Monday, 6 June 2011
Timur, also called Tamer the Lame, Tamerlane or Tamburlaine, was born in 1336. He was of Mongol ancestry but not a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, which meant he could never himself take the title of Great Khan. He was a Moslem, though this in no way reduced his savagery towards his co-religionists. By a foretaste of the mixture of violence and cunning diplomacy which marked his career, he had gained control of the city of Samarkand by 1366, which thenceforth became the capital of his empire.
Circumstances of the time were favourable towards his ambitions, since throughout central Asia the great Mongol empire of the previous century had disintegrated into rival Khanates. In China the Yuan dynasty, the descendents of Kubilai Khan, was overthrown in 1368 and replaced by the native Ming. Timur was able to isolate and launch attacks on surrounding territories one by one. His basic tactic was terror: if a city resisted him he would slaughter most of the inhabitants and pile up their skulls into huge pyramids; though sometimes for variety he would bury his victims alive, or mortar them into his city walls. This would convince other cities that it was prudent to ally with him, pay tribute and provide soldiers for his armies. The only people likely to escape his depredations would be skilled artists and craftsmen, who would be conscripted to glorify his capital city of Samarkand with new mosques and midrasas.
Timur’s forces took and sacked Heart in 1381, Tabriz in 1384 and Tbilisi in Georgia in 1386. In 1390-91 he turned northwards, permanently destroying the power of the Tatar Golden Horde on the Volga; a campaign which had the effect of allowing the Dukes of Moscow, who had previously acted as tax collectors for the Golden Horde, to become independent. In 1398 Timur turned his attention to India, crossing the Hindu Kush and putting Delhi to the torch. Next came the Islamic states to the west: Aleppo and Damascus were taken and burnt, followed by Baghdad, where it is said that 90,000 skulls were piled up into 120 great pyramids. Following this, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt thought it prudent to announce his friendship with Timur.
Then came the greatest campaign yet. The Ottoman sultan, Bajazit the Thunderbolt, had crushed the crusading forces at Nicopolis in 1396 and looked certain to capture Constantinople, the last feeble remains of the once-powerful Byzantine Empire. But first he would have to deal with Timur, who marched his forces into central Anatolia in 1402. The two armies which approached each other on July 28th must have formed the largest battle yet seen in world history. Timur is said to have mustered 200,000 men; heavy cavalry, mounted archers, infantry and even elephants. Bajazit’s forces must have been similar in number; centred upon his elite Janissaries, the slave-soldiers conscripted from Christian boys, together with 20,000 heavy cavalry provided by his Serbian vassals, Macedonian allies and Tatar nomads from the Ukrainian steppe (By comparison, the crusader army at Nicopolis was probably no more than 10,000 strong). After a fierce initial impact the Tatars, who had possibly been suborned beforehand by Timur’s agents, suddenly changed sides, and seeing this the Macedonians took flight. The Serbs were driven back and disintegrated. Bajazit and his Janissaries fought on, but were eventually surrounded and the survivors taken prisoner. According to legend, Bajazit was placed in an iron cage and carted around by Timur as a trophy before dying of rage and despair a year later, though some accounts say he was treated more chivalrously.
Timur’s forces now pressed on westwards. Bursa was taken and destroyed, and the for the first time Timur came up against a Christian fortress, at the port of Smyrna (modern Izmir) which was held by the Hospitaller knights. After two weeks of siege it fell, with the usual slaughter. A fleet of galleys sailing to relieve the city were bombarded with severed heads and retreated in terror.
What would happen now? Was anywhere in Europe capable of resisting Timur’s armies? But instead of continuing his advance, he headed eastwards for his most ambitious campaign yet, to attack the Ming empire in China. Over the winter of 1404-5 he assembled new armies and advanced into Kazakhstan, but there he died on Fenbruary 18th 1405, at the age of 68. He was buried beneath the great dome of the Gur Emir in Samarkand, where he lies still. In 1941 Soviet archaeologists exhumed his body and found signs of serious injuries, showing that he was indeed lame. He became a figure of legend, as in Christopher Marlowe’s play “Tamburlaine the Great”, where he becomes a Renaissance prince with limitless ambition for world domination. In what is now the independent state of Uzbekistan, Timur has been elevated to become a great national hero, and his suitably grandiose building projects, like the Gur Emir and the Bibi Khanum mosque, do duty as tourist attractions.
Timur’s vast empire did not remain intact for long, though his grandson Ulugh Beg became the greatest astronomer of his day, famous even in Europe. Over a century later his descendent Babur crossed through the Khyber Pass into India and seized Delhi, founding the Mughal (= Mongol) empire; which is why India’s most famous building, the Taj Mahal, is wholly Islamic in design, and why so many Pakistanis bear the Mongol title of Khan (lord). In Europe his impact was minimal. The Dukes of Moscow, freed by his victories from the “Tatar yoke” of the Golden Horde, were able to assert their independence and became the ancestors of the first Russian Tsars. But the opportunity to drive the Turks from the Balkans was not taken, Ottoman power soon revived, and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks was only postponed for half a century.
(For Genghis Khan and his successors, see my earlier post "Storm from the East; part 3; Mongols")