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 gerardvanderleun at December 14, 2013 6:24 AM