If I ever get round to writing a history book on the great and often bloody names in nomadic history, Timur will have to feature quite prominently in them. Timur was born in the late 1320’s, his precise birthdate uncertain due to the lack of written records. Some officials in the Timur regime would put his birthdate as being in 1336 in an attempt to give him legitimacy to the Mongol world. Timur went on to become one of the most successful men in history, if history as taken to be conquering and killing.
His name means ‘Iron’ in Transoxania, the ancient term for that part of Central Asia that now comprises countries such as Uzbekistan from the Roman term of the Lands beyond the Oxus River. Timur immediately suffered from a problem of legitimacy and one that he suffers from to this very day. He wasn’t born into the direct line of succession from Chinggis (Genghis) Khan of the Mongols whose horseman conquered everywhere from Poland down to Syria and all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
He was also a physically weak person as in his youth he was shot in the leg and hand by two arrows whilst raiding farm animals and he never recovered his strength on that side as well as losing two fingers. He is often remembered as Timurlane or Timur the lame, the name his subjected Persian subjects would give as they mocked him and this at a time when every leader had to be supremely fit and imposing even in the Western World, let alone in the rough and tumble of life on the nomadic Steppe.
He was possibly born a Muslim but it cannot be certain, later throughout his life though he wrapped himself in Islam as another way to gather support for himself. He wanted to resurrect the Mongol Empire and with many of his potential subjects were Muslim, it made good sense.
He was very careful to keep his personal beliefs private and he was known to hold many of the prominent Muslim scholars of the time in contempt. This showed his political cunning however and he was able to wear many identities to achieve his goals. Standing as a protector to the line of Genghis Khan, he gained their prestige, by following in his Turkic roots he gained the support of the Turkic peoples in the west and when he all but destroyed the Eastern Christian Church he was able to take on a Ghazi persona which gained him the support of Muslims.
Timur was an extremely clever man and could speak Persian, Turkic and Mongolian languages and this combined with his military and political genius and a sense of opportunity was vital. If one imagines how hard it is for a tribal leader or indeed warlord to stay in charge in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria today in just a small area with dozens of rival groups, imagine doing so for half of Asia.
Many early Islamic leaders had misused the idea of their power being sanctioned by Allah and given his early successes, who could disagree with the fact that he was ordained by God? However despite all this Timur is remembered mostly with contempt by historians, at least outside his homeland.
He plunged the world into 35 years of war and conquest killing around 17 million people or 5% of the entire population of humanity and obviously a much bigger percentage of those in the Middle-East, Central Asia and China. He had no grand plan and he would take advantage of local power vacuums in Persia, Anatolia, and Asia to wage war and increase his power, something he did very successfully.
After securing his power base he swept through the Georgia an Azaibaijan and was headed to Moscow until he got diverted by a rival who he trounced in battle and then destroyed the capital of the Golden Horde. In 1398 he went where even Genghis Khan never dared and attacked India. Genghis Khan was apparently told by a talking white Unicorn that he should not enter India and of course we know that there are no such things as talking white unicorns so it must have been a talking white Rhino instead.
Timur captured and destroyed Delhi, killing 100,000 people in the process. Like his Mongol predecessors, he could be terribly cruel with one of many massacres taking place in the beautiful city of Esfahan in Iran where up to 200,000 people were slaughtered with 1,500 severed heads attached to each of 28 special towers he had constructed. He believed in brutality and squashing resistance before it began though he did spare those who could be useful to him such as engineers or artisans. However unlike other great leaders, his Timurid dynasty didn’t really contribute anything to world history except for death and destruction.
For a while he was thought of as a hero in Europe by defeating the upcoming and culturally and historically much more sophisticated Ottoman Empire in Anatolia (Turkey), the only set back the Ottomans would have to their own large and very long lasting empire.
Timur died at Farab on February 17th 1405 enroute to conquer to China. As he had created no state apparatus, there was immediate in-fighting amongst the Timurids and his bloody empire quickly fell apart with perhaps his only real legacy being one of his grandchildren Babur who went on to establish the Mughal Empire in India.
Timur was buried in the Guri-Amir mausoleum in Samarkand where he remained undisturbed for centuries. No doubt any sensible person paid heed to the warning on his tomb which stated “When I rise from the dead, the world will tremble”. However Stalin much like Hitler was intrigued by religious figures and relics and had his anthropologist Mikhail M. Gerasimov exhume him where a second inscription was found “Who ever opens my tomb, shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.” This obviously didn’t deter the Soviets who foolishly brought his body back to Moscow for examinations.
It seemed that the famous curse of Timurlane came true that very instant as the same day an event occurred that would very nearly destroy Russia, the Nazi invasion of WW2. Other or not Stalin or the others took much note of the curse is hard to say but he was returned to his resting place and as soon as he was re-interred, the Soviets turned the war in the east from around at the Battle of Stalingrad.
These days statues of Timurlane can be found throughout Uzbekistan and have largely replaced the statues of more recent Communist tyrants. He may have killed 5% of the population but at least he was a local lad!
If you’d like to read about some of the things Timur and other similar people did to their victims then do check out my new book below which is available in paperback, Kindle, Kobo and iBooks/iTunes format.