The Mongol conquest of the Abbasid Caliphate culminated in the horrific sack of Baghdad that effectively ended the Islamic Golden Age.
The Islamic Golden Age—from the 8th to the mid-13th century—was one of the greatest periods of human flourishment in knowledge and progress, with Baghdad as 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-Musta’sim, the nominal spiritual authority of the Islamic world—surrender.
History of Baghdad: 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. 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.
If you can imagine the shock waves, were London razed to the ground tomorrow, you would be close to the horror that was about to accompany the Sack of Baghdad in 1258.
This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Middle Eastern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
A Devastating Moment in History for Muslims in the Middle East
For many historians, the arrival of the Mongols into the heart of the 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.
Rather than submit, the Abbasid caliph challenged the Mongols to attempt to 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.
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. Of course, the river turned from red to black with ink.
Learn more about the geographical region we call the Greater Middle East
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. The Mongols’ name during this period in history was a byword for destruction. Who were they and where did they come from? Is there any reason to think that they were any more destructive than other peoples at the time?
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 to hold back incursions of their Mongolian neighbors to the north.
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.
As one writer put it, while Muslims built cities—Baghdad and Cairo, for example—Mongols destroyed them.
One thing that came out of the Mongols’ lack of interest in seizing cities was 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.
Learn more about key phases in the life of Muhammad
The Fierce Mongol Warriors
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.
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 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.
Learn more about Arabization and Islamization
Setting the Scene for Catastrophe Before the Sack of Baghdad
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 an 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 Mongke Khan, who became the Great Khan and sent his brother Hulagu to Baghdad.
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. There were also 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.
Learn more about the most important political turning point in early Muslim history
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 Abbasids 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 it 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 it 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.
Baghdad: A City of Learning
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—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. It comes 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. It comes 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, and 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.
Learn more about the incursion of Berber-Arab armies into the Iberian peninsula
A Weak-Willed Caliph in Thirteenth-Century Baghdad
In the year 1242, al-Musta’sim became the 37th caliph in the Abbasid line. Baghdad’s glory days were behind it. 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 an annual tribute to the Mongols. Despite this, the city was still large and prosperous.
A weak-willed, even dissolute character, al-Musta’sim 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-Musta’sim was happier hanging out with musicians and drinking wine than he was ruling an already weakened empire. In 1251, the Abbasids 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.
Learn more about the spread of papermaking to the Middle East
Mongols Demand Submission by Abbasid Caliph al-Mustasim
Mongke insisted that the Abbasid Caliph al-Musta’sim 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-Musta’sim refused to do 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; however, 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-Musta’sim 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 didn’t know anything about Hulagu.
Learn more about the political center of the Muslim world
A Difficult Decision for the Caliph to Surrender to the Mongols
The caliph was faced with a choice between surrendering to the Mongol leader and presumably saving his city, or building up his army, and riding out to meet the invading warriors in combat. It likely never crossed the caliph’s mind that he should probably surrender rather than send threats to Hulagu. Al-Musta’sim discovered a third option: Doing nothing.
Baghdad was surrounded, and al-Musta’sim realized too late that the Mongol army was far larger and stronger than he’d been told. The rest of the Muslim world wasn’t about to rush to his rescue either. The siege of Baghdad began on January 29, 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-Musta’sim made a last-ditch attempt to negotiate with Hulagu and was rebuffed. Al-Musta’sim surrendered Baghdad to Hulagu five days later, on February 10. 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.
Learn more about the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun
A Glimmer of Compassion for Baghdad Christians
Late in life, Hulagu became 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. 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.
Learn more about the world’s first university
Mongols Execute Baghdad Notables
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 the historical record tells us 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.
Learn more about the founding of Cairo as the new Fatimid capital
Death of a Caliph
The Caliph al-Musta’sim 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 colorful 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.
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. Their scorched-earth tactics make it easy to see why they’re often tagged with a reputation as the most destructive of all the great empires.
Learn more about the theologian and philosopher Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali
Common Questions About the Sack of Baghdad
This most common story is that Al-Musta’sim was wrapped in carpets and trampled to death so as not to shed blood, which the superstitious Mongols believed would cause an earthquake.
Genghis Khan’s grandson Berke was one of the very first Mongol rulers to convert to Islam, and it was largely due to the efforts of Saif ud-Din Dervish. Other Mongols converted from the influence of their wives.