The Il-Khans of Persia and the Christian West

J.A. Boyle describes how, in 1258, the Mongol Khans from Persia captured the Caliphate of Bagdad and international contacts followed with the European powers.

We are told by the Sire de Joinville in his History of St Louis that when the King was supervising the fortification of Sidon the news was brought to the French camp that ‘the King of the Tartars had taken the city of Bagdad and the Pope of the Saracens, that was lord of the city, whom men called the Caliph of Bagdad’. Here Joinville, who completed his History in extreme old age, has suffered a lapse of memory.

It was in fact some five years later, at the beginning of 1258, when Louis had long since returned to France, that the ‘King of the Tartars’, Prince Hülegü, a younger brother of the Great Khan Mongke and the first of the Il-Khans, or Mongol rulers of Persia, captured what had for five hundred years been the metropolis of Islam and put to death the ‘Pope of the Saracens’, that is to say, al-Musta’sim bi’llah, the last of the Abbasids.

The destruction of the Caliphate was hailed with unmixed delight by Eastern Christendom; but in the Catholic West the Mongols’ victory must have been viewed with suspicion and disquiet. The princes of Europe still remembered the invasion of Poland and Hungary in 1242-3 and feared, not without reason, the renewal of that invasion.

They remembered too how Pope Innocent IV’s mission to the Great Khan to protest against the massacres in Eastern Europe, and call upon the Mongols to embrace Christianity, had been met with a brusque demand for what in our days would be called ‘unconditional surrender’.

‘If you accept peace,’ said the Great Khan Güyük (1246-8) in his reply to Innocent, ‘and are willing to surrender your fortresses to us, you, Pope and Christian peoples, in no way delay coming to me to conclude peace and then we shall know that you wish to have peace with us. But if you should not believe our letters and the command of God nor hearken to our counsel, then we shall know for certain that you wish to have war. After that we do not know what will happen, God alone knows.’

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