Palms Over Baghdad: Hulagu’s Expedition to Oust the Abbasid Caliph – Part I


By Cam Rea

In 1253 CE, a breeze began to blow into Baghdad from the east. Unbeknownst to Al-Musta’sim, the Abbasid Caliph, this breeze would soon turn into a violent shamal (wind). This shamal was gaining energy from Karakorum, the Mongol capital of the most powerful empire on earth. For in the same year, Mongke Khan, the Great Khan, held a khuriltai (a political and military council meeting) with siblings and close family. It was during this meeting that Mongke expressed his desire to launch a dual military campaign: one led by Khubilai against the Sung Dynasty in China, and another against the Arabs and Persians, this led by Hulegu, grandson of Genghis Khan.

Hulagu Khan, 14th century

Hulagu Khan, 14th century (Public Domain)

An artist’s depiction of ancient Karakorum.

An artist’s depiction of ancient Karakorum. (CC BY 2.0)

Hulegu’s mission was to conquer the Arabs and Persians and to expand further westward by subjugating Muslim nations, particularly bringing the Abbasid Caliphate under the Mongol yoke, and from there to proceed southwards through the Kingdom of Jerusalem to conquer the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. But there was another reason for Mongke’s decision to bring the Muslim nations under Mongol control:  riches and fear.

Riches and Fear

Thirty-six years earlier in 1217, the Mongols under the leadership of Genghis Khan invaded the Khwarazmian Empire, which ruled Persia at the time, and toppled it by 1221. However, the invasion of Persia was not completed. After Genghis Khan died in 1227, his son, Ogodei, inherited the throne. To complete this, Ogodei promoted Chormaqan to act as military governor of Persia with the sole mission to subjugate and control. Chormaqan reigned as military governor of Persia from 1231-1237.  Ogodei replaced Choraqan with Baiju in 1237. Baiju was tasked with the same mission: control the territory and expand the borders—which he did by conquering the Seljuks of Asia-Minor from 1242-1256. However, a Muslim delegation arrived at the court of Mongke in 1252, led by the religious leader, Qadi of Qazvin, which requested Mongke to replace Baiju with a royal Mongol prince.

O illustrious and magnanimous Qa’an we do not speak of a bridge made of stone, or brick, nor a bridge of chains. I want a bridge of justice over the river, for where there is justice, the world is prosperous. He who comes over the river Amu Darya (Oxus) finds the Qa’an’s justice, and on this side of the river there is justice and a path. On that side of the river, the world is evil, and some people become prosperous through injustice.

Audience with Möngke.

Audience with Möngke. (Public Domain)

This message to the Great Khan made it clear that if the Persian people were citizens of the Mongol Empire, then they should act like it and be given a representative from Genghis’ own bloodline. As to how bad the situation in Persia was under the Mongol military governors, it is unclear, but leaves one to speculate that it was not good, and enough to cause a delegation to travel to the Mongol capital of Karakorum to request a change in leadership. Mongke could have turned them away but he was no fool. The Mongols were long familiar with the influential Muslim merchants traversing throughout Asia.

Influential merchants traded goods across Asia.

Influential merchants traded goods across Asia. (Public Domain)

Besides the great flow of wealth, the Mongols also noticed the influential reputation of the renowned Persian scientists, astronomers, astrologers, mathematicians, technologist, painting, carpet making, music and poetry.

Jabir ibn Hayyan, "the father of Chemistry".

Jabir ibn Hayyan, “the father of Chemistry”. (Public Domain)

This level of sophistication was too lucrative for the Mongols not to control, especially if they could conquer southern China and combine their commerce and intellectuals with that of the Muslim world. Therefore, it was imperative to make the citizens of Persia feel equal if the Mongols wished to enjoy the lucrative commercial and intellectual benefits. Thus, the formation of the Ilkhanate was established with Hulegu as its head.

Ilkhanate, part of the Mongol Empire located primarily across modern Iran, as led by Hulegu.

Ilkhanate, part of the Mongol Empire located primarily across modern Iran, as led by Hulegu. (Public Domain)

Besides riches, there was fear. Mongke feared a small group called Assassins, who were a Shiite sect more properly known as the Nizari Ismailis. Mongke’s paranoia, while reasonable, affected those who entered his court. William Rubruck, who traveled to the Mongol court in 1253-1255, describes the atmosphere prior his admission into the court.

This interrogation was being conducted because Mangu Chan had been informed that four hundred Assassins, in various disguises, had made their way in with the aim of killing him.

Assassins had a notorious reputation. Illustration of an agent of the Ismailis (Order of Assassins) (left, in white turban) fatally stabs his target.

Assassins had a notorious reputation. Illustration of an agent of the Ismailis (Order of Assassins) (left, in white turban) fatally stabs his target. (Public Domain)


The first Mongol contingents left Mongolia in the spring of 1253. Before the conquest of the Middle East was underway, Mongke and the Mongol princes threw a lavish party for Hulegu and showered him with gifts, such as jewelry, money, fine horses and robes for himself, his wives, and sons.

A Mongol horse archer in the 13th century.

A Mongol horse archer in the 13th century. (Public Domain)

Mongke’s biggest gift to his brother was issuing an order that two out of every ten Mongol armed forces would join the Hulegu army. After the feasting was ended and the hangovers cured, the beginning of what was to become a grand army left on 19 October 1253. Once on the move, the Mongol army lumbered through central Asia and swelled into an enormous force before coming to rest at the outskirts of Samarkand.

Samarkand, (Uzbekistan) is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia.

Samarkand, (Uzbekistan) is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

While at Samarkand, Hulegu continued to increase the size of his forces. When Eastern Christian communities received news of Hulegu’s planned campaign, the vassal Kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia provided troops and were enthusiastic in recovering former Christian lands in Mesopotamia.

Further to the north, Batu Khan, Mongol ruler and founder of the Golden Horde, division of the Mongol Empire, provided newly conscripted tumens (an army unit of 10,000 soldiers), mostly Turks and Alans, led by Balaghai, Khuli, and Tutar, Batu’s nephews. Furthermore, Hulegu brought in a “thousand engineers from China [who] had to get themselves ready to serve the catapults, and to be able to cast inflammable substances.”

Ancient Chinese mobile catapult cart.

Ancient Chinese mobile catapult cart. (CC BY 1.0)

The total size of Hulegu’s army was roughly between 100,000-150,000 men, probably closer 120,000 total. However, Hulegu probably gained additional forces along the way as he marched through Persia.

To prepare the way for such a large military force, Hulegu dispatched advanced troops across central Asia with the mission to sweep the path of livestock in order to ensure a good supply of pasture for his horses and pack animals when they passed through the area. Prior to pushing towards their objective, it was important to fatten the horses during the summer before moving out in the winter. While the collection of troops and supplies keep coming in, Hulegu sent his vanguard ahead of the main force to negotiate and procure potential allies before his massive army passed through their territories. Once his army pushed out, a vast army of non-combatants, such as Chinese engineering corps and European craftsmen, were tasked to pave the way by clearing the roads of obstacles, repair or building bridges, have boats ready for the rivers, and construct catapults besides other devices of war. However, this was no ordinary traveling army. In fact, this Mongol force was a traveling city accompanied by their families.

Hulagu Khan leading his army.

Hulagu Khan leading his army. (Public Domain)

Whether Hulegu’s army consisted of 120,000 or 150,000 men, each horseman would have extra horses for the journey. This would indicate that between 240,000 to 300,000 horses, if not more, accompanied the army along with perhaps 1.8 million sheep. To ensure that overgrazing would not occur, the vast amount of horses and sheep were widely dispersed. Besides ensuring the accompanying animals got pastures to feed, the army and their families also needed food. While sheep is one source of food, Hulegu’s agents were sent ahead, tasked to collect stores of flour, wine, and mares for kumiz (fermented horse milk). The big difference between Hulegu’s army when compared to Genghis Khan’s army, is that Genghis Khan’s forces moved like a storm, it was not a traveling city, whereas Hulegu’s army moved a few kilometers a day due to its sheer size.


On 1 January 1256, Hulegu’s army crossed the river Amu Darya (Oxus). When Hulegu crossed the Amu Darya, he was met with rejoicing, unlike what took place some thirty-nine years earlier. As Hulegu’s army passed through, he and his forces were greeted with great enthusiasm by chiefs and dignitaries.

Amu Darya in Turkmenistan.

Amu Darya in Turkmenistan. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“There came willingly to his service a large number of the princes and generals. People from every house and by roads to praise him. At every halting place where they stopped they received praise from those along the way.”

Map of the Abbasid Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. 850.

Map of the Abbasid Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. 850. (CC BY 3.0)

Before proceeding to the lands of the Abbasid Caliph, Hulegu had some business to conduct in the Elburz Mountains. When the leader of the Assassins, Rukn ad-Din received news that Hulegu was coming for him, he quickly sent letters and by a show of compliance, began to dismantle the castles by removing all battlements and towers. However, he took his time in doing so, which caused Hulegu to lose patience and on 8 November 1256, the Mongols encircled Maymundiz castle.

After four days of battle, the Mongols finally assembled their mangonels, a type of siege engine, and proceeded with bombarding the fortress causing Rukn ad-Din to surrender later that month.

Medieval Mangonel.

Medieval Mangonel. (Public Domain)

Once in Mongol custody, Hulegu ordered him to tell the remaining fortress to surrender and dismantle immediately. Not all surrendered of course. Many had to be taken by storm and in doing so, every man, woman, and child were put to the sword.

Alamut fortification in Iran and Ismailites Assassins stronghold.

Alamut fortification in Iran and Ismailites Assassins stronghold. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Muslim rejoicing over the destruction of the Assassins quickly turned cold. Many seemed unaware that Hulegu now turned his attention towards the grand city of Baghdad, which served as the seat and power of the Muslim faith.

Letters to the Caliph

With the Assassins a distant memory, Hulegu moved his forces to Tabriz in April 1257, and sent an emissary to the Caliph with a message. These messages are provided by Rashid al-Din.

“When the Heretics’ fortresses were conquered we sent emissaries to request assistance from you… In reply you said that you were in submission, but you did not send troops. Now, a token of submissiveness and allegiance is that you assist us with troops when we ride against foes. You have not done so, and you send excuses.

No matter how ancient and grand your family may be, and no matter how fortunate your dynasty has been … is the brightness of the moon such that it can eclipse the brilliance of the sun? Talk of what the Mongol army has done to the world and those in it from the time of Genghis Khan until today may have reached your hearing from common and elite, and you may have heard how, through God’s strength, they have brought low … dynasties … all of whom were families of might and majesty.

Previously we have given you advice, but now we say you should avoid our wrath and vengeance. Do not try to overreach yourself or accomplish the impossible, for you will only succeed in harming yourself. The past year is over. Destroy your ramparts, fill in your moats, turn the kingdom over to your son, and come to us…. If you command is obeyed, it will not be necessary for us to wreak vengeance, and you may retain your lands, army, subjects. If you do not heed our advice and dispute with us, line up your soldiers and get ready for the field of battle, for we have our loins girded for battle with you and are standing at the ready. When I lead my troops in wrath against Baghdad even if you hide in the sky or in the earth … I shall put your city and country to the torch. If you desire to have mercy on your ancient family’s head, heed my advice. If you do not let us see what God’s will is.”

After listening to Hulegu’s message, the Caliph replied:

“Young man, you have just come of age and have expectations of living forever. You have … passed prosperously and auspiciously in dominating the whole world. You think your command is absolute…. Since you are not going to get anything from me, why do you seek? You come with strategy, troops, and lasso, but how are you going to capture a star? Does the prince not know that from the east to the west, from king to beggar, from old to young, all who are God-fearing and God worshipping are servants of this court and soldiers in my army? When I motion for all those who are dispersed to come together, I will deal first with Iran and then turn my attention to Turan, and I will put everyone in his proper place. Of course, the face of the earth will be full of tumult, but I do not seek vengeance or to harm anyone. I do not desire that the tongues of my subjects should either congratulate or curse me because of the movement of armies, espcially since I am of one heart and one tongue with the Qa’an (Mongke) and Hulegu. If, like me, you were to sow seeds of friendship, do you think you would have to deal with my moats and ramparts and those of my servants? Adopt the path of friendship and go back to Khurasan (Central Asia).”

After hearing the Caliph’s response, Hulegu sent back a wrathful reply, stating, “God the eternal elevated Genghis Khan and his progeny and gave us all the face of the earth, from east to west. Anyone whose heart and tongue are straight with us in submission retains his kingdom, property, women, children, and life…. He who contemplates otherwise will not live to enjoy them.”



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