12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests

Medieval depiction of Hulagu’s Siege of Baghdad. Wikimedia

The Mongols Destroyed Islam’s Last Caliphate

Hulagu (1217 – 1265), grandson of Genghis Khan and younger brother of the Grand Khans Mongke and Kublai, expanded the Mongol domain into Western Asia with a savagery that remains in the region’s memory to this day. He destroyed Baghdad and the Abbasid Caliphate, conquered Syria, and threatened Egypt and the surviving Crusader states. He also demolished medieval Persian culture, while establishing the Ilkhanate in Persia, a fore runner of modern Iran.

In 1251, Hulagu was ordered by Khan Mongke to extend Mongol power into the Islamic world. As a preliminary, Hulagu attacked and seized the mountain fortresses of the Assassins cult, a militant Islamic sect led by a mystic known as the “Old Man of the Mountain”. The Assassins were the Al Qaeda of their day, who terrorized the Middle East for generations with suicidal killers, until Hulagu wiped them out.

Hulagu then turned his attention to the Abbasid Caliphate, and demanded its submission. When the Caliph refused, Hulagu besieged him in Baghdad, and captured the city in 1258. The Mongols then destroyed the city, along with all its treasures, such as the Grand Library, and massacred between 200,000 to a million inhabitants. Because of a Mongol taboo against shedding royal blood, the captured Caliph was executed by being rolled in a rug, which was then trampled by Mongol horses. That ended the Abbasids, and the Islamic institution of the Caliphate.

Hulagu then conquered Syria, bringing to an end the Ayubbid dynasty founded by Saladin. He planned to conquer Egypt, but got word that his brother Mongke had died, and as a potential successor, Hulagu returned to Mongolia. In his absence, the Mongols he left behind under a trusted subordinate were wiped out by the Egyptian Mamelukes at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. It was the first major defeat of a Mongol army, and it broke the spell of Mongol invincibility.

Hulagu was not selected to succeed his brother as Great Khan, so he returned west to avenge the defeat at Ain Jalut. However, he ended up warring with a cousin, Berke, who had succeeded to leadership of the Golden Horde which ruled Russia and Eastern Europe. Berke had converted to Islam, and was enraged by Hulagu’s rampage in the Muslim world. Hulagu was kept busy fighting his cousin for the remainder of his life.