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The thief of Baghdad

As the strange and brutal force of jihadi mercenaries known as ISIS draws ever nearer to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, supported in large part by the Sunni muslim populations of the towns it has overrun in its path, frustrated by their lack of political influence under a largely Shia-dominated, corrupt and incompetent government, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the turbulent history of the region, and the sometimes earth-shaking events that periodically occur there.

In 1258, the Mongol general Hulagu, grandson (and who wasn’t?) of the famous Genghiz, swatted aside (or, rather, broke some dams and drowned) the Abbassid Caliph’s army and laid siege to the city of Baghdad, most influential in the Islamic world.

In a relatively short time, the city fell. Hulagu, a Buddhist married to a Christian woman, had been enjoined by his brother, the Grand Khan Mongke, to be merciful to those who submitted immediately but ruthless to any who opposed him. The Caliph resisted, albeit briefly: Hulagu ordered that Baghdad be destroyed.

Hundreds of years of civilization in the form of Islamic libraries, schools, art and architecture were simply expunged. It was said the Tigris ran black with ink. Then it ran red with the blood of anything up to a million citizens. No-one was spared. Having been forced to watch the mass beheadings, the Caliph was rolled in a carpet, to prevent his body from defiling the ground, and Hulagu sent his cavalry to trample him to death. (This might seem a relatively merciful act, unless you give credence to the version that they first removed his skin. Unfortunately, we have only the testimony of the unreliable Venetian traveller, Marco-pedia, for much of our knowledge of goings-on in the courts of the khans.)

Among the other results of Mongke’s (and his successor, Kublai’s) campaigns against the muslim empire, was the founding in Persia of an Ikhanate, a prototype of modern-day Iran, under Hulagu. The Persian civilization was briefly restored to greatness, and the Parsi language replaced Arabic as the official currency of politics, poetry, philosophy.

But the story of the Mongol conquests is incredibly convoluted and has tremendous resonance in the region today. For, had things turned out even a little differently, it seems unlikely that our modern world would be even remotely recognisable as we know it!

Hulagu enjoined with the crusading Franks in what is now Lebanon and the Armenians to the north, essentially to create a Christian force, and turning from his conquest of Iraq overran what is now Syria, taking Aleppo and then Damascus in 1260, where he celebrated a victorious Christian mass in the Grand Mosque.

He then sent out envoys with letters of mark, to try to recruit an alliance of the European monarchies against the muslims, whose centre of power had now shifted to the Mamluk dynasty in Cairo. But his strategy was frustrated by King Manfred of Sicily, an ally of the Mamluks, who intercepted the envoys. Hulagu’s letters seem never to have reached their destinations, and in 1265 he died in Persia, putting an end to his grand design to rid the world of the Islamic caliphates.

And after that, the fiercesome Mongols start to disappear quietly from history.

Despite further conquests that brought the Mongols an empire stretching from Austria to China, decades of infighting over the succession to the Khanate among Genghiz’s numerous descendants and the religious conversions of  later khans rapidly led to the almost complete dissolution of the Mongol empire, and the reascendence under the Ummayyids of modern-day Islam.

But for those letters that were never received – a failure, if you like, of the 13th-century postal service – or, more likely, were simply ignored (at the time, the Plantaganet Henry 111 of England was too busy surrendering his Anjevin lands to Louis 1X of France), it is quite possible that there would today be no politically fractured, yet nevertheless resurgent Islamic republic stretching from Morocco to Indonesia; no civil war raging in Syria, no Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan; no threat to the southern flank of the Russian empire; no al-Shabab atrocities in west-central Africa, no post-9/11 failure of the American project for the 21st Century and no ISIS insurgents, well-funded and armed by the puritanical Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia,  supposedly a Western ally, currently slaughtering their way eastwards towards the trembling citizenry of Baghdad.

Ironically, then, the USA and its European allies, who must be held largely responsible first for inventing, and then accidentally or carelessly destabilising the geopolitical situation in Mesopotamia, are now appealing to the very ‘axis of evil’ that once, seven hundred and fifty years ago, potentially stood in the way of the complete Islamic domination of the region, not to say half of the then-known world, to step in and save Iraq from fragmenting into three warring parts.

One fears, however, that any intervention by Shia Iran can now only come too late to prevent a Salafist fundamentalist takeover and possibly, another bloodbath in Baghdad on the way to a new caliphate stretching from Bradford to Batavia.

Once again, the ‘Franks’ have missed their chance.


26 June. Reports say that the USA, which is still havering over sending drones or planes to hit ISIS convoys, has confirmed that Assad of Syria has already preempted them and that Syrian airforce jets have been in action against ISIS forces in Iraq, in support of the al Malaki government.

The thick plottens, as my old granny used to say.


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