For all what we know the Mongolian Empire was not simply a collection of brainless brutes, but they had intense knowledge of their opponents: descriptions, maps, information about the technology, culture and especially competing groups of people which can be used to their advantage. Also their military leadership was efficient, knowledgable and adaptable. Khublai Khan was very interested in adapting and fostering Chinese and Muslim knowledge.

So why did the Mongols destroy the libraries when they raided Baghdad in 1258? Shouldn't the vast knowledge available about the lands in the West, Europe and Africa and the available technology have tempted them to plunder and evaluate the scriptures for their own purposes?


2 Answers 2


Short Answer

An important reason was to destroy those Muslims who opposed the Mongols. This meant that their mosques and Islamic texts were also targeted, especially those of the Isma‘ilis, a Shi‘ite sect which had openly defied the Mongols and which had probably been involved in an attempt on the life Mongke Khan.

It should be noted, though, that the destruction of Baghdad, an 'Arab-Muslim imperial capital' was almost totally indiscriminate and can thus be seen as a message to other cities considering resistance.


Generally, the Mongols did not try to impose their beliefs on those they conquered:

The Mongol rulers presented the clergy of the recognized religions — Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism (Daoism), and Islam — a deal: In return for their prayers to God for the Mongol rulers, the rulers would grant the clergy equal status and exemption from military service and taxes.

However, there were exceptions and those who resisted could expect harsh treatment.

Certain religious groups were also seen as anti-Mongol or subversive and hence eliminated. The Isma‘ilis, or “Assassins,” a sect of Shi‘ite Muslims, had assassinated Mongol officials

The Assassins attack in 1251 was probably aimed at Mongke Khan. Edwin Black in Banking on Baghdad (2004), citing three other sources, says

The Assassins, according to accounts, sent 400 of their best to kill the ruling khan in the name of Islam. The khan’s many bodyguards and spies foiled the conspiracy and blamed the entire Islamic establishment. In 1251, Grand Khan Mongke made the decision. Baghdad was to be demolished.

The assignment was given to Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis, who launched his forces two years later, after immense preparation.

Alamut, an Assassin stronghold, was taken by Mongke Khan's younger brother Hulagu Khan in 1256 and its library destroyed. In particular, "every manuscript which related to Ismailian" was destroyed. Thousands of Isma‘ilis were also massacred.

When the Mongols advanced on the Abbasid Caliphate in January 1258, the Caliph not only refused to submit but was openly defiant. As the capital, Baghdad, was ill-equipped to defend itself, this proved to be extremely foolish and all resistance was overcome in February 1258. The destruction wrought was almost complete and included the House of Wisdom. According to witnesses, so many texts were destroyed that the river ran black with ink. Unknown hundreds of thousands were slaughtered (so the river is also described as having run red with blood, but these 'colourful' statements about the river are probably exaggerations); spared, though, were the Christians, one likely reason being that Hulagu's mother (Sorghaghtani Beki) and wife (Doquz Khatun) were both Christians.

Despite the massacres at Baghdad and elsewhere, evidence suggests that there is no reason to suppose that Hulagu had a particular hatred for Muslims as this site claims. His army included Muslim soldiers, he left compliant Muslim communities largely untouched and he allowed the Muslim scholar Nasir al-Din al-Tusi to seek out other scholars who had fled the Mongol onslaughts, and authorized paying them salaries to continue their work in Maraghah in Iran.

Other source:

Abdulhadi Hairi, 'Nasir al-Din Tusi and the Mongol Invasion of Baghdad' (MA thesis, 1968) Note: clicking on the link downloads the document directly)

  • 3
    Knowing that the Khwarezmid Empire was literally exterminated by the Mongols by killing one of their caravans and envoys in Otrar, your answer makes perfect sense when the Assassins tried to assault the Khan. May 23, 2018 at 14:13
  • 2
    And they had the example of Genghis Khan, who would spare cities that surrendered but "make an example" of the ones that resisted.
    – Spencer
    May 27, 2018 at 18:16
  • I've read that some transcripts or books from the House of Wisdom were taken to the Mongol Empire. Where exactly they ended up is unknown.
    – Samid
    Nov 15, 2020 at 8:51

The Mongols were a sort of enlightened people, but they really didn't take lightly any threat to their rule. The Abassids didn't submit to the Mongol terms, during the late negotiation they apparently offended the Mongols.

That never ended well for anyone during that time period. They did not need anything else that show the world nothing could stop them while they're attacking you. The most epic library of all time will not stop them in their track. This was an example that defying them was useless.

I do not think it goes much more than that; this link summarize it all.

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