Post-classical history

Chapter Eighty-Nine


After Timurlane

Between 1401 and 1415, Timur reconquers the Mongol empire, and his heirs split it apart, while the Ottomans fail to conquer Constantinople

AFTER THE SACK OF DELHI, Timur had retreated to the cooler refuge of Samarkand, leaving the shattered Indian countryside to bake in the summer sun.

He was, before long, visited by an embassy from the Deccan. The sultan of the Bahmani kingdom, Firoz, had been awestruck by Timur’s might; his ambassadors were even more floored by Samarkand itself. The city had been razed by Genghis Khan, its population slaughtered. But now it had risen from rubble back to splendid life. Timur’s practice was to spare architects, artists, and craftsmen from execution and bring them back to his capital city to work there; in his hands, Samarkand had earned itself the nickname “Threshold of Paradise.”

The Castilian diplomat Ruy González de Clavijo, visiting the city near the end of Timur’s lifetime, wrote a detailed account of its wonders: salted through with mosques and minarets, paved courtyards and cobbled streets, green parks and marble houses. Timur had built a wide commercial street traversing the heart of the city with rows of shops on both sides, each shop uniformly built and fronted with a stone bench for shoppers, the street itself domed over and lined with water fountains: the first indoor shopping mall. Along it, González de Clavijo saw leather and linen from the Rus’, silks and embroidery from China, rubies and diamonds and pearls from India; nutmegs, cloves, and ginger; game, fowl, bread, and fruit; hemp and flax, silver and copper, glass and porcelain, rhubarb and musk. The merchants visiting the city were so numerous that they camped outside the walls, in a tent city of fifty thousand. The royal palace of Samarkand stood inside the city walls, doubly protected by a river that curved through the city and around its walls. Its splendid public garden was so huge that one ambassador’s horse, escaping into the leafy retreat, stayed missing for six whole weeks before it could be located.1

The Bahmani diplomats, loaded with gifts, begged the Mongol warrior for a favor: could Firoz please become his vassal? Timur was pleased. He graciously accepted, and in exchange sent the message that Firoz could, by his grace, rule over Malwa and Gujarat.

He had not conquered those two small kingdoms, both of which had declared independence after the wreckage of Delhi. Neither had Firoz; in fact, his rival, the sultan of Vijayanagara, was even at that moment busy establishing diplomatic relationships with both. But Firoz accepted anyway. The ceremonial dance between the two was almost meaningless, but not quite; the submission meant that Timur was in no hurry to plow back down and wreck the Bahmani. He remained out of India. For the next decades, the Indian kingdoms would carry on their unending local wars for territory, leaving the Delhi sultans to carry on a ghost existence in the city that had once been the center of empire.2

TIMUR TURNED BACK towards the west, where two Turkish empires waited to meet him: the mamluks of Egypt and the Ottoman Turks.

After the collapse of the Il-khanate, the Egyptian sultan had been left as the foremost power in the lands east of the Mediterranean. The Bahri sultanate, drawn from the old regiment that had once protected the Ayyubid ruler of Egypt, had decayed; in 1390 a new mamluk dynasty had claimed the rule of Egypt. The Burji dynasty drew its sultans from a different military regiment, originally made up of slave warriors bought from the Caucasus mountain ranges. Known as the Circassian mamluks, they had long since mingled with the Turks, but kept their own designation. The Circassian mamluk who first ruled after the Bahri, al-Zahir Barquq, took as his palace the great Citadel of Cairo, built by Saladin himself. His dynasty took its nickname from the Arabic word for the citadel’s spires, burj: they were the mamluks of the Tower.3

Barquq’s eleven-year-old son Faraj, powerless in the hands of his emirs, was on the sultan’s throne. Timur dispatched a letter to Cairo, demanding that the young sultan surrender his Syrian lands: “Consider your own survival and that of your subjects,” the letter commanded, “. . . lest our furious soldiers fall upon the people of Egypt and Syria in a cruel slaughter, burning and pillaging their properties. If you are so stubborn as to reject this advice, you will be responsible both for spilling Muslim blood and for the total loss of your kingdom.”4

Faraj’s emirs declined to surrender, and (to make matters worse) cut Timur’s messenger in half at the waist. In answer, Timur marched on Aleppo. Soldiers from a dozen Egyptian-held Syrian cities hurried to reinforce Aleppo’s defense, but Timur crushed the Burji army, broke through the city’s gates, and allowed his men to slaughter the population. He then laid siege to Damascus, trapping the well-known traveler and historian Ibn Khaldun inside. Ibn Khaldun was now nearly seventy; when Timur heard that he was inside, he asked to speak to the famous man. The city’s defenders didn’t trust Timur’s promise that he would not invade the city, should they open the gates to let Khaldun out. Instead, they lowered him over the walls in a basket.

Ibn Khaldun’s curiosity had driven him to the meeting, but he was not easy in his mind: “Because of fear,” he wrote later, “I composed in my mind some words to say to him which, by exalting him and his government, would flatter him.” He ate and drank with the great man, complimented him for being “sultan of the universe and the ruler of the world,” and watched him as he was carried to his horse by servants; Timur’s lameness forced him to drag his right leg behind him, and he was able to walk only for short distances.5

Khaldun was allowed to leave Timur in peace, later going back to Cairo. Damascus finally surrendered; Timur robbed the city of all of its wealth and goods and then set it on fire.

Instead of pushing down into Egypt, though, he turned left and seized Baghdad; and then he headed back north, towards the Ottoman front.

BAYEZID, VICTORIOUS AT NICOPOLIS, was still laying siege to the stubbornly resistant city of Constantinople. The emperor Manuel had escaped from the beleaguered city by water, leaving his nephew John VII as regent in his absence; as Timur approached, he was making a desperate tour of European courts, begging for men, money, and aid against the Turks. He was having absolutely no luck. The great kings were preoccupied, broke, invested elsewhere, or insane.

Timur did what no one else had been able to do: he delivered Constantinople, by forcing Bayezid to give up the siege.

He does not seem to have had designs on Byzantium itself. Instead, he was bent on re-creating the old Mongol empire. Genghis Khan and his successors had terrified the kings of Europe, but they had also established a Mongol border past which Timur was not inclined to pass. In fact, he had approached John VII in friendship once already; he had sent two ambassadors to Constantinople (one of them a Turkish Muslim, the other a Dominican priest), requesting that the emperor not make any sort of truce with Bayezid, since Timur himself was about to engage the Ottomans on the eastern flank.6

The Timurid army arrived in Ottoman territory in the summer of 1402 and laid siege to the castle of Ankara. By the end of July, Bayezid had arrived with his own army to drive back the invaders.

Timur’s army numbered around 140,000; Bayezid’s, close to 85,000. Fighting on the Timurid side were numerous Turkish chiefs who had been displaced by the spread of the Ottoman empire and wanted revenge; the Ottomans were reinforced by Serbian troops and the the Serbian vassal “king” Stefan Lazarević. Timur soon showed himself to be the better strategist, as well as the commander of the bigger army. His encampment was set up to block the Ottomans from nearby water sources, so that they went into battle thirsty. He also planned to repeat the fire attack that had worked so well in Delhi; this time, soldiers launched “Greek fire” (unquenchable streams of burning liquid, probably sulfur-based) into the enemy ranks from the backs of thirty-two specially trained elephants.7

Fighting began early on the morning of July 28 and continued for the entire day, but by the end of it the Ottoman troops had been driven back; Bayezid himself and two of his sons were taken captive. At once, Timur sent John of Constantinople another message: Guard the Strait of Bosphorus with Byzantine galleys, so that the defeated Ottoman troops cannot flee across it and escape.8

Relieved of the Turkish threat, Manuel and John were finally given the space to draw a deep breath. The Timurids raided deep into the Ottoman lands; within a matter of weeks, the Ottoman empire had shrunk back to its core domains, with Timur claiming dominion over the rest. Bayezid himself died in captivity, sometime in 1403. Of his six sons, two were in captivity, one fled to Constantinople, changed his name to Demetrius, and had himself baptized as a Christian, and the remaining three struggled to claim their father’s title for themselves.

The division of the Ottoman empire lasted for twenty years. Bayezid’s third son, Suleyman, managed to seize the western territories, and held on to them by freeing Manuel from his vassal status and allowing him to reclaim Thessalonica for Byzantium. His next two sons fought furiously over the old Ottoman heartland, a battle that got fiercer when their older brother Musa escaped from Timur’s hands and came back home.9

Meanwhile, Timur himself finished reducing the kingdom of Georgia to absolute submission. He had for a time agreed to allow George VI, son of George the Brilliant, a small amount of authority in exchange for tribute money. But now he returned, swept across the countryside, and flattened seven hundred villages. All the churches in Tbilisi were leveled into rubble.10

The entire Western world held its breath, waiting for Timur to keep on to the west. His goal of re-creating the Mongol empire was not yet clear to onlookers; Manuel himself was convinced that Timur’s goal was to first sack Constantinople and then push on into Europe, submerge all Christian countries and kill all Christian monarchs. Instead, the conqueror turned back east, towards China. He had sacked the lands of the Golden Horde and claimed the lands of the Il-khanate. He already controlled the Chagatai Khanate. The old land of the Yuan was the last quarter of the former Mongol empire that still lay out of his reach. He was the reincarnation of the Great Khan; recapturing the Khan’s lands was a higher priority than pushing farther into the west than the Khan had ever gone.11


89.1. Timur against the Ottomans

He was also nearly seventy. By January of 1405, he had made it as far as Utrar, 250 miles east of Samarkand. Forced to halt by extreme cold and deep snows, he warmed himself with a three-day feast during which he ate little, but drank a very great deal indeed. He slipped into a coma, emerging only long enough to declare that his grandson Pir Muhammad should inherit the throne of Samarkand.12

On February 18, 1405, the Iron Cripple died.

The empire he had conquered had no infrastructure, no real network of administration, no coherence, and no stability. Another grandson seized Samarkand; Pir Muhammad, attempting to get it back, was murdered by one of his own men in 1407. Timur’s youngest son, Shah Rukh, had been serving him as a governor in the eastern part of the empire; he took it for himself. And the western reaches of the empire were quickly claimed by the Turks between the Caspian and the Black Seas.

The tribes there were linked together into two separate confederations, the Black Sheep (“Qara Qoyunlu”) and White Sheep (“Aq Qoyunlu”) Turkomans. They occupied adjacent and overlapping territories, the White Sheep just south of the Black Sea, the Black Sheep on the southwestern Caspian shore. The White Sheep took Mardin and the surrounding lands; the Black Sheep captured Tabriz in 1406 and Baghdad in 1410. Soon the Black Sheep halted the White Sheep expansion and overran the remnants of the kingdom of Georgia, killing the nominal king Constantine. Their chief, Qara Yusu, then worked out a truce with the mamluks of Egypt that would guarantee the existence of the Black Sheep as an independent kingdom—temporarily, the most powerful Turkish kingdom in the east.13

But only temporarily. The Timurid empire had shivered apart, but the Ottoman empire was busy righting itself. In June 1413, the civil war between Bayezid’s heirs finally ended when his sixth son, Mehmed, defeated and then strangled his last surviving brother, Musa. Mehmed then declared himself both the undisputed sultan of the ravaged Ottoman realm and the loyal friend of Constantinople; the emperor Manuel had taken the strategically brilliant precaution of providing Mehmed with Byzantine warships and troops to help him fight against his brother. “Go say to my father the Emperor of the Romans that, with the help of God and the support of my father the Emperor, I have recovered my hereditary dominions,” Mehmed wrote to the court of Constantinople, after his victory. “He will find me neither unheeding nor ungrateful.”14

He kept his word. The Ottoman sultanate needed to rebuild in any case; defeat at the hands of Timur, followed by ten years of fraternal fighting, had wrecked it. He was in no shape to restart the war with Byzantium, even if he wanted to. Mehmed signed a treaty of peace with Manuel and went to work rebuilding his army, firming up his control over his Serbian lands, and battling to keep the Black Sheep back.

He did have one new victory; he annexed the Hungarian principality of Wallachia, ruled over by the independent prince Mircea the Elder, and added it to his own empire. Not long after, Mircea died and his son Vlad took his place as Wallachia’s prince and Mehmed’s vassal. He would become known as Vlad Dracul, Vlad the Dragon; builder of Castle Dracul, father of the violent and bloodthirsty Wallachian prince Vlad the Impaler.15

IN THE SPRING OF 1415, the Emperor Manuel traveled with a small band of soldiers to the south of the Greek peninsula, where the last remaining bit of the Byzantine empire still survived. There, within the space of two weeks, the soldiers rebuilt the Hexamilion Wall. In Roman times it had stretched across the Isthmus of Corinth, protecting the south from invasion by land. It had long been in ruins, but rebuilding it guaranteed that the Turks would be able to conquer this final outpost of Byzantium only by sea.16

Mehmed might keep his treaty, but Manuel did not intend to put all of his faith in the sultan’s goodwill. He had more trust in the Byzantine navy.


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