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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Aug 3, 2020

Before we get into this week's episode, I want to give a shout out to another podcast that we’ve recently discovered here at Ages of Conquest! Pax Britannica is a narrative history podcast on the British Empire. Season 1 covered the start of English colonisation in North America and the Caribbean, the first decades of the East India Company, and the ruthless politics of the British Isles. Season 2 has just begun on the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Civil war and revolution erupt in England, Ireland, and Scotland, pitting the forces of Charles I against his own subjects. By the end, the king will be dead, the monarchy abolished, and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell will be at the head of a militarised and expansionist Commonwealth. If any of this sounds even remotely appealing, go give Pax Britannica a listen; available where all fine podcasts are downloaded. And now, on with OUR show!


You are to go with a large army and innumerable force from the borders of Turan to the country of Iran. Observe Chinggis Khan’s customs and yosun and yasa in all matters large and small. From the River Oxus to the farthest reaches of the land of Egypt, treat kindly and affectionately and reward sufficiently whoever obeys and submits to your orders. Grind beneath the feet of your wrath those who resist, along with their wives, children, and kith and kin. Begin with Quhistan and Khurasan, and destroy the fortresses and castles. Rip up GirdKoh and [Lammasar] fortress and turn them upside down! Neither let any bastion remain in the world nor leave a pile of dust standing! When you are finished there, head for Persia and eliminate the Lurs and Kurds who constantly practice brigandage along the highways. If the Caliph of Baghdad comes out to pay homage, harass him in no way whatsoever. If he is prideful and his heart and tongue are not one, let him join the others. In all cases make your clear-sighted intelligence and golden mind your guide and leader, and be awake and sober in all situations. Let the subjects be free of excessive taxes and impositions. Return devastated lands to a flourishing state. Conquer the realm of the rebellious through the might of the great god so that your summer and winter pastures may be many. Consult Doquz Khatun on all matters.”


    So were the orders Mongke Khaan, Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, gave to his brother Hulegu on the outset of his campaign in 1253, according to the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din. Among the most famous of the Mongol campaigns, Hulegu led Mongol armies to destroys the Ismaili Assassins in Iran, the ‘Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad and into Syria, the prelude to the famous clash at Ayn Jalut. As this is perhaps the Mongol campaign with the greatest surviving detail, and one of the most well known, we’re going to take you on a thorough look at Hulegu’s western march, beginning with the destruction of the so-called “Order of Assassin.” I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    Hulegu, the famed sacker of Baghdad, was the younger brother of Great Khan Mongke and Kublai, the third son of Tolui with Sorqaqtani. As mentioned back in episode 23, Mongke Khaan took the throne in 1251 with a renewed drive to complete the Mongol conquest of the world. He organized administrative reforms, censuses, and new taxes to levy the forces of the empire for this goal. In 1252, he held a meeting in Mongolia to put this next round of conquest in motion, placing his brothers at the head of two great armies. Kublai was sent against the Kingdom of Dali, in China’s modern Yunnan province, as the opening move in the conquest of Song Dynasty. Hulegu meanwhile was to march west and subdue the few independent powers of the Islamic world: specifically, the Nizari Ismailis, popularly known as the Assassins; the Kurds and Lurs of western Iran, who annoyed the Great Khan through their brigandage, and the ‘Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad.


    There is discrepancy in the sources as to what precisely Hulegu’s mandate was. A number of later authors of the Ilkhanate- the state which emerged from Hulegu’s conquests- assert that Mongke intended for the area from the Amu Darya River to the Meditteranean to be ruled by Hulegu as another ulus, or Khanate of the empire, a counterbalance to those of Jochi and Chagatai, a sort of Toluid axis across Asia sandwiching the Chagatayids. This is hardly agreed upon however. Other sources present Hulegu’s command as a temporary military one. The Ilkhanid vizier and historian Rashid al-Din wrote that Mongke told Hulegu to return to Mongolia once he had achieved his tasks; Hulegu had to confer with his commanders on all strategic decisions, which included representatives from the houses of Jochi, Chagatai and even Ogedai, a first amongst equals rather than an almighty prince; and when Hulegu began to seize Jochid possessions in Iran, Khurasan and the Caucasus after Mongke’s death, it seems to have taken them quite by surprise, for in the early 1250s Mongke confirmed grants of Caucasian territory to the house of Jochi. It’s likely that Mongke had intended for Iran and much of the Middle East to be dominated by the Central Imperial Government, but did not intend to remove land rights the other branches of the family enjoyed in the region. 


    So, who was Hulegu? Born in 1217, he was two years younger than Kublai, almost ten years younger than Mongke, and a few years older than their youngest brother, Ariq Boke. His life before the ascension of Mongke is almost totally unknown to us, but he presumably received similar education in both governing and warfare to his brothers.  While Mongke was groomed for the possibility of stepping into the imperial throne, Hulegu, to our knowledge, was not provided any such pretensions. He was well exposed to other religions and cultures; his mother, Sorqaqtani was a Nestorian Christian, as was his most influential wife, Doquz Khatun, who had been a widow of his father Tolui. Despite this, he showed more personal interest in Buddhism, though he took part in shamanistic practices throughout his recorded life. He was interesedt in science, especially astronomy, though for Hulegu this was more so in the form of astrology, which he often consulted for major decisions. He was a heavy drinker, with the lovely combination of often flying into horrific rages. Even reading pro-Ilkhanid sources like Rashid al-Din, who long served the descendants of Hulegu, one is shocked by the regularity in which Hulegu fell into a towering rage, which tended to be quite dangerous for whomever it was targeted at. His final years were marked by ill health, brought on excessive drinking, and at least one source indicates he suffered from epilepsy.


    With the quriltai of 1252, the plan to finalize the conquest of western Asia was set, and Hulegu put in motion. A member of Mongke’s keshig was provided for Hulegu’s command, Kitbuqa of the Naiman tribe, also a Nestorian Christian. Kitbuqa departed as Hulegu’s vanguard in August 1252 with 12,000 men, beginning operations against the Ismailis in eastern Iran. Various sources give Hulegu’s own departure from Mongolia as Autumn 1253 or 1254. By the 1250s, the Mongols had an absolutely massive army: some estimates put the nomadic soldiers at their disposal upwards of one million men, and many more among the sedentary peoples across Eurasia to be called upon.  Mongke provided Hulegu with a relatively small contingent of Mongols at the outset: perhaps as low as a tumen, 10,000 men, for Hulegu in addition to the 12,000 Kitbuqa had already set out with. As Hulegu moved west, his army snowballed, as contingents from across the empire met with him. 1,000 Chinese siege engineers and crossbowmen were provided for him. Most of the former warriors of the house of Ogedai were conscripted for Hulegu’s army. He was joined by a contingent of Oirats under Buqa Temur, the brother of Hulegu’s first senior wife, named somewhat amusingly, Guyuk. A grandson of Chagatai, Teguder, headed the perhaps 10,000 Chagatayid troops provided for Hulegu as he marched through their ulus. As many as 30,000 troops under the Jochid princes Balaghai, Quli and Tutar were provided by Batu. Tamma forces stationed in Kashmir and in the Caucasus, under Baiju Noyan, would also link up with Hulegu, and forces were supplied by all the client sultans, maliks, and atabegs of Iran, the Caucasus and Anatolia. By the time Hulegu’s army converged on Baghdad at the start of 1258, he commanded perhaps 150,000 men if not more. 


    Extensive preparation was necessary for this army’s movement. We are told that roads were cleared of obstructions, bridges built and boats readied to cross rivers. All the pastures and meadows on Hulegu’s route were reserved for the feeding of his army’s horses and livestock. Flour and skins of wine were levied from across the subject populations and stored at depot stations along the way. Thanks to the census launched at the start of Mongke’s reign, the imperial government had a good idea of what could be called upon to provide for Hulegu’s army. 


    By Autumn 1255 Hulegu was near Samarkand, where he rested for 40 days, feasting with the head of the Secretariat for Central Asia, Mas’ud Beg. Another month was spent at Kish, about 80 kilometres south of Samarkand and the later birthplace of amir Temur, or Tamerlane. There, Hulegu feasted with the head of the Secretariat for Iran and Western Asia, Arghun Aqa. These were not just engagements for drinking (though there certainly was that) but to confer with the regional administrators and line up further provisions, troops and intelligence. At Kish, messengers were sent to vassals across Iran calling upon them to provide troops and assistance against the Ismaili assassins, whose territory Hulegu entered in the spring of 1256.


This takes us to Hulegu’s first target, the Assassins, which we’ll introduce and address some popular myths. Though popularly known as the Order of the Assassins, this is quite the misnomer; more accurately called the Nizari Ismaili state, they controlled a number of fortresses and settlements in three general regions; in Syria, centered around Masyaf; in the rugged eastern Iranian region called Quhistan; and in northwestern Iran’s Alburz mountain, where their  leadership was based across several mountain fortresses, most famously Alamut. Leadership of the branches in Quhistan and Masyaf was generally appointed by Alamut, but were autonomous otherwise. Shi’a Muslims, specifically Ismailis, in the late 1080s and 1090s the Ismaili Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt suffered a succession dispute as to who would succeed the Imam, the rather distant successor to the Prophet Muhammad and ehad of Shi’a Islam. The supporters of one candidate, Nizar, were known as Nizaris, and hence, Nizari Ismailis. For the majority of Muslims, who were Sunnis, the Nizaris were seen as a sect within a sect, and heretics par excellence. At the same time as this succession dispute an Ismaili revolt broke out in Seljuq ruled Iran. In 1090, Hassan-i Sabbah captured the fortress of Alamut, while other adherents seized territory in Quhistan and elsewhere. The last of the Great Seljuqs, Sultan Malik-Shah I, attempted to crush them, but his untimely death, and the ensuing succession risis which splintered the vast Seljuq Empire, allowed the Ismailis to consolidate. Geographically spread out and lacking great economic or military power, they had to rely on other means to protect themselves and convince their neighbours to not attack them.  One tool was assassinations, making a big splash with the murder of the Great Seljuq Vizier Nizam al-Mulk in 1092. Alongside well defended and inaccessible fortresses, it was a useful deterrent for any would-be conqueror. The assassinations were often public and dramatic to make the message as loud as possible. One method was for Ismailis to infiltrate the households of powerful figures as servants: they could then kill the man when he became too great a danger, or leave a warning, such as a knife, on the sleeping man’s pillow. The threat of assassination was as effective as an actual assassination, and soon anyone could be worried he had a secret Nizari Ismaili hiding in his entourage. Because of this, popular myths that the Ismaili imbued copious amounts of hashish before going on assassinations can be ignored. There is no evidence for this, and it’s unlikely considering the patience and planning that went into these missions. However, the appellation of them as heavy users of hashish stuck, hashishiyya, which became “assassin.”


So the Nizaris carried on for over a century. Hassan-i Sabbah and his successors, without any clear imam after Nizar’s death in 1095, basically stepped into the role themselves. The Ismaili leaders -popularly known in the West as ‘the Old Man of the Mountain,’- were generally long reigning without succession disputes, withstanding outside pressures while they mulled over doctrine, all the while being decried as just the worst sort of heretic by Sunni Muslims. In 1210, the ascension of the new imam and Ismaili leader, Hassan III, brought something of a rapprochement. Generally, the Ismailis had poor relations with the head of Sunni Islam, the ‘Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad. They had after all claimed responsibility for the murders of two Caliphs in the 1130s. Yet Hassan III dramatically declared he followed the Sunni Sharia and fostered better relations with both the Caliph and other neighbouring Sunni rulers, such as Ozebg, the Eldeguzid Atabeg of Azerbaijan, and Muhammad II Khwarezm-shah. According to ‘Ata-Mailk Juvaini, a member of Hulegu’s entourage, Hassan III was also the first monarch west of the Amu Darya to submit to Chinggis Khan. Despite his state being largely surrounded by the Khwarezmian Empire, Ismaili fortresses in the Elburz Mountains and Quhistan were spared Mongol attacks. Indeed, Quhistan was a veritable island of security as the Mongols overran the Khwarezmian Empire. Juzjani, a Sunni Khwarezmian refugee who fled to Quhistan before later finding refuge in Delhi, describes the Ismailis in glowing terms. 


Hassan III’s successor, ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad III, abandoned the overtures to the ‘Abbasid Caliph, but maintained the ties with the Mongols. When Jalal al-Din Mingburnu returned to western Iran in the mid 1220s, the Ismailis had no love for him and assassinated at least one of his lieutenants. When major Mongol forces returned to the region under Chormaqun Noyan at the start of the 1230s, the Ismailis provided valuable information on the whereabouts and weaknesses of Jalal al-Din, and within a year the Khwarezmian Prince was driven to his death. The details of the Mongol relationship with the Ismails for the next decade is difficult to discern. In 1246 Ismaili representatives came to the coronation of Guyuk Khaan in Mongolia, where they were insulted and sent off. Precisely what occurred is unclear. A possible reconstruction is offered by historian Timothy May in his article on the “Mongol-Ismaili Alliance.” He suggests the positive Mongol-Ismaili relationship was a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” No record is made of Mongol demands for troops or tribute from the Ismailis, and it may have been that while powerful Khwarezmian elements were still extant, relative Ismaili independence was permitted as they were useful allies. After Mingburnu’s death in 1231, and especially after the death of Chormaqun in 1241, Mongol demands on the Ismailis may have increased, and in the early 1230s the Mongols annexed Ismaili controlled Damghan. The Ismailis were so concerned that in 1238, the English Monk Matthew Paris recorded that representatives of “the Old Man of the Mountain,” had come to England and France trying to organize a Christian-Muslim alliance against the Mongols, warning the King of England that “if they themselves could not withstand the attacks of such people, nothing remained to prevent their devastating the countries of the west.” Three years later, Mongol armies under Subutai and Batu crossed the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary.


Back in the Middle East, one Mongol commander, Chagatai Noyan “the Lesser,” may have moved to enforce demands on the Ismailis, and was assassinated at some point in the early 1240s. Perhaps intended as just a warning, the Ismailis realised this was a mistake and sent representatives to Guyuk’s coronation in 1246. The Mongols were never forgiving of such things, and the destruction of the Ismailis was added to the agenda. An opportunity to actually do this didn’t present itself until the reign of Mongke Khan. The qadi of Qazwin, a city south of Alamut and quite antagonist to the Ismailis, came to Mongke’s court and revealed, in quite the breach of etiquette, that he had a suit of maille worn underneath his robes, claiming that his fear of the Ismailis was so great even in the Mongol court he needed this protection. When the Franciscan Friar William of Rubruck came to Mongke’s court in 1253, he heard rumours that 400 assassins had been dispatched to kill Mongke, and the Mongols were concerned enough that they were checking and interrogating everyone entering Karakorum. The threat of the assassins was taken seriously, and on Mongke’s directive Hulegu would treat the assassins very seriously


By then, the only independent power within proximity to Alamut was, somewhat ironically, the Caliph in Baghdad. The Ismailis stood alone against the incoming might of Hulegu. In the winter of 1255, as Hulegu stood at the border of Ismaili Quhistan, the imam ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad was murdered, quite likely on the instigation of his young and inexperienced son, Rukn al-Din Khwurshah, who then ascended to the imamate.  ‘Ala al-Din was long on bad terms with his son, and seems to have suffered some sort of mental decline as news of Hulegu’s overwhelming force approached. Rukn al-Din may have thought himself capable of maneuvering them out of the impending disaster, but would have no success in the matter.


In the spring of 1256, Hulegu and his ever growing army entered Quhistan. Kitbuqa had been campaigning throughout the region since 1253, but had had no success in holding settlements like Tun, Ismaili Quhistan’s chief city, taking them only to lose them once he moved on. The Ismaili fortresses, built on imposing mountains and hard to access sites, proved beyond his means to siege. On Hulegu’s arrival, the dynamic was quickly changed. Vague ‘incidents’ mentioned by Juvaini and Rashid al-Din as Hulegu entered the region may refer to Ismaili attacks in some form, but Hulegu’s army was beyond compare. The chief cities of Quhistan fell within days, and by the summer Kitbuqa led the vanguard to Mazandaran and raiding parties probed towards Alamut. Once Quhistan was subdued, Hulegu moved west, skirting around the edge of Iran’s uninhabitable Great Salt Desert, the Dasht-e Kevir, to arrive at the eastern endof the Alburz mountains. Near Damghan stood the Ismaili fortress of Girdkuh; Kitbuqa had first attempted to attack it in May of 1253. Hulegu committed more troops for it, then moved on. The castle, receiving only minor reinforcement from Alamut, held out until 1271. Such was the design of these fortresses when properly defended.


Rukn al-Din Khwurshah was within the fortress of Maymundiz, downstream of Alamut towards the western end of the Alburz mountains. As Hulegu moved westwards along the Alburz, he sent messengers to Rukn al-Din, demanding his submission. He was nervous, and as Hulegu’s second set of messengers arrived at the beginning of September 1256, Rukn al-Din was convinced to offer submission by the captive scholar, polymath, mathematician, astronomer and theologian, Nasir al-Din Tusi. Tusi was a much, much smarter man than Rukn al-Din Khwurshah and well respected. Having lived through Chinggis Khan’s destruction of Khwarezm, Tusi calculated that a lengthy Mongol siege wouldn’t be very healthy for anyone left inside the citadel. Therefore, on Tusi’s urging, Rukn al-Din sent his brother to Hulegu, offering the submission of the Ismailis. Hulegu thought this was nice, and treated Rukn al-Din’s brother well. He then sent another embassy with demands that Rukn al-Din tear down the Ismaili forts. Rukn al-Din was slow to respond; Hulegu was quick to advance. The token attempt by the Ismaili leader to abate Hulegu by abandoning 5 lesser castles and demolishing a few towers on Alamut, Maymundiz and Lammasar did not succeed. Unwittingly, Rukn al-Din was caught in a nerge, a Mongol hunting circle, as multiple armies converged on him from several directions and trapped him. As the armies neared Maymundiz, taking castles and settlements as they went, Rukn al-Din frantically sent a son and another brother to Hulegu, to no avail, hoping to at least stall until the cold of winter set in. By the 7th of November 1256, the three armies had Maymundiz surrounded.


Hulegu needed a quick victory. So many troops and horses needed a vast quantity of feed, the local environment was depleted and winter was forthcoming. Hulegu demanded provisions from across Iran and the Caucasus be delivered and, as if the seasons themselves adhered to the bidding of the Great Khan, the winter was mild and refused to hampher the Mongols as they approached Maymundiz. Once the armies were arrayed outside of the fortresses, Hulegu surveyed the site. Like so many Ismaili fortresses, Maymundiz was perched on a mountaintop, and hard to access. But Hulegu had his plan. 


Fighting began on November 12th, 1256. The first weapons Hulegu brought forth were the kaman-i-gav, as they were known in Persian sources, generally taken to refer to the ox-bow, a Chinese siege machine which was essentially a large, mounted crossbow. These were not for destroying walls, but for picking off defenders. The writer ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini, who accompanied Hulegu on his sieges of the Ismaili cities describes “meteoric shafts,”  from these weapons “burning up” the “devil-like heretics” of Maymundiz, in constrast to stones cast by the defenders which could only hurt single persons. Historian Stephen Haw postulates that this is a reference to gunpowder weapons being used by the Mongols, in the form of explosives tied to the shafts fired from the oxbow, perhaps propelling it as an early rocket. A common critique of this argument is that such poetic language is rather typical of Juviani’s writing, and nowhere else in Hulegu’s campaign does he appear to use such dramatic weapons. 


By November 17th, Hulegu’s teams had constructed their catapults and hauled them to a nearby hilltop. It’s possible that these were not just traction style Chinese catapults, but those of the counterweight variety- trebuchets. It’s not specified in written sources that Hulegu used them, but we know they were used by the Mongols by the 1270s, in addition to artwork from later in the century depicting them. Some modern authors like Michael S. Fulton believe the speed at which the major fortresses and cities of the region fell to Hulegu, even those of stone as opposed to stamped earth or mud brick, indicate the usage of counterweighted artillery. Far more powerful with greater range than man-powered traction catapults, instead of teams of men hauling on ropes, the counterweight catapult relied on, well, a counterweight instead, using gravity to propel the projectile with much greater force. Some authors also assert that the Chinese had their own counterweight catapult which the Mongols also used, but the matter is contentious, our sources providing no illumination.


The Mongols differed in their usage of artillery by relying on constant barrages. Their access to a large number of knowledgeable engineers, teams of specialists and overseers allowed them to keep up an unceasing rate of fire day and night, often from dozens of machines at once. For the defenders huddled behind the walls, psychologically it was exhausting. Aside from stones, naphtha, a petroleum-based weapon, was hurled into the city to start fires. Gunpowder bombs may have been lobbed as well. Unused to such weapons, especially in the form of the noise and smell they made, the impact must have seemed unearthly. After less than a week of bombardment, Rukn al-Din Khwurshah surrendered, and the Mongols soon demolished Maymundiz.


Hulegu received the Khwurshah kindly, for he needed him. Through his mediation, Rukn al-Din convinced some 40 odd Ismaili strongholds to surrender to Hulegu and tear down their walls. Alamut and Lammasar held out, and both were put under siege. Rukn al-Din was able to get Alamut’s garrison to come to terms, and it surrendered by December 15th. Briefly, Hulegu went sight-seeing around the castle after it surrendered, amazed by the size of the mountain, the many storerooms and indomitable defenses. It certainly saved him some time to not have to storm it! ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini was able to get permission to take some of the rare and useful tomes from Alamut’s library before the fortress was destroyed and its books burnt. Lammasar took a year to fall, but fall it did.


Hulegu kept Rukn al-Din with him until the great majority of the Ismaili fortresses in Iran had submitted or been torn down. He humoured Rukn al-Din, granting him a Mongol wife and watching Rukn al-Din’s favourite sport of camel fighting. Helping the Mongols avoid many lengthy, difficult sieges on the well defended Ismaili strongholds saved Hulegu considerable effort, but personally Hulegu found him repellent. Once his usefulness was over, in early 1257 Hulegu shipped him off to Mongke Khaan to deal with. According to Rashid al-Din, when Mongke learned the Khwurshah was in Karakorum, he was annoyed and said, “why are they bringing him and tiring a horse uselessly?” then ordered Rukn al-Din’s death. Upon learning of this, Hulegu ordered the deaths of the rest of Rukn al-Din’s captive family, sparing only a young son. Some Ismaili traditions attest another son was snuck away and kept safe, raised as the next imam in secret, but such beliefs never found widespread acceptance. As far as we are concerned, the Nizari Ismaili state ceased to exist by the end of 1256, sparing a few holdouts in Iran and their castles in Syria, as yet untouched by the Mongols. 


Hulegu had completed the first of his tasks. After wintering near Lammasar and then Qazwin, in the early months of 1257 he set out west for the greatest target of the campaign: Baghdad, and the 500-year-old Abbasid Caliphate. So be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to pick up with that next week. To help us continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on Patreon at I’m your host David, and we will catch you on the next one.