By Duncan Head
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Only a week earlier they had occupied the higher ground on which their adversary’s army now stood. Feigning flight, the Tatar had outmanoeuvred them, diverted and poisoned their water supply, doubled back, plundered their undefended camp and taken their position. All was still on both sides. A ripple stirred through Temur’s lines of cavalry as the horses sensed a charge. Then, slicing through the silence, came the heavy rumble of the great kettle-drums, joined by cymbals and trumpets, the signal for battle.
The thirteenth-century Secret History of the Mongols, a document of questionable accuracy, is the only substantial survivor. An indication of their sophistication, however, is given by the yasa, an obscure body of laws codified by Genghis as head of a growing empire. It remains shadowy, because no complete code has ever been discovered. Historians have had to rely on the numerous references to it in the chronicles. According to Ata-Malik Juvayni, the thirteenth-century Persian historian of the Mongol empire, the yasa governed ‘the disposition of armies and the destruction of cities’.
We can only imagine the vicissitudes of life on the steppes in the early fourteenth century, a world governed by tribal traditions and family relationships, the unending rhythm of the seasons and a fierce struggle to survive amid the unpredictable flux of constantly shifting alliances. Temur himself did little to illuminate the darkness surrounding his early years, taking care only to exaggerate his humble origins, thereby emphasising the glory of his later achievements. Perhaps, as has been suggested, there were signs that the young Temur was destined to be a leader of men.
Achaemenid Persian Army by Duncan Head