The Mongol Catastrophe and Islam’s Disrupted Archaeological Record

David Wade

The events I am about to describe are so horrible that for years I avoided all mention of them. It is not easy to announce that death has fallen upon Islam and the Muslims. Alas! I would have preferred my mother never to have given birth to me, or to have died without witnessing all these evils. If one day you are told that the earth has never known such calamity since God created Adam, do not hesitate to believe it, for such is the strict truth. Nebuchadnezza’s massacres of the children of Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem are generally cited as among the most infamous tragedies of history. But these were as nothing compared to what has happened now. No, probably not until the end of time will a catastrophe of such magnitude be seen again.

Ibn al-Athir from his ‘Complete History’ c.1231 CE/628 AH1

As I have already mentioned, studies of the formation and evolution of Islamic art and architecture are beset by the ravages of history – in particular, the devastation wrought by some the greatest ‘Despoilers of the World’ ever known. In particular, the Mongols, Genghiz Khan and Hulagu, and their successor, Timür. The ‘Mongol Cataclysm’ (touched on in Background note #1 - The Historical Setting), was an utter disaster for the Islamic world, and one from which it never entirely recovered.

Carved brick panels from the Madrasat al Mustansiriya, Baghdad
Fig. 17 Carved brick panels from the Madrasat al Mustansiriya, Baghdad; one of the city’s few monuments that pre-date the Mongol Catastophe

In 1220, having conquered and subdued much of northern China, Genghis Khan invaded the eastern Islamic provinces, ruled by the Kwarezm-Shahs, and with his customary ruthlessness, captured or destroyed most of its great cities. The magnificent cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, Khokand and many others were looted, razed and their inhabitants either massacred or reduced to tribute-paying vassalage.

Some thirty years later, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulagu, led a massive army west, into Iran, with the ultimate ambition of subjugating the rest of the Islamic world, using the same tactics of terror and annihilation. Having despoiled most of the great towns of Iran, the Mongol leader turned to Iraq and finally, in 1258/656, attacked the greatest of Islamic cities, Baghdad. Because the city had refused to surrender to his army the Mongols not only massacred huge numbers of its inhabitants (including the last Abbasid Caliph, Al-Musta’sim), but demolished much of its physical structure and the highly-developed irrigation system on which it depended2. Baghdad, which had been the most important centre of medieval intellectual and artistic creativity, and the focus of Islamic civilization for five centuries, was reduced to rubble-strewn desolation in a matter of weeks3. This terrible event ranks high in a list of the most complete destructions of a centre of civilisation, of any period. In the following year Hulagu and his horde moved on to Damascus, which, with the knowledge of the devastation suffered by Baghdad, surrendered, and was spared the more severe depredations of which the Mongols were capable. However, this invasion saw the end of the powerful Ayyübid dynasty and the spoliation of its culture.

The repopulation and rebuilding of Baghdad was very gradual and sporadic; even a century and a half later, both of these great cities had made only a partial recovery. But incredibly, these dreadful events were to be repeated. In 1401, Timür, the self-proclaimed successor of the Mongols, who had adopted their brutal methods, again attacked Baghdad and then Damascus, and this time round the destruction was, if anything, even more devastating for both. Resistance to Timür’s demands for complete surrender, as with Hulagu, were inevitably met by general massacre and utter destruction, and this was the fate of these once-magnificent cities once again. Timür’s hordes followed Hulagu’s awful example in Baghdad, and then turned their attention to Damascus, where they razed many of its greatest buildings and looted their contents4. The material and artistic treasures of this beautiful city, together with its human resources (including craftsmen of all kinds), were dragged off by semi-nomadic barbarians to remote lands and an extremely uncertain future. Entire populations were either killed or removed, in compliance with the, by now familiar, policy of extreme terror. It was an appalling time, of towers built entirely from piles of human heads. Both Baghdad and Damascus, together with many other important Islamic cities, were left desolate and uninhabited for many years.

Illuminated page from the Ibn al-Bawwab Qu’ran
Fig. 18 An illuminated page from the Ibn al-Bawwab Qu’ran, Baghdad. A beautiful but rare surviving example of Abbassid Quran illumination; now held in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

These appalling events brought unimaginable suffering to the inhabitants of medieval Baghdad and Damascus, but the near-obliteration of both of these cities of the earliest Caliphates also presents modern Islamic art-historians with fundamental problems. The equivalent for Renaissance studies would be as if atomic bombs had obliterated 16th century Florence and Venice. The great majority of the buildings that would have shown the gradual development of Islamic architectural styles in Baghdad (and nearby Samarra) during their most important periods were demolished. The Great Library of Baghdad, said to rival the Library of Alexandria with its vast store of precious documents (including innumerable translations and commentaries on Classical Greek, Persian and Indian texts) was utterly destroyed; the River Tigris is described as running black from the ink of the piles of manuscripts that were dumped in it. Countless numbers of illuminated Qu’rans, which would have mapped the development of the Islamic decorative canon in the Art of the Book, were also lost forever, as was much else that might have cast light on the evolution of Islamic decorative art. Of this once magnificent metropolis, which at its height was the largest and most wealthy city in the world, all that remained were just a few walls of a few buildings (fig.12).

Everything that is known of the creation of Islamic artistic style in Abbasid Baghdad during its most formative period (the 11th-12th centuries CE) is therefore based on material that one way or another escaped this cataclysm – on the sparse number of surviving monuments and artifacts, on the architectural styles of lesser centres, and on copies and transcripts of manuscripts. (fig.13). Although Damascus had become less important after the transference of the capital to Baghdad by the Abassids, it was still an important centre of political power and cultural influence at the time of its destruction by Timür, and the damage to the fabric of civilised life there was also incalculable. It was said that every object that could be carried was taken away and everything that could not was destroyed. In time, the wounds inflicted on Islamic civilization by these terrible, devastating events gradually healed. The descendants of both the Mongols and Timür were themselves absorbed into the broad stream of Islamic culture, and went on to make important contributions of their own. Damascus and Baghdad, although they never reached their previous heights, were re-established as important commercial and cultural centres. But the shock of these events left long, bitter memories – and serious gaps for those trying to gain an understanding of the continuities of Islamic cultural evolution, particularly of its Art and Architecture.

  1. I have taken this quote from ‘The Crusades through Arab eyes’, by Amin Maalouf, first published in 1983.

  2. Estimates of the population of Baghdad at the time of the Mongol attack, and therefore of the numbers killed, vary considerably. The higher figures put it somewhere between a quarter of a million and a million.

  3. Little remains of Abbasid Baghdad, and only two buildings of Samarra, which was a vast city.

  4. The numbers of those murdered and deported from Damascus by Timür’s army is not known, but is very great. There are accounts by survivors of just one incident, involving thousands being herded into the Great Mosque, which was then set alight.