The Scholar and the Sultan: A Translation of the Historic Encounter between Ibn Khaldun and Timur

Ibn Khaldun’s account of his encounter with Timur outside Damascus in 803/1401 is taken from the autobiographical section of his monumental historical chronicle, the Kitāb al-‘Ibar. It is an invaluable piece of history which provides an important contemporary account of the conqueror Timur. It also brings together two of the most significant historical personalities of the late fourteenth century, one being a world conqueror and the other a first-class intellectual. These two figures conversed about topics including the topography of North Africa, the reliability of Tabari’s history, the nature of the caliphate, and Ibn Khaldun’s own theory of group solidarity (‘asabiyya). There are also many important tidbits of historical information provided within the text, especially with regards to Ibn Khaldun’s discussion of the expectation among astrologers and mystics in the fourteenth-century Islamic West that the conjunction of planets would announce the arrival of a figure of major historical importance at the end of the century. Ibn Khaldun’s letter to the “king of the Maghrib” (probably the Hafsid caliph Abū Fāris ‘Abd al-‘Azīz II, r. 1394-1434, or possibly the Marinid sultan Abū Sa’īd ‘Uthmān III, r. 1399-1420) is also of particular interest given the amount of detail he provides about the Mongol conquests in the East and the immediate historical context of the rise of Timur. It is clear from the text that, although Ibn Khaldun is clearly disturbed by the brutality displayed by Timur during the course of his conquests (and during the siege of Damascus), he nevertheless admired the conqueror as a cultured, intelligent sovereign whose vast domain was a testimony to his supreme military capabilities.

This text was translated several decades ago by Walter J. Fischel in his Ibn Khaldun and Tamerlane (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1952), pp. 29-47. Although a fine effort in many ways, Fischel’s translation exhibited certain problems in that some terms were slightly mistranslated and in the sense that the translator opted for a more literal meaning to the extent that the sense of the passage was slightly lost. As such, although I have largely adapted this translation from Fischel’s, I have consulted two editions of Ibn Khaldun’s Arabic text (published in 2009 and 2010 respectively) in order to make the necessary changes. In some places, Fischel’s translation has been significantly emended, while in other places it remains virtually untouched. I hope that this small work is beneficial to everyone interested in Islamic history and thought.

The following are also two interesting articles for anyone interested in other perspectives or broader context regarding the historic encounter between Ibn Khaldun and Timur at Damascus:



When the news reached Egypt that the emir Timur (r. 1370-1405) had conquered Anatolia, destroyed Sivas, and had returned to Syria, the [Mamluk] Sultan [Nāṣir al-Dīn Faraj, r. 1399–1412] gathered his armies, opened the treasury of military stipends and ordered his troops to march to Syria.

At that time I did not hold any office but the Sultan’s marshal (dawādār), Yashbak [al-Sha’banī], summoned me and wanted me to ride with him in the Sultan’s retinue. When I tried to refuse his offer he assumed a firm attitude toward me, albeit with gentleness of speech and considerable generosity, so I agreed. I traveled with them in the middle of the month of the Prophet’s birth of the year 803 (15 Rabi‘ I/3 November 1400). We reached Gaza, where we rested for several days while awaiting news. Then we set out for Damascus in order to forestall the Tatars, encamped at Shaqhab, and then set out at night, arriving at Damascus in the morning. The emir Timur and his army had, by this time departed from Baalbek, and were heading for Damascus.

The Sultan erected his tents and other structures in the plain of Qubbat Yalbugha. The emir Timur, despairing of taking the city by assault, remained on a hill above Qubbat Yalbugha for more than a month, watching us while we observed him. The situation remained thus for over a month. The two armies engaged one another three or four times during this period, with varying degrees of success. Then the Sultan and his chief emirs learned that some of the other emirs were engaged in a seditious plot and were planning to flee to Egypt and bring about a revolt there. So they agreed to return to Egypt, fearing the rebellion of the people there and the fall of their dynasty/kingdom (dawla). They left at night on Friday, 21 Jumada I 803 (7 January 1401). They rode up Mount Salihīyya and descended by its passes, before traveling along the coast until they reached Gaza. The men, however, believing that the Sultan had taken the main road to Egypt, traveled that night and traveled in groups and parties by way of Shaqhab until they reached Cairo.


The next morning, the inhabitants of Damascus were perplexed and were quite unclear about what had transpired. The judges (qudāt) and jurists (fuqahā’) then came to see me in the ‘Adiliyya madrasa, and they unanimously agreed to seek a guarantee of security (amān) for their homes and families from the emir Timur. When they consulted the commander of the citadel, however, he strongly disapproved and objected to this. But they disregarded his refusal and the qādī Burhān al-Dīn [Ibrāhīm] ibn Muflih al-Ḥanbalī [d. 1401], along with the leader of the Sufis of the zāwiya, went out to Timur. He consented to grant them immunity and sent them back to summon the notables and the other judges. The latter, as a result, climbed down from the walls of the city and went out to him bearing gifts. Timur received them graciously, providing them with written guarantees of security, and sent them back feeling most hopeful. They had agreed with him that the gates of the city would be opened the following day, that the people should go about their affairs and business as usual, and that an emir should enter the city, reside in its place of government, and rule over them by the force of his authority. The qādī Burhān al-Dīn informed me that Timur had specifically asked about me and whether I had left with the armies of Egypt or whether I was still in the city. The qādī replied that I was still staying in the madrasa where I had been before. We spent that night making preparations to go to Timur the next day.

A dispute arose among some people in the Great Mosque, with several people disapproving of the reliance which had been placed on what had been said concerning the surrender. I heard about this late at night and I feared some attempt on my own life. I therefore arose at dawn and went to the group of judges who were at the city gate. I requested permission of them to go out, or to descend the wall, because of the fears which the report had aroused in me; they at first refused me permission, then in the morning they lowered me down the wall.

Near the gate I found some of Timur’s retinue, and the representative whom he had designated to govern Damascus; his name was Shāh Malik, one of Timur’s fellow Chaghatay tribesmen. I said to them, “May God prolong your lives,” and they said to me, “May God prolong your life,” and I said, “May I be your ransom,” and they said to me, “May we be your ransom.” Shāh Malik then offered me a mount and sent with me one of the Sultan’s retinue, who conducted me to him. When I stood at the entrance of the Sultan’s tent, I was given permission to be seated in a tent adjoining his own reception tent.


When my name was announced, the title “the Maghribī Mālikī Qādī” was added to it; he summoned me, and when I entered the tent to approach him he was reclining on his elbow while platters of food were being passed before him and which he ordered to be sent to the various groups of Mongols sitting in circles in front of his tent. Upon entering, I spoke first, saying, “Peace be upon you,” and I made a gesture of humility. Thereupon he raised his head and stretched out his hand to me, which I kissed. He made a sign to me to sit down; I did so just where I had been standing. He then summoned from his retinue one of the most learned Ḥanafī jurists of Khwarazm, ‘Abd al-Jabbār ibn al-Nu‘mān [d. 1403 or 1406], whom he bade to sit there also in order to serve as an interpreter between us.

He asked me from where in the Maghrib I had come and why I had come. I replied, “I left my country in order to perform my religious obligations [i.e. the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca]. I came to Egypt by sea and arrived at the port of Alexandria on the day of Eid al-Fiṭr in the year 784 (1382), while festivities were in progress within their walls because [the Mamluk Sultan] al-Zāhir Barqūq [r. 1382–1389, 1390–1399] was sitting in audience on the royal throne during these ten days.” Timur asked me, “What did al-Zāhir Barqūq do for you?” I replied, “Everything good. He was generous in giving recognition to my position; he accorded me hospitable entertainment and supplied me with provisions for the pilgrimage. Then, when I returned, he allotted me a large stipend, and I remained under his shelter and favor—may God grant him mercy and recompense him.”

He asked me, “How did he happen to appoint you to the office of qādī?” I replied, “The Mālikī qādī had died one month before his [al-Zāhir Barqūq’s] own death; he thought I had the appropriate qualifications for the office—the pursuit of justice and truth, and the abjuring of outside influence—so he appointed me in his place. But when al-Zāhir Barqūq died a month later, those who were in charge of the government were not pleased with my position and replaced me with another qādī —may God repay them for it!”

Next he asked me, “Where is your birthplace?” I replied, “In the inner Maghrib, where I was secretary to the greatest king there.”

He said, “What do mean by ‘inner’ in your description of the Maghrib?” I answered, “In the common usage of the Maghribī speech its meaning is ‘the interior,’ or, in other words, the most distant, because all the Maghrib is situated along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and the parts of it nearest here are Barqa and Ifrīqiya; the middle region of the Maghrib (al-maghrib al-awsaṭ) comprises Tlemcen and the country of the Zanata; while farthest region of the Maghrib (al-maghrib al-aqsa) is Fez and Marrakesh; this is what is meant by the ‘inner’ Maghrib.” He then asked me, “Where then is Tangier related in relation with the inner Maghrib?” I replied, “It is located in the region between the [Atlantic] Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the canal known as al-Zuqaq (Gibraltar), which is the strait of the Mediterranean Sea.”

He then asked me, “And what of Ceuta?” I answered, “It is on the coast of the strait [of Gibraltar] and is located one day’s distance from Tangier. From there one crosses into Iberia [al-Andalus], since it is a short distance away, only twenty miles away.”

He asked, “What about Fez?” I answered, “Fez is not on the coast, but rather lies in the hills. It is the seat of governance of the Marinid kings of the Maghrib.” Then he asked, “And Sijilmasa?” I replied, “It is on the boundary between the cultivated regions and the deserts in the southern regions.”

He said, “This does not satisfy me. I would you like you to write me a description of the whole region of the Maghrib—including its distant as well as its near parts, its mountains and its rivers, its villages and its cities—in such a detailed manner that it’s if I can see it with my own eyes.”


I said, “That will be accomplished under your auspices.” (Later, after I had departed from his presence, I wrote for him what he had requested, and summarized in what would be the equivalent of about twelve quires of half format.)

Then he gave a signal to his servants to bring from his tent a kind of food which they call rishta and which they were most expert in preparing. Some dishes of it were brought in, and he made a sign that they should be set before me. I arose, took them, and drank, and liked it, and this greatly impressed him.

I then sat down and we remained silent, for I was overcome with fear on account of the misfortune which had befallen the chief Shafi‘ī qādī Sadr al-Dīn al-Munāwī. He had been taken prisoner at Shaqhab by those who pursued the Egyptian army, and was brought back and imprisoned by them with a demand for ransom for him. Because of this fear, I composed in my mind some words to say to Timur which, by exalting him and his government, would flatter him. Before this, when I was in the Maghrib, I had heard many predictions concerning his appearance. Astrologers who were experts in the conjunction of the two superior planets [Jupiter and Saturn] were awaiting the tenth conjunction in the trigon which was expected to occur in the year 766 (1363-4). One day, in the year 761 (1359-60), I met in Fez in the Mosque of al-Qarawiyin the mosque-preacher of the city of Constantine, Abū ‘Alī ibn Bādīs, who was an authority in the astrological sciences. I asked him about this expected conjunction which was to occur and what its meaning was. He answered me, “It points to a powerful one who will arise in the northeast region from amongst a nomadic nation, tent dwellers, who will triumph over kingdoms, overturn states and dynasties, and become the masters of most of the civilized [literally: inhabited] world” I asked, “When will he appear?” He said, “In the year 784 (1382-3) and news of him will be widespread.”

I was told something similar by Ibn Zarzar [Abraham ben Zarzal, d. 1370], the Jewish physician and astrologer of Ibn Alfonso [Pedro I of Castile, r. 1350–1369, the son of Alfonso XI], the king of the Franks. My teacher, Muhammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Ābilī (may God have mercy on him), who was the greatest expert on metaphysics told me whenever I conversed with him on the matter that “this event is approaching, and if you live, you will certainly witness it.” Apparently, according to what we have heard, the Sufis in the Maghrib also were expecting this occurrence. They believed, however, that the figure who would emerge during this event would be the Fatimid to whom the prophetic traditions of the Shi‘ites and others refer. Yahya ibn ‘Abd Allāh, the grandson of Shaykh Abū Ya‘qūb al-Bādisī, the greatest saint in the Maghrib, told me that the Shaykh had said to them one day as he came from morning prayer that “Today the Fatimid who would arise [al-qā’im al-fāṭimī] was born.” That was in the fourth decade of the eighth century (1330-1339).

Because of all this I, too, had been watching for the event; so now, on account of my fears, it occurred to me to tell him something of it by which he would be diverted and might become kindly disposed toward me. So I began by saying, “May God strengthen you—I have longed to meet you for thirty or forty years.” The interpreter, ‘Abd al-Jabbār, asked, “And why is that?”

I replied, “Two reasons: the first is that you are the supreme sovereign of the universe and the ruler of the world, and I do not believe that there has ever been a ruler like you among men from Adam until this era. Verily, I am not the type of individual who merely speaks about things based on conjecture, for I am a scholar and I will explain why I say this: Sovereignty exists only because of group solidarity (‘asabiyya), and the greater the number in the group, the greater is the extent of sovereignty. Scholars, in the past and the present, have agreed that the most populous groups among human beings are the Arabs and the Turks. Surely you know how the sovereignty of the Arabs was established when they became united in their religion in following their prophet [Muhammad]. As for the Turks, their rivalry with the kings of Persia and the seizure of Khurasan from the latter by their king, Afrāsiyāb, is evidence of their royal origin. None from among the kings of the earth—not Khusraw, nor Caesar nor Alexander nor Nebuchadnezzar—is comparable to them with regard to the extent of their group solidarity (‘asabiyya). As for Khusraw, he was the leader of the Persians and their king, but the Persians fall utterly short of the Turks! As for Caesar and Alexander, they were kings of the Greeks [al-rūm], but again the Greeks cannot be compared [in terms of their greatness] with the Turks! As for Nebuchadnezzar, he was the chieftain of the Babylonians and the Nabateans, but what a difference between these nations and the Turks! This constitutes a clear proof of what I have maintained concerning this king [Timur].


“The second reason why I have wanted to meet him relates to what I have heard from the astrologers and the Muslim saints in the Maghrib,” and I mentioned what I have related before in this regard. [Interestingly, one of Timur’s titles was Sāhib-i Qirān (the Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction), a reference to these astrological portents of his appearance]

He then said to me, “You have mentioned Nebuchadnezzar together with Khusraw, Caesar, and Alexander, although the former was not of their rank; they were great kings, while Nebuchadnezzar was merely one of the Persian generals, just as I myself am only one of the deputies of the sovereign of the throne. As for the king himself, here he is”—and he indicated towards the row of men standing behind him, among whom the one he meant had also been standing. This was Timur’s stepson, whose mother, as we have mentioned before [in the historical chronicle], he had married after the death of the boy’s father, Satilmish. But he did not find him there, and those who were standing in that row explained that he had gone out.

Then he turned back to me and asked, “Of which of the peoples was Nebuchadnezzar?” I replied, “There are differences of opinion among people on this question. Some assert that he was from among the Nabateans, the last of the kings of Babylon, while others say that he was among the first Persians.”

He said, “That means that he was a descendant of Manūshihr (spelled with a jīm but with a pronunciation between jīm and shin, this is the name of one of the first Persians. It means ‘silver face,’ and this was because of his radiant countenance, for maynū in Persian means ‘silver,’ and they shorten it by eliminating the letter yā’, and say manū; and jihr or shihr means ‘face;’ hence Manushihr).” I said, “Yes, so it has been mentioned.” He continued, “And we are descended from Manushihr on our mother’s side.” I discussed with the interpreter the importance of his statement, and said to him, “This is another reason that prompted my desire to meet him [Timur].”

The king then said, “Which of the two views concerning Nebuchadnezzar is more historically accurate in your opinion?” I answered, “That he was one of the last of the kings of Babylon.” He, however, expressed the opinion that the other view was more accurate. I said, “Let us turn to the opinion of [Abū Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Jarīr] al-Ṭabarī [d. 923], for he is the greatest historian and traditionist of the Islamic world and no other opinion can outweigh his.” He said, “We do not rely upon al-Ṭabarī. We will bring the great works of histories of the Arabs and the Persians and debate with you.” I said, “And I, for my part, shall debate according to the view of al-Ṭabarī.” This ended the discussion, and he was silent.

News was then brought to him that the gate of the city had been opened and that the judges had come out in an act of obedience to fulfill their side of the promise of amnesty that he had agreed to. At that moment, he was lifted and carried away, because of the trouble with his knee, and was placed upon his horse; grasping the reins, he sat upright in his saddle while the bands played around him until the air shook with them; he rode toward Damascus and was left at the tomb of Manjak, near the Jābiya Gate.

There he sat in audience, while the judges and the notables of the city approached him, and I was among them. He then gave a signal for them to depart, and ordered Shāh Malik, his deputy, to confirm them in their offices and official position, and then he signaled me to sit down, so I sat in front of him. He then summoned his government officials who were in charge of building matters, and they brought in the experts of construction and the engineers, and discussed whether by leading off the water which flows round in the moat of the citadel they could by this operation discover its ingress. They discussed this for a long time in his council before departing.

After having asked and received his permission to do so, I also left for my home inside the city. I secluded myself at home, and began to promptly work on the description of the Maghrib that he had requested of me. I completed it within a few days, and when I presented it to him he took it from my hands and ordered his secretary to have it translated into Mongolian.

He then intensified his siege of the citadel. He brought various siege engines, catapults (manjānīq), naphtha launchers (al-nufūṭ), ballistas (al-‘arādāt), and utilized mining equipment against it. Within a few days sixty catapults and other similar siege engines were set up. The siege was harsh on those fortified within the citadel, and its walls were destroyed on all sides. Therefore the men defending it, among them a number of those who had been in the service of the [Mamluk] Sultan, and those whom he had left behind, sued for peace. Timur granted them amnesty, and after they were brought before him the citadel was demolished and completely destroyed.

From the inhabitants of the town he confiscated entire vaults of money which he seized after having taken all the property, mounts, and tents which the ruler of Egypt had left behind. Then he gave permission to his troops to the plunder the houses of the people of the city, and they were despoiled of all their furniture and goods. The furnishings and utensils of no value which remained were set on fire, and the fire spread to the walls of the houses, which were supported by timbers. The fire continued to burn until it reached the Great Mosque; the flames mounted to its roof, melting the lead in it, and the ceiling and walls collapsed. This was an absolutely despicable and abominable deed, but the changes in affairs are in the hands of God. He does with His creatures as He wishes, and does with His kingdom as He wills.


During my stay with Sultan Timur, there had gone out to him from the citadel, on the day he granted its people amnesty, one of the descendants of the caliphs in Egypt of the line of al-Hākim, the Abbasid, whom al-Zāhir Baybars [r. 1260–1277] had established as caliph there. He presented himself before Sultan Timur and asked of him justice in his cause, claiming from him the position of caliph as it had belonged to his ancestors.

Sultan Timur replied to him, “I will summon the jurists and the judges for you, and if they decide anything in your favor I will render justice to you accordingly.” Timur summoned the jurists and the judges, and summoned me among them. We came to him, and the man who sought the office of caliph came as well. ‘Abd al-Jabbār said to him, “This is a court of justice, so speak.”

Al-Hākim said, “This caliphate belongs to us and to our ancestors. The prophetic tradition, according to which the authority of the caliphate belongs to the Abbasids as long as the world endures, is legitimate and authentic. I have a stronger claim to the office than the one who currently holds it in Cairo, since my forefathers, whose heir I am, had a just claim to it, while it came to this man without legal support.” ‘Abd al-Jabbār summoned each of us to discuss his case. We kept silent for a moment; then he asked us, “What do you say concerning this tradition?”

Burhān al-Dīn ibn Muflih answered, “This tradition is not authentic,” and then called for my opinion about it; I replied, “As you have stated, this tradition is not valid.”

Sultan Timur said, “Then what is it that has brought the caliphate to the Abbasids until this era in Islam?” He said this directly to me, and I replied: “May God grant you victory! Since the moment of the death of the Prophet, the Muslims have differed over whether or not it is necessary for the believers to have some ruler from among themselves to direct their spiritual and their worldly affairs. One party were of the opinion—and among them were the Kharijites—that it is not necessary; the majority, however, held that it is necessary, but have disagreed regarding the legal evidence proving its necessity. On the other hand, all the Shi‘ites adhered to the position that the Prophet designated ‘Ali [ibn Abī Tālib] to be caliph, although the Shi‘ites have more opinions than can be counted concerning the particular succession of ‘Ali’s descendants after him. The Sunnis, meanwhile, unanimously rejected the idea that the Prophet designated a successor. They assert that the only necessity with regard to this [the imamate] is ijtihād, by which they mean that it is incumbent upon the Muslims (as a community) to exert themselves in choosing a righteous, knowledgeable, and just man to whom to entrust the guidance of their affairs.

“When the parties of the ‘Alids became numerous, the designation of caliph was transferred, according to their opinion, from the house of al-Hanafiyya to the Abbasids, Abū Hāshim ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya [d. 716]having designated as caliph Muhammad ibn ‘Alī ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Abbas (d.. The latter sent his missionaries and emissaries throughout Khurasan, with Abū Muslim being the main propagator of this da‘wa (movement/missionary activity) there and became ruler of Khurasan and of Iraq. Their followers settled in Kufa, and chose Abū al-‘Abbās al-Saffah [r. 749-754], the son of the founder of this movement, as their ruler. Then they desired that the oath of allegiance to him be by unanimous agreement of both the Sunnis and the Shi‘is. They wrote therefore to the leaders of the people of the time and to those in authority in the Hijaz and in Iraq, to consult them in regard to his rule, and all chose to accept him. So his followers in Kufa swore allegiance to him as caliph, with the oath of general agreement and ratification.

Al-Saffāh designated as his successor his brother al-Manṣur, and al-Manṣur designated in succession his sons. Thus the caliphate continued to pass among the Abbasids either by designation or by the choice of the people of the age, until al-Musta‘sim, the last of them in Baghdad. Then, when Hulagu took possession of Baghdad and put him to death, his kindred dispersed, and one of them, Ahmad al-Hākim, of the descendants of al-Rāshid [r. 1135-1136], arrived in Cairo, where al-Zāhir Baybars in Egypt appointed him to the office with the concurrence of those in power among the army and the jurists. Authority has been transmitted to members of his family down to the present one who is in Cairo. Nothing is known contrary to that.”

Timur then said to this claimant, “You have heard the words of the judges and the jurists, and it appears that you have no justification for claiming the caliphate; so depart and may God guide you!”

When I had met him and been let down the wall to him, as already related, one of my friends who from previous acquaintance with them knew their customs advised me to present him some gift, however small its value might be, for that is a fixed custom on meeting their rulers. I therefore chose from the book market an exceedingly beautiful Qur’an copy, an elegant prayer rug, a copy of the famous poem, Qaṣīdah al-Burda by al-Busirī [d. 1294] in praise of the Prophet, and four boxes of the excellent Cairene sweets. I took these gifts and entered to him while Timur was in the palace known as al-Ablaq, sitting in its reception hall. When he saw me arriving he stood up and indicated that I should sit at his right, where I took a seat, some of the leaders of the Chaghatay being on both sides of him. After having sat there for a little while, I moved over in front of him and pointed to the presents which I have mentioned and which were in my servants’ hands. I set them down, and he leaned toward me. Then I opened the Qur’an, and when he saw it he hurriedly arose and put it on his head. Then I presented the Burda to him; he asked me about it and about its author, and I told him all I knew. I next gave him the prayer rug, which he took and kissed. Then I put in front of him the boxes of sweets and took a bit of them, according to the custom of courtesy and he distributed the sweets in the box among those present at his council. He accepted all this and indicated that he was pleased with it.

I then thought over words to express what was in my mind concerning myself and some companions of mine there, and I said, “May God aid you—I have something which I wish to say before you.”

He said, “Speak,” and I said: “I am a stranger in this country in a double sense. First, because I am away from the Maghrib, which is my homeland and my place of origin; the second absence is from Cairo, and my people are there. I have come under your protection, and I hope that you will give me your opinion regarding what may solace me in my exile.”

He replied, “Speak, whatever you desire I shall do for you.”

I said, “My state of exile has made me forget what I desire; perhaps you—may God aid you—will know for me what I desire.”

He answered, “Move from the city to the encampment and stay with me, and if God wills I will fulfill your highest aim.”

I said to him, “Give an order for me to that effect to your deputy, Shāh Malik.” He signaled to him to execute this. I thanked him and blessed him, and said, “I have still another request.”

“What is it?” he asked.

I replied, “These Qur’an teachers, secretaries, bureaucrats, and administrators, who are among those left behind by the Sultan of Egypt, have come under your rule. The King surely will not disregard them. Your power is vast, your provinces are very extensive, and the need of your government for men who are administrators in the various branches of service is greater than the need of any other than you.”

He asked me, “And what do you wish for them?”

I replied, “A written guarantee of security to which they can appeal and upon which they can rely whatever their circumstances may be.”

He said to his secretary, “Write an order to this effect for them.”

I thanked him and blessed him, and went out with the secretary until the letter of security had been written and Shāh Malik had affixed to it the Sultan’s seal. I then departed to my dwelling. When the time for Timur’s journey approached and he decided to leave Damascus, I entered to him one day. After we had completed the customary greetings, he turned to me and said, “You have a mule here?”

I answered, “Yes.”

He said, “Is it a good one?”

I answered, “Yes.”

He said, “Will you sell it? I would buy it from you.”

I replied, “May God aid you—one like me does not sell to one like you; but I would offer it to you in homage, and also others like it if I had them.”

He said, “I meant only that I would recompense you for it with generosity.”

I replied, “Is there any generosity left beyond that which you have already shown me? You have heaped favors upon me, accorded me a place in your council among your intimate followers, and shown me kindness and generosity—which I hope God will repay to you in like measure.”

He was silent; so was I. The mule was brought to him while I was with him at his council, and I did not see it again. Then on another day I entered to him and he asked me: “Are you going to travel to Cairo?”

I answered, “May God aid you—indeed, my desire is only to serve you, for you have granted me refuge and protection. If the journey to Cairo would be in your service, surely; otherwise I have no desire for it.”

He said, “No, but you will return to your family and to your people.” Then he turned to his son, who was about to travel to Shaqhab, to the place of the spring pasturing of his animals, and became occupied in conversation with him. ‘Abd al-Jabbār, the scholar who served as interpreter between us, said to me, “The Sultan is recommending you to his son,” and I blessed him.

Then I thought that the journey with his son had no clear end in view and that it would be preferable for me to go to Safad, the seaport nearest us. When I told him that, he agreed to it and recommended me to the care of a messenger who had come to him from the chamberlain of Safad, Ibn al-Duwaydārī. So I bade Timur farewell and departed. And the road I took with that messenger became a subject of difference, so I left him and he left me, and I traveled with a group of my friends. But we were intercepted by a band of tribesmen who barred our way and robbed us of all our belongings. We escaped almost naked to a village there; and after two or three days we reached al-Subayba; obtaining other clothes, we passed on to Safad, where we stayed for a few days.

Then one of the ships of Ibn ‘Uthmān [Bayezid I, r. 1389–1402], the ruler of Anatolia and the Balkans, passed by us, in which was an ambassador who had traveled to him from the Sultan of Egypt and who was returning with the reply to his message. I sailed with them to Gaza, where I disembarked and from where I traveled to Cairo. I arrived there in the month of Sha‘ban of the same year, that is, 803 (March 1401).

The Sultan, ruler of Egypt, had sent from his court an ambassador to the emir Timur to accept a peace offer which Timur had sought from the Sultan. The ambassador had followed me to Timur, and after having accomplished his mission he returned to Cairo, his arrival occurring after mine. He sent one of his friends to me to say, “Timur has sent to you the price of the mule which he had bought from you. Here it is—take it, because Timur enjoined upon us the discharge of his debt of this money of yours.”

I said, “I will not accept it until the Sultan, who sent you to him, gives his permission; otherwise I shall not.” I went to the head of the government and informed him of the matter. He said to me, “What troubles you?” and I replied: “It is not fitting for me to accept the money without informing you about it.” But he ignored this, and they sent me that amount after some time. The bearer apologized because the sum was not complete, asserting that it was thus given to him. I then thanked God.

At that time I wrote a letter to the ruler of the Maghrib, in which I informed him of all that had taken place between me and the Tatar Sultan Timur, and how our meeting with him in Damascus had occurred. I included in a section of the letter:

If you graciously ask about my welfare, it is excellent, thanks be to God. Last year I rode in the Sultan’s retinue to Damascus when the Tatars, marching toward it from Asia Minor and Iraq with their king, Timur, had conquered Aleppo, Hama, Hims, and Baalbek and ruined them all, and his soldiers had committed there more shameful atrocities than had ever been heard of before. The Sultan al-Nāsir Faraj with his armies had hastened to the rescue of the country and arrived in Damascus first. He remained there facing Timur for about a month, then returned to Cairo while many of the emirs and qādīs remained behind. I was among those who had been left behind.

I heard that their sultan Timur had asked about me, so I had no choice but to meet him. I went out from Damascus to him, and I was present in his council. He received me kindly, and I obtained from him amnesty for the people of Damascus. I remained with him thirty-five days, including mornings and evenings. He then dismissed me and bade me farewell under the most pleasant circumstances, and I returned to Cairo.

He had asked me for the mule on which I used to ride, so I gave it to him. He asked to buy it, but I disliked selling it to him because of the kindness which he had accorded me. But after I left for Egypt, he sent me its price by an envoy from the Sultan al-Nāsir Faraj who was there. I thanked God for having delivered me from the misfortunes of the world.

These Tatars are those who erupted out of the steppe beyond the Oxus, the region located between this river and China, in the 620s (1220s) under their famous king, Chinggiz Khan. He conquered the entire East up to Arab Iraq from the Seljuks and their vassals, and divided his kingdom among three of his sons, namely, Chaghatay, Toluy, and Jochi Khan.

Chaghatay was the oldest of them; he received as his share Turkestan, Kashghar, Balasaghun, Tashkent, Farghana, and the rest of the land beyond the Oxus. Toluy received as his portion the provinces of Khurasan, Persian Iraq, and Rayy up to Arab Iraq, Fars, the land of Sijistan, and Sind; his sons were Qubilay and Hulagu. Jochi Khan received as his portion the country of Qipchaq including Saray, and the country of the Turks as far as Khwarazm.

They had also a fourth brother, named Ogeday, their head, whom they called “the Khan,” which means the possessor of the throne, the equivalent in position to the caliph in the realm of Islam. He died without any descendants, and the Khanate passed to Qubilay and later to the sons of Jochi Khan, the rulers of Saray. The sovereignty of the Tatars remained among these three dynasties.

Hulagu conquered Baghdad and Arab Iraq as far as Diyarbakir and the Euphrates River; he then marched against Syria and conquered it. Afterward he left Syria, but his sons marched against it several times, while the Turkic kings of Egypt repelled them from it until the rule of the descendants of Hulagu came to an end in the 740s (1340s).

After them ruled Shaykh Hasan [Buzurg] al-Nuayn [r. 1336–1356] and his sons. Their kingdom was divided among various groups of the members of their dynasty, and their enmity for the rulers of Syria and Egypt ceased.

Then, in the 770s [1368–1377] or 780s [1378–1387], there appeared in Transoxania an emir of the house of the Chaghatay whose name was Timur. He was the guardian of a boy who was also related to him by decent from Chaghatay through male ancestors, all of them kings, and this one, Timur ibn Tughan, was their cousin on the father’s side. He became guardian of one of them, the heir to the throne named Mahmūd, whose mother Surghatmish he married. Reaching out for power over all the kingdoms of the Tatars, he conquered them as far as Diyabakir.

He then marched through Anatolia and India, and his armies pillaged all their provinces and destroyed their fortresses and their cities in a course of events which would take too long to expound. After that he marched toward Syria and did there what is well known—God is the master of His affairs. Finally he returned to his own country, and reports are arriving that he has set out for Samarqand, his capital.

The people are of a number which cannot be counted; if you estimate it at one million it would not be too much, nor can you say it is less. If they pitched their tents together in the land they would fill all vacant spaces, and if their armies came even into a wide territory the plain would be too narrow for them. And in raiding, plundering, and slaughtering settled populations and inflicting upon them all kinds of cruelty they are an astounding example, and in this they follow the custom of the Bedouin Arabs.

This king Timur is one of the greatest and mightiest of kings. Some attribute to him knowledge, others consider him a Shi‘ite because they note his preference for the members of the Ahl al-Bayt (family of the Prophet); still others attribute to him the employment of magic and sorcery, but in all this there is nothing but rumor. It is simply that he is highly intelligent and very perspicacious, addicted to debate and argumentation about what he knows and also about what he does not know. He is between sixty and seventy years old. His right knee is lame from an arrow which struck him while raiding in his youth, as he told me; therefore he dragged it when he went on short walks, but when he would go long distances men carried him with their hands. He is one who is favored by God—the power is God’s, and He grants it to whom He chooses of his creatures.”

[Ibn Khaldun, Tārīkh Ibn Khaldūn (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmīyya, 2010), ed. Adel ibn Sa’d Vol. 7, pp. 543–552; Ibn Khaldun, Rihlah Ibn Khaldūn (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmīyya, 2019), ed. Muhammad al-Tanji, pp. 286–299]


1 thought on “The Scholar and the Sultan: A Translation of the Historic Encounter between Ibn Khaldun and Timur

  1. A really fascinating account. I read something as intriguing as this after long. Almost flew back to those times while reading this. Also what became clear was the pre-dominance of traditional Sunni Islam in those times when I came to read about how ibn Khaldun gifted Qasida Burda by Imam Busiri(ra) to Taimur, a text despised by modern Wahhabis. Kind of confirms the theory of how mainstream Islam = Traditional Sufi Sunni Islam.

    Thanks for this. Keep more such articles coming. I have become a fan of Ballandalus 🙂

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