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23-05-2015, 18:26

Timur (Tamerlane), 1336 to 1405

Timur's Rise to Power

The Mongol Empire had fractured into independent khanates in the late 1200s because Genghis Khan's descendants had quarreled and the empire was too big for any one of them to rule. By 1336 the northwestern portion of what had been the empire was ruled by Sultan Mohammed Oz Beg, ruler of what had been called the Golden Horde, itself fragmented into various khanates. Oz Beg's rule extended as far as Moscow, his capital city Sarai on the Volga River. To the south of his territory around the Aral Sea other Mongols ruled. It was in 1336, five years before Oz Beg's 29-year rule ended, that Timur was born, in a village in Transoxiana,, He was the son of a pious Muslim who headed the Barlas tribe – described by the Encyclopedia Britannica as a "Turkicized" Mongol "subgroup." Rather than nomads, these were settled people, living in an area of agriculture thirty-six miles south of Samarkand – the major city on the silk road between China and the West.

The area around Samarkand was dry and extremely hot during summer. Nevertheless, Samarkand was a cultural center, with mathematicians, astronomers, historians, theologians and poets. In Timur's time Samarkand produced textiles, pottery, bricks, tiles, and its craftsmen worked metal, chiseled stone and carved doors. Samarkand was a city of Turks, Arabs, Moors, Greeks, Armenians and people from India, with many languages spoken and many faiths. The area's principle crops were cereals, grapes and cotton, which were irrigated with water that flowed out of the Hindu Kush Mountains just to the south.

Timur in today's Uzbekistan. Respected in Central Asia.

When Timur was ten-years-old, Mongol rule suffered rebellion and lost power in Transoxiana, and an emir (warlord) took power there. When Timur was twenty-two the emir, Kazgan, was assassinated, and two years later the Mongols reconquered Transoxiana. With the coming of the Mongol armies in 1360 and 1361, Timur, in the tradition of conquered princes, became a willing vassal of the Mongols. He subordinated his military following to Mongol rule and became a minister to the new Mongol governor of Transoxiana, Ilyas Khodja.

Soon Timur found an opportunity to break with his Mongol overlords. At Khiva (400 miles northwest of Samarkand) he formed a coalition with the grandson of the assassinated emir Kazgan. This was Hussein, whose army was greater in size than Timur's. In 1364, Timur and Hussein fought and defeated a force belonging to Ilyas Khodja. Ilyas Khodja withdrew from Transoxiana but returned in 1365, and he defeated Timur and Hussein at what became known as the Battle of the Mud. Hussein retreated to Balkh and Timur to Khurasan. Khodja reconquered Samarkand and other cities. At Samarkand, Islamic rebels called the Serbedar surprised the Mongol force inside the city, killing about 2,000 and driving the others from the city. The Mongols, in turn, laid siege to Samarkand. An epidemic broke out, killing a fourth of its horses, and the Mongols withdrew again from Transoxiana. The Serbedar, numbering about 10,000, controlled Samarkand for about a year. Timur and Hussein returned. Timur saw the Serbedar as a rival power. He feigned friendship with them at first, and much later, after he had gained a more secure position and support in the city, he overpowered and executed the Serbedar leaders.

Timur and Hussein resumed their military dominance of Transoxiana, Timur at Samarkand and Hussein at Balkh and other towns. Hussein demanded more in taxes than did Timur, and Hussein paid less attention than Timur to the need for maintaining the good will of his subjects. Timur was shrewd enough to see that broad support at his home base was vital. He made a show of generosity, including helping people with his own wealth. Timur became the most respected person at Samarkand, while reports are that Hussein's reputation for meanness grew.

Hussein and Timur were heading for a split, differences having accumulated between the two, as often happens with people who have worked together for years. Timur's wife, who was Hussein's sister, died, breaking a tie between the two. Timur opened hostilities. His and Hussein's armies clashed. A temporary truce was in order to unite to repel another Mongol incursion. Then the war between them resumed. Timur appeared as the friend and defender of merchants and others. He won the support of a man who claimed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Sayyid Bereke, a native of Mecca with a great reputation for learning and piety. People across Transoxiana, including princes and local emirs, were climbing aboard Timur's bandwagon. And, as had happened in China when two leaders with armies had vied for power, the one able to win more people to his side won.

Timur defeated Hussein militarily, and one of Timur's officers, Keikosraw, who had a vendetta against Hussein because of the death of his brother, brought Hussein to Timur with Hussein's hands bound. Timur is described as having been moved to tears at the sight of his old comrade and former brother-in-law so reduced. Timur is said to have granted his old friend and former brother-in-law free passage so he could make his once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca. Released, Hussein fled, and Keikosraw overtook him and had killed him before he could make his journey.

Timur, at the age of thirty-four, was now – in 1370 – the dominant power in Transoxiana. His army was modeled after the armies of Genghis Khan, but with more foot soldiers and drawn more from settled people rather than nomadic horsemen. It was like the armies of Rome that Marius had created – an army whose loyalty was to its commander. Timur's army found glory in Timur's reputation as a great warrior.

Timur left Transoxiana under the official rule of a Turkish khan named Suyughghatmish, superior to Timur nominally but not in actual power. Timur described himself as the mere agent of righteous rule and proclaimed himself the restorer of the Mongol empire. To consolidate his power, Timur struck hard against those who had been close to Hussein. Because sons inherited the reputations as well as the property of their fathers, Timur was concerned about Hussein's sons, and he had two of them executed. Two other sons escaped to India, where they soon died. Others who had been close to Hussein were also executed. Timur added four of Hussein's wives to his own gathering of wives, and he distributed Hussein's other wives to his followers. Inhabitants of Balkh who had supported Hussein were bound with chains. Some were beheaded, and their wives, children and wealth were divided among Timur's officers.

n 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 market place 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.