February 10, 1258. The Mongols approach Baghdad. The greatest center of learning, culture, and Muslim civilization in the world faces its demise.
The Mongol Empire began its growth under warlord-turned-Ruler of All Chinggis Khan, whose death in 1226 only paused the onslaught of this great tribal confederation. With incredibly well-trained warriors, skillful generals, an unusual ability to learn from their mistakes and adopt new techniques and a worldwide reputation for ruthlessness and cruelty, the Mongol Empire expanded from the fringes of Medieval Europe to China, India and Vietnam.
For the Mongols, the main problem was that every time their leader died, the territory was split between his heirs. Though that did not sate their appetite for conquest, it still caused tension, as the new contenders often warred amongst themselves to determine who the new Great Khan would be. This complicated dance meant that in the 1250s, Hulegu Khan - the grandson of Genghis - ruled the il-Khanate, the Mongol regime that ruled over Persia, Afghanistan and the Caucasus. His brother Mongke, the Great Khan, ruled all the Mongol domains from the center of the Empire at Karakorum, deep in the Mongolian desert.
In 1257, Mongke planned a series of campaigns all along his borders. In particular, he wanted to force the submission of the Middle East and its Muslim rulers. He tasked his brother Hulegu with this mission: compel the Muslim lands of Syria, Iraq and Persia to bend the knee. If they did not, they would face destruction. Mongke showed particular concern for the Abbasid Caliph, or successor to Muhammad, Al-Musta'sim.
The Caliphs, once singular rulers of the whole Islamic territory, had fallen far thanks to powerful warlords, religious strife, and the disruptive invasions from both the Crusaders in the west and the Mongols in the east. The Caliphs now only ruled a small area around Baghdad, but still commanded enormous religious and political sway. Mongke commanded his brother Hulegu that he should approach the Caliph with some respect and ask him to submit and contribute a token force to assist in the Mongol conquest; if he did not, the Caliph would face extinction.
The Caliph's city of Baghdad was the jewel of the world. Far from the messy urban wreck it is now, Baghdad was by some accounts the greatest city in the world in 1258. The cultural, commercial and intellectual center of the Muslim world, it had a population of more than a million. It boasted exceptional libraries, for the Abbasid Caliphs were patrons of learning and intellectuals themselves, and collected literature, especially old Greek, Latin and Persian classics. It was the site of the House of Learning, the greatest academy in the world. The Caliph was its lord, and its patron.
Hulegu's campaign of 1258 began swiftly and bloodily. The first target was Alamut, the base of the famed Assassins. The Assassins had murdered kings, princes and anyone who stood in their way for the last two centuries, but they crossed a line when they tried to kill Mongol general Kitbuqa. Hulegu ruined the stronghold, killed its dedicated inhabitants, and executed the Assassin Grandmaster. Then he marched for Baghdad.
Hulegu sent word to Al-Musta'sim, demanding submission to the Mongol Khan. Al-Musta'sim's adviser, Ibn al-Alkami, convinced his Caliph that he could easily withstand the Mongol attack and that the Muslim world would rush to Baghdad's aid with overwhelming numbers. While many historians of the time have blamed al-Alkami, I take the interpretation that Al-Musta'sim could not submit. He was the heir to Muhammad, the Caliph of Islam, keeper of the Holy Cities, commander of the great city of Baghdad. Like many men past and present, facing down insurmountable odds, he could not bear to surrender. His honor and faith commanded that he fight. He and his city would pay the price.
When Hulegu arrived, he formed a pincer around the great city. He scattered the weak forces the Caliph was able to summon (whether due to neglect or treachery) and began the formal siege on January 29. The Mongols were, by now, siege experts. Palisades and ditches went up, catapults and trebuchets constructed, towers rolled forward. By February 5, they had seized a portion of the walls. Al-Musta'sim now attempted to negotiate, but Hulegu coldly replied that it was too late. On February 10, the city was forced to surrender, and the Mongols entered.
The pages of Muslim writers and historians seem themselves to weep with the result. The Mongols looted everything. They stripped palaces, mosques, libraries, hospitals. They spread across the city, killing indiscriminately as the population attempted to flee, sparing neither woman nor child. They captured the Caliph and forced him to watch as his sons were murdered and his city despoiled. The Caliph was finally killed by being rolled up in a rug and trampled to death by horses. The Abbasid Dynasty was gone forever.
So, too, was the cultural legacy of the great Arab Empire. The House of Wisdom contained many artifacts, priceless manuscripts, and sole surviving copies of many books. The thirty-six public libraries contained an untold wealth of knowledge - science, astronomy, history, philosophy, literature. The foundational texts of geometry, medicine, and Arab poetry...
The Mongols dumped them all in the river, slaughtered the scholars, and threw them in as well. The Tigris ran black with ink and red with blood as Baghdad cried out in its agony.
As many as a million people died in the sack of Baghdad, and the final ruin was the most devastating. The Mongols destroyed the irrigation system of Mesopotamia, built up since the time of Sumer and Babylon, that had turned the Fertile Crescent into the granary of the Near East. They destroyed the canals, silted them up, salted the earth. With this system gone, the desert soon reclaimed the land that it had taken Iraq's inhabitants thousands of years to scratch from the dry wastes.
Baghdad would never know peace - or ever truly recover - again.
760 years later, a new set of barbarians threatened to destroy the cultural lineage of Islam, this time calling themselves Caliphs. ISIS may be defeated, but they are a tainted legacy and bitter reminder of the glory that was once the Golden Age of Islam.
For the Mongol conquests, J.J. Saunders' The History of the Mongol Conquests (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) is the most prominent scholarly source, but Jack Weatherford's NYT bestseller Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Crown, 2004) is the most popular book on the subject. Be warned, since Weatherford's book is extremely readable but his historical interpretation gets a bit imaginative and rosy, and he seems to gloss over a lot of the real horror of the Mongol Conquests.