The real Battle of Baghdad 1258

      Home » World History » The real Battle of Baghdad 1258
More History Articles

The real Battle of Baghdad 1258

In 1258 a calamity hit the center of Islamic culture, Baghdad, a disaster so comprehensive it still echos 800 years later. In an act of hubris combined with stupidity the Calif of Baghdad insulted some Asian visitors knocking on the doors. The Mongols.

The Mongol army, led by Hulagu Khan set out for Baghdad in November of 1257 marching with what was probably the largest army ever fielded by the Mongols.

When he reached the plains of Persia he sent emissaries to the caliph telling him to raze the walls of Baghdad and fill in the moat and come in person to make obeisance to Hulagu. The caliph replied that with all of Islam ready to defend him, he did not fear. He advised Hulagu to go back where he came from.

The Mongol army had recently received reinforcements from other Mongol hordes, and a contingent of Christian cavalry from Georgia. Perhaps the Mongols had eight hundred and fifty thousand soldiers; certainly they had more than a hundred thousand.

In November of 1257, they marched on toward Baghdad, dividing as they approached so that their forces would surround the city. 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. (Mongke Khan had ordered his brother to spare the Caliphate if it submitted to the authority of the Mongol Khanate.)

Mustasim, the caliph, was not of a character equal to such large problems. He is described as a weak, vacillating layabout who liked to drink sherbet and keep company with musicians and clowns. Worse, from a strategic point of view, Mustasim had recently angered the Shiites by various insults and offenses, such as throwing the poem of a famous Shiite poet in the river.

Now vengeful Shiites volunteered help to the Mongols in Mosul and other places along their march. The caliph’s vizier, or chief minister, was himself a Shiite of uncertain loyalty. Islamic opinion afterward held that the vizier, al-Alkamzi, vilely betrayed the caliph and conspired with the Mongols; an exhortation in Muslim school books used to say, “Let him be cursed of God who curses not al-Alkamzi.”

As fighting began, Hulagu, acknowledging the importance of Shiite support, prudently posted guard detachments of a hundred Mongol horsemen at the most sacred Shiite shrines in Najef and Karbala.

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.

On January 29, 1258, Hulagu’s forces took up a position on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad and began a bombardment. Soon they had breached the outer wall. The caliph, who had been advised against escaping by his vizier, offered to negotiate. Hulagu, with the city practically in his hands, refused.

The upshot was that the caliph and his retinue came out of the city, the remainder of his army followed, they laid down their arms, and the Mongols killed almost everybody. Hulagu told Baghdad’s Christians to stay in a church, which he put off-limits to his soldiers. Then, for a period of seven days, the Mongols sacked the city, killing (depending on the source) two hundred thousand, or eight hundred thousand, or more than a million.

The Mongols’ Georgian Christian allies were said to have particularly distinguished themselves in slaughter. Plunderers threw away their swords and filled their scabbards with gold. Silver and jewels and gold piled up in great heaps around Hulagu’s tent.

Fire consumed the caliph’s palace, and the smoke from its beams of aloe wood, sandalwood, and ebony filled the air with fragrance for a distance of a hundred li. (A li equalled five hundred bow lengths—a hundred li was maybe thirty miles.) So many books from Baghdad’s libraries were flung into the Tigris that a horse could walk across on them. The river ran black with scholars’ ink and red with the blood of martyrs.

The stories of what Hulagu did to the caliph vary. One says that Hulagu toyed with him a while, dining with him and discussing theology and pretending to be his guest. A famous account describes how Hulagu imprisoned the caliph in a roomful of treasure and brought him gold on a tray instead of food. The caliph protested that he could not eat gold, and Hulagu asked him why he hadn’t used his money to strengthen his army and defend against the Mongols. The caliph said, “That was the will of God.” Hulagu replied, “What will happen to you is the will of God, also,” leaving him among the treasure to starve.

Many sources agree that there was fear of an earthquake or other shock to nature occurring if the caliph’s sacred blood was spilled. Learned Shiites advised Hulagu that no catastrophes had followed the bloody deaths of John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, or the Shiite saint Hosein, so he should go ahead. To be safe, Hulagu had the caliph wrapped in a carpet and then trodden to death by horses. He also killed all the caliph’s family, except for his youngest son and a daughter. The daughter was shipped off to Mongolia to be a slave in the harem of Mongke Khan.

Hulagu left three thousand Mongols in Baghdad to rebuild it, but they did not accomplish much. Decades later, it was still mostly a ruin. Some irrigation systems that the Mongol army destroyed were not repaired until Iraq began to get money from its oil in the twentieth century.

Many Muslims believe that the Mongol destruction of Baghdad and of the caliphate was the worst misfortune ever to befall Islam. With it, the faith’s first period of flowering came to a decisive close (though its actual decline had, of course, begun earlier).

Historical speculations about what might have been if the disaster had never occurred go in various directions, some tending toward the wild. A book on Arab cultural identity published in the nineteen-fifties quoted a high official in the Syrian government who said that if the Mongols hadn’t destroyed the libraries of Baghdad, Arab science would have produced the atom bomb long before the West.

Recently, when TV stations everywhere were replaying the video of a U.S. marine shooting a wounded prisoner in a mosque in Falluja, a newspaper story about Arab reaction to the incident said that a retired army officer in Cairo said that the Americans were “acting like Genghis Khan.” He had the wrong Mongol, but his drift was ancient and familiar.

By netchicken: posted on 21-7-2009

The real Battle of Baghdad 1258 | [Login ]
Powered by XMB
Privacy Policy