By indexer
3 years ago

The conquests of Tamerlane

The names of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan are much better known in the history of medieval empire-building than that of Tamerlane, but the latter’s ruthless domination of a vast area of western and central Asia in the late 14th century certainly deserves a high ranking in the chronicles of conquest and tyranny.

Tamerlane’s early years

Also known as Timur (sometimes “Timur the Lame”), Tamerlane was born at Kesh near Samarkand (in modern-day Uzbekistan) in 1336. Tamerlane claimed descent from Genghis Khan (a Mongol) but this is unlikely if, as seems probable, Tamerlane was a Tatar.

By the age of 28 Tamerlane had become vizier (equivalent to prime minister) of the Mongol khanate of Jagatai, which controlled a vast area stretching east from the Caspian Sea into Central Siberia, and in 1369 he overthrew the khan to take full control. This led to ten years of fighting to secure his position, but by 1381 he was ready to expand his empire by undertaking the series of conquests for which he is best remembered.

1381-87. Conquest of Persia

Tamerlane captured Herat (now in western Afghanistan) in 1381 and took four years to overcome the region of Khorasan (northeast Iran and northwest Afghanistan). By 1387 he controlled an area corresponding to present-day Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

1385-95. Toktamish Wars

Toktamish, the ruler of the Golden Horde, a Mongol khanate that controlled much of Central Asia to the north of the Caspian and Black Seas, had formerly sought and gained Tamerlane’s help in establishing his position, but in 1385 he invaded Azerbaijan and defeated one of Tamerlane’s armies. Tamerlane repulsed this invasion, but Toktamish later (in 1388) invaded Transoxiana (modern Uzbekistan) and threatened Tamerlane’s capital of Samarkand while the latter was campaigning in Persia. Tamerlane forced his army to march more than fifty miles a day to counter the threat and drove Toktamish back. When Toktamish invaded yet again, Tamerlane defeated him at the Battle of the Syr-Darya in 1389 and forced him to retreat northwards.

In an effort to defeat Toktamish once and for all, Tamerlane gathered an army of more than 100,000 men (mostly mercenaries) and marched northwards, where Toktamish had a much larger army and was able to lure Tamerlane far into his territory. The armies eventually met at the Battle of Kandurcha (also known as the Battle of the Steppes) in June 1391. The battle, which lasted for three days, was only won when Tamerlane convinced Toktamish’s men that their leader was dead whereas the truth was that Tamerlane was on the verge of defeat. Despite his victory, Tamerlane withdrew to his own territory for fear of being over-extended.

The Golden Horde was only finally defeated in 1395 after a further battle, the Battle of the Terek River (in northern Georgia) on 15th April. This was another occasion on which Tamerlane seized victory when seemingly on the brink of defeat, but this time he followed up by sweeping into the Golden Horde’s lands across the whole region from the Ukraine to central Russia. He slaughtered everyone he could find and laid waste to the land, forcing Toktamish to flee, never to return. The Golden Horde was effectively finished.

1398-99. Invasion of India

With his northern borders safe and his territories consolidated, Tamerlane was able to turn his attention eastwards. Aided by two of his grandsons, Tamerlane conquered the Punjab and then led a small hand-picked army across the Hindu Kush to descend on Delhi, destroying the army of Mahmud Tughluk at the Battle of Panipat on 17th December 1398. Tamerlane’s behaviour was appalling, plundering and killing wherever he went in northern India. Some 100,000 captured Indian soldiers were massacred prior to the attack on Delhi. The city and the region would not recover for more than a century.

The slaughter and destruction continued as Tamerlane then swung west to head back home. The whole campaign cost hundreds of thousands of lives for little strategic purpose. Tamerlane merely seemed intent to go down in history as one of the world’s most terrible and bloodthirsty tyrants.

1400. Invasion of Syria

Victory at the Battle of Aleppo on 30th October was followed by typical ferocity on Tamerlane’s part as the cities of Aleppo and Damascus were captured and many of the inhabitants massacred. More slaughter was to follow at Baghdad (in modern-day Iraq) as punishment on the citizens for daring to revolt.

1402. Invasion of Anatolia (modern Turkey)

Tamerlane defeated the sultan of the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Angora on 20th July and captured Smyrna from the Knights Hospitalers. He then overran the whole of Anatolia before returning to Samarkand in 1404.

1405. Death of Tamerlane.

Although aged 68, Tamerlane had still not satisfied his lust for power and conquest, his aim being to control a larger empire than that of Genghis Khan. His next target was China, but he died after catching a cold when recruiting troops at Otrar in modern-day Kazakhstan.

Although there have been many conquerors and warlords in the history of the world, few have been as appalling as Tamerlane in terms of his passion for bloodletting and destruction. Christopher Marlowe’s play “Tamburlaine the Great” (published in 1590) introduced some elements that suggested a softer side to his character, such as a love theme, but also included a scene in which the captive Turkish sultan beats his brains out against the bars of the wheeled cage in which Tamerlane has dragged him around to humiliate him. Whether invented or not, incidents such as this only serve to emphasise Tamerlane’s despicable nature.

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