Holagu led his forces into Iran with the aim of overthrowing the two centres of Islamic faith, the Ismailis in Iran and the Abbasids in Iraq, although his motive was military rather than religious. Ismaili castles fell in 1256 and the head of the community was killed despite his surrender and cooperation. Nasir al-Din Tusi, the great Persian scientist and scholar resident at Alamut castle, accompanied Holagu to Baghdad, which was sacked in 1258, the caliph being beaten to death. Holagu’s later invasion of Syria did not succeed. His troops were defeated by the Egyptian ruler: This was the first check to the advance of the Mongols since the beginning of their campaigns. Yet, as the Ilkhan, he was in possession of a vast empire consisting of Persia, Iraq and parts of Anatolia, centred in Azerbaijan, with Maragheh as the capital, though this was later moved to Tabriz by his son Abaqa.
The Ilkhans ruled Iran for about eighty years, from 1260 to about 1340. Both Sa’di and Rumi were contemporaries of Holagu, in their fifties, though this is not evident from Rumi’s works. Rumi in fact lived in Anatolia, in the safety of Seljuk Rum. Sa’di left his native Shiraz in the wake of the first Mongol invasion. When he returned thirty years later, in about 1255, he celebrated the peace – ‘the leopards had given up leopard-like behaviour’ – little knowing that Holagu’s troops were on their way. He wrote two poignant elegies, one in Persian and one in Arabic, on receiving the news of the sack of Baghdad: ‘The sky would rightly weep blood on the earth full / For the kingdom of Musta’sim, Commander of the Faithful.’ He was a friend and admirer of the brothers Shams al-Din and Ata Malek Joveini, both of them Ilkhan viziers and great men of letters.
The mystic poet Fakhr al-Din Araqi also flourished in the thirteenth century, while Hafez in the fourteenth century was a contemporary of the late Ilkhans.
There were many other notable poets and writers during the Mongol era, for example Obeid Zakani, Khaju-ye Kermani and Salman Savaji. The later Ilkhans undertook building projects, even a town, of which by far the greatest surviving example is the Oljaitu Mausoleum in Soltaniyeh near the city of Zanjan.
In addition, calligraphy, miniature painting and the arts of the book continued to develop, though reaching a pinnacle of perfection only in the fifteenth century.
The administration of the realm was, as usual, in the hands of Persian viziers and ministers, who, also as usual, were constantly in danger of losing their lives and possessions. Of the nine grand viziers of the Ilkhans only one died a natural death; others, including great figures such as the Jovieinis and Rashid al-Din Fazlollah, were killed and expropriated, often together with their families, friends and relations. Military affairs, by contrast, were in the hands of Mongols.
The viziers’ most important function was to raise finance through taxation. The early Ilkhans, being foreign as well as nomadic, hardly cared about the welfare of the sedentary population, and least of all the peasantry. Their attitude towards their Iranian subjects resembled that of an occupying force rather than an imperial power – they tried to milk their subjects as much as possible. The Iranian peasant was used to a heavy tax burden, but the early Ilkhans’ taxation policies were so exploitative that they left little or no motivation for the people. With government policy being to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, frequent financial crises arose. The peasants fled and hid on seeing taxmen, envoys and other officers whom they were obliged to look after and who would often confiscate what little they had left.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled, ‘Turks and Mongols’, from a book entitled, ‘The Persians; Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern Iran’,
written by Homa Katouzian, published by Yale University Press.