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Tamerlan Tsarnaev: What’s in a Name?

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Timur’s campaigns are infamous for their extensive massacres and emblematic “pyramids of heads.” Brown cites “only a few” prominent examples, in addition to the graphic cover art illustration, resulting from the 1401 Baghdad carnage:

As specimens of those acts mention may be made of his massacre of the people of Sistan 1383-4, when he caused some two thousand prisoners to be built up into a wall; his cold-blooded slaughter of a hundred thousand captive Indians near Dihli [Delhi] (December, 1398); his burying alive of four thousand Armenians in 1400-1, and the twenty towers of skulls erected by him at Aleppo and Damascus in the same year; and his massacre of 70,000 of the inhabitants of Isfahan in (November, 1387)…

Timur defeated his major Muslim rivals, the Ottomans, under Bayezid, July 20, 1402, destroying the Ottoman army (at Cubuk), and holding the sultan captive. Bayezid died a few months later (March 9, 1403, at Aksehir), “..broken by disaster and humiliation.” With the Ottoman army’s decimation, the conquest of Western Anatolia (and beyond), as Grousset has noted, “was no more than a route march for Tamerlane. ”Bursa, the Ottoman capital, was plundered, and Tamerlane’s surrogates continued their devastating advance further to Nicaea (Iznik).

Ibn Arabshah and Sharif ad-Din describe the conquerors behaving like a horde of savages, and that lovely city was set on fire. Tamerlane’s grandson Abu Bakr galloped as far as Nicaea (Iznik), “slaying and looting everywhere,” as Sharif ad-Din tells with relish.

Christian Smyrna (later Izmir)—which had defied repeated Ottoman attempts at conquest—was besieged by Tamerlane himself, after its governor, Brother Guillaume de Munte of the Knights of Rhodes refused to convert to Islam. Following a two-week siege, which began in early December, 1402, the city was overwhelmed, and a general massacre ensued. According to Ibn Arabshah,

…[H]e slew the grown men and cast in bonds the women and children and from the corpses of the slain built mosques and from the skulls raised towers; then he despoiled that fort of its wealth and robbed it of its treasure and emptied it and desolated and plundered it and utterly drained its silver and gold and made the wings of glad news fly with these exploits, which news according to his presumption he sent through the world with propitious augury and swift flight.

A rather gruesome variant on the primary use of decapitated heads for skull towers occurred during the capture and destruction of Smyrna, as recorded by the Zafarnama.

A few escaped slaughter by casting themselves into the sea, and swimming to the vessels; while others were drowned. After our soldiers had put the inhabitants of Smyrna to the sword, they razed the houses, as well of the city as of the cattle, casting their arms and movable goods into the sea. There were from certain parts of Europe great ships named Caraca, with two masts, and some with more, which brought over soldiers and arms to succor the inhabitants. When they came near the palace and beheld the town and castle in ruins, they were struck with fear and anchored. Timur ordered that some of the Christians heads should be thrown into these ships, which the slingers of wild-fire accordingly did. The mariners seeing their companions heads, returned in fear and frustrated of their hopes.

French historian Rene Grousset maintained Timur was indeed a pious Muslim (who may well have belonged to the Naqshbandi Sufi order, according to Manz),  while emphasizing the important Islamic motivation for Timur’s jihad campaigns:

It is the Qur’an to which he continually appeals, the imams and [Sufi] dervishes who prophesy his success. [emphasis added] His wars were to influence the character of the jihad, the Holy War, even when— as was almost always the case— he was fighting Muslims. He had only to accuse these Muslims of lukewarmness, whether the Jagataites of the Ili and Uiguria, whose conversion was so recent, or the Sultans of Delhi who…refrained from massacring their millions of Hindu subjects.

American historian Beatrice Manz concurs with Grousset’s assessment about the centrality of Islamic jihadism in motiviating Tamerlane’s conquests, although she also stresses his dual role as “restorer” of the Turco-Mongolian world order. Tamerlane patronized Muslim scholars, constructed Islamic religious buildings, and waged jihad campaigns for dissemination of the Muslim creed to establish his bona fides as a promoter of Islam. The Zafarnama, Manz observes, invokes promulgation of the Sharia, specifically, as a primary animating factor for many of Tamerlane’s campaigns:

Timur undertook many of his campaigns in the interest of religious order, and we find that almost all mentions of Sharia in [Nizan al-Dim] Shami’s Zafarnameh occur as justification for Timur’s conquests.

Timur’s jihad campaigns against non-Muslims — whether Christians in Asia Minor and Georgia, or Hindus in India — seemed to intensify in brutality. British historian E.G. Brown highlights one particular episode which supports this contention, wherein Timur clearly distinguished between his vanquished Muslim and non-Muslim foes. After rampaging through (Christian) Georgia, where he “devastated the country, destroyed the churches, and slew great numbers of inhabitants,” in the winter of 1399-1400, Timur, in August 1400,

began his march into Asia Minor by way of Avnik, Erzeroum, Erzinjan, and Sivas. The latter place offered a stubborn resistance, and when it finally capitulated Timur caused all the Armenian and Christian soldiers to be buried alive; but the Muhammadans he spared.

The unparalleled devastation Timur wrought upon predominantly Hindu India further bolsters the notion that Timur viewed his non-Muslim prey with particular animosity. Moreover, there are specific examples of selective brutality directed against Hindus, from which Muslims are deliberately spared. Indian historian A.L. Srivastava summarizesIndia’s devastated condition following Timur’s departure:

Timur left [India] prostrate and bleeding. There was utter confusion and misery throughout northern India. [India's] northwestern provinces, including northern tracts of Rajasthan and Delhi, were so thoroughly ravaged, plundered and even burnt that it took these parts many years, indeed, to recover their prosperity. Lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of men, and in some cases, many women and children, too, were butchered in cold blood. The rabi crops…were completely destroyed for many miles on both sides of the invader’s long and double route from the Indus to Delhi and back. Stores of grain were looted or destroyed. Trade, commerce and other signs of material prosperity disappeared. The city of Delhi was depopulated and ruined. It was without a master or a caretaker. There was scarcity and virulent famine in the capital and its suburbs. This was followed by a pestilence caused by the pollution of the air and water by thousands of uncared—for dead bodies. In the words of the historian Badaoni, “those of the inhabitants who were left died (of famines and pestilence), while for two months not a bird moved wing in Delhi.”

The late 13th century chronicler, Bar Hebraeus provided this contemporary assessment of how the adoption of Islam radically altered Mongol attitudes toward their Christian subjects:

And having seen very much modesty and other habits of this kind among Christian people, certainly the Mongols loved them greatly at the beginning of their kingdom, a time ago somewhat short. But their love hath turned to such intense hatred that they cannot even see them with their eyes approvingly, because they have all alike become Muslims, myriads of people and peoples.

Bar Hebraeus’ observations should be borne in mind when evaluating Grousset’s uncompromising overall assessment of Timur’s deeds and motivations. After recounting Timur’s 1403 A.D. ravages in Georgia, slaughtering the inhabitants, and destroying all the Christian churches of Tiflis, Grousset states:

It has been noted that the Jenghiz-Khanite Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century was less cruel, for the Mongols were mere barbarians who killed simply because for centuries this had been the instinctive behavior of nomad herdsmen toward sedentary farmers. To this ferocity Tamerlane [Timur] added a taste for religious murder. He killed from Qur’anic piety. He represents a synthesis, probably unprecedented in history, of Mongol barbarity and Muslim fanaticism, and symbolizes that advanced form of primitive slaughter which is murder committed for the sake of an abstract ideology, as a duty and a sacred mission (emphasis added).

Curiously, the 1970 Rutgers University Press English translation of Grousset’s L’Empire Des Steppes (p. 513) omits the word “coranique” in translating “Il tuait par piete coranique,” so that the phrase becomes, “He killed from piety,” as opposed to Grousset’s French original, “He killed from Qur’anic piety.”

About the Author: Andrew G. Bostom, M.D., is the author of the highly acclaimed The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims, The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History, and, Sharia Versus Freedom—The Legacy of Islamic Totalitarianism. Dr. Bostom has published numerous articles and commentaries on Islam in the New York Post, Washington Times, The New York Daily News, National Review Online, The American Thinker, Pajamas Media, FrontPage Magazine.com, and other print and online publications. More on Andrew Bostom’s work can be found at his blog: www.andrewbostom.org.


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Timur’s campaigns are infamous for their extensive massacres and emblematic “pyramids of heads.” Brown cites “only a few” prominent examples, in addition to the graphic cover art illustration, resulting from the 1401 Baghdad carnage: As specimens of those acts mention may be made of his massacre of the people of Sistan 1383-4, when he caused […]

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