The Life of Tamerlane

The Seven Years Campaign

Previous: The Battle of Aleppo

The Battle

Aleppo having been crushed, the highway to Damascus was open. Timur turned his awful path of destruction south. He first took the cities of Hama, Homs, and Baalbek, all of which surrendered without a fight (remembering the awful fate of those who had resisted). Sending detachments of horsemen to plunder Tyre and Sidon, he moved west to Damascus. This was in the early months of 1401.

"There came from Haleb [Aleppo], Istanbugha Aldawadar and Al Fatah Al Mahir... who said: "O Assembly of Muslims, to fly from evil which cannot be overcome is the counsel of the prophets; let him who can fly seek a way of safety and let him who can, gird his loins and not stay a night in Damascus or deceive himself, for rumour is nothing compared with what we ourselves have seen."1

When first the news of Aleppo’s destruction arrived in Al-Qahirah, it was ignored. Surely the mighty armies of the Mamluks could not have lost to a mere bandit from the wild lands of Inner Asia? Sultan Faraj dithered, sending two of his lords to investigate the reports. Even after they returned with the sad truth, Faraj delayed; he brought his army north to Gaza, and thence to Damascus (where Timur had already secured the western approaches), but was there halted by internal strife. Some of the generals were stricken by fear; others believed that the fall of Aleppo had been a mere accident, and they should strike against Timur while the chance was ripe. In this weak position Faraj received another letter from Timur, restating the previous set of demands: He was to lay down his arms, hand over Timur’s nephew Atilmish, and add the name of Timur Lenk to his Friday prayers. This time Faraj made every sign of acceptance, but failed to follow through within the required five days.

Then Timur announced that he had become weary and weak and retired a little and moved back and displayed fear, all which was part of his cunning and like a hunter's net..."2

Surprisingly, Timur did not attack. Instead, he withdrew to the east, sparking a sortie from the city. This was thrown back with terrible losses, and the Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction was now enraged. Faraj held him off for one more day with a message of explanation: The previous sortie had been a popular uprising, not commanded by the generals. Timur again halted his army, encircling the city in preparation for a siege. It is said that the lights of his campfires stretched for one hundred and fifty miles around.

The next day dawned with terrible news. The Egyptian army had fled the plain of battle; some of the emirs had heard news of an uprising in Cairo and removed their divisions from the field, and Sultan Faraj had followed in pursuit. Timur sent out his horsemen to chase down and slaughter the fleeing Mamluks, while he himself prepared to besiege the city, which had shut its gates and declared a jihad against the Tatars.

As Damascus was strongly fortified and well-provisioned for a siege, Timur thought it prudent to offer terms of surrender. After some negotiation (in which the eminent historian Ibn Khaldun figured prominentlyx) they were accepted, and the Tatar army marched through the open gates. Strict orders were given against pillage, and those who broke the rule were crucified in the public bazaar. This was to reassure the people of Damascus that their new ruler was benevolent and fair. Though the city itself had fallen, the garrison of the main fortress was determined to resist. They held out for fully one month after the surrender of the city, but fell to the siege craft of the Tatars, who broke the fortress walls by heating them with flaming naphtha and cooling them with vinegar, so that they cracked and shattered under the blows of hammers. The defending soldiers were enslaved and the governor beheaded.

The Sack

"When he had filled the bag of his cupidity with precious things and had gradually milked every drop clear or foul... he let his soldiers plunder at will, seize any they wished as prisoners, destroy suddenly and slaughter, burn and drag into bondage without restraint. ...Wisdom became fickle, sagacity was stunned and thick clouds of affliction gathered, and I call Allah to witness that those days were a sign among the signs of the last day; and that that hour showed the conditions of the last day."3

Here opens the saddest chapter in all of Timur’s history. Damascus was in those times the pearl of Syria and among the greatest cities of the Arab world, indeed one of the greatest in all the world; fed by trade from India and the Far East, it grew wealthy and powerful, filled with men of learning and skilled artisans: weavers of silk, glassblowers, makers of the fine Damascus steel, gem-cutters, armorers, falconers and carpenters. Its Cathedral Mosque was an unrivaled marvel of architecture, copied throughout the Islamic world; Timur himself modeled his own great mosque at Samarkand after its graceful design. When the fortress had fallen, Timur ordered the city to pay a massive ransom, the cost of which stripped it bare. Then, claiming vengeance for the murdered Ali (recall that Timur was a Shiite, and the Sunnis of Damascus bore the stain of the murder of Ali, whom Timur considered the rightful successor of the Prophet), he gave his horde free run of the city, rescinding his earlier order against pillage.

For three full days the Tatar hordes ran amok through the streets of Damascus. Every valuable thing was stolen; all the scholars (including the chronicler Ahmed ibn Arabshah, at that time a boy of 12) and artisans were taken away in chains; the common people of the city were brutally slaughtered, and the marvelous buildings were burned to the ground. One account reports that Timur herded some thirty thousand (though this number has doubtless been exaggerated) of the Damascenes into the Cathedral Mosque before setting it aflame. When they had completed this awful task, the city was utterly destroyed. It would never recover its former glory.4 Truly it seemed as if the end of the world had come with ruin to the fair city of Damascus, for upon Timur’s departure a plague of locusts descended on the city and the surrounding regions, devouring all that the Conqueror had spared.

The Aftermath

Timur departed from the devastated city to subdue Antioch and Baghdad. The power of the Mamluks was crushed; the empire of the Ottoman Turks in Anatolia lay open before him. Timur rested his troops for the remainder of the year at the city of Qarabagh (that is, the Black Garden) in the southern Caucasus.

On to
The Battle of Angora and the conclusion of the Seven Years Campaign


1Arabshah, p. 133. These men came from Aleppo, which Timur had recently laid waste. See Battle of Aleppo to understand the horrors they had seen,
2Arabshah, p. 140.
3Arabshah, p. 157.
4Pilgrims and merchants visiting the city fifty years later reported that the fabled silks and steels of Damascus were nowhere to be found; Timur had carried away all who had the knowledge of their manufacture.
xAmong those who first came to meet the Lame Conqueror was the eminent historian Abd al-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami (commonly called Ibn Khaldun). During the sack of the city he remained with the old conqueror in his camp, where they spoke of history and what had befallen the Maghrib (that is, Khaldun’s homeland in North Africa); Khaldun set down a demanded history of the land, and the two men exchanged gifts; they parted on amicable terms. These events have been more fully described in Khaldun's histories and elsewhere within E2.


Sources:

Arabshah, Ahmed (tr. J.H. Sanders), Tamerlane, or Timur the Great Amir; London, Luzac and Co., 1936.

de Clavijo, Gonzalez (tr. Guy le Strange), Embassy to Tamerlane; London, George Routledge and Sons, 1928.

Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol VII; London, Methuen and Co., 1900.

Hookham, Hilda, Tamburlaine the Conqueror; London, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1962.

Lamb, Harold, Tamerlane the Earth Shaker; New York, Garden City Publishing Co., 1928.


Further reading:

Battle of the Mire
Siege of Takrit
The Seven Years Campaign
Battle of Aleppo
Battle of Damascus
Battle of Angora
Tamerlane Chess


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