Hulagu Khan (ca. 1216-1265) was a Mongol conqueror and the founder of the dynasty of the Il-Khans of Iran. He also suppressed the Ismaili sect and defeated the last Abbasid caliph.
Hulagu—the native form of his name is Hüle'ü, whence the Alau of Marco Polo—was a grandson of Genghis Khan and the younger brother of the Great Khans Mangu (Möngkë) and Kublai. At a kuriltai, or assembly of the Mongol princes, held in 1251 at the time of Mangu's accession, it was decided that Hulagu should consolidate the conquests in western Asia by suppressing the sect of the Ismailis, or Assassins of Alamut, in northwestern Persia and then, if necessary, attacking the caliphate.
Hulagu left Mongolia in the autumn of 1253 at the head of a large army. Traveling slowly along a carefully prepared route, from which all natural obstacles had been removed, he did not cross the Oxus, then the frontier between the Chaghatai Khanate and Persia, until the beginning of 1256. By the end of that year the greater part of the Ismaili castles had been captured, and the Grand Master himself was a prisoner in Mongol hands. He was sent to Mongolia, where he was executed by the order of the Great Khan, and with the wholesale massacre of the Ismailis that followed, the sect was all but wiped out.
The summer of 1257 was spent in diplomatic exchanges with the caliph al-Mustasim from Hulagu's headquarters in the Hamadan area. The Caliph refused to accede to Mongol demands for submission, and in the autumn Hulagu's forces began to converge on Baghdad. On Jan. 17, 1258, the Caliph's army was defeated in battle; on the 22nd Hulagu appeared in person before the walls of Baghdad; the city surrendered on February 10, and 10 days later al-Mustasim was put to death. The story, familiar from the pages of Marco Polo and Longfellow's Kambalu, of the Caliph's being left to starve in a tower full of gold and silver is apocryphal; he was probably rolled in a carpet and beaten or trampled to death in order not to shed royal blood, such being the Mongols' custom in the execution of their own princes. With his death the Islamic institution of the caliphate came to an end, although it was artificially preserved by the Mamluk rulers of Egypt and the title was afterward assumed by the Ottoman sultans.
From Baghdad, Hulagu withdrew into Azerbaijan, henceforward destined to be the seat of the Il-Khanid dynasty, and from here in the autumn of 1259 he set out to conquer Syria. Aleppo was taken after a short siege, Damascus surrendered without a blow, and by the early summer of 1260 the Mongols had reached Gaza on the frontier with Egypt. However, news of the death of his brother the Great Khan Mangu in China caused Hulagu to return to Persia, and the depleted army that he had left behind was decisively defeated by the Egyptians at Ain Jalut in Palestine on Sept. 3, 1260.
In 1262-1263 Hulagu was involved in hostilities in the Caucasus area with his cousin Berke, the ruler of the Golden Horde and the ally of his enemies, the Mamluk rulers of Egypt. Hulagu's troops were at first victorious, crossing the Terek into Berke's territory, but were then driven back with heavy losses; many were drowned in the river when the ice gave way under their horses' hooves. Apart from the quelling of risings in Mosul and Fars, this was the last of Hulagu's campaigns. He died on Feb. 8, 1265, and was buried on a great rock rising 1,000 feet above the shore of the island of Shahi in Lake Urmia. He was the last of the Mongol princes to be accorded the traditional heathen burial, several young women being interred with him to serve their master in the hereafter.
The kingdom which Hulagu had founded comprised, in addition to Persia and the states of the southern Caucasus, the present-day Iraq and eastern Turkey. He and his successors bore the title of Il-Khan (subordinate khan) as vassals of the Great Khan in Mongolia and afterward in China. He himself either still adhered to the shamanist beliefs of his forefathers or was a convert to Buddhism, but his chief wife, Dokuz, was a Nestorian Christian, as Hulagu's mother had been, and special favor was shown to the Christians during his reign. Like several of his successors, he was a great builder, the most celebrated of his edifices being a great observatory on a hill north of Maragha, where Moslem, Christian, and Far Eastern scientists carried out their researches.
René Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia (1939; trans. 1970), is a useful study. For a treatment incorporating more recent research see J. A. Boyle, ed., The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 5 (1968).