Long before the Americans came in bombs blazing the Mongols managed to raze Baghdad to the ground in a siege that was so brutal and bloody that it would take Baghdad centuries to fully recover. It was a sacking unlike any other in history in bloodiness, brutality and sheer terror and cemented the Mongols’ reputation as the most bloodthirsty of conquerors throughout history. Consequently there is a push from more modern historians to downplay some of the Mongol atrocities of the past and really emphasise the good they did (religious tolerance, freedom and the opening of the Silk Road among some). And the Mongols did good, but when they did bad, they REALLY did bad. If you offered any kind of resistance to the Mongols you would surely end up with your head on a stake, but not before you probably witnessed your wife raped and children slaughtered. If you offered no resistance, paid your taxes and swore allegiance to the Khan; life, more or less would continue the way it had always been. Unfortunately there were those who refused to pay any kind of respect to those they considered of barbarian stock. Al Mustai’sim was one of those rulers.
Al Musta’sim became the Caliph of Baghdad in 1242. He is said to be not a particularly strong leader, and one who was quite enthralled with his own wealth. He had vast fortunes of gold that he kept in his storerooms and lived quite the extravagant life. He also relied heavily on advisors rather than ruling in his own right. It was this lack of initiative that might have cost the Caliph his life and the lives of a countless amount of Baghdad residents.
Hulagu was a grandson of the great Genghis Khan. His brother Mongke Khan had become Great Khan in 1251 and asked Hulaga to lead an expedition to recapture and solidify the rule of the Mongols in those areas further east. Hulaga would follow the Mongol ideology with treating those who submitted to the Great Khan with kindness and respect, but totally destroying those who did not adhere. Hulagu (like most Mongols) was tolerant of all religions. There were Christians, Buddhists and even Muslims in his army. He had erected statues and helped build places of worship but like all Mongol leaders, he was completely merciless for those who would not submit (and again – it did not matter what faith you belonged to).
Having already destroyed the Assassins in Persia, Hulagu set his sights to Baghdad. One of, if not the most, magnificent city of its time. Baghdad was home of many important scholars, poets and other prominent people of the Islamic world. Hulaga, sent forth a convoy asking for the agreement of terms from the Great Khan. The Caliph told him in no uncertain terms that he would never submit and that if Hulagu decided to attack, an Islamic army will be raised and would destroy the Mongols. Now, if there is one thing that Genghis Khan taught us; it is that you don’t make threats to the Mongols and get away with it, and his grandson would make Al Musta’sim pay for his threat. Historians are divided on why the Caliph might have sent such a defying response to the Khan, but most lay some kind of blame on his advisor and Grand Vizier. Whichever the case, it appears that after making the threat, the Caliph sat on his hands. He did not strengthen the cities defences nor did he enlist the armies of Islam as he had threatened to do. The Caliph was either naïve about the whole situation or just completely incompetent. Difficult to ascertain. What isn’t difficult to ascertain however is Hulaga Khan’s response. He gathered a huge army and marched on Baghdad, intent on killing every last inhabitant.
When approaching the city Al Musta’sim sent an army of around 20 000 soldiers to meet the Mongols. This army was no match for such a large and formidable force and the Mongols continued their march into Baghdad. Arriving at the walls of the great city on the 29th of January 1258, the Khan and his Mongol forces started to lay siege to the wall. Its important to make note that it wasn’t just Mongols involved in the siege of the city, there were Georgians, Armenians, Turks, Chinese and even a group of Shi’ite Muslims who were not happy at the persecution at the hands of the Sunni Al Musta’sim. With the use of battering rams and catapults (reminiscent of the scenes from Lord of the Rings) it wasn’t long before the walls of Baghdad started to crumble. The Caliph, realising his gross misjudgement, decided to push for peace. But, with the Mongols, you don’t get a second chance at peace. As the soldiers of the Caliph laid down their arms, they were all slaughtered by the Mongols forces. When Hulagu Khan finally entered the city of Baghdad on the 13 of February, his forces were vying for blood. What followed was a week long slaughter and total destruction of not only a people, but a culture. The Georgian forces convinced the Khan to let the Christians of the city live, so while they where holed up in the church a mass genocide was going on outside. I can only imagine how these Christians felt, surely their faith would have been stronger than ever, safe, inside the church, while just outside of those protected walls, hell was being unleashed.
Apart from the Christians, no one was spared. Men, women and children were all hacked to death with no mercy. A whole generation of Baghdadis were simply wiped off the planet. No living animal was spared. Even livestock and pets were put to the sword with the same ferocity as the people. All the blood and guts of those people killed coupled with the destroyed ancient works of the scholars, poets and writers which made Baghdad the most cosmopolitan city of its time, had reduced the Tigris River into a slow moving red/black sludge of blood, guts and the written word. It was truly horrific. The stench of those killed was unbearable. Historians have said that walking through the city was like walking through a thick mud; only this mud was that of decaying flesh.
And the man who’s false bravado caused this murdering spree? Well reports vary about the fate of Al Musta’sim. After being forced to watch the merciless slaughter of his city, some say he was locked in his gold storehouse and told to eat the gold, being endeared to it so much. Another report states he was wrapped up in a rug and had Mongol horses trample him to death (as per Mongol tradition – they would not spill royal blood). Either way I could imagine there would be at least a tinge of regret oozing out of the Caliph. As for Hulagu Khan, he marched on to Syria and continued on with his campaigning for the Mongol Empire.
The sacking of Baghdad remains one of the most brutal episodes of all history. It demonstrated what would happen when opposing the Mongols. The Mongols had a vision that by utterly destroying one city/people/culture, the next, would think a little more carefully before not agreeing terms with these nomadic horse riding barbarians from the east. Baghdad would take many centuries to reach the same prestige it once had prior to the Mongol invasion. The Great Library of Baghdad was completely destroyed (as was everything in the city) and thus we lost many treasured works which date back to antiquity. It was not just the people and the city destroyed, but also the entire culture and history of Baghdad wiped out in one week of bestial slaughter.