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Three decades after the death of Genghis Khan, his grandson Hulagu launched an assault on Mesopotamia to secure the loyalty of the Abbasid Caliphate to his brother, supreme leader Mongke Khan. After a two-week siege on Baghdad, Hulagu claimed the capital on February 10, 1258 and ended more than 500 years of Muslim rule. Though a relatively short-lived defeat for the caliphs, the Mongol victory shattered the remnants of a singular Islamic control on government throughout the Middle East.
Halfway through the 8th century, the Abbasids came to power by overthrowing the Umayyad dynasty based in Damascus, Syria. Within a hundred years, leadership moved the capital to Baghdad while pursuing an aggressive expansion policy that saw the empire extend from northwestern India to southern Spain. Over the next four centuries, however, the caliphs slowly ceded power to local rulers -- particularly as Turkish tribes encroached on territories in western Asia -- weakening Abbasid dominance.
Moving in from the Mongolian plains to the east, the Khans terrorized anyone they came across, often sweeping to victories thanks to superior horsemanship and deadly archery. With Hulagu at the head of the southwestern armies, Mongol control pushed into Persia by the mid-1250s. After completing the slaughter of the Ismaili Assassins in late 1256, he turned his army west with Baghdad in his sights.
Al-Mustasim, the Abbasid Caliph since his father’s death in 1242, greeted the Mongol approach with skepticism. For more than a decade, he had been refusing complete subjugation to the khanate. Convinced Muslim soldiers would run to Baghdad to bolster its defense and prevent conquest, Al-Mustasim’s confidence hardly quivered with the arrival of Hulagu’s armies. Terms for a peaceful surrender to Mongol rule were flatly denied.
Lining both sides of the Tigris River, tens of thousands of Mongol soldiers prepared to squeeze Baghdad on January 11, 1258. Al-Mustasim sent 20,000 horsemen out to face the threat, only to see them slaughtered when opposing forces flooded the fields behind the cavalry. Those who did not drown under the unleashed power of the Tigris fled the scene to save themselves.
Meanwhile, the Mongols methodically built up siege engines, driving forward at Baghdad’s walls on January 29th. Evidence of Al-Mustasim’s conceit was soon apparent. Baghdad’s fortifications were in disrepair and he had not taken the steps to rebuild them despite ample time to prepare (not to mention the insistence of his generals). Further, the Muslim troops from Syria never arrived -- they were too busy preparing their own villages for the next wave of Mongol aggression.
On February 10, 1258, Hulagu’s men engulfed the city. During the next five days, the Mongols grabbed every piece of wealth possible, slaughtering thousands of soldiers and civilians in the streets. As if to prove his point, Hulagu forced Al-Mustasim to dine alongside him and watch the destruction, taunting the caliph for his hubris in the face of superior numbers. Convinced the former ruler had suffered enough humiliation, Hulagu ordered Al-Mustasim and his sons to be bound up in rugs and trampled to death by Mongol horses.
After 30 days worth of looting, very little of the once-great capital remained. With the Abbasid Caliphate thrown out of Baghdad amid such brutality, many Muslim cities surrendered without a fight to avoid being on the receiving end of near-total destruction -- at least 90,000 were dead in the former capital and countless books from the Grand Library of Baghdad were thrown into the Tigris, lost to history. The stench of rotting flesh alone lasted for months.
In the wake of the victory, Hulagu stationed a force of 3,000 Mongols in Baghdad to help the city rebuild. Over time, it gradually became a trade center again, but the great cultural emphasis of Islam -- a characteristic that led to tremendous advances in science and philosophy -- and central theological authority of the Caliphate were destroyed forever.
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