Iranian History - The Mongol Invasion
Before the rise of Genghis Khan, the Mongols were a disparate and relatively obscure collection of tribal peoples living to the north of the Gobi desert in the eastern parts of Central Asia.
Ethnically, they were part of the same Mongoloid stock that had been given rise to previous invaders of Western and Central Asia such as the Huns and various Turkic tribes. Some of these tribes had already been in contact with the civilisations of Iran and China and had developed semi-settled lifestyles.
Others had rejected their indigenous Shamanist religion for Manicheism and even Christianity which had been brought to them by the Nestorians monks of the early Christian era.
In 1206, the son of a poor noble by the name of Timuchin was elected Genghis Khan, or "Universal Ruler" and it was his great drive and charisma that catapulted the Mongols to the status of world power within the next two decades.
Through conscription, taxes and his own military genius, Genghis Khan transformed the already formidable Mongol horsemen into a unified and highly organised fighting force. Though almost always outnumbered by their enemies, the lightning speed, superior tactics and mobility of the Mongols allowed them to triumph over their enemies in lands far from their ancestral home.
14th century painting of Genghis Khan, though his likeness is unknown.
A painting showing the coronation of Genghis Khan.
Evidence suggests that Genghis Khan had little intrinsic interest in invading Iran. His motivation was certainly not purely economic, being already occupied with ongoing wars with the Chinese and reaping bounty and plunder that would have sufficed for any Mongol commander.
The contention cannot be dismissed that the Mongol expansion into Persia and Arab lands was, at least in part, a reaction against the Muslim expansion into Central Asia and the persecution of Turks, Mongols and other non-Muslims in the previous centuries.
Thus, when in 1219, members of a Mongol trade caravan were murdered by the forces of Shah Muhammad II of the Khwarazmian Empire of Eastern Iran, Genghis Khan was prompted to leave the eastern wars to a trusted general and move west.
Khwarazm was, at the time, the most powerful of the Iranian principalities, having gained independence from the Seljuks and expanded lands from its traditional power base in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the Caspian coast in the west and Samarkand and Bukhara in the east.
Genghis Khan had reason to believe that restive elements within Khwarazm were prepared to support any movement that would rid them of their unpopular monarch. This support was, however, not to be forthcoming.
The Mongols encountered resistance in both Bukhara and Samarkand and consequently sacked them both in 1220, decimating their populations, only sparing the artisans that they considered useful. Balkh, Merv and Nishapur followed in 1221.
From there the Mongols swept across the Iranian interior, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Whole cities were put to the torch and mass killings of women and children as well as fighting men were common.
The brutality of the Mongols was legendary but not entirely gratuitous. Being far from home, it would have been unwise to leave enemies behind them that could regroup and attack from the rear.
Furthermore, with their reputation preceding them, the fear that their name alone carried with it was enough to make some cities and states surrender to Mongol rule without resisting.
The Mongols were as well known for sparing and even aiding those that met their demands as they were for killing without mercy those that did not. The cities of Yazd and Shiraz were both spared destruction by offering tribute to their marauding armies.
Mongol archers from the 14th century Jami al-Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din Monafiq.
The capture of Alamut by the Mongols in 1256
Genghis Khan died in 1227 but campaigning continued under his grandson Hulegu Khan who moved on Baghdad in 1258. The Great Khan, brother to Hulegu, considered the man-worship of the Abbasid Caliph to be insulting to his status and ordered that the city be taken and the Caliph killed.
On the way he encountered the Ismailis of Alamut and defeated their small force with no great difficulty. The Caliphate was in theory still powerful enough to defend themselves against the Mongols but the Shiite minority in Baghdad as well as Christians and other non-Muslims under their control joined the invading force and helped to bring the 500-year old dynasty to an abrupt end.
With the disintegration of the greater Mongol Empire, a local Khanate was established in Tabriz to rule over the Persian lands. Mongol rulers from the time of Hulegu Khan onwards thus took the title Il-Khans which meant provincial khan or ruler. Ilkhanid Persia became an independent empire based in the Azerbaijan region, with its capital first in Maraqeh, then in Tabriz and later in Sultanieh.
The results of the Mongol invasion for the Iranian economy were disastrous. The well-developed networks of qanat irrigation systems that had previously made possible a largely continuous pattern of habitation across large areas of Iran were laid to waste, leaving a series of isolated oasis towns in its place. Furthermore, since the population had been decimated, Iran was left without the workforce required to recover itself.
At the end of the 13th century Iran faced famine due to the devastation of agricultural production wreaked by the Mongols. In cultural terms too Iran suffered greatly.
The library of Alamut was put to fire, denying subsequent scholars the knowledge that could have unlocked the secrets of the Ismailis and the schools and libraries founded by Nezam al-Molk were also destroyed. It is said that the madreseh at Nishapur burned for months before all of its treasures were finally consumed.
The rule of law that the Mongols established was as uncompromising as it was efficient. Death penalties for even minor offences were ruthlessly and consistently enforced. This resulted in an empire which was extremely safe for travel and trade.
Banditry on the all-important trade routes of the Silk Road was greatly reduced and commerce between East and West flourished. Foreign visitors were greatly surprised by the security that prevailed in the Mongol lands where it was said that a woman could carry a bag of gold from one end of the empire to the other without coming to harm.
Like the Seljuks before them, the Mongols were very open to the cultural influences of the civilisations that they had conquered. They were practical enough to admit Persian scholars, physicians, jurists and soldiers into circles of the highest rank.
Persian was even made the official language of the Ilkhanid court and many of the descendents of Genghis Khan would marry into the lineages of Persian tribes. It is a little known fact that Shah Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, could trace a direct line of descent back to the great Khan himself.
In terms of religion, this openness to influence was not limited solely to Islam. Hulegu Khan converted to Islam only under social pressure after having flirted with Buddhism. However he is primarily regarded as a traditional Mongol Shamanist as evidenced by the several young women that were buried with him in his grave.
Neither Islam nor Buddhism would have sanctioned human sacrifice. Following Hulegu came a series of Buddhist Il-Khans that persecuted Muslims and even promoted Christian interests ahead of those of Islam. Sadly, none of the numerous Buddhist temples that were built in Persia during this period survived into the 14th century.
The first truly Muslim Il-Khan was the most renowned of the Mongol rulers of Persia, Mahmud Qazan Khan (r. 1295-1304). He affected a partial recovery in the ravaged empire by reducing taxes on artisans and rebuilding irrigation systems.
As an ardent supporter of agriculture, a patron of the arts and a builder of fine monuments, he turned on its head the reputation the Mongols had won for destruction and pillage. Qazan reacted to the persecution of Muslims of the previous 30 years by persecuting Buddhists.
Monks were forced to either convert to Islam or be repatriated to India, China and Tibet. Temples were converted to mosques and Mongol law was replaced with the Sharia, or Islamic code of law.
By the time of Qazan's death almost all elements of the Il-Khanate had been effectively absorbed into Islam but his brother and successor Uljai-to was a Shiite Muslim who began, as if to complete the set, to persecute Sunni Muslims.
This caused major friction with neighbouring Sunni states, and brought the Ilkhanids to the point of renewing their war with the Mamelukes of Egypt when Uljai-to died in 1316. His successor Abu Said, the first Il-Khan to have a Muslim name since birth, reinstated Sunnism as the state religion.
The large extent of cultural absorption sowed the seeds of the end for the Il-Khanate. The switch from nomadic warrior to state-building politician required a cultural shift of no small significance.
Tensions existed between the increasingly Islamic and Persianised court and the more traditional elements of the unconverted Mongol nobility. Abu Said left no clear successor when he died in 1334 and the rule of Iran once again fell to petty dynasties under Mongol commanders, old Seljuk retainers and regional chiefs. This disunity paved the way for the third invasion of Iran from Central Asia under the Mongol chief known to the west as Tamerlane.
Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari