The Brutal Massacre and Destruction of Nishapur by Genghis Khan in 1221

Posted by Julian Wymanton on Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The Brutal Massacre and Destruction of Nishapur by Genghis Khan in 1221

In 1221, the forces of Genghis Khan captured and devastated the great city of Nishapur, located in today’s northeastern Iran. Nishapur’s horrifying fate marked one of the most terrible massacres of the Mongol conquests. After resisting the Mongols for almost a year, the city was overwhelmed, its people slaughtered and buildings razed. The scale of bloodshed was immense, even by medieval standards. Nishapur’s destruction demonstrated the horrific consequences of defying the Mongols and served as a grim warning to others considering resistance.

Nishapur: Jewel of Khwarezmia

In the early 13th century, Nishapur was considered one of the finest cities in the Islamic world. Located on the Silk Road trading route, it had grown into a major commercial, intellectual and cultural center under the Khwarazmian Empire of Shah Muhammad. With over a million inhabitants behind its high walls and sturdy defenses, Nishapur was rivaled only by the Khwarazmian capital of Samarkand in size and prominence. Persian scholars like Omar Khayyám called the city home. Its bazaars and workshops bustled with trade as artisans crafted luxury goods. Numerous academies and libraries containing hundreds of thousands of books attested to Nishapur’s learned status.


Yet the city also held strategic military importance, guarding the main route between Khwarezmia and the Abbasid lands to the west. Its conquest would open the path for further Mongol incursions deeper into Iran and the Islamic world. As such, its stalwart defense was critical to stopping the Mongol onslaught. When news arrived of Genghis Khan’s invasion of Khwarezmia in late 1219, the city governor Inalchuq hastily prepared Nishapur for a long siege.

Opening Stages of the Mongol Invasion

After several years of escalating raids and clashes, Genghis Khan launched a full-scale invasion of the Khwarazmian Empire in late 1219. The immediate pretext was the Mongol trade caravan massacred by the governor of Otrar the previous year on the orders of Shah Muhammad. However, Genghis had long aimed to conquer Muslim lands, attracted by their wealth and settled urban centers.

Genghis Khan personally led a large northern contingent down into the Amu Darya valley, rapidly capturing important cities like Bukhara and Samarkand. A second force under Generals Jebe and Subutai drove through Khorasan, catching the scattered Khwarazmians between them. Shah Muhammad fled west with his treasury before his remaining army deserted him. The Shah died on an island in the Caspian Sea in December 1220, leaving his now-leaderless empire to the mercy of the Mongols.

With Khwarezmia open before them, Genghis dispatched columns to subdue the rest of the empire and pursue the Shah’s family. One Mongol contingent of around 20,000 cavalry was sent to take Nishapur under the command of his son Tolui. Being too small to fully invest the massive city, Tolui established a blockade to the north and built catapults to bombard the walls. However, several fierce Mongol assaults on Nishapur were repulsed in early 1220. Its strong garrison and high fortifications withstood the initial attacks.

Mongol Warrior

Arrival of Genghis Khan and the Siege

Impatient with the lack of progress, Genghis Khan came to Nishapur himself several months later leading reinforcements. Syrian chronicler Ibn Al-Athir describes an army so large that when on the move, “the hills and valleys changed places.” Bringing siege engines and towers, Genghis Khan tightened the encirclement with over 100,000 men, completely isolating the city.

Mongol catapults pounded the walls while mining teams burrowed beneath them. Repeated fierce assaults came nearly every day and night. By spring 1221, starvation set in among the people of Nishapur who resorted to eating dogs, rats and dead bodies. Yet Governor Inalchuq rejected calls to surrender, trusting in his defenses and believing Genghis Khan would soon depart to continue his conquests elsewhere.

After months of resistance, Inalchuq offered to submit to Mongol rule in return for the city being spared. Genghis Khan seemingly accepted but Inalchuq secretly murdered the Mongol negotiators, enraging the Khan. Vowing to level Nishapur stone by stone, Genghis rejected all further overtures and redoubled the siege. Morale collapsed among the starving defenders seeing little hope of holding out. Short on manpower due to losses from constant Mongol attacks, the defense faltered.


Fall of Nishapur

In early February 1221, Mongol assault troops backed by concentrated catapult fire breached the walls and poured into the city. Bitter urban combat ensued for several days until the exhausted defenders were overwhelmed by Mongol numbers. The city’s fall culminated a brutal 10-month long siege. Governor Inalchuq fled but was soon captured and executed on Genghis Khan’s orders. The Khan decreed that the death of his envoys would be repaid in blood and terror.

The Massacre at Nishapur

With the city captured and its leaders slain, the Mongol soldiers were free to sack Nishapur at will in an orgy of rape, torture and slaughter that lasted nearly a week. Civilians were cut down indiscriminately in the streets or dragged from their homes to be killed. Mongol warriors deliberately terrorized the population, using horrific public mutilations and torture as punishment for resisting their earlier assaults.

The chronicler Juvaini described women being raped and used for target practice with arrows. Small children were reportedly seized by their feet and swung against walls until dead. Hundreds of prominent citizens, scholars, religious leaders and artisans were killed regardless of rank, age or gender. Mosques and palaces were looted of valuables then burned while ancient libraries full of priceless books were deliberately destroyed.

Credible sources estimate at least 1.7 million to over 2 million people, or practically the entire population of Nishapur, were massacred in an eruption of calculated brutality that shocked the ancient world. So many were beheaded and dismembered that a “pyramid of heads” of over 15,000 was erected according to some accounts. The stench of rotting corpses was said to have lingered in the air for months. Almost no inhabitants were spared during the calamitous sack. Nishapur was utterly and systematically annihilated.

City Ruins

Motivations for the Massacre

Scholars offer several explanations for why the Mongols unleashed such a thorough massacre upon Nishapur.

  • Punishment: Genghis Khan considered the murder of his envoys to have violated Mongol law and demanded retaliation. The massacre was meant to punish the city’s obstinate resistance. All citizens were deemed complicit.

  • Revenge: Genghis Khan took the governor’s betrayal personally as an insult requiring vengeance through slaughter. His long resentment toward the Khwarazmian Empire may have also contributed.

  • Deterrence: Destroying Nishapur would serve as an example to terrorize other cities into swift surrender. Tales of its horrific fate spread rapidly.

  • Plunder: With no surrender accepted, Mongol soldiers were allowed to sack the wealthy city at will, keeping its riches and enslaving many survivors.

  • Inevitability: Mongol warfare doctrine held cities that did not open their gates were by default condemned to destruction and death.

The viciousness that exceeded simple looting may reflect how the Mongols viewed urban centers as inherently hostile. Nishapur’s obliteration served both practical and psychological purposes for Mongol warfare.

Aftermath and Consequences

Archaeological evidence confirms almost the entire city of Nishapur was burnt down in 1221. What few buildings survived the fires were razed or crumbled into rubble over time. When Marco Polo visited decades later, he described a still largely abandoned wasteland dotted by the skulls of the slain defenders piled in pyramids. The area remained sparsely populated into the 1300s.

Nishapur took over a century to recover even partially from the mass destruction, having been thoroughly depopulated in 1221. Later visitors described expanses of cultivated fields interspersed with ruins where a great city once stood. Population estimates after the massacre range from only 7000 to 30,000 - a mere fraction of its former size. The city never fully regained its former prominence and grandeur.

News of Nishapur’s fate spread rapidly, striking fear across the Islamic world. The great trading city’s utter ruin showed that fighting the Mongols led only to complete catastrophe. When Genghis Khan next besieged Herat and Merv, their leaders quickly surrendered rather than suffer Nishapur’s gruesome fate.

The Khwarazmian campaign culminated with the destruction of another defiant city, Urgench. With Khwarezmia subdued, the Mongols pressed further into Iran and Iraq, leading to the famous yet bloody Mongol victory at the Battle of Kose Dag against the Turks in 1243. The sack of Baghdad followed in 1258. Nishapur’s resistance in fact only heralded greater Mongol depredations in the Middle East in the coming decades.


The massacre of Nishapur remains one of the bloodiest acts of the Mongol conquests. The city’s horrific fate was rivaled only by Baghdad’s later destruction. Along with Merv, Nishapur’s ruin ranks as an infamous testimony to the horrors of Mongol siege warfare and retribution against those who resisted them.

For Genghis Khan, the destruction served his wider purposes of punishing defiance, spreading terror, and eliminating threats. The carnage exacted at Nishapur established the grim terms of surrender for other cities considering resistance. Its memory persisted for centuries as a testament to what fate awaited those who opposed the Mongols.


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Chambers, James. The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. Atheneum, 1979.

Morris Rossabi, ed. The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia. Yale University Press, 2002.

Saunders, J.J. The History of the Mongol Conquests. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

Soucek, Svat. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge University Press, 2000.