As the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Muta'sim Billah, mused over his favorite concubine, Orfa, in the privacy of the room where she flirted and toyed with him, a Mongol arrow passed through the window, unintentionally killing the concubine, along with the pleasure the Caliph was indulging in. “I did not think they’d come this far,” he told himself in alarm. He ordered the curtains to come down and resumed his activities.
These were the first signs of the conquest of Baghdad, said historian Youssef Ziedan on a televised series discussing the fall of the legendary city.
Islamic scholar Ibn Kathir stated in his book The Beginning and the End that a flood of arrows hit the whole city like heavy rain, including landmarks such as the Mustansiriya Madrasah, the Mughetheya Madrasah, Abu Hanifa Mosque, Al-'Adudi Hospital (the first hospital in Baghdad), Al Khalifa Mosque, Musa al-Kadhim View, and the domes of the Caliphs’ mausoleums, as well as the post office. The arrows carried a message to all the people of Baghdad.; that they would only have safety if they surrendered. The people, nonetheless, did not surrender.
The catastrophic attack (1258 AD) was no ordinary occurrence, and the fall of Baghdad is no commonplace of history. The collapse of the historic city destroyed the myths that city’s reputation would protect it from a long overdue downfall.
The capital was famous for being sanctified by the grandchildren of the Prophet Muhammed, and for a reputation that would safeguard it from siege or floods, according to Mohamed Hamza, Dean of the Faculty of Archeology at Cairo University.
Hamza told Raseef22 that the Abbasids believed in their own immortality, right up to the point that they would pass on sovereignty to Jesus. They believed this to be a divine prophecy that no one could prevent, even the Mongols with their armies of thousands.
“The Abbasid Caliphate will persevere to the day of judgment,” the Caliph explicitly said in a letter to Hulagu Khan, who threatened to transform Baghdad into an “eternal hell”.
Baghdad: Paradise on Earth
At the time, the beauty of Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, was such that it provoked people to question: ‘How could Paradise offer any more than this?’
Some viewed it as a place to indulge in pleasures and distractions from religion, and it was later described by the pious Sheikh Abdullah ibn Mubarak as an unsuitable place for asceticism. Moreover, the Sufi leader Bishr ibn Al Hareth said that no true believer should live in the city.
Baghdad was nicknamed the “daughter of Al Mansour” (Al Mansour Billah Abo Ja’far, second Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate), “Al Zawra’a" (meaning opposite) because the gates of the city were opposite to each other, “Assalam City” (an attribution to Tigris, Wadi Al-Salaam), and “the Round City.”
Before the Mongol conquest, Baghdad was a city of unequalled splendor
During the height of its glory days, the edicts of the Abbasid Caliphs were obeyed by 50 million people, for 508 years, who lived in an area of 11 million square kilometers, as stated in the Atlas of the Abbasid Caliphate by Sami Al-Maghlouth.
Imam Al-Shafi’i believed that those who did not enter the city had not lived nor really seen people. Traveler Yaqut al-Hamawi quoted Al Yaqoobi who said that Baghdad had no counterpart throughout the far corners of the earth.
Poet Shams Eddin Al Koufi lamented the ruins of the city in his poem: O, city, after your stars faded away/we are reigned by darkness after the light.
Description of Baghdad
Historians describe the city as having a thick wall of thirty-five arm’s lengths, followed by another wall with a width of twenty arms, in which each brick weighed about 117 pounds. The best workers and engineers were commissioned for its construction with a budget of up to 18 million dinars, while the lowest estimate was 4 million dinars.
It was said that the city’s gates were magical, one built by the Pharaohs (Khorasan Gate) and the others built by the grandchildren of the Prophet David (the dome gates). Next to the gates were 163 tall security towers, according to The History of Baghdad by Al Khatib.
The state budget during this epoch was tremendous, amounting to 7 billion dinars during Harũn Al Rashid’s rule. According to the book Rusũm Dar Al Khilāfa by Hilal Al Sahabi, the numbers forced the linguists of the epoch to coin a new term to express the word “billion”.
The city’s trade movement was rich with Iranian textiles, Indian spices, fruits of the Transoxiana region, concubines, and even animals.
Traders were so wealthy that major trader Maqlad Ibn Safi Addin married his cousin with a dowry of 100,000 dinars.
Ibn Al Jawzi wrote in his book Anecdotes of Fools that the fortune of one of the city’s residents was at a million dirhams, while Jurji Zaydan said, in his book History of Islamic Civilization, that the mother of the Caliph Al Mu’tazz had a wealth of gold and ruby equal to 4 million dinars.
The City of Indulgence
In his book Civilised History Baghdad Hadi Al Alawi reveals more of the Abbasid luxuries, writing about the vast gardens in which all types of ornamental plants grew.
Moreover, the palaces had dancing halls in which the concubines showed themselves off to the palace owner. The city had a puppet theater, while children had their own market for playing.
The people of the city practiced different sports, including archery, horse riding, mace, and chess. Baghdad’s poet Ibn Al Rumi wrote verses praising his friend who mastered chess.
Al Khatib tells us of the palace of the caliph, which included 7,000 concubines, 700 doorkeepers, and 4,000 male servants. The palaces were furnished with silk curtains adorned in gold and pictures, with 22,000 rugs covering the marble floors. Ponds scattered across the palaces’ leafy gardens, as well as fifteen silver statues of knights holding spears.
Ibn Al Jawzi describes the palaces in the Virtues of Baghdad, describing each as “a state in its own right”. Medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela wrote: “In the palaces of the caliphate, the buildings are perplexing. The palaces are full of marble, pillars decorated with gold and rare gems which also cover the walls. Tremendous treasures and safes are full of gold, silk cloths, and gemstones.”
Al Khatib tells us again that Baghdad had an zoo that was open to the public at no cost, where people could see elephants clothed in silk, with their eight servants forcing them to submit using fire torches. They also saw the cells of the lions, shackled with chains by the necks, roaring and attempting to set themselves free, as well as many other animals and fish.
Al Hamawi recalls that one of the landmarks of the city is the giant green dome in its main iwan (a spacious area surrounded by walls from three sides). On top of both stands a statue of a knight grasping a spear that is visible from all directions. In his books, he wrote that the people of the city believed that whenever the wind moved the spear to one angle, the Caliph knew that trouble was coming from that direction.
How Did the Impeccable City Fall?
The spear of the knight did not save Al-Musta’sim from the danger of the Mongols. Survival against 200,000 Mongols was impossible, as they besieged the four gates of the city and were determined to see the death of the Caliph and shed blood. These Mongols would not be stopped by the catapults or any other weapons was set up in the squares of Baghdad, which previously adorned the city before, along with the knights and the archers, as well as the wrestling competitions.
In all the references, the story is told with almost exactly the same details: the soldiers were defeated, the walls fell down, and the towers collapsed. The aggressors attacked the Caliph’s palace from two sides: Ajam building (East) and Al-'Adudi Hospital (West). The city’s surrender was thus inevitable.
The Caliph did not use the escape tunnel built by his grandfather Al Mansũr, as it said that whoever used it would travel two or three parasangs away from the city (a parasang equals four to six kilometers). He came out later after the 10,000 of his men were defeated, with a bowed head, and a succession of 700 of the scholars and notables of his Caliphate, who were taken to Hulagu Khan and subject to humiliation and mistreatment. He isolated the Caliph, killed his companions and his eldest son, before putting him in a sack and having him trampled to death under the hoofs of horses.
“I witnessed the city emptied, the people gone, the landmarks vanished, the palaces vacant, and the residents scattered here and there,” historian Zuhair Al Din Al Kazaruni described Baghdad during his visit after the conquest.
The Mongols raided the mosques to steal their golden domes. They also robbed the rare antiques in palaces, and the city was swept by forty days of bloodshed. They killed the city’s people “with swords”, as historian Ibn al-Fuwati writes, who witnessed the catastrophe and was captured in the attack.
He stated that the Mongols killed whoever was in their paths, including men, women, children, old people, young people, and imams.
During his travels, Ibn Battuta claimed that the Mongols killed 24,000 religious scholars, in addition to whoever they found alive of the Abbasids.
Residents, on the other hand, hid in every nook and cranny of the city to save themselves, even in the churches, which were ordered to remain untouched in honor of Hulagu’s wife, who was a Nestorian Christian.
People also hid in the sewage systems of public baths to escape the inferno in the streets. Public baths were described by Ibn Battuta as being luxurious and equipped with water pipes for hot and cold water, and by Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubair as having been of distinct beauty. In the last days of the caliphate, Helal Al Sahabi estimated them to number about 150 public baths.
As for those who refused to come out of their homes and hotels, the soldiers forcefully stormed their homes and killed whoever they found alive, even those who attempted escape.
The city’s great mosque was burned, along with the two madrasahs, Tajiyyah and Benefshah, and Mustansiriya Madrasah was shut down and only reopened two years later.
Ibn Kathir claimed that in the streets the gutters overflowed with blood and the heads of passersby like rain. It is said that two Mongols tired under the weight of their spoils, so they killed a man and cut open his guts to put the prize in it.
As for the victims, some said they were estimated at 800,000 victims, others placed the number as high as 8.8 million, while others still said 2 millions killed, said Ibn Kathir.