He has been dead for nearly six hundred years and his empire is no more than a memory, but his name will never be forgotten. Timur, the Lame Conqueror, Lord of all Asia, Scourge of God and Terror of the World.
"The birthplace of this deceiver was the village of a lord named Ilgar in the territory of Kesh—May Allah remove him from the Garden of Paradise!"0
The facts of Timur's birth are obscured by various myths, legends, and outright lies. In fact, we know only that he was born in the spring of 1336 (Year of the Mouse) in the Qashka-Darya river valley south of Samarkand. There are some interesting myths surrounding the event, and Arabshah relates two of them; first, that
"On the night on which he was born something like a helmet appeared, seemed to flutter in the air, then fell in the middle of the plain and finally was scattered over the ground; thence also live coals flew about like glowing ashes and collected so that they filled the plain and the city."1
and second, that he was born with freshly-bloodied hands, which story is remarkably similar to the legends surrounding the birth of Genghis Khan. The meaning of these supposed signs was unknown; some prophesied that the new-born child would be an ignoble bandit or executioner, while others contended that he would one day rule the world2. All the diviners, augurs, seers and soothsayers agreed on one thing: blood would be shed by his hands. They could not have known how horribly true this prediction would prove to be.
"[It is said] that his father, the above-mentioned Taragai, was among the magnates of the Sultan's court. And I have seen, in the appendix of the Persian chronicles called Muntakhab, which is brought down from the Creation to the time of Timur with truly admirable effort, the genealogy of Timur traced without a break to Jenghizkhan, through females, snares of Satan."3
The true facts of his ancestry are also obscure, thanks to the inevitable multiplication of myths and legends that surround such men. We do know this: Timur was born into the Barlas clan, a group of Tatars that had come to Transoxania4 with Chagatai Khan's horde. Though Arabshah slanders and vilifies Timur's heritage, calling him a "shepherd" and the son of a "poor smith", he later contradicts himself, as demonstrated in the quote above. We can guess that Timur was born into the higher classes of his society (though interestingly, he could neither read nor write); his great-grandfather had been a trusted advisor to Chagatai, and his uncle Hajji was head of the Barlas clan. Timur himself denied any descent from Genghis Khan, and the genealogy carved into his tombstone at Samarkand supports the official story: while it indicates that Timur and Genghis shared a common ancestor in the legendary hero Buzanchar, son of the virgin Alan-Goa and a moonbeam, it does not directly link Timur to the Golden Family of Temujin.
Timur was not a "good boy who fell in with the wrong crowd", he was the wrong crowd. His youth was spent in small-time gangsterism and banditry, since the circumstances of his time were perfect for such a violent and ambitious young man.
Chagatai's ulus5, where Timur grew up, had always been plagued with strife and divisions. It straddled the boundary between the settled Muslim way of life in West Asia and the nomadic pastoralism of the steppes. The attempt to unite these two radically different mindsets seems, in retrospect, to have been doomed from the beginning. The civilized Muslims of the west named their fellow countrymen of the east "jete" or "Jats", meaning "robbers" or scoundrels, while the herdsmen of the east, demonstrating the nomad's scorn for the farmer, gave the westerners the insulting epithet "quranna", meaning "mongrels" or "half-breeds". This division became political reality at the end of the 14th Century, when the domain of Chagatai split into the kingdoms of Mawaranahr6 in the west and Moghulistan7 in the east. Both remained in the hands of Chagatai's descendants.
Moghulistan quickly slid back into the old Mongol ways; its cities were destroyed, its farms were burned, and its people returned to wandering the steppes. Mawaranahr made some steps towards settled nation-statehood8, but it too was doomed. The country fell into chaos after the deposal of Tarmashirin Khan by a group of old-fashioned aristocrats, who took issue with his conversion to Islam and attempts to reform the government along Islamic lines. This happened in 1334, shortly before Timur's birth; the struggle would continue until 1347, when Kazan Khan, son of Tarmashirin, was killed in battle and supplanted by the Emir Kazaghan. The belief in the mythic and symbolic power of Temujin's line remained strong; instead of claiming the title of Khan for himself, Kazaghan set up a descendent of Chagatai as his puppet. Powerful as he was, Kazaghan could not maintain a strong central government, and Mawaranahr quickly degenerated into a warring mass of small feudal kingdoms.
Timur's Early Years
In 1358, Tughluk Timur Khan of Moghulistan launched an invasion of Mawaranahr, having assassinated the Emir Kazaghan in the spring of that year. He aimed to reunite the domain of Chagatai under his rule, and at first his efforts seemed destined to succeed. Hajji Barlas, unwilling to put up a fight, fled to Khorasan in the west9. Timur remained, telling his uncle that he would lead the fight against the invaders. He was lying. When Tughluk arrived at the capital city of Sharisabz, Timur greeted him with lavish gifts and an offer of friendship. In return, Tughluk offered Timur a position as governor of the newly-conquered Barlas lands. This was the young man's first taste of power.
Timur did not last long in this position. He allied himself with the rebel Emir Husayn of Balkh10, cementing the agreement by taking Husayn's sister Aljai as his first wife. In 1362, Tughluk appointed his son Ilyas Khoja as sole ruler of Mawaranahr, and Timur, unwilling to submit to an unfamiliar lord, fled into the desert to join his brother-in-law, who had rebelled some months before. The two spent the year as desperate outlaws and were at one point thrown into prison for banditry. Escaping from jail in 1363, they joined the Khan of Sistan11 as mercenaries.
Timur the Lame
"His name was Timur; it is pronounced in this way and so also the form of the name implies; but foreign words are turned in a circle like a ball by the sporting cudgel of the Arabic tongue and revolve at pleasure on the field of speech; so they say sometimes Tamur, sometimes Tamarlang—which is not wrong; and Tamar in Turkish means iron, but lang means lame."12
Timur was not content to serve the Khan of Sistan for long, and he would soon rebel. It was in this time that he acquired the crippling injuries that would mark him for the rest of his life. Accounts of their origins differ; Arabshah, always the hostile witness, reports that Timur was shot by a farmer while stealing sheep, while the official histories record that he was wounded in honorable battle. Clavijo, in his Embassy, tells a tale that reconciles the two accounts:
"At this time Timur had with him a following of some five hundred horsemen only; seeing which the men of Sistan came together in force to fight him, and one night that he was engaged in carrying off a flock of sheep they all fell upon him suddenly and slew a great number of his men. Him too they knocked off his horse, wounding him in the right leg, of which wound he has remained lame all his life [whence his name of Timur the Lame]; further he received a wound in his right hand, so that he has lost the little finger and the next finger to it."
There is yet another story, common in the oral histories of the area; it claims that Timur was wounded in a duel with his own father, whom he had mistaken for an enemy.
We may never know the true source of his injuries, but an examination of his skeleton reveals their extent and effects. First, his right leg was fused at the hip and some inches shorter than his left; second, he was missing two fingers from his right hand; third, his right elbow was shattered and poorly set, so that he could not bend it. These injuries, crippling though they may seem, did not slow him down; while he could not walk for long distances, he could ride, wield a tulwar, and shoot a bow as well as any other man.
The struggle for power
"Then he sought men like and equal to himself and neglected God, and collected Satanic companions. . . But however powerless he was and however meagre his resources and equipment, and however weak his physique and bodily condition, without property or troops, yet he used to tell them that he aimed at royal rank and would attack the kings of this world with fatal onset. . . ."13
In 1364, Timur and his brother-in-law returned to Mawaranahr, leading a sizable army of men drawn by their infamous reputation; mercenaries, brigands, horsemen from the steppe, and the Muslim foot soldiers of the west. The lords of the land, tired of Ilyas Khoja's despotic rule, flocked to join the standards of the liberators. Timur and Husayn defeated Ilyas Khoja before the year was out, employing cunning stratagems and an arsenal of psychological tricks, and in the winter of 1364 the two emirs marched into Samarkand in triumph. Like Kazaghan before them, they placed on the throne of the Land between the Rivers a true descendant of Temujin, one Kabul Shah, who had formerly abandoned politics for the life of a poet. Timur hosted a ceremonial banquet for Husayn and the lords of Mawaranahr, and the two Emirs reswore their oath of loyalty on a holy Muslim shrine.
Ilyas Khoja was not prepared to accept the loss of his domain lightly, and in 1365 he came roaring back into Mawaranahr at the head of some 160,000 soldiers. Timur and Husayn met him in the field near Tashkent and were defeated in a disaster known as the Battle of the Mire, so called because a sudden cloudburst turned the entire battlefield into a swamp. Leaving ten thousand dead lying in the muck, they fled the field in disgrace.
Ilyas Khoja then turned his attention to Samarkand. After the ignominious flight of Timur and Husayn, the city was left in the hands of a civilian militia called the Sarbadars. Arabshah's venomous quill describes them as "a crowd of rogues, among them wrestlers, swordsmen, boxers, and mountebanks. . .", but in truth they were a movement that arose from the madrassas and the bourgeois of the city; teachers, artisans, shopkeepers, and students. When Ilyas Khoja assaulted the city, they repelled him and inflicted heavy losses, forcing a protracted siege. Before Samarkand could succumb to the inevitable starvation and internal dissension, an epidemic (origins unknown) struck the camp of the besiegers, killing fully three-quarters of their mounts. As the Mongol way of war depended entirely on the horse, Ilyas Khoja could no longer hope to continue his campaign. He retreated back to Moghulistan and would never return. Samarkand itself remained under the Sarbadars for about a year.
Timur and Husayn could not allow such a threat to their authority to go unheeded. Upon their return to Samarkand, they invited the Sarbadar leaders to a banquet, then hanged them on charges of rebellion. All were executed but one Maulana Zada, for whom Timur interceded at the foot of the gallows15. Husayn took the throne of the city, with Timur as his chief advisor and vassal.
Discord arises between the Emirs
Husayn and Timur, despite their ties of marriage and common cause, were beginning to grate on each other's nerves. There were many causes for their eventual split; each blamed the other for losing the Battle of the Mire, Husayn envied Timur's hold over the common people, and they squabbled over money. After their massacre of the Sarbadars, Husayn demanded a heavy tribute from Timur and his men as a repayment of old debts. To pay the supposed debt, Timur had to sell many of his personal possessions, including his wife's jewelry16. These arguments certainly added to their animosity, but the root cause of their strife was simple: without a common enemy, each was the other's chief rival for power. The death of Aljai in 1366 (some say Timur killed her himself) severed their last bond, and the two Emirs would be at each other's throats for the next four years, only halting to fend off the periodic raids from Moghulistan.
Strife and vengeance
"And my master, the learned Imam. . .Abu Abdallah Mahomed. . .said during the year 836 [A.D. 1434] that Timur killed the said Sultan Husayn in the month of Shaban, in the year 771 [A.D. 1369] and was raised to royal rank from that moment. . . ."X
The years from 1366 to 1370 are a confused tangle of betrayals, alliances, promises made, promises broken, backstabbings, double-crosses, and general chaos. Husayn began with the upper hand, and indeed he forced Timur to flee the country on several occasions, but he lacked Timur's political skills. Through a series of political maneuvers Timur chipped away at the foundations of Husayn's rule, until all the people of Transoxania supported his bid for power. Husayn could do nothing but watch as the foundations of his dominion eroded; outmaneuvered and politically isolated, he holed up in his fortress at Balkh to await the end.
It was not long in coming. Timur marched against Balkh in 1370 (some sources say 1369), bolstered by the predictions of the sage Sayyid Baraka17. The city fell after a brief assault. Timur promised to spare Husayn's life in exchange for a peaceful surrender, but he did not intervene when one Kay Khusrau claimed the right of vengeance for his murdered brother and took Husayn's head.
None now remained to contest Timur's rule. He took Saray Mulk Khanum, daughter of Qazan and true blood of Chagatai, as his chief wife. He then called a kuriltai18 to confirm his puppet Suyurgatmish as Khan of Chagatai's kingdom. Finally, he mounted the imperial throne in the presence of the assembled lords of Transoxania, who proclaimed him
Lord Timur the Great
Emperor of the Age
Conqueror of the World
Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction of the Planets
0 -Arabshah, Tamerlane, p. 1
2As we shall see, the two predictions would both prove true.
3Arabshah, Tamerlane, p. 4. The extreme sexism is in the original text and does not represent this noder's opinion.
4Hmm... naught but a nodeshell on the other end of that link. Briefly, Transoxania is a region of Central Asia mostly within modern-day Uzbekistan, which takes its name from the Oxus River that it straddles. It has traditionally been the boundary between the settled people of West Asia and the nomadic pastoralists of the steppes.
5 "Ulus" is a Mongol word which translates roughly to "kingdom" or "domain".
6From the Arabic Ma Wara Al Nahir (thanks hotthamir), for Land between (or beyond) the Rivers, the rivers being the Oxus and Ixartes, also known as the Amu-Darya and Sir-Darya. The kingdom was in Central Asia, extending southeast from the Aral Sea to the mountains of Afghanistan.
7Not to be confused with the later Mughal Empire. This kingdom encompassed the steppes east of the Ixartes, extending east towards the borders of China and Mongolia.
8Most notably under the rule of Kebek Khan.
9A region in Northwest Afghanistan.
10Balkh is city in North Afghanistan. Husayn was the grandson of the rebel Emir Kazaghan.
11Sistan was a minor Mongol kingdom in central Afghanistan.
12Arabshah, Tamerlane, p. 1. "Tamur", in Arabic, means "It shall shake". "Tamerlane", a corruption of the Persian "Timur-i-Lenk", or "Timur the Lame", was an insulting moniker given by hostile historians; friendlier sources call him Emir Timur Gurigan, "Lord Timur the Splendid".
13Arabshah, Tamerlane, p. 2.
14This name means "Gallows-bird". The Sarbadar leaders chose it as a badge of honor; they thought it better to be hanged than to bow before the Mongols.
15This was not an act of mercy, for Timur was famous for his lack of the virtue; rather, it was a shrewd political move designed to demonstrate his friendship to the people of Samarkand and cast Husayn as a heartless villain.
16This act endeared Timur to his men but angered Husayn. Timur's wife Aljai was Husayn's sister, and selling her jewelry appeared to be an insult.
XArabshah, Tamerlane, pp. 5-6.
17This venerable man, a descendent of the Prophet, predicted Timur's success and presented him with a battle standard and drum, the symbols of royalty. When his prediction proved true, Timur adopted him as a spiritual advisor and lifetime companion. The two were buried in the same tomb.
18 A tribal meeting at which the Mongols selected their leader.
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