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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

The Tartars


IF anything needs be added to the foregoing account, in illustration of the natural advantages of the Scythian or Tartar position, it is the circumstance that the shepherds of the Ukraine were divided in their counsels when Darius made war against them, and that only a portion of their tribes coalesced to repel his invasion. Indeed, this internal discord, which is the ordinary characteristic of races so barbarous, and the frequent motive of their migrations, is the cause why in ancient times they were so little formidable to their southern neighbours; and it suggests a remark to the philosophical historian, Thucydides, which, viewed in the light of subsequent history, is almost prophetic. “As to the Scythians,” he says, “not only no European nation, but not even any Asiatic, would be able to measure itself with them, nation with nation, were they but of one mind.” Such was the safeguard of civilization in ancient times; in modern unhappily it has disappeared. Not unfrequently, since the Christian era, the powers of the North have been under one sovereign, sometimes even for a series of years; and have in consequence been brought into combined action against the South; nay, as time has gone on, they have been thrown into more and more formidable combinations, with more and more disastrous consequences to its prosperity. Of these northern coalitions or Empires, there have been three, nay five, which demand our especial attention both from their size and their historical importance.

The first of these is the Empire of the Huns, under the sovereignty of Attila, at the termination of the Roman Empire; and it began and ended in himself. The second is in the time of the Crusades, when the Moguls spread themselves over Europe and Asia under Zingis Khan, whose power continued to the third generation, nay, for two centuries, in the northern parts of Europe. The third outbreak was under Timour or Tamerlane, a century and more before the rise of Protestantism, when the Mahometan Tartars, starting from the basin of the Aral and the fertile region of the present Bukharia, swept over nearly the whole of Asia round about, and at length seated themselves in Delhi in Hindostan, where they remained in imperial power till they succumbed to the English in the last century. Then come the Turks, a multiform and reproductive race, varied in its fortunes, complicated in its history, falling to rise again, receding here to expand there, and harassing and oppressing the world for at least a long 800 years. And lastly comes the Russian Empire, in which the Tartar element is prominent, whether in its pure blood or in the Slavonian approximation, and which comprises a population of many millions, gradually moulded into one in the course of centuries, ever growing, never wavering, looking eagerly to the South and to an unfulfilled destiny, and possessing both the energy of barbarism in its subjects and the subtlety of civilization in its rulers. The two former of these five empires were Pagan, the two next Mahometan, the last Christian, but schismatic; all have been persecutors of the Church, or, at least, instruments of evil against her children. The Russians I shall dismiss; the Turks, who form my proper subject, I shall postpone. First of all, I will take a brief survey of the three empires of the Tartars proper; of Attila and his Huns; of Zingis and his Moguls; and of Timour and his Mahometan Tartars.

I have already waived the intricate question of race, as regards the various tribes who have roamed from time immemorial, or used to roam, in the Asiatic and European wilderness, because it was not necessary to the discussion in which I am engaged. Their geographical position assimilated them to each other in their wildness, their love of wandering, their pastoral occupations, their predatory habits, their security from attack, and the suddenness and the transitoriness of their conquests, even though they descend from our first parent by different lines. However, there is no need of any reserve or hesitation in speaking of the three first empires into which the shepherds of the North developed, the Huns, the Moguls, and the Mahometan Tartars: they were the creation of Tribes, whose identity of race is as certain as their community of country.


Of these the first in order is the Hunnish Empire of Attila, and if I speak of it and of him with more of historical consecutiveness than of Zingis or of Timour, it is because I think in him we see the pure undiluted Tartar, better than in the other two, and in his empire the best specimen of a Tartar rule. Nothing brings before us more vividly the terrible character of Attila than this, that he terrified the Goths themselves. These celebrated barbarians at the time of Attila inhabited the countries to the north of the Black Sea, between the Danube and the Don, the very district in which Darius so many centuries before found the Scythians. They were impending over the Roman Empire, and threatening it with destruction; their king was the great Hermanric, who, after many victories, was closing his days in the fulness of power and renown. That they themselves, the formidable Goths, should have to fear and flee, seemed the most improbable of prospects; yet it was their lot. Suddenly they heard, or rather they felt before they heard,—so rapid is the torrent of Scythian warfare,—they felt upon them and among them the resistless, crushing force of a remorseless foe. They beheld their fields and villages in flames about them, and their hearthstones deluged in the blood of their dearest and their bravest. Shocked and stunned by so unexpected a calamity, they could think of nothing better than turning their backs on the enemy, crowding to the Danube, and imploring the Romans to let them cross over, and to lodge themselves and their families in safety from the calamity which menaced them.

Indeed, the very appearance of the enemy scared them; and they shrank from him, as children before some monstrous object. It is observed of the Scythians, their ancestors, who, as I have mentioned, came down upon Asia in the Median times, that they were a frightful set of men. “The persons of the Scythians,” says a living historian, “naturally unsightly, were rendered hideous by indolent habits, only occasionally interrupted by violent exertions; and the same cause subjected them to disgusting diseases, in which they themselves revered the finger of Heaven.” Some of these ancient tribes are said to have been cannibals, and their horrible outrage in serving up to Cyaxares human flesh for game, may be taken to confirm the account. Their sensuality was unbridled, so much so that even polygamy was a licence too limited for their depravity. The Huns were worthy sons of such fathers. The Goths, the bravest and noblest of barbarians, recoiled in horror from their physical and mental deformity. Their voices were shrill, their gestures uncouth, and their shapes scarcely human. They are said by a Gothic historian to have resembled brutes set up awkwardly on their hind legs, or to the misshapen figures (something like, I suppose, the grotesque forms of medieval sculpture), which were placed upon the bridges of antiquity. Their shoulders were broad, their noses flat, and their eyes black, small, and deeply buried in their head. They had little hair on their skulls, and no beard. The report was spread and believed by the Goths, that they were not mere men, but the detestable progeny of evil spirits and witches in the wilds of the East.

As the Huns were but reproductions of the ancient Scythians, so are they reproduced themselves in various Tartar races of modern times. Tavernier, the French traveller, in the seventeenth century, gives us a similar description of the Kalmuks, some of whom at present are included in the Russian Empire. “They are robust men,” he says, “but the most ugly and deformed under heaven; a face so flat and broad, that from one eye to the other is a space of five or six fingers. Their eyes are very small, the nose so flat that two small nostrils is the whole of it; their knees turned out, and their feet turned in.”

Attila himself did not degenerate in aspect from this unlovely race; for an historian tells us, whom I have already made use of, that “his features bore the stamp of his national origin; and the portrait of Attila exhibits the genuine deformity of a modern Calmuck; a large head, a swarthy complexion, small deep-seated eyes, a flat nose, a few hairs in the place of a beard, broad shoulders, and a short square body, of nervous strength, though of a disproportioned form.” I should add that the Tartar eyes are not only far apart, but slant inwards, as do the eyebrows, and are partly covered by the eyelid. Now Attila, this writer continues, “had a custom of rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he had inspired;” yet, strange to say, all this was so far from being thought a deformity by his people, that it even went for something supernatural, for we presently read, “the barbarian princes confessed, that they could not presume to gaze, with a steady eye, on the divine majesty of the King of the Huns.”

I consider Attila to have been a pure Hun; I do not suppose the later hordes under Zingis and Timour to have been so hideous, as being the descendants of mixed marriages. Both Zingis himself and Timour had foreign mothers; as to the Turks, from even an earlier date than those conquerors, they had taken foreign captives to be mothers of their families, and had lived among foreign people. Borrowing the blood of a hundred tribes as they went on, they slowly made their way, in the course of six or seven centuries, from Turkistan to Constantinople. Then as to the Russians again, only a portion of the empire is strictly Tartar or Scythian; the greater portion is but Scythian in its first origin, many ages ago, and has long surrendered its wandering or nomad habits, its indolence, and its brutality.


To return to Attila:—this extraordinary man is the only conqueror of ancient and modern times who has united in one empire the two mighty kingdoms of Eastern Scythia and Western Germany, that is, of that immense expanse of plain, which stretches across Europe and Asia. If we divide the inhabited portions of the globe into two parts, the land of civilization and the land of barbarism, we may call him the supreme and sole king of the latter, of all those populations who did not live in cities, who did not till the soil, who were hunters and shepherds, dwelling in tents, in waggons, and on horseback. Imagination can hardly take in the extent of his empire. In the West he interfered with the Franks, and chastised the Burgundians, on the Rhine. On the East he even sent ambassadors to negotiate an equal alliance with the Chinese Empire. The north of Asia was the home of his race, and on the north of Europe he ascended as high as Denmark and Sweden. It is said he could bring into the field an army of 500,000 or 700,000 men.

You will ask perhaps how he gained this immense power; did he inherit it? the Russian Empire is the slow growth of centuries; had Attila a long line of royal ancestors, and was his empire, like that of Haroun, or Soliman, or Aurunzebe, the maturity and consummation of an eventful history? Nothing of the kind; it began, as it ended, with himself. The history of the Huns during the centuries immediately before him, will show us how he came by it. It seems that, till shortly before the Christian era, the Huns had a vast empire, from a date unknown, in the portion of Tartary to the east of Mount Altai. It was against these formidable invaders that the Chinese built their famous wall, 1,500 miles in length, which still exists as one of the wonders of the world. In spite of its protection, however, they were obliged to pay tribute to their fierce neighbours, until one of their emperors undertook a task which at first sight seems an exception to what I have already laid down as if a universal law in the history of northern warfare. This Chinese monarch accomplished the bold design of advancing an army as much as 700 miles into the depths of the Tartar wilderness, and thereby at length succeeded in breaking the power of the Huns. He succeeded;—but at the price of 110,000 men. He entered Tartary with an army 140,000 strong; he returned with 30,000.

The Huns, however, though broken, had no intention at all of being reduced. The wild warriors turned their faces westward, and not knowing whither they were going, set out for Europe, This was at the end of the first century after Christ; in the course of the following centuries they pursued the track which I have already marked out for the emigrating companies. They passed the lofty Altai; they gradually travelled along the foot of the mountain-chain in which it is seated; they arrived at the edge of the high table-land which bounds Tartary on the west; then turning southward down the slopes which led to the low level of Turkistan, they found themselves close to a fertile region between the Jaxartes and the Oxus, the present Bukharia, then called Sogdiana by the Greeks, afterwards the native land of Timour. Here was the first of the three thoroughfares for a descent southwards, which I have pointed out as open to the choice of adventurers. A portion of these Huns, attracted by the rich pasture-land and general beauty of Sogdiana, took up their abode there; the main body wandered on. Persevering in their original course, they skirted Siberia and the north of the Caspian, crossed the Volga, then the Don, and thus in the fifth century of the Christian era, as I just now mentioned, came upon the Goths, who were in undisturbed possession of the country. Now it would appear that, in this long march from the wall of China to the Danube, lasting as it did through some centuries, they lost hold of no part of the tracts which they traversed. They remained on each successive encampment long enough (if I may so express myself) to sow themselves there. They left behind them at least a remnant of their own population while they went forward, like a rocket thrown up in the sky, which, while it shoots forward, keeps possession of its track by its train of fire. And hence it was that Attila, when he found himself at length in Hungary, and elevated to the headship of his people, became at once the acknowledged king of the vast territories and the untold populations which that people had been leaving behind them in its advance during the foregoing 350 years.

Such a power indeed had none of the elements of permanence in it, but it was appalling at the moment, whenever there was a vigorous and unscrupulous hand to put it into motion. Such was Attila; it was his boast, that, where his horse once trod, there grass never grew again. As he fulfilled his terrible destiny, religious men looked on with awe, and called him the “Scourge of God.” He burst as a thundercloud upon the whole extent of country, now called Turkey in Europe, along a line of more than five hundred miles from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Venice. He defeated the Roman armies in three pitched battles, and then set about destroying the cities of the Empire. Three of the greatest, Constantinople, Adrianople, and another, escaped: but as for the rest, the barbarian fury fell on as many as seventy; they were sacked, levelled to the ground, and their inhabitants carried off to captivity. Next he turned round to the West, and rode off with his savage horsemen to the Rhine. He entered France, and stormed and sacked the greater part of its cities. At Metz he involved in one promiscuous massacre priests and children; he burned the city, so that a solitary chapel of St. Stephen was its sole remains. At length he was signally defeated by the Romans and Goths united at Chalons on the Marne, in a tremendous battle, which ended in 252,000, or, as one account says, 300,000 men being left dead on the field.

Irritated rather than humbled, as some beast of prey, by this mishap, he turned to Italy. Crossing the Alps, he laid siege to Aquileia, at that time one of the richest, most populous, and strongest of the cities on the Hadriatic coast. He took it, sacked it, and so utterly destroyed it, that the succeeding generation could scarcely trace its ruins. It is, we know, no slight work, in toil and expense, even with all the appliances of modern science, to raze a single fortress; yet the energy of these wild warriors made sport of walled cities. He turned back, and passed along through Lombardy; and, as he moved, he set fire to Padua and other cities; he plundered Vincenza, Verona, and Bergamo; and sold to the citizens of Milan and Pavia their lives and buildings at the price of the surrender of their property. There were a number of minute islands in the shallows of the extremity of the Hadriatic; and thither the trembling inhabitants of the coast fled for refuge. Fish was for a time their sole food, and salt, extracted from the sea, their sole possession. Such was the origin of the city and the republic of Venice.


It does not enter into my subject to tell you how this ferocious conqueror was stayed in the course of blood and fire which was carrying him towards Rome, by the great St. Leo, the Pope of the day, who undertook an embassy to his camp. It was not the first embassy which the Romans had sent to him, and their former negotiations had been associated with circumstances which could not favourably dispose the Hun to new overtures. It is melancholy to be obliged to confess that, on that occasion, the contrast between barbarism and civilization had been to the advantage of the former. The Romans, who came to Attila to treat upon the terms of an accommodation, after various difficulties and some insults, had found themselves at length in the Hunnish capital, in Hungary, the sole city of an empire which extended for some thousand miles. In the number of these ambassadors were some who were conducting an intrigue with Attila’s own people for his assassination, and who actually had with them the imperial gold which was to be the price of the crime. Attila was aware of the conspiracy, and showed his knowledge of it; but, from respect for the law of nations and of hospitality, he spared the guilty instruments or authors. Sad as it is to have to record such practices of an Imperial Court professedly Christian, still, it is not unwelcome, for the honour of human nature, to discover in consequence of them those vestiges of moral rectitude which the degradation of ages had not obliterated from the Tartar character. It is well known that when Homer, 1,500 years before, speaks of these barbarians, he calls them, on the one hand, “drinkers of mare’s milk;” on the other, “the most just of men.” Truth, honesty, justice, hospitality, according to their view of things, are the historical characteristics, it must be granted, of Scythians, Tartars, and Turks, down to this day; and Homer, perhaps, as other authors after him, was the more struck with such virtues in these wild shepherds, in contrast with the subtlety and perfidy, which, then as since, were the qualities of his own intellectually gifted countrymen.

Attila, though aware of the treachery and of the traitor, had received the Roman ambassadors, as a barbarian indeed, but as a king; and with that strange mixture of rudeness and magnificence of which I shall have, as I proceed, to give more detailed specimens. As he entered the royal village or capital with his guests, a numerous troop of women came out to meet him, and marched in long files before him, chanting hymns in his honour. As he passed the door of one of his favourite soldiers, the wife of the latter presented wine and meat for his refreshment. He did not dismount, but a silver table was raised for his accommodation by his domestics, and then he continued his march. His palace, which was all of wood, was surrounded by a wooden wall, and contained separate houses for each of his numerous wives. The Romans were taken round to all of them to pay their respects; and they admired the singular quality and workmanship of the wooden columns, which they found in the apartments of his queen or state wife. She received them reclining on a soft couch, with her ladies round her working at embroidery. Afterwards they had an opportunity of seeing his council; the supreme tribunal was held in the gate of the palace according to Oriental custom, perpetuated even to this day in the title of the “Ottoman Porte.” They were invited to two solemn banquets, in which Attila feasted with the princes and nobles of Scythia. The royal couch and table were covered with carpets and fine linen. The swords, and even the shoes of the nobles, were studded with gold and precious stones; the tables were profusely spread with gold and silver plates, goblets, and vases. Two bards stood before the King’s couch, and sung of his victories. Wine was drunk in great excess; and buffoons, Scythian and Moorish, exhibited their unseemly dances before the revellers. When the Romans were to depart, Attila discovered to them his knowledge of the treachery which had been carried on against him.

Such were some of the untoward circumstances under which the great Pontiff I have mentioned undertook a new embassy to the King of the Huns. He was not, we may well conceive, to be a spectator of their barbaric festivities, or to be a listener to their licentious interludes; he was rather an object to be gazed upon, than to gaze; and in truth there was that about him, in the noble aspect and the spare youthful form, which portraits give to Pope Leo, which was adapted to arrest and subdue even Attila. Attila had seen many great men in his day; he had seen the majesty of the Cæsars, and the eagles of their legions; he had never seen before a Vicar of Christ. The place of their interview has been ascertained by antiquarians; it is near the great Austrian fortress of Peschiera, where the Mincio enters the Lago di Garda, close to the farm of Virgil. It is said he saw behind the Pontiff the two Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, as they are represented in the picture of Raffaelle; he was subdued by the influence of religion, and agreed to evacuate Italy.

A few words will bring us to the end of his career. Evil has its limit; the Scourge of God had accomplished His mission. Hardly had St. Leo retired, when the barbarian king availed himself of the brief interval in his work of blood, to celebrate a new marriage. In the deep corruption of the Tartar race, polygamy is comparatively a point of virtue: Attila’s wives were beyond computation. Zingis, after him, had as many as five hundred; another of the Tartar leaders, whose name I forget, had three hundred. Attila, on the evening of his new nuptials, drank to excess, and was carried to his room. There he was found in the morning, bathed and suffocated in his blood. An artery had suddenly burst; and, as he lay on his back, the blood had flowed back upon his throat and lungs, and so he had gone to his place.


And now for Zingis and Timour:—like the Huns, they and their tribes came down from the North of Asia, swept over the face of the South, obliterated the civilization of centuries, inflicted unspeakable misery on whole nations, and then were spent, extinguished, and only survived to posterity in the desolation they caused. As Attila ruled from China to the Rhine, and wasted Europe from the Black Sea to the Loire, so Zingis and his sons and grandsons occupied a still larger portion of the world’s surface, and exercised a still more pitiless sway. Besides the immense range of territory, from Germany to the North Pacific Ocean, throughout which their power was felt, even if it was not acknowledged, they overran China, Siberia, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Anatolia, Syria, and Persia. During the sixty-five years of their dominion, they subdued almost all Asia and a large portion of Europe. The conquests of Timour were as sudden and as complete, if not as vast, as those of Zingis; and, if he did not penetrate into Europe, he accomplished instead the subjugation of Hindostan.

The exploits of those warriors have the air of Eastern romance; 700,000 men marched under the standard of Zingis; and in one of his battles he left 160,000 of his enemies upon the field. Before Timour died, he had had twenty-seven crowns upon his head. When he invaded Turkistan, his army stretched along a line of thirteen miles. We may conceive his energy and determination, when we are told that, for five months, he marched through wildernesses, subsisting his immense army on the fortunes of the chase. In his invasion of Hindostan he had to pass over a high chain of mountains, and, in one stage of the passage, had to be lowered by ropes on a scaffold, down a precipice of 150 cubits in depth. He attempted the operation five times before he got safely to the bottom.

These two extraordinary men rivalled or exceeded Attila in their wholesale barbarities. Attila vaunted that the grass never grew again after his horse’s hoof; so it was the boast of Zingis, that when he destroyed a city, he did it so completely, that his horse could gallop across its site without stumbling. He depopulated the whole country from the Danube to the Baltic in a season; and the ruins of cities and churches were strewed with the bones of the inhabitants. He allured the fugitives from the woods, where they lay hid, under a promise of pardon and peace; he made them gather in the harvest and the vintage, and then he put them to death. At Gran, in Hungary, he had 300 noble ladies slaughtered in his presence. But these were slight excesses compared with other of his acts. When he had subdued the northern part of China, he proposed, not in the heat of victory, but deliberately in council, to exterminate all its inhabitants, and to turn it into a cattle-walk; from this project indeed he was diverted, but a similar process was his rule with the cities he conquered. Let it be understood, he came down upon cities living in peace and prosperity, as the cities of England now, which had done him no harm, which had not resisted him, which submitted to him at discretion on his summons. What was his treatment of such? He ordered out the whole population on some adjacent plain; then he proceeded to sack their city. Next he divided them into three parts: first, the soldiers and others capable of bearing arms; these he either enlisted into his armies, or slaughtered on the spot. The second class consisted of the rich, the women, and the artizans;—these he divided amongst his followers. The remainder, the old, infirm, and poor, he suffered to return to their rifled city. Such was his ordinary course; but when anything occurred to provoke him, the most savage excesses followed. The slightest offence, or appearance of offence, on the part of an individual, sufficed for the massacre of whole populations. The three great capitals of Khorasan were destroyed by his orders, and a reckoning made of the slain; at Maru were killed 1,300,000; at Herat, 1,600,000; and at Neisabour, 1,747,000; making a total of 4,647,000 deaths. Say these numbers are exaggerated fourfold or tenfold; even on the last supposition you will have a massacre of towards half a million of helpless beings. After recounting such preternatural crimes, it is little to add, that his devastation of the fine countries between the Caspian and the Indus, a tract of many hundred miles, was so complete, that six centuries have been unable to repair the ravages of four years.

Timour equalled Zingis, if he could not surpass him, in barbarity. At Delhi, the capital of his future dynasty, he massacred 100,000 prisoners, because some of them were seen to smile when the army of their countrymen came in sight. He laid a tax of the following sort on the people of Ispahan, viz. to find him 70,000 human skulls, to build his towers with; and, after Bagdad had revolted, he exacted of the inhabitants as many as 90,000. He burned, or sacked, or razed to the ground, the cities of Astrachan, Carisme, Delhi, Ispahan, Bagdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Broussa, Smyrna, and a thousand others. We seem to be reading of some antediluvian giant, rather than of a medieval conqueror.


The terrible races which I have been describing, like those giants of old, have ever been enemies of God and persecutors of His Church. Celts, Goths, Lombards, Franks, have been converted, and their descendants to this day are Christian; but, whether we consider Huns, Moguls, or Turks, up to this time they are in the outer darkness. And accordingly, to the innumerable Tartar tribes, and to none other, have been applied by commentators the solemn passages about Gog and Magog, who are to fight the battles of Antichrist against the faithful. “Satan shall go forth and seduce the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, and shall collect them to battle, whose number is as the sea sand.” From time to time the Holy See has fulfilled its apostolic mission of sending preachers to them, but without success. The only missionaries who have had any influence upon them have been those of the Nestorian heresy, who have in certain districts made the same sort of impression on them which the Greek schism has made upon the Russians. St. Louis too sent a friar to them on an embassy, when he wished to persuade them to turn their strength upon the Turks, with whom he was at war; other European monarchs afterwards followed his pattern; and sometimes European merchants visited them for the purposes of trade. However little influence as these various visitants, in the course of several centuries, had upon their minds, they have at least done us the service of giving us information concerning their habits and manners; and this so fully corroborates the historical account of them which I have been giving, that it will be worth while laying before you some specimens of it here.

I have said that some of these travellers were laymen travelling for gain or in secular splendour, and others were humble servants of religion. The contrast of their respective adventures is striking. The celebrated Marco Polo, who was one of a company of enterprising Venetian merchants, lived many years in Tartary in honour, and returned laden with riches; the poor friars met with hardships in plenty, and nothing besides. Not that the Poli were not good Catholics, not that they went out without a blessing from the Pope, or without friars of the order of St. Dominic of his selection; but so it was, that the Tartars understood the merchant well enough, but could not comprehend, could not set a value on the friar.

When the Pope’s missionaries came in sight of the Tartar encampment on the northern frontier of Persia, they at once announced their mission and its object. It was from the Vicar of Christ upon earth, and the spiritual head of Christendom; and it was a simple exhortation addressed to the fierce conquerors before whom they stood, to repent and believe. The answer of the Tartars was equally prompt and equally intelligible. When they had fully mastered the business of their visitors, they sentenced them to immediate execution; and did but hesitate about the mode. They were to be flayed alive, their skins filled with hay, and so sent back to the Pope; or they were to be put in the first rank in the next battle with the Franks, and to die by the weapons of their own countrymen. Eventually one of the Khan’s wives begged them off. They were kept in a sort of captivity for three years, and at length thought themselves happy to be sent away with their lives. So much for the friars; how different was the lot of the merchants may be understood by the scene which took place on their return to Venice. It is said that, on their arrival at their own city, after the absence of a quarter of a century, their change of appearance and poorness of apparel were such that even their nearest friends did not know them. Having with difficulty effected an entrance into their own house, they set about giving a splendid entertainment to the principal persons of the city. The banquet over, following the Oriental custom, they successively put on and then put off again, and distributed to their attendants, a series of magnificent dresses; and at length they entered the room in the same weather-stained and shabby dresses, in which, as travellers, they had made their first appearance at Venice. The assembled company eyed them with wonder; which you may be sure was not diminished, when they began to unrip the linings and the patches of those old clothes, and as the seams were opened, poured out before them a prodigious quantity of jewels. This had been their expedient for conveying their gains to Europe, and the effect of the discovery upon the world may be anticipated. Persons of all ranks and ages crowded to them, as the report spread, and they were the wonder of their day.


Savage cruelty, brutal gluttony, and barbarous magnificence, are the three principal ethical characteristics of a Tartar prince, as we may gather from what has come down to us in history, whether concerning the Scythians or the Huns. The first of these three qualities has also been illustrated, from the references which I have been making to the history of Zingis and Timour, so that I think we have heard enough of it, without further instances from the report of these travellers, whether ecclesiastical or lay. I will but mention one corroboration of a barbarity, which at first hearing it is difficult to credit. When the Spanish ambassador, then, was on his way to Timour, and had got as far as the north of Persia, he there actually saw a specimen of that sort of poll-tax, which I just now mentioned. It was a structure consisting of four towers, composed of human skulls, a layer of mud and of skulls being placed alternately; and he tells us that upwards of 60,000 men were massacred to afford materials for this building. Indeed it seems a demonstration of revenge familiar to the Tartar race. Selim, the Ottoman Sultan, reared a similar pyramid on the banks of the Nile.

To return to our Spanish traveller. He proceeded to his destination, which was Samarcand, the royal city of Timour, in Sogdiana, the present Bukharia, and was presented to the great conqueror. He describes the gate of the palace as lofty, and richly ornamented with gold and azure; in the inner court were six elephants, with wooden castles on their backs, and streamers, which performed gambols for the amusement of the courtiers. He was led into a spacious room, where were some boys, Timour’s grandsons, and these carried the King of Spain’s letters to the Khan. He then was ushered into Timour’s presence, who was seated, like Attila’s queen, on a sort of cushioned sofa, with a fountain playing before him. He was at that time an old man, and his eyesight was impaired.

At the entertainment which followed, the meat was introduced in leathern bags, so large as to be dragged along with difficulty. When opened, pieces were cut out and placed on dishes of gold, silver, or porcelain. One of the most esteemed, says the ambassador, was the hind quarter of a horse; I must add what I find related, in spite of its offending our ears:—our informant tells us that horse-tripe also was one of the delicacies at table. No dish was removed, but the servants of the guests were expected to carry off the remains, so that our ambassador doubtless had his larder provided with the sort of viands I have mentioned for some time to come. The drink was the famous Tartar beverage which we hear of so often, mares’ milk, sweetened with sugar, or perhaps rather the koumiss or spirit which is distilled from it. It was handed round in gold and silver cups.

Nothing is more strange about the Tartars than the attachment they have shown to such coarse fare, from the earliest times till now. Timour, at whose royal table this most odious banquet was served, was lord of all Asia, and had the command of every refinement not only of luxury, but of gluttony. Yet he is faithful to the food which regaled the old Scythians in the heroic age of Greece, and which is prized by the Usbek of the present day. As Homer, in the beginning of the historic era, calls the Scythians “mares’-milk drinkers,” so geographers of the present day describe their mode of distilling it in Russia. Tavernier speaks of it two centuries ago; the European visitors partook of it in the middle ages; and the Roman ambassadors, in the later times of the Empire. These tribes have had the command of the vine, yet they seem to have scorned or even abhorred its use; and we have a curious account in Herodotus, of a Scythian king who lost his life for presuming to take part secretly in the orgies of Bacchus. Yet it was not that they did not intoxicate themselves freely with the distillation which they had chosen; and even when they tolerated wine, they still adhered to their koumiss. That beverage is described by the Franciscan, who was sent by St. Louis, as what he calls biting, and leaving a taste like almond milk on the palate; though Elphinstone, on the contray, writing in this century, says “it is of a whitish colour and a sourish taste.” And so of horseflesh; I believe it is still put out for sale in the Chinese markets; Lieutenant Wood, in his journey to the source of the Oxus, speaks of it among the Usbeks as an expensive food. So does Elphinstone, adding that in consequence the Usbeks are “obliged to be content with beef.” Pinkerton tells us that it is made into dried hams; but this seems to be a refinement, for we hear a great deal from various authors of its being eaten more than half raw. After all, horseflesh was the most delicate of the Tartar viands in the times we are now considering. We are told that, in spite of their gold and silver, and jewels, they were content to eat dogs, foxes, and wolves; and, as I have observed before, the flesh of animals which had died of disease.

But again we have lost sight of the ambassador of Spain. After this banquet, he was taken about by Timour to other palaces, each more magnificent than the one preceding it. He speaks of the magnificent halls, painted with various colours, of the hangings of silk, of gold and silver embroidery, of tables of solid gold, and of the rubies and other precious stones. The most magnificent of these entertainments was on a plain; 20,000 pavilions being pitched around Timour’s, which displayed the most gorgeous variety of colours. Two entertainments were given by the ladies of the court, in which the state queens of Timour, nine in number, sat in a row, and here pages handed round wine, not koumiss, in golden cups, which they were not slow in emptying.

The good friar, who went from St. Louis to the princes of the house of Zingis, several centuries earlier, gives us a similar account. When he was presented to the Khan, he went with a Bible and a Psalter in his hand; on entering the royal apartment, he found a curtain of felt spread across the room; it was lifted up, and discovered the great man at table with his wives about him, and prepared for drinking koumiss. The court knew something of Christianity from the Nestorians, who were about it, and the friar was asked to say a blessing on the meal; so he entered singing the Salve Regina. On another occasion he was present at the baptism of a wife of the Khan by a Nestorian priest After the ceremony, she called for a cup of liquor, desired a blessing from the officiating minister, and drank it off. Then she drank off another, and then another; and continued this process till she could drink no more, and was put into her carriage, and taken home. At another entertainment the friar had to make a speech, in the name of the holy king he represented, to pray for health and long life to the Khan. When he looked round for his interpreter, he found him in a state of intoxication, and in no condition to be of service; then he directed his gaze upon the Khan himself, and found him intoxicated also.

I have made much mention of the wealth of the Tartars, from Attila to Timour; their foreign conquests would yield to them of course whatever of costly material their pride might require; but their native territory itself was rich in minerals. Altai in the north yielded the precious metals; the range of mountains which branches westward from the Himalaya on the south yielded them rubies and lapis lazuli. We are informed by the travellers whom I have been citing that they dressed in winter in costly furs; in summer in silk, and even in cloth of gold. One of the Franciscans speaks of the gifts received by the Khan from foreign powers. They were more than could be numbered;—satin cloths, robes of purple, silk girdles wrought with gold, costly skins. We are told of an umbrella enriched with precious stones; of a train of camels covered with cloth of Bagdad; of a tent of glowing purple; of five hundred waggons full of silver, gold, and silk stuffs.


It is remarkable that the three great conquerors, who have been our subject, all died in the fulness of glory. From the beginning of history to our own times, the insecurity of great prosperity has been the theme of poets and philosophers. Scripture points out to our warning in opposite ways the fortunes of Sennacherib, Nabuchodonosor, and Antiochus. Profane history tells us of Solon, the Athenian sage, coming to the court of Crœsus, the prosperous King of Lydia, whom in his fallen state I have already had occasion to mention; and, when he had seen his treasures and was asked by the exulting monarch who was the happiest of men, making answer that no one could be called happy before his death. And we may call to mind in confirmation the history of Cyrus, of Hannibal, of Mithridates, of Belisarius, of Bajazet, of Napoleon. But these Tartars finished a prosperous course without reverse; they died indeed and went to judgment, but, as far as the visible scene of their glory is concerned, they underwent no change. Attila was summoned suddenly, but the summons found him a triumphant king; and the case is the same with Zingis and Timour. These latter conquerors had glories besides of a different kind which increased the lustre of their rule. They were both lawgivers; it is the boast of Zingis that he laid down the principle of religious toleration with a clearness which modern philosophers have considered to rival the theory of Locke; and Timour, too, established an efficient police in his dominions, and was a patron of literature. Their sun went down full and cloudless, with the merit of having shed some rays of blessing upon the earth, scorching and withering as had been its day. It is remarkable also that all three had something of a misgiving, or softening of mind, miserably unsatisfactory as it was, shortly before their deaths. Attila’s quailing before the eye of the Vicar of Christ, and turning away from Italy, I have already spoken of, As to Zingis, as, laden at once with years and with the spoils of Asia, he reluctantly measured his way home at the impatient bidding of his veterans, who were tired of war, he seemed visited by a sense of the vanity of all things and a terror for the evil he had done. He showed some sort of pity for the vanquished, and declared his intention of rebuilding the cities he had destroyed. Alas! it is ever easier to pull down than to build up. His wars continued; he was successful by his lieutenants when he could not go to battle himself; he left his power to his children and grandchildren, and he died.


Such was the end of Zingis, a pagan, who had some notion of Christianity in a corrupted form, and who once almost gave hopes of becoming a Christian, but who really had adopted a sort of indifference towards religious creeds altogether. Timour was a zealous Mahometan, and had been instructed in more definite notions of moral duty. He too felt some misgivings about his past course towards the end of his life; and the groans and shrieks of the dying and the captured in the sack of Aleppo awoke for a while the stern monitor within him. He protested to the cadhi his innocence of the blood which he had shed. “You see me here,” he said, “a poor, lame, decrepit mortal; yet by my arm it has pleased the Almighty to subdue the kingdoms of Iran, Touran, and Hindostan. I am not a man of blood; I call God to witness, that never, in all my wars, have I been the aggressor, but that my enemies have ever been the authors of the calamities which have come upon them.”

This was the feeling of a mind sated with conquest, sated with glory, aware at length that he must go further and look deeper, if he was to find that on which the soul could really feed and live, and startled to find the entrance to that abode of true greatness and of glory sternly shut against him. He looked towards the home of his youth, and the seat of his long prosperity, across the Oxus, to Sogdiana, to Samarcand, its splendid capital, with its rich groves and smiling pastures, and there the old man went to die. Not that he directly thought of death; for still he yearned after military success: and he went thither for but a short repose, between his stupendous victories in Asia Minor and a projected campaign in China. But Samarcand was a fitting halt in that long march; and there for the last time he displayed the glory of his kingdom, receiving the petitions or appeals of his subjects, ostentatiously judging between the deserving and the guilty, inspecting plans for the erection of palaces and temples, and giving audience to ambassadors from Russia, Spain, Egypt, and Hindostan. An English historian, whom I have already used, has enlarged upon this closing scene, and I here abridge his account of it. “The marriage of six of the Emperor’s grandsons,” he says, “was esteemed an act of religion as well as of paternal tenderness; and the pomp of the ancient caliphs was revived in their nuptials. They were celebrated in the garden of Canighul, where innumerable tents and pavilions displayed the luxury of a great city and the spoils of a victorious camp. Whole forests were cut down to supply fuel for the kitchens; the plain was spread with pyramids of meat and vases of every liquor, to which thousands of guests were courteously invited. The orders of the state and the nations of the earth were marshalled at the royal banquet. The public joy was testified by illuminations and masquerades; the trades of Samarcand passed in review; and every trade was emulous to execute some quaint device, some marvellous pageant, with the materials of their peculiar art. After the marriage contracts had been ratified by the cadhies, nine times, according to the Asiatic fashion, were the bridegrooms and their brides dressed and undressed; and at each change of apparel, pearls and rubies were showered on their heads, and contemptuously abandoned to their attendants.”

You may recollect the passage in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which has a reference to the Oriental ceremony here described. It is in his account of Satan’s throne in Pandemonium. “High on a throne,” the poet says,

“High on a throne of royal state, which far

Outshone the wealth of Ormus or of Ind,

Or where the gorgeous East, with richest hand,

Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,

Satan exulting sat, by merit raised

To that bad eminence.”

So it is; the greatest magnificence of this world is but a poor imitation of the flaming throne of the author of evil. But let us return to the history:—“A general indulgence was proclaimed, and every law was relaxed, every pleasure was allowed; the people were free, the sovereign was idle; and the historian of Timour may remark, that after devoting fifty years to the attainment of empire, the only happy period of his life was the two months in which he ceased to exercise his power. But he was soon awakened to the cares of government and war. The standard was unfurled for the invasion of China; the emirs made the report of 200,000, the select and veteran “soldiers of Iran and Touran; the baggage and provisions were transported by 500 great waggons, and an immense train of horses and camels; and the troops might prepare for a long absence, since more than six months were employed in the tranquil journey of a caravan from Samarcand to Pekin. Neither age, nor the severity of winter, could retard the impatience of Timour; he mounted on horseback, passed the Sihun” (or Jaxartes) “on the ice, marched 300 miles from his capital, and pitched his last camp at Otrar, where he was expected by the angel of death. Fatigue and the indiscreet use of iced water accelerated the progress of his fever; and the conqueror of Asia expired in the seventieth year of his age; his designs were lost; his armies were disbanded; China was saved.”

But the wonderful course of human affairs rolled on. Timour’s death was followed at no long interval by the rise of John Basilowich in Russia, who succeeded in throwing off the Mogul yoke, and laid the foundation of the present mighty empire. The Tartar sovereignty passed from Samarcand to Moscow.

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