February 10, 1258 The Fall of Baghdad

Imagine an army of circus riders, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. In an age when armies moved at a rate of low double-digits per day, these riders could cover 100 miles and more.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad.

Following the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate of greater Syria, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur established a new capital on the banks of the Tigris River, occupied by a Persian village called Baghdad. Mansur’s grandson Harun al-Rashid subsidized the work of scientists, religious scholars, poets and artists who converged into the city. Books and manuscripts were written on paper, a new technology imported from China, and bound, in finest leathers. No fewer than 36 public libraries were built in addition to the grand library, the ‘house of Wisdom”. Baghdad became a center for learning in the medieval world, unusual for the time, most of its citizens, were literate.

Over the next 200 years, local conflicts reduced Abbasid control over much of the vast Islamic empire, to a mostly religious and ceremonial role. But for Baghdad itself, which continued to grow into the center of science, culture and philosophy western writers would later call, the Golden Age of Islam.

Meanwhile far to the east, a boy was born to the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader.

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many inhabitants went about clad in the skins, of field mice. acts of violence would be met with retribution and response between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

By 1197, that boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia to become the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe. One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet. His name was Temujin, known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

Fun fact: Genghis Khan is often depicted with Asian features, though history fails to record of what the man actually looked like. He never let anyone paint his likeness. The Eurasian Steppe was a major crossroad before written history with genetic makeup as diverse, as any on the planet. There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes, or maybe blue. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongol conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors were one of the deadliest episodes, in world history. Between 1206 and 1405, victims are estimated to number between 20 and 57 million. This at a time when the world’s population, was around 450 million. In 1221, Mongol armies carried out one of the bloodiest massacres in history in the old city of Urgench, in modern Turkmenistan. An army of two tumens (20,000) was ordered to murder 24 people, per man. In 1241, five separate Mongol armies invaded Hungary, the main armies under Subutai and Batu Khan. When it was over a third to one-half of the Hungarian population, had ceased to exist.

Let it be said that Batu was also known as Sain Khan, Mongolian for “Good Khan”.

According to The Secret History of the Mongols, Genghis Khan and his son and successor, Ögedei, ordered Chormaqan to attack Baghdad, in 1236. The general made it as far as Irbil about 200 miles from Baghdad, but the mongols would return. Just about, every year. Muslim armies were at times successful against such invasions and at other times, not. By 1241, the Caliph had had enough and began the annual payment of tribute.

That lasted five years. Baghdad sent emissaries to the coronation of Güyük Khan as khagan (Great Khan) in 1246 and that of Möngke Khan, in 1251. Güyük expected full submission and demanded the presence of Caliph Al-Musta’sim in Karakorum, the capital of the Mongolian empire.

Imagine an army of circus riders, armed a minimum of 60 arrows apiece. Laminate composite bows combined the compression of horn with the elongation of sinew to develop draw weights up to 160-pounds. Each was capable of hitting a bird in flight. Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, even to the rear. Each rider has no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop to keep his horses fresh.  In an age when armies moved at a rate of low double-digits per day, these riders could cover 100 miles and more. 

Since 1092 the charismatic and reclusive Hasan-i Sabbah and his successors kept far more powerful adversaries in their place using a secretive, elite band of fida’in adherents to the Isma’ili sect of Shia Islam. Great figures Muslim and Christian alike feared the secretive Hashashin (assassins) of the Alamut valley. The great Saladin himself was not safe from these people. The Muslim military leader awoke on this day in 1176 to find a note resting on his breast, along with a poisoned cake. The message was clear. Sultan of all Egypt and Syria though he was, Saladin made an alliance with the rebel sect. There would be no more such attempts on the General’s life.

The Grand Master of the Assassins even tried to assassinate Möngke Khan and the Nestorian Christian ally of the Mongol Empire, Kitbuqa Noyan. It was a bad idea.

In 1253, Noyan was ordered to destroy several Hashashin fortresses. Möngke’s brother Hulagu conscripted one in every ten military age males in the entire empire and rode out in 1255, at the head of the largest Mongol army ever seen. Their orders were to treat those who submitted with kindness, and to utterly destroy those who opposed them.

Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh, fifth and final Imam who ruled at Alamut, submitted after four days of preliminary bombardment. Mongol forces under the command of Hulagu Khan entered and destroyed the Hashshashin stronghold at Alamut Castle on December 15, 1256.

As Khan, Möngke wanted full submission from several Muslim states, including the caliphate. Hulagu sent word to Baghdad, demanding submission. Musta’sim must have gotten some bad advice. Convinced the Muslim world would rise up against the invader, the caliph sent word. They could all go back where they came from.

A force of some 120,000 Mongol, Turkic and Manchurian cavalry arrived on the outskirts of Baghdad on January 29, 1258. 1,000 Chinese siege engineers joined in along with a force of Armenian and Georgian Christians, bent on revenge for raids carried out against the homeland.

20,000 Muslim horsemen sent out to do battle were crushed while Mongol sappers breached dikes along the Tigris, trapping Abbasid forces outside the city.

The mongol army constructed a palisade and a ditch around the city. Seige engines and catapults pounded the walls. By February 5, Hulagu’s forces had seized much of the defenses. Al-Musta’sim attempted to parlay but it was too late for that. 3,000 of Baghdad’s “notables” then attempted to negotiate. Every one of them were slaughtered.

The city surrendered on February 10, 1258. Mongols held back at last entering the city, on February 13.

To the modern reader, the ‘bloodiest day in human history” conjures images of modern warfare. The industrialized warfare of the Somme. Stalingrad. The homicidal regimes of Adolf Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin. Maybe so but many events in this parade of horribles unfolded over weeks, or months, or years.

A million people live in Baghdad on February 28, 1258. The orgy of killing that began on February saw no fewer than 90,000 killed one at a time, with edged or pointed weapons. Some estimates run to several times that number.

Hulagu’s Nestorian Christian wife Dokuz Khatun persuaded him to spare Baghdad’s Christians. All others, men, women and children, were slaughtered. The largest collection of books on the planet were torn to shreds, their leather jackets used for sandals and pages thrown in the river. They say the Tigris ran red with the blood of the slain, and black with the ink from all those books.

This was all carried out in front of Caliph Al-Musta’sim. His family was murdered save for a son brought back to Mongolia and a daughter taken as concubine, to Hulagu.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

So many people died in the sack of Baghdad, there was no longer labor to maintain agricultural systems. Irrigation canals not destroyed in the assault, broke down and silted up. Generations would come and go before the city regained anything close, to its former population. That center of learning in the medieval world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, was gone forever.