Hülegü’s Campaigns in South-West Asia

Hulagu Khan leading his army.

In 1252 the Qaghan Möngke launched fresh campaigns against powers that still resisted the Mongols, partly in order to inject fresh vigour into the process of expansion, which had faltered under Güyüg, but also as a means of consolidating his rule in the wake of his disputed election and the conflict with his Ögödeyid and Chaghadayid kinsfolk. The expeditions were headed by two of his brothers. Qubilai was first deputed in 1252 to outflank the Song empire by subduing the kingdom of Dali (modern Yunnan) and subsequently resuming the war against the Song themselves, an enterprise of which the Qaghan took personal command in 1258, only to die while besieging a Song fortress in the following year. Hülegü was despatched to Iran.

The immediate objective of Hülegü’s expedition was the destruction of the Niẓārī Ismā‛īlīs – the Assassins, or the Mulāḥida, as orthodox Muslims termed them – based in the Alburz mountains and Quhistān. They had offered their submission to Chinggis Khan at the time of his attack on the Khwarazmian empire, and appear to have cooperated with the Mongols in the 1240s. But relations had deteriorated, possibly as a result of Chinggis Khan’s demand that the Master should visit his headquarters. The Assassins subsequently murdered the Mongol general Chaghadai ‘the Greater’, who had given them offence, and following his accession in 1246 Güyüg contemptuously dismissed the envoys of the Master ‛Alā’ al-Dīn with an angry message. Naturally, the Mongol regime could not for long tolerate the existence of a power centred upon a network of reputedly impregnable strongpoints in northern Iran. As the vanguard of Hülegü’s army, the general Kedbuqa had been despatched against the Assassins in Jumādā II 650/August 1252. Obtaining the submission of the Ismā‛īlī governor (muḥtasham) of Quhistān, he had invested the fortress of Girdkūh without success and had then taken the towns of Tūn and Turshīz. William of Rubruck, visiting Möngke’s headquarters in 1254, heard a rumour that the Assassins were seeking to assassinate the Qaghan. This may have been their response to the Mongol attack, but it could equally well have represented propaganda by Shams al-Dīn, qadi of Qazwīn, who had often appealed for Mongol assistance and was currently inciting Möngke against them: in a melodramatic gesture he appeared before the Qaghan, we are told, wearing mail beneath his clothing and explaining this breach of court etiquette by the terror that the Ismā‛īlīs inspired.

The subjugation of the Assassins was not Hülegü’s sole task, however. According to Rashīd al-Dīn, Baiju had recently sent word to Möngke complaining of both the Ismā‛īlīs and the Caliph al-Musta‛ṣim, and so the prince’s commission included the reduction of the ‛Abbasid territories in Iraq; al-Musta‛ṣim was to be given the chance to submit of his own free will. Hülegü was also to bring to heel the Lurs and the Kurds, notably those of Shahrazūr. In advance of Hülegü’s arrival and to ease pressure on the grasslands of western Iran, Baiju and his forces were ordered to move into Anatolia. The Saljuq Sultan ‛Izz al-Dīn Kaykāwūs attempted to resist this new influx of nomads, but was defeated on 23 Ramaḍān 654/15 October 1256 at Akseray. After a brief flight into the territory of the Greek state of Nicaea, he returned and engaged in a struggle with his half-brother, Rukn al-Dīn Qilich Arslan; but at length the two Sultans made peace with Hülegü. Of operations conducted by other Mongol divisions in southern Iran, we know only of those by the general Ötegü China against the Kurds of Shabānkāra, who submitted in 658/1260 after their ruler was killed in the fighting.

Hülegü’s westward march through Central Asia to Iran was a protracted affair, which lasted well over two years. He left his encampment in Mongolia on 24 Sha‛bān 651/19 October 1253 and did not cross the Oxus until 1 Dhū l-Ḥijja 653/1 January 1256. The winter of 1255–6 was spent in the meadows of Shabūrghān, doubtless because an attack on the Assassin strongholds in the Alburz prior to the warm season would have courted disaster. The delays were only partly a question of logistics. We have no precise total for the Mongol forces, which have been estimated at around 150,000; but extensive preparations had been made in advance, including the commandeering of provisions and the appropriation and reservation of all grazing-lands in Hülegü’s path. One relevant circumstance is that his army was to be reinforced not only by Muslim troops recruited along the way, in Transoxiana, but by troops contributed by other branches of the imperial dynasty. The Oyirat chief Buqa Temür, whose mother was Chinggis Khan’s daughter Chechegen, may have accompanied Hülegü from Mongolia. But three princes from Jochi’s ulus, Balagha, Tutar and Quli, and the Chaghadayid prince Tegüder all joined Hülegü en route, and the need to halt at more than one preordained rendezvous may have dictated his pace.

Hülegü headed first for Quhistān, where Tūn had rebelled but was once again taken by force (Rabī‛ I 654/March–April 1256). He then gradually moved on the Assassins’ principal strongholds in northern Iran. Confronted by the main Mongol army, Rukn al-Dīn Khūrshāh, who had just succeeded his murdered father ‛Alā’ al-Dīn as Master, repeatedly played for time over several weeks, sending out first one of his brothers, then his wazir and lastly an infant son, but neglecting to comply with Hülegü’s orders to dismantle his fortresses. However, the mild weather enabled the Mongol forces to converge on his stronghold at Maymūndiz from three directions. Even after some days of bombardment by the Mongols’ siege artillery had compelled him to seek a truce, Khūrshāh still procrastinated, until on 29 or 30 Shawwāl/19 or 20 November he appeared in person. Received kindly by Hülegü, he despatched contingents of Ismā‛īlīs to destroy other fortresses, though the garrisons at Alamūt and Lambasar refused to cooperate. Alamūt was invested by the Jochid prince Balagha and brought to submit through Khūrshāh’s mediation; Lambasar held out for a whole year. Khūrshāh, his usefulness by now greatly reduced, asked to be allowed to go to the Qaghan’s headquarters, but was put to death on Möngke’s orders, either en route or on the way back from a visit that had proved fruitless because Möngke refused to see him. All the Ismā‛īlīs in the Mongols’ power, including Khūrshāh’s entire family, were massacred.

Juwaynī’s paeans on the destruction of the Assassins, allegedly an object of fear for monarchs past and present and those of the Greeks and Franks included, were at once overblown, as a vehicle for praising his master the Ilkhan, and a trifle premature. Girdkūh would resist the Mongols until the end of Rabī‛ II 670/early December 1271, during Abagha’s reign. The Persian historian also ignored the fact that the Ismā‛īlī strongholds in Syria were still untouched by the Mongols. They would remain so, succumbing only to a series of campaigns by the Mamlūk Sultan Baybars during the years 668–71/1270–3; and even thereafter many of the sectaries would find that their talents were a welcome asset to the Mamlūk regime. Nevertheless, the Mongol forces had effectively eliminated the Ismā‛īlī state in Iran, a matter for universal rejoicing on the part of orthodox Muslims.

This would not be the reaction to Hulegü’s next campaign. During the operations against the Ismā‛īlīs he had demanded reinforcements from the Caliph. Al-Musta‛ṣim’s instinct was to comply; but at the prompting of his ministers and amirs, who argued that the Mongol prince’s real purpose was to reduce Baghdad’s capacity to resist a siege, he had failed to send any troops. His position was an unenviable one, since Baghdad had suffered a number of natural disasters over the previous fifteen years and the government lacked sufficient funds to pay its soldiery. When the wazir Ibn al-‛Alqamī urged the despatch of valuable gifts to Hülegü, the Caliph made preparations to do so, only to be dissuaded by the Lesser Dawātdār and his associates, who accused the wazir of currying favour with the enemy; goods of small value were sent out instead. On Hülegü ordering him to send either the wazir, the Dawātdār or the general Sulaymān Shāh Ibn Barjam, the Caliph instructed them to go but then changed his mind, possibly because all three refused; as a result, those deputed were persons of lesser importance.

Hülegü decided to wait no longer. While the vanguard under Baiju and Sughunchaq headed by way of Irbil, he followed with the main army through the Ḥulwān pass. When the Dawātdār attempted to obstruct the progress of Baiju and Sughunchaq, who had crossed the Tigris, he suffered a severe defeat, losing most of his men and retreating into the city. Hülegü reached Baghdad in mid-Muḥarram 656/January 1258 and the Mongols began a close investment. The prince’s own forces built a rampart on the eastern side of the city, while Baiju, Sughunchaq and Buqa Temür constructed one to the west. The Caliph belatedly endeavoured to enter into negotiations, sending out the wazir, but Hülegü claimed that this was no longer enough and required the Dawātdār and Sulaymān Shāh as well; it was al-Musta‛ṣim’s decision whether to follow them. The two men were put to death, while Ibn al-‛Alqamī was spared. The Caliph himself emerged with his sons and his family on 4 Ṣafar/10 February, and the sack of Baghdad began shortly afterwards. Once al-Musta‛ṣim had made over his treasury and his harem to the victors, he was no longer of use to them. As the Mongol army withdrew from the city and halted for the first night, Hülegü had the Caliph and one of his sons executed by the time-honoured method of being wrapped in felt and beaten to death. Another son was put to death in Baghdad around the same time.

It seems that Hülegü had approached the assault on Baghdad in a spirit of caution, possibly because Mongol generals like Baiju were aware of Baghdad’s large population and thought that the Caliph had a formidable army. But he was also influenced, we are told, by the fact that the Mongols were the most recent in a long line of enemies to harbour designs on the city and that their precursors had all come to grief; terrible disasters were forecast in the event of an attack. In an era when the caliphs had been shorn of real political power, some effort had been made to promote an image of hallowed inviolability. According to Rashīd al-Dīn, this theme had been prominent in the response of al-Musta‛ṣim and his officers to Mongol demands for submission, and it also underlay the gloomy prognosis of the astronomer Ḥusām al-Dīn when summoned to provide guidance. But his Shī‛ī colleague Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī offered a more sober – and more congenial – verdict. Asked what would be the consequence of taking Baghdad, he is said to have retorted simply: ‘Hülegü will reign in place of the Caliph.’ Waṣṣāf says that Ṭūsī had been consulted earlier, at Hamadān, when Hülegü first determined to advance against Baghdad, and had predicted an equally auspicious outcome after examining the stars. He and other authors differ from Rashīd al-Dīn in linking this debate with an issue that surfaced some weeks later, namely in what manner – or indeed whether – the Caliph should be put to death. In all likelihood, the sharp difference of opinion manifested itself at successive stages in the assault on the ‛Abbasids. What Hülegü feared – if, as some authors claim, he really was afraid – was offending Tenggeri by shedding al-Musta‛ṣim’s blood on the ground, since this taboo in relation to royal figures had long been current among the steppe peoples; hence the mode of death adopted. Bar Hebraeus may well have been right in hinting that Hülegü ordered the Caliph’s execution as a means of ‘facing down’ the doom-laden predictions.

The end of the ‛Abbasid Caliphate, which had lasted for just over five hundred years, was by any reckoning a momentous event that undeniably made a strong impression on contemporaries and posterity alike. In the wake of al-Musta‛ṣim’s downfall, one story of his death circulated widely and passed into folklore. This was that Hülegü had confronted him with his treasure and asked why he had not used it to recruit more troops in order to resist the Mongols (or, in one version, why he had not despatched it to the Mongols to save himself and Baghdad); he was then incarcerated in a cell with nothing but the treasure and died of starvation within four days. The tale obviously represents an embellishment of a conversation between Hülegü and the Caliph that appears in Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī’s account of the fall of Baghdad and is repeated by Waṣṣāf and other Muslim writers. It clearly held a ready appeal for Christian writers, since variants are supplied by authors as diverse as the Byzantine historian Georgios Pachymeres (d. c. 1310), the Armenian historian Grigor Aknerts‛i (c. 1313), the expatriate Armenian prince Hayton of Gorighos (1307), the anonymous ‘Templar of Tyre’ (c. 1314), the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo (1298), the Dominican missionary Riccoldo da Montecroce (c. 1300) and St Louis’ biographer Jean de Joinville (1309).

In 657/1259 Hülegü sent troops under his son Yoshmut against Mayyāfāriqīn. Its Ayyubid prince, al-Kāmil Muḥammad, who had in person done homage to Möngke in 650/1252, had experienced a change of heart during the siege of Baghdad and prepared to bring aid to the Caliph, although in the event he was too late; he had further endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to form an alliance against the Mongols with Sultan al-Nāṣir Yūsuf of Aleppo. But although Yoshmut received reinforcements from Mosul, Mayyāfāriqīn proved strong enough to hold out until Rabī‛ II 658/April 1260, when al-Kāmil paid for his temerity with his life. Mārdīn, whose Artuqid ruler, al-Sa‛īd Najm al-Dīn Īlghāzī, had omitted to wait upon Hülegü and was playing for time while secretly trying to engineer joint resistance to the Mongols with al-Nāṣir Yūsuf, was another target. Yoshmut’s forces were able to enter the city on 22 Jumādā I/5 May, but the citadel held out until al-Sa‛īd died and his son al-Muẓaffar Qara Arslan, whom he had imprisoned, probably for advocating capitulation, was released and surrendered Mārdīn on terms, whereupon the Mongols withdrew (Rajab 659/June 1261) and al-Muẓaffar was confirmed as prince.

Sultan al-Nāṣir Yūsuf, the principal Ayyubid ruler of Syria, who governed the three major cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Ḥimṣ, had himself been in contact with the Mongols since 642/1244 (p. 84). He had been represented at Güyüg’s enthronement two years later, had reaffirmed his submission at the accession of Möngke, and had exchanged messages with Hülegü since the fall of Baghdad. Yet like al-Sa‛īd of Mārdīn he had repeatedly failed to visit the Qaghan’s court and more recently had neglected to appear before Hülegü, who, according to Ibn al-‛Amīd, was offended that al-Nāṣir had sent him no gifts when he had despatched them annually to Baiju. In 657/1259 the Mongol prince lost patience. During that year he occupied himself with the reduction of al-Nāṣir’s fortresses in the Jazīra, notably Ḥarrān, al-Ruhā (Edessa), Sarūj, Qal‛at Ja‛bār and al-Bīra; the Ayyubid Sultan thus forfeited all his possessions east of the Euphrates. Towards the end of the year, Hülegü moved into northern Syria. Aleppo was commanded by al-Nāṣir’s great-uncle al-Mu‛aẓẓam Tūrān Shāh, one of the few surviving sons of the illustrious Saladin. The city fell after a seven-day investment, on 9 Ṣafar 658/25 January 1260, and was subjected to a massacre. The citadel held out under Tūrān Shāh for another few days, but then surrendered on terms; Tūrān Shāh was spared on account of his age.

News of the fall of Aleppo, which had defied successive invaders since the Byzantine attacks of the tenth century and whose fortifications the Ayyubids had strengthened in recent decades, aroused the greatest alarm throughout Syria. The inhabitants of Damascus, deserted by al-Nāṣir Yūsuf, sent to offer the Mongols the keys to their city. When Kedbuqa made a triumphal entry in Rabī‛ I/March, allegedly accompanied by King Het‛um of Lesser Armenia and the Frankish Prince Bohemond VI of Antioch, who had both accepted Mongol overlordship, the Mongols were given a by no means unfriendly reception. The people of Ḥamā were similarly quick to send Hülegü their submission, although their Ayyubid ruler, al-Manṣūr, who was absent at Birza with al-Nāṣir, thereupon abandoned him to join the Egyptians. Al-Nāṣir himself, distrusting the offer of asylum in Mamlūk Egypt, wandered through Palestine for some weeks before falling into the hands of Kedbuqa’s troops. But some Ayyubid princes rallied more or less willingly to the conquerors. Al-Nāṣir’s brother, al-Ẓāhir Ghāzī, submitted and remained prince of Ṣarkhad. Al-Ashraf Mūsā, the former Ayyubid ruler of Ḥimṣ who had been dispossessed by al-Nāṣir, visited Hülegu’s headquarters and was rewarded with the restoration of his principality and possibly some kind of precedence over all other Muslim rulers in Syria. Al-Sa‛īd Ḥasan, whom al-Nāṣir had imprisoned at al-Bīra but whom the Mongols had released and restored to his principality of Bānyās, is said not only to have donned Mongol garb but to have become a Christian at the desire of Hülegü’s chief wife Doquz Khatun. At Kerak, in southern Palestine, the ruler was another distant cousin, al-Mughīth ‛Umar, who had offered his allegiance to the Mongols as early as 1254, when Rubruck encountered his envoy at Möngke’s headquarters. Confronted now with Hülegü’s demand for his submission, al-Mughīth sent his own envoys to the Mongol prince. In response he was given Hebron and a shiḥna was despatched to Kerak, though in the event he retired northwards on learning of the Mamlūk victory over Kedbuqa. But at the point of his withdrawal in the spring, Hülegü was technically the master of all Muslim Syria. His treatment of those Ayyubids who had submitted suggests that he had no plan to eliminate the dynasty but rather envisaged maintaining them as client princes.

Within a few weeks of the capture of Aleppo, Hülegü retired from Syria with the bulk of his forces, leaving Kedbuqa with an army of 10,000 or possibly 20,000 to guard the newly subjected territories. His exact movements are unclear, though Rashīd al-Dīn dates his arrival at Akhlāṭ on 24 Jumādā II/6 June 1260. The same historian cites as the reason for Hülegü’s withdrawal reports of Möngke’s death on campaign in distant China (August 1259), an explanation also found in Mamlūk sources. The lapse of some months since the Qaghan’s demise renders it more probable that Hülegü had learned of tensions over the succession in the Far East, which would lead to the elections of his brothers Qubilai and Arigh Böke as rival qaghans in May and September/October 1260 respectively. In a letter he wrote to the French King Louis IX in 1262, Hülegü himself was to explain his departure by the exhaustion of his provisions and of the Syrian grasslands and the necessity to move to upland pastures at the onset of the warm season. These were probably not the sole grounds for his withdrawal. In endeavouring to secure Frankish cooperation against the Mamlūks, the Ilkhan naturally made no reference either to the outbreak of internecine war in the Far East or to the need to keep watch on the frontier with his (now) hostile Jochid cousins in the Caucasus.

Prior to leaving Syria, Hülegü had despatched an embassy conveying an ultimatum to the new Mamlūk Sultan Sayf al-Dīn Quṭuz. Although the regime in Cairo since its inception in 1250 had not been characterized by any great stability, it had in recent months profited from an influx of military elements fleeing the Mongols. Prominent among these were the Syrian troops brought by al-Manṣūr of Ḥamā, Shahrazūrī Kurds, and groups of mamluks, including many of al-Nāṣir Yūsuf’s and a corps of Baḥrīs headed by Rukn al-Dīn Baybars al-Bunduqdārī, an enemy of the Sultan who had earlier fled Egypt to enter al-Nāṣir’s service but had now returned and made his peace with Quṭuz. Already committed to a policy of resistance as a means of buttressing his own doubtful title to rule, Quṭuz, at Baybars’ prompting, took the offensive; he had the Mongol envoys executed and made preparations for an expedition into Palestine. Leaving Cairo on 15 Sha‛bān 658/26 July 1260, the Mamlūk army – 12,000 horsemen, according to Waṣṣāf – made its way up the coast to Acre, the capital of the kingdom of Jerusalem. In response to the Sultan’s overtures, the Franks, still smarting from a recent attack on Sidon by Kedbuqa’s forces, were ready to grant the Egyptian forces safe conduct through their territory and to furnish them with provisions. Near ‛Ayn Jālūt, in Galilee, on 25 Ramaḍān/3 September 1260 Quṭuz and his army engaged in a hard-fought battle with the Mongols. The Mamlūk forces, aided by the fact that al-Ashraf of Ḥimṣ deserted to them in the heat of the conflict, inflicted a serious reverse on the enemy. Kedbuqa was killed, and those of his forces who escaped fled northwards towards Lesser Armenia; al-Sa‛īd Ḥasan of Bānyās was captured and executed for apostasy. A smaller Mongol contingent that entered northern Syria some weeks later was crushed near Ḥimṣ in December. The surviving Ayyubids swiftly acknowledged the overlordship of Cairo, and the frontier between the Mamlūk and Mongol territories would soon stabilize at the Euphrates. Ironically, Quṭuz did not live to savour the fruits of his victory: en route back to Egypt he was murdered by a group of mamluk officers headed by Baybars, who made a triumphal entry into Cairo as the new Sultan.

Hülegü was unable to avenge these defeats owing to the growing need to keep watch on events in the Far East and, in all probability, to his own plans to establish his autonomy in Iran and Iraq. As the event that halted the seemingly inexorable Mongol advance, the Mamlūk victory at ‛Ayn Jālūt therefore proved more significant in hindsight. Yet there is no doubt that contemporary Muslims in Syria and Egypt viewed it as an unprecedented triumph over a formidable enemy. Abū Shāma commented that the Mongols had been worsted by those of their own race, Turks (ibnā’ jinsihim min al-turk), and that for every pestilence there existed an antidote of its own kind. Even the Syrian Franks and their confrères in Western Europe greeted the news in tones that suggest they saw Quṭuz’s victory as their own. Hülegü himself was under no illusions as to the implications of the defeat. A few weeks before, Kedbuqa had sent him the captive al-Nāṣir Yūsuf. Hülegü treated him kindly and gave him a patent to rule as a Mongol vassal. But when the news of ‛Ayn Jālūt reached him he smelt duplicity and had al-Nāṣir put to death, either at his headquarters or while the Ayyubid prince was on his way back to Syria.

“`Ayn Jālūt Revisited.” Tārīḫ (Philadelphia). 2 (1992), 119-150.

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