Orban: The Man Who Brought Down the Walls of Constantinople – Part 2

 

For 53 days, the forces of the Ottoman Empire shook what was left of the Eastern Roman Empire (known as Byzantium, or the Byzantine Empire) until they were able to breach the massive walls of Constantinople, conquering the last standing remnants of the once mighty Roman Empire.

Sultan Mehmed II was so pleased with Orban’s massive, destructive cannon that he wanted another twice its size! Orban headed back to his foundry in Edirne (Adrianople) acquiring more timber and bronze, and in three months he produced a twenty-seven-foot-long monster that had a diameter of 2.5 to three feet (76.2 to 91.44 cm) and could fire a stone projectile weighing between 1440-1500 lbs (653 – 680 kg).

[Read Part 1]

Moreover, to make sure this weapon fire properly without exploding, the barrel was walled with eight inches (20 cm) of solid bronze to absorb the force of the blast. This massive weapon was finished in January 1453.

Citizens were warned in the surrounding area not to panic if they heard a loud boom:

“In January [the Sultan] decided to test the cannon which the Hungarian had made. It was carefully set in position before the main gateway leading into the palace [at Adrianople] which he had built that year, the ball was fitted into it, and its ration of powder weighed out. It was planned to fire it the next morning, and public announcements were made throughout Adrianople, to advising everyone of the loud and thunderous noise which it would make so that no one would be struck dumb by hearing the noise unexpectedly or any pregnant women miscarry. In the morning the gunpowder was lit, there was a great rush of hot air, and the shot was driven forth, leaving the cannon with a loud explosion which filled the air with clouds of smoke. The sound was heard a hundred stadia away, and the shot travelled a thousand paces from the point of firing, making a hole six feet deep at the point where it landed.”

Seeing potential in this new weapon, Mehmed ordered the production of more, but in smaller caliber. Once finished, the number of cannons produced was 14 large and 56 small; all of which would be used to batter the walls of Constantinople.

On the Move, Setting Up and Firing!

After the cannons had been tested and they were deemed ready for service, the Sultan Mehmed sent out the order to his officers to muster the forces and meet at the Ottoman capital of Edirne. The size of the Ottoman force that was to lay siege to Constantinople is uncertain. Some suggest the Ottoman army was 50,000–80,000 or 80,000-100,000 troops. Others say 120,000 and some go as high as 300,000 with 120,000 non-combatants in attendance.

Map of Constantinople (1422) by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti is the oldest surviving map of the city, and the only one that predates the Turkish conquest of the city in 1453 (Public Domain)

Once the army arrived outside the walls of Constantinople, much of the smaller artillery likely accompanied the main force. As for the heavier cannon pieces, particularly the famous Basilica, or the Ottoman Cannon, it took 70 oxen and 10,000 men even though other sources suggest only 1,000 men. The move from Edirne to Constantinople was a distance of 140 miles (225 kilometers).

Bronze cast Ottoman bombard, Cast in the 15th–16th century,  Fired shots of 1,000 lbs. (453 kg) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Long Haul

Moving the large cannon, as one can image, was a laborious task. To move this gargantuan weapon of war, the tube had to be lifted and placed on a number of attached wagons, which as mentioned, were pulled by many oxen. Scouts went ahead to report back of the terrain that lied ahead, while the men with the cannon had to help guide, push, and pull the wagons and beasts over the rolling Thracian countryside. Those workers ahead were tasked with leveling out the road as best as they could and building wooden bridges over the rivers and gullies. The total distance this juggernaut made was two-and-a-half-miles a day, (about four kilometers).

By the time Orban’s Basilica cannon arrived the Ottoman troops were already in position, Sappers had already been making a clear path for fire by cutting down the orchards and vineyards, while others dug ditches the length of the walls of Theodosius and 250 yards (228 meters) from them. It is safe to say that many of the smaller cannons had been set in place since Mehmed grouped the cannons into 14 or 15 batteries pointed at the walls’ vulnerable points.

The restored walls of Constantinople (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Exploiting Weakness

According to the Venetian physician and eyewitness Nicolo Barbaro, “These cannon were planted in four places: first of all, three cannon were placed near the palace of the Most Serene Emperor, and three other cannons were placed near the Pigi gate, and two at the Cressu gate, and another four at the gate of San Romano, the weakest part of the whole city.” The larger cannons would receive support by smaller ones in each battery. As for Basilica, it was placed in front of Mehmed’s tent so that he could watch and praise his new toy. Basilica had to be lifted from the wagons and lowered into position using a block-and-tackle system onto a sloping wooden platform. To protect the cannon from enemy fire, the men built a wooden palisade with hinged doors that would be opened when it was time to fire. Greek politician, scholar, and historian Michael Critobulus (1410-1470) mentions this as well and states:

After this, having pointed the cannon toward whatever it was intended to hit, and having leveled it by certain technical means and calculations toward the target, they brought up great beams of wood and laid them underneath and fitted them carefully. On these they placed immense stones, weighting it down and making it secure above and below and behind and everywhere, lest by the force of the velocity and by the shock of the movement of its own emplacement, it should be displaced and shoot wide of its mark.

Furthermore, the Ottomans still relied on tradition siege machines such as the trebuchet to batter the walls.

Counterweight trebuchet by the German engineer Konrad Kyeser (c. 1405) (Public Domain)

Barbaro also mentions Basilica: “One of these four cannon which were at the gate of San Romano threw a ball weighing about twelve hundred pounds, more or less, and thirteen quarte in circumference, which will show the terrible damage it inflicted where it landed.”

Critobulus describes the firing of the cannon stating: “And the stone, borne with enormous force and velocity, hit the wall, which it immediately shook and knocked down, and was itself broken into many fragments and scattered, hurling the pieces everywhere and killing those who happened to be nearby.”

Giant Ammunition

If the size and weight of the cannon was not enough, the ammunition was also another weightier matter. To bring forth such ammunition, it had to be hewed from the rock and shaped. The stone balls used were made on the north coast of the Black Sea. Besides the stone balls was the large need for saltpeter (potassium nitrate). Not only did the crews man, load, fire, and reposition after each shot, they also repaired what they could. This went for all the cannon batteries.

Critobulus mentions that when the cannon was fired the result from the impact was that “Sometimes it demolished a whole section, and sometimes a half-section, and sometimes a larger or smaller section of a tower or turret or battlement. And there was no part of the wall strong enough or resistant enough or thick enough to be able to withstand it, or to wholly resist such force and such a blow of the stone cannonball.”

Shots fired from Basilica sometimes did not hit their target but instead flew over the wall and traveled up to a mile into the city. As the ball came down it would mow through humans and property before settling into the ground causing a quake felt for two miles.

Assaulting under Fire and the Final Explosion

The 70 cannons of various sizes hurled stone projectiles continuously at the walls for 53 days. One can only imagine the psychological impact the cannons had on the citizens and defenders alike: the sound of loud sounds of stone balls flying right over your head and smashing into buildings, with the added knowledge that death was a matter of chance, and nearly a certainty.

Sultan Mehmed II – Mehmed the Conqueror (Public Domain)

Sultan Mehmed launched assault after assault during which his cannons were able to punch holes through walls or did enough damage that debris that fell down and created a ramp from which his armies could reach the breach in the wall. However, defenders on the walls were able to push and keep the invaders back.

The Fall of Constantinople, illustration from ‘Hutchinson’s History of the Nations’, 1915 (Public Domain)

While the Byzantine army did not have the sufficient manpower to defeat the Ottoman army in a head-on battle, the walls of Constantinople provided much safety and support. Understand that the Ottoman cannons took time to fire, which in turn allowed the defenders on the walls to repair the breaches made. In futility, Mehmed continued launching assaults that failed each time.

Mehmed’s strategy, as Roger Crowley states “was attritional—and impatient,” or what I like to call, attrition through impatience. Mehmed knew that as long as his cannons shot holes through the walls and he launched assault after assault, the citizens and defenders would soon to give up. According to the Greek scholar Melissenos, who was not there but collected articles that described the action a century later, mentions that the “assault continued night and day with no relief from the clashes and explosions, crashing of stones and cannon-balls on the walls, for the Sultan hoped in this way to take the city easily, since we were few against many, by pounding us to death and exhaustion, and so he allowed us no rest from attack.” While wave after wave of Ottoman attacks continued along with the constant bombardment, Basilica began to break.

Holding a Tiger by the Tail

While Basilica was an awesome sight and sound to those firing the cannon and a terror to those receiving its wrath, truth be told, the weapon was more of a burden than a blessing. Loading and re-aiming the cannon took much time and it could only fire seven times a day. Another major issue with the cannon was that the production of such a weapon, on such a large scale, and under a deadline worried Orban—and rightfully so.

Using the colossal canon was like grabbing a tiger by the tail. It was in effect employing something powerful and dangerous that could hurt the wielder as much as any target.

An expert iron founder and engineer, Orban started to notice that hairline fractures began to appear on the cannon. After each shot, the crews had to quickly pour oil onto the barrel to prevent cold air from enlarging the fissures. Even when they tried to fit iron hoops around the barrel, it did little to support it. However, pouring warm oil was not enough and the cannon eventually “cracked as it was being fired and split into many pieces, killing and wounding many nearby.” Those killed in the blast supposedly included Orban. However, that is what Christian chroniclers wish happened.

Taking the City: The Fall of Constantinople and the Rise of Artillery

The entry of Sultan Mehmed II into Constantinople, painting by Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929) (Public Domain)

On 29 May 1453, the Ottoman forces of Mehmed finally made their way into the city. They defeated the remaining defenders, killing the last Roman Emperor Constantine XI in the streets which ended an Empire that lasted from 27 BC – 1453 CE.

Mosaic of Emperor Constantine I with a representation of the city of Constantinople (Public Domain)

While Mehmed made Constantinople the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, the cannon made by Orban also had an impact. The impact of Orban’s cannon had made little damage, but much noise. In other words, Orban’s attempt to produce a cannon of such magnitude showed the potential that could be harnessed if trial and error could be applied with sufficient time and testing. This would happen much later in Western Europe during the renaissance and beyond. The cannon produced by Orban was nothing more than a colossal weapon that produced lots of smoke, loud noise, and on occasion, landed on its target. Overall, the weakening and destruction of the walls of Constantinople were not due to just Basilica, but the combination of all the firepower at the Ottoman’s disposal—even the trebuchets.

The Tsar Cannon (caliber 890 mm), cast in 1586 in Moscow. It is the largest extant bombard in the world. (CC BY 3.0)

Basilica only made a name for itself due to its sheer size overshadowing the other cannons in their arsenal at the siege of Constantinople of 1453.

The final siege of Constantinople, contemporary 15th-century French miniature, 1455 (Public Domain)

Top Image: Detail; The entry of Sultan Mehmed II into Constantinople, painting by Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929) (Pubic Domain)

By Cam Rea

References

Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time

Gábor Ágoston, Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization)

Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization

Marios Philippides, Walter K. Hanak, The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453: Historiography, Topography, and Military Studies

Michael Kritovoulos, The Siege of Constantinople in 1453, according to Kritovoulos, [Online] Available at: http://deremilitari.org/2016/08/the-siege-of-constantinople-in-1453-according-to-kritovoulos/

Nicolo Barbaro, The Siege of Constantinople in 1453, [Online] Available at: http://deremilitari.org/2016/08/the-siege-of-constantinople-in-1453-according-to-nicolo-barbaro/

Roger Crowley, 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West.

The Guns of Constantinoplehttp://www.historynet.com/the-guns-of-constantinople.htm

Stephen Turnbull, The Walls of Constantinople AD 324-1453 (Fortress).

Suraiya Faroqhi, The Ottoman Empire and the World around It.

Bernard S. Bachrach, Kelly DeVries, and Clifford J. Rogers, The Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol II.

Orban: The Man Who Brought Down the Walls of Constantinople – Part I

For 53 days, starting on Friday, 6 April, the forces of the Ottoman Empire shook what was left of the Eastern Roman Empire (known as Byzantium, or the Byzantine Empire) until they were able to breach the massive walls of Constantinople on Tuesday 29 May 1453, conquering the last standing remnants of the once mighty Roman Empire. The conquest of Constantinople could have been drastically different were it not for a man by the name of Orban and his massive cannon.

The Dardanelles Gun, cast in 1464 and based on the Orban bombard that was used for the Ottoman besiegers of Constantinople in 1453

The Dardanelles Gun, cast in 1464 and based on the Orban bombard that was used for the Ottoman besiegers of Constantinople in 1453 (Public Domain)

Who Was Orban?

Orban, (also known as Urban) was a cannon caster of possible Hungarian origin (but this is disputed). A Byzantine Greek historian from Athens by the name of Laonikos Khalkokondyles (c.1430 – c. 1470) mentions something different:

There was an artilleryman of the king [sultan] called Orbanos. He was a Dacian by birth and earlier he had spent time with the Greeks. Because he needed a better salary for himself, he left the Greeks and came to the Porte of the king [sultan].

Khalkokondyles mentions that Orban was not Hungarian but “Dacian.” To clarify, the term Dacian he used shows his love of antiquity while the term would not have been familiar to the uneducated. Most people during that time would have no idea what or where Dacia was. The name Dacia comes from ancient Rome and within its territory were the states of Wallachia and Transylvania. It is possible that Orban was Hungarian and made his way south seeking those who could use his services. Some have even suggested the Orban may have been German. But the biggest giveaway to show that Orban was indeed an Eastern European from either Hungary, Wallachia, or Transylvania, was his method of casting cannons.

Earliest picture of a European cannon, Walter de Milemete, 1326

Earliest picture of a European cannon, Walter de Milemete, 1326 (Public Domain)

Orban was promoting his services in the casting of bronze bombards. The bronze casting of cannons or bombards had been abandoned in Western Europe by the 1440’s. The reason for this was that western cannon casters found that the manufacturing of smaller pieces made from iron were easier to deal with. Therefore, Orban’s methods in casting cannon suggest that his origins were probably Eastern European.

Pumhart von Steyr, a medieval supergun, Austria.

Pumhart von Steyr, a medieval supergun, Austria.  (Public Domain)

Looking for a Deal

Orban visited the court of Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (8 February 1405 – 29 May 1453), soon to be the last Byzantine emperor, to pitch his cannons.

Constantine XI Palaiologos

Constantine XI Palaiologos (Tilemahos Efthimiadis /CC BY 2.0)

Orban entered the capital of Constantinople and offered his services to the emperor. The emperor was delighted in meeting with him, for he had an interest in using this new technology to his advantage after seeing it first-hand at the Hexamilion, which is a defensive wall constructed across the Isthmus of Corinth and seeing the power this new device of war, as it smashed through rock.

Excavation of the Hexamilion wall

Excavation of the Hexamilion wall (CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, Constantine had not the resources such as timber for the foundry fires or even the money to offer Orban to build the desired weapons. Constantine also did not want the man to leave his capital and sought to keep him as long as he could. In order to do this, he provided a stipend from scraps to keep the man. This only lasted for so long and after the money ran dry, Orban left the city seeking a new customer. He made his way to the court of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (30 March 1432 – 3 May 1481), best known as Mehmed the Conqueror, (the very man who would soon lay waste to Constantinople).

Mehmed II in Edirne (Public Domain)

Orban made his way to either the Ottoman capital located at west of Constantinople at Edirne, historically known as Adrianople, in the northwestern Turkish province of Edirne, or Rumelihisarı (also known as Rumelian Castle, which means the “Strait-Cutter Castle”) which was Mehmed’s fortress located in the Sarıyer district near Constantinople on a hill at the European side of the Bosphorus.

Rumelihisarı as seen from the Bosphorus strait, Istanbul, Turkey, built by Sultan Mehmed II between 1451 and 1452, before the Fall of Constantinople (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Once Orban arrived, he requested an audience with Mehmed to sell him his services. After Mehmed was informed of Orban’s engineering skills, he was happy to welcome this traveler and to show him that his skills would be appreciated, and showered him with gifts. Mehmed promised Orban that he would give him the highest wage besides the many gifts. Afterwards, Mehmed asked Orban if were possible to build a powerful enough cannon that could breach the walls of Constantinople. Orban said, “I can cast a cannon of bronze with the capacity of the stone you want. I have examined the walls of the city in great detail. I can shatter to dust not only these walls with the stones from my gun, but the very walls of Babylon itself.”

The only thing Orban could not promise to Mehmed and which he made clear, was that he could not determine the range. Mehmed overlooked this handicap and bade him to start work on the cannon immediately.

The restored walls of Constantinople

The restored walls of Constantinople (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Dangerous Task of Constructing the Cannon in the Fires of Hell

Orban had a large and dangerous task ahead of him. Besides the difficulty in constructing cannons on such a scale, he had to design and create a furnace big enough for the job. Orban constructed two brick-lined furnaces faced with fired clay inside and out, and reinforced with large stones. The reason for this was that the furnace needed to be able to withstand high temperatures— beyond 1,000 degrees centigrade. Not only that, it had to be enclosed on the outside by heaps of charcoal that were described as being “so deep that it hid the furnace, apart from their mouths.” Cannon making, like any new technology, was hazardous. An Ottoman traveler during the medieval period by the name of Evliya Chelebi visited a gun factory and made note of the dangers of such work that took place:

On the day when cannon are to be cast, the masters, foremen and founders, together with the Grand Master of the Artillery, the Chief Overseer, Imam, Muezzin and timekeeper, all assemble and to the cries of “Allah! Allah!,” the wood is thrown into the furnace. After these have been heated doe twenty-four hours, the founders and stokers strip naked, wearing nothing but their slippers, an odd kind of cap which leaves nothing but their eyes visible, and thick sleeves to protect his arms; for, after the fire has been alight in the furnaces twenty-four hours, no person can approach on account of the heat, save he be attired in the above manner. Whoever wishes to see a good picture of the fires of hell should witness this sight. 

Given that Orban did not have a thermometer on hand, the foundry workers had to judge the right temperature based on sight. Once they felt comfortable, the workers started to throw in copper along with scraps of tin in order to make bronze. Acquiring copper was easy for the Ottomans for their copper source was in Anatolia (Turkey) while tin came from outside sources. However, given the circumstances, the Ottomans likely acquired bronze bells from Christian churches to be melted and remolded into cannons.

Molten Metals and Evil Eyes

The process as mentioned was dangerous and required a keen sense of understanding the molten metals. In other words, Orban and the foundry workers understood that each piece of metal must be examined before being tossed into the cauldron. As for the dross that floated on the surface, it had to be carefully skimmed off using metal ladles. This doesn’t even mention the noxious fumes tin gives off, and on top of that, if the scrap metal lying around was wet, once thrown into the furnace it would cause the water to vaporize, rupture the furnace, and cause an explosion that would kill or maim everyone close.

But of the metals being added into the cauldron, tin was held with some superstition when it was time to throw it in. According to Evliya:

[…]the Vezirs, the Mufti and Sheiks are summoned; only forty persons, besides the personnel of the foundry, are admitted all told. The rest of the attendants are shut out, because the metal, when infusion, will not suffer to be looked at by evil eyes. The masters then desire the Vezirs and sheiks who are seated on sofas at a great distance to repeat unceasingly the words “There is no power and strength save in Allah!” Thereupon the master-workmen with wooden shovels throw several hundredweight of tin into the sea of molten brass, and the head-founder says to the Grand Vizier, Vezirs and Sheiks: “Throw some gold and silver coins into the brazen sea as alms, in the name of the True Faith!” Poles as long as the yard of ships are used for mixing the gold and silver with the metal and are replaced as fast as consumed.

Birth of a Terrible Monster

Before the cannon that would bring the walls of Constantinople tumbling down, Orban built a prototype that was mounted to the walls Rumelihisarı. Doukas, (c. 1400 – after 1462) a Byzantine historian under Constantine XI, spoke of this cannon, stating, “They began amassing bronze and the technician [sc. Orban] created the form of the cannon; and in three months a terrible and unprecedented monster was constructed and cast.”

Illustration of a 15th-century trade galley from a manuscript by Michael of Rhodes (1401–1445) (Public Domain)

The cannon in question was made of bronze and was capable of firing a stone ball weighing roughly 600 lbs. (272 kg). Mehmed wanted to make it clear that any ship wishing to pass through the Bosphorus Strait must pay a toll or else face repercussions. Not long after a Venetian merchant ship was about to pass through the Bosporus Strait until it was ordered to stop and pay the tax. The Venetians were perplexed and refused to obey. They decided to make a run for it and paid the price.

“In those days a big ship of the Venetians was sailing down the narrows [the Bosphorus] by the town of Baskesen [“Head Cutter,” that is, Rumeli Hisar], commanded by Antonio Rizzo…they fired a very large stone from the castle and it struck the ship.” After their ship was blasted out of the water, the shocked Venetians who made it to shore were executed along with their captain. As well, the body of the captain was impaled on the banks as a public warning. After seeing what the massive cannon could do, Mehmed wanted something bigger.

Bigger and Better

Mehmed was so pleased with the cannon that he wanted another twice its size! Orban headed back to his foundry in Edirne (Adrianople) acquiring more timber and bronze, and in three months he produced a twenty-seven-foot-long monster that had a diameter of 2.5 to three feet (76.2 to 91.44 cm) and could fire a stone projectile weighing between 1440-1500 lbs (653 – 680 kg).

Muzzle view of the Great Turkish Bombard Cannon

Muzzle view of the Great Turkish Bombard Cannon (Simon Cope/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Moreover, to make sure this weapon fire properly without exploding, the barrel was walled with eight inches (20 cm) of solid bronze to absorb the force of the blast. This massive weapon was finished in January 1453. Citizens were warned in the surrounding area not to panic if they heard a loud boom:

In January [the Sultan] decided to test the cannon which the Hungarian had made…

Top Image: Modern painting of Mehmed and the Ottoman Army approaching Constantinople with a giant bombard, by Fausto Zonaro (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea

References

Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time

Gábor Ágoston, Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization)

Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization

Marios Philippides, Walter K. Hanak, The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453: Historiography, Topography, and Military Studies

Michael Kritovoulos, The Siege of Constantinople in 1453, according to Kritovoulos, [Online] Available at: http://deremilitari.org/2016/08/the-siege-of-constantinople-in-1453-according-to-kritovoulos/

Nicolo Barbaro, The Siege of Constantinople in 1453, [Online] Available at: http://deremilitari.org/2016/08/the-siege-of-constantinople-in-1453-according-to-nicolo-barbaro/

Roger Crowley, 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West.

The Guns of Constantinoplehttp://www.historynet.com/the-guns-of-constantinople.htm

Stephen Turnbull, The Walls of Constantinople AD 324-1453 (Fortress).

Suraiya Faroqhi, The Ottoman Empire and the World around It.

Bernard S. Bachrach, Kelly DeVries, and Clifford J. Rogers, The Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol II.

The Battle of Ankara – Part II

 

What happens when two great conquerors of the ancient world and their mighty forces go head to head? A successful but unpredictable Ottoman Sultan was matched against a charismatic Mongol leader of an empire – leading to the Battle of Ankara, fought on 20 July 1402.  The Ottomans were led by Bayezid I, who brought his troops against the Turkic Mongols (Timurids), led by Timur, also known as Tamerlane. Two great empires, two powerful leaders, with only one outcome…

Bust of Timur [left] (CC BY-SA 3.0), and a portrait of Bayezid I [right]. (Public Domain)

Troubles on the Eve of Battle

After Timur had rampaged throughout Russia and the Caucasus, he struck deeply into Anatolia by sacking and destroying the city of Sivas before pushing further south. One would think that Bayezid would have countered this loss for Sivas but he did nothing. Bayezid could have attempted to placate Timur, but given his nature, would he accept it? Bayezid could have taken his large army and counter-attacked Timur’s forces as they headed south. However, none of the above happened. Instead, Bayezid waited for Timur to enter his domain before reacting.

[Read Part I here]

In the summer of 1402, Timur moved his armies west to Sivas. This caused Bayezid to stir. Bayezid called off the siege against Constantinople and headed southeast to the fortress of Angora, in central Anatolia.

Timur is said to have prayed all night. When morning arrived, he ordered the drums to sound. The sound of the drums in the early morning would have had a psychological effect on the Ottomans nearby. No matter how battle hardened a soldier becomes, new unknowns bring about unease.

The army Timur had with him is said to have numbered between 140,000 and 200,000 troops. His army consisted primarily of cavalry but he had 32 war elephants at his disposal.

The troop size of Bayezid’s army consisted of 85,000 men. Bayezid’s forces were mostly infantry, including the elite Janissaries, with archers and cavalry (including Serbian knights). However, a quarter of his men were Tatars who were recently conquered, and thus their loyalty was in question.

Tatar soldiers at the vanguard of a battle (1620) (Public Domain)

Matters only got worse for Bayezid as discontent spread throughout the Ottoman ranks. For starters, they were tired after the long march and their pay was overdue. Compounding that, Bayezid’s scouts reported back to Bayezid that Timur had circled in behind the Ottomans and was now approaching from the rear. Yet more problems arose when Bayezid’s men needed access to water. Timur had built a reservoir and, on the day of the battle, diverted the principal water source for the area, Cubuk Creek, denying its use to the Ottoman army, which was now advancing from the east.

The Day of Battle

The terrain of the battlefield consisted of a large plain cornered by mountains on two sides. This is perfect for cavalry attacks. Moreover, it allows both armies to maneuver with fluidity.

The Prince Shah Rukh and Khalil Sultan led Timur’s left wing. Miran Shah led the right wing, with Amir Sheikh Nur ad-Din as his lieutenant general. The main body consisted of the greatest lords of Asia and Timur’s son, Prince Muhammad Sultan led them. Timur led the reserves that consisted of forty companies. In front of Timur’s army was the war elephants armed with towers on their backs with archers and throwers of flame.

Manuscript showing war elephants with archers and soldiers on their backs. The Battle of Avarayr, Sharaknots, 1482 (Public Domain)

Sultan Bayezid arranged his troops in battle order with Pesir, a European Serbian, leading the right wing. The left wing was under the command of Suleiman Chelebi, son of Bayezid. Bayezid led the main body. Muhammad Chelebi commanded the Ottoman reserves.

After Timur had met with his military counsel, he mounted his horse and gave the order to attack. Around 10 a.m. on the morning of 28 July 1402, Miran, commander of the right wing, began the battle by discharging a volley of arrows on the Ottoman left wing.

The Surprising Turns of Battle

It was during the initial stages of the battle that Bayezid made his first error. He placed his newly conquered Tatar cavalry on the front line to take the brunt of the initial attack. Once the battle commenced, they deserted to Timur, and cavalry from the recently subjugated emirates followed suit. This changing of sides reduced the Ottoman army by a quarter and, for all practical purposes, decided the battle.

Battle of Ankara. Mughal painting.

Battle of Ankara. Mughal painting. (Public Domain)

Bayezid ordered his left wing to attack, covering it by an attack of his Anatolian cavalry. However, it was all for nothing; even though the cavalry fought bravely, they encountered hailstorms of arrows as well as Greek fire (a form of naphtha) and were driven back in confusion, losing some 15,000 men.

Timur then pressed on the attack by pushing at the Ottoman left wing and defeating the cavalry. While the Ottoman cavalry were in disarray, the Serbian kings on the right wing fought heroically.

Timur’s attack was well executed— just as Bayezid’s defenses were well planned. The only difference is that Bayezid lost a substantial amount of his forces due to placing newly conquered men on the front line to take the brunt of the attack. This was a big mistake. The Tartar’s fleeing from the Ottomans to join Timur did not help the psyche of the Ottoman troops. Because of this, the morale of Timur’s troops greatly increased, and so did their numbers. According to what the primary sources suggest, Timur commenced the attack by sending in one wing before sending in the next wing, and in doing so he was able to perform a “pincer movement or double envelopment.”

While Timur’s left and right wings placed tremendous pressure on the Ottoman wings, this opened up the center. The Ottoman center would be at times required to provide aid to the wings in trouble. In doing so, the center deteriorated substantially. Seeing this, Timur committed the remainder of his forces to attacking the center. By placing pressure on the center, it took pressure off his left and right cavalry wings. Moreover, it allowed his central forces to split once they had pushed aside the Ottoman forces, allowing them to converge on the rear of the left and right wings. In doing so, not only did they perform a well-executed pincer movement in the initial stages, they were able to perform with perfection two more to neutralize the Ottoman wings to achieve total victory.

Map by SAİT71 (CC BY-SA 4.0) giving a glimpse into the positions and commanders at the Battle of Ankara (Battle of Angora). Timur performed a pincer movement, flanking the enemy and finally overwhelming them.

Seeing his Serbian cavalry fighting with great fervor yet beginning to succumb to the overwhelming numbers, he sent the remaining Janissaries to support them. The Ottoman forces eventually fled to a small hilltop and continued the fight. The battle raged well into the evening as they beat back several Mongol attacks until nightfall, with Bayezid in the thick of the fight. Late into the night, Bayezid looked to the remainder of his forces and together they attempted to break free, but he was overtaken, unhorsed, and captured.

Bayezid I held captive by Timur (Public Domain)

Aftermath

Once the dust cleared and most of the moans from men and beasts subsided, the Ottomans were seen to have lost between 40,000 and 50,000 troops while the Turko-Mongols had lost 40,000.  Besides the great cost of life and supplies lost on the field of battle, came more issues. The Ottoman defeat at Ankara pushed the Ottoman state into a crisis from which the Empire fractured and nearly collapsed when Bayezid’s sons fought for the throne. This Ottoman civil war lasted for 11 years (1402 – 1413). Furthermore, the capture of Bayezid was a first in Ottoman history.

So, what happened to Bayezid?

Some say he was captured and placed in a birdcage. This is false. Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II, r. 1458-64), Asiae Europaeque elegantissima descriptio, written between 1450-1460 and published in Paris in 1509. According to Marcus Milwright and Evanthia Baboula, they state:

“This piece (Asiae Europaeque elegantissima description) brought together the key elements that were to remain fundamental to the European narrative for some two centuries: first, the sultan (often known in European writings as Bajazet) was placed in an iron cage; second, he was forced, like a dog, to eat scraps from under the table of Temur; and, third, Bayezid was employed as the ‘Scythian’ ruler’s mounting block when the latter got onto his horse.”

“Timur the Great’s imprisonment of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid”: The Sultan tied by his waist with a golden rope to Timur’s table, top, and the Sultan bound and on all fours, being used as a mounting-block by Timur, and similarly bound in his gilded cage, bottom. (Public Domain)

The truth of the matter is that Timur treated Bayezid with great respect according to Timur’s court historians. Timur is even said to have mourned the death of Bayezid that occurred on 8 March 1403; He was either 48 or 49.

As for Timur, news of his victory spread far throughout Europe. When the Genoese heard of the victory, they raised flags of Timur at Pera over the city. Interestingly enough, there were plans for a European fleet to help in the fight against the Ottomans. Furthermore, the battle and victory brought relief to the city of Constantinople. However, 51 years later the city would fall to the same besiegers.

Strange Bedfellows

Three days after Bayezid had been captured; Timur’s son Miran Shah sent many letters to the monarchs of Europe, offering trade and friendship.

A miniature of Miran Shah (Public Domain)

Surprisingly (and yet not so surprisingly), Charles VI of France and Henry IV of England responded with great joy to Timur. Another interesting aspect is that British playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine in 1587, which portrays Timur humiliating Bayezid and burning the Quran. Timur was made into what a model king should be throughout Europe However, all this would end by the eighteenth century when the anti-Timur literature and works began to change his image.

Timur (Tamerlane, Tamburlaine). (Wellcome Image/CC BY 4.0)

As for the man himself, Timur would not live much longer. As he was leading his massive army to conquer Ming China, he grew ill and died on 19 February 1405 (aged 68) at Otrar, Farab, near Shymkent, Syr Darya (now in Kazakhstan). With Timur’s death, his empire did not last much longer as it fractured and finally collapsed by 1507. However, his future seed would carry on his legacy with the establishment of the Mughal Empire founded by Babur. The Timurid Empire did not last, and the Ottoman Empire nearly fell apart. However, once the Ottoman civil war was over, Bayezid’s conquests in Anatolia that had been lost to Timur were brought back under the Ottoman fold.

As for the campaign leading up to battle itself, it displayed how strong and unrelenting Timur’s forces were as he marched from one end of his empire to another to defend and go on the offensive to reclaim rebellious lands, or push far north into the lands of the Golden Horde. His ability to defend and expand his lands was tremendous. The battle itself pitted two great leaders but Timur was the smarter of the two. He was able to take advantage of the Ottoman forces by diverting a river and making good use of the defecting Tartar army that came to his side at the initial stages of the battle.

Overall, the Battle of Ankara in 1402 brought an empire to its knees, temporarily freed an ancient empire now reduced to the size of a city after many centuries of defeat, and Europe praised a man who in many ways was no different from the Ottoman Turks they faced. However, the Ottomans would recover and pick up right where they left off in conquering portions of southeast Europe, and the Timurid Empire would fade away only to reestablish themselves further to the east in India.

Top Image: Sultan Bayezid is defeated by Timur at Ankara (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea

References

Alexander Mikaberidze, Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1

Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire

Dennis M. Rose, The Campaigns of Tamerlane

Hamad Subani, The Secret History of Iran

J.B. Bury; edited by H.M. Gwatkin, The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol IV

Marcus Milwright and Evanthia Baboula, Bayezid’s Cage: A Re-examination of a venerable academic controversy, [Online] Available at: https://www.academia.edu/10323469/Bayezids_Cage_A_Re-examination_of_a_venerable_academic_controversy

Sharaf al-Dīn ‘Alī Yazd, The History of Timur-Bec: Known by the Name of Tamerlain the Great, https://archive.org/details/TheHistoryOfTimurBec_201409

Spencer Tucker, Battles That Changed History: An Encyclopedia of World Conflict

Timothy E. Gregory, A History of Byzantium

The Battle of Ankara – Part 1

 

Battle of Ankara.jpg

What happens when two great conquerors of the ancient world and their mighty forces go head to head? A successful but unpredictable Ottoman Sultan was matched against a charismatic Mongol leader of an empire – leading to the Battle of Ankara, fought on 20 July 1402.  The Ottomans were led by Bayezid I, who brought his troops against the Turkic Mongols (Timurids), led by Timur, also known as Tamerlane. Two great empires, two powerful leaders, with only one outcome…

Thunder and Lightning

On 15 June 1389, the Ottoman Sultan Murad I was assassinated on the battlefield at Kosovo. His son, Bayezid, also known by his nickname Yıldırım “The Thunderbolt,” was crowned the new Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. It is true that he could impulsively and unpredictable as a statesman. What often gets overlooked is that he was a capable military commander. Bayezid was a natural born leader. However, his leadership was best on the field of battle. This is how he got the nickname “Thunderbolt”; due to his swift maneuvering and attacking in battle.

Portrait of Bayezid I.

Portrait of Bayezid I. (Public Domain)

Bayezid’s lightning-strike military campaigns began with the conquests of the beyliks (beylik was territory under the jurisdiction of a Bey; Bey is Turkish for chieftain) Aydin, Saruhan, Menteşe, and Sivas. The new Sultan continued his rampage throughout Anatolia (modern Turkey) during the fall and winter of 1390, as he confiscated Hamid, Teke, and Germiyan—as well as taking the cities of Akşehir and Niğde, and their capital Konya from the Karaman.

In 1391, the Karaman sued for peace and Bayezid accepted. Soon after, Bayezid moved north against Kastamonu and conquered both that city as well as Sinop.

Riding and Conquering, the Unstoppable Force

With much of Anatolia under Ottoman control, Bayezid turned his attention towards Southeast Europe. First on the list was Bulgaria. Having conquered them, he turned his forces on northern Greece and gobbled up their territory as well. It seemed as though nothing could stop him.

In 1394, Bayezid crossed the Danube River to attack Wallachia. However, the Wallachians proved troublesome against the much larger Ottoman army and were able to defeat them superior in number, but on 17 May 1395, they were defeated at the battle of Rovine, which prevented Bayezid’s army from advancing beyond the Danube.

Battle of Rovine, 1395 (Public Domain)

While Bayezid was confiscating the lands in Southeast Europe, he laid siege to Constantinople in 1394, capitalizing on the city’s political instability. As Bayezid laid siege, the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus sent messengers, as well did King Sigismund of Hungary, to Venice and Paris to lobby for a new crusade that would dislodge the Ottoman Turks from Southeast Europe.  The new Crusade was agreed to and many western European nations responded by sending troops. The king of Hungary (future Holy Roman Emperor) led this large crusading army. Both armies met and fought in what is known as the Battle of Nicopolis, 25 September 1396. The result was a decisive Ottoman victory.

The Battle of Nicopolis, as depicted by Turkish miniaturist in 1588. (Public Domain)

The Battle of Nicopolis, as depicted by Turkish miniaturist in 1588. (Public Domain)

While Constantinople remained under siege, Bayezid decided to push east and conquer new lands. From 1397-1398, Bayezid confiscated new territory throughout Anatolia, including the Djanik emirate and Kadi Burhan al-Din. This would prove to be a big mistake, for taking these lands violated a treaty he had with Timur (Tamerlane). The reason why Bayezid would violate such a treaty was due to his belief that the Ottomans were the heirs of the former Seljuk state in Anatolia. Understand that the violation was more than just territorial interest—Kadi Burhan al-Din represented the Ilkhanid inheritors of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan.

Timur, Powerful Conqueror and Ruler of an Empire

Timur facial reconstruction from skull by M.Gerasimov. 1941 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Timur facial reconstruction from skull by M.Gerasimov. 1941 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Timur, historically known as Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), was a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. Timur was born in Transoxania and was a member of Barlas tribe. He rose to power among the Ulus Chaghatay—a nomadic tribal confederation that formed the central region of Mongolian Chaghadaid khanate.

Timur’s story is similar to Genghis Khan’s. How true those stories are is up for debate. Timur rose through the ranks by gaining the respect of local chieftains due to his personal valor in combat and his brigandage. His actions, whether raiding or in combat, caused many to flock to him. It was also during a battle that arrows struck his right arm and leg that left him partially paralyzed. Because of this, Europeans referred to him as “Tamerlane.”

Portrait of Timur. 15th century

Portrait of Timur. 15th century (Public Domain)

Timur, not being related to Genghis Khan, could not bear the title Khan. Since he could not use the title, he decided to use politics to his advantage. While in the city of Balkh, (now northern Afghanistan), Timur quickly gained allies from among the merchants, peoples, and clergy due to sharing his loot with the locals, while the ruler, Husayn, who also happened to be Timur’s brother-in-law, was not viewed in with such praise. It may be that Husayn was a fine ruler; it is just that Timur had the capital to profit from his ambition.

Timur challenged and defeated Husayn in 1370 and took his other wife, Saray Mulk Khanum, who was a direct descendent of Genghis Khan. This allowed him to become the indirect imperial ruler of the Chaghatay tribe. However, Timur used the title of amir meaning general, instead. In order to legitimize his claim, Timur married the Genghisid princesses Saray Mulk Khanum and took the title Kuregen (Mongolian; “son-in-law”). Afterwards, he appointed a puppet of Genghisid line by the name of Suyurghatmish, as the ruler of Balkh while he pretended to act as a “protector of the member of a Chinggisid line, that of Genghis Khan’s eldest son, Jochi.”

To strengthen his position further, he collected a number of princes from the various branches of the Genghisid branches.

Timur also used Islam to legitimize his position by praising and patronizing the Sufi sheikhs and ulama. He built religious monuments to both please the religious faith and at the same time show that he was favored by the supernatural due to his connection to Genghis Khan. Timur understood the power of charisma as well as using the fear of the divine to solidify his position.

Timur feasts in the gardens of Samarkand. (Public Domain)

Timur feasts in the gardens of Samarkand. (Public Domain)

Timur on the Move

By 1381, Timur ruled over much of eastern Persia. However, he wanted more and campaigned against Kartid dynasty and when the capital of Herat refused to surrender he massacred the citizens and leveled the city. It was during this campaign that Timur sent his general to capture the rebellious Kandahar. 1385–1386 from Russia led by Khan Toktamish who was once his friend and ally. By 1389, much of Persia was under his control. He decided to head westward and conquered Persian Kurdistan. While this was going on, Timur invaded Russia in 1390 and crushed Toktamish but a revolt broke out in Persia that he crushed in 1392.

Timur besieges the historic city of Urganj. (Public Domain)

Land Grabs and Retaliations

Timur then went on to reconquer Armenia, (where it is said he took thousands of Christians from Sivas and buried them alive in moats), Azerbaijan, Fars, and he took Georgia in 1395. Toktamish in 1395 decided to invade once again but was defeated. In retaliation, Timur invaded and ravaged most of southern Russia and Ukraine, reaching Moscow in 1396.

Tode Mongke Khan and the Golden Horde (Public Domain)

Tode Mongke Khan and the Golden Horde (Public Domain)

As the war with the Golden Horde was ending, Timur prepared for another military campaign to the east. The aim of this campaign was to bring northern India under the Timurid fold, which he did with the sack and massacre of Delhi in 1398. With northern India now under his control, Timur turned westward to deal with his new enemy, the Ottomans. Before Timur entered Ottoman lands, he made stops at Aleppo and Damascus and sacked them both. After sacking and massacring 20,000 citizens of Baghdad, Timur let his troops rest for the winter before marching into Anatolia in 1401.

After the Usual Compliments…PERISH IN THE SEA OF PUNISHMENT

A missive from Timur “To the Emperor of Rum, Bayezid the Thunder”:

“After the usual compliments, we let you know, that by the infinite grace of God, the greatest part of Asia is in subjection to our officers, which we conquered by our strength, and the terror of our arms.

Know likewise that the most powerful sultans of the earth are obedient to our commands; that we govern our dominions by ourselves, and have even constrained fortune to take care of our empire; that our armies are extended from one sea to the other, and our guard consists of sovereign kings, who form a hedge before our gate.

Where is the monarch who dares resist us? Where is the potentate who does not glory in being of the number of our courtiers? But for thee, whose true origin terminates in a Turkoman sailor, as everyone knows, it would be well, since the ship of thy unfathomable ambition has suffered shipwreck in the abyss of self-love, if thou wouldst lower the sails of thy rashness, and cast the anchor of repentance in the port of sincerity, which is the port of safety; lest by the tempest of our vengeance you should perish in the sea of the punishment which you merit.

But as we have learned, that in obedience to the precept of the Koran, which orders us to wage war with the enemies of the Mussulman laws, you have undertaken a vigorous war with the Europeans; this consideration hath hindered us from making any insults in the lands which are subject to you: and the reflection that your country is the bulwark of the Mussulmans, hath obliged us to leave it in a flourishing condition; for fear the passage of our armies into it should raise a division among the inhabitants, and cause the Mussulmans to be disquieted, and the infidels rejoice.

Then take care of yourself, and endeavor by your good conduct to preserve the dominions of your ancestors, not suffering for the future your ambitions foot to wander out of the limits of your power, which is but small…. You may remember the precept of Muhammad, to let the Turks remain in peace, while they are quiet: don’t seek to wage war with us; which no one ever dared to do, and prospered….

Though you have been in some considerable battles in the woods of Anatolia, and have gained advantages upon the Europeans; it was only through the prayers of the prophet and the blessings of the Muhammadan religion of which you make professions: don’t be proud at these advantages, nor attribute them to your own valor. Believe me, you are but a pismire: don’t seek to fight against the elephants; for they’ll crush you under their feet…. If you don’t follow our counsels, you will repent it.

These are the advices we have to give you: do behave yourself as you think fit.”

Bayezid’s Reply to Timur:

“It is a long time,… since we have been desirous of carrying on a war with you. God be thanked, our desire has had its effects, and we have taken up a resolution to march against you at the head of a formidable army. If you don’t advance against us, we will come to seek you; and pursue you as far as Tauris and Sultaniah.”

Top Image: Battle of Ankara (Mughal painting) public domain 

By Cam Rea

References

Alexander Mikaberidze, Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1

Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire

Dennis M. Rose, The Campaigns of Tamerlane

Hamad Subani, The Secret History of Iran

J.B. Bury; edited by H.M. Gwatkin, The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol IV

Marcus Milwright and Evanthia Baboula, Bayezid’s Cage: A Re-examination of a venerable academic controversy, [Online] Available at: https://www.academia.edu/10323469/Bayezids_Cage_A_Re-examination_of_a_venerable_academic_controversy

Sharaf al-Dīn ‘Alī Yazd, The History of Timur-Bec: Known by the Name of Tamerlain the Great, https://archive.org/details/TheHistoryOfTimurBec_201409

Spencer Tucker, Battles That Changed History: An Encyclopedia of World Conflict

Timothy E. Gregory, A History of Byzantium

Tamerlane’s Invasion of India Part II

Timur, historically known as Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), was a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. After having conquered much of the Near East, Timur decided to on a massive invasion of India. As he pushed across the lands, conquering, he declared:

“The people of Samana and Kaithal and Aspandi are all heretics, idolaters, infidels, and misbelievers. They had now set fire to their houses and had fled with their children and property toward Delhi, so that the whole country was deserted.”

In late December 1398, Timur left from the fort of Aspandi. After marching twenty miles, he arrived at the village of Taghlak-pur, which is opposite the fort of that same name. When the people of the fort heard of the approach of Timur’s army, they abandoned it and scattered throughout the country. Timur would learn that the people who fled were called Sanawi [that is, fire-worshippers, Zoroastrians, or Ghebers]. Timur saw these people as misbelievers and ordered that their houses be burned and their fort and buildings to be razed to the ground.

The next day, Timur marched to Panipat, where he encamped. There he found that, “in obedience to orders received from the ruler of Delhi, all the inhabitants had deserted their dwellings and had taken flight.” After his soldiers entered the fort, they reported to Timur that “they had found a large store of wheat, which I ordered to be weighed, to ascertain the real weight, and then to be distributed among the soldiers.”

Timur receives envoys during an attack on Balkh (Afghanistan) in 1370. Representational image.

Timur receives envoys during an attack on Balkh (Afghanistan) in 1370. Representational image. (Public Domain)

To Plunder and Destroy and Kill

From that day on, Timur and his forces continued to make their way through India where they pillaged, raped, and plundered, or in the words of Timur: “Their orders were to plunder and destroy, and to kill everyone they met.” The next day, his forces proceeded to the palace of Jahan-puma, which is five miles (eight kilometers) from Delhi. As they progressed “They plundered every village and place they came to, killed the men, and carried off all the valuables and cattle, securing much booty; after which they returned, bringing with them a number of Hindu prisoners, both male and female.”

After much fighting and bloodshed, Timur held a court and summoned the princes, amirs, and officers to his tent. Timur likely informed his men after all the information had been gathered and considered as to what their next move was. He praised his men for their obedience and bravery. Besides praising his men, he also cautioned them, stating:

“I therefore gave them instructions as to the mode of carrying on war; on making and meeting attacks; on arraying their men; on giving support to each other; and on all the precautions to be observed in warring with an enemy. I ordered the amirs of the right wing, the left wing, the van, and the center to take their proper positions, and cautioned them not to be too forward or too backward, but to act with the utmost prudence and caution in their operations.” 

Afterwards, his men gave many blessings as they proceed from the tent. Timur knew that his men needed to hear some uplifting and cautionary words. It gave the officers confidence which could be distributed on down to the lower ranks and they were going to need it since Timur was very cautious.

The Problem of Prisoners

Before proceeding further, Timur had to make a decision on the one hundred thousand prisoners under his control. Timur feared that once he engaged the main enemy force, he would have to leave the prisoners in the rear with the gear. This was too dangerous, for the prisoners could revolt, find arms, and attack Timur from the rear during the battle. Therefore, Timur “immediately directed the commanders to proclaim throughout the camp that every man who had infidel prisoners was to put them to death, and that whoever neglected to do so, should himself be executed and his property given to the informer. When this order became known to the champions of Islam, they drew their swords and put their prisoners to death. One hundred thousand infidels, impious idolaters, were slain on that day.”

Timur's army attacks the survivors of the town of Nerges, in Georgia, in the spring of 1396. Representational image

Timur’s army attacks the survivors of the town of Nerges, in Georgia, in the spring of 1396. Representational image. (Public Domain)

On 17 December 1398, Timur prepared his army for battle. His grandson, Prince Pir Mohammed was placed in charge of the right wing. Prince Sultan Hussein and Khalil Sultan, were placed in command of the left wing. The rear was placed on Prince Rusam, while Timur held the center. The Delhi Sultanate ruler Mahmud Tughluk (Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq) commanded the opposing army, which consisted of 10,000 horsemen, 40,000 infantry, and 125 elephants covered with armor, “most of them carrying howdahs in which were men to hurl grenades, fireworks, and rockets.”

Elephant with howdah of the Golconda Sultanate, Qutb Shahi dynasty.

Elephant with howdah of the Golconda Sultanate, Qutb Shahi dynasty. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Two Powerful Armies Clash

The two armies confronted each other, the drums beating; shouts and cries were raised on both sides and the ground trembled. Part of the enemy force separated from the vanguard, “and when they perceived that Sultan Mahmud’s forces were approaching, they moved off to the right, and getting secretly behind the enemy’s advance-guard as it came on unsuspecting, they rushed from their ambush, and falling upon the foe in the rear, sword in hand, they scattered them as hungry lions scatter a flock of sheep, and killed six hundred of them in this single charge.”

Prince Pir Mohammad, who commanded the right wing, moved his forces forward, and with Amir Sulaiman Shah and his regiments, attacked the left wing of the enemy, which was commanded by Taghi Khan, and showered arrows upon them, which compelled them to take refuge in flight.

The left wing under Prince Sultan Husain, Amir Jahan Shah, Amir Ghiyas-ad-din, and other amirs, attacked the enemy’s right wing, which was commanded by Malik Mu’in-ad-din and Malik Hadi. They pressed with the “trenchant sword and piercing arrows that they compelled the enemy to break and fly. Jahan Shah pursued them, and attacked them again and again until they reached the gates of the city of Delhi.”

Simultaneously, Sultan Mahmud’s army at the center was more numerous and with its strong war elephants, made an attack upon Timur’s center, “where Prince Rustam, Amir Shaikh Nur-ad-din, Gateway of the mosque of Ala-ad-din at Delhi and their colleagues met it with a brave and resolute resistance. While they were thus engaged, Daulat Timur Tawachi, Mangali Khwaja, and other amirs came up with their respective forces and assailed the enemy.”

Timur then gave the order to a party of “brave fellows who were in attendance upon me, and they cut their way to the sides of the amirs, who were fighting in the forefront of the battle. They brought the elephant drivers to the ground with their arrows and killed them, after which they attacked and wounded the elephants with their swords. The soldiers of Sultan Mahmud and Mallu Khan showed courage in the fight, but could not withstand the onslaughts of Timur’s army. Seeing that the situation is bleak their “their courage fell and they took to flight.” Mahmud Tughluk army was defeated; “part was slain, and part had found refuge in the fort, toward which I marched, exalted with victory.” With the main threat vanquished, Timur made his way to Delhi.

The Devastating and Bloody Sack of Delhi

After this victory, Timur soon entered Delhi. At first, everything was going fine; many officials came forward to offer Timur gifts. While the regal ceremony and the state of affairs were taking place within the court, problems in the city were about to erupt. Below is the devastating recorded account of what happened to citizens of Delhi in 1398:

“On the sixteenth of the month (Dec. 26), certain incidents occurred which led to the sack of the city of Delhi and to the slaughter of many of the infidel inhabitants. One was this.

A party of fierce Turkish soldiers had assembled at one of the gates of the city to look about them and enjoy themselves, and some of them had laid riotous hands upon the goods of the inhabitants. When I heard of this violence, I sent some amirs, who were present in Delhi, to restrain the Turks, and a party of soldiers accompanied these officers into the city. Another reason was that some of the ladies of my harem expressed a wish to go into the city and see the Palace of a Thousand Columns which Malik Jauna had built in the fort called Jahanpanah.”

Ruins of East gate entry in to Begumpur Masjid

Ruins of East gate entry in to Begumpur Masjid (CC BY 2.0), Jahanpanah. The grand palace with its audience hall of beautifully painted wooden canopy and columns is vividly described but it does no longer exists.

“I granted this request, and I sent a party of soldiers to escort the litters of the ladies. Another reason was that Jalal Islam and other officials had entered Delhi with a party of soldiers to collect the contribution laid upon the city. Another reason was that some thousand troopers with orders for grain, oil, sugar, and flour had gone into the city to collect these supplies. Another reason was that it had come to my knowledge that great numbers of Hindus and infidels had come into the city from all the country round with their wives and children, and goods and valuables, and consequently I had sent some amirs with their regiments into Delhi and directed them to pay no attention to the remonstrances of the inhabitants, but to seize these fugitives and bring them out.”

“For these various reasons a great number of fierce Turkish troops were in the city. When the soldiers proceeded to apprehend the Hindus and infidels who had fled to Delhi, many of them drew their swords and offered resistance. The flames of strife thus lighted spread through the entire city from Jahan-panah and Siri to Old Delhi, consuming all they reached. The savage Turks fell to killing and plundering, while the Hindus set fire to their houses with their own hands, burned their wives and children in them, and rushed into the fight and were killed. The Hindus and infidels of the city showed much alacrity and boldness in fighting. The amirs who were in charge of the gates prevented any more soldiers from entering Delhi, but the flames of war had risen too high for this precaution to be of any avail in extinguishing them.”

View of Tohfe Wala Masjid in Siri Fort area near Shahpur Jat village

View of Tohfe Wala Masjid in Siri Fort area near Shahpur Jat village (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“All day Thursday and throughout the night, nearly fifteen thousand Turks were engaged in slaying, plundering, and destroying.”

Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi. (Public Domain)

Stripping Wealth and Life from the Land

“When Friday morning dawned, my entire army, no longer under control, went off to the city and thought of nothing but killing, plundering, and making prisoners. The sack was general during the whole day, and continued throughout the following day, Saturday, the eventeenth (Dec. 27), the spoil being so great that each man secured from fifty to a hundred prisoners, men, women, and children, while no soldier took less than twenty. There was likewise an immense booty in rubies, diamonds, garnets, pearls, and other gems; jewels of gold and silver; gold and silver money of the celebrated Alai coinage; vessels of gold and silver; and brocades and silks of great value. Gold and silver ornaments of the Hindu women were obtained in such quantities as to exceed all account. Excepting the quarter of the Sayyids, the scholars, and the other Mussulmans, the whole city was sacked.

The pen of fate had written down this destiny for the people of this city, and although I was desirous of sparing them, I could not succeed, for it was the will of God that this calamity should befall the city.”

Top Image: Bust of Timur ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ), and Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi (Pubic Domain); Deriv.

By Cam Rea

References

Jackson, A. V. Williams, History of India: The Mohammedan Period as Described by its Own Historians Volume V. London: The Grolier Society, 1906.

Manz, Beatrice Forbes (2002). “Tamerlane’s Career and Its Uses”. Journal of World History. 13: 3.

Manz, Beatrice Forbes, The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Marozzi, Justin. Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006.

Meri, Josef W. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Rose, Dennis M. The Campaigns of Tamerlane. Hayden, ID: Createspace, 2014.

Publishing, DK. Commanders. London: DK Pub, 2010

Tamerlane’s Invasion of India—Part I

Timur, historically known as Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), was a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. Timur rose through the ranks by gaining the respect of local chieftains due to his personal valor in combat and his brigandage. His actions, whether raiding or in combat, caused many to flock to him. It was during a battle that arrows struck his right arm and leg which left him partially paralyzed. Because of this, Europeans referred to him as ‘Tamerlane’ or ‘Timur the Lame.’

Timur was born in Transoxania a member of Barlas tribe. He rose to power among the Ulus Chaghatay. The Ulus Chaghatay was nomadic tribal confederation that formed the central region of Mongolian Chaghadaid khanate. Timur’s story is similar to Genghis Khan; How true these stories are is up for debate.

Portrait of Timur, 15th century. (Public Domain)

Portrait of Timur, 15th century. (Public Domain)

Timur, not being related to Genghis Khan, could not bear the title Khan. Since he could not use the title, he decided to use politics to his advantage. While in the city of Balkh, (now northern Afghanistan), Timur quickly gained allies from among the merchants, peoples, and clergy due to sharing his loot with the locals, while the ruler, Husayn, who also happened to be Timur’s brother-in-law, was not viewed in with such praise. It may be that Husayn was a fine ruler; it is just that Timur had the capital to profit from his ambition.

The Chagatai Khanate and its neighbors in the late 13th century. (CC BY 3.0)

The Chagatai Khanate and its neighbors in the late 13th century. (CC BY 3.0)

Timur challenged and defeated Husayn in 1370 and took his other wife, Saray Mulk Khanum, who was a direct descendent of Genghis Khan. This allowed him to become the indirect imperial ruler of the Chaghatay tribe. To strengthen his position further, he collected a number of princes from the various branches of the Genghisid branches.

Timur also used Islam to legitimize his position by praising and patronizing the Sufi sheikhs and ulama. He built religious monuments to both please the religious faith and at the same time show that he was favored by the supernatural due to his connection to Genghis Khan. Timur understood the power of charisma as well as using the fear of the divine to solidify his position.

Emir Timur feasts in the gardens of Samarkand. (Public Domain)

Emir Timur feasts in the gardens of Samarkand. (Public Domain)

Facing India: Soldiers, Elephants, Destroyers of Men!

By the time Timur had considered invading India 1398, he had already conquered most of the Near East. However, his appetite for conquest had not been quenched. He wanted more, and he desired India.

Timur had focused most of his military career on the west. With the west secured there was no remaining kingdom in that region that could really put a dent into his empire. Therefore, he looked east as he always had a desire to conquer China and bring it back under the fold of the Mongol Empire. However, India was closer; this multi-kingdom subcontinent bordered his empire. The grand prize in all this was the powerful kingdom of the Delhi Sultanate. Timur knew that the Kingdom of Delhi was no pushover, but given that it was weakened due to being in a state of civil war, made Delhi ripe for the sacking.

Asia in 1335, showing including Turco-Mongol culture nations such as the Golden Horde and the Chagatai Khanate. (Public Domain)

Timur’s desired to take Delhi as he felt not only would he secure his southern border, but also he would acquire the kingdom’s extraordinary amounts of wealth. That being said, selling the war was not so easy.

Timur ordered the princes and amirs to meet with him to see what they thought about making a military expedition into India. Most opposed the idea due to the prospective kingdom being of the same faith; others also feared that invading India was too ambitious of a task. Many were bewildered by this and stated “The rivers! And the mountains and deserts! And the soldiers clad in armor! And the elephants, destroyers of men!”

Elephant in Battle, Kota, Rajasthan, India. (

Elephant in Battle, Kota, Rajasthan, India. (Public Domain)

Prince Mohammad Sultan scolded the men and shamed them for such talk. Afterwards, he made a plea to their greed to uplift their spirits by stating:

“The whole country of India is full of gold and jewels, and in it there are seventeen mines of gold and silver, diamonds and rubies, emeralds and tin, iron and steel, copper and quicksilver, and many metals more; and among the plants which grow there are those fit for making wearing-apparel, and aromatic shrubs, and the sugar-cane; and it is a country which is always green and verdant, and the whole aspect of the land is pleasant and delightful. Now, since the inhabitants are chiefly polytheists and infidels and idolaters and worshippers of the sun, it is meet, according to the mandate of God and of His Prophet, for us to conquer them.”

Timur’s son, Shahrukh Mirza also made a statement, reminding the officers that “India is an extensive country. Whichever Sultan conquers it becomes supreme over the four corners of the globe. If under the conduct of our amir, we conquer India, we shall become rulers over the seven climes.”

The World Trembles, but the Khan Does Not

After much debate, Timur decided to go ahead and prepare for a massive invasion. While he readied his forces, he sent Prince Pir Mohammed Jahangir ahead to place the holy city of Multan (located in present-day Pakistan) under siege.

Multan is famous for its large number of Sufi shrines, including the unique rectangular tomb of Shah Gardez that dates from the 1150s and is covered in blue enameled tiles typical of Multan.

Multan is famous for its large number of Sufi shrines, including the unique rectangular tomb of Shah Gardez that dates from the 1150s and is covered in blue enameled tiles typical of Multan. (Junaidahmadj/CC BY-SA 3.0)

While this was ongoing, Timur ordered for the assembly of ninety thousand troops. To make sure everyone was on board, Timur called for a qurultay, which is a meeting with all the princes, chiefs, and other officials to inform them what his intentions were.

Timur stated:

Although the true faith is observed in many places in India, the greater part of the Kingdom is inhabited by idolaters. The Sultans of Delhi have been slack in their defense of the Faith. The Muslim rulers are content with the collection of tribute from these infidels. The Koran says that the highest dignity a man can achieve is to make war on the enemies of our Religion. Mohammed the Prophet counselled like wise. A Muslim warrior thus killed acquires a merit which translates him at once into Paradise.

Timur also made it clear that they should fear him and his army for “most of Asia are under our domination, and the world trembles at the least movement we make.” Timur also saw destiny on his side and believed he had been blessed with favorable opportunities. Because of this, his armies rode “south, not east. India through her disorders has opened her doors to us.”

Timur sent a letter addressed to Sarang Khan of Dipalpur with a possible deal:

If the rulers of Hindustan come before me with tribute, I will not interfere with their lives, property, or kingdoms; but if they are negligent in proffering obedience and submission, I will put forth my strength for the conquest of the realms of India. At all events, if they set any value upon their lives, property, and reputation, they will pay me a yearly tribute; and if not, they shall hear of my arrival with my powerful armies. Farewell.

Sarang Khan replied:

It is difficult to take an empire to your bosom, like a bride, without trouble and difficulty and the clashing of swords. The desire of your prince is to take this kingdom with its rich revenue. Well, let him wrest it from us by force of arms if he be able. I have numerous armies and formidable elephants, and am quite prepared for war.

Preparing for War

The armies of Timur were unlike those of the 14th-century Muslim states and closer to that of Genghis Khan and his successors. Timur’s military leadership may have started with an arban at the bottom of the chain. The next part is pure speculation. One can assume, without certainty, that every Timurid warrior belonged to an arban. An arban consisted of 10 men with one being the commander. Ten arbans equals one jagun (plural jaghut) consisting of 100 men. Ten jagunt consist of 1,000 men and form a minqan (plural minqat). Ten minqat form one tumen (plural tumet) consisting of 10,000 men.

10 men = 1 arban

100 men = 1 jagun

1,000 men = 1 minqan

10,000 men = 1 tumen

100,000 men = 1 tuc

A Mongol melee in the 13th century.

A Mongol melee in the 13th century. (Public Domain)

While Timur decidedly used the old Mongol system, it is uncertain as to whether or not he used the same traditional names. As for the size of Timur’s army marching into India, this remains debatable. Some say the army prepping for invasion into India was roughly between 90,000-100,000 or 40,000-45,000 troops. It might be safe to say that the army that sacked Delhi was roughly 60,000 strong.

If Timur’s army was purely cavalry based (and no infantry as some sources suggest), one can speculate that the number of horses each warrior had; perhaps five mounts at his disposal. If so, an army of 40,000 to 45,000 would have required 200,000 to 225,000 mounts, while an army of 90,000 to 100,000 would have needed 450,000 to 500,000 mounts. Two hundred thousand mounts would many square miles of grass per day on the plains. Hydration was also crucial, and the horses would require millions of gallons of water a day. To ensure that the horses had food and water, Timurid scouts, far ahead of the main army, searched for suitable grazing ground that supplied ample food and water. Timur’s best option to feed his army in areas less suitable was to raid nearby villages in enemy territory.

Timur’s army battles Egyptian forces.

Timur’s army battles Egyptian forces.  (Public Domain)

Heretics, Idolaters, Infidels, and Misbelievers

Once Timur and his forces pushed out in March 1398, his advanced guard and right wing were under the command of his grandson, Pir Mohammed. Pir Mohammed moved his forces into a less confined area as he pushed into Punjab. Once in Punjab, his mission was to capture Multan. With Pir Mohammed was busy in Punjab, Timur’s other grandson Mohammed Sultan, marched by way of Lahore. Timur, took a more difficult route, with a much smaller force into the Hindu Kush before making his way south to join his main force east of the Indus by September.

Once December arrived, Timur declared:

For my intended attack on Delhi in this same year 800 A.H. (1398 AD), I arranged my forces so that the army extended over a distance of twenty leagues. Being satisfied with my disposition of the troops, I began my march on Delhi. On the twenty-second of Rabi’-al-awwal (Dec. 2) I arrived and encamped at the fort of the village of Aspandi, where I found, in answer to my inquiries, that Samana was seven leagues distant.

The people of Samana and Kaithal and Aspandi are all heretics, idolaters, infidels, and misbelievers. They had now set fire to their houses and had fled with their children and property toward Delhi, so that the whole country was deserted.

Top Image: Bust of Timur ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ), and Timur standing with cane (Public Domain); Deriv.

By Cam Rea

References

Jackson, A. V. Williams, History of India: The Mohammedan Period as Described by its Own Historians Volume V. London: The Grolier Society, 1906.

Manz, Beatrice Forbes (2002). “Tamerlane’s Career and Its Uses”. Journal of World History. 13: 3.

Manz, Beatrice Forbes, The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Marozzi, Justin. Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006.

Meri, Josef W. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Rose, Dennis M. The Campaigns of Tamerlane. Hayden, ID: Createspace, 2014.

Publishing, DK. Commanders. London: DK Pub, 2010

The Mongols: Battlefield Medicine and Gruesome Cures—Part III

Much is known about the ancient Mongol military and their incredible victories on the battlefield, but little is ever discussed about their arms, armor, horses, and logistics. What gear did they use? How did they deal with their wounded? How did they partner with horses to become masters of the steppe?

During the early reign of Genghis Khan, each warrior brought his own equipment. In doing so, each warrior could provide for the arban. While there is no doubt that the Mongols did acquire new equipment in the same way as bandits—from the dead scattered about the field of battle—Genghis Khan still made sure his men were equipped properly.

Illustration of Mongol mounted warriors

Illustration of Mongol mounted warriors (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Arms Manufacturing and Supply: Bandits and Artisans

As the Khan’s territory expanded, the ability to manufacture arms and to supply his men moved into full production. This allowed the armies to procure from the quartermasters. However, there is no doubt that many Mongols still repaired or produced much of their own equipment.

In order to produce large quantities of arms and armor, Genghis Khan made sure that not only did the areas under his control have the ability to manufacture the weapons of war, but also served as depots from which his armies could procure armaments. Genghis Khan would also relocate many of these artisans to be near his encampment to produce the weapons of war and to educate his men. After his death, Mongol rulers would continue to bring in artisans from the conquered regions like Central Asia, Persia, and China. The artisan camps were at Chinqai Balasghun near the Mongol of Karakorum, Besh Baliq in Uighurstan on the northern slopes of Tien Shan, Xinmalin or Simali, north of Beijing and in Hongzhou, 180 km (111.8 miles) west of Beijing. Of the many artisans working for the Mongols, most came from the former Khwarazmian Empire and were assigned to work alongside their Chinese counterparts.

Mongol Horses and Warriors – Successful Partners

The impressive Mongol war machine would have been all for naught had it not been for the horse that transported them to and from the field of battle. The Mongol horse, unlike European and Middle Eastern horses, was smaller in stature but stronger and surpassed all others in endurance. The horse greatly enhanced the ability of the army to reach its objective quickly; speed on the battlefield was crucial in establishing battlefield dominance.

When on campaign, a Mongol warrior would bring with him several remounts. The need for remounts was necessary, for after some time the horse would become tired due to traveling long distances and in battle, the Mongols would execute the caracole tactic (a charging and turning maneuver), thus tiring the horse and requiring the rider to change mounts, allowing the other to rest. Understand that the Mongol army during the time of Genghis Khan could roughly travel 60 miles (96 km) a day, unlike the later Mongol army under the leadership of Hulegu, whose vast army on their way to Baghdad in 1258, appeared more like a traveling city that could only move a few kilometers a day due to its sheer size. Therefore, the need for many horses was crucial to their military endeavors.

A modern Mongolian horse ledger

A modern Mongolian horse ledger (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Maintaining horses on a grand scale was critical to the needs of the Mongols, whether that be for warfare or not since the horse was an integral part of their society. During the time of Genghis Khan the horse became even more crucial to military matters. The entire Mongol population and their property came under the authority of the Great Khan and were subject to all things martial due to many military campaigns the Mongols went on. Because of this, the number of horses needed to supply each warrior is said to have been between five and seven mounts and as high as 30 horses, according to one scholar.

The Mongol horse is roughly fourteen hands high 127cm (50 in) or 4 feet, 8 inches. The type of horse preferred was geldings, a castrated male horse. The Mongols would castrate the male around four years of age, producing a gentler horse for war. Mares were also ridden due to the same benefits that the geldings provided, but mares offered the Mongols another resource on their long trek and that was milk.  Moreover, mares are easier to control than stallions, especially when the mare is in heat. Stallions can be easily distracted when a mare is in heat or simply just present. Using mares then gave the Mongols, among other steppe nomads, a tactical advantage on the battlefield. Therefore, riders of the stallions had to be extra vigilant to restrain their mounts from chasing the mares.

Mongolian horses (CC BY 2.0)

To feed all these animals would have been extraordinary when considering the amount of horses each man took with him on a military campaign. A Mongol army of 60,000 would have been traveling with 300,000 horses. This suggests that each man would have had roughly five mounts at his disposal. Each horse would need 9.33 lbs. of grass (dry weight) per day. Three hundred thousand mounts would need eight square miles to graze. The total amount of food required to feed this army of horses comes to 2.8 million lbs. (dry weight) of grass per day.

Hydration was also crucial, as each Mongol horse would roughly consume five gallons of water a day. Sixty thousand horses would need roughly 1.5 million gallons of water a day, three hundred thousand mounts would need 7.5 million gallons of water a day. Perhaps half of the water needed would have come from the grass they fed on. To ensure that the horses had food, Mongol scouts, far ahead of the main army, searching for suitable grazing grounds that supplied ample food and water, but success depended on the season and climate.

Grass Determined Military Outcomes

The fertile steppe provided the Mongol horses with an abundance of food. This was of strategic importance when it comes to military campaigns. The cornucopia of grass allowed the Mongols to move with ease towards their targets. Once the region in question was conquered, the areas suitable for grazing would be utilized and this provided the Mongols with another base from which to launch future operations against neighboring kingdoms. However, not all regions are favorable for horse grazing, like Syria. Syria did have few areas from which horses could graze, but not enough to support the usual number of horses the Mongols brought with them on campaign. The number of horses the semi-arid Syrian landscape could support was roughly 80,000. Of course, arid regions could not support the massive Mongol army’s four-legged transportation.

Horses on Mongolian grasslands, circled by black kites. (BerndThaller/CC BY 2.0)

While semi-arid provided little, and arid regions provided nothing, areas suitable to supply large numbers of horses also had their problems. The Mongols needed islands of grazing lands to jump from point A to point B. However, getting from point A to B proved difficult at times. When the Mongols invaded Eastern Europe, they were able to confiscate large swaths of land from the Rus until they reached the areas of Poland, Hungary, and Croatia. The Mongol forces defeated the armies of Christendom thrown at them with ease. However, even they understood the difficulty that before them. Conquest of Eastern Europe provided them with spotty grazing lands. Most of Eastern Europe going west was primarily forest, except for one major steppe exclave located mostly in Hungary. The forest, like the jungles of Southeast Asia, refused passage to Mongol forces.

Medicines and Treatment of the Wounded

Besides the shamans brought in to deal with illness, the Mongols also had a rudimentary medical knowledge that was crucial on the steppe. Due to their conquests of China, the Near East, the Steppe, and much of Eastern Europe, they were able to draw medical knowledge from the four corners of their Empire. There is no record of the Mongols having a medical corps, however, it would have been unreasonable to think that the Mongols did not have doctors on hand. There is no doubt that doctors, surgeons, healers, and shamans did travel with this vast juggernaut. But what did these various cultures bring?

Mongol Shaman with drum, Central Asia (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)

The nations of Islam provided the Mongols with knowledge of practices going back to the prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher Galen, who lived in the Roman Empire. Practices the Islamic doctors brought to the Mongol camp dealt with injuries such as broken bones, burns, and combat wounds. The Chinese doctors also brought methods as well, including dietary medicine and Tibetan Ayurevdic medical techniques. Like all armies on the move, issues arose such as dysentery, bubonic plague, and lesser illnesses. Herbal treatments could only do so much. When it came to physical pain, Muslim doctors used cauterization and surgery. Once again, there is no evidence that is conclusive to tell how the Mongols felt about medical care.

The Mongol Empire incorporated medical knowledge from the Islamic world. Folio from an Arabic manuscript of Dioscorides, De Materica Medica, 1229 (Public Domain)

In combat, the Mongols like any other force, would remove their wounded from the field of battle to receive medical care. While most of these wounded men were leaders, there is no doubt that the common man who bled was also evacuated from the battlefield to receive medical care. Those waiting to receive the wounded warriors were primarily women, until later one when specialists were recruited. The women who were brought along were probably accustomed to dealing with broken bones and resetting them as a common injury, given that Mongol men, who went through the day-to-day rigors of riding horses, dealing with livestock and breaking in the new horses, would have suffered from a broken bone from time-to-time.

Hulagu and his army. Jami’ al-tawarikh, Rashid al-Din. 1430. (Public Domain)

One technique that seems to have been known by both the battlefield doctors and the warrior is arrow wounds. Genghis Khan early in his life received an arrow wound to the neck during a battle. He tried to patch up the wound to stop the bleeding but had no luck. Once he arrived back at his camp, Jelme, a general and good friend, saw the pain Genghis was in and the blood coming from the wound, and decided to suck the blood out of his neck and spit it out. The reason for doing this was to clear the wound of infection, like many others at the time, knew that such a wound was common and serious. An arrow in the neck could damage any of the major arteries and veins along with the esophagus and trachea.

Wounds are inevitable on the battlefield. The Mongols at war. (Public Domain)

You Thought it Smelled Bad on the Outside?

On a side note concerning Genghis Khan’s wound, it is said that if a patient went into shock, an ox or an animal similar in size, preferably livestock, was killed and the patient would be inserted into the animal. One such case did happen when Guo Baoyu, a general of Genghis Khan, was struck in the chest by an arrow, along with another by the name of Li Ting, who took two bolts from a ballista while attacking the Song city of Shayang in 1274, as well as Muhan, who was shot with three arrows while scaling the walls of Xijing in Xi Xia.  All three men were placed inside an ox after it had been found, killed, and the intestines removed. The patient would be stripped naked and placed inside the carcass for an unknown period. Understand that the person placed into the large animal was arranged in the fetal position. In all three cases, each man recovered from this procedure. Interestingly, Genghis Khan is said to have performed two of these procedures for both Muhan and Guo Baoyu.

Long-haired domestic Yak found throughout central Asia. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Gruesome Animal Cure

The reason for such treatment is that, depending on the size of the wound or where it is located, that determined the size of the animal needed to help repair the wound. If a man received a head wound, a sheep would suffice. Understand that not all cases required a man’s head be inserted into a sheep just as all wounds do not always require an ox.

Mongolian Sheep (RichardGHawley/CC BY-ND 2.0)

In other cases, the Mongol doctors would use the skin of a freshly killed animal to place over the wound for healing. This practice was still being used well into the twentieth century among the Kazakhs for frostbite, and even today, fish skin is still used to help heal burn wounds as reported in December of last year.

To ensure that patients got the most out of such treatment depended on the way the animal was killed. Typically the doctor or the warrior, well versed in steppe medical procedures, would restrain the animal, make a small slit into its skin, just wide enough to fit their hand in the chest to stop the heart by squeezing it or ripping the aorta. Stopping the heart by squeezing was the preferred method to ensure that the blood stayed in the vessels. This was preferred, for once the patient was placed into the body, the blood of the animal would help in coagulating the wounds. Moreover, pressure from the body of the larger animals aided in staunching the wound and preventing the patient from going into shock by forcing blood flow.

Innovation and New Technology through Empire

Overall, the Mongol military from a military viewpoint looks no different from your average steppe nomad during the time. However, what set them apart was the fact that they were willing to adopt new ideas and innovate. Over time, it became easier as their empire expanded and they were able to draw in more peoples with complex technologies. Because of this, the Mongols were able to carve out large swaths of territory due to the technological and logistical innovations they learned from those they conquered.

The siege of Zhongdu (modern Beijing) in 1213–14 (Public Domain)

Many nations who conquer another take their time looking into what made that nation great (if ever taking the time do so at all). Nations like Assyria and Rome come to mind when it came to adopting and innovating new military methods to combat those who were a thorn in their side, much like the Mongols. However, the difference with the Mongols was that they were quick learners and quick conquerors, but in the end, they did not seek ways to effectively govern their large empire efficiently and therefore quickly fell apart.

Top Image: Reenactment of Mongol battle (Public Domain);Deriv

By Cam Rea

References

Thomas J. Craughwell, The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History: How Genghis Khan’s Mongols Almost Conquered the World (Beverly, Mass: Fair Winds Press, 2010).

Timothy May, The Mongol Conquests in World History (London: Reaktion Books, 2012).

Timothy May, The Mongol Art of War: Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System (Yardley, Penn: Westholme, 2007).

Richard D. McCreight, Mongol Warrior Epic: Masters of Thirteenth Century Maneuver Warfare (Fort Leavenworth, KS: US Army Command and General Staff College 1983).

Marco Polo, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. Volume 2 edited and translated by Henry Yule. 3rdedition (London: J. Murray, 1929).

Michael Prawdin, The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1961).

George Vernadsky, A History of Russia, Vol 3 (New Haven and London: Yale University press, 1953).

Tracy, Larissa. Wounds and Wound Repair in Medieval Culture. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

The Mongols: Armed to the Teeth with Weapons and Poison—Part II

Much is known about the ancient Mongol military and their incredible victories on the battlefield, but little is ever discussed about their arms, armor, horses, and logistics. What gear did they use? How did they deal with their wounded? How did they partner with horses to become masters of the steppe?

The Mongolian soldier’s bows and arrows are perhaps their best-known weapons – their famous riding and archery skills were a sight to behold, as long as they weren’t targeted at you.

A Deadly Rain of Arrows, Piercing and Slicing

Enemies of the Mongolian armies feared a deadly rain of arrows. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The arrows the Mongolian military used varied in size, weight, and function. When it came to length, the arrows were roughly over two feet (0.6 meters) in length. The wood used to make the shafts was usually willow, birch, and juniper. The shaft of the arrow thinned out towards the notch of the tip. To make an arrow, the Mongol archer would take an iron tanged arrowhead and carefully hammer the point of the tang into the shaft without splitting it. If the top of the shaft split due to the tang, it would be bound with cord. To further strengthen a damaged shaft, the surface was layered with birch bark.

The Gear and Guts of the Mongol Military—Part I

When it came to feathering the arrow, the Mongols used a variety of bird feathers. Eagle feathers were the most commonly used but the Mongols also used the feathers of geese, kites, blackcocks and woodpeckers. On an interesting note, when using feathers, if a feather taken from the right wing was used, the arrow would spin to the right during flight, if taken from left wing, it would spin to the left.

Kazakh-Mongolian Hunter and his Eagle.

Kazakh-Mongolian Hunter and his Eagle. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Traveler Marco Polo placed arrowheads in two classes: light ones with small sharp points for long-range shooting and pursuit, and heavy ones with large, broad heads used in close quarters. Carpini states that the arrowheads cut two ways, and were hardened by dipping them while red-hot into brine, after which they were so rigid they could pierce armor. A general by the name of Meng-Hung, who served the Sung Dynasty and who put up a strong resistance to the Mongols in the 1230s mentions three type of arrows: the sounding arrow, the camel-bone arrow, and the armor-piercing arrow.

The type of arrowheads used consisted of bone, steel, horn, and iron. Bone arrowheads could do next to nothing against armored opponents but still do considerable damage against other lightly or non-armored adversaries. Iron or steel arrowhead points were designed to punch through armor, such as the tapered, spiked arrowheads or those that were tempered and chiseled. Other arrowheads were broad and flat with a horizontal blade. Based upon its design, the Mongol cavalrymen would select this type of arrowhead to fire indirectly at the enemy troop intervals. This would inflict tremendous damage to both man and animal, as the arrowhead would slice its way through the ranks. In other words, “death by a thousand cuts” as the ancient Chinese phrase goes.

A modern Mongolian archer. “An absolute essential part of a Naadam (Festival) is archery. Mongolians use their thumb to draw the bow. Also, see how he controls his breathing at the last picture.”

A modern Mongolian archer. “An absolute essential part of a Naadam (Festival) is archery. Mongolians use their thumb to draw the bow. Also, see how he controls his breathing at the last picture.” (A. Omer Karamollaoglu/CC BY 2.0)

Flying Poison and Death on the Wind

Besides arrows designed to slice flesh and punch through armor came those that whistled and delivered poison. Many Mongol arrows had a hollow bone container. The container was placed beneath the arrowhead, had two oval-shaped holes, and produced a whistle upon being fired. The size of the barrel or biconical container was between 2.8 and 7.5 cm (one inch to three inches). The length of the container was directly related to the size of the arrowhead. The function of this arrow is disputed. Some think it was to frighten or was just a luxury or novelty item among the Mongols. When looking at its function from a military viewpoint, it could be proposed that the whistling arrow had a dual purpose: one, to have a psychological impact upon the enemy army and for scaring their horses, and two, for signaling nearby Mongol units to maneuver and attack.

Another projectile used by the Mongols was the poison arrow. The poison used on the arrow was called khoron. One type of poison was plant-based. Mongols smeared their arrows with what may have been the aconite (Aconitum napellus, or monks-hood). Aconite is a toxic plant of “perennial herbs of the genus Aconitum, having tuberous roots, palmately lobed leaves, blue or white flowers with large hoodlike upper sepals, and an aggregate of follicles.” The Mongols may have used the Aconitum ferox found in Tibet or of a related species. To make a lethal dose, the Mongols would have used three to six grams of the dried Aconitum and mixed it with ganja.

This c. 1280 painting depicts an archer shooting a traditional Mongol bow from horseback [left]

This c. 1280 painting depicts an archer shooting a traditional Mongol bow from horseback [left] (Public Domain)

The other type of poison used was called mogain khoran, and was extracted from the steppe viper or adder. The Mongols, like their nomadic ancestors, inhabited a land that was home to a number of snakes from which they drew venom. Such snakes inhabiting the area included the steppe viper, Caucasus viper, European adder, and the long-nose/sand viper. The Mongols had a vast arsenal of snake venoms at their disposal. To get an idea how the Mongols went about producing this poison, one must look to the ancient Scythians and those who wrote about them.

Vipera ursinii, venomous viper and a very widespread species from France to China.

Vipera ursinii, venomous viper and a very widespread species from France to China.  (Public Domain)

According to the book titled, “On Marvelous Things Heard,” by Pseudo-Aristotle, which was a work written by his followers if not written in part by Aristotle himself, mentions the Scythian handling of snakes and how to extract their poison:

They say that the Scythian poison, in which that people dips its arrows, is procured from the viper. The Scythians, it would appear, watch those that are just bringing forth young, and take them, and allow them to putrefy for some days.

After several days passed, the Scythian shaman would then take the venom and mix it with other ingredients. One of these concoctions required human blood:

But when the whole mass appears to them to have become sufficiently rotten, they pour human blood into a little pot, and, after covering it with a lid, bury it in a dung-hill. And when this likewise has putrefied, they mix that which settles on the top, which is of a watery nature, with the corrupted blood of the viper, and thus make it a deadly poison.

The Roman author Aelian also mentions this process, saying, “The Scythians are even said to mix serum from the human body with the poison that they smear upon their arrows.” Both accounts show the Scythians were able to excite the blood in order to separate it from the yellow, watery plasma. Once the mixture of blood and dung had putrefied, the shaman would take the serum and excrement and mix it in with the next ingredient, venom, along with the decomposed viper. Once the process was complete, the Scythians would place their arrowheads into this deadly mixture ready for use. The historian Strabo mentions a second use of this deadly poison:

The Soanes use poison of an extraordinary kind for the points of their weapons; even the odor of this poison is a cause of suffering to those who are wounded by arrows thus prepared.

Overall, it would not be farfetched to imagine the Mongols were going about the same procedures when it came to the manufacturing of poison using snake venom.

Quivers Full of Arrows, and Shields to Protect

Quivers housing the arrows were made of birch bark and leather, had an oval opening at the top and broadened from the top towards the base. Manufacturing the quiver required long strips of birch bark slightly overlapped. The material used to make the base is unknown but suspected to have been made of leather or felt. To keep the quiver together, he would stitch it with strong thread.

While archaeological excavations have turned up many quivers, unfortunately, none has survived and that is understandable given their makeup. On campaign, the Mongol warrior would take two three quivers, each consisting of between 30-60 arrows. When placed in the quivers, the arrowheads were placed downwards. The quiver was located to the left of the rider and was attached to his belt by iron hooks.

“Mongolian bows were as powerful as the English longbow, used at Crecy or Agincourt, and helped Genghis Khan build an empire from Beijing to Hungary and Austria.” Quiver, horn, and arrows. (Adam Singer/CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Mongol utilization of shields appears nearly absent in the sources. Carpini mentions that the shields “were of osiers or wicker but we do not believe they carry them except in camp while guarding the emperor or the princes and even then only at night.” Marco Polo says nothing about the type of shield but that they used them. However, Meng-Hung records the use of four types of shields consisting of a “large skin or willow-wood shields—probably for sentry duty only-smaller shields carried by front rank troops to ward off arrows when on foot, a visor worn over the face, and large tortoise shields for assaulting towns.”

Armed to the Teeth

Other weapons the Mongol used were the lasso, which was used to pull enemy horsemen out of their saddle, a dagger for close combat, a lance used to pierce through the enemy ranks during a fierce charge (but which also had a secondary purpose due to the hook below the head used to pull enemy riders from their saddles by catching the opponents clothes or equipment). This would have been especially easy against steppe riders who used shorter stirrups because they were less secure in the saddle. Mongols also used the mace, as it was a close combat weapon like the dagger. The mace was roughly 15 inches (40 cm) in length and weighed a little over 2 lb (1.17kg). Spears functioned much like the lance; they had a hook below the head, but were much shorter.

A model of a Mongolian mounted soldier, with bow, quiver of arrows and a shield. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Logistics: An Army Marches on its Stomach

Logistics are crucial to any army on the move and the Mongols were no exception. Even though the Mongols acquired food through hunting or raiding and brought their herds and flocks with them, they still needed to secure their supply lines. While acquiring and protecting food was not an issue, other items of value such as military materials, like siege equipment, arms and armor, horses and other miscellaneous objects were more difficult to maintain.

Bactrian camels in Mongolia.

Bactrian camels in Mongolia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

To move the massive amount of goods needed to supply the army, the Mongols relied on camels and, at times, on horses. The camel allowed the Mongols to move much more stuff. Take a Bactrian camel for instance; a Bactrian camel can carry 200-240 kg (440-530 lbs) and pull roughly 400-600 kg (881-1322 lbs) at a pace of 30 to 40 kilometers (or 18 to 24 miles) per day. Besides leading the horses to the pastures to graze, the Mongolians made sure that they had ample food readily available on hand. A Mongol tumen (10,000) troops, had roughly 50,000 horses on hand, would need 113.5 metric tonnes (250224.67 lbs) of hay and barley on hand. An army of six tumen 60,000 troops, traveled roughly with 300,000 horses and would require an astonishing 1,362 metric tonnes (3002696 lbs) of fodder each day. To move 1,362 metric tonnes of food each day would require 7,504 camels. Each camel would be required to carry 181.5 kg (400 lbs) of fodder each day to supply the horses! However, this does not account for the many more camels used to transport the other items as mentioned.

Besides the supplies to ensure the animals were well fed, the Mongols also brought additional food for the troops. The food, of course, was meat. The amounts are not mentioned, but when Genghis Khan invaded the Khwarazmian Empire (1219-22), each arban would take three-and-a-half dried sheep with them, along with a cauldron. While it is obvious that the amount of meat mentioned was already on hand as the Mongol horsemen were on the move, it also suggests that three-and-a-half dried sheep had already been prepared and distributed throughout each arban, and shows much more meat, along with potable drink, was slowly traversing in the rear.

Horses run through a winter storm in Mongolia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Those assigned to overlook this task is unknown. It is obvious that the upper chain of command had oversight on the supplies, but whether specialized units were assigned to distribute the goods to the troops remains silent. Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvayni wrote a history on the Mongols titled Tarīkh-i Jahān-gushā, or History of the World Conqueror, and mentions that each unit was responsible for all the “various arms and implements down to banners, needles, ropes, mounts and pack animals such as donkey’s and camels; and every man must provide his share according to his ten or hundred.” If any item turned up missing, “those responsible are severely punished.”

Overall, the Mongols primarily depended on their herds and flocks that traveled in rear, as well as those assigned to overlook the traveling produce. While food supplies were crucial, the Mongols, besides hunting for food, could also stop off and resupply at a nearby village, town, or city using the fear of their approach or just plain pillaging it. Before proceeding, understand that the Mongol Empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Eastern Europe, and they could draw on much more than during the time of Genghis Khan.

When the Great Khan Mongke (1209-1259) gave his blessing to his brother Hulegu to conquer much of the Middle East starting in 1253, Hulegu pulled supplies and troops from all four directions starting in Karakorum until this lumbering Mongol army made its way through central Asia and swelled into an enormous force, before coming to rest at the outskirts of Samarkand. While at Samarkand, Hulegu continued to increase the size of his forces.

Audience with Möngke Khagan. (Great Khan Mongke)

Audience with Möngke Khagan. (Great Khan Mongke) (Public Domain)

When Eastern Christian communities received news of Hulegu’s planned campaign, the vassal Kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia provided troops and were enthusiastic in recovering former Christian lands in Mesopotamia.

Further to the north, Batu Khan, Mongol ruler and founder of the Golden Horde, a division of the Mongol Empire, provided newly conscripted tumens (an army unit of 10,000 soldiers) mostly Turks and Alans, led by Balaghai, Khuli, and Tutar, Batu’s nephews. One can only image the amount of supplies, resources, herds, and craftsmen that came with each army from nearly every direction!

However, supplying troops with food was one thing; weapons were a whole other matter.

Top Image: Exhibit featuring Mongolian arrows (CC BY-SA 2.0), and Mongolian soldier model (CC BY 2.0);Deriv.

By Cam Rea

References

Thomas J. Craughwell, The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History: How Genghis Khan’s Mongols Almost Conquered the World (Beverly, Mass: Fair Winds Press, 2010).

Timothy May, The Mongol Conquests in World History (London: Reaktion Books, 2012).

Timothy May, The Mongol Art of War: Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System (Yardley, Penn: Westholme, 2007).

Richard D. McCreight, Mongol Warrior Epic: Masters of Thirteenth Century Maneuver Warfare (Fort Leavenworth, KS: US Army Command and General Staff College 1983).

Marco Polo, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. Volume 2 edited and translated by Henry Yule. 3rdedition (London: J. Murray, 1929).

Michael Prawdin, The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1961).

George Vernadsky, A History of Russia, Vol 3 (New Haven and London: Yale University press, 1953).

Tracy, Larissa. Wounds and Wound Repair in Medieval Culture. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

The Gear and Guts of the Mongol Military—Part I

Much is known about the ancient Mongol military and their incredible victories on the battlefield, but little is ever discussed about their arms, armor, horses, and logistics. What gear did they use? How did they deal with their wounded? How did they partner with horses to become masters of the steppe?

Indeed, it’s said there was no separate word for ‘soldier’ in the Middle Mongol language, meaning that the society was so adept at survival and conquering that there was little difference in preparedness between a civilian and a warrior. This may have been one of the keys to their adaptability, and ultimate success.

Here we take a detailed look into the Mongol military apparatus (Arms, Armor, Supplies, Horses, and Medicine): How did they do it?

The Lightning-Quick Light Cavalryman

The attire of the Mongol light cavalryman was no different from his everyday outfit. The Mongol warrior’s attire was practical, in the sense that its main function was to protect him from the harsh conditions of the climate he traversed. His undershirt was long with wide sleeves. His attire consisted of a heavy, double-breasted knee-length coat called deel or degel.

A Mongolian coat, or deel

A Mongolian coat, or deel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This coat was secured with a button a few inches below the armpit and was fastened by a leather belt at the waist. Furthermore, the Mongols utilized two types of coats. One was a heavy coat for the colder seasons but they also wore a coat to keep them dry from the rains during the warmer seasons. As for material, Flemish Franciscan monk, William of Rubruck (1210-ca. 1270) said that the “poor make their outside (gowns) of dog and kid (skins).” As for pants, Rubruck mentions that they “make also breeches with furs,” and “line their clothes with cotton cloth, or with the fine wool which they are able to pick out of the coarser.”

When it comes to armor, many Mongols did not wear much, particularly lamellar. The reason was that the role of the light cavalryman was to be light, flexible, agile, and above all, fast.

This Japanese lamellar cuirass was typically too heavy for light cavalry

This Japanese lamellar cuirass was typically too heavy for light cavalry (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Other items that a light cavalryman would have used, as well did the heavy cavalryman, were “two or three bows or at least one good one, and three large quivers filled with arrows” along with a sword, which hung from his belt. He may have carried a dagger, axe, or both. His coat pocket possibly consisted of a sharpening stone for weapons and arrowheads, or perishable items, such as dried meat, dried curds, perhaps berries.

Steadfast and Indomitable Heavy Cavalrymen

William of Rubruck describes heavy cavalry as wearing the same clothing as light cavalry underneath their armor when they went on military campaigns. However, most heavy cavalrymen were wealthy and could afford, particularly later on, better clothing to wear.

The voyage of William of Rubruck in 1253–1255. Franciscan missionary and explorer, he documented details of the Mongol Empire

The voyage of William of Rubruck in 1253–1255. Franciscan missionary and explorer, he documented details of the Mongol Empire (Public Domain)

“Of their clothing and customs you must know, that from Cataia [China], and other regions of the east, and also from Persia and other regions of the south, are brought to them silken and golden stuffs and cloth of cotton, which they wear in summer. From Ruscia, Moxel, and from Greater Bulgaria [a region in the middle Volga, not to be confused with minor Bulgaria mentioned above] and Pascatir [a region between the upperl Volga and Ural R.], which is greater Hungary, and Kerkis [Kerghiz], all of which are countries to the north and full of forests, and which obey them, are brought to them costly furs of many kinds, which I never saw in our parts, and which they wear in winter. And they always make in winter at least two fur gowns, one with the fur against the body, the other with the fur outside exposed to the wind and snow; these latter are usually of the skins of wolves or foxes or papions; and while they sit in the dwelling they have another lighter one.”

Mongols cavalry outside Vladimir presumably demanding submission before its sacking

Mongols cavalry outside Vladimir presumably demanding submission before its sacking (Public Domain)

Besides clothes, John of Plano Carpini describes the type of armor the Mongol heavy cavalrymen wore:

“Some have cuirasses and protection for their horses, fashioned out of leather in the following manner: they take strips of ox-hide or the skin of another animal, a hand’s breadth wide and cover three or four together with pitch, and they fasten them with leather thongs or cord; in the upper strip they put the lace at one end, in the next they put it in the middle and so on to the end; consequently, when they bend, the lower strips come up over the upper ones and thus there is a double or triple thickness over the body.”

The cuirass they wore consisted of small scales of iron, leather, or bone known in lamellar armor. As for the description provided by Carpini, it appears that the Mongol warriors he encountered were wearing lamellar armor made of leather scales. Softening leather by boiling and afterwards coating the leather with a lacquer made from pitch made it waterproof. The cuirass weighed roughly 20 lbs (9 kg). To add further protection, the rider might have worn his heavy coat under the cuirass, and reinforced it with metal plates or perhaps leather, depending on what was available at his disposal.

Statue of an armored Mongol warrior with a cheetah

Statue of an armored Mongol warrior with a cheetah (Enerelt/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mongols who owned lamellar preferred it to mail, even though mail armor was rare. The reason for this was that lamellar armor provided better protection against arrows than mail. According to David Nicolle, “Test have shown that mail can absorb arrows shot from a reasonable distance, but it could not prevent them causing minor wounds. Lamellar armor, however, was much more effective against arrows.” To add further protection, the Mongols learned from the Chinese of the stopping power of silk. Heavy cavalrymen would wear a heavy protective silk undershirt underneath their armor. Even if the arrow penetrated the lamellar or mail armor, it might not penetrate the silk. Instead, the arrow might become twisted in the silk as it entered the body, thus cleaning the wound, or perhaps even treating it with the plant dyes (such as turmeric) used in the dyeing process of the garment. Furthermore, wearing a silk undershirt made it easier to extract the arrow from the body without doing further damage.

Drawing of a mobile Mongol soldier with bow and arrow wearing deel. The arms could be uncovered in hot weather.

Drawing of a mobile Mongol soldier with bow and arrow wearing deel. The arms could be uncovered in hot weather. (Public Domain)

As for horse armor, the Mongol heavy cavalrymen would outfit their horses in five parts:

“they put one piece along each side of the horse which protects it from the tail to the head and is tied to the saddle, behind the saddle on the back, and at the neck. Over the horse’s back they put another piece where the two parts of the harness are joined and they make a hole in this piece through which they expose the tail, while in front of the chest they place a piece that protects every-thing from the knees or the knee joints. On the forehead they put an iron plate which is tied on each side of the neck.”

Boots for Riding

Boots were also crucial to the rider. The Mongol boot was designed for standing in the stirrups, which provided the rider a platform to fire at a quick gallop. Mongol cavalrymen wore sturdy, thick inflexible soled heelless boots, with the rigid toe turned upwards, and was made from leather and felt that provided protection from the bitter cold of the steppes and their legs from chafing due to rubbing against the horses back. The source of the leather comes from horses according to Rubruck in which he states, “With the hind part of the hide of horses they make most beautiful shoes.” Even though heavy, the boots were comfortable enough for the rider to tuck his pants in before tying the laces. To absorb perspiration, the Mongols wore socks made of felt, which kept his feet warm, especially since the boot was lined with fur, making it unlikely that his feet would get cold.

Mongolian boot style, for a child and adult.

Mongolian boot style, for a child and adult. (Public Domain)

Practical Headgear

Headwear of the Mongols came in two types; The majority of horse archers donned the fur cap. The fur cap was conical in shape and made from quality material. It had reversible earflaps and brim for the summer and winter.

Portrait of Ogedei Khan with a fur cap.

Portrait of Ogedei Khan with a fur cap. (Public Domain)

Those who were heavy cavalry also wore a conical helmet made of harden leather or one of iron. According to Carpini, “The Tartar helmet has a crown made of iron or steel, but the part that extends around the neck and throat is of leather,” which had been harden and was composed of various sizes of iron and steel plates, and probably lined with fur. Unlike the fur cap, earflaps on the iron helmet were optional. The heavy cavalryman’s helmet had two slots where the flaps could be attached to better protect his ears. To add further protection, iron plated lamellar neck guard was included.

The helmet of a Mongolian soldier

The helmet of a Mongolian soldier (CC BY-SA 3.0)

While the Mongol helmet was conical in shape, it was thought to be taller and pointier than the traditional Chinese helmets. For a long time, no helmets were known to have survived Mongol China. However, Randall Sasaki in his book The Origins of the Lost Fleet of the Mongol Empire mentions that five “well-preserved iron helmets were discovered” and that the “diameter of these helmets is 22 to 23 cm, and their height is 12 to 15 cm. A few helmets appear to be thicker at one end. All of the helmets seem to have had an attachment at the top where a pointed protrusion was located.”

The Might of the Sword

When it comes to swords, the Mongols had a variety of types. In both of the modern-day nations of Russia and Mongolia, archaeologists have found swords belonging to the Mongols. The swords varied in design as some were broad and straight, like European blades, while others had a slight curve. Both types of swords were single edged, roughly one meter (three feet) in length, and were designed for cutting rather than stabbing.

The sabre [left] and the scimitar [right] were curved swords of a type as used by the Mongol military

The sabre [left] and the scimitar [right] were curved swords of a type as used by the Mongol military (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The majority of Mongol soldiers never carried swords during the early stages of the Empire. It appears that swords were reserved for the elite during that time. Much later, western writers like Carpini and Rubruck described the Mongol warrior as carrying bows, arrows, and axes. Thomas of Spalato describes the Mongols in a similar fashion but that they carried swords as well. Sibt ibn al-Jawzi mentions that the Mongols were using swords during their engagements against the Khwarazm Empire from 1219-1221. Marco Polo also describes their use of swords along with maces and shields during his time among them.

Overall, swords were not a weapon so desired by the Mongols like those in the rest of Eurasia. To the Mongols, the sword was a symbol of power only reserved for the elite. As time passed, people conquered, territory expanded, and the Mongols slowly adopted the sword. They were now in charge of large urban areas which effectively took them off their horse and placed them in the streets.

The Famous Bow

Of all the weapons utilized by the Mongols, the bow stood forefront in their war arsenal. But this should come to no surprise since it was steppe peoples’ weapon of choice throughout their history. The bow used by the Mongols was the composite bow.

Hulagu Khan with the older composite bow used during the time of the Mongol conquest. It is smaller in size and has no string bridges.

Hulagu Khan with the older composite bow used during the time of the Mongol conquest. It is smaller in size and has no string bridges. (Public Domain)

The composite bow consisted of horn, wood, sinew, and glue. The wood used for constructing the core of the bow was made from a variety, such as larch, birch, and elm. Of the woods considered, bamboo, (which is not a wood but a strong grass), was most desirable for its lack of grain and strength. With grain absent, bamboo reduced the risk of developing twists in the limbs and was desired due to being stronger than wood. Bamboo would have to be imported, however.

Bamboo was preferred in Mongolian bows

Bamboo was preferred in Mongolian bows (Manfred Heyde/CC BY-SA 3.0)

When Genghis Khan conquered northern China, he had direct accesses to the commodity. Once the material for the core had been selected and cured, ibex horn was used, or sometimes bone. In order to apply horn or bone to the core, it had to be softened by boiling. As for the backing, sinew was used (from an animal, possibly ibex), and the Achilles tendon was preferred. To prepare the sinew, the tendons had to be dried and crushed to a mass of loose fiber. Once this was done, the sinew was mixed with an adhesive made from boiled-down animal tendons or fish bones. The bowyer had to be careful when applying the sinew mixed with glue to the core— as to little would be weak and too much made the bow stiff. Once the sides were glued to the core, the bow was set aside to dry. As it dried, it began to harden and form. The total process from beginning to end may have taken up to a year to finish and once complete, the bow was ready to be personalized by its owner with decorations, and then stored in a leather case.

A Timurid depiction of a Mongol archer, 15th century

A Timurid depiction of a Mongol archer, 15th century (Public Domain)

With the quality makeup of the bow came its power.

The shape of the Mongol bow was a flattened and curved shape of an “M”. The general range of the Mongol bow was 300 meters (984 feet) with a tremendous range of 500 meters (1640 feet). Overall, it’s believed a Mongol horse archer could hit his target from point blank to potentially 550 yards. ‘Potentially’, because a thirteenth century report says that one of Genghis Khan’s master archers made a 428-yard shot (1284 feet). Of course, it becomes more difficult to hit the target from a great range unless that target is a moving mass of soldiers.

The size of the bow was roughly 120 centimeters (48 inches) in length. The draw weight of the bow had a tremendous pull between 100-170 pounds (45-77 kg). Of course, this depended on the strength of the archer. However, pulling the bow to its maximum potential was rare. Instead, the Mongol horse archers relied on rapid fire. He would do this by rapidly pulling the bowstring back only a short distance before release, and only did so when the hooves of the horse were off the ground. This allowed the archer to concentrate on his target.

In combat, the Mongol cavalry punished enemy forces with a constant barrage of arrows at 200 paces and penetrated armor at 100 yards (300 feet). Furthermore, the Mongol archer would carry two bows with him on campaign. One bow was used for long range and the other for short distance shots. Some suggest that the use of the bow for short distance shots was utilized when the soldier had dismounted.

To shoot the composite bow, the Mongol archer would wear a thumb ring and draw the string with his ring and forefinger, known as the Mongolian Draw. The thumb ring was developed by Steppe peoples in order to shoot faster and effectively from horseback at full gallop.

7th century Mughal thumb ring made of walrus ivory.

7th century Mughal thumb ring made of walrus ivory. (Public Domain)

The thumb ring was made from a variety of materials such as horn, bone, metal, leather, stone, and ivory. The thumb ring provided two advantages to the archers. The ring eased the pressure of the string on the thumb, which allows the archer to fire arrows faster upon release and with better accuracy since the placement of the arrow was on the same side of the shooting hand. As well, the Mongolian Draw was said to be superior to the three-finger release.

A ‘Mongolian Draw’ [left] versus a ‘Mediterranean Draw’ [right]

A ‘Mongolian Draw’ [left] versus a ‘Mediterranean Draw’ [right] (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Overall, the Mongol cavalryman and his composite bow delivered a devastating punch. Latham and Paterson in their book “Saracen Archery” mention the bow’s tremendous power and elegant design:

“Since such composites can withstand an enormous amount of bend, shortness of length could be achieved in design, and this feature made them very suitable weapons for the mounted archer.”

Mongol cavalrymen during the time of the Mongol conquest used a smaller bow suitable for horse archery.

Mongol cavalrymen during the time of the Mongol conquest used a smaller bow suitable for horse archery. (Public Domain)

“In a well-designed bow the weight should increase quickly during the first few inches of the draw, after which the rate of increase should diminish as the draw progresses. This quality was achieved in the East by fitting of a rigid end-piece (in Arabic, siyah, pl. siyat) to each end of the bow. When they bow was about half-drawn, the siyat began to act as levers so that the draw could be continued with less increase in the weight than would have been the case without them … For a given weight at full draw – this quantity depending on the archer’s strength – the composite bow stores a great amount of energy, which is then available for transfer to the arrow when the string is loosed.
When the siyat project away from the archer before the braced bow is drawn, as in the case with the Manchu and Mongolian bows … a string-bridge is fitted to prevent the string from slipping past the knee of the bow; for should this happen the latter would violently assume its unbraced shape and virtually turn itself inside out.”

Top Image: Painting depicting the Battle of Cheoin (Korea) between Goryeo and Mongol Empire forces in the Korean peninsula in 1232; Deriv. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Cam Rea

References

Thomas J. Craughwell, The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History: How Genghis Khan’s Mongols Almost Conquered the World (Beverly, Mass: Fair Winds Press, 2010).

Timothy May, The Mongol Conquests in World History (London: Reaktion Books, 2012).

Timothy May, The Mongol Art of War: Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System (Yardley, Penn: Westholme, 2007).

Richard D. McCreight, Mongol Warrior Epic: Masters of Thirteenth Century Maneuver Warfare (Fort Leavenworth, KS: US Army Command and General Staff College 1983).

Marco Polo, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. Volume 2 edited and translated by Henry Yule. 3rdedition (London: J. Murray, 1929).

Michael Prawdin, The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1961).

George Vernadsky, A History of Russia, Vol 3 (New Haven and London: Yale University press, 1953).

Tracy, Larissa. Wounds and Wound Repair in Medieval Culture. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

Was the Greco-Persian Wars Manufactured by the Greeks?

The Greco-Persian wars lasted for more than half a century in some respects. Some date the war as being from 499-448 BCE while others date the conflict from 492-448 BCE. Either or, the war itself was a disaster for both sides.

The Greeks, during the war with Persia, even fought amongst themselves in the First Peloponnesian War from 460-445 and then again in the Second Peloponnesian War from 432-404 BCE. For their part, the Persians lost territory during this conflict with the various Greek states and in doing so, lost a sense of supremacy in the region. On a darker note, Persia’s losses also fueled Greek supremacy, which would eventual lead to the rise of one Alexander the Great of Macedonia. Alexander, as we know, would invade Persia and conquer it without hesitation. Nevertheless, it is not the focus of this piece to delve into the various Greek wars or Alexander’s invasion of Persia, but rather look into how and why the Greco-Persian wars started in the first place!

Who and what caused the war that we read about today or see glamorized in Hollywood films? Was the whole thing manufactured by one side?

The Warnings of the Oracle

When Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated Astyages, the last king of the Median Empire in 559 BCE, he inherited a new problem. That problem was the western frontier in what is today the country of Turkey. Beforehand, in 585 BCE, the Medes and Lydian empires made an agreement that the Halys River would be the boundary between the two powers. The king of Lydia at the time was Croesus.

Croesus was famous for his wealth and power throughout Greece and the Near East. With his brother-in-law Astyages now defeated, he felt the need to avenge his defeat. In reality, he saw this as an opportunity to extend his borders. Nevertheless, before Croesus mobilized his forces he sent embassies with many gifts and they asked the oracle of Delphi questions concerning the Persians. The oracle turned to the men and said, “If Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.” The oracle also suggested to Croesus that he should seek some allies that were powerful to assist him in his war against Persia.

Relief of Persian and Median warriors (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Croesus became overjoyed and overconfident about the news. One would think that Croesus would have understood the part about finding some allies to assist him in this war with Persia as the advice given suggests that Persia’s might was far greater.  Nevertheless, Croesus visited the oracle again and asked how long the Lydian empire would last. The oracle said to Croesus “Wait till the time shall come when a mule is monarch of Media: Then, thou delicate Lydian, away to the pebbles of Hermus: Haste, oh! Haste thee away, nor blush to behave like a coward.”

The mule, a hybrid animal of a donkey and a horse, that is mentioned symbolized none other than Cyrus, for Cyrus was part royalty due to his mother being an Umman-manda princess, while his father Cambyses was a petty vassal king or quite possibly a mere tribal chief in the eyes of Astyages. One can easily base these judgments on ethnicity, but the people we are dealing with were of semi-nomadic stock, and it seems that some had more privileges than others did due to royal status rather than ethnic diversity.

A Critical Error

In 547/46, BCE, Croesus moved his forces beyond the Halys River and entered into the province of Cappadocia. Once there, he sent envoys to Croesus’ camp with a message ordering Croesus to hand over Lydia to him. If Croesus agreed, Cyrus would allow him to stay in Lydia but would have to remove his crown as king and he’d need to accept the title Satrap of Lydia. Evidently, Croesus turned down the invitation and the two armies did battle at a place called Pteria in Cappadocia. The battle took place in the month of November and Croesus was defeated, and he retreated across the Halys River and back into Lydian territory.

Croesus then made a terrible mistake: he decided to disperse his army for the winter, thinking Cyrus would not attack until spring. Then without warning, Cyrus did the unexpected: Cyrus and his forces fell upon the Lydian camps that were in the process of demobilization. They were surprised, routed, and defeated. This was a risky move for Cyrus and his forces, due to the stories of Lydia’s army being superior, even though they did beat them at Pteria. Cyrus may have known that once the Lydian forces demobilized, they would be easier to defeat. In addition, Cyrus it would be riskier to challenge them on their home turf in spring. However, Cyrus put the theory that Lydia was far more superior to the test—and found them wanting.

Relief at Thermopylae, Greece (CC BY 2.0)

Once the routing of the Lydian forces was complete and they were no longer a substantial threat, Croesus fled to Sardis where he took refuge. Many of his supposed allies sent no troops and instead many of the provinces in Lydia seem to have defected over to Cyrus.

The Bath-Gymnasium complex at Sardis, 2nd-3rd century AD, Sardis, Turkey. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cyrus knew that there was no time to waste and pursued Croesus to Sardis, where he besieged the city and on the fourteenth day the city fell. It was during this time that Sparta sent forces to help Croesus, but once word reached the Spartan forces in Transnet concerning Sardis, they most likely turned back. The word that Sardis fell sent a shock wave throughout the Near East and is said to have been as great a shock as when the news of Nineveh fell in 612 BCE.

Map showing the Greek world during the Greco-Persian Wars (ca. 500–479 BC) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In addition, the Chronicle of Nabonidus also mentions the fall of Lydia, as it states, “In the month of Nisan, King Cyrus of Persia mustered his army and crossed the Tigris downstream from Arbela and, in the month of Iyyar, [march]ed on Ly[dia]. He put its king to death, seized its possessions, [and] set up his own garrison [there]. After that, the king and his garrison resided there.”

Crushing Rebellion

The conquest of Lydia as a whole was far from over, for there were still many Greek city-states such as the Ionians and Aeolians who were mad about the situation and wanted the same terms that Cyrus gave to Croesus before the battle of Pteria. Cyrus said no, and the revolts began as he left for Ecbatana, for he had other issues on his mind. To suppress the revolts taking place in Asia Minor, Cyrus sent a man by the name of Mazares back with some troops to squash uprisings and enslave those partaking in the rebellion. Mazares did just that for some time until he died of unknown causes.

The next person to take his place and keep the rebellions down was Harpagus. Harpagus put the final stamp on the rebellious situation and placed Persian garrisons in the areas affected to secure the peace. However, it was not easy, for it took four years before the establishment of Persian rule among the populace.

Therefore, what can be learned from this situation involving the Persians and the Greek Lydians is that Croesus was the main instigator of the conflict. Had Croesus not taken up arms over the death of Astyages, war with Persia may not have happened, but as previously mentioned the death of Astyages was an opportunity for Croesus to extend his borders on the gamble that Persia was far weaker then Media.

It Started with Aristagoras

In 499 BCE, citizens who were exiled from Naxos approached Aristagoras, the deputy governor of Miletus (an ancient Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia, near the mouth of the Maeander River in ancient Caria).

Map of Miletus and other cities within the Lydian Empire (CC BY-SA 3.0)

They came to Aristagoras seeking help. They wanted to know if he would supply them with troops to regain their homeland. Aristagoras liked this proposal. What he liked was that if he could take Naxos, he could then become the ruler. Seeing that he did not have the troop strength, he decided to approach the Artaphernes, the satrap of Lydia and brother of Darius. Artaphernes had many troops and a navy at his disposal.

The ruins of Miletus. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The only thing that was missing was the money to fund the military expedition. Aristagoras turned to the exiled men and asked for financial support. Once all had been agreed to, the troops and ships were provided and the expedition to take Naxos commenced.

However, an issue arose. As Aristagoras was approaching the island, Megabates, the naval commander of some 200 ships, got into an intense argument with Aristagoras. Some speculate that Megabates warned the people of Naxos to prepare for their arrival. However, this is not for certain as it could have been someone else.  Once the Persian forces arrived, the city was ready and the Persians were bogged down for four months and they ultimately had to turn back due to a lack of money.

Reconstructed model of a trireme, the type of ship in use by both the Greek and Persian forces. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

After Aristagoras returned home, he had to repay Artaphernes the costs of the military expedition. But he did not have the money and because of this, alienated himself from the royal Persian court. Aristagoras knew that it would not be long before Artaphernes stripped him of his position. Therefore, Aristagoras became desperate and declared war on Persia by inciting his own subjects to revolt. After defeating the Ionians and their allies, the Persians made it clear after the land had been brought back under Persian control that they intended not to harm the economy (as in pillage and ask for war reparations) but to help it re-grow, expand, and to re-establish a relationship with the citizens. After the terms with the citizens and its leaders had been agreed to, King Darius wanted to punish those who aided the Ionians which was Athens and Eretria.

Terracotta female bust, Ionian workshop, found in a tomb, Macri Langoni T 75. 525-500 BC. (Public Domain)

War for the Ages

The significance of the Ionian Revolt was that not only did Aristagoras start a provincial rebellion, he went out of his way, and understandably, and sought outside help in this endeavor. No one was interested in giving aid to Aristagoras at first, except for Athens and Eretria. This would only fuel the fire further, once the Ionian Revolt ended 493 BCE. More important was that the Greco-Persian Wars had now officially begun. The Greco-Persian War was a war for the ages, which came and went in stages. However, its impact continued long after the last one ended in 449 BCE.

Greek hoplite and Persian warrior depicted fighting. 5th century BC (Public Domain)

Men like Alexander the Great would rise up to challenge the mighty Achaemenid Empire. He conquered with such fluidity that he, himself was overcome by its sheer size due to exhaustion and sickness. One could argue that the Greco-Persian War started with Aristagoras in 499 BCE and ended with Alexander the Great in 330 BCE.

 

Top Image: Warrior Model (CC BY-SA 2.0), and an ominous Dark Sky (Public Domain); Deriv.

By Cam Rea

References

Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2002.

Dupuy, R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 35000 B.C. to the Present. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1993.

Dupuy, Trevor N. Johnson, Curt. Bongard, David L. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography. New York: Castle Books, 1995.

Ebbott, Mary. Imagining illegitimacy in classical Greek literature. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2003.

Glassner, Jean-Jacques and Benjamin R. Foster. Mesopotamian Chronicles. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.

Herodotus. The Histories. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1997.

Herodotus, translated by George Rawlinson, edited by Hugh Bowden. The Histories. London: Everyman, 1997.