Palms Over Baghdad: Hulagu’s Expedition to Oust the Abbasid Caliph – Part 2

By Cam Rea

[Read Part 1]

The Fall of Bagdad

Hulegu sent messages to his commanders informing them to muster their forces and move on Baghdad.

Baiju moved his forces from Rum via Mosul to cover the western side. Ked-Buka advanced from Luristan, a province of western Iran in the Zagros Mountains. Contingents from the Golden Horde under the command of Batu’s three nephews approached from Kurdistan from the north.

Tode Mongke Khan of the Golden Horde.

Tode Mongke Khan of the Golden Horde. (Public Domain)

Hulegu led the main force from Hulwan, located in Kermanshah Province in western Iran. In other words, the Mongol army was approaching the city in an arc from the north, which allowed them to converge from the east and west. The Mongols, due to the use of pontoon boats, overcame the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which once served as natural barriers against invading armies. As the Mongols advanced down both banks of the Tigris, the Caliph sent out 20,000 cavalries in an attempt to disperse and slow down the Mongol advance. Mongol scouts ahead of the main force found the Caliph’s cavalry and reported. Not long after, the Mongol engineers took advantage of the situation by breaking the dikes of the dams along the Tigris, which flooded the terrain behind the cavalry, downing many of them as they attempted to flee back to the city. With the only threat between Baghdad and the Mongol advance eliminated, Baiju’s forces marched down the west bank of the Tigris and took control of the commercial quarter, while Hulegu entered the Shiite suburbs to a rejoicing crowd beyond the eastern walls. Within twenty-four hours, the Mongols surrounded the city of Baghdad.

Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258.

Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258. (Public Domain)

On 30 January 1258, the Hulegu gave the order to commence the bombardment of the city walls. However, there was a problem. The Mongol siege crews had no rocks. The siege train carrying the needed stones was three days’ journey away. While the Mongols looked for suitable projectiles to throw at the city walls, Hulegu ordered his Mongol archers to fire arrows over the walls with messages attached, which informed the citizens that they would be treated with kindness if they surrendered. While Hulegu sought to end this siege peacefully, Mongol engineers, likely accompanied by a detachment of troops, came up empty handed when it came to finding quality rocks. However, not all was lost. Mongol engineers stripped foundation stones from the buildings in the suburbs and uprooted palm trees to batter the walls of Baghdad.

The Caliph quickly sent ambassadors to negotiate peace but Hulegu would not hear the pleas and detained them. Hulegu’s message was clear, surrender was not enough; it must be unconditional surrender. While the Caliph continued to send envoys to Hulegu, the Mongols bombarded the walls, particularly focusing on the Ajami tower, which was reduced to rubble by 1 February.

Persian painting (14th century) of Hulegu’s army besieging a city. Note use of the siege engine.

Persian painting (14th century) of Hulegu’s army besieging a city. Note use of the siege engine. (Public Domain)

The Mongols finally broke into the city the next day and seized a portion of the eastern wall. However, the battle was far from over and the negotiations continued for another four days. On the 6 February, the bombardment ended but the Mongols remained on the wall until the Caliph surrendered.

Hulegu sent another message, this one to the armies of Baghdad. The message told them to lay down their arms and leave their posts. Seeing the situation was unwinnable by use of arms, Izz al-Din and Mujahid al-Din advised the Caliph to flee the city. But one man by the name of Ibn Alqami proposed that the best way to end this was for the Caliph to go before Hulegu. Hulegu’s terms to the Caliph were simple. Hulegu desired that the Caliph turn over his daughter so that he could marry her and that the Caliph recognized Hulegu as the supreme authority. If these terms were accepted, Hulegu would end the siege. The Caliph agreed and his forces marched out thinking they were going to retire to Syria.

Medieval depiction of Hulegu (left) and Caliph Al-Musta'sim.

Medieval depiction of Hulegu (left) and Caliph Al-Musta’sim. (Public Domain)

According to the 13th century Aramean historian Kirakos of Gandzak, the “countless multitudes came through the city gates, climbing over each other to see who would reach him first (Hulegu) divided up among the soldiers those who came out and ordered (the soldiers) to take them far from the city and to kill them secretly so that the others would not known. They killed all of them.”

The Many Versions of the Caliph’s Death

Four days later, Al-Musta’sim, soon to be the last Caliph of Baghdad, surrendered. There are various accounts of his surrender.

Kirakos of Gandzak account:

Al-Musta’sim emerged with his two sons, with all the grandees and much gold, silver, and precious stones as fitting gifts to Hulegu and his nobles. At first (Hulegu) honored him, reproaching him for dallying and not coming to him quickly. But then he asked the caliph: “What are you, God or man?” And the caliph responded: “I am a man, and the servant of God.” Hulegu asked: “Well, did God tell you to insult me and to call me a dog and not to give me food and drink to God’s dog? Now in hunger the dog of God shall devour you.” And he killed him with his own hands. “That, “he said, “is an honor for you, because I killed you.”

The account of 13th century polymath and prolific writer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi:

“When they took the walls, the King commanded the people of the town to join in demolishing them. Envoys passed to and fro…. After this, the Caliph, seeing that all was over, sought leave to come out. He came out…and saw the king, being accompanied by his son and courtiers…. Then (Hulegu) ordered the town to be pillaged.”

He went to examine the Caliph’s residence and walked in every direction. The Caliph was fetched and ordered presents to be offered. Whatever he brought, the king at once distributed amongst his suite and emirs, military leaders and (all) those present. He set a golden try before the Caliph and said: ‘Eat.” “It is not edible,” said the Caliph. “The why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrowheads and come to the bank of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?” “Such,” replied the Caliph, “was God’s will.” “What will befall thee,” said the King, “is also God’s will.”…

Then he ordered the Caliph to bring out the women who were attached to himself and his sons. They went to the Caliph’s palace: there were 700 women and 1500 eunuchs, and they shared out the rest…. On the 14th Safar (20 February), the king set out from the gates of the town and sent for the Caliph….On that day he met his end in that village (Waqaf) together with his middle son. The next day his eldest son and those accompanied him met their end at the Kalwadh Gate.

The account by 13th century historian Rashid al-Din:

Hulegu Khan… the next morning … ordered Su’unchaq to go into the city, confiscate the caliph’s possessions, and sent them out. The items that had been accumulated over six hundred years were all stacked in mountainous piles…. The caliph was summoned… At the end of the day on Wednesday the 14th of Safar 656 (20 February 1258, the caliph, his eldest son, and five of his attendants were executed in the village of Waqaf … and the reign of the House of Abbas came to an end.

The account of Mustawfi Qazvini based much of his work on the histories of Rashid al-Din:

At Hulegu’s order, the executioner prepared for the killing, and maliciously brought a sack. He bound the Caliph, head, hand and foot and put him in a sack, which became his habitation. He said, “See this descendent from stock that is unequal led, and how the world has placed him in this sack.”

“Then they broke his head as though it were a stone and he died quickly. Fate dealt him a grievous blow, and brought destruction on that beautiful king. When the renowned Musta’sim was killed, a great name tumbled to the dust.”

Besides the Caliph and his sons being put to death, the three thousand courtiers who accompanied the Caliph were also said to be put to the sword.

The Destruction of Baghdad

Kirakos of Gandzak account:

Hulegu then ordered the troops guarding the walls to descend and kill the inhabitants of the city, great and small. (The Mongols) organized as though harvesting a field and cut down countless, numberless multitudes of men, women, and children. For forty days they did not stop. Then they grew weary and stopped killing. Their hands grew tired; they took others for sale. They destroyed mercilessly.

However, Hulegu’s wife, the senior Khantun (lady), named Doquz Khatun was a Christian. She spared the Christians of Baghdad, Nestorians and other denominations and beseeched her husband not to kill them. And he spared them with their goods and property.

Hulegu ordered all his soldiers to take the goods and property of the city. They all loaded up with gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, and costly garments, for it was an extremely rich city, unequalled on earth.

Hulegu himself took his share the caliph’s treasures—three thousand camel loads; and there was no counting the horses, mules and asses.

Grigor of Akanc’s account:

After this they convened a great assembly of old and young horsemen, including the Georgian and Armenian cavalry, and with countless multitudes they moved on the city of Baghdad. When they arrived on the spot they took at once the great and famous city of Baghdad, filled with many people and rare treasures, and countless gold and silver. When they took it they slaughtered mercilessly and made many prisoners.

While various Christian communities were spared the sword, the Muslim population suffered greatly. After the massacre ended, the Mongols and their allies torched the palaces and mosques. The wagon loads of treasure plundered from the city were sent to Mangku Khan in Karakorum or to Hulegu’s fort on the island of Shalia in Lake Urmiya.

Mongol siege.

Mongol siege. (Public Domain)

The number of dead is unknown. Martin Sicker in his book The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna estimates that 90,000 died. Ian Frazier in his article ‘Annals of history: Invaders: Destroying Baghdad’ published by The New Yorker, estimates (depending on the source) that “two hundred thousand, or eight hundred thousand, or more than a million” may have died. According to Andre Wink in his book Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World, Vol.2, that perhaps 50,000 troops along with 200,000 to 800,000 civilians. A. Y. Al-Hassan in his book, The different aspects of Islamic culture: Science and technology in Islam, Vol.4, Ed. suggest that perhaps 2,000,000 may have perished.

The Destruction of Intellectual Wealth

The destruction of Baghdad was one of greatest disasters in human history. While one can elaborate on the great amount of wealth lost, one must not overlook the great amount of intellectual wealth lost, such as art, philosophy and science, all put to torch, along with the library, the learning centers, the hospitals and so forth. But even more precious was the amount of life lost that had no part in the conflict. Some may ask how a group of people could do such a thing. The answer is not simple.

But given what is known about the Mongols, they strongly despised farmers and cities. To them farming was a waste, which is understandable. Mongols had no use for growing crops. They needed lands for their horses and herds to graze. Cities were seen as centers of laziness. This also is understandable, for the Mongols were always on the move and had not time for leisure for their horses and herds needed constant attention. Life on the steppe had not the division of labor found in a city in order for it to function. Lastly, the Mongol record of sacking cities in China, Iran, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, always came with a tremendous loss of life and shows their disregard for human life. They treated people as if they were nothing more than animals, herding them before their great army and preparing them for the slaughter as the army slowly encircles them for the grand kill. While despicable, it is understandable in how the Mongols, such as Genghis Khan, Hulegu, or Tamerlane, treated civilians, like that of Baghdad, for such men saw outsiders as nothing more than vermin, unless that person or group of people had something to offer that could provide the Mongol administration or military machine an advantage.

The Battle of Blue Waters between the armies of Lithuania and the Golden Horde in 1362.

The Battle of Blue Waters between the armies of Lithuania and the Golden Horde in 1362. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When looking at the Mongols from afar, a quote from the French historian René Grousset comes to mind when considering uncivilized and civilized:

“It has been noted that the Jenghiz-Khanite Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century was less cruel, for the Mongols were mere barbarians who killed simply because for centuries this had been the instinctive behavior of nomad herdsmen toward sedentary farmers. To this ferocity Tamerlane added a taste for religious murder. He killed from piety. He represents a synthesis, probably unprecedented in history, of Mongol barbarity and Muslim fanaticism, and symbolizes that advanced form of primitive slaughter which is murder committed for the sake of an abstract ideology, as a duty and a sacred mission.”

The outcome of Hulegu’s sacking of Bagdad was expected, especially coming from a man who grew up on the uncivilized steppe, while Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane’s later sacking of Bagdad in 1401 was not expected, especially coming from a man who grew up surrounded by civilization.

Top Image: Mural of siege warfare, Genghis Khan Exhibit in San Jose, California, US (CC BY 2.0)


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