Today in Middle Eastern history: the Mongols sack Baghdad (1258)

The end of the Abbasid caliphate managed to be both somewhat anti-climactic and historically pivotal at the same time. In any practical sense, the caliphs had stopped being politically relevant in 945, when the Iranian Buyids seized Baghdad and put the caliphate under their “protection.” The Turkish Seljuks swept in to Baghdad in 1055 and “liberated” the caliphs from the control of the Shiʿa Buyids, but in reality they simply replaced the Buyids as the folks to whom the caliph had to report. Even the Buyid takeover in 945 was really the end of a process rather than a sudden change; the Abbasids had been losing control of their empire–to local dynasties, to the rival Fatimid Caliphate (which took North Africa from them in 909 and then took Egypt in 969), and even to their own Turkish slave soldiers–for decades before that. Now, the caliphs had gradually been exploiting the breakup of the Seljuk Empire to assert some direct control, at least over Iraq, since the early 12th century, but for the most part they had been reduced to a purely symbolic kind of authority–they had the ability to confer legitimacy, but no real ability to control any territory beyond their literal Iraqi back yard. So the final end of this dynasty wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue.

On the other hand, the end of the caliphate–of all caliphates, really, since the Spanish Umayyads had been eliminated in 1031, the Fatimids had been put out of their misery in 1171, and no future “caliphate” would achieve broad recognition–was a stunning blow to the Islamic world. Even as the caliphs had lost their real authority, the existence of a caliph was one of the things that united Muslims around the world. There was still, nominally at least, a caliphate, and local dynasties were at least supposed to maintain the fiction that they were governing their territories on the caliph’s behalf. Coins were still struck in the caliphs’ names. The caliphs were still mentioned in Friday sermons. But once the caliph was gone, so was that source of legitimacy, and so regional kingdoms searched for new ways to justify their authority. Some tried to claim authority in their own right. Others claimed to rule under the authority of the last, now dead, Abbasid caliph, al Mustaʿsim. Philosophers wrote treatises on the nature of political authority in this brave new world. The Mamluks took in a cousin of al-Mustaʿsim, al-Mustansir, and through him established a new line of Abbasid “shadow” caliphs in Cairo. Some local dynasts pledged their allegiance to these Egyptian Abbasids in a pro forma way, but nobody, the Mamluks included, ever seems to have given them much credence. Their claim on the caliphate was eventually “transferred” to the Ottomans in 1517, according to the Ottomans themselves, but by that point it’s hard to say whether anybody cared.

Imagine the psychological shock to Muslims around the world to see Islam’s greatest city and its symbolic leader brought down like this. I don’t think we have any modern reference for it–maybe seeing the Nazis march into Paris, though I don’t even think that does it justice. Constantinople’s fall to the Ottomans was probably comparable to some degree, although as weakened as the Abbasids were in 1258, their fall surely didn’t seem as inevitable as the Byzantines’ fall probably seemed in 1453. It must have been particularly galling that the deed was done not by other Muslims, or even by Christians, who at least were in the same religious ballpark. Granted, there were some Christians and even some Muslims among the Mongol forces by this point, and Buddhism was on the rise among Mongolian elites, but for the most part they were an animist/pagan bunch, the kind of people Muslims were supposed to convert by force or kill. The thing is, while they may not have been part of the Abrahamic world, the Mongols at their best were arguably the most irresistible conquering force the world has ever seen, and in 1258 they were still near the height of their conquering power.

Map - Mongol Campaigns in the Middle East

Hoping to avoid, well, what eventually happened, the Abbasids started sending tribute to the Mongols in 1241, after the Mongols had destroyed the Khwarazmian Empire (which had previously controlled much of Central Asia and Iran). But the caliphs still saw themselves as the successors to Muhammad, the vicegerents of God on earth–even if that didn’t have much practical weight anymore–and so al-Mustaʿsim drew the line at personally reporting to the Mongolian court at Karakorum to pay homage to the Great Khan. That’s what the Mongols demanded, though, and ever since the rise of Genghis Khan the Mongols didn’t have a lot of experience at not getting what they demanded. China was always first on Mongolian minds, but in 1257 the Great Khan Möngke (d. 1259) resolved to refocus on western expansion. While assigning one of his brothers, Khubilai (d. 1294), to lead their army in China, under Möngke’s close supervision, he assigned another brother, Hulagu (d. 1265), to take an army west, first to eradicate the troublesome Assassin Order (which had probably made at least one attempt on Möngke’s life) and then to capture Baghdad, unless al-Mustaʿsim finally saw the light on the whole paying homage thing.

Hulagu captured the Assassins’ main fortress at Alamut in 1256, which was as close to “eradication” as you could get when the target was a decentralized, underground collection of local cells, so then it was on to Baghdad. Messengers were sent to al-Mustaʿsim to see if he’d reconsidered on submitting fully to Möngke’s demands. He hadn’t–and yet, inexplicably, it doesn’t appear that al-Mustaʿsim took any steps to fortify Baghdad and/or call up extra troops from the surrounding area. Why? Beats me. He may well have believed that God would finally put a stop to the Mongols’ conquests rather than allow the “capital city of Islam” to fall to them. Or maybe he was enough of a realist to figure that some extra defenses or a few more troops weren’t really going to make much of a difference.

As the Mongols approached, al-Mustaʿsim sent what soldiers he had out to meet them, to little effect. The siege itself lasted just shy of two weeks, with al-Mustaʿsim belatedly offering to negotiate (once the Mongols had already seized part of the city’s walls) and being told to get bent. It was later written that a delegation of 3000 city notables approached the Mongols to talk and were all executed for their troubles. Once al-Mustaʿsim had surrendered unconditionally, the Mongols set about wrecking what had once been perhaps the most glorious city on earth. They destroyed the “House of Wisdom” and its untold number of manuscripts (more on that in a moment). They tore down and burned buildings that had stood for centuries. They slaughtered tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of people–men, women, children, everybody.

Why was the destruction so thorough? The Mongols are often portrayed as senseless destroyers, and in general this is an unfair characterization. Don’t get me wrong, they killed a lot of people, by some estimates 5 percent of the total population of the earth by the time they were done. But killing wasn’t their goal. By and large their real interest was in making money, and to that end they actually preferred to keep cities prosperous and contributing taxes and trade goods. There were exceptions, though. A city that surrendered to the Mongols in exchange for soft treatment that later rebelled would almost certainly be destroyed–you know how it is, “full me…can’t get fooled again.” In addition, sometimes, especially at the start of a campaign, the Mongols might make an example of a city in order to “convince” later targets that it was a bad idea to try to resist.

In Baghdad’s case, I think there’s some of that latter element, but there may also have been a personal and/or religious motive at play. Al-Mustaʿsim’s replies to Hulagu’s messages were full of warnings about how angry God would be if Hulagu tried to march on Baghdad, and all the divine wrath that was sure to rain down on Hulagu’s head if he transgressed, so Hulagu may have been motivated to make a point about all of that. The Mongols were fond of responding to Muslim and Christian letters about how they were going to anger God by pointing to their considerable successes and noting that this “God” of which the Christians and Muslims spoke must clearly be on the Mongols’ side. Hulagu was also known to be friendly to Christianity; his mother, wife, and best friend/favored general were all Nestorian Christians. So that may also have had something to do with it as well. Hulagu did hand the caliphal palace over to the Nestorian Patriarch Makkikha II (d. 1265), if that suggests anything.

There are a couple of stories about what happened to poor al-Mustaʿsim. The most famous is that he was rolled up in a carpet and trampled to death by Mongolian horsemen. The Mongols supposedly believed that it was bad luck to spill the blood of a defeated ruler, so their histories are filled with the creative deaths of conquered chiefs, kings, and emperors. I’m not sure how much credence you can give reports like this, many of which were written long after the fact, relying on “sources” that may or may not have ever actually existed. There’s another legend that says the when Hulagu saw the caliph’s vast treasury, he locked al-Mustaʿsim inside with no food or water, advising him to eat and drink his gold and jewels. But this one is for sure a trope, a commentary on royal excess, where the conquering hero is astonished to find that the decadent kingdom he just conquered was hoarding wealth instead of spending it on benefiting the people and strengthening their army. Similar morality tales are sometimes told about Alexander the Great’s conquest of Babylon.

Baghdad rebounded somewhat as an important city under the Mongols, but it never got anywhere close to the heights it had reached before the Mongols came through. It went back into decline starting in the middle of the 16th century, when it found itself in on the often contested frontier between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. Neither empire saw much point to heavily investing in a city that they might lose to the other at any time. Hulagu kept moving west, until the death of Möngke in 1259 forced him to rush back east to ensure that his rights were respected in the succession process. The shell of an army he left behind tried to extend their conquests into Egypt in 1260, but that didn’t work out so well, and the Mongol conquests finally reached their limit.

Long-term, the two biggest impacts of the sack of Baghdad were the loss of the caliphate and the destruction of the House of Wisdom, or Bayt al-Hikma. The caliphate hadn’t really been more than symbolically powerful since at least the middle of the 10th century, but it was still one of the links that bound the Islamic world together–particularly after its rivals, the Fatimid Caliphate and the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba–had come and gone. Most Islamic rulers, no matter how independent they were in reality, pledged at least a nominal fealty to the Abbasid caliph, and in turn he ratified their authority. It was sort of a pantomime, but it worked for the most part as the political system of the Islamic world, and it mostly disappeared in 1258. An Abbasid cousin was spirited away to Cairo and established a “caliphate” there, but it was seen as at best a pale imitation and at worst as a puppet of the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt. This is the “caliphate” that the Ottomans later added to their own titles when they defeated the Mamluks in 1517, which if we’re being pedantic marks the real end of the Abbasid line. But the search for a new kind of politics began in 1258. The caliph’s seal of approval was briefly replaced by descent from Genghis Khan as a marker of legitimacy, but that eventually fell by the wayside too.

The loss of the House of Wisdom is one of those events like the destruction of the library at Alexandria whose ultimate cost is really unknowable to us today. The House of Wisdom began as Harun al-Rashid’s private library but eventually grew into arguably the single greatest place of learning in the world between the 9th and 13th centuries. It attracted scholars and students from all over the world, it produced voluminous works in astronomy, math, medicine, and many other disciplines, and its translation shop is responsible for preserving works of ancient Greek and Indian scholarship that might otherwise have been lost. It’s safe to say that the Renaissance would not have happened the way it did had European scholars not had access to ancient learning via the translations that were done at the Bayt al-Hikma. And the Mongols simply destroyed it. Among other atrocities they dumped the contents of the library into the Tigris River, legendarily turning the water black with ink. Some of the manuscripts were saved by people who simply took them before the Mongols sacked the city, but it’s certain that a lot of works were irreparably lost. As I say, it’s impossible to know how many.

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