S. A. M. Adshead. "Tamerlane and the Global Arsenal, 1370-1405"

from his Central Asia in World History, Chapter 5

Tamerlane was the greatest political Central Asian. His reign from 1370 to 1405, initiated the most active period of Central Asian history. This period, thanks to the impetus imparted by him, was to last to the beginning of the sixteenth century. The name Tamerlane is the sixteenth century European form of the Turkish Timur or Temur-i-link, Temur the lame, a name given him because of a slight limp, variously explained by injury in an early battle or a tubercular infection. Tamerlane was a politician turned soldier. Inside Central Asia, he created a new kind of composite army, his impact on the surrounding homelands was that of an enemy, and his contribution to world history was to what may be called the global arsenal: a new pool of military technology on which all states increasingly drew. This pool remained in much the form left by Tamerlane till the transformations produced by the industrialized warfare of the nineteenth century. Tamerlane and Napoleon were essentially contemporaries.

Tamerlane was primarily a conqueror. Except for Alexander he conquered more than anyone else, more than Chinggis, and did a horrifying amount of destruction. Living in a harsh and grim century, the worst for civilization since the Dark Ages, he was himself perforce harsh and grim. Yet, unlike Chinggis, there was a gleam of enlightenment about him. Although illiterate, he promoted a form of culture which dominated the Islamic world for three centuries and influenced the European Renaissance. Although a nomad, who preferred to live in a tent, and be on the move, he was a Muslim (of a kind), spoke two if not three languages, played chess, liked to be read history at mealtimes, loved buildings, appreciated porcelain, and carried round a portable bath. Although beginning with light cavalry, he ended the supremacy of the steppe horseman initiated by Chinggis. Tamerlane was a second Chinggis but also an ant-Chinggis. Eclecticism and intellectual curiosity were his hallmarks. It is these, rather than his conquests, which make him interesting. Ibn Khaldun, who met him outside Damascus in 1401 wrote: "This king Timur is one of the greatest and mightiest kings . . . he is highly intelligent and very perspicacious, addicted to debate and argument about what he knows and also about what he does not know."


Between 1360 and 1370 Tamerlane created a political machine and a new kind of army. Both were rooted in the political background of the Chaghatai khanate and the circumstances of their creation, but in the grand design which guided Tamerlane's efforts to make them permanent, they went beyond past and present toward a different future.

The Chaghatai khanate lacked stability. The "inju" state satisfied neither the nomads nor the sedentarists. Oboghs (nomadic tribes) and sarbadars (urban mafias: the word literally meant a head on a gibbet) pulled in different directions. Even when the khanate was divided in 1334 into nomadic and sedentary halves, stability was not achieved. On the contrary volatility increased. In the east, in Semirechie, Zungharia and the Tarim basin, the khans of Moghulistan could maintain a nomadic state only for a generation, but then converted to Islam, and fell under the control of the half sedentarized oboghs of the southwest, notably the Dughlat of Kashgaria. In the west, in Transoxania and Afghan Turkestan, the Muslim khans failed to establish a normal Islamic state based on bureaucrats, slave soldiers and the ulema (law doctors). Instead, they fell under the control of semi-nomadic oboghs: the Arlat in the west, the Barlas in the centre, and theJalayir in the north, and two non-tribal military groups, the Qaraunas and the Qa-uchin. Moreover, despite their increasing institutional similarity, Moghulistan and Transoxania remained ideological enemies. The westerners referred to the easterners as Jats, or robbers. The easterners referred to the westerners as Qaraunas, literally mongrels.

It was in this unstable world that Temur Barlas built up his political machine. He was born in 1336, not far from Samarkand, the son of a lesser chief of the Barlas obogh. The Barlas were one of a group of five or six ex-Mongol, now Turkish, oboghs or pseudo oboghs which provided the four qarac beys or regents who constituted an informal council of state with or against the khans. The Barlas held the area between the Oxus and the Jaxartes around Samarkand. The Qaraunas and the Arlat held the middle Oxus and points south into Khorasan and Afghan Turkestan. TheJalayir held theJaxartes and Ferghana. The Qa-uchin, military professionals rather than a tribe, held scattered positions all over the ulus. By 'hold' was meant, in the oases, the exercise of taxing rights for the tribe in accordance with Kebek's assignment of tumen to particular pieces of sedentary territory, and for the chiefs, ownership of some agricultural or meadow land. In 1346 Qazan, the last even minimally effective khan, was assassinated by Qazaghan, amir of the Qaraunas, supported by the Arlat obogh. Strictly, the Qaraunas were not an obogh. The name meant mixed or mongrel. It referred originally to Mongol task forces or garrisons, drawn from more than one obogh or even ulus, or from Turkish auxiliaries outside the Mongol tribal system altogether, but whose descendants, hereditary soldiers, had by the middle of the fourteenth century become the main fighting force of the khanate. Qazan, in other words was eliminated by his own commander in chief who, under a puppet Chaghatid, established a federation under the ascendancy of the Qaraunas. Of this federation the Barlas were members. In 1358, however, Qazaghan was assassinated, his son was less forceful, the Barlas, the Jalayir, the more aristocratic oboghs, seceded, arld the federation collapsed.

In 1360, the weakness of Western Chaghatai attracted invasion from the khan of Moghulistan, Tughluq Temur, who, despite his nomad background, was a recent convert to Islam. A strong ruler, he aimed to give his nomads booty, acquire more sedentary suyects and reunite the ulus. With the Moghul invasion, the Qarauna ascendancy failed and Temur Barlas, who since 1356 had been an officer in the amir's army, went over to the khan. But Moghul rule proved unpopular. TheJats seemed barbarians and resistance was continued by Qaraunas from northern Afghanistan led by Qazaghan's grandson, Husayn. In 1362 Tamerlane changed sides again and rejoined the Qaraunas. But the move was premature. The main Moghul army returned and Husayn and Tamerlane had to flee to Khorasan. In 1363, however, Tughluq Temur died, the next khan was less able, and the amirs of Kashgar were taking over Moghulistan, so the freedom fighters returned to Transoxania, with Husayn becoming chief amir like his grandfather. It looked like a resurrection of Qarauna ascendancy with the Barlas as their deputies. But in 1365 the Moghuls invaded again. The Qarauna and Barlas forces were defeated at the battle of the mire, fought during a thunderstorm when the ground was bad for big, shod, sedentary horses, but good for small, unshod, steppe ponies.

The Moghuls, no doubt, expected an easy conquest now, but again something unexpected happened. The sarbadars of Samarkand closed the gates and refused to surrender. Moreover they organized ambushes and withstood a siege until epidemic broke out among the Moghul horses. The Moghuls retreated not only from Samarkand but from all Transoxania, since they now had nomad versus sedentarist troubles back home. Husayn returned from Afghanistan, but his prestige was weak. The Moghuls had been defeated, not by the warriors, the oboghs, but by the artisans, the sarbadars. To reestablish himself, Husayn therefore seized control of Samarkand and put the sarbadarleaders to death, except for one whose life was pleaded for by his right hand man Temur Barlas, who also paid the fine he imposed on the city. Now that the Moghuls had gone, a struggle for power between Husayn and Tamerlane was inherently probable in accordance with the rules of blood tanistry. To court the sarbadars, therefore, was good policy, though Tamerlane seems to have been the first nomad politician sufficiently unsnobbish to do so.

As Tamerlane may have calculated, Husayn replied with a countermove which cost him the support of the other element in politics, the nomads, particularly non-territorial military professionals such as the Qa-uchin. Husayn decided to build himself a permanent capital and urban base on the site of Balkh in Afghan Turkestan, ruined since the time of Chinggis, but now to be developed as an anti Samarkand. The move to a fixed capital annoyed the nomads in general, while the economies which the building of the new capital entailed, made Husayn appear stingy to the army officers - a bad image for a nomad ruler. Tamerlane played on this, spent freely himself, and suggested that Husayn had behaved in cowardly fashion in the battle of the mire. Soon he was the hero, not only of city guilds and dervishes, but also of the swordsmen, the young blades of the army, the bahadurs. At the same time, he kept the support of the non Qarauna obogh chiefs, especially the Barlas and the Jalayir, obtaining some support even from the Arlat, Husayn had to do all the unpleasant post-war things: Tamerlane did his best to do all the pleasant ones. When he finally revolted in 1370 at the head of his coalition, Husayn had little support left and he was easily defeated and killed.

Tamerlane now had the task of constructing a regime which should be more than a Barlas ascendancy. What he constructed was both a political machine and an army, an army resting upon a political machine. For war was not only the means by which power had been acquired, but also one of the ends for which it was to be exercised.

The political machine has been analyzed by Beatrice Forbes Manz. It may be seen as consisting of six concentric circles. First, at its core, was Tamerlane himself, his wives, his children, their spouses, grandchildren, closest supporters, and personal retinue. After 1370, some of the latter became Tamerlane's marshals. They were placed in charge of tumen, military units of a nominal 10,000 or, in the conquered territories, of major garrisons drawn from a number of tumen or oboghs, in effect new mixed units or Qaraunas. At this level, Tamerlane's regime was a more personal one than had existed before. There were no ex-officio qaranc beys or council of state. Next, there were the loyal tribes, particularly the Barlas and Jalayir oboghs. Tamerlane, however, had no wish to be the prisoner of his natural supporters. The obogh chiefs therefore were either taken out of their tribal context or replaced by the marshals or people taken from the third circle. Politics were substantially detribalized under Tamerlane. Third, there were the Qaraunas, the defeated supporters of Amir Husayn, whom Tamerlane inherited and was careful not to dissolve. Instead he put them under his closest associate and high constable Cheku Barlas and used them as a counterweight against his own tribal supporters. Fourth, Tamerlane was consistently supported by the Qa-uchin, the extra-tribal, non-territorial, hereditary professionals who, after 1370, provided reliable servitors in garrisons and acted as a military provostcorps. Fifth, Tamerlane and his marshals recruiLed soldiers lrom the nomadic population of the empire outside Transoxania: in the east from the Moghuls, in the north from the Kipchaks and Golden Horde, in the west from the Azeris and Turks of eastern Anatolia. Finally, sedentarists, generally Persian speaking, were incorporated as infantry auxiliaries, sometimes under local dynasties, or in the siege train, which the army came to require. Thus politically the Chaghatai ulus was restructured by Tamerlane on more personal, dynastic and meritocratic lines.

The army resting upon this political machine was increasingly a composite force of horse, foot and artillery rather than a nomad people in arms. Its centrepiece was the heavy cavalry of armoured knights so frequently portrayed in Timurid art. This was provided by Tamerlane's personal supporters and retinue to whom he made grants of sedentary land for the upkeep of their chargers. Tamerlane, however, continued to use nomadic light cavalry from the Chaghatai oboghs and went to war accompanied by a vast tent city. Sedentary infantry formed part of the expedition against Toktamish in 1391 and fought in the great battle of Kanduzcha on June 18, though this was primarily a victory of heavy cavalry over light. Following his campaign in India, Tamerlane acquired an elephant corps. They led the attack on the Ottoman army in the battle of Ankara on July 28 1402, though this too was primarily a heavy cavalry victory, this time over Janissary infantry. Tamerlane made use of sophisticated artillery weapons in the sieges of Aleppo and Smyrna and even evinced some interest in seapower. In military technology, as in state building, Tamerlane was eclectic and effective.

There remained the problem of permanence. In 1370 Tamerlane had come to power as the candidate of both the swordsmen and the sarbadars, though the fundamental interests of the two, as nomads and sedentarists, were still opposed. Both, however, were demoralized after ten years of war and needed leadership. Tamerlane became Great Amir, but kept a tame Chinggisid as khan to reassure the nomads and secure Mongolian legitimation. He married Husayn's widow, Sarai Khanum, a daughter of the Chaghatai khan Qazan, to gratify the Qaraunas and to consolidate his position as imperial son-in-law, guregen, the highest title to which a non-Chinggisid and Turk could aspire. But it was all temporary and precarious. Tamerlane's basis of support would split, crumble and desert him, as Husayn's had done, unless he could find some way not just of juxtaposing but of uniting nomads and sedentarists. This was the problem which had baffled all governments in the inju states, and particularly in the Chaghatai khanate, since the death of Chinggis.

Tamerlane's originality lay in going beyond improvisations, such as those of Tuva and Kebek, to the construction of a system which would give both halves of the population what they wanted, not just temporarily, but permanently in institutional arrangements. At its simplest, this system can be described as peace at home and war abroad, peace for the oases, war for the steppe. Specifically, it meant externalizing the violence of the oboghs and swordsmen and making it serve the interests of the townspeople and merchants. A key element in this scheme was a conscious design to reactivate the silk road, the central land route, and make it the monopoly link between Europe and China. Monopolization was to be achieved by war: primarily, against the Golden Horde, the master of the principal rival, the northern land route; secondarily, against the states of western Persia and against the Moghuls to the east in order to place the silk road under unified control politically; and finally, against India, Egypt and China in order to cripple the second rival, the southern sea route, as far as this was possible without a navy.

Tamerlane's grand design and the campaigns which put it into effect were an illustration of what Sir Halford Mackinder called the power of the heartland: Central Asia dominating the homeland peninsulas of Europe, Arabia, India and China. Such a dominance, Tamerlane believed, would satisfy the contradictory demands of his subjects for peace and war. The sedentary population would get peace at home, trade and the capacity to pay the tamgha or capital levy on business. The nomads, especially the rank and file outside the tribal oligarchies, would get war beyond the frontier: the kind of mobile, destructive, booty gathering war they liked. For Tamerlane, unlike Chinggis' successors, did not aim at permanent occupation or the creation of new inju states, but simply at devastation. The programme was not entirely new. Khubilai had been a Confucian emperor at home, while sending Mongol armadas against Japan and South-east Asia. Tuva had invaded India and Kebek had developed Andijan on the central land route. The Il-khans had been promoters of trade, and it was their route resting on Tabriz and Sultaniya that Tamerlane sought to unify and reactivate. Admittedly too, Tamerlane probably partly stumbled on his policy because of its immediate political advantages.

Yet it is likely that Tamerlane grasped the problem as a whole and worked out its general answer, though obviously not in modern terms. Early in his career, he took the title or epithet Sahib Qiran symbolized by three circlets forming a triangle. It was an astrological term which meant 'Lord of the Fortunate Conjuncture'. It expressed his sense not just of balancing or juggling ruler, nomads and sedentarists, as his predecessors had done, but of integrating them into a dynamic institutional system. The Castilian ambassador Clavijo who was in Samarkand in 1404 noted the conqueror's unusual interest in trade: 'Thus trade has always been fostered by Timur with the view of making his capital the noblest of cities', and stressed the immense revenue he received from it.' It was an immensely destructive system for those outside it. Bishop Jewel in his Apology compared the Pope, the forerunner of Antichrist, to 'Tamerlane the king of Scythia, a wild and barbarous creature. Similarly, Botero in The Greatness of Cities compared Tamerlane to Attila and Chinggis as scourges of God in Asia, 'where like a horrible tempest or deadly raging flood he threw down to the ground the most ancient and worthiest cities and carried from thence their wealth and riches'. Yet, as Botero saw, in the eye of the storm, in Samarkand itself, there was a possibility of civilization, which Tamerlane sought to realize. For his grand design included, not only conquest and commerce, but also culture to serve as the lingua franca of the top elite. This culture was both Islamic and secular.

Within the spectrum of Islam, Tamerlane was eclectic, but with a bias to modernism rather than fundamentalism. Among sedentarists and most nomads, Islam could now be taken for granted. Tamerlane coexisted with an ulema of the Hanafite law school. On his return from India, possibly inspired by what he had seen in Delhi, he built the colossal Friday mosque known as Bibi Khanum, a structure the size of Milan cathedral, whose dome imitated that of the Ommayad mosque in Damascus. Yet Tamerlane founded no madrasa, or higher Islamic college in his own name, and did not incorporate the ulema into his machinery of government. With the folk Islam of the dervish orders, who now dominated the oases and were making progress on the steppe, Tamerlane's relations were likewise ambivalent. He avowed himself the disciple of Sayyid Baraka, the holy man of the commercial city of Tirmidh, and on his death buried him in the tomb he had built for himself and the imperial family, the Gur Amir. He constructed one of his finest buildings at the tomb of Ahmad Yassawi, whose order, the Yassawiya, was doing most to spread Folk Islam among the nomads. In Samarkand, Tamerlane developed the cemetery complex of Shah Zindeh north of the walls, a centre of popular religion focused on the shrine of the legendary Kusam ibn Abbas, cousin of Muhammed. Yet Tamerlane kept his distance from Baha ad-Din Naqshband, the founder of the most traditionalist, popular and later most powerful order, the Naqshbndiyya. His leading theological adviser, the Hanafite cadi Abd alJabbar Khwarazmi, was reputed to be a Mutazilite or modernist while he himself, at one time at least, was regarded as a Shiite. Some scholars have queried this but it makes sense in that Shiite authoritarianism was frequently allied with Mutazilite modernism against Koranic fundamentalism and shara traditionalism. Tamerlane's Islam was eclectic but consistent.

Tamerlane's secular culture was aesthetic rather than literary or scientific. He loved buildings, gardens, bibelots, displays, objets d 'art. Indeed, it has been said of Tamerlane, as of Goering, that he loved art so much that he could not help stealing it! Thus foreign buildings, such as the Ommayad mosque at Damascus, were sketched by official artists even as they went up in flames. The Byzantine palace gates of the Ottoman capital of Brusa were carried off to Samarkand, where they were much admired by Clavijo. Thousands of craftsmen and artisans were deported to Samarkand from Sultaniya, Shiraz, Baghdad and Damascus to new industrial suburbs named after those cities. Yet Tamerlane also established a kitabkhana for the copying, illustration, binding and storage of books. He employed historians to chronicle his deeds and his questions to Ibn Khaldun about the Maghreb suggest scientific as well as strategic interest. Moreover, his secular culture was couched in terms of the Shah-nama, the prompt-book of a heroic but cultivated military aristocracy. In the war against the Golden Horde, Tamerlane saw himself as Rustum defeating the hosts of Turan and coming to the aid of his son in the heat of battle. Against western enemies, he figured as an eastern Alexander, of Alid and Fatimid descent as in the Shah-nama Alexander had been of Achaemenid descent, revivifying Iran at the same time as purging its leadership. Yet Tamerlane was also the successor of Chinggis who died on his way to China to prove himself his equal by restoring the Yuan to Peking. Alternatively, he was again Rustum who fought the Khaqan of China in Khotan or Alexander who built the Great Wall of Gog and Magog. In culture, as in religion, politics and war, Tamerlane was eclectic. Like Chinggis he died on campaign, but his body, like Alexander's, rested in a splendid tomb in an imperial city.


In the light of his grand design, Tamerlane's campaigns, bewildering at first sight and apparently purely reactive, became coherent. First between 1370 and 1385, following a period of internal reform to complete his restructuring of the political system, there were campaigns east to overawe Moghulistan, north to recover Khiva, and west against the successor states of the Il-khanate in Persia and Iran. All these had the implied aim of asserting Chaghatai control of the central land route from Tabriz to Turfan. In these campaigns, Tamerlane did not display striking military genius or achieve signal political success, especially against the Moghuls whose light cavalry retained a tactical edge. Second, between 1385 and 1395, campaigns were directed north against the Golden Horde, the master of the currently predominant northern land route, an operation explicitly destructive in its aims. This was the most difficult of Tamerlane's campaigns and the only one in which, his combination of strike power and logistics, he showed strategic genius. It produced the victories of Kanduzcha inJune 1391 and of the Terek river in April 1395 and led to the destruction of the trading cities of the Horde, Astrakhan, Tana and Sarai. Third, in 1398-9, Tamerlane raided India. This was a looting expedition primarily, but also a blow against the southern sea route, and ideological display: a jihad, an imitation of Alexander, and doing what even Chinggis had not done. Fourth, between 1400 and 1404, there was the campaign against the Islamic Far West, the Mamluks and the Ottomans, and to some extent Christendom in the guise of Eastern heterodoxy and the Knights of St. John. This too had both commercial and ideological dimensions: to secure the Western terminus of the central land route in Aleppo, to hit the southern sea route in its Egyptian outlet, to conquer infidels and to repress heretics. Finally, in 1405, there was the unfinished campaign against China: to secure the silk road's eastern terminus in Peking, to equal Chinggis, and to outdo even the legendary Alexander by going beyond the Wall. Through these campaigns Tamerlane became part of the history of the homelands.

The Golden Horde and the Russias

In the period following Tamerlane, the Golden Horde fragmented. From the main body in Sarai, there seceded to the west, three Turkish city states, Astrakhan, Kazan and the Crimea, and to the east, three Turkish nomadic hordes, Nogai, Sibir and Uzbek. As a result, it is said, the princes of Russia in Lithuania, Novgorod and Moscow were able to assert their full independence, and Moscow, by its annexation of Novgorod in 1482, could claim the succession to the khans. It is tempting to ascribe these developments to Tamerlane's defeat of Toktamish, and in particular to his devastation of the central Horde cities and the northern land route on which their prosperity and its stability depended. While Tamerlane's impact was real, this view requires nuancing.

The Golden Horde was an inju state with a difference. Its relations to its sedentarists, the Russians, were less close than those of the Il-khanate to the Persians, Chaghatai to the Iranians of Central Asia, or the Yuan to the Chinese. The cities in which its oligarchies had their arsenals and turned Muslim were either its own creation, as with the two Sarais, or were the creation of non-Russians: the Genoese and the Venetians in the Crimea and Tana, the Bulgar Turks and Finno-Ugrians in Kazan. The conflicts which afflicted the Horde, during the co-reign of Nogai in the thirteenth century, during the Great Trouble before Tamerlane in the fourteenth century, and in the city and nomad secessions in fifteenth century after him, were political rather than social or ecological, violence within the inju consortium rather than against it. Though Tamerlane exacerbated these conflicts by his blows against the northern land route, which reduced the dividend to be distributed, it is arguable that the ulus of Jochi died by its own hand rather than by that of Tamerlane.

The immediate result of Tamerlane's intervention, indeed, was a strengthening of the Horde, at least externally. On the defeat of Toktamish, Tamerlane replaced him with Timur-Kutlugh, grandson of Urus Khan, a former ruler of the Blue Horde or eastern half of the ulus of Jochi. He partnered him (perhaps in imitation of his own position as Great Amir) with the amir Edigei, a member of the Manghit obogh from Magyshlak in the Nogai confederation, as co-ruler. This move represented a strengthening of the nomadic element in the now partly deurbanized Horde. Timur-Kutlugh and Edigei proved anything but puppets. In August 1399 they defeated Vytautas of Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine, the strongest prince in Russia of his day, at the battle of the Vorskla river near Poltava. By 1405 they were sufficiently independent of and threatening to Tamerlane for him to receive an embassy at Otrar from Toktamish, in exile in Siberia but still hoping to regain power in the Horde. Edigei recovered Khiva from the Timurids in 1406, raided Muscovy in 1408, and renewed the traditional alliance with the Mamluks in 1409. He was unable to maintain his position, however, against the Khan and the house of Toktamish, and was driven from power in 1411. Yet his career suggests that Tamerlane was not the only, or the chief, factor in decline of the Golden Horde.

Similarly, it is not clear that Tamerlane made the fortune of Moscow. Though Vytautas lost the battle of the Vorskla river, he remained the strongest ruler in Russia till his death in 1430. If Lithuania did not retain its leading position among the principalities of Rus, it was less because of the Vorskla than because of the union of Krevo with Poland in 1386 which re-oriented Lithuania west rather than east, and the subsequent conversion of the pagan Lithuanians - the last Europeans to Christianize - to Catholicism rather than Orthodoxy. The grand dukes thereby made it more difficult to rule Belorussia and the Ukraine. They gave Moscow the chance to assert its claim to be, not so much the Third Rome, as the Second Kiev, the centre of all-Rus Orthodoxy. This claim was reinforced by the acquisition of Novgorod and the new Russia of the northeast in 1482. Yet the Vorskla may have made a difference. If it had gone the other way, Vytautas might have separated from his cousin Wradyslaw of Poland, undone the union of Krevo, and reunited the Russians round Vilnius or Kiev rather than round Moscow. Tamerlane was not the only factor in the development of fifteenth century Russia, but his impact cannot be ignored.


Tamerlane's campaign in India is usually regarded as a mere looting expedition like those of Tuva or a pure mission of destruction. In fact, it was more than this in both intention and impact. In intent, it may be associated ideologically with Tamerlane's desire to imitate Alexander and surpass Chinggis. Historically, it looked back to Mahmud of Ghazna, the patron of Firdausi, on whose Turco-Iranian court Tamerlane modelled his own, and who was best known in Islam as a conqueror of India. Politically, it looked forward to the conflict with the Ottomans. The Ottoman sultan had defeated the Serbs in 1389 at Kossovo, the combined princes of Christendom under Sigismund of Hungary and John of Burgundy in 1396 at Nikopolis. He was a gazi, a warrior for the faith and conqueror of infidels. Except marginally in the Caucasus, all Tamerlane's victories to date had been over Muslim princes. A campaign in India, where the Tughluq dynasty could be represented as falling down on the jihad was a convenient way of acquiring Islamic prestige. It was also a way for acquiring appanages and military experience for Tamerlane's grandsons, Muhammed Sultan and Pir Muhammed, the children of his eldest son (at least by a free-born Muslim) Jahangir. Jahangir had died in 1375 and the ageing Tamerlane envisaged his sons as his heirs.

The impact of the campaign was considerable. Where Tuva's raids had strengthened the Tughluq dynasty by forcing it to centralization and firearms, Tamerlane's expedition fatally weakened it by the sack of Delhi. Moreover, it re-opened India to the Pushtun hill people of what was to become Afghanistan, as formerly in the days of the Ghorids. India was not to be closed again till Tamerlane's clescendants, Babur, Humayun and Akbar, took charge of it and reconfined the Afghans to their hills. The Afghan Lodi dynasty, which had succeeded the Tughluq, had not been effective rulers of India. They brought too many of their tribal conflicts with them, so that the Muslim drive to the south against Vijayanagar lacked leadership and cutting edge. Paradoxically, Tamerlane the gazi contributed to the survival of the Hindu community, and hence, in the long run, to its resurgence in the days of the raj. A similar paradox has sometimes been suggested in Tamerlane's relations with Western Islam and Christendom, though here with less justification.

Western Islam and Christendom

Tamerlane's campaign in the west was directed against two enemies: the Ottomans and the Mamluks. In Tamerlane's eyes, which of the two was the more significant? Here a distinction must be made between military and political priorities. In military terms, Tamerlane will have recognized that the Ottoman composite army was, potentially at least, the more dangerous opponent. Though Tamerlane had a high regard for its quality, the Mamluk army had not developed beyond the heavy cavalry, which had frustrated the Il-khanate, whereas the Ottomans, since Kossovo, combined Janissary infantry, Serbian knights, Anatolian spahis, and Turcoman light cavalry. Moreover, the Mamluk command was divided and irresolute, whereas the Ottoman leadership was centralized and Tamerlane regarded Bayezit as an excellent general. His first moves west therefore were directed against the Ottomans: the securing of his own rear area at Tabriz and in the winter pastures of Karabagh, the closing of the door to Bayezit through the occupation of Konia, Sivas and Samsun. In political terms, however, the Mamluks had the higher priority. For Tamerlane's grand design, Aleppo, the Western terminus of the central land route, was an essential part of his empire. So too was the land corridor from the Tigris to the sea, the old classical route from one Seleucia to the other. It was along this route that Tamerlane marched to take Aleppo in 1400, Damascus in January 1401 from the Mamluks, Baghdad in July from theJalayir sultans, before returning to the Anatolian front to defeat Bayezit at the battle of Ankara in July 1402. After Kanduzcha, Ankara was Tamerlane's greatest victory, but it was really won by manoeuvre before being won on the battlefield, when Tamerlane placed himself between the Ottomans and their base. Bayezit was an excellent general, but an essentially European one, and neither he nor his troops were used to the Asiatic war of movement conducted by Tamerlane. Clavijo reports that after Ankara, Tamerlane was expected to return to the attack on the Mamluks, but in fact, his main objectives accomplished, after a brief stay on the plains of Karabagh, he returned to the east to prepare the final campaign against China.

The impact of the campaign needs careful assessment. It is sometimes argued that the battle of Ankara deferred the fall of Constantinople for fifty years and saved Christendom from deeper penetration by an earlier and more dynamic Ottoman empire. The first argument may be accepted, though the loss of Anatolia might have led to more interest in Rumelia, but not the second. Ankara was a serious defeat for the Ottoman army and produced a leadership crisis, but nothing more. The strength of the Ottoman state lay not in any particular army or sultan, but in its institutions: the dyhasty, the kapikulari meritocracy, the devsirme career open to the talents, the Janissary infantry, the associated timariots. These were consolidated rather than subverted by Ankara. Moreover neither Constantinople nor Christendom generally, absorbed in schism and the Hundred Years War, used the respite from the Ottomans to strengthen themselves. From the Ottoman perspective, Ankara was a defaite sans landemain. Tamerlane would not have had it otherwise. He had no wish to to destroy the Ottoman state, and were it not for its threat to his flank in eastern Anatolia might not have fought it. In 1395 Tamerlane wrote to Bayezit, whom he addressed as the Sultan of Edirne, proposing a partition of the Golden Horde along the line of the Dnieper, i.e. a deflection of Ottoman interest to the north rather than to the east. In this the Great Amir may have perceived Ottoman interests more clearly than the sultan.

If Orthodox and Catholic Christendom gained little from Tamerlane, Eastern heterodoxy lost much. Tamerlane planned to restore the North Syrian corridor, long a military frontier between north and south, as an east-west commercial thoroughfare. But it was to be a Muslim thoroughfare and he systematically destroyed Christian institutions in the area, monastic, episcopal and mercantile.l5 Clavijo reports demolition of Armenian churches in eastern Anatolia. The Jacobites were not able to elect a maphnan between 1379 and 1404. Though the Eastern Christian communities had been under increasing pressure from their Muslim neighbours ever since the Il-khans threatened a Christian revanche, Atiya argues that it was Tamerlane who destroyed the Nestorians as a national and international organization in northern Iraq and gravely weakened the Jacobites in Kurdistan and northern Syria. The long survival of these rival Christian communities has been largely forgotten because Tamerlane so thoroughly suppressed them. Tamerlane might be polite to the Castilian ambassador Clavijo and give him precedence over the representatives of the Ming emperor, but his Islamic commitment, whether Mutazilite or Shiite, was real.

If Eastern heterodoxy lost much through Tamerlane, the Mamluks, his other Muslim enemy in the west, lost something. The Mamluk state was a foreign military oligarchy of slaves without masters, the culmination of the Islamic tradition of slave soldiers and an adaptation of the Mongols' ordo the better to resist them. As foreign, as needing constant immigration, the Mamluks lived in alliance and symbiosis with the Golden Horde. Tamerlane's weakening of the Horde, therefore, weakened the Mamluks, and consolidated the transition from Kipchak to Circassia as their recruiting area. Circassia, neither Indo-European nor Turkish in language, was a highly provincial background for a successful ruling class. Though the Mamluks recovered Damascus and Aleppo after 1405, and retained them till their defeat by the Ottomans in 1516, their power was less. Ayn Jalut had been avenged.


Tamerlane never invaded Ming China, but this threat to do so had a profound impact there. The first Ming ruler, the Hung-wu emperor (1368-1398), was not particularly interested in foreign policy. He was primarily an internal revolutionary and though he allowed his generals to fight campaigns against the Mongols or their associates, his purposes were basically defensive. He contented himself with sending embassies to former Yuan tributaries asking that the Ming be recognized as the new overlords. One of these reached Samarkand in 1395 and was promptly imprisoned by Tamerlane who was already planning his campaign to control the trade route, restore the Yuan, equal Chinggis and surpass Alexander.

Hung-wu died in 1398. After a period of civil war, in 1402 he was succeeded by his son the Yung-lo emperor (1402-1424), who had been concerned with China's Inner Asian frontier and in particular with its shortage of good cavalry horses. He at once began a crash programme of horse breeding and buying, no doubt in anticipation of an invasion from Tamerlane, and in the meantime sent another embassy to Samarkand. This was the embassy encountered by Clavijo. Its terms of reference annoyed Tamerlane and it too was imprisoned, though probably some word of what was going on reached Peking. Yunglo took no immediate action, but in 1405 the first of his great naval expeditions to the west under the eunuch admiral Cheng Ho set sail, paralleled by a flurry of diplomatic activity by land. The primary purpose of these missions was to end China's isolation in the face of an attack from Tamerlane. Unlike his father, Yung-lo was interested in foreign policy. Indeed, unique among Chinese emperors, he made it a top priority. He was an external revolutionary. He planned to restructure China's place in the world by giving it a new oceanic dimension. Yunglo was promoted to this remarkable innovation by Tamerlane, though this could not be adrnitted in the record. He saw that the answer to the power of the heartland was seapower, the power of the circumference as represented by Cheng Ho's fleet. Here Yunglo was reacting not just to Tamerlane's threat but to his contribution to the world order in the institution of the global arsenal.


Down to the Mongolian explosion, styles of warfare were disparate. The steppe with its innumerable ponies, mobile rear-area, people in arms, projectile preference, guerre a l'outrance contrasted with Iran with its big horses, armoured knights, support services, professionalism, impact preference, chivalrous welfare. Iran contrasted with an earlier, 'democratic' tradition of massed heavy industry and brutal, enslaving war, dormant in Europe since Classical antiquity, but in China revived by the Sung. In 1200 gunpowder was confined to China, war galleys to the Mediterranean, paddle wheelers to the Yangtze lakes, war elephants to India, the horse to the Old World. Everywhere generals and admirals acted within traditions and operations were less competition between equals than trials between different systems. From the Mongolian explosion, however, there began a process of osmosis which produced a standardized global arsenal in cavalry, artillery and seapower. Military intelligence travels fast and enemies are quick to imitate. Like the microbian common market, the global arsenal was rooted in the basic information circuit, but as a voluntary, not an involuntary part of this process. Tamerlane was both effect and cause, expression and agent.


The Mongolian explosion was based on the temporary superiority of light cavalry. From the middle of the thirteenth century, beginning with the battle of Ayn Jalut, heavy cavalry began to regain the advantage. To reduce inferiority in numbers, more big horses were bred in studs. Professionalism, where the Iranian knight had always had the advantage over the Turco-Mongolian herdsman, was promoted. Advantages with armour, bows and equipment were extended. Knights were better coordinated with other units - infantry, light cavalry, and artillery- in what became for the first time composite armies. Organization, the factor which had surcharged the steppe, was brought up to Chinggisid standards. The Ottoman party state, the Mamluk military brotherhood, Tamerlane's political machine, all borrowed from the ordo. Defeats, like Ankara, no longer caused states to dissolve, as the tribal and city polity of the Khwarazmshah had dissolved. Ayn Jalut was followed by the success of the Il-khanate against the Golden Horde, the defeat of first Arigh Boke and then Qaidu by the Alan heavy cavalry of Khubilai, the ascendancy within the Golden Horde of Nogai, again in association with the Alans, and the inability of the Moghuls to reunite the Chaghatai khanate. Historians have been quick to document the superiority of the steppe. They have been much less so to document its reversal.

Of this reversal, Tamerlane's campaigns against the Golden Horde, culminating in the battles of Kanduzcha and the Terek river, were the climax. It is clear from contemporary illustrations that the core of Tamerlane's army consisted of armoured knights, taken out of their tribal structure, attached to the Timurid courts, and provided with grants of sedentary land known as soyurghal on which to maintain their large horses. From literary sources, especially Clavijo who was interested in nomads, it is also clear that Tamerlane continued to make use of steppe light cavalry accompanied on campaign by its civilian population. To this mixture of heavy and light cavalry, Tamerlane later added the super-heavy cavalry of his elephants. His army, indeed was the most composite of the fourteenth century. The Golden Horde, on the other hand, never made the transition from a simple to a composite force. The failure of Nogai to consolidate, the subsequent dominance within his horde of the Manghit obogh of Magyshlak, and the ascendancy of the eastern Blue Horde over the western White Horde, all spelt the continued preponderance of light cavalry. It was this which was defeated in the campaigns against Tamerlane. Here he was a true anti Chinggis. By contrast, the Ottomans made their way increasingly composite. In the Balkans they combined Janissary infantry and artillery with their own timariot heavy horse and with light cavalry supplied by their satellite the Crimean khanate. It was in the Balkan-Ukraine region too that there developed the intermediate horseman: the hussar, Cossack or Uhlan, mounted on a big horse, but with the saddle, short stirrups, weapons and absence of body armour of the light horseman.


Tamerlane's role in the rise of artillery and firearms, as an essential part of composite armies, has not been sufficiently appreciated. One reason for this is that their history is too completely identified with that of gunpowder and the gun.

The earliest successful firearm was based not on gunpowder, but on naphtha. This was the famous Greek fire, essentially a flame thrower operated by bellows, supposedly invented by Callinicus of Heliopolis (Egypt or Syria, it is not clear) c.650 AD. It was certainly used against the Muslim sieges between 671 and 678, against the Rus in 941, and against the Pisans off Rhodes in 1103. Greek fire came to China c.900, probably via the southern sea route. It is first mentioned in 917 as a gift from Ch'ien Liu, king of the Hangchow city state of Wu-yueh, to A-pao-chi, founder of the northern Khitan kingdom of Liao, doubtless with a view to common defence against the expanding ernpire of the Five Dynasties in Honan, Hopei and Shansi. A reference for 919 specifies that the meng-huo yu (fiercely-burning oil) and its siphon-like projector pump came from the Arab world, Ta-Shih kuo. Gunpowder, the formula for which is first mentioned in a Taoist text c.850 AD, found its first military use, in a low nitrate form, as ignition for naphtha based flame throwers. Its use in this way is first mentioned in the Wu-ching tsungyao (complete essentials of military science) of 1044, but as an already established practice, which probably went back to the tenth century. Naphtha, however, was never wholly satisfactory. In 975, for example, the Southern T'ang admiral Chu Ling-pin was defeated by the Northern Sung, when the wind turned his flame throwers back on his own ships. It was therefore increasingly replaced by gunpowder. Indeed in Arabic, naft, which had originally referred to Greek fire, came to denote first deflagrating low nitrate gunpowder and then explosive high nitrate gunpowder. Nevertheless, naphtha continued in use, especially in Middle Eastern armies to whom oil was readily available, and in the form of napalm still does. There are a number of indications that Tamerlane used such weap- ons: against elephants in India, mounted on elephants against Aleppo, and against ships in the siege of Smyrna.

When gunpowder replaced naphtha it did so first in the form of the back-firing rocket rather than the forward-firing gun. The military rocket, or fire arrow huo-chien originated in the civilian firecrackers known as 'ground rats' ti lao-shu which made their appearance in China in the twelfth century. Arounci 1200, 'ground rats' were used to power incendiary arrows instead of the crossbow and in 1245 rocket-propelled fire arrows were being used in units of the Sung navy exercising in the Ch'ien-t'ang estuary. These rockets were propelled by middle nitrate, 'whoosh', gunpowder. Rockets, however, did not long retain their predominance. Though they continued to be used in the Chinese navy down to the Opium War, in the army, from the late thirteenth century, that is under the Yuan dynasty, they were increasingly replaced by hand guns and cannon using explosive, high nitrate and forward-firing gunpowder. These were developed out of the metal barrels employed when co-viative projectiles were added to naphtha-based and gunpow-der-ignited flame throwers. The earliest representation of a hand gun is in a Buddhist cave temple, dated 1250-80, Ta-tsu in Szechwan, first recognized as such by Robin Yates in June 1983. An actual gun dated to 1288 is in the Heilungkiang museum and several cannon survive from the mid-fourteenth century. Cannon first played a decisive role in naval actions on the Yangtze cluring the interregnum between Yuan and Ming.

In the West, references to gunpowder rockets appear in the late thirteenth century, especially in works ascribed to St. Albert Magnus, and they were in military use at Ghent in 1314. They were soon, however, superseded by gunpowder cannon. The earliest European picture of a cannon is in a manuscript of Walter Demilametes' De Nooilitatis . . . Regum of 1327 and they were employed at Crecy in 1346. Where rockets had their longest ascendancy was India and India was the inspiration for their revival in Europe initiated by William Congreve. According to Alam Khan, gunpowder weapons, presumably rockets, were introduced to India by the Chaghatai invasions of the early fourteenth century. Here they led to modifications in military architecture and were adopted by governments, Muslim and Hindu, in both north and south. In the north, the cost of firearms was a factor in the development of the more centralized regimes of Lhe Khalji and Tughluq Delhi sulltanates, which was one result of the Chaghatai invasions.

Flame throwers and rockets formed part of Tamerlane's military inheritance. He also took steps to acquire hand guns and cannon. Clavijo noted that, 'From Turkey he had brought their gun-smiths who made the arquebus . . . Again he had gathered here in Samarqand artillery men, both engineers and bombardiers, besides those who make the ropes by which these engines work.' While Clavijo does not give details and various translations are possible, the true arquebus is the Hackeniichse, the German hand gun with steadying rests, the immediate ancestor of the musket, while bombardiers and tow suggest some kind of cannon which the Ottomans had used at Kossovo in 1389. Hand guns and cannon were thus probably introduced to Central Asia from the west by Tamerlane. The Chinese already had cannon, but it was from Central Asia, most likely from the Moghul khanate of Turfan, that matchlock muskets were intro- duced to China, possibly in the time of Yung-lo, certainly by 1520. The Chinese account of the war with Turfan between 1505 and 1524 states that the Moghuls had learnt the use of firearms from Rum, i.e. the Ottoman empire. Tamerlane, therefore, by his commitment to a composite army, contributed to the diffusion of artillery technology as part of a single global arsenal. Subsequently, his descendants, the Mughals, were to make hand guns and cannon more widely used in India, just as his predecessors, the Chaghatai khans, had introduced rockets.


Tamerlane and seapower appear a paradox. Most likely Tamerlane never saw the sea. He was the incarnation of the heartland - Braudel 's fortune monstrueuse des terres, Bernard Shaw's war god of Turania - and seapower, and more specifically oceanic power, is its antithesis. Yet Tamerlane did play a role in the genesis of seapower as an ingredient in the global arsenal. First, by his threatening accumulation of military power in the heartland, he provoked the first manifestation of oceanic power in Cheng Ho's voyages. Second, although Tamerlane did not live to see these voyages, he may have heard of the preparations for them, and even before, showed interest in the oceanic margins of his world. Third, Tamerlane's interest in the Far West, his invitation to the Castilian king, the information acquired by Clavijo, came closely upon the beginnings of Iberian seapower: the Castilian expeditions to Tetuan in 1400, to the Canary islands in 1402, the Portuguese expedition to Ceuta in 1415. Tamerlane both contributed to global consciousness and provided a further input to the basic information circuit.

Historians, like contemporaries, have been puzzled by the purpose of the six Chinese maritime expeditions between 1405 and 1433. The official explanation, a search among the Chinese communities of Southeast Asia for Yung-lo's predecessor the Chien-wen emperor, who was supposed to have survived the storming of Nanking by his uncle in 1402, seems among the least plausible. Other explanations: immediatization of relations with new states like Malacca, recanalization of private Chinese overseas trade into official, non-Chinese tributary channels, exotica to ornament and legitimize an usurped throne, scientific curiosity and a search for drugs in a time of new diseases, apply to some of the voyages, but not to all of them in detail. In Ma Huan's account, the climax of the voyages was Mecca. It may be inferred, therefore, that their primary purpose was to make contact with the Muslim world beyond Tamerlane as a potential ally for China in case the great invasion eventuated. This would explain the voyages as far as Ormuz and Aden, but not, it might be supposed, the tentatives southward toward the Madagascar channel and perhaps the Cape of Good Hope. But here too a strategic purpose may be conjectured. Yunglo will have heard of the precedence given over his ambassadors to Samarkand to those of Henry III of Castile. If the Franks of the Far West were so significant, should not China have direct contact with them? Yung-lo's death in 1424 inter rupted the series of voyages, so that the last in 1431 was only a reprise to compensate the military for the withdrawal from Vietnam, but if they had been pursued, Cheng Ho's armada might have appeared in the Tagus or the Guadalquivir. Such a thing was not inconceivable to contemporaries. Cheng Ho was a Muslim and Joanot Martorell has a Muslim fleet from the Canaries invade the England of Henry VI. Tamerlane provoked a new awareness of sea, indeed, oceanic, power.

Tamerlane himself was not without some perception of seapower. He may never have seen the sea, but he will most likely have seen the Caspian, whose trade in salt, sturgeon and caviare was a significant link between the Golden Horde and the Il-khanate. Moreover its strategic role on the flank of the central land route will not have escaped him. In his meeting with Ibn lKhaldun outside Damascus in 1401, Tamerlane asked the historian for a report - within 24 hours - on 'the whole country of the Maghrib.' In particular, Tamerlane asked about the exact locations of Tangier and Ceuta, i.e. the keys to the straits of Gilbraltar and the Atlantic. It is difficult to believe that Tamerlane's interest was purely academic. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun was sufficiently worried by Tamerlane's interest to write a letter to the authorities in the Maghreb telling them what had tran- spired between him and the conqueror. Conquests in the Far West would not have formed part of Tamerlane's grand design, but it should be remembered that Alexander the Great in his famous last plans had envisaged a circumnavigation of Africa. At the lowest, Tamerlane's question indicates an awareness of the oceanic periphery of his world and hence of seapower. It may have been the conversation with Ibn Khaldun too which gave Tamerlane an interest in Castile and led to the invitation to Clavijo.

Clavijo returned to Seville in March 1406. Henry III died in 1407, but his interest in the basic information circuit did not die with him. His nephew by marriage was Henry the Navigator and his grandaughter was Isabella the Catholic. Clavijo's report was not printed till 1582, but it was widely copied in Spain and will have had its subterranean effect. In it he noted the difficulties of land communication with China.

"Now from the city of Samarqand it is six months' march to the capital of China, which is called Cambaluc . . . and of this six months' journey two are passed going across a desert country entirely uninhabited, except by nomad herdsmen."

However, there was another possibility. In Samarkand, Clavijo talked to a Central Asian merchant, 'who had been allowed to reside in Cambaluc during six whole months. He described that great city as lying not far from the sea coast, and for its size he said it was certainly twenty times larger than Tabriz.' Clavijo commented:

" If so it must indeed be the greatest city in all the world, for Tabriz measures a great league and more across and therefore this city of Cambaluc must extend to twenty leagues from one side to the other."

Tabriz was the easternmost outlet for Western, especially Genoese, trade and on his visit Clavijo had noted 'There is indeed an immense concourse of merchants and merchandise here. If Peking was a bigger mart than Tabriz and close to the sea, it would not be difficult for someone in Seville, especially if they were Genoese and had read Peter diAilly's Imago Mundi and the Latin version of Ptolemy's Gography, both published in 1410, to conceive an even bolder voyage than those of Cheng Ho.

Please enter your name:

and your E-Mail address:

Type in here which week this assignment is for:

Please answer one of the following questions in the space provided. Please type in the question to be answered first.:

1. What does Adshead mean by "global arsenal"? Does his explanation make sense?
2. What does Adshead believe to be Tamerlane's main achievements [good and bad]?