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Muhammad and the Caliphate >
The Mongols and the End of the Caliphate in the East

In the early thirteenth century the Mongol leader Genghis Khan embarked on his career of world conquest, which would eventually bring inner Asia, China, Russia, Iran, Anatolia, and Iraq under his family's domination. The Mongols tolerated no opposition and were careful to destroy any centers of political power independent of their own. Moreover, for some time they clung to the pastoral traditions of the steppe and had little interest in, and no sympathy for, cities or agricultural areas, except as revenue sources. These factors, coupled with their perhaps intentional use of terror as a means of social control, may explain the destructiveness of the Mongol invasions, which saw the obliteration of many cities and their inhabitants and the destruction or neglect of many irrigation works on which the agrarian prosperity of the countryside depended.

The Mongol forces arrived in Transoxiana, on the steppe fringes of the Islamic world, in 1219. Shortly thereafter they conquered Khurasan and Khwarizm, after which they swept through northern Iran and the Caucasus Mountains, leaving devastation in their wake. The Mongols' consolidation of power in inner Asia led to a massive migration of Türkmen refugees into Anatolia, which upset the prosperity that the Rum Seljuks had overseen there. Sensing the Rum Seljuks' weakness, the Mongols then invaded Anatolia, defeated the Seljuks in 1243 at the Battle of Kösedag, and reduced the Seljuks to a protectorate of the Mongol Empire. In 1256 the Mongols, led by Genghis' grandson Hülegü (r. 1256–65), once again invaded Iran. After subduing eastern Iran and the Jibal region and systematically eliminating the Assassin centers in northern Iran, Hülegü seized Baghdad and had the last Abbasid caliph executed in 1258, along with a good part of the city's population. His armies then marched across northern Mesopotamia into Syria. Their advance in this direction was finally stopped when the newly established Mamluk regime defeated the Mongols in 1260 at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in Palestine. This victory spared Cairo, which was at this time the main center of Arabic culture, from Mongol devastation. But Hülegü's forces then controlled the majority of the Islamic east.

The advent of the Mongols marked a turning point in the history of the Islamic Near East in several ways. Their arrival accelerated the immigration of Turkish-speaking peoples from the steppes into Anatolia and parts of Iran. The strong nomadic orientation of the early Mongols at first dealt a severe blow to city life and to rural agriculture alike, both of which were slow to recover to former levels of prosperity. Recovery, when it came, often followed new patterns: different cities rose to prominence (such as Ardabil and Qazvin), while some formerly important ones languished or vanished (such as Baghdad and Nishapur). Some once important regions, such as Khurasan, also waned to relative insignificance. New patterns of commercial activity were established, some of which were related to the fact that the territories conquered by Hülegü were for a time part of the vast Mongol empire that extended from Russia to China. In intellectual terms, too, the Mongol invasions represented a watershed in the history of the Islamic world. It was the first time, since the establishment of the caliphate more than six hundred years earlier, that a significant part of the Islamic world had been subjected to the domination of a non-Muslim power—a fact that must have called into question the assumption made by many Muslims that God's favor for their community was revealed in its continuing political superiority. The Mongols brought new concepts of legitimacy, such as descent from Genghis Khan and the notion of the ruler's decree as law. These concepts were widely emulated by many later dynasties in the eastern Islamic world, even those that also appealed to Islamic traditions of legitimacy.

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