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The Battle of Baghdad in 1258 was a victory for the Mongol leader Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan. Baghdad was captured, sacked, and burned.


Baghdad was the Capital (political) of the Abbasid caliphate, an Islamic state in what is now Iraq, ruled by Al-Musta'sim, the Abbasid Caliph. The Abbasid caliphs were the second of the Islamic dynasties, having defeated the Umayyads, who had ruled from the death of Ali in 661 until 751, when the first Abbasid acceded the throne . At Baghdad's peak, it had a population of approximately one million residents, and an army that was 60,000 strong, though its power and influence had decreased by the mid-1200s. Once mighty, the Abbasids had lost control over much of the former Islamic empire and declined into a minor state. However, although the caliph was a figurehead, controlled by Mamluk or Turkic warlords, he still had great symbolic significance, and Baghdad was still a rich and cultured city.

Composition of the besieging army

The Mongol army, led by Hulagu (also spelled as Hulegu) Khan and the Chinese commander Guo Kan in vice-command, set out for Baghdad in November of 1257. Hulagu marched with what was probably the largest army ever fielded by the Mongols. By order of Mongke Khan, one in ten fighting men in the entire empire were gathered for Hulagu's army (Saunders 1971). The attacking army also had a large contingent of Christian forces. The main Christian force seems to have been the Georgians, who took a very active role in the destruction.. According to Alain Demurger, Frankish troops from the Principality of Antioch also participated. Also, Ata al-Mulk Juvayni describes about 1000 Chinese artillery experts, and Armenians, Georgians, Persian and Turks as participants in the Siege.

The siege

Hulagu demanded surrender; the caliph refused. Many accounts say that the caliph failed to prepare for the onslaught; he neither gathered armies nor strengthened the walls of Baghdad. David Nicolle states flatly that the Caliph not only failed to prepare, even worse, he greatly offended Hulagu Khan by his threats, and thus assured his destruction. (Monke Khan had ordered his brother to spare the Caliphate if it submitted to the authority of the Mongol Khanate.)

Prior to laying siege to Baghdad, Hulagu easily destroyed the Lurs, and his reputation so frightened the Assassins (also known as the Hashshashin) that they surrendered their impregnable fortress of Alamut to him without a fight in 1256. He then advanced on Baghdad.

Once near the city, Hulagu divided his forces, so that they threatened both sides of the city, on the east and west banks of the Tigris. The caliph's army repulsed some of the forces attacking from the west, but were defeated in the next battle. The attacking Mongols broke some dikes and flooded the ground behind the caliph’s army, trapping them. Much of the army was slaughtered or drowned.

Under Guo Kan's order, the Chinese counterparts in the Mongolian army then laid siege to the city, constructing a palisade and ditch, wheeling up siege jdjxnxnxnxnxnnxn and catapults. The siege started on January 29. The battle was swift, by siege standards. By February 5 the Mongols controlled a stretch of the wall. Al-Musta'sim tried to negotiate, but was refused.

On February 10, Baghdad surrendered. The Mongols swept into the city on February 13 and began a week of massacre, looting, rape, and destruction.

Destruction of Baghdad

Hulagu (left) imprisons Calif Al-Musta'sim among his treasures to starve him to death. Medieval depiction from "Le livre des merveilles", 15th century.

Many historical accounts detailed the cruelties of the Mongol conquerors.

  • The Grand Library of Baghdad, containing countless precious historical documents and books on subjects ranging from medicine to astronomy, was destroyed. Survivors said that the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river.
  • Citizens attempted to flee, but were intercepted by Mongol soldiers who killed with abandon. Martin Sicker writes that close to 90,000 people may have died (Sicker 2000, p. 111). Other estimates go much higher. Wassaf claims the loss of life was several hundred thousand. Ian Frazier of The New Yorker says estimates of the death toll have ranged from 200,000 to a million.
  • The Mongols looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces, libraries, and hospitals. Grand buildings that had been the work of generations were burned to the ground.
  • The caliph was captured and forced to watch as his citizens were murdered and his treasury plundered. According to most accounts, the caliph was killed by Trampling. The Mongols rolled the caliph up in a rug, and rode their horses over him, as they believed that the earth was offended if touched by royal blood. All but one of his sons were killed, and the sole surviving son was sent to Mongolia. (see Abbasid)
  • Hulagu had to move his camp upwind of the city, due to the stench of decay from the ruined city.

Typically, the Mongols destroyed a city only if it had resisted them. Cities that capitulated at the first demand for surrender could usually expect to be spared. The destruction of Baghdad was to some extent a military tactic: it was supposed to convince other cities and rulers to surrender without a fight, and while that worked with Damascus, it failed with Mamluk Egypt, which was inspired to resist, and subsequently defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 - a battle that saw the first real unavenged defeat of the Mongol Empire.

Baghdad was a depopulated, ruined city for several centuries and only gradually recovered some of its former glory.

Comments on the destruction

"Iraq in 1258 was very different from present day Iraq. Its agriculture was supported by canal networks thousands of years old. 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. The Mongols filled in the irrigation canals and left Iraq too depopulated to restore them." (Steven Dutch)
"They swept through the city like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep, with loose reins and shameless faces, murdering and spreading terror...beds and cushions made of gold and encrusted with jewels were cut to pieces with knives and torn to shreds. Those hiding behind the veils of the great Harem were dragged...through the streets and alleys, each of them becoming a the population died at the hands of the invaders." (Abdullah Wassaf as cited by David Morgan (historian))

Causes for agricultural decline

Some historians believe that the Mongol invasion destroyed much of the irrigation infrastructure that had sustained Mesopotamia for many millennia. Canals were cut as a military tactic and never repaired. So many people died or fled that neither the labor nor the organization were sufficient to maintain the canal system. It broke down or silted up. This theory was advanced by historian Svatopluk Souček in his 2000 book, A History of Inner Asia and has been adopted by authors such as Steven Dutch.

Other historians point to Soil salination as the culprit in the decline in agriculture. [1] [2]


The year following the fall of Baghdad, Hulagu named the Persian Ata al-Mulk Juvayni governor of Baghdad, Lower Mesopotamia, and Khuzistan. At the intervention of the Mongol Hulagu's Nestorian Christian wife, Dokuz Khatun, the Christian inhabitants were spared. Hulagu offered the royal palace to the Nestorian Catholicus Mar Makikha, and ordered a cathedral to be built for him.

See also

  • Mongol
  • Abbasid
  • Baghdad
  • Islamic
  • Tigris-Euphrates river system
  • Soil salination



  • Amitai-Preiss, Reuven. Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260–1281 (first edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-521-46226-6.
  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. Boston: Blackwell Publishing, 1990. ISBN 0-631-17563-6.
  • David Nicolle, and Richard Hook (illustrator). The Mongol Warlords: Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Hulegu, Tamerlane. London: Brockhampton Press, 1998. ISBN 1-86019-407-9.
  • Saunders, J.J. The History of the Mongol Conquests. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8122-1766-7.
  • Sicker, Martin. The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2000. ISBN 0-275-96892-8.
  • Souček, Svat. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-521-65704-0.

External links

  • An article describing Hulagu's conquest of Baghdad, written by Ian Frazier, appeared in the April 25, 2005 issue of The New Yorker.
  • Steven Dutch article

See also

  • Seljuk siege of Baghdad 1157