The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7

Author: Edward Gibbon  | Date: A.D. 1370-1405

Conquests of Timur the Tartar

A.D. 1370-1405


Timur, better known as Tamerlane (" Timur the Lame "), was born in Central Asia—probably in the village of Sebzar, near Samarkand, in Transoxiana (Turkestan). He is supposed to have been descended from a follower of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire; or, as some say, directly, by the mother’s side, from Genghis himself. He is the Tamerlaine or Tamburlaine of Marlowe and other dramatists. Gibbon introduces him in the Decline and Fall, apparently because fascinated with the subject, although he gives as a historical reason the fact that Timur’s triumph in Asia delayed the final fall of Constantinople—taken by the Turks in 1453.

In early youth the future ruler of so vast an empire was engaged in struggles for ascendency with the petty chiefs of rival tribes. His boundless ambition early conceived the conquest and monarchy of the world; his wish was "to live in the memory and esteem of future ages." He was born in a period of anarchy, when the crumbling kingdoms of the Asiatic dynasties were no longer able to resist the adventurous spirit determined to occupy the new field of military triumph which opened before him. At the age of twenty-five Timur was hailed as the deliverer of his country. When he chose Samarkand as the capital of his dominion, he declared his purpose to make that dominion embrace the whole habitable earth; and at the height of his power he ruled from the Great Wall of China to the centre of Russia on the north, while his sovereignty extended to the Mediterranean and the Nile on the west, and on the east to the sources of the Ganges. In his own person he united twenty-seven different sovereignties, and nine several dynasties of kings gave place to the unparalleled conqueror, who won by the sword a larger portion of the globe than Cyrus or Alexander, Caesar or Attila, Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, or Napoleon.

It was believed in the family and empire of Timur that he himself composed the Commentaries of his life and the Institutions of his government, which, however, were probably the work of his secretaries. These manuscripts have been of great service to historians in their study of Timur’s career.

At the age of thirty-four, and in a general diet, Timur was invested with imperial command, but he affected to revere the house of Genghis; and while the emir Timur reigned over Zagatai and the East, a nominal khan served as a private officerin the armies of his servant. Without expatiating on the victories of thirty-five campaigns, without describing the lines of march which he repeatedly traced over the continent of Asia, I shall briefly represent Timur’s conquests in Persia, Tartary, and India, and from thence proceed to the more interesting narrative of his Ottoman war.

No sooner had Timur reunited to the patrimony of Zagatai the dependent countries of Karizme and Kandahar than he turned his eyes toward the kingdoms of Iran or Persia. From the Oxus to the Tigris that extensive country was without a lawful sovereign. Peace and justice had been banished from the land above forty years; and the Mongol invader might seem to listen to the cries of an oppressed people. Their petty tyrants might have opposed him with confederate arms: they separately stood and successively fell; and the difference of their fate was only marked by the promptitude of submission or the obstinacy of resistance. Ibrahim, Prince of Shirwan or Albania, kissed the footstool of the imperial throne. His peace offerings of silks, horses, and jewels were composed, according to the Tartar fashion, each article of nine pieces; but a critical spectator observed that there were only eight slaves. "I myself am the ninth," replied Ibraham, who was prepared for the remark: and his flattery was rewarded by the smile of Timur.

Shah Mansur, Prince of Fars, or the proper Persia, was one of the least powerful, but most dangerous, of his enemies. In a battle under the walls of Shiraz, he broke, with three or four thousand soldiers, the coul, or main body, of thirty thousand horse, where the Emperor fought in person. No more than fourteen or fifteen guards remained near the standard of Timur; he stood firm as a rock, and received on his helmet two weighty strokes of a cimeter; the Mongols rallied; the head of Mansur was thrown at his feet; and he declared his esteem of the valor of a foe by extirpating all the males of so intrepid a race. From Shiraz his troops advanced to the Persian Gulf; and the richness and weakness of Ormus were displayed in an annual tribute of six hundred thousand dinars of gold.

Bagdad was no longer the city of peace, the seat of the caliphs; but the noblest conquest of Khulagu could not be overlookedby his ambitious successor. The whole course of the Tigris and Euphrates, from the mouth to the sources of those rivers, was reduced to his obedience; he entered Edessa; and the Turcoroans of the black sheep were chastised for the sacrilegious pillage of a caravan of Mecca. In the mountains of Georgia the native Christians still braved the law and the sword of Mahomet; by three expeditions he obtained the merit of the gazie, or holy war; and the Prince of Tiffis became his proselyte and friend.

A just retaliation might be urged for the invasion of Turkestan, or the Eastern Tartary. The dignity of Timur could not endure the impunity of the Getes: he passed the Sihun, subdued the kingdom of Kashgar, and marched seven times into the heart of their country. His most distant camp was two months’ journey to the northeast of Samarkand; and his emirs, who traversed the river Irtysh, engraved in the forests of Siberia a rude memorial of their exploits. The conquest of Kiptchak, or the Western Tartary, was founded on the double motive of aiding the distressed and chastising the ungrateful. Toctamish, a fugitive prince, was entertained and protected in his court; the ambassadors of Auruss Khan were dismissed with a haughty denial, and followed on the same day by the armies of Zagatai; and their success established Toctamish in the Mongol empire of the North.

But, after a reign of ten years, the new Khan forgot the merits and the strength of his benefactor—the base usurper, as he deemed him, of the sacred rights of the house of Genghis. Through the gates of Derbent he entered Persia at the head of ninety thousand horse: with the innumerable forces of Kiptchak, Bulgaria, Circassia, and Russia, he passed the Sihun, burned the palaces of Timur, and compelled him, amid the winter snows, to contend for Samarkand and his life. After a mild expostulation and a glorious victory the Emperor resolved on revenge; and by the east and the west of the Caspian and the Volga he twice invaded Kiptchak with such mighty powers that thirteen miles were measured from his right to his left wing. In a march of five months they rarely beheld the footsteps of man; and their daily subsistence was often trusted to the fortune of the chase. At length the armies encountered eachother; but the treachery of the standard-bearer, who, in the heat of action, reversed the imperial standard of Kiptchak, determined the victory of the Zagatais and Toctamish—I speak the language of the Institutions—gave the tribe of Toushi to the wind of desolation. He fled to the Christian Duke of Lithuania, again returned to the banks of the Volga, and, after fifteen battles with a domestic rival, at last perished in the wilds of Siberia.

The pursuit of a flying enemy carried Timur into the tributary provinces of Russia; a duke of the reigning family was made prisoner amid the ruins of his capital; and Yelets, by the pride and ignorance of the orientals, might easily be confounded with the genuine metropolis of the nation. Moscow trembled at the approach of the Tartar. Ambition and prudence recalled him to the south, the desolate country was exhausted, and the Mongol soldiers were enriched with an immense spoil of precious furs, of linen of Antioch, and of ingots of gold and silver. On the banks of the Don, or Tanais, he received a humble deputation from the consuls and merchants of Egypt, Venice, Genoa, Catalonia, and Biscay, who occupied the commerce and city of Tana, or Azov, at the mouth of the river. They offered their gifts, admired his magnificence, and trusted his royal word. But the peaceful visit of an emir, who explored the state of the magazines and harbor, was speedily followed by the destructive presence of the Tartars. The city of Tans was reduced to ashes; the Moslems were pillaged and dismissed; but all the Christians who had not fled to their ships were condemned either to death or slavery. Revenge prompted him to burn the cities of Sarai and Astrakhan, the monuments of rising civilization; and his vanity proclaimed that he had penetrated to the region of perpetual daylight, a strange phenomenon, which authorized his Mahometan doctors to dispense with the obligation of evening prayer.

When Timur first proposed to his princes and emirs the invasion of India or Hindustan, he was answered by a murmur of discontent: "The rivers! and the mountains and deserts! and the soldiers clad in armor! and the elephants, destroyers of men!" But the displeasure of the Emperor was more dreadful than all these terrors; and his superior reason wasconvinced that an enterprise of such tremendous aspect was safe and easy in the execution. He was informed by his spies of the weakness and anarchy of Hindustan: the subahs of the provinces had erected the standard of rebellion; and the perpetual infancy of Sultan Mahmud was despised even in the harem of Delhi. The Mongol army moved in three great divisions, and Timur observes with pleasure that the ninety-two squadrons of a thousand horse most fortunately corresponded with the ninety-two names or epithets of the prophet Mahomet.

Between the Jihun and the Indus they crossed one of the ridges of mountains which are styled by the Arabian geographers the "Stony Girdles of the Earth." The highland robbers were subdued or extirpated; but great numbers of men and horses perished in the snow; the Emperor himself was let down a precipice on a portable scaffold—the ropes were one hundred and fifty cubits in length—and before he could reach the bottom, this dangerous operation was five times repeated. Timur crossed the Indus at the ordinary passage of Attock, and successively traversed, in the footsteps of Alexander, the Punjab, or five rivers, that fall into the master stream. From Attock to Delhi the high road measures no more than six hundred miles; but the two conquerors deviated to the southeast; and the motive of Timur was to join his grandson, who had achieved by his command the conquest of Multan. On the eastern bank of the Hyphasis, on the edge of the desert, the Macedonian hero halted and wept; the Mongol entered the desert, reduced the fortress of Batnir, and stood in arms before the gates of Delhi, a great and flourishing city, which had subsisted three centuries under the dominion of the Mahometan kings.

The siege, more especially of the castle, might have been a work of time; but he tempted, by the appearance of weakness, the Sultan Mahmud and his wazir to descend into the plain, with ten thousand cuirassiers, forty thousand of his foot-guards, and one hundred and twenty elephants, whose tusks are said to have been armed with sharp and poisoned daggers. Against these monsters, or rather against the imagination of his troops, he condescended to use some extraordinary precautions of fire and a ditch, of iron spikes and a rampart of bucklers; but the event taught the Mongols to smile at their own fears; and assoon as these unwieldy animals were routed, the inferior species (the men of India) disappeared from the field. Timur made his triumphal entry into the capital of Hindustan, and admired, with a view to imitate, the architecture of the stately mosque; but the order or license of a general pillage and massacre polluted the festival of his victory. He resolved to purify his soldiers in the blood of the idolaters, or Gentoos, who still surpass, in the proportion of ten to one, the numbers of the Moslems. In this pious design he advanced one hundred miles to the northeast of Delhi, passed the Ganges, fought several battles by land and water, and penetrated to the famous rock of Cupele, the statue of the cow,1 that seems to discharge the mighty river, whose source is far distant among the mountains of Tibet. His return was along the skirts of the northern hills; nor could this rapid campaign of one year justify the strange foresight of his emirs, that their children in a warm climate would degenerate into a race of Hindus.

It was on the banks of the Ganges that Timur was informed, by his speedy messengers, of the disturbances which had arisen on the confines of Georgia and Anatolia, of the revolt of the Christians, and the ambitious designs of the sultan Bajazet. His vigor of mind and body was not impaired by sixty-three years and innumerable fatigues; and, after enjoying some tranquil months in the palace of Samarkand, he proclaimed a new expedition of seven years into the western countries of Asia. To the soldiers who had served in the Indian war he granted the choice of remaining at home or following their prince; but the troops of all the provinces and kingdoms of Persia were commanded to assemble at Ispahan and wait the arrival of the imperial standard. It was first directed against the Christians of Georgia, who were strong only in their rocks, their castles, and the winter season; but these obstacles were overcome by the zeal and perseverance of Timur: the rebels submittedto the tribute or the Koran; and if both religions boasted of their martyrs, that name is more justly due to the Christian prisoners, who were offered the choice of abjuration or death.

On his descent from the hills the Emperor gave audience to the first ambassadors of Bajazet, and opened the hostile correspondence of complaints and menaces, which fermented two years before the final explosion. Between two jealous and haughty neighbors, the motives of quarrel will seldom be wanting. The Mongol and Ottoman conquests now touched each other in the neighborhood of Erzerum and the Euphrates; nor had the doubtful limit been ascertained by time and treaty. Each of these ambitious monarchs might accuse his rival of violating his territory, of threatening his vassals and protecting his rebels; and, by the name of rebels, each understood the fugitive princes, whose kingdoms he had usurped and whose life or liberty he implacably pursued. In their victorious career Timur was impatient of an equal, and Bajazet was ignorant of a superior.

In his first expedition, Timur was satisfied with the siege and destruction of Sebaste, a strong city on the borders of Anatolia. He then turned aside to the invasion of Syria and Egypt, where the military republic of the mamelukes still reigned. The Syrian emirs were assembled at Aleppo to repel the invasion; they confided in the fame and discipline of the mamelukes, in the temper of their swords and lances of the purest steel of Damascus, in the strength of their walled cities, and in the populousness of sixty thousand villages; and instead of sustaining a siege, they threw open their gates and arrayed their forces in the plain. But these forces were not cemented by virtue and union, and some powerful emirs had been seduced to desert or betray their more loyal companions. Timur’s front was covered with a line of Indian elephants, whose turrets were filled with archers and Greek fire; the rapid evolutions of his cavalry completed the dismay and disorder; the Syrian crowds fell back on each other; many thousands were stifled or slaughtered in the entrance of the great street; the Mongols entered with the fugitives; and after a short defence the impregnable citadel of Aleppo was surrendered by cowardice or treachery. Among the suppliants and captives, Timur distinguished the doctors of the law, whom he invited to the dangerous honor of a personal conference. The Mongol Prince was a zealous Mussulman; but his Persian schools had taught him to revere the memory of Ali and Hasan; and he had imbibed a deep prejudice against the Syrians as the enemies of the son of the daughter of the apostle of God. To these doctors he proposed a captious question, which the casuists of Samarkand and Herat were incapable of resolving. "Who are the true martyrs, of those who are slain on my side or on that of my enemies?" But he was silenced, or satisfied, by the dexterity of one of the cadis of Aleppo, who replied, in the words of Mahomet himself, that the motive, not the ensign, constitutes the martyr; and that the Moslems of either party who fight only for the glory of God may deserve that sacred appellation. The true succession of the caliphs was a controversy of a still more delicate nature; and the frankness of a doctor, too honest for his situation, provoked the Emperor to exclaim: "Ye are as false as those of Damascus: Moawiyah was a usurper, Yezid a tyrant, and Ali alone is the lawful successor of the Prophet." A prudent explanation restored his tranquillity, and he passed to a more familiar topic of conversation. "What is your age?" said he to the cadi. "Fifty years." "It would be the age of my eldest son: you see me here," continued Timur, "a poor, lame, decrepit mortal. Yet by my arms has the Almighty been pleased to subdue the kingdoms of Iran, Turan, and the Indies. I am not a man of blood; and God is my witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and that my enemies have always been the authors of their own calamity." During this peaceful conversation the streets of Aleppo streamed with blood and reëchoed with the cries of mothers and children, with the shrieks of violated virgins. The rich plunder that was abandoned to his soldiers might stimulate their avarice; but their cruelty was enforced by the peremptory command of producing an adequate number of heads, which, according to his custom, were curiously piled in columns and pyramids. The Mongols celebrated the feast of victory, while the surviving Moslems passed the night in tears and in chains.

I shall not dwell on the march of the destroyer from Aleppo to Damascus, where he was rudely encountered, and almostoverthrown, by the armies of Egypt. A retrograde motion was imputed to his distress and despair; one of his nephews deserted to the enemy; and Syria rejoiced in the tale of his defeat, when the Sultan was driven, by the revolt of the mamelukes, to escape with precipitation and shame to his palace of Cairo. Abandoned by their Prince, the inhabitants of Damascus still defended their walls; and Timur consented to raise the siege if they would adorn his retreat with a gift or ransom, each article of nine pieces. But no sooner had he introduced himself into the city, under color of a truce, than he perfidiously violated the treaty, imposed a contribution of ten millions of gold, and animated his troops to chastise the posterity of those Syrians who had executed, or approved, the murder of the grandson of Mahomet. After a period of seven centuries Damascus was reduced to ashes, because a Tartar was moved by religious zeal to avenge the blood of an Arab.

The losses and fatigues of the campaign obliged Timur to renounce the conquest of Palestine and Egypt; but in his return to the Euphrates he delivered Aleppo to the flames and justified his pious motive by the pardon and reward of two thousand sectaries of Ali, who were desirous to visit the tomb of his son. I have expatiated on the personal anecdotes which mark the character of the Mongol hero, but I shall briefly mention that he erected, on the ruins of Bagdad, a pyramid of ninety thousand heads; again visited Georgia; encamped on the banks of the Araxes; and proclaimed his resolution of marching against the Ottoman Emperor. Conscious of the importance of the war, he collected his forces from every province; eight hundred thousand men were enrolled on his military list, but the splendid commands of five and ten thousand horse may be rather expressive of the rank and pension of the chiefs than of the genuine number of effective soldiers. In the pillage of Syria the Mongols had acquired immense riches; but the delivery of their pay and arrears for seven years more firmly attached them to the imperial standard.

During this diversion of the Mongol arms, Bajazet had two years to collect his forces for a more serious encounter. They consisted of four hundred thousand horse and foot whose merit and fidelity were of an unequal complexion. We maydiscriminate the janizaries, who have been gradually raised to an establishment of forty thousand men; a national cavalry (the spahis of modern times); twenty thousand cuirassiers of Europe, clad in black and impenetrable armor; the troops of Anatolia, whose princes had taken refuge in the camp of Timur: and a colony of Tartars, whom he had driven from Kiptchak, and to whom Bajazet had assigned a settlement in the plains of Adrianople. The fearless confidence of the Sultan urged him to meet his antagonist; and, as if he had chosen that spot for revenge, he displayed his banner near the ruins of the unfortunate Sebaste.

In the mean while Timur moved from the Araxes through the countries of Armenia and Anatolia. His boldness was secured by the wisest precautions; his speed was guided by order and discipline; and the woods, the mountains, and the rivers were diligently explored by the flying squadrons, who marked his road and preceded his standard. Firm in his plan of fighting in the heart of the Ottoman kingdom, he avoided their camp, dexterously inclined to the left, occupied Csarea, traversed the salt desert and the river Halys, and invested Angora; while the Sultan, immovable and ignorant in his post, compared the Tartar swiftness to the crawling of a snail. He returned on the wings of indignation to the relief of Angora; and as both generals were alike impatient for action, the plains round that city were the scene of a memorable battle, which has immortalized the glory of Timur and the shame of Bajazet.

For this signal victory the Mongol Emperor was indebted to himself, to the genius of the moment, and the discipline of thirty years. He had improved the tactics, without violating the manners, of his nation, whose force still consisted in the missile weapons and rapid evolutions of a numerous cavalry. From a single troop to a great army, the mode of attack was the same; a foremost line first advanced to the charge, and was supported in a just order by the squadrons of the great vanguard. The general’s eye watched over the field, and at his command the front and rear of the right and left wings successively moved forward in their several divisions, and in a direct or oblique line; the enemy was pressed by eighteen or twenty attacks; and each attack afforded a chance of victory. If they all proved fruitless or unsuccessful, the occasion was worthy of the Emperor himself, who gave the signal of advancing to the standard and main body, which he led in person. But in the battle of Angora, the main body itself was supported, on the flanks and in the rear, by the bravest squadrons of the reserve, commanded by the sons and grandsons of Timur. The conqueror of Hindustan ostentatiously showed a line of elephants, the trophies rather than the instruments of victory; the use of the Greek fire was familiar to the Mongols and Ottomans; but had they borrowed from Europe the recent invention of gunpowder and cannon, the artificial thunder, in the hands of either nation, must have turned the fortune of the day. In that day Bajazet displayed the qualities of a soldier and a chief; but his genius sunk under a stronger ascendant; and, from various motives, the greatest part of his troops failed him in the decisive moment. His rigor and avarice had provoked a mutiny among the Turks; and even his son Solyman too hastily withdrew from the field. The forces of Anatolia, loyal in their revolt, were drawn away to the banners of their lawful princes. His Tartar allies had been tempted by the letters and emissaries of Timur, who reproached their ignoble servitude under the slaves of their fathers; and offered to their hopes the dominion of their new, or the liberty of their ancient, country. In the right wing of Bajazet the cuirassiers of Europe charged with faithful hearts and irresistible arms; but these men of iron were soon broken by an artful flight and headlong pursuit; and the janizaries, alone, without cavalry or missile weapons, were encompassed by the circle of the Mongol hunters. Their valor was at length oppressed by heat, thirst, and the weight of numbers; and the unfortunate Sultan, afflicted with the gout in his hands and feet, was transported from the field on the fleetest of his horses. He was pursued and taken by the titular Khan of Zagatai; and, after his capture and the defeat of the Ottoman powers, the kingdom of Anatolia submitted to the conqueror, who planted his standard at Kiotahia, and dispersed on all sides the ministers of rapine and destruction. Mirza Mehemmed Sultan, the eldest and best beloved of his grandsons, was despatched to Bursa, with thirty thousand horse; and such washis youthful ardor that he arrived with only four thousand at the gates of the capital, after performing in five days a march of two hundred and thirty miles. Yet fear is still more rapid in its course; and Solyman, the son of Bajazet, had already passed over to Europe with the royal treasure. The spoil, however, of the palace and city was immense; the inhabitants had escaped; but the buildings, for the most part of wood, were reduced to ashes. From Bursa, the grandson of Timur advanced to Nice, even yet a fair and flourishing city; and the Mongol squadrons were only stopped by the waves of the Propontis. The same success attended the other mirzas and emirs in their excursions, and Smyrna, defended by the zeal and courage of the Rhodian knights, alone deserved the presence of the Emperor himself. After an obstinate defence, the place was taken by storm; all that breathed was put to the sword; and the heads of the Christian heroes were launched from the engines, on board of two caracks, or great ships of Europe, that rode at anchor in the harbor. The Moslems of Asia rejoiced in their deliverance from a dangerous and domestic foe and a parallel was drawn between the two rivals, by observing that Timur, in fourteen days, had reduced a fortress which had sustained seven years the siege, or at least the blockade, of Bajazet.

The "iron cage" in which Bajazet was imprisoned by Timur, so long and so often repeated as a moral lesson, is now rejected as a fable by the modern writers, who smile at the vulgar credulity. They appeal with confidence to the Persian history of Sherefeddin All, according to which has been given to our curiosity in a French version, and from which I shall collect and abridge, a more specious narrative of this memorable transaction. No sooner was Timur informed that the captive Ottoman was at the door of his tent than he graciously stepped forward to receive him, seated him by his side, and mingled with just reproaches a soothing pity for his rank and misfortune.

"Alas!" said the Emperor, "the decree of fate is now accomplished by your own fault; it is the web which you have woven, the thorns of the tree which yourself have planted. I wished to spare, and even to assist, the champion of the Moslems. You braved our threats; you despised our friendship;you forced us to enter your kingdom with our invincible armies. Behold the event. Had you vanquished, I am not ignorant of the fate which you reserved for myself and my troops. But I disdain to retaliate; your life and honor are secure; and I shall express my gratitude to God by my clemency to man."

The royal captive showed some signs of repentance, accepted the humiliation of a robe of honor, and embraced with tears his son Musa, who, at his request, was sought and found among the captives of the field. The Ottoman princes were lodged in a splendid pavilion; and the respect of the guards could be surpassed only by their vigilance. On the arrival of the harem from Bursa, Timur restored the queen Despina and her daughter to their father and husband; but he piously required that the Servian princess, who had hitherto been indulged in the profession of Christianity, should embrace, without delay, the religion of the Prophet. In the feast of victory, to which Bajazet was invited, the Mongol Emperor placed a crown on his head and a sceptre in his hand, with a solemn assurance of restoring him with an increase of glory to the throne of his ancestors. But the effect of this promise was disappointed by the Sultan’s untimely death. Amid the care of the most skilful physicians, he expired of an apoplexy, about nine months after his defeat. The victor dropped a tear over his grave; his body, with royal pomp, was conveyed to the mausoleum which he had erected at Bursa; and his son Musa, after receiving a rich present of gold and jewels, of horses and arms, was invested by a patent in red ink with the kingdom of Anatolia.

Such is the portrait of a generous conqueror, which has been extracted from his own memorials and dedicated to his son and grandson, nineteen years after his decease; and, at a time when the truth was remembered by thousands, a manifest falsehood would have implied a satire on his real conduct. Weighty, indeed, is this evidence, adopted by all the Persian histories; yet flattery, more especially in the East, is base and audacious; and the harsh and ignominious treatment of Bajazet is attested by a chain of witnesses.

I am satisfied that Sherefeddin Ali has faithfully described the first ostentatious interview, in which the conqueror, whose spirits were harmonized by success, affected the character ofgenerosity. But his mind was insensibly alienated by the unseasonable arrogance of Bajazet; and Timur betrayed a design of leading his royal captive in triumph to Samarkand. An attempt to facilitate his escape, by digging a mine under the tent, provoked the Mongol Emperor to impose a harsher restraint; and in his perpetual marches, an iron cage on a wagon might be invented, not as a wanton insult, but as a rigorous precaution. But the strength of Bajazet’s mind and body fainted under the trial, and his premature death might, without injustice, be ascribed to the severity of Timur.

From the Irtysh and Volga to the Persian Gulf, and from the Ganges to Damascus and the Archipelago, Asia was in the hands of Timur; his armies were invincible, his ambition was boundless, and his zeal might aspire to conquer and convert the Christian kingdoms of the West, which already trembled at his name. He touched the utmost verge of the land; but an insuperable, though narrow, sea rolled between the two continents of Europe and Asia; and the lord of so many myriads of horse was not master of a single galley. The two passages of the Bosporus and Hellespont, of Constantinople and Gallipoli, were possessed, the one by the Christians, the other by the Turks. On this great occasion they forgot the difference of religion, to act with union and firmness in the common cause; the double straits were guarded with ships and fortifications; and they separately withheld the transports which Timur demanded of either nation, under the pretence of attacking their enemy. At the same time they soothed his pride with tributary gifts and suppliant embassies, and prudently tempted him to retreat with the honors of victory. Solyman, the son of Bajazet, implored his clemency for his father and himself; accepted, by a red patent, the investiture of the kingdom of Romania, which he already held by the sword; and reiterated his ardent wish of casting himself in person at the feet of the king of the world. The Greek Emperor—either John or Manuel—submitted to pay the same tribute which he had stipulated with the Turkish Sultan, and ratified the treaty by an oath of allegiance, from which he could absolve his conscience so soon as the Mongol arms had retired from Anatolia. But the fears and fancy of nations ascribed to the ambitious Tamerlane a new design ofvast and romantic compass; a design of subduing Egypt and Africa, marching from the Nile to the Atlantic Ocean, entering Europe by the Straits of Gibraltar, and, after imposing his yoke on the kingdoms of Christendom, of returning home by the deserts of Russia and Tartary. This remote, and perhaps imaginary, danger was averted by the submission of the Sultan of Egypt, the honors of the prayer and the coin attested at Cairo the supremacy of Timur; and a rare gift of a giraffe, or camelopard, and nine ostriches, represented at Samarkand the tribute of the African world. Our imagination is not less astonished by the portrait of a Mongol, who, in his camp before Smyrna, meditates, and almost accomplishes, the invasion of the Chinese empire. Timur was urged to this enterprise by national honor and religious zeal. He received a perfect map and description of the unknown regions, from the source of Irtysh to the Wall of China. During the preparations, the Emperor achieved the final conquest of Georgia; passed the winter on the banks of the Araxes; appeased the troubles of Persia; and slowly returned to his capital, after a campaign of four years and nine months.

On the throne of Samarkand he displayed, in a short repose, his magnificence and power; listened to the complaints of the people; distributed a just measure of rewards and punishments; employed his riches in the architecture of palaces and temples; and gave audience to the ambassadors of Egypt, Arabia, India, Tartary, Russia, and Spain, the last of whom presented a suit of tapestry which eclipsed the pencil of the oriental artists. A general indulgence was proclaimed; every law was relaxed, every pleasure was al1owed; the people was free, the sovereign was idle; and the historian of Timur may remark that, after devoting fifty years to the attainment of empire, the only happy period of his life was the two months in which he ceased to exercise his power.

But he soon awakened to the cares of government and war. The standard was unfurled for the invasion of China; the emirs made their report of two hundred thousand, the select and veteran soldiers of Iran and Turan; their baggage and provisions were transported by five hundred great wagons and an immense train of horses and camels; and the troops mightprepare for a long absence, since more than six months were employed in the tranquil journey of a caravan from Samarkand to Peking. Neither age nor the severity of the winter could retard the impatience of Timur; he mounted on horseback, passed the Sihun on the ice, marched seventy-six parasangs (three hundred miles) from his capital, and pitched his last camp in the neighborhood of Otrar, where he was expected by the angel of death. Fatigue and the indiscreet use of iced water accelerated the progress of his fever; and the conqueror of Asia expired in the seventieth year of his age, 1405, thirty-five years after he had ascended the throne of Zagatai. His designs were lost; his armies were disbanded; China was saved; and, fourteen years after his decease, the most powerful of his children sent an embassy of friendship and commerce to the court of Peking.

The fame of Timur has pervaded the East and West; his posterity is still invested with the imperial title; and the admiration of his subjects, who revered him almost as a deity, may be justified in some degree by the praise or confession of his bitterest enemies. Although he was lame of a hand and foot, his form and stature were not unworthy of his rank; and his vigorous health, so essential to himself and to the world, was corroborated by temperance and exercise. In his familiar discourse he was grave and modest; and if he was ignorant of the Arabic language, he spoke with fluency and elegance the Persian and Turkish idioms. It was his delight to converse with the learned on topics of history and science; and the amusement of his leisure hours was the game of chess, which he improved or corrupted with new refinements.

In his religion he was a zealous, though not perhaps an orthodox, Mussulman; but his sound understanding may tempt us to believe that a superstitious reverence for omens and prophecies, for saints and astrologers, was only affected as an instrument of policy. In the government of a vast empire, he stood alone and absolute, without a rebel to oppose his power, a favorite to seduce his affections, or a minister to mislead his judgment.

Timur might boast that at his ascension to the throne Asia was the prey of anarchy and rapine, while under his prosperous monarchy a child, fearless and unhurt, might carry a purse of gold from the East to the West. Such was his confidence of merit that from this reformation he derived an excuse for his victories and a title to universal dominion. The four following observations will serve to appreciate his claim to the public gratitude; and perhaps we shall conclude that the Mongol Emperor was rather the scourge than the benefactor of mankind. If some partial disorders, some local oppressions, were healed by the sword of Timur, the remedy was far more pernicious than the disease. By their rapine, cruelty, and discord the petty tyrants of Persia might afflict their subjects; but whole nations were crushed under the footsteps of the reformer. The ground which had been occupied by flourishing cities was often marked by his abominable trophies—by columns, or pyramids of human heads. Astrakhan, Karizme, Delhi, Ispahan, Bagdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Bursa, Smyrna, and a thousand others were sacked or burned or utterly destroyed in his presence and by his troops; and perhaps his conscience would have been startled if a priest or philosopher had dared to number the millions of victims whom he had sacrificed to the establishment of peace and order. His most destructive wars were rather inroads than conquests. He invaded Turkestan, Kiptchak, Russia, Hindustan, Syria, Anatolia, Armenia, and Georgia, without a hope or a desire of preserving those distant provinces. From thence he departed laden with spoil; but he left behind him neither troops to awe the contumacious nor magistrates to protect the obedient natives. When he had broken the fabric of their ancient government, he abandoned them in their evils which his invasion had aggravated or caused; nor were these evils compensated by any present or possible benefits. The kingdoms of Transoxiana and Persia were the proper field which he labored to cultivate and adorn as the perpetual inheritance of his family. But his peaceful labors were often interrupted, and sometimes blasted, by the absence of the conqueror. While he triumphed on the Volga or the Ganges, his servants, and even his sons, forgot their master and their duty. The public and private injuries were poorly redressed by the tardy rigor or inquiry and punishment; and we must be content to praise the Institutions of Timur as thespecious idea of a perfect monarchy. Whatsoever might be the blessings of his administration, they evaporated with his life. To reign, rather than to govern, was the ambition of his children and grandchildren—the enemies of each other and of the people. A fragment of the empire was upheld with some glory by Sharokh, his youngest son; but after his decease the scene was again involved in darkness and blood; and before the end of a century Transoxiana and Persia were trampled by the Usbegs from the north, and the Turcomans of the black and white sheep. The race of Timur would have been extinct if a hero, his descendant in the fifth degree, had not fled before the Usbeg arms to the conquest of Hindustan. His successors—the great Mongols—extended their sway from the mountains of Cashmere to Cape Comorin, and from Kandahar to the Gulf of Bengal. Since the reign of Aurungzebe, their empire has been dissolved; their treasures of Delhi have been rifled by a Persian robber; and the richest of their kingdoms is now possessed by a company of Christian merchants, of a remote island in the Northern Ocean.

1A most wonderful scene. The B’hagiratha or Ganges issues from under a very low arch at the foot of the grand snowbed. The illiterate mountaineers compare the pendent icicles to Mahodeva’s hair. Hindoos of research may formerly have been here; and if so, one cannot think of any place to which they might more aptly give the name of a cow’s mouth than to this extraordinary dbouch.


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Edward Gibbon

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Chicago: Edward Gibbon, "Conquests of Timur the Tartar," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 170–183. Original Sources, accessed May 23, 2024,

MLA: Gibbon, Edward. "Conquests of Timur the Tartar." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 170–183. Original Sources. 23 May. 2024.

Harvard: Gibbon, E, 'Conquests of Timur the Tartar' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.170–183. Original Sources, retrieved 23 May 2024, from