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Timur the Lame was a megalomaniacal warrior chieftain

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about Tamerlane first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

Tamburlaine,  picture, image, illustration

Tamburlaine putting a city to the torch by Gerry Embleton

A band of 60 outlaws spurred their horses through the desert. In pursuit of them galloped a force more than ten times their number – a thousand riders, bent on blood. The leader of the fugitives coolly chose his moment to turn and fight. In the desperate skirmish that followed, the outlaw band was reduced to 10. But the enemy was routed.

The leader of the outlaws was an extraordinary figure. He towered above his companions. And though he was only quite a young man, he had snowy white hair – as indeed he had done from childhood.

This remarkable man’s name was Timur, which in his language meant “iron.” During one of the many battles he fought, he was wounded in the foot by an arrow, and after this he was nicknamed “I leng,” meaning “the lame.” Timur I Leng, or Timur The Lame, is the historical character popularly known as Tamerlane.

Timur was an Asiatic. He was born in 1336, in a small town not far from the city of Samarkand, which was one day to become the capital of the great empire he won by force of arms.

As a young man, Timur was of a serious, studious turn of mind. He was a great reader, especially of religious books. He loved playing chess. But he aspired above all to become a great warrior. His ambition was unbounded. It was nothing less than to become king of the whole world.

At that time, central Asia was in a state of great unrest. Everywhere princes and chieftains were warring against each other. Timur took advantage of this to carve out a fantastic career of conquest. After many hair’s-breadth adventures, he found himself king of a territory roughly the size of France.

But that was not nearly enough for Timur. He was still only 34 years old. He continued to wage relentless war against his neighbours. He was as ruthless as he was brave, and his name became feared far and wide.

Whether Timur smiled or frowned could mean life or death. It took a very clever man to win his favour. During one of his victorious campaigns, a conquered prince came to kiss his footstool. The prince offered tributary gifts of silks, horses, jewels and slaves. In accordance with custom, each of these gifts comprised nine items – except that there were only eight slaves. The prince hastened to explain. He said, “I myself am the ninth.” This was one of the rare occasions when Timur smiled on a defeated enemy.

Timur The Lame pressed his conquests further and further afield. He invaded Russia, occupying Moscow for a year. His armies spent months in the great central Asian deserts, bearing the spoils of their victories with them, marching for months without seeing a single human being.

Then the Iron King decided to invade India. His chieftains tried to dissuade him from such a venture on the grounds that it would be too difficult and dangerous. But when Timur remained adamant, they soon gave in. Timur was more dangerous than anything else.

The expedition set out. The invading army was vast. There were nearly 100,000 horsemen alone. And the chieftains had not exaggerated the perils of the route. While crossing the great mountains which lay between them and their goal, Timur himself had to be lowered down precipices on ropes.

But they got through. They reached the great city of Delhi. Here Timur showed that he was cunning as well as brave by making it appear that his army had been greatly weakened by its long march, thus tempting the enemy to challenge him to battle outside their city walls.

The defending army was itself a formidable one. It included 120 war elephants which had razor-sharp, poisoned daggers attached to their tusks. But Timur routed it without much difficulty, and sacked the city.

Though Timur was now no longer young, his ambition remained as fierce as ever. By the time he got back to his capital from India he was in his sixties, but it was not long before he was in the field again.

In the year 1400, he besieged the great city of Aleppo. Timur had always been willing to learn from his enemies, and on this occasion he had Indian elephants in the vanguard of his army. On the elephants’ backs were turrets filled with archers and men armed with Greek Fire (Greek Fire consisted of incendiary materials of various kinds which were hurled against the enemy by primitive “flame-throwers”).

Aleppo fell to Timur largely through cowardice and treachery on the part of its defenders. Timur’s men streamed in and began their usual orgy of pillage. Timur himself summoned the learned men of the city to a conference. While he was discussing such peaceful subjects as religion and literature with them, the streets of the city streamed with blood and echoed with the cries of dying women and children. The wise men of Aleppo were only too well aware that a word out of place might easily dispatch them to join the carnage outside.

Timur’s next great triumph came in 1402, at the battle of Angora, in which he defeated his greatest rival, the sultan Bajazet. Taking Bajazet prisoner, he exhibited him in an iron cage. Bajazet “escaped” only by dying suddenly.

By this time it did indeed seem that Timur was well on the way to becoming “king of the world,” at least as it was then known. But he never reached Europe. He was stopped by the narrow seas between that continent and Asia. Timur had no ships.

But there were still vast territories to be won in the east. There was the great and mysterious land of China. Timur set out to invade China, but he died on his way there, in his 70th year. His body was embalmed, laid in an ebony coffin, and taken back to Samarkand.

Timur The Lame could equally well be called Timur The Terrible. The ravages of his armies were attended by unspeakable cruelties. After the storming of one city, 4,000 men of the garrison were buried alive. Nor could his soldiers have shown mercy even if they had wanted to. They were under orders to produce piles of the severed heads of their victims to prove how thorough they had been. The fall of Baghdad was attested by a grisly monument in the form of a pyramid of 90,000 heads.

Timur was a destroyer. Apart from beautifying his own city of Samarkand, he built nothing, created nothing. And after his death his empire broke up and faded away.

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