Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Timurid Empire


By the late 14th century, as we have seen, the Chagatai Khanate, the Golden Horde, and the Il-Khanate were beginning to collapse. The Mongols gradually assimilated into the native culture of their conquered territories, while succession struggles and infighting began to fracture the Khanates. A new challenge also arose for these three Khanates, in the form of an invasion of all three by another Mongol leader, Timur. An arrow wound suffered in his youth sufficiently injured his leg as to earn him the name Timur-i-Lenk in Persian, or Timur the Lame. In English that name later became corrupted into "Tamerlane." His Asian empire, the Timurid, takes his original name. Although his English name, Tamerlane, is perhaps more familiar to European history students, this tutorial will use his original Turkish name, Timur, which means, "iron." He was born in 1336 in Samarkand, in the Chagatai Khanate, and by the late 14th century he had established an empire that rivalled Genghis Khan's in terms of its size, and the destruction it wreaked on its invaded territories throughout Asia. A more thorough biography of Timur can be found in the Old World Contacts Tutorial.

Old World Contact Tutorial - Timur

Although he was of Mongol descent, Timur was really more Turkish than Mongol, in his language and religion. He exemplified the pattern of assimilation that the Mongols in Turkish Central Asia followed in their conquered lands since the time of Genghis Khan. He was a Muslim, but that did not prevent him from attacking other Muslim empires, including the small principalities that had succeeded the Il-Khanate in Persia, the remnants of the Golden Horde, the newly formed Ottoman Empire in Asia Minor, and the Delhi Sultanate in India. Unlike his Mongol ancestors, however, Timur never established an administration for his vast empire. He spent his time planning and carrying out attacks, but following the inevitable victory he would often withdraw to Samarkand, his capital, rather than setting up the bureaucracy necessary to administer the newly acquired territory. For that reason he was a very different sort of conqueror than Genghis Khan or his immediate successors. This section will look at Timur's conquests in brief, how his Islamic faith influenced his campaigns, and what effect his campaigns had on the Islamic world.

Kalyan Minaret
The Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara, built in 1127, survived Genghis Khan's invasion

Timur's empire began in the Chagatai Khanate, where he was born in 1336. By the mid-14th century, the Khanate was disintegrating under a series of weak leaders, and different regions within the Khanate were evolving separately. Transoxiana, a small region that included the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, was in fact flourishing while the rest of the Chagatai Khanate dissolved around it. Timur began his career of conquest in Transoxiana, where he fought the Chagatai Khans for control of Transoxiana. He succeeded in 1364, driving the Chagatai Khans out of the region and claiming power for himself. His public displays of Islamic piety earned him the support of the community's religious leaders, although his rule was not solid because he was not a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, a requirement for all leaders of the Chagatai territory. For that reason, he put a weak but genuine descendant on the throne officially as Khan, while he took the lesser title of Sultan, and ruled from behind the scenes.

From Transoxiana, Timur turned east and began raiding eastern Persia. By 1385 he had subdued the local princes of that region, who had taken power as the Il-Khanate dissolved. Meanwhile, he faced a new challenge from the Khan of the Golden Horde, Toqtamish, whom Timur had in fact assisted in that realm's power struggle several years earlier. Toqtamish had since reunited the fragmented Golden Horde, and had set his expansionist sights on Timur's growing empire to the south. Toqtamish attacked the former Il-Khanate capital, Tabriz, in 1385, and thus ignited a war with Timur. Timur ravaged Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and northern Iraq in the war with Toqtamish, while also plundering the Persian cities of Isfahan and Shiraz. In 1391 Timur finally defeated Toqtamish's army, thus freeing his victorious troops in the north to focus their energies on his next goal - Syria and Asia Minor. By 1395 he had subdued that region, although he had yet to encounter the military power of the Ottoman Empire. After returning to Samarkand, as usual after a victory, Timur next set out for northern India, and the Delhi Sultanate there.

Islam had first reached India in 711, the same year as the Umayyad conquest of Spain. Until the reign of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century, however, the Islamic faith had penetrated only the northern regions of the subcontinent - particularly Sindh and Punjab. Just as the Muslim rulers of other regions were relatively tolerant of Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, the Muslim rulers of northern India were similarly tolerant of Hinduism, a religion which originated on the subcontinent, and to which the majority of Indians adhered.

Timur launched his attack on India in 1398, claiming that the Muslim Delhi Sultanate was too lenient towards its Hindu subjects. In reality, Timur probably cared more about looting this wealthy Muslim region than about punishing its religiously tolerant Muslim leaders. At any rate, he sacked Delhi quickly, despite the efforts of the Sultan's army, which included 120 war elephants. As with most of Timur's empire, however, he did not stay in India to establish a Timurid administration. He left northern India in ruins and returned to Samarkand.

War Elephants

Timur next returned to Syria, where he used war elephants from India to defeat the Mamluks there and capture Aleppo and Damascus. He never invaded Egypt proper, however, probably because it was so distant from his base in Samarkand, and because he wanted to preserve his army's strength for his main goal - the newly formed but rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire in Asia Minor. The Ottoman Sultan, Bayazid I, was ill-prepared to defend his empire from Timur, since his troops had just completed a series of raids on Byzantine Constantinople. Timur's army defeated the Ottomans in 1402 and captured Bayazid, who died a year later in captivity. Timur again returned to Samarkand to plan his next offensive, this time on Ming China. In 1405, however, while en route to China, Timur fell ill and died, at the age of 69.

Map of the Timurid Empire 1405. Click on map for larger image.

The Timurid Empire was not singularly defined by the fact that it was an Islamic empire. Its founder, Timur, was himself a Muslim, but he rarely invoked his religion as any sort of impetus for his invasions. All of the territories he invaded were also Muslim-ruled, and thus he could not proclaim a jihad, or holy war, as the reason for his attacks, as Islamic leaders before him had done. He did claim that his invasion of the Delhi Sultanate was provoked by that Muslim empire's tolerant attitude towards Hindus, but even that reason could not mask his real desire to obtain some of the Sultanate's great wealth. But if his faith did not always show itself in his military campaigns, it certainly did in the cultural landscape of his capital, Samarkand. Artisans were brought from all of the Islamic lands Timur had conquered to beautify Samarkand, and indeed, much of that city's most striking monuments were erected by Timurid architects. The art of the Persian miniature also flourished under Timur, and the Persian cities of Herat, Shiraz, and Tabriz became important centres for this art.

The Timurid Empire survived another century under Timur's squabbling descendants, but it was eclipsed by the rising power of the Uzbeks in Central Asia in 1506. Because Timur concerned himself largely with conquest and plunder, rather than administration, he never made the effort to establish a lasting bureaucracy for his territories. That is one reason why they were unable to survive without him for long, and were soon absorbed into new empires: the Ottomans in Asia Minor spread into Syria and North Africa by the early 16th century; the Safavids steered Persia out of anarchy, also in the 16th century; and one of Timur's descendants, Babur, founded the Mughal Empire in India in 1526.

Gur Emir