In the year 1258, two of the greatest empires in world history collided.
For one, it was yet another in an incredible string of conquests.
For the other, it resulted in its downfall and the destruction of one of the world’s greatest centers of knowledge and learning.
For the people who suffered through it, it was one of the worst days in world history.
Learn more about the Mongol siege of Baghdad on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The Mongol Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate would both be put on the list of the greatest empires in history.
While the heart of each empire, the Arabian Peninsula and the steppes of Mongolia, are far apart from each other, the expansion of both empires eventually brought them into a deadly conflict.
The Mongols sprung onto the world stage in a dramatic fashion in the early 13th century. The founder of the Mongol Empire, Ghengis Khan, achieved the difficult feat of conquering and unifying the Mongol tribes. Having achieved that, he led the Mongols to a string of incredible conquests running as far as China, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Persia.
When Ghengis Khan died in 1227, unlike Alexander the Great, the empire didn’t die with him. Different bands of Mongols continued to expand and conquer.
In particular, for the purposes of this episode, in Persia, the Middle East, and eastern Turkey, the Mongols were known as the Ilkhanate. In 1252, the leader of the Mongols in the southwestern part of the Empire was Hulagu Khan, the brother of the Great Khan, Möngke Khan, and the Mongol ruler of China, Kublai Khan.
The Ilkhanate found themselves in conflict with the major power in the region for the last several centuries, the Abbasid Caliphate.
The Abbasid Caliphate became the dominant force in the Islamic world after the Abbasid Revolution in the year 750, with the overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate.
The Abbasid Caliphate was widely considered to be the golden age of Islam.
If you think of the Islamic world as a center of knowledge when Europe began to regress in the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, this mostly occurred during the Abbasid Caliphate.
In particular, the center of the Abbasid Caliphate was its capital city of, Baghdad.
Unlike many cities in the fertile crescent, which had ancient origins, Baghdad was founded as an Islamic city. The exact date of the founding of Baghdad was July 30, 762, when the Caliph Al-Mansur ordered the construction of a city on the banks of the Tigris River, which he had selected.
He so loved the location that he was reported to have said, “This is indeed the city that I am to found, where I am to live, and where my descendants will reign afterward.”
The city quickly grew to become the most important city in the Islamic world and indeed the entire world.
If you remember back to my episode on the largest cities in world history, for a 300-year period, between the years 900 to 1200, Baghdad was the largest city in the world. At its peak, it had a population of 1.2 million people, probably becoming the first city to reach the million mark since ancient Rome.
The success of Baghdad wasn’t just a function of the number of people, it was also the quality of the city and what it represented.
Soon after its founding, Baghdad became a major center of learning. It was probably the world’s center for science, philosophy, mathematics, and medicine.
It was also the home to the Abbassid translation movement, which collected as many Greek texts as possible and translated them into Arabic.
The center of the translation movement was known as the House of Wisdom. It was the greatest library in the world and, at the time, the world’s greatest center of learning. The famed mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who I have mentioned many times in previous episodes, studied at the House of Wisdom.
However, after five centuries, as with most empires, the Abbassid Caliphate began to go into decline.
The Seljuk Turks conquered much of modern-day Turkey, the Khwarezmian Empire controlled Iran, and the Ayyubid dynasty controlled most of Egypt.
By the year 1200, the Abbassid empire had been reduced to the area around the Tirgis and Euphrates Rivers in modern-day Iraq.
So this was the state of the Abbassid empire when the Mongols began to move south out of Central Asia.
The initial reason for the move into this region had to do with what happened to a Mongol trade delegation sent to the Khwarezmian Empire, which controlled most of Persia at the time.
At this point, the Khwarezmian Empire was larger and more powerful than the Abbassids.
Initially, Ghengis Khan initially had no intention of invading Khwarezmian Empire. However, the Khwarezmian Sutaln, having heard stories of the Mongols, executed the trade delegation.
Ghengis Khan wasn’t going to let this stand, so he moved into modern day Iran and Central Asia.
The Mongols systematically destroyed many of the cities they encountered, putting all the inhabitants to the sword.
Ghengis Khan died in 1227, but the Mongols kept conquering and expanding. Hulagu Khan took control of the Mongols in the region and kept moving toward the Abbassids and Baghdad. The goal wasn’t just to take Baghdad but also Syria and Egypt.
It was in January of 1258 that the Mongols arrived at the gates of Baghdad.
The Mongols, despite being horsemen from the Asian steppes, had quickly become adept at siege warfare. They had been able to take walled cities wherever they went.
Baghdad would be the largest city that the Mongols had ever attempted to take, and thus would be their largest siege. In preparation, they raised a huge army of 100,000 to 150,000 men. The largest Mongol army in history.
In addition to the Mongols, they also recruited a force of 10,000 Christian mercenaries from Armenia, 1,000 siege engineers from China, and additional units of Persians and Turks.
When the Mongols arrived at the gates of Baghdad, they offered the caliph the opportunity to surrender the city without bloodshed. This is what the Mongols always did because they, pragmatically, would rather not spend the time and effort fighting if possible.
If a city refused to surrender, then the Mongols showed them absolutely no mercy.
The Abbassid Caliph, Al-Musta’sim, did not believe that Baghdad could possibly fall, so he refused the Mongol offer. He assumed that the entire Muslim world would rise up to defend the city.
Before the widespread use of gunpowder and cannons, laying siege to a walled city was a very difficult thing. Some sieges could take years, depending on how well-defended and supplied the city under siege was.
The Abbasids managed to assemble a defensive force of 50,000 men, including 20,000 cavalry. However, they weren’t well equipped and had very little discipline. The city of Baghdad’s defenses were also not well prepared, and the city walls hadn’t been properly repaired.
Baghdad was simply too large of a city to have adequate supplies. Imagine if New York City was shut off from the rest of the world and nothing could come in or out. How long would the food currently in the city last?
On January 29, the Mongols began their siege. They constructed a wooden wall around the city and also dug a ditch so no one could escape, and no forces could come out to attack.
Siege engines began attacking the walls of the city, and by February 5, they had already taken or destroyed a large part of the city walls.
At this point, the caliph knew that the city would be taken so he tried to reopen negotiations, but Hulagu would have none of it. That wasn’t how the Mongols worked.
An estimated 3,000 leading citizens of the city attempted to negotiate separately, and all of them were killed.
On February 10th, the city formally surrendered, but Mongols didn’t do anything. They waited for three days until February 13 to enter the city.
February 13, 1258, was probably the bloodiest day in human history up until that point. When the Mongols entered the city, they spared almost no one. The only people who were spared were Nestorian Christians, and that was only because Hulagu’s mother was a Nestorian.
Estimates on the number of people who died range from 200,000 up to one million.
Men and women, young and old, children and adults, were all killed. Anyone who tried to flee was intercepted and killed on the spot.
It was said the Tigris River ran red with blood. Hulagu later had to move his camp upwind from the city due to the stench coming out from it.
The caliph Al-Musta’sim was captured and forced to watch his city be systematically destroyed.
The royal palace built of exotic wood, was burned to the ground. The great books found in the library of the House of Wisdom were burned or torn apart. The leather covers of the books were used a sandals by Mongols. Thirty-six libraries were destroyed.
It was the greatest destruction of knowledge since the fire of the Library of Alexandria.
Eventually, Al-Musta’sim himself was executed. The Mongols, however, believed it was unlucky to spill royal blood, so they rolled him in a carpet and then repeatedly ran over the rolled carpet with horses.
The fall of Baghdad marked the end of the Golden Age of Islam. The 500 year reign of the Abbasid Caliphate was over.
The fall of Baghdad marked a turning point in world history in many ways.
The Islamic world was never as unified as it was before the Mongol invasions. Infighting and factionalism divided the formerly unified caliphate into numerous sultanates, caliphates, and kingdoms.
The fall of Baghdad was also the high point for the Ilkhanate Mongols as well. They too began to fall apart due to infighting factionalism. They made an attempt at trying to conquer Egypt, but it wasn’t successful and they never went much further than Baghdad in the Middle East.
Much of the massive army which was assembled was sent to China to assist in the conquest of the Song Dynasty.
Berke Khan, the grandson of Ghengis Khan who lead the Golden Horde in Eastern Europe and Russia, had converted to Islam and was outraged over what his cousin Hulagu had done. He eventually had the Golden Horde declare war on the Ilkhanate.
The Mongols also managed to destroy the irrigation system in Mesopotamia which had sustained agriculture in the region for thousands of years. After the Mongols destroyed it, it was never rebuilt and many of the irrigation channels silted up. As a result, agriculture in the region was depressed for centuries.
As for Baghdad, the Mongols did attempt to reconstruct the city and used it as their capital, but it was never the same. The city of Baghdad didn’t return to its previous population until the 20th century, and it never again was as important as a center of learning.
The fall of Baghdad was one of the most significant events in world history in that it completely altered the path of two major empires.
Even after all the horrors of industrial and mechanized warfare of the 20th century, February 13th, 1258, still remains one of the bloodiest and most violent days in all of human history.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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