We first hear of the Tatars as a nomad people of Central Asia, kin and neighbors to the Mongols, and joining these in European raids. A Chinese writer of the thirteenth century describes the common run of them much as Jordanes had pictured the Huns a thousand years before: short of stature, hideous of visage to those unfamiliar with them, innocent of letters, skilled in war, aiming their arrows unerringly from a speeding horse, and continuing their race by an assiduous polygamy. In trek and campaigns they took with them bed and board—wives and children, camels, horses, sheep, and dogs; pastured the animals between battles, fed on their milk and flesh, clothed themselves with their skins. They ate gluttonously when supplies were plentiful, but they could bear hunger and thirst, heat and cold, “more patiently than any people in the world.”17 Armed with arrows—sometimes tipped with flaming naphtha—and cannon and all the medieval mechanisms of siege, they were a fit and ready instrument for a man who dreamed of empire with his mother’s milk.
When Genghis Khan died (1227) he divided his dominions among his four sons. To Jagatai he gave the region around Samarkand, and the name of this son came to be applied to the Mongol or Tatar tribes under his rule. Timur (i.e., iron) was born at Kesh in Transoxiana to the emir of one such tribe. According to Clavijo the new “Scourge of God” assumed this function precociously: he organized bands of young thieves to steal sheep or cattle from near-by herds.18 In one of these enterprises he lost the third and fourth fingers of his right hand; in another he was wounded in the heel, and so limped the rest of his life.19 His enemies called him Timur-i-Lang, Timur the Lame, which careless Occidentals like Marlowe made into Tamburlane or Tamerlane. He found time for a little schooling; he read poetry, and knew the difference between art and degeneration. When he was sixteen his father bequeathed to him the leadership of the tribe and retired to a monastery, for the world, the old man said, is “no better than a golden vase filled with serpents and scorpions.”* The father, we are told, advised his son always to support religion. Timur followed the precept even to turning men into minarets.
In 1361 the khan of Mongolia appointed Khoja Ilias governor of Transoxiana, and made Timur one of Khoja’s councilors. But the energetic youth was not ripe for statesmanship; he quarreled violently with other members of Khoja’s staff, and was forced to flee from Samarkand into the desert. He gathered some youthful warriors about him, and joined his band with that of his brother Amir Husein, who was in like straits. Wandering from one hiding place to another, they were hardened in body and soul by danger, homelessness, and poverty, until they were raised to moderate fortune by being employed to suppress a revolt in Sistan. So ripened, they declared war on Khoja, deposed and slew him, and became joint rulers, at Samarkand, over the Jagatai tribes (1365). Five years later Timur connived at the assassination of Amir Husein, and became sole sultan.
“In 769,” (1367) reads his dubious autobiography, “I entered my thirty-third year; and being of restless disposition, I was much inclined to invade some of the neighboring countries.”20 Resting at Samarkand during the winters, he marched forth almost every spring in a new campaign. He taught the towns and tribes of Transoxiana to accept his rule docilely; he conquered Khurasan and Sistan, and subdued the rich cities of Herat and Kabul; he discouraged resistance and revolt by savage punishments. When the city of Sabzawar surrendered after a costly siege, he took 2,000 captives, “piled them alive one upon another, compacted them with bricks and clay, and erected them into a minaret, so that men, being apprised of the majesty of his wrath, might not be seduced by the demon of arrogance”; so the matter is reported by a contemporary panegyrist.21 The town of Zirih missed the point and resisted; the heads of its citizens made more minarets. Timur overran Azerbaijan, took Luristan and Tabriz, and sent their artists to Samarkand. In 1387 Isfahan yielded, and accepted a Tatar garrison, but when Timur had gone the population rose and slew the garrison. He returned with his army, stormed the city, and ordered each of his troops to bring him the head of a Persian. Seventy thousand Isfahan heads, we are told, were set on the walls, or were made into towers to adorn the streets.22 Appeased, Timur reduced the taxes that the city had been paying to its governor. The remaining towns of Persia paid ransom quietly.
At Shiraz in 1387, says a tradition too pretty to be trusted, Timur summoned to his presence the town’s most famous citizen, and angrily quoted to him the lines which had offered all Bokhara and Samarkand for the mole on a lady’s cheek. “With the blows of my lustrous sword,” Timur is said to have complained, “I have subjugated most of the habitable globe... to embellish Samarkand and Bokhara, the seats of my government; and you, miserable wretch, would sell them both for the black mole of a Turk of Shiraz!” Hafiz, we are assured, bowed low and said: “Alas, O Prince, it is this prodigality which is the cause of the misery in which you find me.” Timur so relished the reply that he spared the poet and gave him a handsome gift. It is regrettable that no early biographer of Timur mentions this charming incident.23
While Timur was in south Persia word was brought to him that Tuqatmish, Khan of the Golden Horde, had taken advantage of his absence to invade Transoxiana, and even to sack that picturesque Bokhara which Hafiz had valued at half a mole. Timur marched a thousand miles north (consider the commissary problems involved in such a march), and drove Tuqatmish back to the Volga. Turning south and west, he raided Iraq, Georgia, and Armenia, slaughtering en route the heretical Sayyids, whom he branded as “misguided communists.”24 He took Baghdad (1393) at the request of its inhabitants, who could no longer put up with the cruelty of their Sultan Ahmed ibn Uways. Finding the old capital in decay, he bade his aides rebuild it; meanwhile he added some choice wives to his harem, and a celebrated musician to his court. Ahmed found asylum in Brusa with the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet I; Timur demanded Ahmed’s extradition; Bajazet replied that this would violate Turkish canons of hospitality.
Timur would have advanced at once upon Brusa, but Tuqatmish had again invaded Transoxiana. The angry Tatar swept across south Russia, and, while Tuqatmish hid in the wilderness, he sacked the Golden Horde’s cities of Sarai and Astrakhan. Unresisted, Timur marched his army westward from the Volga to the Don, and perhaps planned to add all Russia to his realm. Russians of all provinces prayed feverishly, and the Virgin of Vladimir was borne to Moscow between lines of kneeling suppliants who cried out, “Mother of God, save Russia!” The poverty of the steppes helped to save it. Finding little to plunder, Timur turned back at the Don, and led his weary and hungry soldiers back to Samarkand (1395–96).
In India, said all reports, there was wealth enough to buy a hundred Russias. Proclaiming that Moslem rulers in north India were too tolerant of Hindu idolatry, and that all Hindus must be converted to Mohammedanism, Timur, aged sixty-three, set out for India at the head of 92,000 men (1398). Near Delhi he met the army of its Sultan Mahmud, defeated him, slaughtered 100,000 (?) prisoners, pillaged the capital, and brought back to Samarkand all that his troops and beasts could carry of the fabled riches of India.
In 1399, still remembering Ahmed and Bajazet, he marched forth again. He crossed Persia to Azerbaijan, deposed his wastrel son as governor there, hanged the poets and ministers who had seduced the youth into revelry, and redevastated Georgia. Entering Asia Minor, he besieged Sivas, resented its long resistance, and, when it fell, had 4,000 Christian soldiers buried alive—or were such stories war propaganda? Wishing to protect his flank while attacking the Ottomans, he sent an envoy to Egypt proposing a nonaggression pact. The Sultan al-Malik imprisoned the envoy and hired an assassin to kill Timur. The plot failed. After reducing Aleppo, Hims, Baalbek, and Damascus, the Tatar moved on to Baghdad, which had expelled his appointees. He took it at great cost, and ordered each of his 20,000 soldiers to bring him a head. It was done—or so we are told: rich and poor, male and female, old and young, paid this head tax, and their skulls were piled in ghastly pyramids before the city’s gates (1401). Moslem mosques,monasoteries, and nunneries were spared; everything else was sacked and destroyed, so thoroughly that the once brilliant capital recovered only in our time, by the grace of oil.
Feeling now reasonably sure on left and right, Timur sent Bajazet a final invitation to submit. The Turk, made too confident by his triumph at Nicopolis (1396), retorted that he would annihilate the Tatar army, and would make Timur’s chief wife his slave.25 The two ablest generals of the age joined battle at Ankara (1402). Timur’s strategy compelled the Turks to fight when exhausted by a long march. They were routed. Bajazet was taken prisoner, Constantinople rejoiced, Christendom was for half a century saved by the Tatars from the Turks. Timur continued Europeward to Brusa, burned it, and carried away its Byzantine library and silver gates. He marched to the Mediterranean, captured Smyrna from the Knights of Rhodes, butchered the inhabitants, and rested at Ephesus. Christendom trembled again. The Genoese, who still held Chios, Phocaea, and Mitylene, sent in their submission and tribute. The Sultan of Egypt released the Tatar envoy, and entered the distinguished company of Timur’s vassals. The conqueror returned to Samarkand as the most powerful monarch of his time, ruling from Central Asia to the Nile, from the Bosporus to India. Henry IV of England sent him felicitations, France sent him a bishop with gifts, Henry III of Castile dispatched to him a famous embassy under Ruy González de Clavijo.
It is to Clavijo’s detailed memoirs that we owe most of our knowledge of Timur’s court. He left Cádiz on May 22, 1403, traveled via Constantinople, Trebizond, Erzerum, Tabriz, Tehran (here first mentioned by a European), Nishapur, and Mashhad, and reached Samarkand on August 31, 1404. He had with some reason expected to find there only a horde of hideous butchers. He was astonished at the size and prosperity of Timur’s capital, the splendor of the mosques and palaces, the excellent manners of the upper class, the wealth and luxury of the court, the concourse of artists and poets celebrating Timur. The city itself, then over 2,000 years old, had some 150,000 inhabitants, and “most noble and beautiful houses,” and many palaces “embowered among trees”; altogether, and not including the extensive suburbs, Clavijo reckoned Samarkand to be “rather larger than Seville.” Water was piped into the houses from a river that ran by the city, and irrigation canals greened the hinterland. There the air was fragrant with orchards and vineyards; sheep grazed, cattle ranged, lush crops grew. In the town were factories that made artillery, armor, bows, arrows, glass, porcelain, tiles, and textiles of unsurpassed brilliance, including the kirimze or red dye that gave its name to crimson. Working in shops or fields, dwelling in houses of brick or clay or wood, or taking their ease urbanely on the riverside promenade, were Tatars, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Iraoi, Afghans, Georgians, Greeks, Armenians Catholics, Nestorians, Hindus, all freely practicing their rites and preaching their contradictory creeds. The principal streets were bordered with trees, shops, mosques, academies, libraries, and an observatory; a great avenue ran in a straight line from one end of the city to the other, and the main section of this thoroughfare was covered with glass.26
Clavijo was received by the Tatar emperor on September 8. He passed through a spacious park “wherein were pitched many tents of silk,” and pavilions hung with silk embroideries. The tent was the usual abode of the Tatar; Timur himself, in this park, had a tent 300 feet in circumference. But there were palaces there too, with floors of marble or tile, and sturdy furniture inset with precious stones or sometimes altogether made of silver or gold. Clavijo found the monarch seated cross-legged on silken cushions “under the portal of a most beautiful palace,” facing a fountain that threw up a column of water which fell into a basin wherein apples bobbed incessantly. Timur was dressed in a cloak of silk, and wore a high, wide hat studded with rubies and pearls. He had once been tall, vigorous, and alert; now, aged sixty-eight, he was bent, weak, ailing, almost blind; he could barely raise his eyelids to see the ambassador.
He had acquired as much culture as a man of action could bear; he read history, collected art and artists, befriended poets and scholars, and could on occasion assume elegant manners. His vanity equaled his ability, which no one exceeded in that time. Contradicting Caesar, he reckoned cruelty a necessary part of strategy; yet, if we may believe his victims, he seems to have been often guilty of cruelty as mere revenge. Even in civil government he conferred death lavishly—as to a mayor who had oppressed a city, or a butcher who had charged too much for meat.27 He excused his harshness as needed in ruling a people not yet reconciled to law, and he justified his massacres as means of forcing disorderly tribes into the order and security of a united and powerful state. But, like all conquerors, he loved power for its own sake, and spoils for the grandeur they could finance.
In 1405 he set out to conquer Mongolia and China, dreaming of a halfworld state that would wed the Mediterranean to the China Sea. His army was 200,000 strong; but at Otrar, on the northern border of his realm, he died. His last orders were that his troops should march on without him; and for a while his white horse, saddled and riderless, paced the host. But his soldiers well knew that his mind and will had been half their might; soon they turned back, mourning and relieved, to their homes. His children built for him at Samarkand the majestic Gur-i-Mir, or Mausoleum of the Emir, a tower crowned with a massive bulbous dome, and faced with bricks enameled in lovely turquoise blue.
His empire crumbled with his brain. The western provinces almost at once fell away, and his progeny had to content themselves with the Middle East. The wisest of this Timurid line was Shah Rukh, who allowed his son Ulug to govern Transoxiana from Samarkand, while he himself ruled Khurasan from Herat. Under these descendants of Timur the two capitals became rival centers of a Tatar prosperity and culture equal to any in Europe at the time (1405–49). Shah Rukh was a competent general who loved peace, favored letters and art, and founded a famous library at Herat. “Herat,” wrote a Timurid prince, “is the garden of the world.”28 Ulug Beg cherished scientists, and raised at Samarkand the greatest observatory of the age. He was, says a florid Moslem biographer,
learned, just, masterful, and energetic, and attained to a high degree in astronomy, while in rhetoric he could split hairs. In his reign the status of men of learning reached its zenith.... In geometry he expounded subtleties, and on questions of cosmography he elucidated Ptolemy’s Almagest... Until now no monarch like him has ever sat on a throne. He recorded observations of the stars with the co-operation of the foremost scientists.... . He constructed in Samarkand a college the like of which, in beauty, rank, and worth, is not to be found in the seven climes.29
This paragon of patronage was murdered in 1449 by his bastard son; but the high culture of the Timurid dynasty continued under the sultans Abu Sa’id and Husein ibn-Baiqaia at Herat till the end of the fifteenth century. In 1501 the Uzbeg Mongols captured Samarkand and Bokhara; in 151c Shah Ismail, of the new Safavid dynasty, took Herat. Babur, last of the Timurid rulers, fled to India, and founded there a Mogul (Mongol) dynasty which made Moslem Delhi as brilliant a capital as Medicean Rome.