The Mongol Invasion of the Near East

Mongol hostilities resumed in the Near East in 1256 under Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu, but this time the target was Islam. Years of succession problems in Karakorum had disrupted the momentum of Mongol conquests, and the western Eurasian khans were anxious to spread Mongol hegemony across the Euphrates and into Syria and Egypt. The new great khan, Mangu, rewarded Hulagu’s fidelity in the succession fight with newly conquered lands centred in Persia and Khorasan, then charged him with subjugating the caliph in Baghdad and the destruction of the last remaining great power in the Near East, the Mamluk Sultanate in Cairo (Map 4.4). As a prelude to his attack on Syria and Egypt, Hulagu decided to isolate the two smaller independent Islamic powers which stood on either side of Syria’s eastern flank, the Ismaili Order of Assassins in the north and the Abbasid Caliphate in the south.

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Map 4.4 The Mongol Invasion of the Near East.

The last caliph in Baghdad, al-Mustasim Billah, was little more than a figurehead for the once-powerful Abbasid Caliphate, a ruler whose power had been eroded by hundreds of years of outside invasion and internal civil war. The Abbasid revolution of 750 was followed by a long process of political disintegration as one province after another broke free of the caliphs in Baghdad. By the mid-tenth century, the local Persian aristocracy treated the Arabic caliphs as puppets. A century later, in 1055, the Seljuk Turks conquered Baghdad, and then turned their military might against the Byzantine Empire with devastating results, culminating in the victory at Manzikert in 1071. Seljuk power declined in the early twelfth century in the face of the Latin crusades, but by the 1190s Islam had blossomed again under the leadership of Saladin, recovering in Egypt and Syria under the Ayyubids, with Ayyubid control ultimately usurped by their own soldier-slaves, the Mamluks, in 1250.

But even as the thirteenth century witnessed the successful Islamic counter-crusade against Christian possessions in Palestine and Lebanon, Islam itself was under siege by a powerful sect known as the Ismaili Order of the Assassins. This radical Shi’ite sect had terrorized orthodox Islam from their mountain fortresses in northern Iran for nearly 200 years, using political murder and subterfuge in an attempt to overthrow the existing Sunni order. Though their main targets were the rulers of Islam, their daggers also found some victims among the Latin crusaders, who brought their name and fame back to Europe, giving Christendom the term ‘assassin’ for the first time.

Drawing on assistance from troops from the Golden Horde, Hulagu Khan entered Persia in 1256 with an army of over 100,000 men and a very substantial siege train manned by a thousand crews of Chinese engineers. The Ismaili mountain fortresses were his first objective. As the Mongol military machine reduced castles in Mazanderan, Meimundez and Alamut, the last master of the Assassins, Rukn ad-Din, threw himself on the mercy of Mangu Khan, journeying to the court in Karakorum, only to be denied an audience. He was murdered on the way back to Persia, kicked to death by his escorts. By February 1257 over 100 of the Ismailis’ castles had been demolished, their inhabitants, including women and children, slaughtered. The Mongols had accomplished in mere months what the Islamic world had tried to do for two centuries: end the Assassins’ reign of terror.

Hulagu next sent letters to the caliph of Baghdad, ordering him to dismantle his walls and come to the khan’s tent and swear allegiance. Mustasim refused, replying that many armies had failed against Baghdad in the past. Unfortunately, centuries of neglect had left the city’s walls dilapidated, and its garrison of some 50,000 men were ill-equipped and poorly trained. The caliph also failed to heed the warnings of his generals to conscript more soldiers. And even though his position as the Abbasid caliph gave him the political authority to summon assistance from the whole of Islam, the only two regional powers left, Syria and Egypt, refused to assist him. Finally recognizing the gravity of his situation, the caliph ordered the walls repaired only one day before the Mongols arrived. His patience at an end, Hulagu commanded the Mongol army to converge in four columns on Baghdad. In response, Mustasim ordered a force of 20,000 cavalry to delay the steppe warriors’ advance. As the Muslim army approached, the Mongols broke the dikes on the banks of the Tigris River, flooding the garrison’s camp and cutting off their line of retreat. Only a few Muslim warriors survived the flood and the engagement with Hulagu’s vanguard, returning to the city with the throngs of refugees.

A ditch and rampart having been dug around Baghdad’s walls, Hulagu ordered the bombardment to commence on 30 January 1258. After seven days of uninterrupted barrage with the trunks of palm trees, foundation stones and shot, the caliph offered his submission, but the khan would accept nothing short of unconditional surrender. On the morning of 6 February the Mongols stormed and captured the entire eastern wall. Over the next seven days the city was pillaged and its libraries, universities, mosques and palaces burned. The garrison was put to the sword, and the caliph and his three sons were sewn up in Persian carpets and trampled to death under the hooves of Mongol horses. Baghdad, once the cultural and intellectual centre of the Islamic world, lost a few hundred thousand of its inhabitants. The carnage was so great that the Mongols were forced to abandon their camps because of the stench of decomposing corpses.

With the Assassins and Abbasids now destroyed, Hulagu Khan now turned his attention toward Syria. His ranks had actually swelled to perhaps 300,000 troops with the addition of new tumans and new Muslim vassals, including a contingent of 16,000 Christian crusaders sent by King Hayton of Armenia. Faced with an overwhelming army, the sultan of Syria turned in desperation to the Mamluks for assistance, but his cry fell on deaf ears. In Cairo, the new Mamluk sultan Kotuz had no intention of helping the Syrians. Instead, he executed the khan’s ambassador and prepared for the impending Mongol invasion.

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