July 30, 762 to February 13, 1258
December 13, 2013 2:45 PM   Subscribe

In two weeks of blood and fire, one of the greatest intellectual and cultural legacies the world had ever seen came to an end. Crushed under the hooves of a mighty foe (in one case literally), a dynasty, an empire, a city, and a library all disappeared. It was perhaps the swiftest and most complete collapse of a civilization ever, still felt to this day. Now, how about for some context?

The Abbasid Caliphate had ruled the Islamic empire since 750 when Abu Muslim led forces to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty. They quickly established a capital at Baghdad, a hub of trade-routes and waterways which soon grew into one of the greatest cities in the world. The Round City of Baghdad was an architectural wonder, with two concentric circular walls surrounding residential districts and vast gardens, palace and mosque in the middle. (Its likely site in modern Baghdad can be seen here.) At the heart of this city lay the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom. Built by the Caliph al-Mansur, it housed the great library which he moved from the old Umayyad capital of Damascus. This became the home of the Translation Movement, a drive to gather texts from all across the world and translate them into Arabic. Texts on philosophy, medicine, astronomy, religion, and every other topic a burgeoning empire could need streamed into the city. The Islamic Golden Age had begun.

The Mongols were your typical steppe nomads, horseback archers whose speed and efficiency allowed them to defeat much larger forces (not to say their own forces were always small), and who believed they had a mandate from God to rule the entire world. Hulagu Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan. Charged by his brother Möngke (the Great Khan at the time) with conquering the Islamic lands to the Southwest, he prosecuted his errand with typical Mongol efficiency. With a quick stop to destroy the Assassin stronghold at Alamut, Hulagu was at the outskirts of Baghdad by the 11th of January, 1258.

Within a month, the great Library of Baghdad had been burned, so many of its manuscripts thrown into the Tigris that the river ran black with ink, and the last Abbasid Caliph was trampled by horses while wrapped inside a rug, it being a sin to spill royal blood. Baghdad's elaborate irrigation system was destroyed and the city was so severely depopulated that no replacement system would be built until the 20th century. Virtually the only survivors of the slaughter were Christians hidden in a Nestorian church — a church which was spared at the request of Hulagu's wife, Doquz Khatun, a Nestorian Christian herself.

With the death of the dynasty, and of the city itself, on February 13, 1258, the Islamic Golden Age was over.
posted by cthuljew (38 comments total) 331 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to be reading these links for a long time. Thank you.
posted by rednikki at 2:55 PM on December 13, 2013

Here's the game: The Silver Tree. A chance at politics and intrigue in the court of the Great Khan, circa 1254.

And, uh, what would be a better way to post the subtitles? A bit too unwieldy for a comment.
posted by cthuljew at 3:15 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lovely post, thanks!
posted by ersatz at 3:27 PM on December 13, 2013

The Mongols didn't stop at Baghdad, either. They were headed for Egypt when they were stopped by the Mamluks (slave warriors turned rulers) at Ain Jalut, the first time the Mongols were permanently stopped. The Mamluks then dug up some minor Abbasid and made him a powerless puppet Caliph. The title got turned over to the Ottomans when they conquered Egypt in the 16th century and was only formally abolished with the modernist reforms of Ataturk in the 1920s.
posted by Copronymus at 3:31 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Way to go, cthuljew, way to go! Brain candy for quite a while, especially as my formal education never seemed to venture east of Suez or thereabouts.
posted by Anitanola at 3:32 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Holy shit thank you for this post I can't wait to unpack these links.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:33 PM on December 13, 2013

cthuljew... thank you so very much for this.

posted by PROD_TPSL at 3:57 PM on December 13, 2013

Flagged as fantastic, man. Thank you!
posted by KathrynT at 4:03 PM on December 13, 2013

Here, let's try this as a google doc: these are translations of parts of the documentary from the beginning of the post that are only subtitled in Danish.
posted by cthuljew at 4:21 PM on December 13, 2013

My employer and I thank you for posting this as my weekend began.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 4:25 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Stellar post.
posted by pdq at 4:27 PM on December 13, 2013

It was perhaps the swiftest and most complete collapse of a civilization ever, still felt to this day.

That's a broad claim - maybe slightly better qualified with "known", as I'm sure quite a few disappeared without us knowing, or at a speed we cannot be sure of (f.ex. in the pre-Columbian Americas).

Great resources of knowledge, such as the House of Wisdom was of course a tremendous loss. Certainly, the loss of the library at least, was not completely unprecedented either - there was the Library of Alexandria... which was actually burned repeatedly.

Great post, chtuljew!
posted by VikingSword at 4:32 PM on December 13, 2013

I've read that this was not just the end (more or less) of the Abbasid Caliphate, but the beginning of the end of the Mongol Empire as well. Hulagu Khan's cousin Berke Khan was a Muslim; he was outraged by the excesses of the slaughter, and promised to make Hulagu pay for it. It led to internecine war in the Mongol Empire, and they never really regained their unity. Within a few decades they were split up into various successor states.
posted by Flunkie at 4:36 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

If this is at all interesting to you, Dan Carlin's "Warth of the Kahns" is just amazing.
posted by lattiboy at 5:00 PM on December 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

Second to the Dan Carlin recommendation. It's stunning how many East and Central Asian empires and kingdoms they also destroyed. Not conquered, really ... just destroyed.
posted by kanewai at 5:04 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

That "in one case literally" link includes some weird islamophobia crap, though:
The end of the Abbassid Calphate ended any central authority in Islam (though Muslim leaders from time-to-time have claimed such authority; most notably the Ottoman Turkish Sultans). To this day, no such central authority exists. In dealing with the Islamic world, we face this problem daily; as every Imam has the right to issue fatwas as his own conscience dictates, without reference or recourse to a higher authority.

The stated goal of our foes, the Jihadists, is to recreate the lost Caliphate; that jihad against the West can continue under a united Islamic World.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:33 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Third or Fourth to say listen to the Darlin podcast. Seriously, everything of his is fantastic but he gets wonderfully in-depth with the Khans. The stuff after the initial conquests, with Ghengis Khan's children and grandchildren, was a particularly fascinating surprise.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:47 PM on December 13, 2013

Flagged as fantastic. I've had a post on this topic in mind for awhile, ever since encountering the chilling idea of the Tigris running black with ink, but this blows everything I'd considered doing out of the water.

Also: needs the history tag, to be eligible for Miko's cool museum tour prize!
posted by Rhaomi at 6:29 PM on December 13, 2013

This is a treasure of links, but probably the most mindblowing aspect is squirreled away in the "Within a month" link (on a site about the history of rugs, of all places), describing exactly how the attack on Baghdad came to pass. I was going to excerpt relevant parts, but it's *all* fascinating -- there's a condensed version at the bottom of the page; here's my own short version:
  • The Caliph, ruler of Baghdad, was a weak and decadent man who was weakening his kingdom through misrule. He was also a Sunni Muslim, as was most of the Caliphate government.
  • He took as his Vizier an exceedingly crafty Shia noble. Mistake #1.
  • During a bout of sectarian unrest, troops under the Caliph's control humiliated the people of a Shia town. Mistake #2.
  • The Vizier, enraged, wrote to another Shia luminary lambasting the Caliph, and was told in response to bring that f*cker down.
  • The Vizier then wrote to Hulagu, the Mongol warlord, noting Baghdad's weakened state and inviting him to attack the city.
  • Hulagu, fearful of what he still thought of as the mighty and victorious Caliphate, consulted his traveling astrologer, who told him attacking Baghdad would bring earthquakes, pestilence, the death of the Mongol emperor, cats and dogs living together, etc.
  • Hulagu's like, "Yeah, can I get that in writing?"
  • It might have ended there, but an attack was then advised by several of Hulagu's subordinates, including a respected and influential Shia astrologer who was royally pissed at the Caliph and the Vizier for... insulting his poetry.
  • Meanwhile, the Vizier was busy talking the Caliph into drawing down his army... by 80%.
  • Hulahu arrives and sends an envoy bragging about his multifaceted badassery and advises the Caliph to surrender.
  • The Caliph sends back an exceedingly florid taunt boasting of his own power and warning Hulagu to not even.
  • Flash forward a few months: the city is battered and weakened, on the verge of surrender. Hulagu seems to be proceeding largely with mercy, even wanting to pursue some strategic marriages between his family and the Caliph's.
  • Then a favorite advisor of his is killed by a stray arrow. OH. SHIT.
  • Hulagu sends for various captains and nobles of Baghdad. KILLS THEM ALL.
  • He enters the city, sets up a tent, demands the Caliph reveal his wealth to his "guest."
  • The Caliph tremblingly presents hundres of robes, jewels, coins.
  • "Not the obvious stuff. The good stuff."
  • The Caliph digs up staggering amounts of buried treasures, piles it around Hulagu's tent like small mountains.
  • Hulagu accepts it gratefully... then sacks Baghdad, murders its people, and has the Caliph executed.
  • The Vizier was greatly rewarded.
  • Astrologer guy is executed for his totally bananas predictions
Some highlight's from the Caliph's ignonimous end:
  • "The Caliph was ordered to bend the knee. This he refused, and remained standing, saying: "I am an independent sovereign, who am dependent on no one. If you choose to set me free I will submit to you; if not I will die before becoming any man's slave." "To make him stoop they tripped him up by the foot, so that he fell on his face."

  • "when the Caliph presented his treasures to Hulagu the former put him before a trencher covered with gold pieces and bade him eat. "I cannot eat gold," was the reply. "Why then have you hoarded it instead of giving it to your troops? Why have you not converted these iron gates into arrow points and advanced to the Jihun to prevent my crossing it." The Caliph replied that it was the will of God. "What will happen to you is also the will of God," was the grim answer."
Also, not seeing it in the post, but here's another detailed account of the seige, describing in great detail how the city came to be destroyed.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:49 PM on December 13, 2013 [61 favorites]

That's Rhaomi for you. Great comment!
posted by JHarris at 12:10 AM on December 14, 2013

I wanted to add: I couldn't find a source for this, but I heard somewhere (possibly in the In Our Time episode?) that the Tigris was strewn so thickly with the books of the House of Wisdom that you could ride a horse across it. Obviously false, but what a great thing to say!
posted by cthuljew at 12:30 AM on December 14, 2013

Thanks for such an excellent post, but I really can't read those links. The thought of the wanton destruction of that library just sets off a visceral reaction in me. Such a waste.
posted by YAMWAK at 2:03 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Only on metafilter: your typically steppe nomads.

Great post, thanks. I read some of this history in college, when I was forced to plow through all three 400 page volumes of Marshall Hodgson's sweeping but turgid *The Venture of Islam.* Sure wish we had YouTube back then.
posted by spitbull at 5:47 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

YAMWAK, the burning of a library is more off-putting to you than a gruesome recounting of the mass slaughter of civilians?
posted by spitbull at 5:49 AM on December 14, 2013

It's not that that wasn't a tragedy, spitbull. But people wrote those books too, and copied them laboriously, and their destruction, in a way, silenced all those earlier voices just as much as those of their guardians. If they hadn't been destroyed then probably a few more of those ancient works might have survived down to reach us.

Everyone dies eventually, even if not directly killed. That's why preserving books is so important, and their willful destruction so shameful.
posted by JHarris at 6:27 AM on December 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

This post is good.
posted by thirteenkiller at 7:57 AM on December 14, 2013

JHarris' response is a large part of it. I know that it is a callous response, but people live and people die.

They leave behind thoughts and memories and ideas and creations. The accumulation of these things lets each generation try to improve their lot, to do better than the group that came before. We don't start out with a blank slate, and we'd like our children to have more opportunities than we did. So we build, make, create, write. We leave behind tools and books and structures and many good things. That's civilization.

That library was an accumulation of so many lives. So many attempts to inform, educate, pass on hard-earned knowledge. So many attempts to move past cowering in a cave, afraid of the dark and of the lightning and what may be outside.

To throw away such a large part of the legacy of an empire, to deem so much heartfelt work and labour by so many to be without value? They destroyed a significant part of so many people's lives, destroyed knowledge that would have been valuable even today. They also destroyed the work that might have come from those books, the philosophers and engineers and scientists and poets who could not learn from what came before.

Yeah, I'm weird and silly and callous and other things less pleasant, but that hurts.

I don't know why they destroyed the library, maybe one of the links would tell me. Maybe they decided that the knowledge was wrong, and they were destroying poisoned fruit? Maybe it was spite, or boredom, or to punish their enemies.

A lot of people died to that siege. Many voices were silenced. Some of those voices were only alive in manuscripts, but they were silenced anyway.
posted by YAMWAK at 8:28 AM on December 14, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think Rhaomi's comment is important context - this wasn't just perpetrated by Mongols. Mongols took advantage of existing sectarian rivalries, and sectarian rivals took advantage of the Mongol presence to advance their own agendas.

If I'm remembering old papers correctly:

The sparing of the Christians in Baghdad seems to have been big news even at the time, and had ripple effects for Christians in other spots of the Il-khanate as local Muslim rulers decided they'd better be nice to Christians while Mongols were around. Never mind that Mongols had slaughtered vast quantities of Christians in other places.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:40 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

And of course much has been written about how the Mongols of the Mongol Empire broke the "typical steppe nomad" mold in many ways.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:54 AM on December 14, 2013

And about proximate political reasons for their various actions, mission from God notwithstanding.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:57 AM on December 14, 2013

Thanks for this post! It has taken me down a rabbit-hole of wikipedia links. Thought I'd bring back one tangentially related link I found about the Mongol invasion of Russia, which is apparently the reason why Moscow came to dominate Rus' politically and militarily. Previously, Kiev was the largest city in Rus', but the Mongols crushed it and it was centuries before it fully recovered. Fascinating and horrifying stuff.
posted by A dead Quaker at 10:02 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, not seeing it in the post, but here's another detailed account of the seige, describing in great detail how the city came to be destroyed.

Just realized I linked to a broken version of that essay describing the fall of Baghdad day-by-day; here's a working copy on Archive.org. (oh, the bittersweet irony)
posted by Rhaomi at 5:22 PM on December 14, 2013

This would be awesome material for Stuff You Should Know or Stuff You Missed in History Class!
posted by prototype_octavius at 7:35 PM on December 14, 2013

I'm not saying books aren't important. I'm a professional scholar. I mentioned above having read all ca. 1500 pp. of Hosdgson's The Venture of Islam. No matter how much you love books, I doubt you love them more than me. No one needs to make the Ars longa, vita brevis (Horace, amirite?) argument to me.

My comment was humorous, but I do think it's a strange conceit to find tales of ancient book burning more disturbing than the massacres of humans with which those burnings co-occurred.
posted by spitbull at 6:45 AM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Or, errr, Hippocrates first. Amazing how many old books did survive, when you think about it.
posted by spitbull at 6:52 AM on December 15, 2013

Just an FYI - bayt al-hikmah was founding by Haroun ar-Rashid - same dynasty, different caliph. Great post! شكراً جزيلاً
posted by pdxjmorris at 9:37 AM on December 15, 2013

Just a general comment on the influence of the Mongol Invasions on different civilisations. It took Russia 500 years to deTatarise (roll back the Mongol invaders) this culminated in them eventually taking Siberia and becomming a Pacific Power.
North India was dominated by Mongol decendants the Mogul Rulers until the British Raj.
China in contrast thru off the Mongol Dynasty in about 100 years. Mongol invasion was to have very little influence on Chinese culture.
Finally lets not forget how the Mongol invasions reopened up the silk route for the travels of Marco polo. Sorry again for no citations.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 12:11 AM on December 16, 2013

I don't dispute that my reaction is strange. I have tried to establish why I feel this way and haven't come up with much.

Part of it is that I could see something resembling a justification for the killing of the people - they were enemies. They could become dangerous if not dealt with. Pretty weak justification, but eh. The books were innocent, they didn't represent a threat and some could even have been a valuable resource for the Mongols.

Whatever the reason, when it comes to ancient events I tend to feel for the destruction of the future in terms of concrete objects - books and edifices - more than for people. Doesn't say very nice things about me, but there you go.
posted by YAMWAK at 6:05 AM on December 16, 2013

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