The Mongol Sack of Baghdad in 1258

Transcript from a lecture series by Professor Eamonn Gearon, Johns Hopkins University

The Mongol conquest of the Abbasid Caliphate culminated in the horrific sack of Baghdad that effectively ended the Islamic Golden Age.

Image of The Sack of Baghdad in 1258
The Sack of Baghdad in 1258

The Islamic Golden Age—from the 8th to the mid-13th century—genuinely was one of the periods of greatest flourishing of human knowledge and progress. And Baghdad was its focal point. A truly global repository of human knowledge, this Arab-Muslim imperial capital also welcomed—indeed encouraged—scholars from across the known world. As its wealth and fame grew, more and more scholars and engineers were drawn to the city, from all over civilization. But in January 1258, a vast Mongol army reached the city’s perimeter and demanded that the caliph al-Mustasim—the nominal spiritual authority of the Islamic world—surrender.

The Greatest City in the World

If you can imagine the shock waves, were London razed to the ground tomorrow, you’d be getting close to the horror that was about to accompany the Sack of Baghdad in 1258.

Founded 500 years earlier, Baghdad’s population had reached one million within a century, making it the world’s largest, most prosperous, and celebrated city. If one thinks of London in 1897—the year when Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee—the English city on the Thames was by then the largest, and most important, city on earth. Even today, London remains an impressive and significant place, and not only as the center of a mighty empire on which the sun never set. But in 1897, London was peerless in the world, with nowhere else coming close to matching its power and influence. It was the capital, and the fulcrum, of the British Empire, which, in turn, was about to become the largest empire ever in history.

If you can imagine the shock waves, were London razed to the ground tomorrow, you’d be getting close to the horror that was about to accompany the Sack of Baghdad in 1258.

A Devastating Moment in History

For many historians, the arrival of the Mongols into the heart of Muslim faith and empire is the single most devastating moment in the history of the Muslim Middle East. It’s easy to see why—and hard to argue otherwise—because the Sack of Baghdad would mark the end of the Islamic Golden Age.

image of Hulagu Khan, The Mongol leader
Hulagu Khan, The Mongol leader

Rather than submit, the Abbasid caliph challenged the Mongols to try and storm his city, if they dared. The nomadic army from Asia—led by Hulagu Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons—did indeed dare. Doing what they are most famous for, the Mongols thrashed Baghdad. In 10 days of unremitting violence and destruction, Baghdad and its inhabitants were completely, and utterly vanquished. Almost without exception, the population was either put to the sword or sold into slavery. The River Tigris ran red—to cite one of the most over-quoted, and overwrought phrases in history—with the blood of slaughtered men, women and children.

Every building of note in Baghdad including mosques, palaces, and markets was utterly destroyed, among them the world-famous House of Wisdom.

After this, every building of note in Baghdad including mosques, palaces, and markets was utterly destroyed, among them the world-famous House of Wisdom. Hundreds of thousands of priceless manuscripts and books were tossed into the river, clogging the arterial waterway with so many texts, according to eyewitnesses, that soldiers could ride on horseback from one side to the other. And, of course, the river turned from red to black with ink.

Who Were the Mongols?

The Sack of Baghdad fits, like a hinge, almost exactly in the middle of two defining dates in the history of Islam, from the founding of the faith in the year 622 to the end of the last caliphate in 1924. Even by the standards of the day, the destruction was shocking, and the results long-lasting, if not permanent. So let’s start by looking at the Mongols, whose name, during this period in history, was a byword for destruction. Where did they come from? And is there any reason to think that they were any more destructive than other peoples at the time?

image of mongols on horseback
The Mongols were a nomadic people whose mobility gave them a great advantage over civilizations centered around cities.

The Mongols, an ethnic group, originating in north and central Asia, were typically pastoral peoples, whose nomadic lifestyle inevitably brought them into conflict with more settled populations. Probably the best example of how settled peoples tried to restrict their otherwise free movement is the Great Wall of China. The wall was essentially built for this purpose: to hold back incursions of these Mongolian neighbours to the north.

As one writer put it, while Muslims built cities—Baghdad and Cairo, for example—Mongols destroyed them.

This preference for nomadism over a settled existence is central to the view of the Mongols as especially destructive. As one writer put it, while Muslims built cities—Baghdad and Cairo, for example—Mongols destroyed them. Does this mean that the Mongols were inherently more ruthless or violent than Muslims? Or crusading Christians? Not necessarily. Rather, it shows that their priority, in terms of conquest, was for land, for grazing—for space even—rather than for cities and confinement.

One thing that does come out of the Mongols’ lack of interest in seizing cities is their enhanced mobility. Often living on a diet of mare’s milk—or blood, if the mares were not lactating—Mongol custom meant that they never washed their clothes. This, along with a heavy fat diet—both milk and meat—no doubt accounted for the Mongols’ reputation as a very smelly, as well as scary, foe.

The Fierce Mongol Warriors

painting of a Mongol mounted archer
A Mongol mounted archer

Contemporary chroniclers tell us that Mongol warriors were most comfortable in the saddle, literally it seems. If they had to move more than a hundred yards, or so, they’d jump on a horse and ride. Also, all warriors owned numerous mounts, allowing them to cover larger distances than more traditional cavalry found in the Near East and Europe. While they rode light into battle, the Mongols used harnessed oxen to pull their heavier and more cumbersome possessions from place to place.

An important facet of the Mongol way of war and conquest was their use of terror as a tactic. The banging of metal pots and the rattling of bells was the usual way of announcing the start of a battle. This created such a din that defenders of a city under siege would find it almost impossible to hear their officers’ commands.

image of a mongol army besieging a city
Mongol armies made effective use of terror in their conquest of cities

Whenever they entered new territory, the Mongols would offer the local rulers an opportunity to surrender. But in the language of many a salesman, this was a never-to-be-repeated, one-time offer. For those foolish enough not to surrender immediately, conquest and destruction without quarter would be their lot. And the people of Baghdad knew this.

Setting the Scene for Catastrophe

In 1206, just 52 years before the Sack of Baghdad, the Mongol Empire was formed and led by the legendary Genghis Khan. Khan is originally a Mongolian word that means military leader, or sovereign, a king, in English. Being accepted as the Great Khan effectively elevated Genghis to the status of emperor. His grandsons now ruled the Mongolian Empire. In addition to Hulagu Khan, who led the attack against Baghdad, there was Kublai Khan, conqueror of China. And yet another, Mongke Khan, who became the Great Khan, and sent his brother Hulagu to Baghdad.

image of Hulagu Khan leading his army into battle
Hulagu Khan leading his army into battle

Hulagu marched at the head of perhaps the largest Mongolian army ever assembled, consisting of as many as 150,000 troops, with Baghdad one of several goals for this mission. First, Hulagu was told to subdue southern Iran, which he did. Next, he was to destroy the infamous Assassins.

A breakaway Nizari-Ismaili-Shia sect, founded in the 11th century, the Assassins had achieved infamy for the political assassinations—hence, the term we use today—carried out by certain of their number. Although it was known that the Assassins were based at the castle of Alamut, in northwestern Iran, many of their adversaries thought they were somehow invincible because of the stealth they typically employed. Hulagu Khan proved this was not the case. After destroying the Assassins and their castle fortress at Alamut,  Baghdad was the next stop on  his list.

The majority of Hulagu Khan’s men were Mongolian warriors, but the force also contained Christians, including soldiers led by the king of Armenia, Frankish Crusaders from the Principality of Antioch, and Georgians.

The majority of Hulagu Khan’s men were Mongolian warriors, but the force also contained Christians, including soldiers led by the king of Armenia, Frankish Crusaders from the Principality of Antioch, and Georgians. In addition, there were Muslim soldiers from various Turkic and Persian tribes, and 1,000 Chinese engineers—artillery specialists, who were always in demand when the need arose to reduce walls to rubble.

The Abbasid Caliphate

The Abbasids—the third Islamic caliphate to rule the Muslim Middle East since the death of Muhammad—had risen to power in 750, after overthrowing their rivals, the Damascus-based Umayyads. Taking their name from one of Muhammad’s uncles, Abbas, the Abassids quickly took control of almost all Umayyad lands, and so found themselves ruling over an enormous empire that covered the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, the Levant, Syria, Iraq, Persia and beyond to modern Afghanistan.

A new Abbasid caliphate deserved a new capital, which they established in Baghdad, in 762, and immediately built into an imperial city worthy of their greatness. 

A new Abbasid caliphate deserved a new capital, which they established in Baghdad, in 762, and immediately built into an imperial city worthy of their greatness. Within a couple of generations, Baghdad had attracted some of the world’s greatest scholars. Alongside Persian scholarship and cultural traditions—and Arab authority—one saw people from other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa. Numerous Jews and Christians also pursued studies there.

A City of Learning

image of a manuscript from the Abbasid era
A manuscript from the Abbasid era

Among innumerable libraries and other centers of learning in ancient Baghdad, the greatest of them all was founded by the early Abbasid caliphs. Called the Bayt al-Hikma—or House of Wisdom—this was the place that the best scholars and professors aspired to reach, and not just Muslims from the Islamic world. Imagine if you will all of America’s Ivy League Colleges rolled into one; add to those the science and technological power  of Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Stanford, and Berkley, then add Oxford and Cambridge to the mix, and the world’s great non-English-speaking universities. That’s coming close to what the House of Wisdom was like—except it was even more influential.

Imagine if you will all of America’s Ivy League Colleges rolled into one; add to those the science and technological power  of Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Stanford, and Berkley, then add Oxford and Cambridge to the mix, and the world’s great non-English-speaking universities. That’s coming close to what the House of Wisdom was like—except it was even more influential.

There were two distinct sides to scholarship in Baghdad. One was translation work, with texts from India, Persia, Greece gathered in huge numbers. Texts originally composed in Persian, Sanskrit, Greek, Syriac, and Chinese were all eagerly rendered into Arabic. Combined with this extensive translation work, however, was a wealth of original scholarship, funded and encouraged by the caliphs. The arts and sciences alike were covered, so that advances were made in almost every imaginable subject, including mathematics, medicine, astronomy, physics, cartography, zoology and poetry.

A Weak-Willed Caliph

In the year 1242, al-Mustasim became the 37th caliph in the Abbasid line.  Baghdad’s glory days were by behind it. And by this stage, the Abbasid caliphs were largely figureheads, propped up by outside forces. If they were important at all, it was as the inheritors of Islamic orthodoxy, and as beacons of cultural greatness, but not as a political power to be obeyed nor a military force to be feared. Indeed, the Abbasids already were in the habit of paying annual tribute to the Mongols. But what glory days they’d been. And the city was still large and prosperous.

A weak-willed, even dissolute character, al-Mustasim was happier hanging out with musicians and drinking wine than he was ruling…

Alas for Baghdad, the court of history doesn’t rate the caliph as the greatest of his line. A weak-willed, even dissolute character, al-Mustasim was happier hanging out with musicians and drinking wine than he was ruling an already weakened empire. In 1251, the Abassids sent a delegation to pay homage on the coronation of Hulagu’s brother, Mongke, when he became the Great Khan. But this was no longer considered enough.

A Demand for Submission

image of Mongke Khan receiving an audience in Karakorum
Mongke Khan receiving an audience in Karakorum

Now, Mongke insisted that the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustasim come in person to Karakorum, the 13th century capital of the Mongol Empire, in the north of modern Mongolia, to fully submit to Mongol rule. The Caliph al-Mustasim refused to do so, and so the final showdown between the Mongols and the Abbasids was set. With the Mongol horde marching on Baghdad, a clash was inevitable, although this wouldn’t be the first encounter between the Abbasids and the Mongols.

In the recent past, the Abbasids had managed a couple of small-scale military victories against Mongol forces. These were soon overturned and weren’t part of any trend of a militarily resurgent Abbasid Empire. Their days of martial glory were long gone. Adding fuel to the fire, al-Mustasim is said to have slighted Shia Muslims by various acts and decrees. He should have known better, as his grand vizier, or senior advisor, was himself a Shia Muslim. This vizier is said to have sided with the Mongols, encouraging their takeover of the city, perhaps imagining that he’d be given control of Baghdad by a grateful Hulagu. If this is what he thought, he clearly didn’t know anything about Hulagu.

A Difficult Decision and a Terrible Solution

The caliph was faced with a choice between surrendering to the Mongol leader, and probably saving his city, or building up his army, and riding out to meet the invading warriors in combat. It almost certainly never crossed the caliph’s mind that he should probably surrender rather than send Hulagu a series of insulting threats. In fact, al-Mustasim discovered a third option: doing nothing. In the words of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”

image of The sack of Baghdad in 1258
The siege of Baghdad in 1258

Baghdad was surrounded, and al-Mustasim realised too late that the Mongol army was far larger and stronger than he’d been told. Nor was the rest of the Muslim world about to rush to his rescue. The siege of Baghdad began on 29th January 1258. The Mongols quickly built a palisade and ditch, and brought siege engines, such as covered battering rams that protected their men from the defenders arrows and other missiles, and catapults to attack the city’s walls. At this stage, al-Mustasim made a last-ditch attempt to negotiate with Hulagu and was rebuffed: a case of too little too late. Al-Mustasim surrendered Baghdad to Hulagu five days later, on 10th February. Adding to the distress of those inside the city, Hulagu and his horde didn’t make any attempt to enter the city for three days.

A Glimmer of Compassion

image of nestorian priests
Nestorian priests on Palm Sunday. Nestorianism was a form of Christianity that had significant success in Asia. Hulagu’s mother and favorite wife were Nestorians.

Late in life, Hulagu would become a Buddhist. At this moment, however, the only sign of compassion he showed was towards Baghdad’s Nestorian Christian community. Nestorianism was a form of Christianity that church authorities had declared heretical in the 5th century. It stressed that the divine and human aspects of Jesus’s nature were separate. Many Nestorians had moved to Persia, where they’d lived ever since. Hulagu, upon entering Baghdad, told the Nestorians to lock themselves in their church and ordered his men not to touch them. And what was the reason for this act of kindness before the bloodbath that was to follow? Simply that Hulagu’s mother and his favorite wife were both Nestorian Christians. At the end of the day, everyone’s got to go home.

Unfettered Destruction

About 3,000 of Baghdad’s notables—including officials, members of the Abbasid family, and the caliph himself—pleaded for clemency. But all 3,000 were put to death without compunction…

With the Nestorians secure, Hulagu allowed his army an unfettered week of rape, pillage and murder to celebrate their victory. About 3,000 of Baghdad’s notables—including officials, members of the Abbasid family, and the caliph himself—pleaded for clemency. But all 3,000 were put to death without compunction; all, that is, except for the caliph. He was held prisoner for a little while longer, perhaps in part so that he could see the full extent of what befell his capital.

Estimates of the death toll range from 90,000 at the lowest end to one million at the other. Apart from being a conveniently round number, the population of Baghdad was around a million, and we know for a fact that not everyone was killed. Whatever the actual number, it included the army that had dared resist Hulagu’s advance, and the civilians, who had no choice either way. Men, women and children down to babes in arms were put to the sword or clubbed to death. Little mercy was shown unless it was of a quick rather than a lingering death.

Death of a Caliph

image of Hulagu locking the Caliph up to starve during the sack of baghdad
According to legend, Hulagu locked the Caliph in his own treasury, surrounded by his wealth, and left him alone to starve to death.

The Caliph al-Mustasim was forced to watch these murders and the plundering of his treasury and palaces. Hulagu taunted him that, with so much gold and so many jewels, he’d have been better off spending some of these riches on building up a bigger army. As for how the caliph met his end, one account says he was locked in his treasury, surrounded by his wealth, and left alone to starve to death. As colourful as this account is, it doesn’t sound likely, given the widespread looting that took place; nor is it corroborated by any sources.

A more plausible account, as reported by several chroniclers, goes like this. Hulagu had been warned by his astronomers that royal blood shouldn’t be spilled onto the earth. If it were, the earth would reject it, and earthquakes and natural destruction would follow. If we consider his record, one might not think Hulagu an especially cautious man. However, in this case, he plotted the safer course. The caliph was rolled in carpets, which would catch any blood spilled, and then he was trampled to death by his cavalry. For the first time since the death of Muhammad, 636 years earlier, Islam had no Caliph whose name could be quoted in Friday prayers.

Destruction of the City of Baghdad

If you’re looking for an example of a city razed to the ground, Baghdad in 1258 would be a good choice. 

Apart from the human casualties, there was the destruction of the 500-year old city itself. Fires were set so that the fragrant scent of sandalwood and other aromatics was smelled up to 30 miles away. If you’re looking for an example of a city razed to the ground, Baghdad in 1258 would be a good choice. After a week Hulagu, ordered his camp out of the city, and moved upwind, away from the stench of rotting corpses. And this from a man who’d not only engaged in numerous slaughters before Baghdad, but whose culture dictated, as we saw earlier, that they never wash their clothes.

Hulagu left Baghdad a broken and depopulated city. Even if those left alive had wanted to rebuild, they lacked the numbers, the resources, and the skills to do so. The death and destruction were such that it would be more than a decade before anyone from Baghdad performed the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. In attacking Baghdad, Hulagu also destroyed the network of canals that irrigated the arable land thereabouts. Famine and plague followed the Mongol horde to Baghdad as elsewhere. It’s easy to see why they’re often tagged with a reputation as the most destructive of all the great empires.

From the lecture series Turning Points in Middle Eastern History
Taught by Professor Eamonn Gearon, Johns Hopkins University
Image of the manuscript from the Abbasid era courtesy of Danieliness, ManuscriptAbbasid, CC BY-SA 3.0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.