Turcoman-Iran mail and plate armor1450

Turcoman-Iranian mail and plate armor of rider and horse of the Timurid Era (Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
By Periklis Deligiannis
In 1386, Timur invaded the area of Luristan (in western Iran) and then defeated and expelled the Jalayrids from Tabriz, most important city of Azerbaijan. Immediately after that, his army stormed Tiflis (Tbilisi), the capital of Georgia which was also annexed to his realm, thus preventing Tokhtamysh’s expansion in southern Caucasia. In 1387 the latter reacted by invading Azerbaijan, but he was defeated by Miranshah, son of Timur who had sent him to repel the invasion.

Tokhtamysh and Timur were now officially enemies. Simultaneously the latter campaigned in the Lake Van region crushing the resistance of the Turcoman tribe Kara Qoyunlu (“the ones bearing the black sheep-skins”) and the Kurdish tribes. Thus Timur managed to geo-strategically outflank the Muzafarids of Isfahan who were obliged to acknowledge his suzerainty. But the city’s populace reacted with a revolt.
Timur reacted swiftly with his characteristic Mongolian ferocity: his army entered Isfahan and massacred 100,000 people according to the sources of the time. Modern scholars had calculated that the victims were actually around 70,000 which is also a huge figure. The news of the massacre in Isfahan forced the fearful Muzafarid ruler of neighboring Shiraz to surrender his equally important city to Timur (1387). However large parts of southern Iran and Iraq escaped his authority for the time being.

timur campaignsTimur’s campaigns (courtesy of Cambridge University Press).

timur empire
Timur’s Empire.
Meanwhile, in 1387 Tokthamysh reacted boldly by invading and plundering Transoxiana, Timur’s core territory itself. At the same time he secured the support of some local vassals of Timur: the Kongirat dynasty of Khwarezm (Khorezm) and the Eastern Chagataid dynasty of Moghulistan. Timur immediately unleashed a series of retaliatory campaigns. In 1387 he crashed the Kongirat capturing their primary city Urgench, the population of which massacred or dragged into slavery. Soon he subdued by two campaigns the rulers of Moghulistan and then immediately turned against Tokthamysh, whom he chased in his own territory, in the open Kiptchak steppe. In 1391 he forced him to give battle in the north of the river Samara, where he defeated him and dethroned him from the Golden Horde. But soon the popular Tokthamysh recaptured the throne and mustered a new army, with which he invaded the Timurid province of Sirvan in the Caucasus (1392).

The relentless war between the Turco-Mongols of Transoxiana and the Golden Horde continued in 1395 with a new invasion of Timur in the territory of the latter through the Caucasus border. In the battle of the river Terek he annihilated Tokthamysh’s army for the second time, and he rewarded his notorious cavalrymen and horse-archers by leading them into an orgy of looting along the Volga River, then to the southwest in the Crimea, then back north along the river Don and from there again to the northern Caucasus, where he subdued the Alans (last remnant of the ancient Sarmatians) and the Circassians. In the winter of 1395-1396 Timur captured and savagely looted New Saray on the Volga, the capital of the Golden Horde, and the neighboring major town Hajitarkhan (later Astrakhan) dragging their inhabitants into slavery. In 1396 he pulled his army out of the Golden Horde, which he did not annex although Tokthamysh seemed to have abandoned any effort to save his realm. The realist Timur knew that it was almost impossible to effectively control the Horde’s vast steppes without the support of the local populace. However, the Golden Horde never recovered from his onslaught becoming a “shadow” of the once powerful state that had been. Timur captured artisans and craftsmen from the Golden Hordeto settle them in Transoxiana, and placed Koyrichak, a puppet sub-khan on the authority of the White Horde (a sub-horde of the Golden one – I have already mentioned the other subdivision being the Blue Horde) and finally placed Temur Qutlugh on the throne of the Horde, actually under his control. But Tokthamysh had already fled to the Lithuanians seeking military aid against Timur.
Before the campaign against the Golden Horde, Timur exterminated the Muzafarid dynasties of southern Iran, where he appointed as governor his son Umar Sayh. Simultaneously he appointed his son Miranshah governor of western Iran and Iraq, the last independent areas of which region he moved to conquer from their Jalayrid and Kara Qoyunlu rulers. Having secured the alliance of the Turcoman Aq Qoyunlu tribe (“the ones bearing the white sheep-skins”) of Iraq, in 1393 he launched an attack against the latter two mentioned enemies, capturing Baghdad from where he evicted the Jalayrid Sultan Ahmad. But in 1394 the latter recaptured the city. In 1394 Timur conquered the Al Jazeera region and Diyarbakir in Kurdistan, while immediately after he campaigned against the Golden Horde as has been described above. Returning from the latter in 1396, he marched spreading havoc in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Fars (ancient Persis) and other parts of Caucasia and Iran, where there had been revolutions against his rule. Revolutions were treated with excessive cruelty, according to the traditional Mongolian practice: whole towns and cities were turned into rubble, their residents including children were slaughtered and pyramids were erected using the thousands of cut-off heads of the latter, being examples of prevention to any other potential rebel.
In 1397 Timur, unsaturated for conquests, turned against India on the pretext of the allegedly excessive tolerance given to the Hindu population by the Muslim sultan of Delhi, Mahmud of the Turkic Tughlaq Dynasty. In 1397 Timur’s grandson Muhammad, governor of Bactria, led an invasion vanguard in the Punjab area of India to open the way, and in the following year Timur led the main army to Delhi, leaving on his way behind him ruins and human corpses. In 1398 he confronted in a ferocious battle the Tughlaq army, finally annihilating it. Soon the Timurid army entered Delhi turning the city into an amorphous mass of debris and lifeless bodies. It took more than a century until Delhi managed to somewhat recover from that large disaster. In the winter of 1398-1399, Timur led his cavalry on a campaign of unprecedented looting and massacres along the Ganges and until April 1399 he returned to Samarkand with a huge amount of booty among which there were many war elephants, and thousands of enslaved people.
Meanwhile, Tokhtamysh had persuaded Vytautas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, to help him against Timur. The Timurid-supported khan Temur Qutlugh of the Golden Horde was reinforced by the Timurid general Emir Edigu who had orders to safeguard the Horde from Tokhtamysh’s threat and together they clashed with the united forces of the latter and Vytautas in the great battle of the Vorskla River (1399). Tokhtamysh and his Lithuanian allies were soundly defeated and he became a fugitive again trying to re-muster a new army. Finally in 1406 he was killed in Tyumen by Edigu’s warriors.
Timur after arriving in Samarkand, almost immediately he marched to the other end of his territory, in Azerbaijan (1399) because the local Timurid governor Miranshah was facing threatening resistance movements and additionally he showed himself tendencies of independence from his father. Timur postponed his son in Samarkand and crushed all resistance while next year invaded Georgia for the third time devastating the land, re-conquering Tiflis and subordinating again the Georgian king. But the ultimate aim of Timur was the punishment of the Mamluks and the Ottomans who, worried by his victories, were trying to form a grand coalition against him. Especially the fierce Mamluks had exhausted his patience: they had murdered his envoy sent to Cairo (their capital), they had attempted to re-mobilize the Golden Horde against him (because of the origins of many of them from that khanate and also Circassia, and their close connections with its populace) and had given refuge to the Kara Qoyunlu and Jalayrid rulers whom Timur had evicted. The already powerful Ottomans were supporting the Kurdish and Arab tribes that resisted Timur, but he also had given refuge to the emirs of the Asia Minor Turcoman Emirates that were conquered by the Ottomans. The fallen emirs persistently asked from Timur to restore their principalities.
In 1400 Timur invaded the Mamluk territory capturing Aleppo in Syria and then attacked the metropolis of Damascus. The city was conquered, its population was massacred en masse and the survivors were dragged to slavery. The wealthy Damascus was mercilessly plundered. When the Timurid army departed, the city was stripped of people and goods, with only a few buildings remaining standing. The same fate befell Baghdad, the largest and most magnificent Muslim city with a population estimated at 1-2,000,000 inhabitants at that period, being the actual socio-political center of the Islamic World. The difference was that only 20,000 people were slaughtered and some were dragged to slavery. Timur captured it in 1400 while returning from Damascus, through storming the city walls and crashing the Jalayrid troops and the Ottoman army reinforcements that they had received.
The biggest blow to Damascus and Baghdad was the capture of numerous artists, artisans and architects whom Timur sent to Samarkand. However the economic, commercial, artistic and general cultural boom experienced by the Transoxianian cities in the 15th century was achieved because of those ‘high quality’ prisoners of war and mostly because of this remarkable choice of Timur. On the other hand, his practices over traditional metropolises (Isfahan, Delhi, New Saray, Tiflis, Damascus, Baghdad, Sivas, Bursa, Izmir and others) and other cities – characterized by tactics of terrorism such as the mass killings of innocent civilians, the excoriating of their skin, the construction of macabre pyramids of heads, the enslavement of the survivors, and so on – were due to his aim to clearly demonstrate in every direction that any resistance to his army would be eventually in vain, and to promote himself as a worthy Neo-Mongol conqueror equal to Genghis Khan and the Genghisids.
From Baghdad, Timur marched to winter in Georgia devastating it for the fourth time (winter of 1400-1401), in order to use that country as his base for his new military operations against the Ottomans and the Mamluks. In 1401 he invaded Asia Minor seizing Sebasteia (Sivas) and exterminating its citizens. Then he turned against Mamluk Syria devastating the country again in order to prevent the sending of any Mamluk military support to the Ottomans, and then he marched again in Asia Minor, where he met near Ankara the total Ottoman army led by the militarily skilful sultan Bayazid Yildirim (1402). The anxious Ottomans had mobilized every available force they could muster including their subject and vassal Christians from the Balkan Peninsula. After a long and bloody battle, the Timurid army defeated the Ottomans and their allies.
Timur captured Bayazid and closed him in a cage like an animal, submitting him to the unbearable humiliation of displaying him around to the population from town to town all over Asia Minor. Bayazid died the following year in captivity: it is considered very likely that he committed suicide in order to avoid further humiliations. Part of the Timurid army under Muhammad Sultan, another son of Timur, seized the Ottoman capital of Bursa which suffered the fate of Damascus and Delhi. Timur with the remaining forces marched to Crusader-controlled Smyrna on the Aegean coasts, spreading havoc on his way. He captured the city by assault and contacted yet another mass slaughter of the population. Smyrna’s destruction had the purpose to promote Timur’s image as a faithful Moslem who continues the Holy War against the remnants of the Crusaders. Then Timur refounded the Turcoman emirates of Asia Minor largely weakening the Ottomans, and he made them his tributaries as he did with the new Ottoman sultan Suleiman, the Byzantine Emperor John VII of Constantinople and the independent Byzantine principality of Trapezus on the Black Sea.

03Mail and plate cuirass, a popular armour of the Timurid troops (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

18Armour of an Aq Qoyunlu Turcoman warrior. The Aq Qoyunlu were allies of Timur against the Kara Qoyunlu (Copyright: Royal Academy of Arts, London).
.21Turko-Iranian shield of Sipar type, 15th century, of the types used by the Timurid troops as well (unknown museum).

Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi, in1397–1398Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi in 1397–1398.

Timur’s victory over the Ottomans was an actual Breath of Life for Christian Constantinople, which was almost certain that it would be conquered by Bayazid in 1402-1403. Timur delayed her fall for half a century, but because he chose not to annex the distant Asia Minor, the Ottomans soon recovered gradually reconquering the Turcoman emirates. Timur’s policy was not to annex regions distant from his Transoxianian core territory, such as the Golden Horde, Northeast India or Asia Minor choosing to make them his tributaries, probably because he was saving forces and resources for his ultimate aim, the aim of every Turco-Mongol conqueror of all times: the conquest of China.
In 1403 he returned to Georgia, devastating the land for the fifth time. Timur had not harbored any fury for Georgia, as has been simplistically assumed: he just preferred to feed his multitudinous army at the expense of his Christian subjects, rather than at the expense of his Muslim ones. The geo-strategic position of Georgia as a fine base for operations against the Golden Horde, the Ottomans, Mamluk Syria and rebellious western Iran is another reason and the same goes for his choice to give time and space to Iraq and western Iran to recover from his destructions, aiming to get taxes from their financial recovery.
The Timurid military forces consisted overwhelmingly by cavalry as every steppe-originated army did, mainly by horse-archers and secondly by armored cavalry lancers or archers. Their core came from the warlike Turco-Mongol tribes of Transoxiana and Monghulistan: the Barlas, Suldus, Arlat, Turkmen, Jalayr of Transoxiana, Kongirat, Apardi, Arghun, Yasauri, Uighurs, Ilchik Day and others.
In 1404 Timur returned to Samarkand, where he immediately began preparations for his most ambitious plan of conquest: the invasion of China. Moreover, 35 years ago the native Chinese Ming dynasty had driven out the Mongol Yuan dynasty of the Genghisids and Timur would demonstrate himself as the champion and protector of the Genghisid heritage.
His army was prepared and started its march in December 1404, but when he arrived in Otrar, Timur suddenly fell ill and died (February 1405). His corpse was embalmed and placed on a precious coffin. He was buried in Samarkand, in the Gur e Amir, his grandiose mausoleum. Soon conflicts erupted among his surviving sons and grandsons (the Timurids) for the seizure of his throne, although he had parceled the various dominions of his empire to them before he died. Although Shah Rukh, his skilful youngest son, managed to reunite the Timurid dominions for a while, the Timurids gradually lost most parts of the Empire surviving mainly in Transoxiana for a century, despite the constant confrontations between them.
In the early 16th century the Timurid Dynasty disappeared in Central Asia, mainly because of the military blows of the Uzbeks, but Babur Shah, the last Timurid prince was established in Kabul of Bactria and then marched to India. Babur, one of the greater Turco-Mongol generals and conquerors and the most important Timurid after Timur himself, conquered Delhi in 1526 thus setting the foundations of one of the greatest empires of History. His descendants being the Great Mongol (Mughal) Dynasty, gradually conquered almost the whole Indian subcontinent essentially establishing there a new Timurid Empire.

Timur was one of the most skilful military commanders of World history and a worthy governor and diplomat. No other general from the era of Alexander the Great was as successful on the field of repeated victories in constant battles and in an almost uninterrupted series of campaigns, in such a limited time. However Timur was not a governor and mostly a statesman as skilful as Genghis Khan or Khumbilai Khan. But he was skillfully using diplomatic means and had transnational contacts with many states even with the farthest from his cradle area. The diplomatic archives of the kingdoms of the time demonstrate his diplomatic activities throughout Eurasia, from the Kingdom of England to the empires of China, including the Habsburg and Spanish Empires and other states. Despite the destructive campaigns of Timur in several Muslim countries, he greatly benefited specifically Central Asia, a hitherto regional Islamic province: the famous artistic, scientific and literary blossom that occurred in Transoxiana and Khorasan after his death, was mainly due to the constant efforts of Timur to make his birthplace not just the political core of the Islamic world, but also the cultural and artistic center of it.


Periklis Deligiannis


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