TIMUR [TAMERLANE] [1]

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Timurid Cavalry Lancers

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Timurid Cavalry Archers

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Persian City Guard

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Timurid Spearmen

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Having revolted together against the Jagatai, Timur and Mir Hussain quarrelled, leading to the latter’s defeat and murder. During his career Timur-i Lenk (Timur the Lame or Tamburlaine) defeated the Jagatai, Karts, Jalayarids, Georgians, Black Sheep Turkomans, Golden Horde, Mazandarians, Muzaffarids, Ottomans, Mamluks and the Delhi Sultanate, though he was less good at holding territory and had often to make return visits. After his death in 1405 on his way to attack Ming China, his empire split into several hostile principalites, of which the largest was Herat, initially ruled by his youngest son Shah Rukh. Although Timurid armies retained Mongol organisation, both battle accounts and evidence of the increasing use of armour suggest that they emphasised close quarters fighting rather than traditional nomad tactics. This is borne out by the controversial “Political and Military Institutes” of Timur, which prescribes a series of controlled charges. Lances and horse armour, however, were not universal. Non-Timurid troops may be commanded either by a Timurid sub-general or by an ally-general of their own nationality. Illustrations show infantry with bow, axe, sabre and shield; their exact origin is unknown, so they have been described here as “Timurid”. One possibility is that these were Sabadars, Shi-ite urban militia from Transoxiana and Khurasan whose unusual competence was balanced by their turbulence. Timurid cavalry can always dismount to fight on foot.

After about 1300 (notably under the ruler Ghazan Khan) the Mongol Il-Khans, becoming Islamized and Persianized, reversed their extractive, destructive, slash-and-burn style of rule. They began trying to reconstruct cities they had destroyed, trying to resurrect systems of irrigation and agriculture that had been abandoned. They had some success, and the new capital Tabriz certainly prospered. Azerbaijan, with its wetter climate, was favored generally by the conquering horsemen for the better pasture it offered. The great historian Rashid al-Din (a converted Jew) enjoyed the patronage of the Il-Khans and, building on the earlier works of Juvaini and others, wrote a huge and definitive history. The cultural flow was not all one way—Persian miniature painting was permanently influenced by an imported Chinese aesthetic, and there were other examples. But Iran under the Il-Khans, for all the signs of regeneration, was a poorer, harsher place than before. The empire of the Il-Khans began to fragment with an almost deterministic inevitability. Local vassal rulers slowly made themselves independent of the center, as had happened before under the Seljuks and the Abbasids.

In the mid-fourteenth century in Khorasan, around Sabzavar, a rebel movement called the sarbedari (heads-in-noose) arose. It displayed egalitarian tendencies and co-opted Shi‘a and Sufi elements.58 Like some later and earlier movements, the sarbedari show the eclectic nature of popular, provincial religion in Iran at this time. Elsewhere, the Shi‘a and the Sufis tended to be in opposition, but the sarbedari seem to have had little difficulty fusing the apparently contradictory tenets of the different beliefs involved, and this creative ferment of popular religion was to prove important later, too. The sarbedari are also significant in another way—they represent again a spirit of popular resistance to the invaders, independent of contingent dynastic leadership. This same spirit was there after the Arab invasion, at the beginning of the Mongol period,59 and it appears again later in Iranian history. This might prompt questions about nationalism that could easily absorb the rest of this book.60 What we call nationalism today is in my view too specifically a constructed phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to be considered without anachronism in the fourteenth century or other earlier periods. But we have seen that there was a sense of Iranianness, beyond local or dynastic loyalty, in the time of the Sassanids and before; it was part of what later inspired the shu‘ubiyya, the Samanids, and Ferdowsi. Nationalism is the wrong word, but to deny any Iranian identity in this era requires some serious contortions of evidence and logic.

From 1380, the hopeful vassal dynasty builders, the resurgent cities and peasants, and the bold sarbedari were all alike submerged by the next invading surge of steppe nomads under Timur (Timur-e lang—Timur the Lame—Tamerlane or, in Marlowe, Tamburlaine). Timur was the son of a minor Turkic vassal in Transoxiana, who set up a following of warriors and built a tightly disciplined army explicitly on the model of the great Mongol, Genghis Khan. He married a princess from the great Khan family and called himself Güregen (which means son-in-law) to draw on the prestige of his predecessor. He also took Mongol precedent as a precedent for terror.

Timur established himself first in the cities of Transoxiana, with a base at Samarkand, and then invaded Persia. Cities were razed, their citizens massacred, and the plunder sent with any valuable survivors back to Samarkand, to adorn a new paradise of gardens and grand buildings. To intimidate his enemies, Timur raised up pillars of human heads as he marched through the Persian provinces—outside Isfahan alone (where the people had been foolish enough to attack the Timurid garrison) he lopped off seventy thousand heads, which were then set in 120 pillars. In his bloody wake the desert again encroached on abandoned farmlands and irrigation works. Unlike the Mongols, Timur conquered in the name of orthodox Sunni Islam, but this in no way moderated his conduct of war. After taking Persia and defeating the Mongols of the Golden Horde in the steppe lands around Moscow, he moved into India and took Delhi. Then he turned west again, where he conquered Baghdad (another ninety thousand heads), defeated the Ottoman sultan, captured him, and returned to Samarkand. He died in 1405 in the midst of preparations for an attack on China.

There is a story that Timur met Hafez, but it is probably apocryphal. But Timur did meet the Arab historian and thinker Ibn Khaldun. No historian looking at the history of the Islamic world in the period covered by this chapter could avoid noticing the cyclical pattern of dynastic rise, decline, and nomad invasion. But Ibn Khaldun came up with a theory to explain it.61 His theory began with the asabiyya, the strong solidarity or group feeling of nomad warriors, fostered by the interdependence that was necessary in mobile tribal life in the harsh conditions of desert, mountains, and the margins of the steppes. This was the cohesive spirit that made the nomads such formidable warriors, that enabled them to invade and dominate areas of sedentary settlement, and conquer cities. But having done so, their leaders had to consolidate their support. They had to protect themselves against being supplanted by other members of the tribe, and therefore gave patronage to other groups—city dwellers, bureaucratic officials, and the ulema. They also used building projects and a magnificent court to impress their subjects with their prestige, and employed mercenaries as soldiers, because they were more reliable. So the original asabiyya of the conquerors was diluted and lost. Eventually the ruling dynasty came to believe its own myth and spent increasingly on vain display, weakening its strength outside the capital city and within it. The ulema and ordinary citizens, disillusioned with the dynasty’s decadence, became ready to welcome another wave of conquering nomads, who would start up a new dynasty and set the cycle off all over again.

The theory—of which the above is a greatly simplified version—does not address all the elements of the cycle of invasions as they affected Iran. We have seen how the prosperity of the Silk Route encouraged plundering invasions as well as trade, and how the vulnerability of Iran (and particularly Khorasan) flowed from its central geographical position, just as geography gave it great economic and cultural advantages. The Abbasids and their successors were weakened repeatedly by the measures they used to try to overcome the difficulty of gathering taxes. Officials tended to become corrupt and siphon off tax revenue, so the rulers gave the responsibility to tax farmers instead; they then tended to plunder the peasant farmers, quickly running down the productivity of agriculture. The rulers could grant land holdings (iqta, soyurgal) to soldiers in return for military service, but this tended to mean in time that the soldiers came to think of themselves as farmers or landowners rather than soldiers. Or they could do a similar thing on a grander scale and grant whole provinces to trusted families in return for fiscal tribute and military support. But as we have seen, the likelihood then was that the provincial governors would grow powerful enough to become independent and even take over the state themselves.

Ibn Khaldun’s theory does not fully explain the history of this period on its own, and it may apply better to the Islamic states of North Africa, where the historian lived for most of his life. But it is a useful model nonetheless, and it also accounts for some deep attitudes among the people themselves. Ibn Khaldun did not invent those attitudes, he observed them. The nomads often were regarded (especially by themselves, of course) as having a primitive martial virtue. The court was regarded as a decadent place that tended to corrupt its members. The ulema might often be regarded as authoritative arbitrators in a crisis. These were mental, social, and cultural structures that in themselves helped to influence events.

For our purposes, the most important thing to emphasize is the resilience and intellectual power of the small class of Persian scholar-bureaucrats. Nostalgic for their heroic Sassanid ancestors, escaping from official duplicity and courtiership into either dreams of love and gardens, religious mysticism, the design of splendid palaces and mosques, or the complexities of mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, they bounced back from crisis after crisis, accommodated to their conquerors, made themselves indispensable again, and eventually reasserted something like control over them. In the process, they ensured (whether based in Baghdad, Balkh, Tabriz, or Herat) the survival of their language, their culture, and an unrivaled intellectual heritage. It is one of the most remarkable phenomena in world history. Behind the history described in this chapter, the Arab conquest and the succession of empires—Abbasid, Ghaznavid, Seljuk, Mongol, Timurid—lies the story of what ultimately proved to be a more important empire: the Iranian Empire of the Mind.

After Timur, the process followed its usual pattern. The conquerors took on the characteristics of the conquered. Timur’s son Shahrokh ruled from Herat and patronized the beginnings of another Persianate cultural flowering that continued under his successors and produced great architecture, manuscript illustrations, and painted miniatures, prefiguring later cultural developments in the Moghul and Safavid empires. As others before, the Timurid Empire gradually fragmented into a patchwork of dynastic successor-states. In the latter part of the fifteenth century, two of them—two great confederations of Mongolized Turkic tribes, the Aq-Qoyunlu and the Qara-Qoyunlu (White Sheep and Black Sheep Turks, respectively)—slugged it out for hegemony over the war-ravaged Iranian plateau. The White Sheep came out on top, but were then overwhelmed by a new dynasty from Turkic Anatolia, the Safavids. But to understand the Safavids it is necessary first to go right back to the seventh century again for a deeper understanding of the history and development of Shi‘ism.

[1] TAMERLANE (1336–1405). Turkic chieftain and conqueror. He was not Mongol, but sought to trace Mongol connections through his wife’s ancestors. His English name is a corruption of the Persian Timür-i Leng, “lame Timür.” Tamerlane is important not only for his conquests, but for his role in definitively ending the Mongol era in Turkistanian history, and for his attack on the Golden Horde in 1395–1396, which began with the Battle of the Terek River, in which the army of Toqtamysh was decisively defeated, and ended with the destruction of much of the sedentary base of the Golden Horde along the lower Volga, including Sarai.

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