Skip to main content

Mongol Siege Warfare on the Banks of the Euphrates and the Question of Gunpowder (1260–1312)


This article discusses the Mongol approach to warfare, then goes on to consider the Mongols' conversion to the notion that they would have to develop a siege train, since walled cities cannot easily be taken by a cavalry charge. The contribution of Chinese siege engineers is discussed, and there is a survey of Chinese siege techniques as they evolved before the Mongol period. The author considers the evidence for the use of inflammable materials, and then moves to the question of gunpowder. The widespread (not quite universal) consensus that the Chinese used gunpowder is discussed, and then attention moves to Hulegu's expedition to western Asia in the 1250s. It is pointed out that none of the major sources seems to imply the use of anything that might be construed as gunpowder technology during those campaigns. Lastly, the author considers, in some detail, sieges conducted by the Ilkhanid Mongols against Mamluk border strongholds during the succeeding decades, drawing attention to and explaining those sieges' increasing lack of success.

Hide All

2 Allsen, T., Mongol Imperialism: The Policies of Grand Qan Mongke in China, Russia and the Islamic Lands 1251–1259 (Berkeley, 1987), pp. 189193.

3 Hsiao, C., The Military Establishment of the Yuan Dynasty (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), p. 12.

4 Sinor, D., “On Mongol Strategy”, Inner Asia and its Contacts with Medieval Europe (London, 1977), XVI, pp. 239247.

5 Morgan, D. O., “The Mongol Armies in Persia”, Der Islam, 56 (1979), pp. 8687.

6 Allsen, T., “The Circulation of Military Technology in the Mongolian Empire”, in Warfare in Inner Asian History, ed. Di Cosmo, N. (Leiden, 2002), pp. 265293; Morgan, Mongols”, p. 91; Martin, D. H., The Rise of Chingis Khan and his Conquest of North China (Baltimore, 1950), pp. 3031.

7 Allsen, “Military Technology”, pp. 265–293.

8 Hsiao, Yuan Dynasty, p. 133, fn., 79.

9 Ibid., p. 133, footnote 79. This information is based on the Persian historian Tabakát-i-Násiri.

10 Allsen, “Military Technology”, pp. 278–279. On the terminology for gunpowder makers see below.

11 Rashiduddin Fazlullah, Jami u t-tawarikh. 2 vols. edited and translated S. Thackston, and G. A. Thackston (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), II, p. 478.

12 Martin, Rise of Chingis, pp. 118–119; Fennell, J., The Crisis of Medieval Russia 1200–1304 (London and New York, 1983), p. 80.

13 Mission to Asia. Narratives and letters of the Franciscan missionaries in Mongolia and China in the thirteenth century. Translated by a Nun of Stanbrook Abbey, edited C. Dawson (New York, 1955), pp. 37–38.

14 Dawson, Mission, p. 37.

15 Allsen, T., Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia (Cambridge, 2001), p. 24.

16 Weapons in Ancient China, ed. Y. Hong (New York and Beijing, 1992), p. 266. Hong's data are taken from Wu Jing Zong Yao (The collection of the most important military techniques) written by Zeng Gonglian at the order of the northern Sung dynasty (r. 960–1126).

17 The term catapult is a generic name that includes all siege machines that do not use gun powder. Vries, K. De, Medieval Military Technology (Peterborough, Ontario, 1998), p. 127.

18 Franke, H., “Siege and Defense of Towns in Medieval China”, in Chinese Ways in Warfare, eds. Kierman, F. A., and Fairbank, J. K. (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), pp. 169, 195.

19 The counterweight trebuchet is illustrated in the Jamiut-Tawarikh, Tabriz, Iran 1306–1314, Currently in Edinburgh University library, ms. 20. A copy can be seen in Nicolle, D., Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era 1050 1350. Islam, Eastern Europe and Asia. 2nd ed. (London and Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 1999), p. 242, fig. 626m.

20 Allsen, “Military Technology”, p. 270; Yuan-shih chi-shih pen-mo (Records of the history of the Yuan from the beginning to the end) Reprint (Peking: Chung-hua shu-chu, 1979), pp. 4544–4545. Only the Yuan-shi tells about the two Muslim engineers sent to the court of Qubilai Khan. They were received with great honour and each had his biography written in the official history of the Yuan dynasty.

21 K. Raphael, “The al-Mansuri's mangonel Stone Balls: Some new evidence from the Mamluk siege of Akko (1291)”, in ‘Akko, the Excavations of 1991–1998 II, The Later Periods, eds. E. Stern and D. Syon (IAA Reports) Forthcoming.

22 Swietoslawski, Arms and Armour, pp. 70–71.

23 Franke, “Siege and Defense”, p. 169.

24 Aconitine is a poison extracted from a plant that carries the same name. The Merck index, 9th ed. pp. 15, 113, defines “Aconitine” as coming from “Aconitum Napellus L., Ranunculaceae and other aconites”.

25 Franke, “Siege and Defense”, p. 166.

26 Braudel, F., The Structures of Everyday Life (London, 1981), pp. 272273; Knapp, R. G., The Chinese House (Oxford, 1994), pp. 4647.

27 Franke, “Siege and Defense”, p. 159.

28 Knapp, R. G., China's Walled Cities (Oxford, 2000), pp. 2533.

29 Chang, Sen-Dou, “The Morphology of Walled Capitals”, in The City in Late Imperial China, ed. Skinner, G. W. (Stanford, 1977), p. 77.

30 Franke, H., Krieg und Krieger in Chinesischen Mittelalter (12. bis 14. Jahrhundert), band. 81. (Stuttgart, 2003), pp. 212213. Although there is evidence of wooden city towers, wood was on the whole not a common building material in fortifications in China. E. L. Farmer, “The hierarchy of Ming City Walls”, in City Walls: the urban enceinte in global perspective. Edited J. D. Tracy (Cambridge, 2000), p. 485.

31 Juvaini, ʿAla-al-Din Ata-Malik, History of the World–Conqueror. 2 vols. Edited and translated Boyle, J. A., (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), vol. 1, p. 106.

32 Boas, A. J., Crusader Archaeology (London, 1999), pp. 218219.

33 Goodrich and Chia-sheng, “Firearms”, pp. 114–123; Allsen, “Military Technology”, p. 275. I. A. Khan, “The Role of the Mongols in the Introduction of Gunpowder and Firearms in South Asia”, in Gunpowder the History of an International Technology, ed. J. Buchanan (Bath, 1996), pp. 33–44; D. H. Martin, “The Mongol Army”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Studies (1943), p. 67; De Vries, Military Technology, p. 143; Chase, K., Firearms; A global history (Cambridge, 2003), p. 58; Needham, J., Science and Civilization in China, vol.5 part 7 : The Gunpowder Epic (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 117, 163.

34 Needham, J., Science in Traditional China. A Comparative Perspective (Hong Kong, 1981), p. 39.

35 Needham, Gunpowder Epic, p. 325, note F.

36 Ibid., p. 573, note C.

37 According to Martin gunpowder was used during the siege of Kaifeng in 1233–1234. Martin, “Mongol Army”, p. 67; Khan,” Firearms”, pp. 33–44.

38 Allsen, “Military Technology”, pp. 275, 279, Allsen relies on the Yuanshi, chap. 98, p. 2514, and on Hsiao, Yuan Dynasty, p. 80.

39 Franke, Krieg und Krieger, p. 213.

40 D. Ayalon, Gunpowder and Fire Arms in the Mamluk Kingdom, 2nd ed. (London, 1978), chap. 2: “Terms Used for Firearms and Gunpowder in Contemporary Sources”, pp. 9–44.

41 Juwayni, Ala al-Din Ata Malik, Tarikh -i- jahan-gusha, ed. M. M. Qazvini (Leiden, 1911–1937), p. 96.

42 Rashid al-Din Fadl Allah Abu l-Khayr, Jami al-tawarikh, ed. B. Karimi (Tehran, 1959), vol. 2, p. 686.

43 I would like to thank Prof. Shaul Shaked of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for translating the Persian sources and Prof. Michal Biran of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Department of Asian Studies and Middle Eastern History for translating and analysing the Chinese source.

44 Yuanshi, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1978. ch. 98, p. 2514.

45 The Mongol conquest of Baghdad, according to Wassaf, cited in B. Spuler, History of the Mongols, Based on Eastern and Western Accounts of the Thirteenth & Fourteenth Centuries. Translated from German by H. and S. Drummond (London, 1988), pp. 115–121; Boyle, J. A., “The Death of the last Abbasid Caliph: a contemporary Muslim account”, Journal of Semitic Studies, 6, 2 (1961), pp. 150161; Wickens, G. M., “Tusi, Nasir al-Din on the Fall of Baghdad: a Further Study”, Journal of Semitic Studies, 7, 1 (1962), pp. 2335; F. J. Ragep, al-Tusi, Nasir al-Din,’ EI2,10, pp. 746–752; al-Faruque, M., “The Mongol Conquest of Baghdad: Medieval Accounts and their Modern Assessments”, Islamic Quarterly, 32, 4 (1988), pp. 195199.

46 Ibn Tiqtaqa, Kitab al-Fakhri fi al-adab al-Sultaniyyah wal duwal al-islamiya, edited Abd al-Kader M. Mayo (Haleb, 1997), pp. 319–320; Ibn al-Furat cited by G. Le Strange, “The story of the death of the last Abbasid Caliph, from the Vatican MS. of Ibn Furat”, JRAS, April (1900), pp. 296–299; J. Somogy, Adh-Dhahabi's “Tarikh al-islam”as an Authority on the Mongol Invasion of the Caliphate”, JRAS, October (1936), pp. 598–599; Ibid., “A Qasida on the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 7 (1935), pp. 45–46; al-Yunini Qutb al-Din Musa b. Muhammad, Dhayl mirat al-Zaman fi tarikh al-ayan (Hyderabad, 1954), I, pp. 85–86; al-Nuwayri, Shihab al-Din Ahmad b. Abd al-Wahhab, Nihayat al-arab fi funun al-adab (Cairo, 1992), 27, pp. 380–381; al-Maqrizi, Taqi al-Din Ahmad b. Ali. Kitab al-suluk li-marifat duwal al-muluk, eds. M. M. Ziyada, and. S.’A-F Ashur (Cairo, 1936), I: ii, pp. 383–384.

47 Franke, “Siege and Defense”, p. 193; Knapp, Walled Cities, pp. 15–26. See especially p. 20.

48 Knapp, Walled Cities, p. 4.

49 Martin, Rise of Chingis Khan, p. 31.

50 Martinez, “Army”, pp. 148–149, pp. 99–116.

51 Rashid al-Din, Jami al-tawarikh (Thackston) II, pp. 507–508. In the case of Mayyafarqin and Mardin.

52 Ibid., II, p. 484.

53 Ibid., II, pp. 507–508.

54 Ibid., II, p. 481.

55 Jarga was a hunting method in which riders surrounded an animal and slowly decreased the diameter of the circle until the animal was caught and killed. Ibid., III, p. 768.

56 Wassaf in B. Spuler, A History of the Mongols: Based on Eastern and Western Accounts of the Thirteenth & Fourteenth Centuries. Trans. from German by H. and S. Drummond (London, 1972), Geschichte Wassafs. ed. and trans. by Josef von Hammer-Purgstall (Vienna, 1856), I, pp. 68–75.

57 Rashid al-Din, Jami al-tawarikh (Thackston), II, p. 503; Humphreys, R.S., From Saladin to the Mongols (New York, 1977), p. 349.

58 While Baghdad was of great significance due to its place in the Muslim world and the fact that it was the seat of the Caliph, its geographical location was also of considerable importance because of the winter pasture that served the Ilkhanid army. Thus, the city was restored at the order of the Mongols. We have no evidence of restoration of the Assassins's fortifications by the Mongols. They seem to have been left in ruins or destroyed immediately after a siege.

59 Rashid al-Din, Jami al-tawarikh (Thackston), II, pp. 507–509; Patton, D., Badr al-Din Lulu, Atabeg of Mosul, 1211–1259 (Seattle, 1991), p. 63.

60 The following Mongol sieges are described in great detail by P. Thorau, The Lion of Egypt. Trans. P. M. Holt, (London and New-York, 1992) and by Amitai-Preiss, R., Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk- Ilkhanid War 1260–1281 (Cambridge, 1995).

61 Thorau, P., The Lion of Egypt. Translated by Holt, P. M. (London and New-York, 1992), p. 64; Humphries, Saladin, p. 348.

62 Amitai-Preiss, R., Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War 1260–1281 (Cambridge, 1995), p. 61.

63 Baybars al-Mansuri al-Dawadar, Rukn al-Din, Mukhtar al-Akhbar tarikh al-dawla al-ayubiyya wdawla al-mamalik al-bahriyya hta 852 H. ed. A. S. Hamdan (Cairo, 1993), 29; al-Yunini Qutb al-Din Musa b. Muhammad, Dhayl mirat al-Zaman fi tarikh al-ayan (Hyderabad 1954–61), II, p. 318; al-Zahir, Ibn Abd, Allah, Muhyi al-Din Abd, al-Rawd al-Zahir fi Sirat al-Malik al-Zahir, ed. al-Khuwaytir, A. A. (Riyad, 1976), p. 225.

64 Ibn Abd al-Zahir, Rawd, pp. 226–228.

65 Nersessian, S. Der, “The Armenian Chronicle of the Constable Sampad or of the ‘Royal Historian’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 33 (1959), p. 163.

66 Ibid., p. 112.

67 Thorau, Lion, p. 223; Amitai-Preiss, Mongols, pp. 130–131.

68 Ibn Abd al-Zahir, Rawd, pp. 405–408; A short version is found in Baybars al-Mansuri, Tarikh, p. 55. Wassaf says the Mongol force was twice the size of the Mamluk army. Thorau, Lion, p. 223.

69 Yunini, Dhayl, III, p. 114; Ibn Shaddad, Tarikh, pp. 124–126; Ibn al-Furat, Tarikh, VII, p. 41; Although Baybars was residing at Damascus when he received the news (November 1275) of the Mongol attack he did not manage to get to the fortress.

70 Yunini, Dhayl, III, p.115; Thorau, Lion, p. 236; Amitai-Preiss, Mongols, pp. 136–137.

71 Ibn Abd al-Zahir, Tashrif, 76–77; Yunini, Dhayl, IV, pp. 45–46; L. S. Northup, From Slave to Sultan: The career of Al-Mansur Qalawun and the Consolidation of Mamluk Rule in Egypt and Syria (678–689 A.H/1279–1290 A.D) (Wiesbaden, 1998), pp. 101–102.

72 Yunini, Dhayl, IV, pp. 90–91.

73 Rashid al-Din, Jami al-tawarikh (Thackston),III, pp. 544–545; Boyle, J. A., The Cambridge History of Iran (Cambridge, 1968), V, pp. 363; Amitai-Preiss, Mongols, pp. 184–197.

74 Rashid al-Din, Jami al-tawarikh (Thackston), III, pp. 644–645.

75 Al-Nuwayri, Shhab al-Din Ahmad b. Abd al-Wahhab, Nihayat al-arab fi funun al-adab (Cairo, 1992), 31, pp. 384–388; Amitai, R., “Whither the Ilkhanid Army? Ghazan's First Campaign into Syria (1299–1300)”, Warfare in Inner Asian History (500–1800), Ed. Cosmo, N. Di (Leiden, 2002), pp. 221264.

76 Al-Yunini's Dhayl Mirat al-Zaman in L. Guo, Early Mamluk Syrian Historiography (Leiden, 1998), pp. 151–157; Maqrizi, Suluk, I:iii, pp. 882–902.

77 Maqrizi, Suluk, I:iii, pp. 906–908; Al-Nuwayri, Nihayat, 31, pp. 413–414; Yunini, Dhayl (Guo), I, pp. 108; Rashid al-Din, Jami al-tawarikh (Thackston),III, p. 641; Abul-Fida, The Memories of a Syrian Prince; Abul-Fida, Sultan of Hama 672–732 (1273–1331), Translated P. M. Holt (Wiesbaden, 1983), p. 38.

78 Ibn Taghribirdi, Nujum, 32, pp. 24–25; Maqrizi, Suluk, I:iii, pp 928–933.

It took the army 48 days to march from al-Hila to al-Bira.

79 Rashid al-Din, Jami al-tawarikh (Thackston), III, p. 655; Al-Nuwayri, Nihayat, 32, pp. 24–25.

80 Morgan, D., Medieval Persia 1040–1797 (London and New York, 1988), p. 63.

81 Rashid al-Din, Jami al-tawarikh (Thackston), III, p. 656; Al-Nuwayri, Nihayat, 32, pp. 28–30; Boyle, Iran, p. 393.

82 Boyle, Iran, p. 403.

83 Ibid. p. 62; Maqrizi, Suluk, II:i, p. 115.

84 Abul-Fida, Syrian Prince (Holt), p. 62.; Boyle, Iran, p. 403; R. Amitai-Preiss, “New Material from the Mamluk Sources for the Biography of Rashid al-Din”, in The Court of the Il-khans 1290–1340, eds. J. Raby and T. Fitzherbert (Oxford, 1994), (Oxford Studies in Islamic Art XII), pp. 29–31.

1 I would like to thank both Professor Amitai and Professor Michal Biran from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who read earlier drafts of this paper. I would also like to than Mr Shai Amisar for his help and explanations on the different chemical compositions of gunpowder throughout history.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed