Sunday, October 20

Hui Doloon Hudag

It is the 2222nd anniversary of the establishment of the Hunnu empire, and the annual Naadam games make much of the numerological occasion. Naadam is Mongolian word for "games"; these games represent the joy of the harvest, and are the traditional annual event of the prairie. The origin of this holiday is old, dating back at least to the times of Chingis Khan; though the selection of the July 11-13 window in which it is held is more recent - on these days in 1921 Mongolian pro-communist forces liberated the then Khuree or Urga (present day Ulaanbaatar) from occupying White Russians.

Traditionally, the games consist of wrestling, archery, and horse racing. Unlike racing in Kentucky, Hong Kong or Dubai, which consists of short sprints of maximum 2 miles, the Mongolian horse-race is a cross-country event, with races 10–30 miles long. The length of each race is determined by the age of the horses; two-year-old horses race for ten miles,  seven-year-old ones for seventeen miles. The jockeys consist of boys 5 to 13; many are maimed, crippled or killed from falls during racing. The most popular event amongst Mongolians is the four-year-old stallions race, which runs for fifteen miles - it starts at the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar and ends on the steppe in a place called Hui Doloon Hudag, which is, overnight, transformed into a city of yurts and SUVs at the finish line.

About a thousand horses are to participate and the owner of the horse that wins the four-year-olds race, we learn later, gets as grand prize a flat in Ulaanbaatar, ten different cars or SUVs as gifts from corporate houses, and countless other items of treasure from admirers. The top three horses are given gold, silver, and bronze medals, and the winning child-jockey is invested with the title of Tumany Ekh ("Leader of Ten Thousand.") The horse that finishes last in the Daaga, the two-year-old horses race,  is called the Bayan Khodood ("Full Tummy".) A song is sung to Bayan Khodood, wishing him luck to be the next year's winner.

Doloon in Mongolian means seven, and a hudag is a well; this spot on the steppe is near seven wells. [Interestingly, the Doloon Garig (долоон гариг) or Seven Luminaries (Planets) of Mongolian astronomical use have Indian names: Mercury is Буд or Bud (Budh), Venus is Сугар or Sugar (Sukr), Mars Ангараг or Angarag (Angarah), Jupiter Бархасбад or Barkhasbad (Brhaspat), Saturn Санчир or Sanchir (Sanischar). Uranus and Neptune, not known in antiquity, have more recent names: respectively Тэнгэрийн ван or Tengerin Ong (Prince of Heaven), and Далайн ван or Dalain Ong (Prince of Oceans.)]

We rise early to get to Hui Doloon Hudag. Soon, barely out of city center,  traffic comes to a standstill. About 200,000 cars are inching their way out, and it takes us two hours to cover 5 kms. In the middle, several police spotter cars with flashing lights race down the reverse-lanes escorting 20 identical Toyota Land-Cruisers laden with VIPs but still doing 100 kmph; in their wake, also escorted by militia, come a slower convoy of ambulances, press, a humvee carrying bottled water. Day-before-yesterday the Khan, yesterday the Commissar, today the Parliamentarian or Minister; some things never change.

At the first opportunity, our enterprising driver crawls down the side of the road into a ditch, manages to ford it to the steppe on the other side, and, disregarding the standstill traffic on the highway, we set off madly across the fields to try to catch the end of the race. The first 5 kms took two hours, the last 50 to Hui 7 Hudag take but thirty bone-rattling minutes. Once within sight of the yurt city where the finish line is, we hear a great sigh go up from the assembled crowd; "they see the horses! they see the horses!" screams 'Zaya. We jump off our transport and sprint pell-mell over the steppes, arriving breathless over the hills. It is a false alarm; it takes the four-year-olds another good hour to show up, during which I sprawl down on the hillside, dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings.

Friday, October 18

Razing Alamout

The Assassins are chiefly remembered today for their use of political murders for psychological effect. As a heretical offshoot (the Nizaris) of an unorthodox sect (the Ismailis), their agenda was primarily survival; and from their eagle's nest, the Alamout, they launched spectacular suicide attacks against personages who represented state-power used against them.  Hasan al-Sabbah, their founder and the Old Man of the fables' Mountain, sent young men supposedly drugged with hashish and filled with promises of paradise, against targets big and small; even the great Saladin lived in mortal fear of an Assassin (the Syrian Assassins were in loose alliance with the Frankish crusaders against Saladin for a while.)  The Assassins would carefully study the culture and self-images of their targets;  an operative would then be dispatched to infiltrate the inner circle of the intended victim, sometimes serving for years as a servant or familiar; at an opportune moment, the Assassin would stab his victim. 

Persians had long felt mistreated by their Arabic Sunni conquerors, and the Arab-Persian divide quickly manifested itself in the form of the Sunni-Shi'a split. Muhammad's descendants through Fatima who settled in Egypt formed another faction, the Ismaili Shi'a, who eventually gave rise to another fragment called the Nizaris. The Fatimid Caliph of Cairo Mustansirbillah had declared his son Nizar as heir and Imam. A coup by an army officer deposed this 'infalliable' Imam and exceuted him. The Cairo Ismailis came around to accepting the replacement; the  Persian Ismailis under Hasan al-Sabah did not, remaining loyal to the line of Nizar. They came to be known in the West as the Assassin cult. The terms hashishiyya or hashishin (from the Arabic: حشاشين‎ or hashshāshīn), as coined by Muslim sources, are used metaphorically in an abusive sense ("irreligious outcasts", "low-class rabble", etc.) Any literal interpretation of these terms in referring to the Nizaris as hashish-intoxicated fidayeen suicide-squads is rooted in the fantasies of medieval Westerners and their ignorance of Islam.

In the 10th and 11th centuries,  newly-converted Turks, the Sunni Seljuks, took control of Persia. The Nizari Shi'a could not defeat Turks or Arabs; but from a series of mountaintop fortresses in Persia and Syria, however, they could wage asymmetric war and assassinate key Seljuk, Kurdish, Frankish or Arab leaders, or indeed anyone who tried to extend political control into Nizari areas. Nizam al-Mulk, the vizier to the Seljuk court (and Hassan Sabah's classmate with Omar Khayyam, see here), was killed in October of 1092 by an Assassin disguised as a Sufi mystic. (Rumi's master Sham-e-Tabrizi is said to have been a descendant of a Nizari lord of Alamout.) The Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad  Mustarshid fell to Assassin daggers in 1131.  In 1192, Conrad of Montferrat was murdered by men disguised as monks; henceforward the Crusaders, already demoralized by the loss of Jerusalem to the Khwarezmiyya, became fearful of a stab in the dark by their turncoat former allies, who were said to be masters of disguise and devils in cunning. In 1213, the Sherif of Mecca was targeted, but his lookalike cousin ended up getting killed in a case of mistaken identity.  Hasan's successors, however, overreached in sending a covert mission against Möngke Khan.

By 1237, the Mongols had conquered much of Persia, except for the strongholds of the Assassins. Since the fall of Khwarezm, the Mongols were focusing on Eastern Europe and Khorasan, and ruled lightly in western Iran. However, Genghis Khan's grandson Möngke grew determined to extract tribute from Baghdad. Fearful of this renewed interest in his region, the Assassin leader Muhammad III sent a team to kill the khagan. The suicide-squad arrived to pretend to offer submission to the Möngke, planning to stab him as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Mongke's guards suspected something was amiss from the chain-mail the emissaries wore under their robes, and turned the Assassins away; but the damage had been done. Möngke was alarmed, and determined to end the threat of these sinister cultists who had extended their menace even to his court in Mongolia, once and for all. As a detour from the sack of Baghdad, he directed Hülegü to contain the Assassin threat.

Muhammad's eldest son and successor, Khur Shah, had had a falling out with his father. Muhammad used to torment the boy, keeping him shut up in the womens' quarters of Alamout (from which the boy would escape to drink wine.) Khur Shah conspired with Nizami nobles to foment a coup. One day Muhammad went out to the sheep folds in the valley with his favorite catamite, Hasan-i-Mazanderani. This handsome youth had fled from the Mongols to Alamout, and Muhammad had developed a passion for him, giving Hasan-i-Mazanderani his own mistress for wife but continuing to openly sleep with both. Muhammad never returned from his night out in the valley; his decapitated body was found in the morning. Juvaini suggests it was Hasan (on Khur Shah's instigation) killed Muhammad. Soon afterwards, Khur Shah's men decapitated Hasan.

Hülegü Khan reached Nizari territory in Qohistan in 1256. By autumn, the Mongols were in the valley below the castle of Maymun Diz where Khur Shah was holed up. Khur Shah first sent his brother Shahenshah to offer submission. Hülegü asked Khur shah to dismantle Alamout and come himself in submission. While the Nizaris prevaricated, Hülegü bombarded Maymun Diz with mangonels and naphtha; the next day Khur Shah came down in surrender. With their leader captive, after a few days the garrison at Alamout surrendered; Juvaini was with the Mongols as they moved in to destroy the stronghold, and managed to save a portion of Hasan Sabbah's famous library, including astrolabes and Qurans. The Nizari texts he burnt; a blot on all his erudition to this day. Juvaini writes that within the rock bastions of Alamout were hollow tanks to store all sorts of provender needed to withstand long sieges; a Mongol waded into such a pool of honey and so deep was it that he nearly drowned.

After the fall of Alamout, Khur Shah's utility to the Mongols was low. He is said to have fallen in love with a Mongol girl and allowed to marry her. When he professed a love for witnessing camel-fights, he was given a hundred particularly vicious male camels to be able to enjoy the spectacle. In time he asked to be sent to the court of the khagan; Möngke denied his request for audience, receiving his formal surrender by proxy; and then ordered him killed on his journey back, saying that Khur Shah was not worth providing with the relay-horses his journey back to Alamout would take.

After the fall of Alamout, Nizari clans continued to live secretly in Azerbaijan. In the 14th century, they sent missionaries to India, where newly converted Ismailis came to be known as Khoja Mussulmans (from the Arabic khwaja, or lord.) Ismailism had been adapted for India; for the Khojas, all prophets and Imams are the same, and they retain many Hindu traditions, including a variation of the Vaishnavite belief in the Dashavatara. Khojas believe Ali was Kalki, the last avatar of Vishnu.

In the 19th century, the Ismaili imam Hasan Ali received the honorific of Aga Khan from the Shah, but had to flee to India after a subsequent falling out. After some bitter power struggles, the British adjudicated the Aga Khan's claim to the Imamate and Sir Joseph Arnold of Bombay High Court ruled that the Khojas were undoubtedly the descendants of the Assassins and that the Aga Khan was the descendant of the Lord of Alamout; so he is regarded by the Khojas to this day.

For more information on the Assassins, see Anthony Campbell's essay (and account of his 1966 trek to the ruins of Alamout) here. Below, an Iranian Press-TV documentary on Alamout.

Monday, October 7

The Sack of Baghdad

Between January 29 and February 20, 1258,  Ilkhanate Mongol forces and allied troops under the command of Hülegü Khan, brother of the khagan Möngke Khan, captured and sacked Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate.

According to The Secret History of the Mongols, Chingis Khan and his successor, Ögedei Khan, ordered their general Chormaqan to attack Baghdad. In 1236, Chormaqan led a division of the Mongol army to Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Further raids on the caliphate became annual occurrences, and some raids reached Baghdad itself. They were sometimes repelled, with Abbasid forces defeating the invaders in 1238 and 1245, and sometimes bought off -  by 1241 the Caliph had adopted the practice of sending annual tribute to the court of the khagan. Envoys from the Caliphate were present at the coronation of Güyük Khan as khagan in 1246. Güyük insisted that the Caliph Al-Musta'sim fully submit to Mongol rule and come personally to Karakorum. The Caliph's refusal, and subsequent resistance offered by the Abbasids to increased attempts by the Mongols to extend their power, were the main reasons for the sack.

Möngke had instructed Hülegü to attack Baghdad if the Caliph Al-Musta'sim refused Mongol demands for his continued submission to the khagan and the payment of tribute in the form of military support for Mongol forces in Iran. The Mongol intent had been to further extend their rule into Mesopotamia, but not to directly overthrow the Caliphate - rather, turn the institution of the Caliphate into their local satrapy; this was not to be.

In preparation for his invasion, the Mongols raised a large expeditionary force, conscripting two out of every ten military-age males in the entirety of the Mongol Empire, assembling what may have been the most numerous Mongol army to have existed: by one estimate, 150,000 strong. Generals of the army included the Oirat administrator Arghun Agha, Baiju, Buqa-Temur, Guo Kan, and Ketbuqa, as well as Hülegü's brother Sunitai, and various assorted warlords. Juvayni writes the force was supplemented by Christian forces, including the King of Armenia and his army;  a Frankish contingent from the Principality of Antioch; a Georgian force, seeking revenge on the Muslim Abbasids for the sacking of their capital, Tiflis, decades earlier, by the Khwarezm-shahs; 1,000 Chinese artillery experts; as well as Persian and Turkic auxiliaries. Writes Rashīd al-Dīn:

An emissary was sent to the Caliph bearing threats and promises, saying ... 

"Previously we have given you advice, but now we say you should avoid our wrath and vengeance. Do not try to overreach yourself or accomplish the impossible, for you will only succeed in harming yourself. The past is over. Destroy your ramparts, fill in your moats, turn the kingdom over to your son, and come to us. If you do not wish to come, send all three, the Vizier, Sulaymanshah, and the Dawatdar, that they may convey our message word for word. If our command is obeyed, it will not be necessary for us to wreak vengeance, and you may retain your lands, army, and subjects. If you do not heed our advice and dispute with us, line up your soldiers and get ready for the field of battle, for we have our loins girded for battle with you and are standing at the ready. When I lead my troops in wrath against Baghdad, even if you hide in the sky or in the earth,

I will bring you down from the turning celestial sphere
I shall pull you up like a lion
I shall not leave one person alive in your realm
And I shall put your city and country to the torch.

If you desire to have mercy on your ancient family's heads, heed my advice. If you do not, let us see what God's will is."

When the emissaries arrived in Baghdad and delivered this message, the Caliph send back Sarafuddin ibn al-Jawzi, an eloquent man, and Badruddin Muhammad Dizbaki Nakhjiwani in the company of the emissaries. In reply the Caliph said:

"Young man! you have just come of age and have expectations of living forever. You have seen your ten-days pass prosperously and auspiciously in dominating the whole world. You think your command is absolute. Since you are not going to get anything from me, why do you seek? You come with strategy, troops and lasso, but how are you going to capture a star? Does the prince not know that from the East to the West, from King to Beggar, from Old to Young, all who are God-fearing and God-worshipping are servants of this court and soldiers in my army? When I motion for all those who are dispersed to come together, I will deal first with Iran and then turn my attention to Turan, and I will put everyone in his proper place. Of course, the face of the Earth will be full of tumult, but I do not seek vengeance or to harm anyone. I do not desire that the tongues of my subjects should either congratulate or curse me because of the movement of armies, especially since I am one of heart and one tongue with the Qa'an and Hülegü. If, like me, you were to sow seeds of friendship, do you think you would have to deal with my moats and ramparts and those of my servants? Adopt the path of friendship and go back to Khurasan. If you are intent on war and battle,

Tarry not, hasten away, and abide not. If
you have a moment's thought of war,
I have thousands and thousands of cavalry
and infantry worthy of the battlefield
and when they wreak vengeance 
they can stir up dust from the water of the sea."

Giving them a message like this, he sent the emissaries off with a few gifts and presents.

Envoys went to the city, and the next day the vizier, the divan chief, and a group of well-known citizens came out, but they were sent back. Fierce battle was fought for six days and nights. Hülegü Khan ordered six decrees written, saying, "The lives of qadis, scholars, sheikhs, Alids and Nestorean priests, and persons who do not combat us are safe from us." The proclamations were fastened to arrows and shot into the city from six sides. Since there was no stone in the Baghdad vicinity, they brought rocks from Jalula and Jebel Khamrin, and date palms were cut down and hurled instead of stones. 

On Friday the 25th of Muharram the Ajami tower was destroyed. On Monday the 27th the Mongol soldiers proceeded overwhelmingly against the ramparts opposite the Ajami tower in the direction the padishah was. They emptied the tops of the walls of people, but they still had not gone on the wall in the direction of the Souq Sultan, where Balagha and Tutar [kinsmen of Berke Khan from the Golden Horde] were. Hülegü Khan chastised them. Their liege men went up, and by evening they had secured the whole of the tops of the eastern walls. 

When bridges were being made, Hülegü had ordered bridges to be built above and below Baghdad, boats made ready, catapults installed, and guards stationed. Buqa Temur and a tuman of soldiers were patrolling the routes to Madayin and Basra to prevent anyone from escaping by boat.

When the battle of Baghdad became intense, and the people were being pressed, the Dawatdar got in a boat to escape down river. When he passed the village of al-Uqab, Buqa Temur let loose a barrage of catapult stones, arrows and vials of naphtha. Three boats were taken, and the people were killed. The Dawatdar turned back in rout. 

When the Caliph was apprised of the situation he despaired totally of his rule of Baghdad. Seeing no escape route, he said, "I will surrender." He sent Fakhruddin Damghani and ibn Durnus out with a few gifts, thinking that if he sent too much it would indicate how afraid he was and the foe would be further emboldened. Hülegü Khan paid no attention to the embassy, and they returned in failure. 

(Marco Polo reports that upon finding the Caliph's great stores of treasure, which could have been spent on the defense of his realm, Hülegü Khan locked him in his treasure room without food or water, telling him "eat of thy treasure as much as thou wilt, since thou art so fond of it." A medieval depiction of this incident is shown above, from the Le Livre des Merveilles of the 15th century.)

On Friday the 9th of Safar, Hülegü Khan went into the city to see the Caliph's palace. He settled into the Octagon Palace and gave a banquet for the commanders. Summoning the Caliph, he said, "You are the host, and we are the guests. Bring whatever you have that is suitable for us." The Caliph, thinking he was speaking seriously, trembled in fear. He was so frenzied that he couldn't tell the keys to the treasuries one from another and had to have several locks broken. He brought two thousand suits of clothing, ten thousand dinars, precious items, jewel-encrusted vessels, and several gems. Hülegü Khan paid no attention to these and gave it all away to the commanders present.

"The possessions you have on the face of the earth are apparent," he said to the Caliph. "Tell my servants what and where your buried treasures are." The Caliph there was a pool full of gold in the middle of the palace. They dug it up, and it was full of gold, all in hundred-mithcal ingots.

An order was given for the Caliph's harem to be counted. There were seven hundred women and concubines and a thousand servants. When the Caliph was apprised of the count of the harem, he begged and pleaded, saying, "Let me have the women of the harem, upon whom neither sun nor the moon has ever shone."

"Of these seven hundred, choose a hundred", he was told, "and leave the rest." The Caliph then selected a hundred women from amongst his favorites and close relatives, and took them away.

That night Hülegü Khan went to the ordu. The next morning, he ordered Su'unchuq to go into the city, confiscate the Caliph's possessions, and send them out. The items that had been accumulated over six hundred years were all stacked in mountainous piles around the kiriyas. Most of the holy places like the Caliph's mosque, the Musa-Jawad shrine, and the tombs in Rusafa were burned.

The last Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta'sim Abu-Ahmad Abdullah bin al-Mustansir-Billah (Arabic: المستعصم بالله أبو أحمد عبد الله بن المستنصر بالله‎) was killed by Hülegü Khan soon afterwards. The Mongols did not want to shed royal blood, so they wrapped him screaming into a rug and trampled him to a pulp with their horses. Most of his sons were massacred; one surviving son was sent as a prisoner to Mongolia, where Mongolian historians report he married and fathered children, but played no role in Islam thereafter.

'Abdallah ibn Faḍlallah Sharaf al-Din Shīrāzī  'Wassaf' (flourished 1299-1323) was a court panegyrist of the Ilkhanate and tax administrator in Fars during the reigns of Ghazan Mahmud and Oljaitü. His history the Tajziyat al-amṣār wa-tazjiyat al-a'ṣār -  the Allocation of Cities and the Propulsion of Epochs - was conceived as a continuation of Juvaini. Wassaf estimates that the loss of life in the days after the sack ran into several hundred thousand. Writes Wassaf:

"They swept through the city like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep, with loose reins and shameless faces, murdering and spreading terror...beds and cushions made of gold and encrusted with jewels were cut to pieces with knives and torn to shreds. Those hiding behind the veils of the great Harem were dragged...through the streets and alleys, each of them becoming a the population died at the hands of the invaders."

Iraq in 1258 had an extensive agriculture supported by Mesopotamian canal networks thousands of years old. The Mongols filled in the irrigation canals and left Iraq too depopulated to restore them. Baghdad had been the most brilliant intellectual center of the world, from whose destruction Islamic intellectual civilization never recovered. After the sack of Baghdad, Islam turned inward, suspicious of reason and of new interpretations; with the scholars gone the mullahs remained. The Grand Library of Baghdad, containing countless precious historical documents and books on subjects ranging from medicine to astronomy, was utterly destroyed. Survivors said that the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.