T hough not related to Genghis Khan (see entry), Tamerlane came from similar Central Asian roots and saw himself as a successor to the great conqueror. He set out to build an empire of his own, ravaging an area from modern-day Turkey to India, and from Russia to Syria. Along the way, he left a trail of death and mayhem, and though he made significant cultural contributions in his capital at Samarkand, these were outweighed by the misfortunes he dealt his own fellow Mongols and Muslims.
Mongols and Turks
Tamerlane is actually the name by which he became known to Europeans, who were largely spared the force of his wrath. Actually, his name was Timur (tee-MOOR), and an injury earned him the nickname Timur Lenk or "Timur the Lame," which became Tamerlane in European versions of his story.
He grew up in the region of the Chagatai khanate (chah-guh-TY KAHN-et), which included modern-day Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics in Central Asia. A century before his time, Genghis Khan had conquered the territory, which was named after one of his sons.
Tamerlane, who was born in 1336 near the city of Samarkand (sah-mur-KAHND) in what is now Uzbekistan, descended from the same Mongol stock as Genghis, though they were not related. His lineage was also partly Turkic, reflecting the heritage of other nomadic peoples who had swept over the region in centuries past. As a Muslim, he was thus related by both blood and religion to the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, who would later become some of his many victims.
Winning control of Chagatai
In his early career, Tamerlane developed a reputation as a petty warlord and marauder, and gathered around him a following of loyal men. Beginning in 1361, when he was twenty-five years old, he set out to take advantage of the Mongols' fading control over Chagatai and make himself ruler. At first unsuccessful, he did become recognized as emir (eh-MEER), a Muslim title for a political and military leader, over his own Barlas tribe.
In 1364, Tamerlane allied himself with a neighboring emir, Husayn, and the two set out to win control of the khanate. To seal their alliance, he married one of Husayn's sisters; but soon after the two men conquered Chagatai late in 1364, a power struggle ensued, with Husayn challenging Tamerlane's claims on leadership.
During his military campaigns in this phase, Tamerlane sustained injuries to his right shoulder, hand, and thigh, which resulted in his nickname of "Timur the Lame." It is hard to imagine that anyone dared call him this to his face, because he had already established a reputation as a merciless warlord.
In 1370, Tamerlane killed off Husayn and took four of his wives. One of these was the daughter of a former Chagatai khan, and by marrying her he could finally claim a link to the great Genghis. Thereafter he used the title Kurgan (koor-GAHN), meaning "son-in-law" of the Khan.
Building Samarkand and his empire
Tamerlane did not necessarily care for the trappings of power, as long as he had the real thing, and therefore he continued to rule as emir while a puppet leader held the title of khan. Secure in his control over the khanate, he set about turning Samarkand into a glorious capital, building palaces and forts. He also supported the arts in his city, which became a cultural center for the region; but Tamerlane, who was most interested in the art of war, did not stay around to enjoy his city's cultural offerings.
In the 1380s, he set out to conquer neighboring lands, including what is now Afghanistan, much of Persia (modern Iran), Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan, a mountainous region that runs from Turkey to Iran in the north. He was methodical in building his empire: in each new region, he would demand that the local rulers submit, and if they refused, he would deal them such a severe blow that they eventually relented.
The Golden Horde
Tamerlane's goal seems to have been to plunge into Anatolia (now Turkey), but in the mid-1380s he was diverted by affairs to the north. One of his former associates had gained control of the Golden Horde, as the vast Mongol lands in Russia were called. He then began threatening Tamerlane's newly acquired lands in Iran and the Caucasus (a region to the south of Russia, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia).
Depending on what side one happened to be on, Tamerlane was either a great hero or a criminal and a murderer. To an even greater extent, this was true of Vlad Tepes (VLAHD TSEH-pesh; c. 1431–1476), sometimes known as Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was the prince of Walachia (wuh-LAYK-eeuh) in what is now Romania, and his father was a man so cruel he was nicknamed "the Devil," or Vlad Dracul (drah-KOOL). Together the two formed the basis for the Dracula legend, popularized by Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, and by countless movies.
Caught in the middle of a struggle between Hungarian and Turkish forces, Vlad Tepes at first aligned himself with the Turks before changing sides to support the Hungarians in 1456. His actions over the next six years earned him a reputation as a dedicated freedom fighter in some quarters; more people, however, chose to view him as what in modern times would be called a homicidal maniac.
Declaring war on the Germans, also a force in the region, Vlad set out on a campaign of wholesale slaughter in which thousands of men, women, and children in the region of Transylvania died. Vlad's chosen instruments of murder were long stakes with which he and his soldiers skewered, or impaled, the bodies of their victims; hence his nickname.
By 1462, his own nobles had had enough of Vlad, and they deposed him. He escaped to Hungary, where his former allies—no doubt afraid of what he might do to them—placed him under house arrest. He lived that way for twelve years; then he returned to Walachia, only to be killed shortly afterward in battle. After his death, legends of his cruelty circulated, and as the tale changed hands, newer and more ghastly dimensions were added, including tales that Vlad drank blood. In time the myth would obscure the reality of Vlad's actual career, which was gruesome enough.
Forced to return to his home base to defend it, in 1390 Tamerlane defeated his enemies in the Golden Horde. This would lead to their permanent weakening, and a century later, the Russians would destroy the last remnants of their former rulers' empire. As for Tamerlane, in 1392 he began a new phase of conquest known as the Five Years' Campaign, in which he subdued virtually all of Iran.
One reason why Tamerlane's conquests did not last far beyond his lifetime was the fact that he seldom stayed in one place long enough to consolidate his rule. He would rush into an area, savage it, and then plunge off in a completely different direction, almost literally to the other end of the known world.
In 1398 he advanced on India, burning and looting the city of Delhi, but a year later he was in Syria, fighting against the Turkish Mamluks (mam-LOOKZ) and Ottomans. The Mamluks controlled Egypt, and the more powerful Ottomans held a large empire centered on Turkey. In 1402, he did battle with forces commanded by the Ottoman sultan Bajazed (by-yuh-ZEED). Tamerlane captured Bajazed and held him for ransom, but the ruler was so humiliated that he committed suicide.
Rather than stay in Turkey and win more territory, Tamerlane headed east again to Samarkand in 1404. He rested up for a few months, then in the fall moved out again, this time with an even more ambitious plan in mind: the conquest of China. On the way, however, he became ill, and died in February 1405 at the age of sixty-nine.
As could have been predicted, the aftermath of Tamerlane's rule saw the loss of many territories by his successors. Nonetheless, years later, a descendant named Babur (BAH-boor, "Lion"; 1483–1530) would establish a long-lasting dynasty in India.
For More Information
Boardman, Fon Wyman, Jr. Tyrants and Conquerors. New York: H. Z. Walck, 1977.
Roberts, J. M. The Illustrated History of the World, Volume 4: The Age of Diverging Traditions. New York: Oxford, 1998.
Streissguth, Thomas. Legends of Dracula. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1999.
Wepman, Dennis. Tamerlane. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
"Cyberiran: Invasions of the Mongols and Tamerlane." Cyberiran. [Online] Available http://www.cyberiran.com/history/invasion/shtml (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Dracula: The Real Story." [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Atrium/1233/dracula/ (last accessed July 26, 2000).
The History of the Family Dracul. [Online] Available http://www.opa.com/vampire/Dracula.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Miller, Elizabeth. "Dracula: The History of Myth and the Myth of History." [Online] Available http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~emiller/vladjotd.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Uzbekistan: The Rule of Timur." [Online] Available http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+uz0018) (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Tamerlane (1336-1405) was a celebrated Turko-Mongol conqueror whose victories, characterized by acts of inhuman cruelty, made him the master of the greater part of western Asia. His vast empire disintegrated at his death.
Tamerlane or Timur (Tamerlane is a corruption of the Persian Timur-i Lang, "Timur the Lame"), belonged to the Turkized Mongol clan of the Barlas, which had accompanied the Mongol armies westward and had settled in the Kashka Valley to the south of Samarkand, between Shakhrisyabz and Karshi. He was born near Shakhrisyabz on April 9, 1336. This whole region, the present-day Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, was then part of the Chaghatai khanate, which received its name from its founder, the second son of Genghis Khan, and which included, besides Transoxiana—the countries between the Amu Darya (Oxus) and the Syr Darya—the whole area to the east of the Syr Darya up to the western borders of Mongolia.
In 1346/1347 the Chaghatai khan, Kazan, who had his residence at Karshi, was defeated and killed by a tribal leader called Kazaghan, and Transoxiana ceased to be part of the khanate. Kazaghan's death (1358) was followed by a period of anarchy, and Tughluk-Temür, the ruler of the territories beyond the Syr Darya (now known as Moghulistan, "land of the Moguls, or Mongols"), invaded Transoxiana in 1360 and again in 1361 in an attempt to reestablish Chaghatai rule.
Tamerlane declared himself Tughluk-Temür's vassal and was made ruler of the Shakhrisyabz-Karshi region. He soon, however, rebelled against the Moguls and formed an alliance with Husain, the grandson of Kazaghan. Together in 1363 they drove Ilyas Khoja, Tughluk-Temür's son, out of Transoxiana; he returned in the following year, having succeeded his father as khan, and inflicted a defeat upon Tamerlane and Husain, but they were able, after his withdrawal, to consolidate their power as joint rulers of the country. They were often on bad terms but with some interruptions maintained an uneasy partnership until 1370, when open war erupted. Besieged at Balkh, Husain was captured and executed, and Tamerlane, now the undisputed master of Transoxiana, took up residence at Samarkand, henceforward his capital city and the base of his operations against eastern and western Asia.
Expansion of Power
Tamerlane's first campaigns were directed against Khiva and his old enemies, the Moguls; it was not until 1381 that he turned his attention westward, leading an expedition into eastern Iran; further expeditions in subsequent years extended gradually into Iraq, Asia Minor, and Syria. The atrocities committed in the course of these campaigns are recorded even by his own court historian. At Sabzawar, in what is now Afghanistan, Tamerlane directed a tower to be constructed out of live men heaped on top of one another and cemented together with bricks and mortar. To punish a revolt in Isfahan, he ordered a general massacre of the population, and the heads of 70, 000 people were built up into minarets.
In 1387 an invasion of Transoxiana by Toktamish, the ruler of the Golden Horde, obliged Tamerlane to interrupt his operations in western Asia, and the repulsion of the invader, followed by expeditions into Moghulistan, was to keep him occupied for the next 4 years. It was not until 1392 that he resumed the conquest of western Asia in what is known as the Five Years' Campaign. After suppressing the Muzaffarid dynasty in Fars (spring 1393), Tamerlane entered present-day Iraq, received the submission of Baghdad, whose Jalayirid ruler, Sultan Ahmad, had fled at his approach, continued northward into eastern Turkey and the Caucasus area, defeated Toktamish in a battle on the Terek (April 1395), and advanced up the Don to capture the Russian town of Yelets, on the border between the Russian principalities and the territory of the Golden Horde. The campaign ended, in the winter of 1395-1396, with the destruction of the two main centers of the Horde at Astrakhan and New Saray, and Tamerlane returned to Samarkand to prepare for his invasion of India.
India, Turkey, and Egypt
This, the briefest of his campaigns, lasting less than 6 months, was the occasion of Tamerlane's greatest massacre: the execution in cold blood, before the gates of Delhi, of 100, 000 Hindu prisoners. There followed immediately the so-called Seven Years' Campaign (1399-1403), which brought Tamerlane into conflict with the two most powerful rulers in western Asia, the Ottoman sultan of Turkey and the Mamluk sultan of Egypt.
Syria, then part of Egypt's territory, was invaded in 1400, Aleppo falling in October of that year and Damascus in March 1401. Tamerlane now turned eastward against Baghdad, which had been reoccupied by Sultan Ahmad's forces and offered stubborn resistance to Tamerlane's attack. It was taken in June 1401, and the slaughter which followed was such that the heads of the dead were piled up into 120 towers. Tamerlane passed the winter of 1401/1402 in the eastern Caucasus before moving westward into Anatolia to deal the final blow to Sultan Bayazid (Bajazet), who was defeated and taken prisoner at the Battle of Ankara (July 20, 1402).
The Sultan died while still in captivity, but the story, familiar from Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, that he was transported in an iron cage like a wild beast, is based on a misunderstanding of a phrase in the record of the historian Arabshah. The last action of the campaign was the storming and sacking of Smyrna, then held by the Knights of St. John, who had recaptured it from the Ottoman Turks a half century before.
Tamerlane returned from the Seven Years' Campaign by slow stages, reaching Samarkand in August 1404. He set off before the end of the year upon a still more grandiose enterprise, the conquest of China, liberated only some 30 years previously form its Mongol masters. He was, however, taken ill at Otrar, on the eastern bank of the Syr Darya, and died on Feb. 18, 1405.
Hilda Hookham's gracefully written Tamburlaine the Conqueror (1964) is the most detailed and up-to-date work addressed to the general reader. Older works include a 14th-century account in Arabic by Ahmed ibn Arabshah, Tamerlane, translated by J. H. Sanders (1936), and Harold Lamb, Tamerlane, the Earth Shaker (1928). See also the relevant sections in René Grousset, Empire of the Steppes (1939; trans. 1970); Richard N. Frye, Iran (1954); Sir John Glubb, The Lost Centuries (1967), which contains an excellent chapter on Tamerlane; and the Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 6 (1971). □
From the late 16th century, Tamerlane has been referred to as the type of a savage conqueror or despot.