The Destruction of Baghdad
In 1258, Genghis Khan's grandson, Hulegu Khan, turned his army of 300,000 southwards from Azerbaijan. The orders of the Great Khan were clear. All the land southwards was to be placed under Mongol rule. The first major city in his path was Baghdad, indisputably the greatest city in the Islamic world.
For several years the Abbasids, under the Caliph Mustansir had repulsed Mongols raids into Mesopotamia. But with Mustansir's death in 1242, the caliphate had passed to his son Mustasim. Frivolous and cowardly he was exploited by ruthless officials who had gotten used to running the city while Mustasim concentrated on spiritual affairs.
Mustasim's vizier, Ibn al-Alkami assured him that the oncoming Mongol threat was small and Baghdad's defenses more than adequate. Bolstered by this assessment Mustasim scoffed at the Hulegu's demand that the caliph do obeisance and dismantle Baghdad's walls, telling the khan's envoy "When you have pulled off the hoofs from your horse's feet, we will demolish our fortresses." But unknown to Mustasim, al-Alkami was sending secret messages to Hulegu, urging him to attack and describing the true and pitiful state of the city's defenses. Persian accounts of this treachery contend that the chief minister, a Shia Muslim, had been motivated by his resentment of the Caliph's persecution of his Shia brethren. In the meantime ambassadors rode back and forth, offering to pay tribute to Hulegu but refusing to surrender, while behind the city walls there was growing fear and confusion.
Hulegu finally grew impatient with Mustasim's temporizing and commenced military operations. Joining Hulegu were Christian Georgians who saw an opportunity for plunder and revenge -- and since Hulegu's wife Doquz-khatun, was a Christian, some of them believed the Mongols were really on a new Crusade to free the "holy land" of the infidel.
With the Mongols only a day away, Mustasim finally woke to the peril. Orders were given to repair the walls and a contingent of 20,000 troops was sent to confront the enemy. As they camped in the fields in sight of the city walls the Mongols surprised them by smashing the dams and dikes nearby and flooding the encampment. Those who did not drown were cut to pieces by the Mongol cavalry.
The Mongol forces next moved into the western suburbs. On the eastern side, Hulegu's engineers used immense gangs of prisoner-slaves to construct a ditch and a rampart that eventually surrounded the city "like a bracelet round the arm of a girl." On January 30th the bombardment of Baghdad began. Events had moved so swiftly that the carts bringing up ammunition, hewn from the Jebel Hamrin Mountains, were still three days away. So the artillery units improvised with stumps of palm trees and foundations from the occupied suburbs.
Mustasim sent a message to Hulegu accepting all the khan's terms, but was curtly told the time for negotiation was past. The heaviest bombardment was directed against the southeast corner of the walls and by February 1st, the third day of the bombardment, the Persian Tower was in ruins. On February 6th, the Mongols stormed and took the east wall. There they remained, as gradually the city surrendered.
Mustasim continued to send envoy after envoy to Hulegu to beg for terms, but they were refused an audience. Instead Hulegu demanded that the commander of the caliph's army and the deputy vizier order the withdrawal of the Muslim army from the city. The two leaders accomplished the task by telling the troops that they would be allowed to march away to Syria. As soon as the whole army was assembled on the plain outside the walls, the Mongols closed round them and killed them all, then the army commander and deputy vizier were also killed. Baghdad, without one soldier left to defend it, lay entirely at Hulegu's mercy.
On February 10th, Mustasim, his three sons and a retinue of about 3000 nobles went to Hulegu's camp. They were received courteously. Mustasim was commanded to order the inhabitant to evacuate the city. The caliph sent messengers to Baghdad proclaiming that all who wished to save their lives should come out of the city unarmed. Vast crowds of people herded out through the city gates. As soon as they were gathered together on open ground they were mercilessly butchered. The number killed varies according to the source Persian accounts claim between 800,000 and 2 million slaughtered, while Hulegu, in a letter to Louis IX of France, boasted of 200,000 slain. In a display of the discipline which explains much of their success, Mongol troops had stood on the walls of the helpless city awaiting orders. On the 13th the Mongols entered the city in several columns at different points and told to do as they wished. What they wished was destruction and mayhem. Magnificent mosques were toppled; palace after palace was looted in the orgy of destruction that was the sack of Baghdad.
Though the city had lost its commercial preeminence, it remained an important cultural, spiritual and intellectual center. The city held more than thirty colleges, among them the Mustansiriya, the best appointed university in the world. The cityscape was dotted with magnificent mosques, vast libraries of Persian and Arabian literature, plus numerous palaces belonging to the Caliph and his family and perhaps one of the greatest personal treasures to be found anywhere. It was the greatest city the Mongols conquered in the Middle East, and into this oasis of civilization they brought sword and torch. Books were dumped into the Tigris until it ran black from their ink.
Most of the surviving women and children were herded together and transported to Qaraqorum, as was the wealth of the Caliph's treasure house.
On the 15th, while the pillage was underway, Hulegu visited Mustasim's palace and forced the caliph to host a banquet for the Mongol leaders while the city burned and the cries from the street echoed into the night. Mustasim was forced to surrender all his treasures of gold, silver, and jewels. A Muslim Mongol had warned Hulegu against killing Mustasim, saying that if "a drop of the caliph's blood touched the earth it would mean eternal damnation." Hulegu heeded the warning. When dinner was over he had Mustasim and his sons sewn into Mongol carpets then trampled beneath the hooves of the Mongol cavalry. The caliph's blood did not touch the earth.
Baghdad's agony lasted for seven days. On February 20th Hulegu was forced to strike his tents and march his army away because of the stench of rotting corpses hanging over the smoking rubble that marked what was left of the once great city.