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The Life of Tamerlane


Tamerlane and his brother-in-law Emir Husayn of Balkh sit behind the throne of Samarkand, ruling the city and the surrounding lands through their puppet Khan Kabul Shah. One year previous, they had returned from imprisonment and exile in the deserts of Sistan, leading an army against Ilyas Khoja, the despotic Khan of Moghulistan, who had ruled the lands of Transoxania with an iron fist. They had driven him forth into the eastern steppes with every sort of trick and stratagem, confounding and befuddling him at every turn. Helpless against Timur's immensely clever strategy and Husayn's powerful armies, Ilyas Khoja could not remain in power. He fled to his old domains to lick his wounds and recover his strength.

All this changed in the spring of 1365. Ilyas Khoja returned to Transoxania, leading some 160,0001 mounted warriors. He was determined to drive out the usurpers and recover the kingdom that his father had gained. Timur and Husayn were well-prepared to meet him; their former rag-tag band of desperate men had grown to a regimented and disciplined army, swelled by the cohorts brought by the lords of the land, filled out with Afghan mercenaries and feudal levies, armed and armored with the finest steel of Persia and Samarkand. These were no steppe barbarians; though they carried the ubiquitous composite bow and tulwar of the Mongols, they had learned some warcraft from the Persians; many were also armed with lances, scimitars, and heavy iron maces. They wore heavy steel plate armor, and many of their horses were barded. In a great departure from the old Mongol way of warfare, these horsemen were supported by spear-wielding infantry. Against this might, Ilyas Khoja fielded standard Mongol troops; swarms of horsemen armed with bow and sword, wearing light leather armor, relying on speed, maneuver, and shock to break the strength of their more powerful foes.

The two armies met on the plain near Tashkent, on the banks of the Ixartes river. Both hosts followed the old Mongol doctrines of warfare; both were divided into three groupings, one central mass and two wings, with each division split into main and reserve. Husayn commanded the strong right wing of the army, while Timur, with his usual bravery, took command of the weaker left. Both were confident that they would soon be victorious.

Then it began to rain. And it rained. And it rained some more. A massive thunderstorm drenched the battlefield for three straight days, flooding the river and turning the plain into a swamp. Ilyas Khoja's armies were prepared2; they dug trenches to drain their position, took shelter in their tents, and protected their horses with felt blankets. Timur was not ready; his men and horses were chilled and weakened by the cold spring rain, and they floundered about through chest-deep mud. Their bowstrings were wet and useless, their weapons rusted, and their clothes were soaked through and through. After four days, the rain lifted slightly and Ilyas Khoja ordered his armies to advance. Timur's left wing charged, and there was chaos. Neither side could use their bows in the rainstorm, so the armies clashed hand to hand. The battle went badly for Timur and Husayn; though Timur himself routed the right wing of the Moghul army by cutting down their standard, Husayn was driven back and nearly routed. Only his reserves kept the Moghuls from breaking through and surrounding the army. Finally, Timur reached the rear of the main Moghul army, cutting them off from their reserves. He sent a courier to Husayn urging him to press the attack. Husayn, perhaps jealous of Timur's success, refused, and the opportunity was lost. Timur continued to press the attack on his own, but he was outnumbered and surrounded. After another day of fruitless combat, he retreated to his home in the Qashka-Darya river valley, leaving the better part of his army lying in the mud.


Each lord blamed the other for their catastrophic defeat; Husayn claimed that Timur's rashness cost them victory, while Timur called Husayn a coward for refusing to press the attack. Further, Husayn demanded a heavy tribute, though Timur's armies had suffered greater losses. Timur's wife (and Husayn's sister) Aljai had to sell her jewelry to pay the tribute, which further separated the men, who had once been like brothers. When Aljai died in 1366 (some whisper that Timur murdered her), their final tie was cut; from then on, the two were at open war.


1As with all historical numbers, this figure is none too reliable.
2The official chronicles report that the Moghul magicians called up the rainstorm with the aid of the magic "Yeddah Stone". They explain it by pointing out how the Moghul army expected and prepared for the rainstorm, and how the rains immediately ceased when their chief magician was killed on the second day of battle.


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

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

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The Life of Tamerlane

Questions and comments welcome

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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