By the thirteenth century, the caliphate had weakened due to internal rivalries and a decadent lifestyle. In the wake of such fragmentation, the Mongols attacked in 1258 and devastated the city and its inhabitants. The civilized people of Baghdad were horrified at the savage ways of the Mongols who resorted to mass murders, pillaging, and mindless destruction. Its libraries, foremost among the treasures of Baghdad, were burned down. Its canals were destroyed. Its great historical monuments were forever ruined.
Hulagu’s army at Baghdad
“For five hundred years, Baghdad had been a city of palaces, mosques, libraries and colleges. Its universities and hospitals were the most up to date in the world. Nothing now remained but heaps of rubble and a stench of decaying human flesh,” recounts Sir John Glubb in A Short History of the Arab Peoples.
The city thus began a long period of decline, falling victim to subsequent wars that continue to this day. However, during its five centuries of glory, it gifted the world an immense treasure which became the foundation for the European Renaissance. Just as the Muslims had translated ancient works into Arabic centuries before, the Europeans began translating Arabic scholarship into Latin, giving Latinized names to Muslim scholars, and advancing their research. This salvaged knowledge formed the basis for the Age of Enlightenment.
Today, Iraq is poised on the road toward independent rule and has yet another chance to reclaim its glorious days. Baghdad can once again rise from the ashes of its tumultuous recent past – as it has done many times before. This time, it should aim to regain its historical place of intellectual and scientific pursuits along with establishing itself as a center of trade and commerce, keeping in mind the debt it owes to Islam and its ancestral Muslims.