© 1999 Mark Dickens

    Asia has long been the birthplace of would-be conquerors of the world. One of the greatest of these was a man who commanded both fear and awe in Asia and Europe during the fourteenth century: Tamerlane1. Bronze bust of Timur-i-LengThis name, by which he was known in Europe, is actually a corruption of his name in Persian, Timur-i-Leng, meaning "Timur the Lame." The word Timur is Turkic for "iron": it was an 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 was, in the words of one modern scholar, "one long story of war, butchery and brutality unsurpassed until the present century." 2
    Timur was born in Kesh, also known as Shahr-i-Sabz, "The Green City" (located about fifty miles south of Samarkand) in 1336. He was the son of a chief in the Barlas tribe, one of the many Mongol tribes which had made up the hordes of Chingiz Khan (1162 3 -1227) and which had been subsequently Turkicised as a result of the strong Turkic element in the Mongol armies. Upon the death of the great Khan in 1227, his massive empire was divided up amongst his sons, each of whom received an allotment of territory, called an ulus. The Khan's second son, Chagatay (d.1242), received the territories then known as Transoxiana ("The Land Across the Oxus") and Moghulistan (present-day Semirechye and Sinkiang). Along with other Turko-Mongol tribes, the Barlas settled in Transoxiana, between the two major rivers in the region: the Oxus (Amu Darya) and the Jaxartes (Syr Darya).
    By the time of Timur, Mongol power in the Chagatay ulus was severely weakened. The Chingisids only ruled the area in name. Minor chieftains exerted varying degrees of control over different parts of Transoxiana. Despite having been wounded in his right leg and arm during his mid-twenties, an event which left him lame for the rest of his life, Timur was able to move into this power vacuum and slowly build up for himself an army of loyal followers. Together with his brother-in-law, Amir Husayn, he headed up the defense of the area against the Chingisids, who repeatedly attacked from their power base in the northern steppe area of Semirechiye in an effort to regain control of Transoxiana. As a result of both shrewd military strategy and subsequently turning against and defeating Husayn, he became the sole ruler of Transoxiana in 1369, establishing his capital at Samarkand, an event recorded by Marlowe in his famous work, Tamburlaine the Great:
        Then shall my native city, Samarcanda...
        Be famous through the furthiest continents,
        For there my palace-royal shall be placed,
        Whose shining turrets shall dismay the heavens,
        And cast the fame of Ilion's tower to hell. 4
From his new royal capital, the lame conqueror set out to subjugate the rest of the world. The first areas to be added to his domain, during the 1380's, were the regions of Khwarezm (modern-day Turkmenistan), Khorasan (northern Afghanistan), and Persia, all lands which had formerly been part of the Mongol Empire. Although he never expanded his empire proper further north than Tiflis (Tbilisi) in the Caucasus, his campaigns into the Russian steppe resulted in the defeat of his arch-rival, Toktamish, khan of the Golden Horde, in 1395 and severely weakened Mongol power in that region. At one time, Timur was almost at the gates of Moscow, but he never besieged the city.
    One of the main motives behind Timur's empire-building efforts was the desire to control the lucrative trade routes which linked East and West. His capture of Delhi in 1398 and subsequent proclamation as Emperor of Hindustan furthered this goal, as did his defeat of the Mamlukes in Syria in 1400, and his destruction of Baghdad the following year. His western campaign continued with the invasion of Anatolia in 1402, which resulted in the defeat of the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid I, at the Battle of Ankara that same year. The European monarchs were genuinely relieved that Timur had so effectively crippled the Turks who were continually threatening their domains. However, they were also aware that this new Asian conqueror could also pose a threat to them. Therefore, they were eager to establish diplomatic contact with the great "Tamburlaine." One of these envoys, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo (d. 1412), was sent as an ambassador of the King of Castile. It is from his memoirs, 5 along with those of various Muslim biographers, such as the Persian Ali Sharaf ad-Din and the Arab Ahmad ibn Arabshah, that we have been able to reconstruct the story of Timur's life. Clavijo was present in Samarkand for the victory celebrations after the defeat of the Ottomans, as the conqueror prepared for what was to be his greatest exploit yet, the conquest of China. Around the time when Timur was beginning his rise to power, in 1368, the Mongol Yuan dynasty had been overthrown and the Ming dynasty had been established. Timur was eager to show the Ming emperor, who looked on him as a vassal and had demanded tribute from him, who was the true master of Asia. However, this goal was never to be realized. In 1405, at the outset of his last and greatest campaign, the Iron Limper died in Otrar on the Jaxartes River, 250 miles north of Samarkand.

1. Two good accounts of Timur's life: Harold Lamb, Tamerlane: The Earth Shaker (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publ. Co., 1928); Hilda Hookham, Tamburlaine the Conqueror (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962).
2. Wilfrid Blunt, The Golden Road to Samarkand (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973), 138.
3. Actually, historians are uncertain about Chingiz Khan's date of birth: two other possible dates are 1155 and 1167.
4. Marlowe, Tambulaine the Great, IV iv, cited in Blunt, 143.
5. For an English translation of Clavijo's memoirs, see Clements R. Markham, trans., Narrative of the Embassy of Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo to the Court of Timour, at Samarcand, A.D. 1403-6 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1859).

More pictures:
Map of empire
Timur bas relief
Coin of Timur


back to Tamburlane