Tamerlane is the name of a man who commanded both fear and awe in Asia and Europe during the fourteenth century. The name is actually a corruption of his Persian name, Timur-i-Leng, which means ‘Timur the Lame’. In Turkic languages ‘Timur’ stands for ‘Iron’, which is the quite appropriate name for the man who, in his lifetime, rose from being a prince in a small Turko-Mongol tribe to become the ruler of an expanding empire that stretched from Delhi to Anatolia. His life is a story of war, butchery and brutality. When he was only eight or nine, Timur was taken to Samarkand as a prisoner by an invading Mongol army, along with his mother and brothers. According to anti-Timurid author Arabshah, during his early years, Timur and his small band of followers used to raid travelers for goods, especially animals such as sheep, horses and other livestock. It is said that, around 1363, while he was trying to steal a sheep from a shepherd, he was shot by two arrows, one in his right leg and another in his right hand. Consequently, he lost two fingers and became lame. However, according to the contemporary chroniclers, he became lame due to the wound he sustained in 1363 or 1364, while fighting as a mercenary for Sistan, southeastern Persia.
Timur was born in 1336, near the city of Kesh, also known as Shahr-i-Sabz, the Green City, about 50 miles south of the oasis of Samarkand, in Transoxiana. He was the son of Taragay, a chief of the Barlas tribe. The Barlas were a mixed Mongol subgroup of Mongol and Turkic ancestry, descended from the extended family of Genghis Khan. They took part in Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai’s campaigns in Transoxiana and settled there. However, they were not nomadic like their ancestors. They were settled as agriculturalists and traders and used to tax the people heavily in order to support their urban lifestyle. Naturally, this taxation angered their people.
During this situation, a local named Amir Kazgan seized the power from the Chagatai ruler Borolday in 1347and ruled until his assassination in 1358. The death of Kazgan brought the days of political unrest in the region, as various warlords and powerful leaders started to fight with each other for the power. Finally, in 1361 Tughluk Timur, a Mongol warlord, emerged victorious and appointed his son Ilyas Khoja as the governor of Transoxania, with Timur as his minister. But, the arrangement did not stay for long, as Timur defied loyalty and joined his brother-in-law Amir Husayn, the grandson of Amir Kazgan. They defeated Ilyas Khoja in 1364 and set out to conquer Transoxania. Around 1370 Timur turned against Husayn. In the ensuing battle Husayn was besieged and assassinated in Balkh and Timur proclaimed himself in Samarkand as the sovereign of the whole region and the restorer of the Mongol empire. However, as he was not a direct descended from Genghis Khan on his father's side, he ruled as an ‘amir’ or prince, not as ‘Khan’.
Over the next decade, Timur seized the rest of Central Asia and invaded Russia in 1380. He helped the Mongol Khan Toktamysh to retake control and his troop occupied Moscow. He also defeated Lithuanians near Poltava. With the capture of Herat, Timur began his conquests in Persia in 1383.The entire Persia, including Khorasan, fell to him in 1383–85 and between 1386 and 1394, he conquered Fars, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mesopotamia and Georgia as well.
In the meantime,Toktamysh, the former protégé of Timur, invaded Azerbaijan in 1385 and Transoxania in 1388, defeating Timur’s generals. To give him a good lesson, Timur pursued him into the Russian steppes in 1391, defeated and dethroned him. Tokhtamysh took his time to raise a new army and invaded the Caucasus in 1395. However, after his final defeat on the River Kur, he gave up the struggle and Timur reoccupied Moscow in 1395. While Timur was busy in the north, revolts broke out all over Persia. In response, Timur leveled the cities, ruthlessly butchered people and built towers and pyramids with their heads.
On 24th September 1398, Timur with his huge army of 90.000 crossed the Indus River and marched to Delhi, leaving a trail of carnage. On 17th December 1398, he comprehensively defeated the army of Sultan Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq and Delhi was reduced to a mass of ruins. Timur seized tons of treasure and the 90 captured elephants were employed to carry stones from quarries to erect a mosque in Samarkand.
After invading India in the east, Timur looked towards west in 1399, retaking Azerbaijan and conquering Syria. After the fall of Damascus in 1401, Baghdad was also taken by storm and 20,000 of its citizens were massacred and all its monuments were destroyed. Timur spent that winter in Georgia and then invaded Anatolia and destroyed Bayezid’s army near Ankara in the month of July, 1402. At this stage, as he received the offers of submission from the sultan of Egypt and from John VII, the Co emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Timur returned to Samarkand in 1404.
The European rulers were very much apprehensive about the possible attacks by Timur and the rulers of Spain, France, and other powers sent their congratulatory embassies to Timur, in the hope of avoiding any such disaster. But Timur had other things in his mind, as he wanted to conquer Ming China.
Though he preferred to fight his battles in the spring, somehow the Timurid army started for China at the end of December, during the terrible days of cold winter. Being unaccustomed with that type of unfamiliar harsh weather, many of his soldiers and the horses died of exposure, and the 68-year-old Timur fell ill, while encamped on the farther side of the Syr Daria. He passed away in February 1405 at Otrar, in Kazakhstan. His embalmed body was laid in an ebony coffin and sent to Samarkand, where it was buried in the sumptuous tomb called Gur-e Amir.
Amir Timur was a complicated man. He is remembered as a vicious conqueror, who razed ancient cities to the ground and indiscriminately slaughtered people without any second thought. On the other hand, he is also known as a great patron of the arts, literature, and architecture. He aesthetically beautified his capital, the beautiful city of Samarkand, in modern-day Uzbekistan. He started his life as the son of a minor clan leader and by sheer intelligence, military skill and personality, he raised a great army and consequently created a huge empire, stretching from Russia to India and from the Mediterranean Sea to Mongolia.
Timur conquered country after country, as if in a trance, only to loot and pillage, but he never tried to protect his flanks. His Empire did not last long after his death, as he rarely bothered to put any administrative structure in the countries he conquered, after he destroyed the existing order. He always professed to be a good Muslim, but he did not hesitate to destroy the jewel-cities of Islam, like Damascus, Khiva or Baghdad and slaughter their innocent inhabitants mercilessly. It seems that, his only intention was to make his capital at Samarkand the first city in the Islamic world.
It is interesting to note that, Babur, the great-great-grandson of Timur, founded the Mughal Dynasty in India in 1526 and the Mughals ruled the country until 1857, when the British took the helm.