The Mongol sack of Baghdad, remain one of the bloodiest and most tragic events of all time.
During the Islamic Golden Age (8th through mid-13th century) the city of Baghdad was one of the main centers of human flourishing and knowledge on the planet. It attracted many of the best scholars and engineers the world over thanks to its general tolerance, and it’s wealth and population rivaled the largest cities of China.
In January 1258, Mongol forces had reached the city perimeter. The resulting destruction would go down as one of the bloodiest events of all time and marked the end of the Islamic Golden Age. Along with the loss of life was the untold amounts of literature and knowledge lost, making the sack of Baghdad one of the worst tragedies to have ever beset humanity.
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The Mongol forces, led by Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, began their campaign in Persia with several offensives against Nizari groups. They left absolute devastation in their wake as they sacked cities and were now on their way to Baghdad, the capital city of the mighty Abbasid Caliphate.
The caliph of the Abbasids, Al-Musta’sim, sent word to Hulagu that he would not submit to Mongol demands and challenged the Mongols to try the city if they dared. Hulagu took him up on his offer and on January 29, the Mongols had reached the city gates. They began digging ditches and constructing palisades and they used catapults and siege engines to attack the defenses. Very quickly they had captured many of the city’s defenses and had the inhabitants surrounded. Within a few days it was clear that the Mongols were going to be victorious.
On February 10, the caliph himself came out to meet Hulagu to surrender with an agreement that the Mongols would spare the population. It’s said that Hulagu agreed to these terms, then promptly turned around, separated the population, and slaughtered the people.
“Al-Musta’sim’ sent Hulagu presents and an offer of surrender. Lured by a promise of clemency, he and his two sons gave themselves up to the Mongol. On February 13, 1258, Hulagu and his troops entered Baghdad, and began forty days of pillage and massacre; 800,000 of the inhabitants, we are told, were killed. Thousands of scholars, scientists, and poets fell in the indiscriminate slaughter; libraries and treasures accumulated through centuries were in a week plundered or destroyed; hundreds of thousands of volumes were consumed.” (Durant)
The actual number of deaths ranges anywhere from 90,000 to 500,000; but it’s safe to say most of the inhabitants of Baghdad were completely and utterly vanquished. Almost without exception, the population was either put to the sword or sold into slavery. It’s said that the Tigris River first ran red from the blood of the philosophers and engineers and then black from the ink of all the literature thrown into the water. Every building of note was also demolished, including the great libraries and the world-famous House of Wisdom.
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During this period, Europe was a barbaric backwater compared to the level of sophistication and knowledge possessed within the major cities of the Middle East. After this fateful day, it would take the Islamic world centuries to recover and the city of Baghdad never would.
“Baghdad was one of the most brilliant intellectual centers in the world. The Mongol destruction of Baghdad was a psychological blow from which Islam never recovered. Already Islam was turning inward, becoming more suspicious of conflicts between faith and reason and more conservative. With the sack of Baghdad, the intellectual flowering of Islam was snuffed out. Imagining the Athens of Pericles and Aristotle obliterated by a nuclear weapon begins to suggest the enormity of the blow.” (Dutch)
The Golden Age of Islam was over and a dark age was to begin. February 13, 1258 was without question one of the most tragic, pivotal days for humanity.
– “The Mongols” by Steven Dutch
– “The Age of Faith: The Story of Civilization” by Will Durant
– “The Mongol Warlords” by David Nicolle