Recently, I've been buttonholing everybody I know and telling them about Hulagu. What happened was, a couple of years ago Osama bin Laden said (in one of his intermittent recorded messages to the world) that during the previous Gulf War Colin Powell and Dick Cheney had destroyed Baghdad worse than Hulagu of the Mongols. Bin Laden provided no further identification of Hulagu, probably assuming that none was needed. Of course, almost no one in America had any idea what he was talking about, so news stories helpfully added that Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, was a Mongol general who sacked Baghdad in the year 1258. Beyond that footnote, the press as a whole shrugged at bin Laden's out-of-left-field comparison and moved on.
At the time, I was doing research for a book about a subject in which the Mongols came up occasionally. Anyone who does research knows you have to stay focussed on your topic and not go down every interesting avenue you pass, or you will end up wandering aimlessly in attention-deficit limbo. I tried to keep on track, but whenever I spotted a reference to Hulagu, or descriptions of Mongol conquests in central Asia (Genghis Khan's armies were said to have killed 1.6 million people in the city of Herat in northwestern Afghanistan in 1222; that's 1.6 million, dispatched with arrows, clubs, and swords), the pointing finger of bin Laden kept distracting me. I wondered how a world figure like Hulagu could be so well known, apparently, in the far reaches of Asia, and the opposite of that here. I also wondered, in terms of simple fact, if it could be accurate to say that Cheney and Powell were worse than he. The cities in which Mongol history took place were often the same ones I'd seen in the newspaper that morning—Kabul, Qum, Kandahar, Mosul, Karbala, Tikrit. Reading about the Iraq war seemed to segue unavoidably into reading about the Mongols. Also, I have the possibly naïve belief that you should try to understand your enemy's mind. Finally I quit resisting and went with the Mongol flow.