Post-classical history

Chapter Seventy-Nine


The Rebirth of the Mongol Horde

Between 1367 and 1399, the Iron Cripple destroys the Golden Horde, invades the west, and sacks Delhi

IN 1367, a Mongol soldier in Balkh set out to recover the glory decades of the Mongol conquests: the long-gone days of Genghis Khan, when Mongol ferocity had spread Mongol power across the known world.

He was in his midthirties, known to his compatriots as Timur-Leng, the Iron Cripple (later Latinized to Timurlane); he had earned the nickname by continuing to fight through to the end of a battle despite wounds in both arms and legs, injuries that left him with a permanent limp. He had grown up in the Chagatai Khanate, east of the Oxus river, and for ten years had served his brother-in-law Amir Husayn, the Mongol governor of the city of Balkh.1

Amir Husayn was, theoretically, loyal to the Mongol khan of the Chagatai, a descendant of Genghis Khan. But the Chagatai Khanate had never gained the stability that the other three parts of the Mongol empire (the Golden Horde, the Il-khanate, and the Yuan) had at least briefly enjoyed. The Chagatai khans ruled from the eastern side of the Khanate, an area that had gained the nickname Mughulistan, “Land of the Mongols”; they had never been able to wield very much power in the western reaches of the kingdom, Transoxania (the lands just east of the Oxus river). There, amirs (local Mongol chiefs) wielded the real power. Without them, the Chagatai khans had no hope of retaining their thrones, and Amir Husayn was one of the most prominent kingmakers among all the amirs; he had personally engineered the coronation of the current Chagatai khan, Kabil Shah.2

Since at least the age of twenty-one, one of his biographers writes, Timur had been “very anxious to rebel against the Khan, and to assume [his] power.” But Timur was not a descendant of the royal clan of Genghis Khan (despite the claims that later biographers made on his behalf), and he was not in pursuit of the khanate itself. He wanted power, not a title; dominance, not the mere appearance of it. He wanted the power of Amir Husayn, not the empty title of the puppet khan.3

Like the great Genghis Khan himself, he was a fierce and charismatic fighter. The fifteenth-century warrior-historian Mirza Muhammad Haidar quotes a verse made in Timur’s honor, by those who had seen him in battle: when he seized his sword, he “made such sparks fly from it that / The sun in comparison seemed dark / He charged down like a roaring lion.”4

His battle frenzies had won him a loyal following among Amir Husayn’s soldiers, and their loyalty was only increased by his habit of giving away much of the battle spoil to his troops. He gave them clothing, jewels, horses, weapons, and belts, and (says a contemporary, the court historian Sharaf ad-din Ali Yazdi) thanked them for their bravery by sending them, “in cups of gold, the most delicious wines by the hands of the most beautiful women in the world.” It was a generosity that Amir Husayn, stingy by nature, never displayed.5

“As the power of Amir Timur rose, so did the star of felicity of Amir Husain begin to decline,” writes Haidar. When he felt himself strong enough, Timur turned on Amir Husayn. He laid siege to his former master, trapping him in his capital city of Balkh; on April 10, the defenses broke and Timur’s army flooded in. Timur took his brother-in-law captive and allowed one of his officers, a man with a blood feud against Husayn, to murder him.6

From that time on, Timur ruled in Husayn’s place as amir of Transoxania, with Samarkand as his capital. He ruled in the name of the Chagatai Khanate, but his conquests were all his own. Seventeen long years of campaigning moved his border steadily westward: Khwarezm, Isfahan, Tabriz, the lands south of the Caspian Sea.7

Timur was a throwback, an atavistic combination of Mongol nomad and Assyrian king. He had no interest in diplomacy, scolding his officers for displaying too much restraint: “He was dissatisfied with the gentle way in which his generals . . . treated the enemy,” his court historian noted, “in watering the plains of enmity and warfare with peace.” Timur was more inclined to water them with blood; it had the useful effect of killing any weeds of revolt that might spring up. After a battle against the city of Isfizar, seventy miles south of Herat, he ordered the defenders of the city piled up and cemented into towers while still alive. When Isfahan fell, he had seventy thousand opponents executed. He left pillars of skulls across the former Il-khanate lands to mark his progress. In Sistan, he ordered his troops to wreck all of the irrigation works they could find, destroying the countryside’s ability to grow crops and simultaneously its will to resist.8

He was not merely a sadist. Nor, despite the efforts of his later biographers to put words of piety into his mouth, was he a warrior of the faith. He claimed Islam as his own, but there was no thread of holy warfare in his massacres. He put his enemies to death and spared his allies. He was a practical man, not a philosopher; his only ethic was victory.


79.1. The Advance of Timur-Leng

Until he reached the Caspian Sea, his campaigns were against other amirs, against local Turkish dynasties that had established themselves on the outskirts of the Ottoman power, against the onetime officials of the old Il-khanate who had claimed rulership of their own cities. Now he turned his eyes on the Golden Horde, the Mongol khanate that had dominated the cities of the Rus’ for a century.

Just a few decades earlier, the Golden Horde would have presented Timur with a formidable challenge. But now, the Golden Horde seemed poised for plucking. Plague had weakened both the Rus’ cities and the Mongol government that oversaw them; and then, in 1359, a fight between two brothers of the khanship had spread into a khanate-wide struggle. In the years before Timur’s arrival, pretenders all over the Horde—at one time, seven simultaneously—claimed to be the rightful khan. The man who eventually came out on top could claim descent from Genghis Khan’s son Juchi. His name was Toktamish and he came, originally, from the Chagatai lands; and some years before, he had sworn a vassal’s loyalty to Timur himself.9

He had claimed the khanship of the Golden Horde despite a massive rebellion by the Rus’ princes, who had hoped to throw off the Mongol overlordship altogether. Faced with the defiance of Moscow, Riazan’, and a handful of other Rus’ cities, Toktamish descended on them with full Mongol ferocity, plundered their treasuries, burned their houses, and slaughtered their women and children. By the time Timur arrived at his borders, Toktamish had terrorized the Rus’ back into submission.10

Now he turned to face his former master, refusing to surrender to Timur’s demands for the proper obedience owed to him by his vassal.

The Rus’ princes, called upon to fight with their oppressor against this newest arrival, chose to obey. Timur seemed the worse of the two choices: an “iniquitious, ferocious and terrible torturer and destroyer,” the Russian chronicles call him. Backed by the Rus’ princes, Toktamish met Timur’s army in 1391, just east of the Volga river; and there he was badly defeated.

He retreated to the west, leaving the eastern part of the Horde territory in Timur’s hands. During the next year, Timur fought his way through the Rus’ cities as far as Elets. There, says the Russian chronicle of the invasion, he “captured the prince of Elets and tortured to death many people.” Two hundred miles away from Moscow, he stopped, unwilling to push farther in the face of a devastatingly frigid Russian winter.11

He had rebellions to put down south of the Caspian Sea, and he had his eye on Baghdad, which he entered with little difficulty in August of 1393. He did not launch another major invasion of Toktamish’s territory until 1394.

Once again the Rus’ princes joined their Mongol overlord to fight off the Mongol threat. And once again, they were defeated. On the Terek river, in 1395, Toktamish fought against Timur for three entire days before he was forced to flee. He spent the rest of his life as a fugitive, mostly wandering through Siberia, trying to stay alive.

This time, the entire land of the Rus’ lay open to Timur. He sacked the Golden Horde capital city of Sarai, on the Volga, and then spent eight months in the land of the Rus’, destroying fortresses and reducing towns to rubble. “He subdued and subjected all without exception to his will,” wrote the Arab traveler Ibn ‘Arabshah, who visited the wrecked lands less than a decade later and saw the destruction with his own eyes. “[He] took booty and divided it, and let his men despoil and make prisoners and gave leave to use force and violence and wiped out their tribes and overturned their forts and changed the whole condition.”12

Then Timur went back to Samarkand to recover. He had another target in mind.

He had already sent an advance force into India, under the leadership of his grandson Pir Muhammad; this preliminary reconnaissance had advanced as far as the Sutlej river before retreating to the mountains. In April 1398, after careful preparation, Timur marched from Samarkand, headed south, to join Pir Muhammad.

Together, they raided through the Punjab. By September 20, Timur was camped on the banks of the Indus river, ready to plunder Delhi itself. Delhi, still ruled by the Tughluq dynasty, had passed through the hands of a score of fleeting sultans. It was no longer the center of a major empire but, now ruled by the obscure Tughluq scion Nasiruddin Mahmud, it was still a rich prize.

Just before laying siege to the city, Timur ordered all the Indian prisoners still held in his camp massacred, for fear that they might break out during the battle and join in Delhi’s defense: “On the great day of battle,” he told his officers, “prisoners cannot be left with the baggage. No other course remains than to make them all food for the sword.” Every soldier was ordered to kill his fair share of the prisoners; contemporary accounts suggest that as many as 100,000 were slaughtered, their bodies piled into a bloody mountain outside the camp.13

The sultan’s army came out to meet him the next day, December 17, 1398. It included 120 war elephants whose tusks had been poisoned; this was a little off-putting to the Mongol army, but Timur had made inquiries and learned that elephants were easily panicked. He ordered his men to pile hay on the backs of camels, set it on fire, and drive the camels towards the elephants.

Faced with screaming, flaming, charging camels, the elephants stampeded back through the sultan’s army. The lines broke, and the Mongols drove the Indian army back. Nasiruddin Mahmud escaped, fleeing to Gujarat and taking refuge there.14


79.2 Battle of the Terek River

The population of Delhi was not as fortunate. Timur entered the city the next day and allowed his forces to plunder and kill. “High towers were built with the heads of Hindus,” one chronicler wrote, “and their bodies became the food for ravenous beasts and birds.” The official court account recorded ten thousand beheaded in a single hour, wives and children taken as slaves, grain stores burned, jewels torn from the ears and fingers of Delhi’s women. “Excepting the quarter of the scholars,” the account concludes, “the whole city was sacked.”15

The conquest of the rest of India did not immediately follow. Instead Timur withdrew to Samarkand; the heat of the 1399 summer, in the north of India, had discouraged him from staying. He took with him thousands of captives: artists, writers, competent officials, stonemasons, bricklayers, and weavers. He intended to put them to work as slaves in his own realm; the builders were given the task of constructing a mosque that Timur planned as a monument to his own greatness. When Nasiruddin Mahmud finally crept back to his wrecked city, he found it stripped and burned, corpses stacked in the street, and its entire culture transported over the mountains, to captivity in distant Samarkand.


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