Outside Damascus. After a final brief siege, Timur destroyed the walls and the inhabitants sued for peace. Timur granted them amnesty, plundered the city, prepared the more useful citizens to be sent off to Samarkand, and slaughtered the rest. The heads of the slaughtered are being piled up in a field outside the northeast corner of the walls.
Timur. (To his deputy) Tell the soldiers to build the tower of skulls higher. I want my tower to surpass the height of Damascus itself, so that all who pass by will know the consequences of resisting me.
(A group of prisoners is being led past Timur. One of them shouts out to him.)
Scholar. Great Amir! By the goodness of Allah, do not condemn me to slavery with these others! I am a scholar! I may be of some use to you.
(Timur pauses, then gestures that the man be brought before him.)
Timur. Ah, a scholar! What is your area of study?
Scholar. I am a physician and a metaphysician.
Timur. A physician…and a metaphysician? It would seem that your professions contradict each other.
Scholar. Not at all. They rather compliment one another.
Timur. May I ask, of what people are you?
Scholar. I am a Persian.
Timur. A Persian, you say? A most learned people.
Scholar. Yes, we have produced many of the world’s great writers and philosophers.
Timur. Most ancient.
Scholar. We stretch back to the time of the Assyrians.
Timur. Most pious.
Scholar. The religion of Muhammad is strongly rooted there. You will find no one anywhere more dedicated to the Prophet’s teachings.
Timur. This is all true.
Scholar. Please, great Amir, do not condemn me to slavery.
Timur. I have no such intention.
Scholar. Then, you will employ me?
Timur. Yes, there are good uses for a man with your talents. Why, I can think of no one more qualified to set the first torch upon the city.
Scholar. But surely, your soldiers are perfectly capable…
Timur. They are busy with my tower at the moment. I would like you to do this.
Scholar. (Hesitantly) If that is what my Amir wills…then I am only happy to serve him.
Timur. Excellent! …Ah, but wait. I’ve changed my mind. I have an even better use for you still. Persian heads, you see, are especially precious: they draw attention to how much one has to lose. I will, therefore, display your skull on my tower with a prominence that outshines all others. (Gesturing to a guard) Take him away.
(The Scholar is led off screaming.)
Timur. (To his deputy Shah Malik) Blindfold him and throw him somewhere. Make him fear for his life constantly over the next few days. Then pardon him on my behalf and tell him he is to be the king’s new royal tutor.
Shah Malik. Yes, great Amir.
(Enter Ibn Khaldun.)
Timur. Ah, my qadi! You’ve arrived just in time! I’m about to burn the city.
Ibn Khaldun. Burn it? But you promised to spare it.
Timur. I did, and I will—I’m sparing it from the disgrace of remaining an abandoned city. A city exists for the sake of its people, and since Damascus no longer has a people, it serves no function.
Ibn Khaldun. But the great mosque, and the library…
Timur. As for the mosque, yes, that will be unfortunate. But I can’t very well burn the city and save the Mosque. It just isn’t practical!
Ibn Khaldun. I am sure that, in your infinite power and wisdom, you can find a way.
Timur. My resources are not infinite. As for the library, my reasons are different. I was thinking of what you said about the hazards of philosophy, and I think it is best that it be burned.
Ibn Khaldun. You remember, though, that I also spoke of the remedies available to philosophy’s more pernicious aspects—Qur’anic studies and religious law as promoters of group feeling?
Timur. Yes, those were good arguments. Really, though, seeing books turn to ashes is a personal ambition of mine.
Ibn Khaldun. What do you mean, an ambition?
Timur. I would like to have the honor of burning the greatest library in the world. Hulagu has already burned the House of Wisdom. I read he had so many books thrown into the river that the Euphrates turned black for several days. —What an accomplishment! In most things I consider myself to have surpassed Hulagu in glory, except in this one he remains ahead of me. I am perpetually searching for a library comparable to Baghdad’s.
Ibn Khaldun. You will not find a library like that in Damascus, I am certain.
Timur. Do you know of any others, then?
Ibn Khaldun. The world has housed many great libraries that were destroyed.
Timur. This is very much a topic of interest to me. Tell me of these libraries.
Ibn Khaldun. The Library of Alexandria is perhaps the most famous.
Timur. I have heard of this place. The Christians burned it, did they not?
Ibn Khaldun. Yes, and the Latins before them. The Christian Emperor Jovian set fire to the Library of Antioch even prior to this. Then three hundred years ago Infidel Crusaders destroyed Cairo’s House of Wisdom, and a hundred years after that they again set their barbarism against much of Constantinople’s Imperial Library.
Timur. Much of it? So some yet remains to be burned, then?
Ibn Khaldun. Some.
Timur. In Constantinople, you say?
Ibn Khaldun. You would not be impressed if you saw it. It was the last great library of the ancient world. Now it contains only a few dusty rooms.
Timur. Those devils! Why must the Christians reap all the glory?
Ibn Khaldun. Muslims have committed their share of devilry as well.
Timur. Such as?
Ibn Khaldun. I have heard of a great university in India called Nalanda. At the time of its destruction by the Turks, it housed the world’s largest collection of works written by Fo’s disciples.
Timur. God be praised! I have encountered these disciples of Fo in my conquests—they don’t even put up a fight! There is a certain divine justice in destroying infidel texts, I must admit.
Ibn Khaldun. The Turks did not limit themselves to burning the works of infidels; around this time they also destroyed the library of Nishapur. Other Muslims have done just as bad.
Timur. Then they are all better Muslims than I.
Ibn Khaldun. Mahmud of Ghazni destroyed the library of Rayy, as he deemed it heretical. Sultan Mas’udi burned the Library of Avicenna after conquering Isfahan, not five years after Mahmud’s atrocity. Then a little over a hundred years later, the Library of Ghazna that Mahmud had helped build was itself destroyed.
Timur. Those Ghaznavids got a taste of their own medicine!
Ibn Khaldun. God exacts even his vengeance in poetic ways.
Timur. This is true. Surely though, it is not only the People of the Book who are responsible for destroying knowledge?
Ibn Khaldun. By no means, great Amir. I have read that Qin, the first emperor of China, ordered the burning of books and burying of scholars.
Timur. Why would he bury scholars? Is it not better to display their corpses, so as to inspire fear? This Qin seems to me not very shrewd.
Ibn Khaldun. He buried them alive.
Timur. Ah! That sounds a much better way.
Ibn Khaldun. These libraries of which I have spoken housed all the knowledge of creation. Now they are no more.
Timur. And they were all greater than the one here at Damascus, you say?
Ibn Khaldun. Far greater.
Timur. Are there no great libraries left to burn, then?
Ibn Khaldun. Only modest ones. I hope that the abundance of examples I have given you proves how precarious knowledge is, and that learning is endangered wherever tyrants exist.
Timur. What are you trying to say?
Ibn Khaldun. I am trying to say, that preserving what remains of the knowledge you encounter is of the highest importance.
Timur. You are of course correct about knowledge, it is very precious. But lost knowledge—that is far more valuable! Aristotle’s surviving treatises are worth a lot, and even more priceless are the ones that have not come down to us! How much, therefore, it would increase the importance of these books if I burned them!
Ibn Khaldun. I fear that battle has dulled your brain, great Amir. Your conclusion is logically incoherent. That which does not exist, being nothing, is worth nothing.
Timur. Yes, well…since there are no more great libraries, as you say, I suppose I will have to be satisfied with Damascus. Its library is probably among the best ones left.
Ibn Khaldun. Then place me there before you burn it, at least. I will die in the manner of al-Jahiz, buried under a pile of books.
Timur. Don’t be dramatic, qadi. I like you too much, I don’t want you to die.
Ibn Khaldun. I will throw myself into the flames.
Timur. I will prevent you. (He gestures to a guard, who takes hold of Ibn Khaldun.) Even as I make you watch. (To Shah Malik) Burn it.
(Damascus is set aflame. Ibn Khaldun watches as the fire spreads along, house by house, until reaching the great mosque, and finally the library. The flames mount to the library’s roof, melting its lead before the ceiling and walls collapse. Ibn Khaldun falls to his knees, buries his hands in his face, and prays as he weeps.)
Timur. You are a curious one, qadi. As a learned person you spend a good deal of time haranguing against learned works, and yet when it comes down to it you would defend them against destruction. What a hypocrite you are!
Ibn Khaldun. I have no power to defend anything. All affairs are in the hands of God. He does with His creatures as He wishes, and with His kingdom as He wills.
Timur. Is that all you have to say, ‘It is in the hands of God?’ Come, now, qadi. This was not God’s doing, but mine.
Ibn Khaldun. You…you are like all the rest!
Timur. Am I? We are really not so different, I think. As a scholar you conquer the realms of the mind, just as I conquer the realms of the world. Great scholars are, like great kings, close to their subjects, and are remembered for a time. Then their intellectual dynasties fall after a handful of generations.
Ibn Khaldun. I think that a very strained analogy. We are nothing alike.
Timur. You know that I usually do not kill scholars when I take cities. At first I thought this was because they were too useful, which they are, and because I like talking to them. But I realize now that there is more to it than this. I like scholars because I see something of myself in them, because they are the last really disciplined persons of the sedentary life you spoke of.
Ibn Khaldun. So that’s why you make them wash your dishes.
Timur. Yes, exactly! Judges make much more meticulous dishwashers than peasants and merchants. Philosophers are best when it comes to servile work. Scholarship is, perhaps, the peculiar type of discipline which sedentary life takes on. Though they are physically frail, scholars are not like other city-dwellers. You have spoken of their weakness, I know, and of the softness that results from sedentary life—and yet I find you, this man from the inner Maghrib who has taken to sedentary life and scholarship. Like me, you are disciplined. You are hard on yourself and others. You deny lower pleasures for the sake of your ambition; you conquer the unknown. While very different from the nomad in most respects, you resemble me in this fundamental way.
Ibn Khaldun. Scholars don’t burn libraries.
Timur. I didn’t take you for the naïve type, qadi, but I can see you’re easily fooled.
(Timur gestures to a guard, who has a caravan brought over. Timur reaches into the caravan, takes out a few books, and throws them at Ibn Khaldun’s feet. Ibn Khaldun picks up one of the books, then stares at the caravan with wide eyes.)
I’ve already plundered the library of its books. Only the shelves are burning. I prefer to take after the Latin Mark Antony, who moved scrolls from the Library of Pergamon to Alexandria. Samarkand needs more volumes. I’m not a book burner, only a book thief. Certainly, I am not Hulagu. The early Khans were utter barbarians; I am, if not totally civilized, at least a cultured barbarian. I will take the contents of this library back to my capital and have everything translated.
Ibn Khaldun. Why did you trick me?
Timur. You only really know a person when you see how they react to losing the thing they love most.
Ibn Khaldun. And?
Timur. You are a strange one. Asking to be burned alive—I do not pretend to understand that. Perhaps we are not alike after all.
Ibn Khaldun. We can agree on that, at least.
Timur. One last thing before you go.
Ibn Khaldun. Anything.
Timur. There are too many books to fit in my caravans. I need all the beasts of burden I can find. I saw that you have a mule here?
Ibn Khaldun. Yes.
Timur. Is it a good one?
Ibn Khaldun. Good enough for my needs.
Timur. Will you sell it? I would like to buy it from you.
Ibn Khaldun. 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.
Timur. I meant only that I would compensate you generously for it.
Ibn Khaldun. 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.
Timur. Do I detect an ironic tone in your voice?
Ibn Khaldun. I have never been much for jokes. If that doesn’t prove the disparity between us, I don’t know what does.
(Ibn Khaldun fetches his mule and presents it to Timur.)
Timur. Much thanks. Where will you go now? Will you travel to Cairo?
Ibn Khaldun. 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 will go to the nearest seaport.
Timur. I would have you return to your family.
Ibn Khaldun. That is not possible. My family, you see, is already with Allah.
Timur. My condolences. Was that because of me?
Ibn Khaldun. No, they drowned in a shipwreck.
Timur. And you wish to travel by sea?
Ibn Khaldun. If God wills me to meet my family, then so be it.
Timur. I respect that you are not afraid to embrace whatever destiny happens to befall you. I will recommend you to the care of a messenger who has come to me from Safad’s chamberlain.
Ibn Khaldun. Yet again you show your generosity to be boundless, great Amir.
Timur. Many things about me are boundless, and generosity is the least of them. Just a few moments ago you would have killed me if you could have.
Ibn Khaldun. Your secret intention on that matter only proves my praise.
Timur. I will do what is within my power as far as knowledge is concerned. There is enough of it left for us to go on.
Ibn Khaldun. And enough gone for us to leave the past ahead of us.
Timur. I wouldn’t worry about that. Do not despair over the lost libraries of the world, qadi. They all live in you.
Ibn Khaldun. That is impossible. I know very little of what they might have contained.
Timur. What I meant was, you possess the same spirit of knowledge that built those places and filled their shelves.
Ibn Khaldun. That is not really the same thing at all.
Timur. It will have to suffice.
(Ibn Khaldun blesses Timur, bids farwell, and departs. He returns to Egypt, where he dies in 1406, having outlived Tamerlane by a year.)