For most of us in the west, the name Tamerlane rings a muffled bell, but we would be hard-pressed to summon a solid fact about his life or legacy. Tamerlane, or, properly, Timur, was a Muslim conqueror of Mongol descent who paved a bloody road to kingship at the end of the 14th century. I’ve collected a smorgasbord of tidbits about the man who came from poverty on the steppes of Uzbekistan to thunder across Central Asia, conquering from Delhi to Turkey, defeating the Golden Horde of Russia, and eventually dying on a campaign to challenge the most powerful ruler in the world: the Ming emperor.
Although Timur was a Muslim, he also upheld the traditions of the pagan Genghis Khan and the Mongols who came before him. Timur never styled himself as Khan, or Mongol king, because of strict rules of heritage that precluded him. Instead, he prudently called himself Amir, or general.
Timur was a ruthless warrior, who left a calling card of towering pyramids built with the decapitated heads of his enemies.
Tamerlane is Timur’s westernized name, and is short for Timur the Lame. At some point early in his military career, he was badly injured, and as a result walked with such a severe limp that he dragged his right leg behind him. Even so, he continued to ride into battle well into his sixties.
Timur may be as bellicose in death as he was in life. Despite vehement protests from the Uzbek population, Timur’s tomb was opened by a Soviet archaeologist in 1941. Thousands of miles away, Hitler invaded Russia. After Timur was returned to his grave with full Muslim burial rites, the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad.
Living up to the reputation of Genghis Khan and his Mongol legacy, Timur and his armies razed some of the world’s most important cities, in some cases leaving mere dozens alive.
Timur was a genius strategist and knew the importance of military loyalty. His soldiers, although unpaid, were generously rewarded with loot from their campaigns. It probably also helped that the general and his armies were undefeated.
One of his most successful war strategies was to pretend to flee the battle, lure the enemy into unfavorable territory, surround, and destroy.
Even away from the battleground, Timur was a strategist. He was an avid and skillful chess player.
Unusual for a Muslim military leader, Timur launched his large-scale campaigns almost exclusively against fellow Muslims. Only towards the end of his life did he turn his efforts towards the infidels in India and China.
The Timurid empire was short-lived, as empires go. It began to fall apart very soon after the general’s death. He built his empire from the ground up and it couldn’t survive without him.
Although a warrior to his core, Timur also wanted his empire, and especially his capital city of Samarkand, to flourish culturally. He conscripted skilled artisans from across the world to build Samarkand into the “Pearl of the East.” Medieval Europeans traveling through expected to find barbarians in barbarian cities, and instead were forced to admit that no European city could rival Samarkand’s beauty and richness.
The pearl of the Pearl of the East is Samarkand’s Registan—an enormous public square bordered on three sides with magnificent madrassahs, or schools, tiled in vivid turquoise and covered in white and gold inscriptions. The Registan was built by Timur’s heirs, including his famous grandson, Ulegh Beg, after the general’s death. Almost five centuries later, the viceroy of India, George Curzon, would write about the spectacle of Samarkand’s Registan:
The Registan of Samarkand was originally, and is still even in its ruin, the noblest public square in the world… No European spectacle indeed can adequately be compared to it, in our inability to point to an open space in any western city that is commanded on three of its four sides by Gothic cathedrals of the highest order.
After declaring its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Republic of Uzbekistan embraced Timur as the father of the nation. Finally, after relegating the great general to the status of long-forgotten barbarian, we are recalling his legacy, folding his atrocities and accomplishments into the mix of world history.
Source: Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World, Justin Marozzi