Under Timur (1370 – 1405), Central Asia moved to the fore of world events. He developed a political arrangement that could harness the best attributes of each society, without the dangerous side effect of communal violence. The new political and military system was deeply ingrained in the political background of the Chagatai Khanate, and eliminated the Inju practice. Timur provided a framework for both societies to live in harmony.
Born in 1336, near Kesh in modern-day Uzbekistan, Timur was a product of the Turko-Mongol fusion. He descended from an aristocratic Mongol clan, but he was raised as a Muslim and spoke a Turkic language. A native to Transoxiana, he could not assert Genghis-Khanid legitimacy. Thus, he could not take the title of khan in his own right. Because he did not have the correct pedigree, he would have to earn it. So, he took the title of emir, meaning commander, and ruled through a Chagatayid puppet khan acting as a figurehead. He married into the family of Genghis Khan. By changing the law of descent, he could accommodate his children, who would be able to claim Genghis-Khanid legitimacy.
To strengthen the security of his position as emir, he constructed a system of support that ordered his political connections in a series of concentric rings.
- In his primary circle resided his family and close allies.
- The second ring consisted of loyal tribes and Timur’s own Barlas Clan, from which he traced his lineage.
- The third circle was made up of those peoples Timur had defeated on the battlefield. This way, the second and third rings balanced one another.
- The outermost bands included Timur’s hereditary professional administrators and bureaucrats, soldiers from the plains serving in his cavalry units, and finally the Persian urban and agricultural populations, from which he recruited his infantry and siege units.
Like many transitional figures in history, such as Suleiman the Magnificent, Timur bridged the medieval and modern worlds. He attempted to imitate Genghis Khan’s success in the field and designed a novel military machine that was well adapted to the environment in which he lived. His military was the product of a Turko-Mongol fusion, employing Turkic siege techniques and the Mongol cavalry. Unlike Genghis Khan, however, Timur increasingly combined his cavalry, siege, and infantry units, placing his heavy cavalry at the center of formations. His army also utilized an early form of artillery. He ventured to monopolize the market on gunpowder technology so that other powers could not benefit from it.
Timur was determined to keep his volatile army occupied, so they would not be a burden to the sedentary population in his realm. To promote peace at home and success in war aboard, he externalized the violence of the steppe and destroyed all of the other trade routes that bypassed his territory. Timur attempted to reactivate and dominate the Silk Road and diverted trade to his lands in order to help rebuild the cities that had been damaged from years of Mongol and nomad rule. He did not aim at permanent occupation or the creation of new states. He campaigned against the Golden Horde, Delhi Sultanate, and the Ottoman Empire, all in an effort to redirect trade in his direction.
From 1370 to 1385, he conquered and subdued Mogholistan to the northeast, with the aim of securing the core central land route of the Silk Road. (The Chagatai Khanate had already been divided into two parts by the 1340s, Transoxania in the west, and Mogholistan in the east.) Then he engaged the Golden Horde between 1385 and 1395 to divert trade to his lands. The Golden Horde had been the master of the northern trade route that bypassed Timur’s territory.
Timur showed his strategic genius in these expeditions. He defeated a steppe power on the steppe. He put the pieces of his army together so that he could take his enemies on in their arena and on their terms. In this manner, Timur crushed Tokhtamysh, leader of the Golden Horde, in 1395. During the course of this campaign, Timur destroyed their principal trade cities of Astrakhan and Sarai. As a result of the campaign, the Grand Duchy of Moscow was able to throw off the Mongol yoke and arise.
Timur raided into India from 1398 to 1399 and dealt a blow to the southern sea route that connected the Occident to the Orient. This expedition was primarily for looting, since he never intended to conquer and annex the territory of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq, the last member of the Tughluq Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate. During this campaign, Timur’s tactical brilliance was on full display; he had an uncanny ability to adapt to any martial environment that he confronted. For instance, when threatened with a cavalry of war elephants, Timur responded by unleashing a pack of camels laden with incendiary material to charge the enemy lines. The rest was utter pandemonium among Nasir-ud-Din’s cavalry of elephants, who rampaged through the sultan’s own lines. Timur easily routed the sultan’s forces. When faced with the townspeople of Delhi rising up against their aggressors, Timur brutally sacked the capital of the sultanate and justified the violence in religious terms. His was a Muslim victory over the Hindu unbelievers of India.
In Timur’s final period of conquest, which lasted from 1400 to 1404, he campaigned against the Islamic far west, directing his army against the Ottomans. Actually, Timur had initially attempted to avoid conflict with the Ottomans, and even tried to negotiate with Bayezid I, the Ottoman Sultan, offering him part of Golden Horde’s territory west of Dnieper River.
As the Ottomans expanded to the east, they took control of some Turkmen tribes in eastern Anatolia already under the protection of Timur. The emir responded by taking some other Turkmen tribes under Ottoman suzerainty. A war of words ensued, as Timur bided his time, waiting for the perfect moment to attack. In 1402, as the Ottomans were preoccupied with campaigning against the Hungarians, he attacked. During the Battle of Ankara in 1402, Timur managed to convince many of the Ottoman forces to defect to his side. He captured the Ottoman sultan, who died in captivity three months later. Timur had not attempted to conquer the Ottomans. Rather, he just wanted to punish them for their unwillingness to cooperate. His Levantine expedition also seems to have been designed to weaken the western end of the Silk Road in Aleppo, Syria.
Timur died in 1405 while on a campaign against the Ming Dynasty in China. His empire had spanned the breadth of Central Asia. The sons of Timur and their followers squabbled over succession. As members of the Timurid Dynasty competed among themselves, the empire fragmented. The steppe military that had been redirected, returned on Timur's death. A weak state emerged from all this strife.
8.9.1: Terror and Destruction
Timur certainly committed what we would describe today as war crimes. In fact, as an admirer of architecture, he is known to have constructed pyramids of human skulls. Extant accounts describe him slaughtering 100,000 Indian prisoners following the Delhi uprising. But not all destruction was the same. Genghis Khan’s used terror as a method to protect his troops, whereas Timur engaged in terror and destruction for pleasure.
A product of the Turko-Mongolian fusion, Timur had been the first to reunite the eastern and western parts of the Chagatai ulus. His empire represents the construction of the political boundaries that would define modern-day Central Asia up to the twentieth century. Under his rule, we see growing political and cultural distinctions between Iran, Central Asia proper, and India beginning to cement. In this context, we also witness a split taking place on the steppe that will lead to a differentiation of the Uzbeks and Kazaks. By the late fourteenth century, the tribes on the steppe to the north will become known to Muslim writers as Kazaks, whereas the tribes to the south will be increasingly referred to as Uzbeks.