Mongol Conquest of Baghdad

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).

An artist’s impression of early Abbasid-era Baghdad, a vast round city ranged around the caliph’s palace. Credit JEAN SOUTIF / LOOK AT SCIENCES / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY. Abbasid Baghdad. Artwork of Baghdad in the 10th century at the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate, the Islamic dynasty that ruled an Islamic empire with this city as its capital. The Tigris River is in the background. At the time, Baghdad was a city four kilometres in diameter with four gates. It was protected by a moat six metres wide and a double circular enclosure. The palace, the mosque and barracks were located in the centre, while the town was a ring between the two walls. The central dome (green) was 48 metres high. It collapsed in 941 from a lightning strike.


12th-13th century Grand city of marble palaces and spotless streets, centre of trade, learning and the arts.

Founded on a circular plan on the banks of the Tigris in AD 762 by Caliph al-Mansur, in the ninth century Baghdad was the world’s largest city – a centre of learning and the arts to rival ancient Athens. It suffered a decline from about 1000, but remained a flourishing city and capital of the Abbasid Caliphate until 1258, when it was sacked by the Mongols, who killed most of the population and destroyed its vital canal system.

In the late 1160s or early 1170s, Benjamin of Tudela – a Jewish traveller from northern Spain – described a round city, 20 miles in circumference. At its heart was the vast palace of the caliph, whom Tudela did not name but whom he clearly saw as trustworthy and benevolent, a good friend to Baghdad’s large Jewish community.

The caliph lived most of the year in seclusion, appearing in the city just once a year during the festival of Eid al-Fitr (marking the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting), when he was accompanied by princes from across the Islamic world. On that occasion “he rides on a mule, and dressed in royal robes of gold and silver and fine linen; on his head is a turban adorned with precious stones and over the turban is a black shawl as a sign of his modesty, implying that all this glory will be covered by darkness on the day of death. The road he takes along the riverside is watched all year through so that no man shall tread in his footsteps.”

Sixty years later, another man described his visit: Yaqut al-Hamawi, born in Constantinople, who was the associate of a Baghdadi trader. He saw Baghdad as “a veritable city of palaces, made of marble. The buildings are usually of several storeys, the palaces and mansions gilded and lavishly decorated, and hung with beautiful tapestry and hangings of brocade or silk. The rooms are tastefully furnished with luxurious divans, costly tables, Chinese vases and gold and silver ornaments.

“The water gates are guarded night and day,” he continued. “Every household is supplied with water at all seasons by the numerous aqueducts which intersect the town; the streets, gardens and parks are regularly swept and watered, and no refuse is allowed to remain within the walls. An immense square in front of the palace is used for reviews, military inspections, tournaments and races; at night the square and the streets are lighted by lamps. “The scene on the river is animated by thousands of gondolas, decked with flags, dancing like sunbeams on the water, and carrying the pleasure-seeking citizens from one part of the city to the other. Along the quays lie whole fleets at anchor, sea and river craft of all kinds, from Chinese junks to old Assyrian rafts resting on inflated skins.”

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