How to Invade Iraq: The Mongol Way

By Peter Konieczny

[Paper given at the 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, held at Western Michigan University (2007) and online here.]

When I began researching the Mongol conquest of Baghdad, I came across an account by an Iraqi writer from the early fourteenth-century. With much excitement I found the relevant passage, and began to read it. He summed up the siege and fall of Baghdad with these words: “Even a brief mention of it would be terrible to hear – how much worse its recapitulation in detail! Things happened which I shall not record, imagine them and do not ask for a description!”

Despite this unpromising beginning, I soon found a wealth of information from contemporary writers and chroniclers, including those who were on the saw the event firsthand. For the last couple of years I have been piecing this story together, not only because the story of the first conquest of Baghdad is an interesting one in its own right, but also because it adds some insights into the present-day situation in Iraq.

Despite it being such an important historical event, the story of Baghdad’s fall has been poorly served by historians. Most Muslim historians deal more with alleged collaboration by Shi’ites with the Mongols against the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate than with anything else, while Western historians have usually focused on the most outrageous stories associated with the invasion, often repeating wild claims that millions of people were killed and that Baghdad was completely destroyed by the Mongols.

The short amount of time here prevents me from saying everything I want to say, so in some sections I am going to be very brief. Hopefully, most of you have got my handout which outlines the events and gives some chronicle excerpts. I also have a couple of overheads to show some maps of Iraq, in case someone is not familiar with the country.

I will first talk about the situation in the Abbasid Caliphate in the mid-thirteenth century, which by this time had seen better days. Political intrigues, civil wars, and generally poor governments had sapped the power and grandeur of the Caliphs, and Abbasid controlled territory was now limited to only central and southern Iraq.
Meanwhile the city of Baghdad had its own share of difficulties. Chroniclers relate the many floods and fires that devastated the city, as well as sectarian and civil violence between its residents. One Muslim traveler from Spain visited the city in 1185, and was clearly disappointed by what he saw. He described it as “an effaced ruin, a remain washed out, or the statue of a ghost. It has no beauty that attracts the eye, or calls him who is restless to depart to neglect his business and to gaze.”

In 1242, al-Mustasim succeeded to the position of Caliph, not knowing that he would be the last Abbasid to rule in Baghdad. Contemporary chroniclers, all of whom had the benefit of hindsight, are almost universal in their contempt for al-Mustasim. One writer described him as “devoted to entertainment and pleasure, passionately addicted to playing with birds, and dominated by women. He was a man of poor judgment, irresolute, and neglectful of what is need for the conduct of government.” Another chronicler summed up the Caliph this way: “Undoubtedly he was not fit for kingship and greatness was beyond him.”

The Caliph’s court was not much better, as it was portrayed as being a bunch of schemers who spent most of their time fighting against each other. This included a Vizier who, being a Shi’ite, was despised by the rest of the predominantly Sunni court. There was also the commander of the Caliph’s military, known as the Dawatdar, who was also looking to usurp power for himself.

In the summer of 1256, with the Mongols campaigning in neighboring Iran, major flooding hit Baghdad after heavy rains caused the Tigris River to overflow its banks. Before the waters receded, anarchy and sectarian violence broke out between Sunnis and Shi’ites. One of the Caliph’s sons led a group of soldiers to the neighbourhood of Karkh, where they slaughtered many of Shi’ites living there. The Vizier protected hundreds of his co-religionists, letting them take refuge in his own palace. Sunni chroniclers often allege that it was this event that led Vizier to later secretly support the Mongols.

While Abbasid fortunes were in decline, those of the Mongols were higher than ever. Their current ruler, Mongke Khan, was preparing his plans for world conquest, and Iraq and the rest of the Middle East were among his targets. Mongol armies had been threatening Baghdad since the 1220s, but no serious attempt had yet been made against the city. Sometime before 1254, the Abbasid Caliph had made some token gesture of submission to the Mongols, but Mongke was seeking more direct rule over the region. He gave his brother Hulagu command of two hundred thousand men, with orders to conquer everything in the Middle East up to the Nile River. According to one chronicle, Mongke told his brother, “If the Caliph of Baghdad comes out to pay homage, harass him in no way whatsoever. If he is prideful and his heart and tongue are not one, let him join the others,” by which he means destroy them.

In 1254, Hulagu set out on his campaign into the Middle East, slowly moving his vast army of soldiers and even more horses through Afghanistan and Iran. Most of the local rulers submitted to him, but the Mongols did meet some resistance from the Ismailis of northern Iran. Still, by the end of 1256, the Ismailis were destroyed, and the Mongols were on the borders of the Abbasid Caliphate.

Earlier, Hulagu had sent orders to al-Mustasim that he provide troops to help in the attacks on the Ismailis. The Caliph failed to comply, which gave Hulagu the pretext he needed to invade Iraq. But before launching his campaign, the Mongol commander sent envoys and letters urging the Abbasid ruler to submit. They came with the typical Mongol threat: “When I lead my troops against Baghdad, even if you hide in the sky or in the earth … I shall not leave one person alive in your realm, and I shall put your city and country to the torch.”

The Caliph had his rhetoric ready in response: “You can come with strategy, troops, and lasso, but how are you going to capture a star? Does the prince [Hulagu] not know that from the east to the west, from king to beggar, from old to young, all who are God-fearing and God-worshipping are servants of this court and soldiers in my army?”
The Vizier was able to talk al-Mustasim into trying to sue for peace, but the Dawatar and other members of the court demanded that no concessions be made, and the Caliph soon began preparing his forces. A Kurdish army was hired to defend Baghdad, but after a few months the Caliph decided to stop paying them, and they left. Efforts were also made to raise volunteers from Syria and Egypt, to fight for the cause of Jihad, but this achieved nothing.

Meanwhile, Hulagu was making his own preparations, which included setting up his own coalition of nations, including the Armenians and Georgians, to assist the Mongols. This was hardly a coalition of the willing though, for the various rulers understood that defying Hulagu would mean they would be the next target. One key player in all this was Badr al-Din Lu’lu’, the ruler of Mosul. Years earlier, he had sworn fealty to both the Mongols and the Abbasids, and with war coming, he had to make his choice on which side to join. One writer records that it was at this time that two envoys arrived to meet Lu’lu’, one from the Mongols and the other from Baghdad. Each made a demand from Mosul: the Mongols asked for catapults and siege equipment, while the Caliph wanted him to send a band of musicians to Baghdad. After hearing from both envoys Lu’lu’ turned to his followers and said, “Look at the two requests, and weep for Islam and its people!”

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