How to Invade Iraq: The Mongol Way

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 How to Invade Iraq: The Mongol Way

By Peter Konieczny

Paper given at the 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, held at Western Michigan University (2007)

Mongol siege of Bagdad in 1258

When I began researching the Mongol conquest of Baghdad, I came across an account by an Iraqi writer from the early fourteenth-century. With much excitement I found the relevant passage, and began to read it. He summed up the siege and fall of Baghdad with these words: “Even a brief mention of it would be terrible to hear – how much worse its recapitulation in detail! Things happened which I shall not record, imagine them and do not ask for a description!”

Despite this unpromising beginning, I soon found a wealth of information from contemporary writers and chroniclers, including those who were on the saw the event firsthand. For the last couple of years I have been piecing this story together, not only because the story of the first conquest of Baghdad is an interesting one in its own right, but also because it adds some insights into the present-day situation in Iraq.

Despite it being such an important historical event, the story of Baghdad’s fall has been poorly served by historians. Most Muslim historians deal more with alleged collaboration by Shi’ites with the Mongols against the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate than with anything else, while Western historians have usually focused on the most outrageous stories associated with the invasion, often repeating wild claims that millions of people were killed and that Baghdad was completely destroyed by the Mongols.

The short amount of time here prevents me from saying everything I want to say, so in some sections I am going to be very brief. Hopefully, most of you have got my handout which outlines the events and gives some chronicle excerpts. I also have a couple of overheads to show some maps of Iraq, in case someone is not familiar with the country.

I will first talk about the situation in the Abbasid Caliphate in the mid-thirteenth century, which by this time had seen better days. Political intrigues, civil wars, and generally poor governments had sapped the power and grandeur of the Caliphs, and Abbasid controlled territory was now limited to only central and southern Iraq.
Meanwhile the city of Baghdad had its own share of difficulties. Chroniclers relate the many floods and fires that devastated the city, as well as sectarian and civil violence between its residents. One Muslim traveler from Spain visited the city in 1185, and was clearly disappointed by what he saw. He described it as “an effaced ruin, a remain washed out, or the statue of a ghost. It has no beauty that attracts the eye, or calls him who is restless to depart to neglect his business and to gaze.”

In 1242, al-Mustasim succeeded to the position of Caliph, not knowing that he would be the last Abbasid to rule in Baghdad. Contemporary chroniclers, all of whom had the benefit of hindsight, are almost universal in their contempt for al-Mustasim. One writer described him as “devoted to entertainment and pleasure, passionately addicted to playing with birds, and dominated by women. He was a man of poor judgment, irresolute, and neglectful of what is need for the conduct of government.” Another chronicler summed up the Caliph this way: “Undoubtedly he was not fit for kingship and greatness was beyond him.”

The Caliph’s court was not much better, as it was portrayed as being a bunch of schemers who spent most of their time fighting against each other. This included a Vizier who, being a Shi’ite, was despised by the rest of the predominantly Sunni court. There was also the commander of the Caliph’s military, known as the Dawatdar, who was also looking to usurp power for himself.

In the summer of 1256, with the Mongols campaigning in neighboring Iran, major flooding hit Baghdad after heavy rains caused the Tigris River to overflow its banks. Before the waters receded, anarchy and sectarian violence broke out between Sunnis and Shi’ites. One of the Caliph’s sons led a group of soldiers to the neighbourhood of Karkh, where they slaughtered many of Shi’ites living there. The Vizier protected hundreds of his co-religionists, letting them take refuge in his own palace. Sunni chroniclers often allege that it was this event that led Vizier to later secretly support the Mongols.

While Abbasid fortunes were in decline, those of the Mongols were higher than ever. Their current ruler, Mongke Khan, was preparing his plans for world conquest, and Iraq and the rest of the Middle East were among his targets. Mongol armies had been threatening Baghdad since the 1220s, but no serious attempt had yet been made against the city. Sometime before 1254, the Abbasid Caliph had made some token gesture of submission to the Mongols, but Mongke was seeking more direct rule over the region. He gave his brother Hulagu command of two hundred thousand men, with orders to conquer everything in the Middle East up to the Nile River. According to one chronicle, Mongke told his brother, “If the Caliph of Baghdad comes out to pay homage, harass him in no way whatsoever. If he is prideful and his heart and tongue are not one, let him join the others,” by which he means destroy them.

In 1254, Hulagu set out on his campaign into the Middle East, slowly moving his vast army of soldiers and even more horses through Afghanistan and Iran. Most of the local rulers submitted to him, but the Mongols did meet some resistance from the Ismailis of northern Iran. Still, by the end of 1256, the Ismailis were destroyed, and the Mongols were on the borders of the Abbasid Caliphate.

Earlier, Hulagu had sent orders to al-Mustasim that he provide troops to help in the attacks on the Ismailis. The Caliph failed to comply, which gave Hulagu the pretext he needed to invade Iraq. But before launching his campaign, the Mongol commander sent envoys and letters urging the Abbasid ruler to submit. They came with the typical Mongol threat: “When I lead my troops against Baghdad, even if you hide in the sky or in the earth … I shall not leave one person alive in your realm, and I shall put your city and country to the torch.”

The Caliph had his rhetoric ready in response: “You can come with strategy, troops, and lasso, but how are you going to capture a star? Does the prince [Hulagu] not know that from the east to the west, from king to beggar, from old to young, all who are God-fearing and God-worshipping are servants of this court and soldiers in my army?”
The Vizier was able to talk al-Mustasim into trying to sue for peace, but the Dawatar and other members of the court demanded that no concessions be made, and the Caliph soon began preparing his forces. A Kurdish army was hired to defend Baghdad, but after a few months the Caliph decided to stop paying them, and they left. Efforts were also made to raise volunteers from Syria and Egypt, to fight for the cause of Jihad, but this achieved nothing.

Meanwhile, Hulagu was making his own preparations, which included setting up his own coalition of nations, including the Armenians and Georgians, to assist the Mongols. This was hardly a coalition of the willing though, for the various rulers understood that defying Hulagu would mean they would be the next target. One key player in all this was Badr al-Din Lu’lu’, the ruler of Mosul. Years earlier, he had sworn fealty to both the Mongols and the Abbasids, and with war coming, he had to make his choice on which side to join. One writer records that it was at this time that two envoys arrived to meet Lu’lu’, one from the Mongols and the other from Baghdad. Each made a demand from Mosul: the Mongols asked for catapults and siege equipment, while the Caliph wanted him to send a band of musicians to Baghdad. After hearing from both envoys Lu’lu’ turned to his followers and said, “Look at the two requests, and weep for Islam and its people!”




The Mongols set out from western Iran in November of 1257. By all accounts the size of Hulagu’s army was massive. The Mongol leader commanded between 15 to 17 tumens, which are theoretically units of 10 000 men. This would give him as much as 150 000 soldiers. One can add an almost equal number of local auxiliaries such as Armenians and Iranians, for a grand total of around 300 000 men available for the invasion. Of course, the entire Mongol army would not be able to take part in the invasion, as they still had to guard their recently conquered territories, but several chroniclers state that the Mongols took 200 000 troops for this invasion.

The Mongol invasion of Iraq was in many ways a textbook description of Mongol warfare. Their large army was split up into several groups, each of which moved quickly and headed towards Baghdad from a different direction. This created confusion among the Iraqi defenders, as they had little idea where the Mongols were coming from. The Abbasid field army, commanded by the Dawatdar, was first positioned at Baquba, which is to the east of Baghdad, but were ordered to return to the city and guard the western side when it was learned that some Mongol forces had crossed a makeshift bridge over the Euphrates near Tikrit.

On January 11th, the Iraqi army encountered lead elements of the Mongol forces in Anbar, about 30 miles northwest of Baghdad. The Abbasid army defeated this group, but decided not to pursue. Instead, the Abbasid army stayed out in the fields and celebrated their victory with eating and drinking. An Armenian chronicler added that the Dawatdar sent messengers to the Caliph, saying, “I defeated all of them, and tomorrow I will do away with the few survivors.”

But the Mongols who were defeated were only a small reconnoitering troop that had been sent ahead to scout the Abbasid army. Before the end of the day, the main force had arrived. While night passed, the Mongols encircled the Iraqi troops and destroyed several dykes and canals. When the Dawatdar and his soldiers awoke the next day, they found themselves in big trouble, as water flooded into the area all around them.

The Mongols now attacked in full force, and the Abbasid army was routed. One chronicler stated that 12 000 Iraqi soldiers were killed or drowned here, while another reported that only three men, including the Dawatdar, managed to get back to Baghdad.

After the Dawatdar’s defeat, no further attempts were made to engage the Mongols before they reached Baghdad. Instead, work was done to prepare the city’s defences, such as setting up catapults and other siege machines. One source estimated that eighty thousand men were defending the city.

To make matters worse for Baghdad, tens of thousands of refugees were swarming into the city, trying to keep ahead of the advancing Mongol armies. With all these destitute arrivals coming into Baghdad, the city’s food supply would become stretched and the streets extra crowded and filled with rubbish.

On January 18, 1258, Hulagu and his forces converged on the outskirts of Baghdad. The city was encircled, and several pontoon bridges were built over the Tigris by the Mongols using captured boats. The Mongols did not immediately attack Baghdad. Instead, they spent a day and a night building their own wall around the entire city. In front of this wall they dug a trench, parts of which were filled with water to make moats. Behind their walls, the Mongols built mounds made of bricks and rubble, on top of which they set up their siege machines, including catapults and naphtha throwers.

While the Mongols made their preparations, the Caliph made a final attempt to obtain a truce. He sent his vizier and the patriarch of Baghdad’s Christian community to Hulagu with some gifts. They met the Mongol leader, but the efforts proved fruitless. On January 29th the Mongols began their attack.

 Persian painting (14th century) of Hülegü's army besieging a city. Note use of the siege engineAccording to a Chinese source, the western part of Baghdad, which had no walls, fell on the first day of fighting. Shia dominated neighbourhoods, like Karkh, may have welcomed the Mongols instead of fighting them. Even if they didn’t, they were not well protected and could offer little resistance. Meanwhile, Hulagu had his siege machines concentrate their attack on Ajami Tower, which was at southeast corner of the city. Because there was a lack of suitable stones around Baghdad, the Mongols cut down palm trees and hurled them at the city with their catapults. On February 1st, just three days after they began the attack, the Ajami Tower was destroyed. As the tower fell, the Mongols tried to storm the walls, but the defenders fought them off.

The Mongols also had scribes write messages for the Baghdad’s population, which were then fastened to arrows and shot into the city. The messages promised that no harm would come to a several groups of people, including Shi’ites, Christians, Jews, merchants, scholars, and anyone else who was not involved in the fighting.

On February 1st, the Dawatdar commanded a force of up to ten thousand men into ships and sailed down the Tigris River, either in an attempt to escape or to land away from the Mongol forces and attack them from behind. Some reports suggest that the Caliph was with the Dawatdar, having been convinced to flee the city. But significant preparations had been made along the river to prevent any such attempt, and when the Iraqis came, they attacked the fleet with catapults, arrows and naphtha. The Dawatdar was forced to return to Baghdad, leaving three of his ships behind to be captured.

Two days later, Hulagu commanded that the walls of Baghdad be taken. A Georgian chronicler proudly noted that his fellow countrymen led the assault. They and the other Mongol soldiers managed to overrun the ramparts around Ajami Tower shortly after sunrise, but other parts of the Mongol army had difficulty gaining their sections of the wall, and it was not until that evening before the rest of the city walls were held by the Mongols. So far, the fight had taken just six days.

With the Mongols in control of the walls, Hulagu did something very interesting – he had his men just sit there. No attempt was made to go into the city. Perhaps the Mongols did not want to get sucked into fighting in the crowded urban streets, where casualties would be high. Instead, Hulagu said, “The Caliph can do what he wants. If he wants, let him come out; if not, let him not come out. But the Mongol troops will remain on the walls where they are until they come out.”

While some fighting continued on for the next several days, it seems clear that resistance by Baghdad’s defenders was collapsing. Groups of soldiers, civilians and courtiers began to abandon Baghdad and surrender. Some were granted amnesty, others taken away and executed. The Dawatdar himself tried to give up, was sent back to the city to convince others to stop fighting, and the next day returned to the Mongol camp and was executed. His head sent to Mosul, as a gentle reminder to Lu’lu to stop being tardy and get his men down to Baghdad. The Caliph remained in his palace, unsure of what to do, but the vizier convinced him that his only chance was to surrender, and hopefully be given another chance to rule the city.

On February 10th, the Caliph walked out of Baghdad with his family and three thousand courtiers, and surrendered to the Mongols. He soon met Hulagu, who did not display any anger at the Caliph, but instead asked about his health. He then requested al-Mustasim to “tell the people of the city to throw down their weapons and come out so that we may make a count.” The Caliph agreed, and soon the remaining defenders of the city, thousands in all, marched out of the city and gave up their weapons. Once all of them were unarmed, the Mongols drew out their own swords and attacked the helpless soldiers. No one was spared. The Caliph looked on this spectacle, watching his helpless countrymen being slaughtered. He wept, regretting that he did not continue to fight, and said to himself, “My enemy has succeeded. I have fallen into a snare like a clever little bird.”

Once the Caliph’s army was destroyed, Baghdad could be taken at the Mongols’ leisure, and on February 13th Hulagu ordered his soldiers into the city. Most of our main sources agree that the sacking of Baghdad lasted for seven days, but beyond that it is hard to know much destruction was done to the city. For instance, there is a great deal of difference among the sources on how many of Baghdad’s inhabitants were killed. The Syrian Christian chronicler Bar Hebraeus vaguely noted that “tens of thousands” died. A Chinese source estimated that one hundred thousand people were killed when the eastern side of Baghdad fell. With the passage of time, the numbers of those killed became more and more exaggerated. Hulagu himself starts this in a letter he wrote in 1262, where he boasts that at least 200 000 people were cut down. Fourteenth-century writers put death toll at 800 000 killed, and in the fifteenth-century an Arab historian wrote that “the massacre continued for about forty days till the number of slain was more than a million souls and none escaped but those who hid themselves in wells and subterranean caves.” By the end of the fifteenth century, nearly 250 years after the event, the fatalities were calculated to be more than two million.

These higher death tolls, which seem to have been accepted by every popular historian of Iraq, cannot possibly have been accurate, since Baghdad’s population would have been no higher than half a million. Furthermore, a closer look at the sources reveals that there was a deliberative effort to spare the Shia, Christian and Jewish communities in Baghdad, and that many, if not most Sunnis survived the fall of the city. A Shi’ite scholar named Ibn Tawus was in Baghdad during the siege, and later wrote that neither he nor his extended family, with the exception of one brother, were harmed by the Mongols. After the siege, the Mongols gave safe passage to Ibn Tawus, his family and friends, a thousand persons in all, to leave Baghdad. Another chronicler noted that the Mongols made sure that the palaces of three prominent Baghdad officials, including that of the Vizier, were not to be attacked. Meanwhile, Bar Hebraeus and the Armenian writers explained that the Christian population was entirely spared. Finally, a group of merchants were able to gain protection by making payments to the Hulagu.

It is not hard to imagine that many Sunnis would have also found protection with the Christians, Shi’ites or merchants, either through common friendships or by paying bribes to be let in. Others could have made hiding places during the siege, and then stayed there until the threat had passed. We know that several prominent Sunnis survived the fall of Baghdad, including a son of the Dawatdar, since they can soon be found in the service of the Mongols.

With the city now in Mongol hands, Hulagu had one important decision left for him to consider: what would the fate be of the Caliph. After he surrender, al-Mustasim and his family were placed under guard in a tent just outside the city. At this point Hulagu was more interested in the treasures the Caliph held in his palaces, and started to systematically loot them. On February 15th, the Mongol leader entered the city and went into the Caliph’s main residence. The Caliph was summoned, and Hulagu said to him, “You are the host, and we are the guests. Bring whatever you have that is suitable for us.” The frightened Caliph had hundreds of precious items presented to Hulagu, who in turn distributed them to his officers. The Mongol leader then turned to the Caliph and gave him a golden tray. He then ordered him to eat it, but al-Mustasim said it was not edible. “Then why did you keep it,” asked Hulagu, “and not give it to your soldiers? And why did you not make these iron doors into arrowheads and come to the bank of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?” The Caliph answered, ” Such was God’s will.” “What will befall thee,” replied the Mongol leader, “is also God’s will.”

On February 20th, Hulagu left Baghdad because of the stench from rotting bodies and burnt out buildings. He took the Caliph and his family with him, and later on they reached a village called Waqaf. Hulagu sought advice on what to do about the Caliph. The Mongol ruler considered sparing al-Mustasim, and having him serve as a puppet ruler. But his Shi’ite advisors argued against this saying that, “if the Caliph continues to live, the whole of his Muslim troops, and Muslims from other countries, will rise up, and will bring about his liberation, and they will not leave you alive.”

That night, the Caliph, his eldest son, and some of his attendants met their end. On the following day orders were sent to Baghdad to execute the rest of the Caliph’s family. The exact way al-Mustasim was killed is a something of a mystery, as there are several stories of how it happened. Perhaps the most likely version is the one where the Caliph was placed into a leather sack and then kicked to death. The Mongols believed that if they spilled royal blood onto the earth it would bring misfortune on them, so this method of capital punishment was a popular way for them to avoid such a problem. Of course, there is the version given by Marco Polo, in which Hulagu has the Caliph locked into a tower filled with his all his gold, pearls and other riches. The Mongol ruler told him, “Now, Caliph, eat your fill of treasure, since you are so fond of it; for you will get nothing else.” After that he left him alone in the tower, and four days later the Caliph succumbed to hunger and thirst.

On the day of the Caliph’s death, Hulagu freed the Vizier and made him the governor of the city. He was then sent back to Baghdad, where he and other officials set about the task of rebuilding the city. Three thousand cavalrymen were also sent there, where they worked to bury the dead, remove animal carcasses from the roads, and restore the markets.

The rebuilding of Baghdad was only one part of Hulagu’s attempt at winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. He also ordered all the surviving religious scholars to meet and make a ruling on the issue of whether it is better to be governed by a just infidel or an unjust believer. Although the scholars hesitated to make a decision, they finally agreed to issue a fatwa that said that they preferred the just infidel. For Hulagu, this was a helpful piece of propaganda, since it gave him more justification to rule Iraq.

By April Hulagu was already back in Iran, and starting preparations for this conquest of Syria. The Mongol invasion of Iraq had been completed in about four months, a remarkably quick time. Even the siege of Baghdad lasted only three weeks. Historians have often commented that only weakness for the Mongols was their difficulty in capturing cities and fortresses. But the success that the Mongols had here, as they would at Aleppo in 1260, and in numerous other instances in Russia, Hungary, Iran, Central Asia, and China, all seem to contradict that assertion. While Mongol horses could not climb walls, Hulagu and other commanders were able to use siege weaponry and auxiliary forces very effectively.

Of course, as one might guess, the story of the Mongols in Iraq does not end with the fall of Baghdad. Within a couple of years, an insurgency had emerged, and places like Tikirt, Falluja and Mosul would become the centers of resistance. By then the Mongols had failed in their efforts to conquer Syria, and were now facing the energetic Mamluks. What had started out as a quick and easy conquest would end up bogged down in a long war that would last more than fifty years.

Sharan Newman