The year is 1393. Tamerlane's hordes rampage unchecked across the continent. They have taken Baghdad without a fight, and Sultan Ahmad, its ruler, has fled to the Mamluks in Egypt. He has abandoned his power, possessions, and family to save his own craven skin. The common folk and elders of the city were glad to be rid of him; indeed, they welcomed Lord Timur the Splendid as a liberator and savior. In accordance with the old customs1, he has not harmed the city, though he has taken a sizable ransom and sent most of the scholars and craftsmen back to his capital at Samarkand. All has been peaceful for about two months, but there is trouble brewing.
The merchants of Baghdad have long been menaced by a vile and disreputable clan of brigands. These bandits operate from Takrit, a wretched hive of scum and villainy some hundred miles north of Baghdad. From their impregnable fortress, they have raided the trade routes with impunity.
This had to stop, and who better to put an end to it than the new lord of the city? Such a challenge to his authority could not stand. He immediately set off, accompanied by his third son Miranshah and some 72,000 soldiers.
The fortress of Takrit sat on a high rocky outcropping near the Tigris. At that time, it was ruled by one Sultan Hasan, head of an independent clan of bandits. This Hasan, believing his fortress to be inassailable, planned to resist Tamerlane. The usual demands for surrender were ignored, though Hasan could not have been ignorant of the consequences.
Lord Timur the Splendid, true to form, began a fierce siege of the city. At first he bombarded the walls with huge stones from his mangonels. When this failed, he ordered his troops to begin undermining the foundations of the citadel. Since the city sat on a high cliff, the siege engineers had to build a massive roofed scaffold to reach the base of the wall and begin their excavation. With 72,000 men working day and night, the project did not take long. Soon, the entire wall was undermined, with tunnels reaching twenty feet into solid rock in some places.
Hasan was now frightened. His invincible fortress was in real danger of falling, and he knew what would happen when it did. He sent his mother out to bargain with the Lame Conqueror, offering to surrender the city if he could leave unmolested. Tamerlane laughed. Nothing less than a total unconditional surrender was sufficient. Hasan, unwilling to risk his own skin, refused the demands.
Tamerlane, as expected, began his assault. The mine supports burned, the walls came a tumblin' down, and the horde overran the city. Hasan and a few of his men tried to flee but were captured immediately.
In a slight departure from the old Mongol practice, Lord Timur spared the civilians. The fighting men, however, were rounded up, tortured, and executed to the last man2. Tamerlane ordered two towers to be constructed from their heads3, using clay from the Tigris for mortar. The following inscription was chiseled at the base of each tower:
There they would stand, before the ruined walls of the city, as a testimony to the wrath of Timur.
Behold the fate of lawless men and evildoers
1 I don't want to go into the laws of the Mongols and those who followed in their footsteps, as that's beyond the scope of this writeup, but: When attacking a city, the steppe conquerors would almost always offer surrender terms before beginning the assault. Unconditional surrender, payment of a large ransom, and total submission to a new master were usual. If these terms were accepted, then the city would be spared; if not, then the city would be sacked, the walls torn down, the defenders executed, and the civilians either murdered or scattered to the four corners of the earth. This was not just bestial cruelty (though it was that); rather, it was a clever and nasty piece of psychological warfare. Any ruler who heard reports of such a thing would think twice before putting up a fight, and annihilating one city could gain the immediate surrender of three or four others.
aNowadays the city is called Tikrit, and it is the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
2This seems barbaric to us today, but remember that we cannot judge yesterday by the standards of today. The civilized Europeans of the time were shocked, shocked to hear of such barbarities, but recall the butchery of the French POWs at Agincourt only a few years later and realize that Tamerlane had no monopoly on cruelty.
3This was a common practice. The following story from Clavijo's Embassy to Tamerlane illustrates:
"Outside Damghan at the distance of a bowshot we noticed two towers, built as tall as the height to which one might cast up a stone, which were entirely constructed from men's skulls set in clay. Besides these there were two similar towers, but these appeared already fallen to the ground in decay. These skulls were those of certain Tatars of the Aq Quyunlu clan."
-[Clavijo then describes the clan's war with Tamerlane, followed by their defeat and deportation, and their revolt.] -
"It however happened that Timur with his army was in this neighborhood [Syria] at the time, who coming to Damghan fell upon the Aq Quyunlu and slaughtered a great number of them. He had then commanded that these four towers should be built up with their heads, in layers, a layer of skulls being set alternately above the layer of clay bricks. Further Timur made proclamation throughout his army that whosoever should take one of the Aq Quyunlu prisoner should forthwith put him to death, no matter any promise of quarter that had been given... They told us that in this way more than 60,000 of this folk had thus been massacred." -Gonzalez de Clavijo, Embassy to Tamerlane, tr. G. le Strange.
- Clavijo, Gonzalez de Embassy to Tamerlane tr. Guy le Strange; London, George Routledge and Sons, 1928
- Hookham, Hilda Tamburlaine the Conqueror; London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1962
- Lamb, Harold, Tamerlane the Earth Shaker; New York, Robert McBride & Co, 1928.
Battle of the Mire
Siege of Takrit
The Seven Years Campaign
Battle of Aleppo
Battle of Damascus
Battle of Angora