(TIMUR, 1336 to 1405 – continued)

home | 6th-15th centuries

TIMUR, 1336 to 1405 (2 of 2)

previous | next

Blood and Guts from Georgia to India

In 1370-71, in Samarkand, Timur had new walls built on the foundation of those destroyed by the Mongols – walls that were surrounded by a deep moat. He had the marketplace improved, and it is said that he had great gardens grown and palaces built. Samarkand's magnificence and prosperity are said to have caused envy in Cairo and Baghdad.

In his entire adult life Timur was not to remain settled at one place for more than a couple of years, and after 1371 he was moving again with his army, in pursuit of the plunder that gave wealth to his followers and some meaning to his rule. Seeing himself as the new Genghis Khan and needing to conquer to live up to Genghis Khan's image, he went east and ravaged the countryside around Issyk-kul, and he made the people there his subjects. In the winter of 1377 he fought one of his major battles near Sauran. And in 1380 he occupied Kashgar (now Shufu in eastern-most China).

Then, Timur campaigned to the west of Samarkand. He overran Herat and forced that city to pay him tribute. He went south to Sistan and raged against its capital, Zarendj, and he sought to punish and make an example of its inhabitants for their resistance. He massacred men, women and children, and he burned what he and his army could not carry away.

To the north, at the city of Sabzavar, he crushed a revolt and massacred nearly 2000 slaves, and he is reported to have made a monument with mortar, brick and their bodies as a warning to others against revolt. He conquered in Persia, which had been divided among warlords and torn by dissension. And there, as a Sunni, he berated Shia for what he called their errors, and he executed a local Shia ruler.

In the summer of 1386 he moved north into Georgia and posing as a warrior for Islam he waged war against local Christians. In 1387 he sought control over Armenia on the pretext that Shia emirs there had dared to attack caravans on their way to Mecca. He turned south and conquered Isfahan in central Persia, a rich and cultured city of Muslims and one of the great cities of West Asia. The city rebelled, and in retribution, according to reports, Timur's troops looted, massacred from 70,000 or 100,000 people and destroyed crops.

While Timur was busy in Persia, a Mongol force came south to Georgia, from the forest region around Moscow. In 1391 Timur pushed them back toward Moscow, and in late 1391, heavily laden with goods and in need of rest and reinforcements, Timur and his army returned to Samarkand.

In May 1392, Timur was ready for war again, itching for more campaigning and apparently bored. Persia remained unstable politically, and Timur warred against more rebellion there. In 1395 a Mongol army again drove south to Georgia and again Timur drove them back. But the region around Moscow was without the flocks of animals needed to feed his troops. Timur set fire to and looted several Russian towns and departed – seen in Moscow as a miracle worked by an icon of the Virgin Mary.

More revolts had erupted in Persia, and Timur returned there. Enraged at being defied, again he massacred and destroyed whole towns. But it was more than rage. It was more of his psychological warfare – similar to burning and bombing of villages in Vietnam in the twentieth century to frighten people into submission. Timur believed that with an enhanced reputation for terror people would be more tractable in their negotiations with him.

In 1396 and '97, Timur was back at Samarkand. During his stay he heard news from India. With the excuse that Muslim rulers in India were being too tolerant toward Hindus he led an army there. He destroyed the Islamic kingdom centered at the city of Delhi, and he created more carnage and devastation. He is described as having been pleased that he had penetrated India more deeply than had Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan. He returned from India with Indian artists, craftsmen, and booty, distributing much of the latter to underlings who had stayed behind but expected reward.

Enriched, Timur began more building, ordering work on a great mosque. Two hundred masons worked on the building. Five hundred others cut the stones that were transported to Samarkand by elephant trains. It was the largest mosque yet in Central Asia and one of the largest in the Muslim world. But Samarkand was in a region of frequent earthquakes, and Timur's great mosque was not constructed in a way that could endure intact.

Again after only a couple of years, Timur went campaigning in Persia, then to Georgia, to put things right again in these areas – the burden of empire. With battering rams, stone throwers and flame hurling machines he broke into the city of Sivas. He punished the city for resisting, enslaved its Christian inhabitants and buried alive its soldiers.

Timur believed that the Mamluks from Egypt and the Ottoman Turks had encroached on his territory. He marched into Syria, where he defeated a Mameluk army. He occupied Damascus, posing as having delivered it from the Christians and from the Mameluk sultan. In this former capital of Islam's empire, Timur was led to the graves of the Prophet Muhammad's wives, Umm Selma and Umm Habiba. He found the grave sites neglected, and he raged at the city. Some of his army officers led another attack against Damascus in search of more loot, and a fire was started that burned for three days. Damascus was ruined and would take years to recover. And much loot was deported to Samarkand.

Timur was deterred from marching further south, to Jerusalem, because of what has been described as a plague of locusts that was ruining crops in Palestine. Instead, that same year – 1401 – he went to Baghdad, reconquered that city and massacred 20,000.

Then Timur argued with leaders of his army over whether to risk war with the Ottoman Turks, who ruled in Asia Minor and had a reputation as conquerors for Islam. Timur's subordinates reminded him that the Ottoman forces outnumbered his own. He is said to have retorted that only God gives victory and that this has nothing to do with the numbers. Timur believed that with guile he could defeat the Ottoman Turks despite their superior numbers. Timur did not want to appear to be the instigator of war against another Muslim power that had warred successfully against Christians. Instead, he started what in appearance were negotiations with the Ottoman sultan, Bayezid (son of Murad I). Timur demanded two thousands camel loads of butter and two thousand tents. He demanded that he (Timur) be declared a sultan, that he be recognized in Ottoman mosques, that his money be the sole legal tender and that Bayezid's sons serve with him as hostages. Bayezid saw Timur's demands as outrageous and prepared for battle, calling for more troops from his vassals in conquered Christian lands.

In 1402, a great battle was fought at Angora (today Ankara). With superior strategy, Timur defeated Bayezid's army. [note]  Bayezid was captured and soon died. Timur was concerned about having helped Christians by having defeated the Ottoman army. He sent envoys to the Christian knights of Rhodes, who ruled the city of Smyrna, and the envoys demanded that the knights convert to Islam. The next option given the knights was to pay tribute, and they refused. The knights believed that their city, with its harbor and outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, was impregnable. Timur then conquered the city, and as Timur was accustomed to do against people who resisted, he ordered the city's entire population, including women and children, annihilated, and the heads displayed in a pyramid. It was Timur's last military action in Asia Minor.

Meanwhile, some who were in power in Christendom were interested in Timur, an interest first aroused by his expansion westward in the direction of the Turks – seen by the Europeans as an enemy of Christianity. There was hope among these Christians that Timur could help the Christians in the Holy Land by attacking the Turks from the rear. From England, France and Castile friendly messages went to Timur, and Timur responded with interest. Timur was interested in promoting trade. 

Timur returned to Samarkand in 1404. He planned next for an expedition to China – unfinished business if he were trying to emulate Genghis Khan. He questioned merchants from China about conditions there, and in 1405, at the age of sixty-nine, he and his army departed for China. On route he died. The expedition, with Timur's body, turned around. At Samarkand Timur was embalmed and buried in an ebony casket in a tomb.

Timur, as was custom, had divided his empire among his descendants – two sons and a grandson. His sons quarreled, and for ten years they warred against each other. The younger son, Shah Rokh, emerged supreme. But family strife was to continue through the century, and Timur's empire would disintegrate.

People in Samarkand would worship Timur as a great man much as Macedonians had Alexander the Great as their great conqueror. The Mongols would have Genghis Khan, and the French would have Napoleon. Lenin would not make it for the Russians; he was not a conqueror. The Germans would have Frederick the Great, but he would be Hitler's hero, and with Hitler's failures in the mid-1940s conquerors as great heroes for the Germans would end.


Tamerlane, by Edward D Sokol, 1997

Timur, Wikipedia

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.