Hülegü Khan (1256 – 1265) was the grandson of Genghis Khan and son of Tolui. He served his brother Khan Möngke (1251 – 1259), and campaigned through the Middle East. While there, he whipped out the Assassins, a secret order of Shia entrenched in the mountains of Gilan province. He also destroyed the Abbasid capital of Baghdad in 1258, putting an end to the Caliphate. By 1260, Hülegü controlled parts of Armenia, Iraq, Anatolia, all of Azerbaijan, and all of Iran. Kublai Khan (1250 – 1294) had awarded his brother Hülegü the title of Ilkhan, a secondary khan who remained subordinate only to the great khan in Mongolia. This portion of the empire became known as the Khanate of the Ilkhans.
The Ilkhans were a Mongol minority ruling over a Muslim majority. Indeed, religious problems plagued the Ilkhanate for much of its existence. To begin with, Hülegü, a Nestorian Christian, who later converted to Buddhism on his deathbed, had sacked Baghdad, one of the most politically important cities in the Islamic world. This action alienated him from his Muslim cousin Berke Khan, ruler of the Golden Horde. The conversion of the Golden Horde to Islam had presented a real problem, for the Ilkhans had initially championed Buddhism in Iraq and Iran. As animosity continued to mount between the two parts of the Mongol Empire over religious differences, an alliance started to form between the Muslim Golden Horde and their coreligionists, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, against the Ilkhans.
Faith-based civil wars consumed much of the reign of Abaga Khan (1265 – 1282). These wars were rooted in the Ilkhanate’s inappropriate treatment of their Muslim population. The Golden Horde’s alliance with the Mamluks threatened the Ilkhanate, and yet no longer could Abaga rely on the full might of centralized Mongol power. He was forced to appeal to Kublai Khan to assuage the hostilities between the Ilkhans and the Golden Horde.
During the early Ilkhanate, much of the religious conflict was related to doctrinal differences between Islam and the traditional Mongol way of life. The most stubborn problem was the contradiction between the traditional Mongolian method of animal slaughter, which required that no blood be spilled, and the Islamic code of cleanliness, which necessitated that all blood be drained. Each side was appalled by the other’s customs. Furthermore, as practitioners of rigid monotheism, Muslims found the Mongol worship of religious images repulsive, a ritual strictly forbidden in Islam.
While spiritual troubles remained a persistent problem for the Ilkhans, the economic situation deteriorated too. Gaykhatu Khan (1291 – 1295) practically emptied the royal treasury with profligate spending. He experimented with paper money recently adopted from China to compensate for his wasteful expenditures, but overprinting resulted in massive inflation. The Ilkhans also tried to extract the maximum amount of tribute from the countryside to offset declining revenues. This action led to an abuse in tax gathering, known as tax farming, in which rulers sold contracts for the collection of revenues to the highest bidder. As a result, the collectors felt a strong incentive to despoil peasants.
Mahmud Ghazan (1295 – 1304) solved the Ilkhanate’s continued religious and economic problems. He was the first Ilkhan to convert to Islam, thus rehabilitating their image in the eyes of their Muslim subjects and making their rule much more acceptable. Their new public stance paved the way for cultural flourishing. Ghazan patronized Ilkhanid art, scholarship, and science. In terms of scholarship, the first true history of the world was completed by Rashid al-Din Hamadani (1247 – 1318), richly illustrated with watercolors and portraiture in the Chinese style. (It was Rashid al-Din, a Jewish convert to Islam, who had convinced Mahmud Ghazan to adopt the faith in order to be more attuned to the beliefs of his peoples.) Regarding science, the Ilkhans attempted to amass large amounts of astronomical data from China to Europe. With unprecedented accuracy, they became very good at predicting lunar eclipses. Their data was used throughout Eurasia.
Despite the early looting and plundering indicative of a Mongol conquest, the Ilkhans eventually reactivated the Silk Road and promoted transcontinental trade. The newfound safety of the route encouraged many different kinds of cultures to come together. Ghazan attempted to reform the tax policies that had led to the maximization of taxation. Cities did revive, but the long-term negative consequence of conquest continued to be felt by the peasants who suffered from prolonged violence.
Much like the Mongols in Chaghatai Central Asia, the Ilkhans eventually went native too. Here we see a Persian-Mongol fusion, adopting Persian culture and speaking the Persian language. As they bonded with Persia, they adopted Islam and began to promote Persian as the written language of their land.