Empires: Timurid

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The Timurid Empire was a powerful, conquest-driven empire that devolved into disunited dynasties more noted for artistic than political endeavors. Tamerlane (Timur Lang) (1336–1405) was not a Mongol but emerged out of the chaos of post-Mongol Turkistan. He was born on 8 April 1336 at Khwarju Ilghar, just south of Samarkand near Shahr-e Sabz. Although his people (Turks), the various lineages of the Barlas, lived a pastoral life and became nomads, they existed in close proximity to sedentary people and sedentary culture, even while antagonistic to it. Thus, like Genghis Khan (r. 1206–1227), Tamerlane was the product of a mixed environment and was not a man of the deep steppe. The political system that he later employed to rule his empire was also mixed. It continued the Chaghatay ulus tradition of a strict separation between sedentary and nomadic sectors, with the sedentary world (the tax base) protected from destructive nomadic incursions to the greatest degree possible and ruled, not by tribal chieftains, who were simultaneously commanders of tribally based military forces, but by local administrators, bureaucrats appointed for set periods of time.

Their methods were primarily rooted in Iranian techniques, including largely Iranian and not Mongolian methods of taxation. By the fourteenth century, to be sure, the two sides of the former Chaghatay domains had begun to inter-penetrate, Tamerlane was himself a reflection of the type of changes going on, and much of the formerly nomadic aristocracy had moved into the cities that they ruled, even if indirectly. Nonetheless, they remained culturally and physically quite distinctive and a class apart from their subjects, even the assimilated Turkic ones. One major way in which the nomadic side of Timurid domains differed from the sedentary was in the nomadic tradition that treated land as a collective possession, belonging to an entire tribe, and not to individuals, institutions, or the state, as was the case in sedentary areas. This made groups, and not territory, the key organizational element for the nomadic sector, as had been the case under the Mongols.

Tamerlane's early life and career is obscure and surrounded by legend, but it is clear that he showed military talents at an early stage of his life and the kind of charisma necessary to acquire a following. He gained power first within his own Barlas people and then, in a manner typical of the steppe-based societies of the era, carefully began to make allies outside it. The most important of these allies was Amir Husayn of the Qara˒unas, descendants of a nomadic garrison, or tanma, placed by the Mongols in Afghanistan during the early thirteenth century. Unlike Tamerlane, or Amir Temür, as he was then known, Amir Husayn was an important part of the Chaghatay political establishment of the area, offering a legitimacy much sought by Tamerlane.

Ultimately, Tamerlane and Amir Husayn, after back and forth relationships, had a falling out. Husayn was killed by Tamerlane, who now became the effective ruler of Chaghatay domains, although not its actual ruler since Tamerlane maintained the fiction of a ruling khan (qan) of the line of Genghis Khan to the end. As Tamerlane was only associated with it by marriage, as a guregen, or imperial son-in-law, he did not qualify for this office. Tamerlane received a formal coronation at Balkh on 9 April 1360.

Tamerlane spent the remainder of his life warring against his enemies, conquering and reconquering territories, all the while building up and beautifying his capital of Samarkand. The major campaigns were into Khwarazm in 1371, into the Semiryechye and beyond from 1375–1377, into Iran and Afghanistan from 1381–1384, and into the Caucasus and Iran from 1386–1388. He undertook two campaigns into the Golden Horde, first from 1391–1392, again from 1392–1396. Next, he brought war against Delhi between 1398 and 1399, and into Anatolia and Syria between 1399 and 1404. At the time of his death, Tamerlane was preparing to attack China. His military strategy was based on the use of steppe archers to the maximum extent, except that by this time these were no longer the lightly armed force of the Mongolian empire, and siege trains and other special forces were a regular part of his armies which, nonetheless, remained highly mobile.

Like Genghis Khan and other Mongol rulers, Tamerlane used terror as a weapon, systematically massacring his enemies in hideous ways, and in terms of numbers of victims he outdid the Mongols. His most enduring military accomplishments were his utter defeat of Golden Horde forces under Toqtamysh (r. 1377–1395) on the Terek River on 14 April 1395, from which the Golden Horde never recovered, and his defeat of the powerful Ottoman sultan Bayezid I (r. 1389–1402) in the Battle of Ankara on 28 July 1402, an event which considerably slowed development of the Ottoman empire. It was not during these campaigns but during his youthful fights for survival that Tamerlane sustained the wound that provided him the Persian nickname, Temur-e lang, "lame Temur," from which our own name for him originated.

After his death, Tamerlane's empire fell apart quickly and his primary successors, Shahrukh (r. 1404–1447) and Khalil-Sultan (r. 1404–1409), controlled no more than a small portion of its original territory. Later this shrinking realm was subdivided even further. Nonetheless, despite the growing political impotence of the Timurids, whose rule was finally extinguished in the early sixteenth century, Herat and other centers of Timurid power in Transoxiana witnessed an unparalleled cultural development. This was the era of some of the finest books ever produced in the Islamic world, and during this time the already substantial architectural achievements of Tamerlane's own reign (his mausoleum in Samarkand and the classic shrine of Ahmad Yasavi in Turkistan City) were further enhanced with such marvels as the Registan in Samarkand. This is a planned complex, one of the earliest of its kind in the Islamic world. It focuses on a central square and was once comprised of a mosque, a caravansary, and a khanaqa (Sufi convent), in addition to the madrasa of Ulugh Beg ibn Shahrukh (1394–1449), grandson of Tamerlane, who was responsible for the other buildings, too. With Tamerlane's mausoleum, Gur-e Amir, the complex celebrates not only the power and glory of the Timurid ruler, but also the artistic fusion achieved under Chaghatay and other Mongol rulers. The colored tiles that are characteristic of the architecture of the time are directly derived from Chinese blue-and-white porcelain that itself represented a response to the tastes of the Mongol world conquerors.

The late Timurid period was also the time of the great wazir, 'Ali-Sher Nawa˒i (1441–1501), who single-handedly turned Chaghatay Turkic into a literary language. A minor Timurid prince, Babur (r. 1483–1530), conquered India, and his descendants, the moguls of India, carried on the Timurid tradition, including the Caghatay language, which persisted in India until the 1920s, and Central Asian cuisine, which still survives.

See alsoPolitical Organization ; Sultanates: Delhi ;


Buell, Paul D. An Historical Dictionary of the Mongol World Empire. Lanham, Md., and London: The Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Carswell, John. Blue & White, Chinese Porcelain Around the World. Chicago: Art Media Resources, 2002.

Jackson, Peter, and Lockhart, Laurence. The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 6, The Timurid and Safavid Periods. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Lentz, Thomas W., and Lowry, Glenn D., eds. Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1989.

Manz, Beatrice Forbes. The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Paul D. Buell