Mongol Siege of Baghdad Ends, Pillage and Destruction Begin

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Mongol Siege of Baghdad Ends, Pillage and Destruction Begin

"Conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols, 1258" by an unknown artist
Water colors and gold on paper, created c. 1st quarter of 14th century
Part of collection of the Staatsbibliothek Berlin (Berlin State Library)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History – February 10, 1258

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

A prime example of the ruthlessness of the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century is the brutal siege of the city of Baghdad. It was a relatively short siege, but the final result was terrifying…


After the death of Temujin – better known as "Genghis Khan" in 1227 – the Mongol Empire expanded into areas far from the central Asia steppes of its origin. One of the areas that particularly felt the wrath of the Mongols was Mesopotamia, the so-called original "cradle of civilization."

By the year 1250, the Mongol Empire was now a loose confederation of khanates, each ruled by a son or grandson of Genghis Khan. Hulagu Khan, a grandson of "The Great Khan," ruled the Ilkhanate centered in Persia. In 1257, Hulagu was directed by Mongke Khan – the current "Great Khan" – to conquer the Abbasid Caliphate with its capital in Baghdad. The city had a population of nearly a million people and a garrison of about 60,000 soldiers. It was a center of learning, culture, and commerce, and had a number of libraries. However, Baghdad's glory had somewhat faded, as the Abbasids were now little more than figureheads, with the real power of the caliphate now centered in Egypt with the Mamlûks. Nonetheless, the city was a powerful symbol of Islam, and Mongke was determined to conquer the city and add it to his dominion.

Mongol Campaigns in the Middle East, 1255-1260; Image courtesy of
Mongol Campaigns in the Middle East, 1255-1260
Image courtesy of

The Mongols Gather Their Forces

In late 1257, Hulagu gathered an army of about 150,000 men, thought to be the largest army ever assembled by the Mongols. It did, however, have an international flavor to it; 1000 siege engineers were Chinese, about 52,000 Armenian infantry and cavalry were present, as were a force of Georgians, Turks, Persians, and even a contingent of Frankish troops from the nearby Crusader Principality of Antioch. [Eight years earlier, King Louis IX of France sought to negotiate an alliance with the Mongols as a prelude to his launching the Seventh Crusade, but nothing substantive emerged from those discussions.]

The terms of surrender were relatively light: Caliph Al-Musta'sim was required to give his personal submission to Hulagu. [Normally, a defeated prince would have been required to journey all the way to Karakorum, the Mongol capital in the East Asian steppes, to give personal submission to the Khan of Khans. The Caliph was effectively getting off lightly.] In addition, the Abbasids were required to pay a tribute in the form of a military detachment, which would reinforce Hulagu's army during its campaigns against Iranian Ismaili states.

Mongke directed Hulagu to accept Baghdad's surrender if offered. Al-Musta'sim flatly refused. In his reply, he also insulted Hulagu, which sealed his fate. Most contemporary accounts say that the caliph had taken no measures to prepare for a siege, neither calling for reinforcements nor repairing the city's walls, which had fallen in disrepair.

The Siege Commences

The Mongol army positioned itself on both banks of the Tigris River. The Abbasid army sent a force of 20,000 cavalry against the eastern pincer of the envelopment, but the Abbasids were decisively defeated. Eventually, the Chinese siege engineers constructed a palisade and ditch to encircle the city, and began a bombardment with catapults and other siege engines. The siege began on January 29, and by February 5 the Mongols had captured a section of Baghdad's city wall. Al-Musta'sim saw the writing on the wall, and frantically tried to negotiate surrender. Hulagu refused all entreaties, and by February 10 the caliph surrendered the city. Three days later, the Mongol army swept into the city, massacring and pillaging the prostrate city for at least a full week.

Aftermath: The Sack of Baghdad

The Mongols were known to be particularly nasty to defeated foes. If an opponent was called upon to surrender and he did so immediately, he would generally be spared any overt brutality. However, should the enemy refuse an initial call to surrender…so much the worse for him.

The destruction of Baghdad was brutal; estimates vary, but anywhere between 90,000 to 1 million civilians were slaughtered. The Mongols looted and then destroyed palaces, mosques, libraries, and hospitals. Grand buildings that had been the work of generations were burned to the ground.

One chapter of the pillage of Baghdad centered around the House of Wisdom, a great edifice which contained hundreds of thousands of precious historical documents and books on subjects ranging from astronomy to medicine. It also accumulated texts of Greek, Syriac, Indian and Persian origins. Survivors said that the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river. The Mongols even destroyed the millennia-old irrigation system that had supported several civilizations. The depopulated area did not have the manpower to repair the damage.

Hulagu (left) orders caliph Al-Musta'sim (right) locked in his own treasure room; Medieval depiction from Le livre des merveilles, aka The Travels of Marco Polo, 15th century
Hulagu (left) orders caliph Al-Musta'sim (right) locked in his own treasure room
Medieval depiction from Le livre des merveilles, aka The Travels of Marco Polo, 15th century

Finally, the caliph Al-Musta'sim was captured by the Mongols, forced to watch the destruction of his city and slaughter of his people. Then, he was subjected to a rather unique death. The Mongols believed that, if a royal personage was killed and his blood spilled, the earth would be offended with them. So, Al-Musta'sim was wrapped up in a carpet and hundreds of Mongol troops rode their horses over the carpet, trampling him to death.

Footnote #1: A different story of the death of the Abbasid caliph comes from Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant and traveler. He claims that Hulagu ordered Al-Musta'sim locked into the caliph's own treasure house, telling him, "eat of your treasure as much as you will, since you are so fond of it." With no food or water available, the Abbasid caliph soon starved to death.

Footnote #2: After the capture of Baghdad, the Mongols under Hulagu continued its Middle Eastern invasion, campaigning through western Mesopotamia, Syria, and into Palestine. In August of 1259, the Great Khan Mongke died. This necessitated Hulagu and the majority of his army to stop the campaign and return to the Mongol homeland to decide the empire's succession. He left behind a force of about 20,000 men to continue its work. In early September of 1260, an Egyptian Mamlûk army attacked the Mongols at the battle of Ain Jalut (Goliath's Well) and became the first army to defeat the Mongols in battle.

Footnote #3: Besides the physical damage, the destruction of Baghdad had a profound psychological effect upon Islam in general, ending what might have been an Age of Enlightenment. One university professor wrote, "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."

Ilkhanate of southwestern Asia, 1256-1353; Modern country boundaries in orange; Image courtesy of
Ilkhanate of southwestern Asia, 1256-1353
Modern country boundaries in orange
Image courtesy of

Footnote #4: The Mongol Il-Khanate established by Hulagu's descendants would rule over Persia, Iraq, and Anatolia for over 100 years. Over decades and centuries, the Mongols in Southwest Asia slowly converted to Islam and became absorbed in a Persian/Turkish culture.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.