights of St. John. This multinational force, led by the Duke of Burgundy's 24-year-old son John of Nevers, joined forces with Sigismund in Hungary in July 1396.

Sigismund favored a defensive strategy, waiting for Bayezid to move first so they could ambush him. But the knights found this too passive and unchivalrous for their tastes, and when there was no sign of an Ottoman advance by August, they overrode Sigismund's protests and made the first move. Advancing through Serbia and Bulgaria, they captured first Nis, then Vidin, and finally Rahova, inflicting a great slaughter every time. When they reached Nicopolis they had no siege equipment to break through its imposing walls, so the army prepared to starve the city into submission.

Summer became fall, and there was still no news of Bayezid. Discipline broke down and the Western knights began to behave as if they were on vacation, gambling, drinking, and chasing the local women. Meanwhile, Bayezid was on the move with his usual swiftness and silence. The first clash, between the scouting parties of both sides, ended in a Western victory; unfortunately this roused the other knights from their carousing and made them overeager to do battle.

They fought the decisive battle on September 25, 1396, about three miles from the Crusader camp. Well aware of the Ottomans' superior discipline and mobility, Sigismund called for caution and proposed sending his own Walachian foot soldiers ahead of the knights, arguing that the sultan would also put his most expendable troops in front and that they were not worthy opponents for the Crusader cavalry. Instead, the French knights declared their honor slighted and attacked at once, not even waiting to find out the size and formation of the opposing force. Sure enough, their pride led to their downfall. After beating off the enemy light cavalry, they charged up the hill where they expected the Ottoman camp to be. Before they could reach the crest, the main body of the Ottoman cavalry surrounded them. The French fought desperately, but had to surrender in the end; the only survivors, including John of Nevers, were kept for the ransom they would fetch.

The victorious Ottomans and their Serbian allies then fought a second battle against the Hungarians, driving them into the Danube. Many of them, including Sigismund, escaped across the river by ship; most, however, were captured, and Bayezid executed 3,000 of the captives until his own counselors, sick of the carnage, prevailed on him to stop.

On the eastern front, the Black Sheep Turks overthrew the Artena-Oghlou Emirate in 1398. The land in question, however, went to Bayezid, who took a good opportunity when he saw one. As the century ended, he was at the height of his career, ruling over an empire that stretched from the Danube to the Euphrates. Bayezid was a great warrior; it was his misfortune to encounter a greater one.

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The Last Fury of the Steppes

The most ruthless of Genghis Khan's successors was a Turkish noble known as Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane. Timur got started in 1369, when he expelled the Chagataite Mongols from Uzbekistan, but because of the popular reverence for the Mongol royal house, he kept a puppet Genghis Khanid as his mouthpiece. For the next thirty-six years Timur led his armies on repeated, devastating forays against everybody else. The Middle East had not experienced destruction on such a scale since the Assyrians had rampaged through it, two thousand years earlier. For example, at Isfahan he built a pyramid of 70,000 skulls; at a town near Herat, he cemented 2,000 live captives into towers. Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, in spite of continual revolts, were forced to submit after twenty years of war and massacre, but these were the only lands Timur incorporated in his empire. His other expeditions sought plunder and fame, and earned him an abundance of both. He humbled the Indian Sultans (1398-99), the Chagataite Mongols in Kazakhstan (1370, 1374, 1383, and 1389), the Golden Horde (1387, 1389, and 1395), and the Mamelukes (1402), but never prevented his victims from rebuilding their shattered states.

Timur displayed his military skill when he overthrew Bayezid at the battle of Angora (1402); the Ottoman sultan was carried off in an oversized birdcage, and died heartbroken eight months later. Timur also showed his lack of political imagination at Angora; instead of annexing Turkey, he simply reinstated the seven Turkish emirs Bayezid uprooted in the 1390s, putting the Ottomans back where Bayezid had started from.(6)

Bayezid as Timur's prisoner.
Timur visits his captive, Bayezid I.
(Click on the picture to open full-size in a separate window.)

As a general, Timur was at least as good as Genghis Khan. Before his onslaught, the Ottomans were triumphant, the Mamelukes vigorous, and the Golden Horde still formidable. However, Timur was also an educated Moslem, so it is curious that he sacked the greatest Islamic cities of his day (Damascus, Brusa, Sarai and Delhi), but could injure the hated infidel only by taking Smyrna from the Knights of St. John (1402), and by terrorizing the little Kingdom of Georgia (1394, 1399, 1400, and 1403). He died in 1405, while preparing for a campaign against China.

Middle East map, 1405.
The Middle East at the beginning of the fifteenth century, showing the Ottoman, Mameluke and Timurid sultanates.

This is the End of Chapter 12.


1. Lesser Armenia and Trebizond had been Seljuk vassals for a decade; now they changed masters.

2. Edward Gibbon remarked that destroying the Assassins was one of the few things the Mongols did that was beneficial to civilization.

3. The Crusades are still vividly remembered by Arabs today. They like to compare the Zionist founders of modern Israel with the Crusaders, and point out that although the Crusaders stayed in the middle of Dar al-Islam for nearly two centuries, they were eventually ejected as an alien body.

4. Mongol tax collectors tended to behave like they were on a raid, sending gangs of ruffians to beat and torture peasants until they got the money they were supposed to collect.

5. Semi-civilized and semi-Moslem at this early date, the Kayi probably had more in common with the original Seljuk Turks of the 11th century than they did with their 13th-century descendants.

6. This campaign incidentally saved Constantinople, by ending the eight-year-long siege that had brought the Byzantine capital to the verge of capitulation.

© Copyright 2000 Charles Kimball

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