Timur, having settled his dynastic questions, crushed the Georgians, and stung the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid by seizing the border city of Sivas, sat at Malatiyah on the northern frontier of Syria. At this point, he was faced with a vital decision: Should he strike west against his military rival Bayezid, or south against the wealthy Mamluk Empire? For the old Emir, the choice was clear; the Mamluk Sultan Faraj would taste the wine of his wrath.
"Therefore when he had stripped Siwas to the flesh and marrow and had emptied it utterly by reaping and grazing, he aimed the arrow of vengeance to destroy the territories of Syria with his army, which might be likened to locusts scattered wide... peoples whom no list could cover and no roll include. In a word, he was a false prophet, and with him Gog and Magog and barren rushing winds."1
But the Lame Conqueror needed some pretext: The Mamluk Empire was the center of the Islamic world, with authority over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina; waging the lawless war of the steppe against such a kingdom would forever condemn Timur in the eyes of his fellow believers. Therefore he wrote to Faraj, demanding the return of his nephew Atilmish 2. The tone of the letter was calculated to offend; it began with a demand that the Mamluks lay down their arms, submit to Timur, include his name in the Friday prayers, and return Atilmish at once; it concluded with a volley of insults against Faraj’s heritage3 and capacity to rule, all calculated to goad the young Sultan into a blind rage. This stratagem worked perfectly; the message so infuriated Saidi Sudun, Viceroy of Damascus, that he executed its bearer before he could reach the Mamluk capital at Al-Qahirah.4
Timur, having gained the pretense he needed, prepared to march south against Syria. His troops, however, were none too eager to continue fighting. They had been on the move since the middle of 1398, and had fought hard battles in Afghanistan, India, and Georgia; the Mamluk armies were well-trained and equipped with fine Damascus steel; the cities were heavily fortified and prepared for sieges. Timur, with his characteristic strength of will, dismissed the complaints: victory would depend on the will of Allah, not the calculus of numbers and weapons. In the late summer of 1400, he marched forth from Malatiyah. The fortress at Bahasnah was first to fall. Timur took the city after a siege of twenty-three days, laying waste to the surrounding lands as he did. The way to the heartlands of Syria was now clear.
The city of Aleppo sat between Antioch on the Mediterranean Sea and the great river Euphrates, straddling a vital trade route, and its markets overflowed with the goods of India. It was the logical target for an army invading from the north.
“Then the Governors and Amirs and the heads of the army and chief men took counsel among themselves, how they should meet him and on what plain they should attack him... each of them unfolded what he though of the matter and they mingled feeble speech with weighty and noble counsel with base...”5
Here at Aleppo the various governors and generals of the Mamluk realm gathered with their armies and met to discuss how they might best oppose the onrushing storm; and they drew up various plans:
It was decided that the third plan was best. The highways and approaches were blockaded, and guards were set on all the roads. The main body of the army was drawn up before the gates to await the conqueror’s arrival.
- One counseled that they should hole up within the strong walls of the city and prepare their defenses
- Another averred that they should meet Timur in the open field.
- The wise al-Malik al-Muid Sheikh al-Khaski, governor of Tripoli, advised that they should send word to the various tribes and peoples of the region, gathering allies against a common foe; further that they should strengthen the defenses of the city, but should meet the Tatar hordes outside the walls.
- Against this Tamardash, Governor of Aleppo, counseled a headlong assault - but he was in the Lame Conqueror’s pay, and plotted to hand over Aleppo at the first opportunity.
Timur advanced cautiously from the north, knowing through his spies that word had been sent to the Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomans to attack him from the rear; this threat never materialized. In November of 1400 (the ninth day of the first month Rabia, by the Arab chronicler’s reckoning) he arrived at the outer defensive lines. The first two days of the battle were spent in minor skirmishing; Timur probed the defenses with small detachments, which were torn to pieces by the Syrian horsemen. On the third day of battle, the two armies faced off across the plain of the city; on one side the Mamluk knights of Syria and Egypt, supplemented by the citizens of Aleppo (for even the women and children went out to meet the foe); on the other the hordes of Timur, with captured war elephants from India leading the center. Both sides raised their warcry: "Allahu Akbar!", "God is great!".
The battle did not last one hour. Timur had sent the wings of his horde to encircle the Syrians under the cover of the previous night, and they now broke over the assembled army like a wave, shattering the orderly ranks and throwing the field into confusion. When the cowardly and treacherous Tamardash (commanding the right wing) fled the plain of battle, the Syrians broke and ran for the gates of Aleppo. Timur had prepared a tuman (ten thousand) of his finest cavalry for just such an event, and he unleashed them in pursuit. Arabshah describes the advance of the Tatar’s horde:
"Then he went over them like a razor over hair and ran like locusts over a green crop."
The city was overrun. The streets ran with blood; the piled dead reached the top of the walls, forming a ramp for the invaders; the many slaves of the city broke down the gates in their mad headlong flight; all the accumulated treasure of generations was carried off by the victorious men of the steppe; the Jews of the city were herded into their synagogues and slaughtered to the last man; the young women were raped, and a pyramid of some twenty thousand skulls was erected outside the city, as a mute testimony to Timur’s terrible vengeance.
Some of the Emirs escaped south to Damascus; others, including Saidi Sudun (who had slain Timur’s emissary) were captured and executed. Tamardash, whose treachery had been instrumental in Timur’s victory, was received with honor at the Tatar camp. Timur then summoned the leading Muslim scholars of the city to his camp, where he posed to them the question:
"Yesterday when some of our men and yours were slain, who were the martyrs, our slain or yours?"
One scholar replied with the words of the Prophet:
"He who fights to make strong the word of Allah, which is the highest thing, is a martyr."
And the Lame Conqueror was satisfied. He further questioned the scholars concerning the question of succession to the Caliphate, for he was a Shia, believing that Ali was the rightful successor to the Caliphate, but they were Sunnis; again he was answered with the words of the Prophet, which sated his curiosity.
Timur remained in the city for about one month, after which he departed for Damascus, leaving the blackened and vulture-haunted ruins of Aleppo behind him.
Continue to the Siege and Sack of Damascus
1Arabshah, p. 117-118. Here Arabshah is describing the destruction of his homeland, which may account for the unusual vitriol..
2 Opinions on his reasons are divided; some say that Atilmish was an ambassador unjustly imprisoned, while others report that he had betrayed Timur and joined Faraj’s court of his own free will.
3His father Barquq was a Circassian slave; he had come to power during the Mamluk dynastic quarrels of the 14th century CE.
4Around the same time, an embassy arrived from Bayezid, suggesting an alliance against the Tatar threat. It was declined, on the grounds that Bayezid had already shown his poor faith by seizing Malatiya during the initial chaos of Faraj’s reign (see section 2 of The Seven Years Campaign. Had the two empires allied against their common foe, they may well have been able to repulse Timur’s horde.)
5Arabshah, p. 120.
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.
Battle of the Mire
Siege of Takrit
The Seven Years Campaign
Battle of Aleppo
Battle of Damascus
Battle of Angora