The lull ended in the 1250s, when a new Mongol ruler, Genghis Khan’s grandson Mongke, turned his attention to the Middle East and sent his brother, Hulagu, to assert Mongol power over the region. Hulagu began by first destroying the Assassins, a murderous cult led by a shadowy mystic known as The Old Man of the Mountain. They operated out of a string of mountain fortresses, from which they terrorized the Middle East for over a century and a half.
Completing that task by 1256, Hulagu turned his attention to the Abbassid Caliphate, based in Baghdad. He ordered its Caliph, Al Musta’sim, to submit to Mongol suzerainty and pay tribute. The Caliph made a catastrophic mistake by misreading the situation, overestimating his own power and influence, and underestimating the Mongols’ might.
The Abbassids had once been a powerful dynasty that had ruled the world’s largest, strongest, and most prosperous empire. However, they were centuries removed from their heyday by the time Al Musta’sim became Caliph.
By the 1250s, the Abbasid Caliphate’s sway did not stretch far beyond Baghdad. As to the Caliphs, they had been reduced to mostly ceremonial figureheads, puppets of Turkish or Persian sultans wielding real power and acting in their name. What Caliph Al Musta’sim s still had was a remnant of spiritual and moral authority, and enough pride to refuse Hulagu’s summons to submit.
1. The Caliph Discovers Just How Catastrophically Wrong He Had Been
Al Musta’sim was not prepared to face the Mongols, who had conquered bigger and tougher opponents than the small rump which still remained in the Abbasid Caliphate. However, Al Musta’sim believed that the Mongols would not be able to seize Baghdad, and that if the city was endangered, the Islamic world would rush to its aid. He turned out to be catastrophically wrong.
Hulagu marched on Baghdad, the Islamic world did not rush to its aid, and after a 12-day siege, the city fell. The Mongols sacked Baghdad, massacred its inhabitants, burned its vast libraries, and put the city to the torch. Al Musta’sim was captured, but the Mongols had a taboo against spilling royal blood. So they had him executed by rolling him in a carpet, over which their army rode when it marched off to further conquests, their horses trampling the last Caliph to death.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading