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Hulegu Khan, with a drinking bowl and his weapons, Persian, 16th century. (Trustees of the British Museum)

Hulegu Khan, with a drinking bowl and his weapons, Persian, 16th century. (Trustees of the British Museum)

Hulegu the Mongol

Unlike his grandfather Chinggis Khan, the Mongol ruler Hulegu Khan is little known in the West. But his destruction of two Islamic empires, as well as a failed attempt to forge an alliance with Christendom, gave him a notoriety that persists to this day. 

In November 2002, just months before the American-led invasion of Iraq, Osama bin Laden released a tape in which he excoriated the administration of the former US President George H.W. Bush. The leader of Al-Qaeda claimed that members of the Bush government had killed more people in Baghdad and destroyed more of the city’s buildings ‘than Hulegu of the Mongols’. He offered no further information about who Hulegu was. He may have assumed, perhaps correctly, that most people in the Islamic world knew of the great Mongol warrior. Few westerners seemed even to have heard of him.

This is not surprising, yet it should be. Hulegu was a grandson of Chinggis (or Genghis) Khan. He was also the elder brother of Qubilai Khan, himself qaghan (supreme ruler) and emperor of China, most familiar to English speakers through Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan (1816). Hulegu was also important in his own right. He was the founder of the Persian Ilkhanid dynasty, which ruled much of the Near and Middle East from the mid-13th century. The Mongols, who had threatened Europe between 1237 and 1242, came close to conquering Egypt and extending Mongol rule into North Africa. The defeat of Hulegu’s forces by Mamluks, Egyptian slave soldiers, at Ain Jalut near Nazareth in September 1260 was often included in the lists of decisive battles of world history with which an earlier generation of military historians sought to titillate their readers. It has been claimed that Hulegu’s campaign offered Christendom an unparalleled opportunity to ally with him and destroy Muslim power in the region, which would have utterly transformed the history of the Middle East. There were sound reasons, on both sides, why this never became a reality.

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