Once again history illustrated the truism that civilized comfort attracts barbarian conquest. The Seljuqs had brought new strength to Eastern Islam; but they too had succumbed to ease, and had allowed the empire of Malik Shah to break down into autonomous kingdoms culturally brilliant and militarily weak. Religious fanaticism and racial antipathies divided the people into bitter sects, and frustrated any united defense against the Crusades.
Meanwhile, on the plains and deserts of northwestern Asia, the Mongols thrived on hardships and primitive fertility. They lived in tents or the open air, followed their herds to fresh pastures, clothed themselves in oxhides, and studied with relish the arts of war. These new Huns, like their kin of eight centuries back, were experts with dagger and sword, and arrows aimed from their flying steeds. If we may believe the Christian missionary Giovanni de Piano Carpini, “they eat anything edible, even lice”;116 and they had as little repugnance to feeding on rats, cats, dogs, and human blood as our most cultured contemporaries to eating eels and snails. Jenghiz Khan (1167–1227)—i.e., the Great King—disciplined them with severe laws into an irresistible force, and led them to the conquest of Central Asia from the Volga to the Chinese Wall. During the absence of Jenghiz Khan from his capital at Karokorum, a Mongol chieftain rebelled against him, and formed a league with Ala al-Din Muhammad, the Shah of the independent state of Khwarizm. Jenghiz suppressed the rebellion, and sent the Shah an offer of peace. The offer was accepted; but shortly thereafter two Mongol merchants in Transoxiana were executed as spies by Muhammad’s governor of Otrar. Jenghiz demanded the extradition of the governor; Muhammad refused, beheaded the chief of the Mongol embassy, and sent its other members back without their beards. Jenghiz declared war, and the Mongol invasion of Islam began (1219).
An army under the Khan’s son Juji defeated Muhammad’s 400,000 troops at Jand; the Shah fled to Samarkand, leaving 160,000 of his men dead on the field. Another army, under Jenghiz’ son Jagatai, captured and sacked Otrar. A third army, under Jenghiz himself, burned Bokhara to the ground, raped thousands of women, and massacred 30,000 men. Samarkand and Balkh surrendered at his coming, but suffered pillage and wholesale slaughter; a full century later Ibn Batuta described these cities as still largely in ruins. Jenghiz’ son Tule led 70,000 men through Khurasan, ravaging every town on their march. The Mongols placed captives in their van, and gave them a choice between fighting their fellow men in front, or being cut down from behind. Merv was captured by treachery, and was burned to the ground; its libraries, the glory of Islam, were consumed in the conflagration; its inhabitants were allowed to march out through the gates with their treasures, only to be massacred and robbed in detail; this slaughter (the Moslem historians aver) occupied thirteen days, and took 1,300,000 lives.117 Nishapur resisted long and bravely, but succumbed (1221); every man, woman, and child there was killed, except 400 artisan-artists who were sent to Mongolia; and the heads of the slain were piled up in a ghastly pyramid. The lovely city of Rayy, with its 3000 mosques and its famous pottery kilns, was laid in ruins, and (a Moslem historian tells us) its entire population was put to death.118 Muhammad’s son Jalal ud-Din collected a new army of Turks, gave Jenghiz battle on the Indus, was defeated, and fled to Delhi. Herat, having rebelled against its Mongol governor, was punished with the slaughter of 60,000 inhabitants. This ferocity was part of the military science of the Mongols; it sought to strike a paralyzing terror into the hearts of later opponents, and to leave no possibility of revolt among the defeated. The policy succeeded.
Jenghiz now returned to Mongolia, enjoyed his 500 wives and concubines, and died in bed. His son and successor Ogotai sent a horde of 300,000 men to capture Jalal ud-Din, who had formed another army at Diarbekr; Jalal was defeated and killed, and the unhindered Mongols ravaged Azerbaijan, northern Mesopotamia, Georgia, and Armenia (1234). Hearing that a rebellion, led by the Assassins, had broken out in Iran, Hulagu, a grandson of Jenghiz, led a Mongol army through Samarkand and Balkh, destroyed the Assassin stronghold at Alamut, and turned toward Baghdad.
Al-Mustasim Billah, last of the Abbasid caliphs of the East, was a learned scholar, a meticulous calligrapher, a man of exemplary gentleness, devoted to religion, books, and charity: this was an enemy to Hulagu’s taste. The Mongol accused the Caliph of sheltering rebels, and of withholding promised aid against the Assassins; as penalty he demanded the submission of the Caliph to the Great Khan, and the complete demilitarization of Baghdad. Al-Mustasim returned a boastful refusal. After a month of siege, al-Mustasim sent Hulagu presents and an offer of surrender. Lured by a promise of clemency, he and his two sons gave themselves up to the Mongol. On February 13, 1258, Hulagu and his troops entered Baghdad, and began forty days of pillage and massacre; 800,000 of the inhabitants, we are told, were killed. Thousands of scholars, scientists, and poets fell in the indiscriminate slaughter; libraries and treasures accumulated through centuries were in a week plundered or destroyed; hundreds of thousands of volumes were consumed. Finally the Caliph and his family, after being forced to reveal the hiding place of their secret wealth, were put to death.119 So ended the Abbasid caliphate in Asia.
Hulagu now returned to Mongolia. His army remained behind, and under other generals it advanced to the conquest of Syria. At Ain Jalut it met an Egyptian army under the Mamluk leaders Qutuz and Baibars, and was destroyed (1260). Everywhere in Islam and Europe men of all faiths rejoiced; the spell of fear was broken. In 1303 a decisive battle near Damascus ended the Mongol threat, and saved Syria for the Mamluks, perhaps Europe for Christianity.
Never in history had a civilization suffered so suddenly so devastating a blow. The barbarian conquest of Rome had been spread over two centuries; between each blow and the next some recovery was possible; and the German conquerors respected, some tried to preserve, the dying Empire which they helped to destroy. But the Mongols came and went within forty years; they came not to conquer and stay, but to kill, pillage, and carry their spoils to Mongolia. When their bloody tide ebbed it left behind it a fatally disrupted economy, canals broken or choked, schools and libraries in ashes, governments too divided, poor, and weak to govern, and a population cut in half and shattered in soul. Epicurean indulgence, physical and mental exhaustion, military incompetence and cowardice, religious sectarianism and obscurantism, political corruption and anarchy, all culminating in piecemeal collapse before external attack—this, and no change of climate, turned Western Asia from world leadership to destitution, from a hundred teeming and cultured cities in Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Caucasus, and Transoxiana into the poverty, disease, and stagnation of modern times.