The Mongols, like any other culture with a lengthy history and a modern-day presence, have historically been the subject of significant criticism amongst Middle Eastern scholars. Ibn al-Athir's account of the Tatar's invasion of the Middle East is a bloody and horrendous tale of ruthless murder and destruction, as he states, "these Tatars spared none, slaying women and men and children, ripping open pregnant women and killing unborn babes."[footnoteRef:1] This description by al-Athir certainly seems to justify the view that these Mongols are a savage, ruthless people. However, William of Rubruck (a.k.a. Willem van Ruysbroeck) gives an account of the Mongols, describing a very civil and almost unexpected visit to the Khan's palace. As he was a very devout and pious monk, he is greeted in a harmless manner and invited to debate the principals of Christianity within the Khan's court. He describes an interaction with Mangu Khan's secretaries, in which they relay the Khan's word, stating, "Our lord sends us to you to say that you are here Christians, Saracens and Tuins. And each of you says that his doctrine is the best, and his writings -- that is, books -- the truest. So he wishes that you shall all meet together, and make a comparison each one writing down his precepts, so that he himself may be able to know the truth."[footnoteRef:2] This communication is in stark contrast to al-Athir's violent story, and suggests that there is more to the Mongol's than a bloody, take-no-prisoners conquest of the Middle East. All present-day nations have a gory and often brutal history, and these accounts merely shed light on a culture that is no different. [1: "Ibn al-Athir: On The Tatars, 1220-1221 CE." A Literary History of Persia,. Ed. Jerome S. Arkenberg. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1902. Web.] [2: "William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols." UW Departments Web Server. Silk Road Seattle. Web. 23 Nov. 2010 .]
Like many conquered peoples, Middle Easterners were left in utter horror following the Tatar invasion of their home, a Mongol-led campaign that ripped apart the land previously ruled by Muhammad Khwarazmshah. Ibn al-Athir describes the ghastly event, and explains the ease with which the Tatar's accomplished a successful campaign, stating, "their achievements were only rendered possible by the absence of any effective obstacle; and the cause of this absence was that Muhammad Khwarazmshah had overrun the lands, slaying and destroying their Kings, so that he remained alone ruling over all these countries; wherefore, when he was defeated by the Tatars, none was left in the lands to check those or protect these, that so God might accomplish a thing which was to be done."[footnoteRef:3] Because al-Athir's people and the surrounding populace shared one single ruler, Muhammad Khwarazmshah, it was no surprise that once Khwarazmshah and his establishment were destroyed, the Tatar's were able to conquer the entire region without consequence. Once the leadership of his land fell apart, al-Athir was left to witness immense horrors and find his friends and fellow Muslims slain or deeply scarred. He describes one incident, explaining, "I have heard that one of them took a man captive, but had not with him any weapon wherewith to kill him; and he said to his prisoner, "Lay your head on the ground and do not move," and he did so, and the Tatar went and fetched his sword and slew him therewith."[footnoteRef:4] The murderer proceeded without remorse in killing a man, having no hesitation in implying capture when he fully intended to commit murder. [3: "Ibn al-Athir."] [4: "Ibn al-Athir."]
The Muslim historiography of the Tatar occupation of the Middle East is underscored by the viciousness and speed of their campaign. Ibn al-Athir makes a comparison to Alexander the Great's world conquest, stating, "Alexander, concerning whom historians agree that he conquered the world, did not do so with such swiftness, but only in the space of about ten years; neither did he slay, but was satisfied that men should be subject to him."[footnoteRef:5] He goes on to further describe the situation with the Tatar's, and exclaiming, "But these Tatars conquered most of the habitable globe, and the best, the most flourishing and most populous part thereof, and that whereof the inhabitants were the most advanced in character and conduct, in about a year; nor did any country escape their devastations which did not fearfully expect them and dread their arrival."[footnoteRef:6] While Alexander the Great, ruler of what was arguably one of the largest empires in the past, is described as civilly overtaking the state, this Tatar advancement is viewed as a blood-soaked scar on world history. So deep were the wounds that people throughout the region were in complete and irrational fear of any Tatar they met. Ibn al-Athir describes such an incident, stating: [5: "Ibn al-Athir."] [6: "Ibn al-Athir."]
"My companions began to do as he bade them, but I said to them, 'He is but one man; wherefore, then, should we not kill him and flee?' They replied, 'We are afraid.' I said, 'This man intends to kill you immediately; let us therefore rather kill him, that perhaps God may deliver us.' But I swear by God that not one of them dared to do this, so I took a knife and slew him, and we fled and escaped.' And such occurrences were many."[footnoteRef:7] [7: "Ibn al-Athir."]
This interaction was undoubtedly commonplace, as he described, and helps to understand the deeply engraved fear and contempt felt within the Middle East towards the Mongols.
While this may be grounds enough to harbor some level of resentment towards the Mongols, it would be a generalization to imply that they were strictly savages. Willem van Ruysbroeck's account of the Mongols is a much less gory historiography of what comes off as a civilized society. Entering the Mongol territory, he is greeted by the Khan's secretaries, and eventually a meeting is set up between van Ruysbroeck and several other religiously devout men. He states, "We were assembled then on Pentecost eve at our oratory, and Mangu Chan sent three secretaries who were to be umpires, one a Christian, one a Saracen, and one a Tuin."[footnoteRef:8] This is not exactly the way Ibn al-Athir would have expected to be treated in a Mongol court, but unlike the conquest of the Middle East, van Ruysbroeck's visit to the Khan's court is without significant incident, besides the importance of his historiography. Willem van Ruysbroeck's encounter with the other religious men and the subsequent debate held is an astonishing example of peaceful men trying to understand the conscripts of foreign beliefs. [8: "William of Rubruck."]
By the time van Ruysbroeck is finally given an audience with Khan, he acts not like one of the fearful men that al-Athir described, but as an equal. He describes the encounter, stating, "[Mangu Khan] held out toward me the staff on which he leaned, saying: 'Fear not.' And I, smiling, said in an undertone: 'If I had been afraid, I should not have come here.'"[footnoteRef:9] Because of the tone of his prior interactions with the Khan's secretaries, van Ruysbroeck had no reason to quiver at this great leader. Unlike many Middle Easterners who witnessed severe bloodshed and carnage, van Ruysbroeck has been treated with some form of courteousness and is even invited in the Khan's court. Although van Ruysbroeck refuses to take the Khan's ambassadors along on the arduous trek home, he is politely asked to return with the Khan's word. He states, "So I answered him that he should make me understand his words, and have them put down in writing, for I would willingly take them as best I could. Then he asked me if I wanted gold or silver or costly clothing."[footnoteRef:10] Despite can Ruysbroeck's refusal to do the Khan's bidding in taking…