When most people are asked about lost or destroyed texts, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the burning of Alexandria’s library which occurred around 2,000 years ago. The burning of Alexandria is arguably the largest loss of knowledge ever to be recorded as it is estimated the library housed upwards of 200,000 scrolls at the time of its destruction. I say arguably the largest loss because in 1258 an equally large library met its demise at the hands of the greatest armies throughout history; the Mongols.
The acquisition of knowledge was something many advanced civilizations were greatly interested in. Many empires had their own systems to create and house knowledge and the Islamic empire was no exception. The creation of their largest library roots back to Caliph Al-Mansur began collecting scholarly writings for his palace library in Baghdad around 754 A.D. From this point on the library slowly transformed into one of the greatest reservoirs of knowledge to have ever existed. Al-Mansur was so interested in the arts that he created an entire wing of scholars to write and translate texts for his library. After Al-Mansur’s reign was completed Caliph Al-Rashid continued in the pursuit of scholarly writings. Al-Rashid expanded the scholar’s research to encompass mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, poetry among other lesser topics. During Al-Rashid’s time as Caliph Islam reached its golden age economically, culturally and academically. During this golden age Al-Rashid created the House of Wisdom and transferred all the texts from his palace library.
After Al-Rashid appointed his son, Al-Mamun, as Caliph the House of Wisdom continued to grow. During Al-Mamun’s time as Caliph academic work gained more ground and became more acceptable in the eyes of the people. Often times after battles, the troops would scavenge the cities for books to be translated by the scholars who worked in the House of Wisdom. On a more peaceful note, Al-Mamun would also send scholars to various parts of the world to collect texts from allies to be translated. Often times these scholars would bring back foreign scholars who wished to provide texts for the House of Wisdom. This resulted in the House of Wisdom being filled with many great minds collaborating and sharing knowledge which increased the amount of texts stored in the library. This truly was the golden age for the Islamic world, unfortunately, this plateau didn’t last long. As time passed, future Caliphs would forgo rational for religion thus causing progress to slow down significantly. Despite this being a detriment to progress, it was not what caused the loss of texts.
The Mongol Empire was the quickest expanding empire ever. When Genghis Khan proclaimed the Mongol States existence in 1206 AD it covered an average piece of land in central Asia. By 1258 they
had managed to obtain roughly 10 million square miles of land and about 20% of the world population lived in mongol controlled territory. By this time the Mongols were knocking on the door to Baghdad, looking to increase their territory and on January 29, 1258 they began their 2 week rampage through the city.
The Mongol forces led by Hulagu Khan was instructed to seek out the city and request the residence bow to the Mongol Empire accepting a peaceful defeat. Caliph Al-Mustasim believed the city walls coupled with their own forces would be vastly superior to the Mongols army, thus, he refused to obey the Khans request. When Caliph Al-Mustasim refused to submit Hulagu Khan commanded his men to destroy the city. The Mongols broke through and proved to be a vastly superior military force, consequentially Al-Mustasim surrendered the city after only 12 days of fighting. The Khan executed the Caliph for his failure to give in peacefully and the Mongols continued to ravage the city. They murdered anywhere from 800,009 to 2 million of Baghdad’s residents and military personnel and burned buildings to the ground among other atrocities. When the Mongols came upon the House of Wisdom they emptied its books into the Tigris river and the scholars working their were slaughtered and thrown into the river with their books. Numerous sources state that survivors reported the river looking like a stream of blood during the invasion and pitch black days after the invasion from the large amount of ink that was thrown in.
After the siege the Mongols appointed their own people to rebuild what was needed to maintain their empires presence. The siege of Baghdad was one of the main reasons progression halted for centuries, that and the general shying away from academia by the Caliphs to focus more on religious belief. The amount of damage done to the city and the large decline in population wasn’t recouped until late in the 19th century. Much like the burning of Alexandria, the documents that were lost in the siege number in the hundreds of thousands and contained information that we may never obtain again.