The period of 1,000 or so years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance is widely known as the Dark Ages, mainly because the former Roman lands in Europe were divided up into isolated kingdoms that saw little prosperity. 

However, this view fails to acknowledge the prosperity that was seen in the Middle East and North Africa under Islam’s Golden Age.  For hundreds of years, Muslims carried on and advanced the philosophical and scientific traditions that were created by the Greeks and Romans and did much to preserve the work of previous civilizations from around the known world.  During much of this time, Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world – a beacon of tolerance, knowledge, and discovery.  Then the Mongols ruined everything.

Baghdad was established as the administrative capital of the Abbasid Empire in 762AD and at its height was home to an estimated one million people, had an army of 60,000, and was an international trade center as well as the intellectual capital of the Abbasid caliphate.  According to Jim  Al-Khalili, Abu Jafar al Mamum (reigned 813 – 833) was the Baghdadi ruler responsible for the world’s “most impressive period of scholarship and learning since Ancient Greece.”  Among other accomplishments in science, philosophy, and education, Mamum formally established the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma), where he sought to collect every book in the world to be translated into Arabic in order to support education for the booming city.  By the mid 800s, the best philosophers and scientists from throughout the Arab and Persian worlds studied in Baghdad.

A 1237 artist's depiction of scholars studying at an Abbasid library

Baghdad’s growth slowed in the 10th century due to both internal and external factors, but Baghdad remained the de facto center of the Abbasid caliphate until the mid 1200s.  Enter the Mongols.

The caliphate was well past its peak, Baghdad was suffering internally from sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, and the Mongol presence under Genghis Khan’s three grandsons (most important for this story is Hulagu) was increasing to the East.  By the late 1250s, Mongke Khan (one of Genghis’ grandsons) decided to take over all of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Iran, and ordered his brother Hulagu to lead the charge against Baghdad.  Hulagu was to order Baghdad’s ruler Al-Musta’sim Billah to submit and donate troops to the Mongols for their other conquests.

When Hulagu sent his demands, Al-Musta’sim refused arrogantly (big mistake) and Hulagu cut off all negotiations and from January 29 to February 10, 1258, the Mongols besieged and conquered Baghdad.  When they entered the citythree days later, they partied Mongol-style for a week.  In other words, they destroyed and murdered whatever and whoever they felt like destroying and murdering. 

The death toll estimates range widely from 90,000 to over a million (not likely since the estimated population of Baghdad at the time was closer to 500,000), but the devastation of the Mongol siege went beyond the loss of life.  Many of Baghdad’s storied palaces, libraries, mosques, hospitals, and schools were burned to the ground along with their contents.  According to one account, the Tigris River ran black with the ink of destroyed books for months after the siege.  This is obviously hyperbole, but you get the point, lots of important stuff was destroyed – more than they could realistically quantify.

A 15th century painting depicting Hulagu (center) imprisoning Al-Musta'sim

Hulagu ultimately had to move his camp upwind of the city due to the smell of smoke and dead bodies before eventually leaving Baghdad behind to be partially rebuilt by a handful of Mongols.  With Baghdad’s destruction, centuries of scholarship and innovation were largely wiped out in a matter of days.  It is unknown exactly what was lost, but the siege of Baghdad dealt Islam a psychological setback from which it largely never recovered.  The city recovered to some degree economically, but the period that followed the Mongol invasions (and the earlier Crusades) saw the rise of ideologues whose radical fundamentalist views still resonate with Islamic extremists today.  Thanks, Mongols, you blew it.