Unless you have the right kind of experience, its hard to understand what it was like for most people to go up against a really good army. Most soldiers before the 19th century did their first training as a group when they were gathered together with thousands of other soldiers to fight someone, and nobody could afford to keep that army together for long in friendly territory, so a lot of battles looked like a university soccer team versus Real Madrid. If team sports are not your thing, one of the chronicles of Timur the Lame gives us an idea of what coming up against one of these few good armies was like. The Syrians had left Aleppo to fight Timur in the open, and when the terrified remains of their army returned to the city some of the Mongols entered with them. At first the governors of Syria did not think that all was lost:
Sudun (amir of Aleppo) and Timurtash (amir of Damascus) went into the citadel, trusting in its strength and height. This was one of the most famous citadels. The width of the moat was estimated at 30 ells, wide enough to sail boats on it if they wished. The height of the earthworks was estimated at 100 ells, surmounted by ramparts and turrets made of stone. The earthworks were so steep that foot soldiers could not walk on them.
When they took refuge in the citadel, the army (of Timur) was brought to order. When the enemy (ie. the Syrians) saw how numerous the soldiers were, their evil thoughts increased. They sounded the kettledrums and began to shoot their thunder-throwers (raˁdandāz). The Auspicious Amir (Timur), seated on a royal carpet facing the citadel, occupied his luminous mind with plans for the capture of that place. He ordered the soldiers to take up positions around the moat, and by shooting arrows, they did not allow anyone to put his head out of the tower. He gave orders to labourers and sappers, who in one night made holes round the trench like a sieve and, crossing the water, ran up the earthworks like partridges and undermined the foundations of the citadel, which were made of solid stone.
At that time I had come to Aleppo with the intention of proceeding to the Ḥijāz and had fallen prisoner in the hands of a group of them. I saw strange things which it is fitting to record here. It happened that I was on a roof facing the citadel, and thus observed God’s work and the intrepidity of these men. I saw five armed men come out of an opening in the citadel and attack the sappers. When the sappers became aware of this, they came out of the holes which they had dug, went up from below, and pinned the five men to the ground with arrows. Thereupon a great noise broke out in the citadel. Ropes were tied around the waists of these men, and the other ends of the ropes were in the hands of men in the citadel. These men pulled the ropes and drew them up, but whether alive or dead I do not know. Nobody else dared to put his head out of the opening in the tower, let alone come out of the citadel. The people in the citadel began to quake with fear and understand …
While they were reflecting thus, a messenger brought a letter from the Auspicious Amir (Timur). Its admonition to those heedless ones was as follows: “Almighty God has subjugated the world to our domination, and the will of the Creator has entrusted the countries of the earth to our power. Fortresses cannot withstand our soldiers, fortifications cannot hold off our wrath. If you wish to save your lives, it will go well with you. Otherwise you will be sacrificing yourselves, your wives, and your children.”
When they realized that they had no other recourse, Sudan and Timurtash, with the qāḍīs, the Imans, and other notables, took the keys of the citadel and the treasury, opened the gates, came to the Presence, and displayed the face of weakness and humility before the threshold of compassion.Niẓam al-Dīn Shāmī, Ẓafarnāma “The Book of Victory” in Bernard Lewis, Islam (Oxford University Press, 1987), Vol. 1 pp. 108, 109
Encyclopedia Iranica is not certain whether raˁdandāz are guns but the name “thunder-thrower” is certainly suggestive and guns were common in Western Europe and China by the year 1400. Niẓam al-Dīn is writing in the manner appropriate to one presenting his work to an elderly despot, but he still communicates something important.
According to another writer of the same period, Timur built towers of heads ten cubits high and twenty cubits in circumference in the ruins of Aleppo, and his soldiers gang-raped women in the mosques. Timur sacked so many cities and destroyed so many armies that in his life of Timur, Harold Lamb covers the fall of Aleppo in thirteen words.
(scheduled 1 June 2021)