The Coming of the Mongols
There is probably no single event, in the early medieval period at least, that has consumed Islamic historians and litterateurs more than the sack of Baghdad by Hulegu Khan (1217–65) and his Mongol armies. It has gone down in the history books as the epitome of the clash between high civilization and barbarity, an episode so horriﬁ c that it dwarfs all the pillage and mayhem that followed in succeeding generations.
But to read the laments of 13th-century historians is to understand only one part of the Mongols’ history, albeit the most notorious part. Like all peoples with a recorded past (even if that past was sometimes outrageously fabricated by their enemies), the Mongols had a known history. Earlier scholars and students of the Mongol period usually identiﬁ ed them as nomadic pastoralist groups with a common ethnic or linguistic origin.
However, while the Mongols associated with the redoubtable Genghis Khan (ca. 1162–1227) eventually did begin to speak a form of Turkish (descending from the Altaic language group, with an alphabet based on the Uighur script) and adhered to clans descended from a common ancestor, they were not monolingual, nor did they base themselves on a single culture. In fact, the Mongols, like other steppe peoples, were linked by many things, including geography, tribal ties, or political loyalty to a khan, or leader.
One of a long line of nomadic pastoralist groups that arose in the steppes of inner Asia, and along the northern and eastern borders of Central Asia, the Mongols, just like other Turkish-speaking nomads before them, conquered (and sometimes destroyed) established states in the Islamic world, only to become pillars of the state in the end. Originally a confederation of tribal horsemen from Central Asia united and led by the formidable warrior Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire was eventually to conquer most of the known world, bringing, within a few decades, all of Eurasia from central Europe to the Paciﬁ c under its rule (Lapidus 1988, 276).
The Mongol invasion of Iraq and Iran did not arise without warning; it had been in the making for several decades. Inspired by dreams of world conquest, Genghis Khan began a march into China as early as 1206; his successes there encouraged even greater military campaigns farther south. Beginning with campaigns against the great Central Asian markets and intellectual capitals of Bukhara—Samarqand, Balkh, and Khiva (1219–21)—the Mongol armies next devastated the Oxus River region—laying waste to Nesa, Herat, and Hamadan—and ﬁ nally began their military offensive against the Khwarizm shahs, who were rulers on the borders of present-day Iran and Afghanistan.
News of Mongol atrocities stunned the Irano-Islamic world; many leaders, fearing for themselves and their subjects, strove to make peace with the new conquerors, only to be killed at their hands and their capitals razed to the ground. At the high point of the Mongol conquest, Genghis died, reportedly leaving close to 100 sons and grandsons. His empire divided into four regions, each ruled by a son of the khan, who often squabbled with one another. It was left up to Hulegu, one of Genghis’s grandsons, to oversee the sack of Baghdad, just as earlier Mongol armies had laid waste to Iran and Transoxiana.
Besieging Baghdad in 1258 with a huge army, composed chieﬂ y of Mongols but also of Christians from Georgia and Armenia, Hulegu pressured the last Abbasid caliph to negotiate or surrender altogether. When close to 3,000 of Baghdad’s notables ﬁ nally met with the khan to discuss ways of ending the conﬂ ict, they were murdered. Baghdad was now open to the conquering armies. Hulegu Khan’s onslaught on Baghdad brought about the end of the 500-year Abbasid caliphate, the last ruler of which was savagely trampled to death under the hooves of Mongol horses.
But it is the descriptions of Baghdad after the Mongol invasion that have stayed with us down through the centuries, especially the wanton cruelty of the invaders and the appalling loss of life in the city as well as its environs if one considers, for example, the claims of the late 12th- early 13th-century Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir, who noted that it was Mongol practice to slaughter men, women, and children ruthlessly, even ripping up the abdomens of pregnant women. As to the sack of Baghdad, another historian, Ibn Kathir, claims that after the Mongol onslaught on the Abbasid capital, dead bodies were piled in the streets in heaps, “as high as a ridge.”
After it rained, the corpses decomposed, their stench ﬁ lling the air, resulting in a huge epidemic that spread as far away as Syria. Baghdad’s great libraries, universities, and observatories were pillaged, their holdings burned or, as legend had it, thrown in the river (Elbendary 2003). Altogether, it is speculated by the Indo-Persian historian Juzjani that up to 800,000 people were killed as a result of the Mongol sack of Baghdad (Saunders 1971, 231).Contrary to Islamic historians of the time, modern-day historians tend to downplay the devastation engendered by the Mongols.
A leading scholar on the Mongols, Wilhelm Barthold, drily observed that, “the results of the Mongol invasions were less annihilating than is supposed” (quoted in Saunders 1971, 6). However, even though the ﬁ gures for casualties may have been inﬂ ated by local historians, there is ample proof for Mongol havoc in other sectors of Iraq’s society. In addition to the great loss of life as a direct result of the military conquest, the city population contracted in no small part because of the ruin of its urban infrastructure, as a result of which many parts of the city became near desert.
Iraq’s great irrigation system was smashed. Channels that had been dug to bring water to the city fell into disrepair, agriculture declined, and people left once prosperous city quarters to move closer to the Tigris River, where they could more easily fetch water. Habitation became conﬁ ned, for the most part, to the eastern part of the capital, where sanctuary was more abundant. Iraqis were left to forage for food and water as best they could, their world shattered, their faith sorely tested (Rauf 2002, 57–67).
Interestingly, the legend of the murderous Mongol persists until today and has so inﬁ ltrated popular memory that even nowadays, ordinary Arabs and Muslims use it as a yardstick with which to measure all present-day massacres and catastrophes. Rightly or wrongly, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Baghdad in April 2003, which gave rise to days of looting and pillage of museums, libraries, and government ministries by angry mobs, has been compared to the destruction of Baghdad under Hulegu the Mongol (Hanley 2003).
Pax Mongolica and Trade
Janet Abu Lughod has argued that the 13th century witnessed the rise and eventual demise of a world system based on transcontinental trade (Abu-Lughod 1989, 3–40). The middle passage consisted of “the three routes to the east,” namely the northern route passing from Constantinople (later Istanbul) to Central Asia; the central route connecting the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean by means of Baghdad, Basra, and the Gulf; and the southern route, tying Cairo and Alexandria to the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean.
The northern passage became the monopoly of the Mongols and, later on, the Turkish dynasties that arose in their wake.According to Abu Lughod, “[T]he thirteenth century Mongols offered neither strategic crossroads location, unique industrial productive capacity, nor transport functions to the world economy. Rather, their contribution was to create an environment that facilitated land transit with less risk and lower protective rent” (Abu Lughod 1989, 154).
The Mongol genius lay in transforming the barren and inhospitable wastes of Central Asia into a central trade thoroughfare by means of the construction of caravansaries (traveler resthouses), warehouses for merchants’ goods, and armed frontier posts, which greatly contributed to the overall security of the region. Moreover, “protection” costs, which entailed paying tribes or transport agents a ﬂ uctuating rate so as to travel in relative security, were reduced under Mongol administrations.
Because the Mongol Empire was uniﬁ ed under one overarching family system over a large expanse of territory, and because it provided a climate favorable to long-distance trade, the northern route attracted traders from Iran, India, Anatolia, and, eventually, Genoa. In fact, as a result of European-led voyages of exploration into China (Marco Polo’s voyage to Cathay in 1260–71 comes to mind), Europeans began to learn of these mysterious people and to engage with them in a commercial as well as cultural spirit.
The great caravan meeting point was Samarqand, in Central Asia, where traders from India met those coming from the Islamic lands. The prized commodity that attracted them all was silk. Chinese silk was so important that it trumped Iranian silk in Western markets, even though Iran was closer to home and, from an overall perspective, less unwelcoming terrain than the large expanse of the Mongol Empire.