Timur (from the Perso-Arabic form تیمور Tīmūr, ultimately from Chagatai (Middle Turkic) Temür "iron"; 8 April 1336 – 18 February 1405), also known as Tamerlane (from Tīmūr-e Lang "Timur the Lame"), was a 14th-century conqueror of much of western and central Asia, and founder of the Timurid Empire and Timurid dynasty (1370–1405) in Central Asia, which survived until 1857 as the Mughal Empire of India.
A descendant of Mongol conquerors, Timur - whose tribe had become Turkicized in identity and language and Persianized in culture and religion - aspired to recreate the empire of his ancestors. He was a military genius who loved to play chess in his spare time to improve his military tactics and skill. And although he wielded absolute power, he never called himself more than an emir.
Timur was in his lifetime a controversial figure, and remains so today. He sought to restore the Mongol Empire, yet his heaviest blow was against the Islamized Mongol Golden Horde. He was more at home in an urban environment than on the steppe. He styled himself a ghazi yet some Muslim states, e.g. the Ottoman Empire were impacted severely by his wars. A great patron of the arts, his campaigns also caused vast destruction. Timur told the qadis of Aleppo, during the sack of that newly-conquered city,"I am not a man of blood; and God is my witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and that my enemies have always been the authors of their own calamity."
His full name in the Arabic tradition of ism, nasba, and nisbat was Tīmūr bin Taraġay Barlas. Temür means "iron" in the Chagatai language and in Mongolian (compare Temüjin "ironworker", the given name of Genghis Khan). The term temür is ultimately derived from a Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit word *čimara ("iron").
After his marriage into Genghis Khan's family, he took the name Timūr Gurkānī (تيمور گوركانى), Gurkān being the Persianized form of the original Mongolian word kürügän, "son-in-law". Various Persian sources use a byname, Tīmūr-e Lang (تیمور لنگ) which translates to "Timur the Lame", as he was lame after sustaining an injury to the leg in battle. In the West, he is commonly known as Tamerlane, which derives from his Persian byname.
Timur was also the great great grandfather of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty.
Timur was born in Transoxiana, near Kesh (an area now better known as Shahrisabz, 'the green city,'), some 50 miles south of Samarkand in modern Uzbekistan. His father Taraghay was the head of the Barlas, a nomadic tribe in the steppes of Central Asia. They were remnants of the original Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan, many of whom had embraced Turkic or Iranian languages and customs. Timur was a Muslim, his official religious counselor was the Hanafite scholar 'Abdu 'l-Jabbar Khwarazmi. He also constructed one of his finest buildings at the tomb of Ahmed Yesevi, an influential Turkic Sufi saint who was spreading Sunni Islam among the nomads.
In about 1360 Timur gained prominence as a military leader whose troops were mostly Turkic tribesmen of the region.. He took part in campaigns in Transoxania with the Khan of Chagatai, a fellow descendant of Genghis Khan. His career for the next ten or eleven years may be thus briefly summarized from the Memoirs. Allying himself both in cause and by family connection with Kurgan, the dethroner and destroyer of Volga Bulgaria, he was to invade Khorasan at the head of a thousand horsemen. This was the second military expedition which he led, and its success led to further operations, among them the subjection of Khwarizm and Urganj.
After the murder of Kurgan the disputes which arose among the many claimants to sovereign power were halted by the invasion of the energetic Jagataite Tughlugh Timur of Kashgar, another descendant of Genghis Khan. Timur was dispatched on a mission to the invader's camp, the result of which was his own appointment to the head of his own tribe, the Barlas, in place of its former leader, Hajji Beg.
The exigencies of Timur's quasi-sovereign position compelled him to have recourse to his formidable patron, whose reappearance on the banks of the Syr Darya created a consternation not easily allayed. The Barlas were taken from Timur and entrusted to a son of Tughluk, along with the rest of Mawarannahr; but he was defeated in battle by the bold warrior he had replaced at the head of a numerically far inferior force.
Rise to power
Tughlugh's death facilitated the work of reconquest, and a few years of perseverance and energy sufficed for its accomplishment, as well as for the addition of a vast extent of territory. It was in this period that Timur reduced the Jagatai khans to the position of figureheads, who were deferred to in theory but in reality ignored, while Timur ruled in their name. During this period Timur and his brother-in-law Husayn, at first fellow fugitives and wanderers in joint adventures full of interest and romance, became rivals and antagonists. At the close of 1369 Husayn was assassinated and Timur, having been formally proclaimed sovereign at Balkh, mounted the throne at Samarkand, the capital of his dominions. This event was recorded by Marlowe in his famous work Tamburlaine the Great:
Then shall my native city, Samarcanda...
Be famous through the furthest continents,
For there my palace-royal shall be placed,
Whose shining turrets shall dismay the heavens,
And cast the fame of lion's tower to hell.
A legendary account of Timur's rise to leadership, recorded among the Tatar descendants of the Qıpchaq Khanate in Tobol, goes as follows:
One day Aksak Temür spoke thusly:
"Khan Züdei (in China) rules over the city. We now number fifty to sixty men, so let us elect a leader." So they drove a stake into the ground and said: "We shall run thither and he who among us is the first to reach the stake, may he become our leader". So they ran and Aksak Timur (since he was lame) lagged behind, but before the others reached the stake he threw his cap onto it. Those who arrived first said: "We are the leaders". (But) Aksak Timur said: "My head came in first, I am the leader". In the meanwhile an old man arrived and said: "The leadership should belong to Aksak Timur; your feet have arrived but, before then, his head reached the goal". So they made Aksak Timur their prince.
It is notable that Timur never claimed for himself the title of khan, styling himself amir and acting in the name of the Chagatai ruler of Transoxania. Timur was a military genius but sometimes lacking in political sense. He tended not to leave a government apparatus behind in lands he conquered, and was often faced with the need to conquer such lands again after inevitable rebellions.
Period of expansion
Timur spent the next 35 years in various wars and expeditions. He not only consolidated his rule at home by the subjugation of his foes, but sought extension of territory by encroachments upon the lands of foreign potentates. His conquests to the west and northwest led him among the Mongols of the Caspian Sea and to the banks of the Ural and the Volga. Conquests in the south and south-West encompassed almost every province in Persia, including Baghdad, Karbala and Northern Iraq.
One of the most formidable of Timur's opponents was another Mongol ruler, a descendant of Genghis Khan named Tokhtamysh. After having been a refugee in Timur's court, Tokhtamysh became ruler both of the eastern Kipchak and the Golden Horde. After his accidence, he then quarreled with Timur over the possession of Khwarizm and Azerbaijan. However, Timur still supported him against the Russians and in 1382 Tokhtamysh invaded the Muscovite dominion and burned Moscow.
After the death of Abu Sa'id, ruler of the Ilkhanid Dynasty, in 1335, there was a power vacuum in the Persian Empire. In 1383 Timur started the military conquest of Persia. He captured Herat, Khorasan and all eastern Persia by 1385 and captured almost all of Persia by 1387. These conquests were characterised by exceptional brutality. For example, when Isfahan surrendered to Timur in 1387, he initially treated it with relative mercy as he commonly did with cities that surrendered without resistance. However, after the city revolted against Timur's punitive taxes by killing the tax collectors and some of Timur's soldiers, Timur ordered the complete massacre of the city, killing a reported 70,000 citizens. An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers, each constructed of about 1,500 heads.
In the meantime, Tokhtamysh, now khan of the Golden Horde, turned against his patron and invaded Azerbaijan in 1385. This action would cause a counter by Timur that would become the Tokhtamysh–Timur war. In the initial stage of the war, Timur won a victory at the Battle of the Kondurcha River, however Tokhtamysh and his army were allowed to escape. After Tokhtamysh's initial defeat, Timur then invaded Muscovy to the north of Tokhtamysh's holdings. Timur's army burned Raizan and advanced upon Moscow, only to be pulled away before reaching the Oka River by Tokhtamysh's renewed campaign in the south. In 1395, at the Battle of the Terek River, Tokhtamysh's power was finally broken concluding the titanic struggle between the two monarchs. In this Tokhtamysh–Timur war, Timur first led an army of over 100,000 men north for more than 700 miles into the uninhabited steppe, then west about 1000 miles, advancing in a front more than 10 miles wide. The Timurid army almost starved, and Timur organized a great hunt where the army encircled vast areas of steppe to get food. Tokhtamysh's army finally was cornered against the Volga River in the Orenburg region and destroyed (See Battle of the Terek River). During this march, Timur's army got far enough north to be in a region of very long summer days, causing complaints by his Muslim soldiers about keeping a long schedule of prayers in such northern regions. Timur during the course of his campaign destroyed Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde, and Astrakhan, subsequently wrecking the Golden Horde's economy based on Silk Road trade.
Timur began a trek starting in 1398 to invade the reigning Sultan Nasir-u Din Mehmud of the Tughlaq Dynasty in the north Indian city of Delhi. His campaign was politically pretexted that the Muslim Delhi Sultanate was too tolerant toward its Hindu subjects, but that could not mask the real reason being to amass the wealth of the Delhi Sultanate.
Timur crossed the Indus River at Attock (now Pakistan) on September 24, 1398, but Timur's invasion did not go unopposed and he did meet some resistance during his march to Delhi, by the Governor of Meerut. Timur was able to continue his relentless approach to Delhi, arriving in 1398 to combat the armies of Sultan Mehmud, already weakened by an internal battle for ascension within the royal family.
The Sultan's army was easily defeated on December 17, 1398. On this day the army of Sultan Mahmud Khan had prepared 120 war elephants armored with chain mail. He had put poison on the tusks, which put fright into the Tatar lines. Timur took action and the Tatars dug out a trench in front of their positions. Timur then took his camels and placed all the wood and hay he could on their backs. When the war elephants charged he lit the camels on fire and then prodded them with iron sticks. They charged at the elephants howling in pain. Timur had understood that elephants were easy creatures of panic. Faced with the strange specter of the burning camels flying straight at them with flames leaping from their backs, the elephants turned around and stampeded back toward their own lines. Timur entered Delhi and the city was sacked, destroyed, and left in ruins. Before the battle for Delhi, Timur executed a large number of captives, mostly Hindus.
Timur himself recorded the invasions in his memoirs, collectively known as Tuzk-e-Taimuri. In them, he vividly described the massacre at Delhi:
|“||In a short space of time all the people in the Delhi fort were put to the sword, and in the course of one hour the heads of 10,000 infidels were cut off. The sword of Islam was washed in the blood of the infidels, and all the goods and effects, the treasure and the grain which for many a long year had been stored in the fort became the spoil of my soldiers. They set fire to the houses and reduced them to ashes, and they razed the buildings and the fort to the ground....All these infidel Hindus were slain. Their women and children and their property and goods became the spoil of the victors. I proclaimed throughout the camp that every man who had infidel prisoners should put them to death, and whoever neglected to do so should himself be executed and his property given to the informer. When this order became known to the ghazis of Islam, they drew their swords and put their prisoners to death.|
One hundred thousand infidels, impious idolaters, were on that day slain. Maulana Nasiruddin Umar, a counselor and man of learning, who, in all his life, had never killed a sparrow, now, in execution of my order, slew with his sword fifteen idolatrous Hindus, who were his captives....on the great day of battle these 100,000 prisoners could not be left with the baggage, and that it would be entirely opposed to the rules of war to set these idolaters and enemies of Islam at liberty... no other course remained but that of making them all food for the sword.
Timur further describes as below in Tuzk-e-Taimuri how he and his army massacred the Hindus population of Delhi after conquering it.
|“||The savage Turks fell to killing and plundering, while the Hindus set fire to their houses with their own hands, burned their wives and children in them and rushed in to fight and were killed... All day Thursday and throughout the night nearly 15,000 Turks were engaged in slaying, plundering and destroying. When Friday morning dawned, my entire army, no longer under control, went off to the city and thought of nothing but killing, plundering and making prisoners. The sack was general during the whole day, and continued throughout the whole day Saturday, the seventeenth (Dec 17), the spoil being so great that each man secured from fifty to a hundred prisoners, men, women and children, while no soldier took less than twenty. There was likewise an immense booty in rubies, diamonds, pearls and other gems; jewels of gold and silver... gold and silver ornaments of the Hindu women obtained in such quantities as to exceed all account. Excepting the quarter of the Sayyids, the scholars, and the other Mussulmans, the whole city was sacked.||”|
As per Malfuzat-i-Timuri, Timur targeted Hindus. In his own words, "Excepting the quarter of the saiyids, the 'ulama and the other Musalmans [sic], the whole city was sacked". In his descriptions of the Loni massacre he wrote, "Next day I gave orders that the Musalman prisoners should be separated and saved."
Timur explains his objective behind the Indian campaign as below in Tuzk-e-Taimuri
|“||My object in the invasion of Hindustan to lead an expedition against the infidels... (so that) the army of Islam might gain something by plundering the wealth and valuables of the Hindus... we may convert to the true faith the people of that country, and purify the land from the filth of infidelity and polytheism; and that we may overthrow their temples and idols and become ghazis and mujahids before God.||”|
Timur left Delhi in approximately January 1399. In April he had returned to his own capital beyond the Oxus (Amu Darya). Immense quantities of spoils were taken from India. According to Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo, 90 captured elephants were employed merely to carry precious stones looted from his conquest, so as to erect a mosque at Samarkand– what historians today believe is the enormous Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Ironically, the mosque was constructed too quickly and suffered greatly from disrepair within a few decades of its construction.
Last campaigns and death
Before the end of 1399, Timur started a war with Bayezid I, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and the Mamluk sultan of Egypt. Bayezid began annexing the territory of Turkmen and Muslim rulers in Anatolia. As Timur claimed sovereignty over the Turkmen rulers, they took refuge behind him. Timur invaded Syria, sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army. The city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. This led to Timur's being publicly declared an enemy of Islam.
In 1400 Timur invaded Armenia and Georgia (see also Timur's invasions of Georgia). More than 60,000 people from the Caucasus were captured as slaves, and many districts were depopulated.
He invaded Baghdad in June 1401. After the capture of the city, 20,000 of its citizens including Muslims were massacred. Timur ordered that every soldier should return with at least two severed human heads to show him (many warriors were so scared they killed prisoners captured earlier in the campaign just to ensure they had heads to present to Timur). After years of insulting letters passed between Timur and Bayezid, Timur invaded Anatolia and defeated Bayezid in the Battle of Ankara on July 20, 1402. Bayezid was captured in battle and subsequently died in captivity, initiating the 12-year Ottoman Interregnum period. Timur's stated motivation for attacking Bayezid and the Ottoman Empire was the restoration of Seljuq authority. Timur saw the Seljuks as the rightful rulers of Anatolia as they had been granted rule by Mongol conquerors, illustrating again Timur's interest with Genghizid legitimacy.
Timur's army ravaged Western Anatolia, with Muslim writers complaining that the Timurid army acted more like a horde of savages than that of a civilized conqueror. After the Battle of Ankara, Timur did take the city of Smyrna, a stronghold of the Knights Hospitalers, thus he referred to himself as ghazi. Timur was furious at the Genoese and Venetians whose ships ferried the Ottoman army to safety in Thrace. As Lord Kinross reported in THE OTTOMAN CENTURIES, the Italians preferred the enemy they knew to the one they did not.
By 1368, the Ming had driven the Mongols out of China. The first Ming Emperor Hongwu demanded, and received, homage from many Central Asian states paid to China as the political heirs to the former House of Kublai. Although Timur more than once sent to the Ming Government tributes, he wished to restore the Mongol Empire, and eventually planned to conquer China. To this end, Timur made an alliance with the Mongols of Northern Yuan Dynasty and prepared all the way to Bukhara. The Mongol leader Enkhe Khan sent his grandson Öljei Temür, also known as Buyanshir. In December 1404, Timur started military campaigns against the Ming Dynasty, but he was attacked by fever and plague when encamped on the farther side of the Sihon (Syr-Daria) and died at Atrar (Otrar) in mid-February 1405. His scouts explored Mongolia before his death, and the writing they carved on trees in Mongolia's mountains could still be seen even in the 20th century.
Although he preferred to fight his battles in the spring, Timur died enroute during an uncharacteristic winter campaign against the ruling Chinese Ming Dynasty. It was one of the bitterest winters on record; his troops are recorded as having to dig through five feet of ice to reach drinking water. Records indicate though, that for part of his life at least, he was a surreptitious Ming vassal and that his son Shah Rukh visited China in 1420. He ruled over an empire that, in modern times, extends from southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and Iran, through Central Asia encompassing part of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, North-Western India, and even approaches Kashgar in China. Northern Iraq remained predominantly Assyrian Christian until attacked, looted, plundered and destroyed by Timur leaving its population decimated by systematic mass slaughter. All churches were destroyed and any survivors forcefully converted to Islam by the sword. Of Timur's four sons, two (Jahangir and Umar Shaykh) predeceased him. His third son, Miran Shah, died soon after Timur, leaving the youngest son, Shah Rukh. Although his designated successor was his grandson Pir Muhammad b. Jahangir, Timur was ultimately succeeded in power by his son Shah Rukh. His most illustrious descendant Babur founded the Mughal Empire and ruled over most of Pakistan and North India. Babur's descendants Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, expanded the Mughal Empire to most of the Indian subcontinent along with parts of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Markham, in his introduction to the narrative of Clavijo's embassy, states that his body "was embalmed with musk and rose water, wrapped in linen, laid in an ebony coffin and sent to Samarkand, where it was buried." His tomb, the Gur-e Amir, still stands in Samarkand, though it has been heavily restored in recent years. Timur had carried his victorious arms on one side from the Irtish and the Volga to the Persian Gulf, and on the other from the Hellespont to the Ganges River.
Contributions to the arts
Timur became widely known as a patron to the arts. Much of the architecture he commissioned still stands in Samarkand, now in present-day Uzbekistan. He was known to bring the most talented artisans from the lands he conquered back to Samarkand, and is credited with often giving them a wide latitude of artistic freedom to express themselves.
According to legend, Omar Aqta, Timur's court calligrapher, transcribed the Qur'an using letters so small that the entire text of the book fit on a signet ring. Omar also is said to have created a Qur'an so large that a wheelbarrow was required to transport it. Folios of what is probably this larger Qur'an have been found, written in gold lettering on huge pages.
Timur was also said to have created Tamerlane Chess, a variant of shatranj (also known as medieval chess) played on a larger board with several additional pieces and an original method of pawn promotion. These pieces included the camel, siege-weapon, giraffe, and several others as well as boasting a complicated system involving the ability to exchange pawns for certain pieces should they reach the other side of the board.
Timur's mandating of Kurash wrestling for his soldiers ensured for it a lasting and legendary legacy. Kurash is now a popular international sport and part of the Asian Games.
Exchanges with the West
Timur had numerous epistolary exchanges with Western, especially French, rulers. The French archives preserve: A July 30, 1402, letter from Timur to Charles VI, king of France, suggesting him to send traders to the Orient. It was written in Persian.
A May 1403 letter. This is a Latin transcription of a letter from Timur to Charles VI, and another from Amiza Miranchah, his son, to the Christian princes, announcing their victory over Bayezid, in Smyrna.
A copy has been kept of the answer of Charles VI to Timur, dated June 15, 1403.
Timur's legacy is a mixed one. While Central Asia blossomed under his reign, other places such as Baghdad, Damascus, Delhi and other Arab, Persian, Indian and Turkic cities were sacked and destroyed. Thus, while Timur still retains a positive image in Central Asia, he is vilified by many in Arab, Persian and Indian societies.
Timur's military talents were unique. He used propaganda in what is now called information warfare as part of his tactics. His campaigns were preceded by the deployment of spies whose tasks included collecting information and spreading horrifying reports about the cruelty, size, and might of Timur’s armies. Such disinformation eventually weakened the morale of threatened populations and caused panic among enemy forces. He planned all his campaigns years in advance, including planting barley for horse feed two-years ahead of his campaigns. Whilst Timur’s uncharacteristic (for the time) concern for his troops inspired fierce loyalty he did not pay them. Their only incentives were from looting captured territory — a bounty that included horses, wives, precious metals and stones; in other words whatever they, or their newly indentured slaves, could carry away from the conquered lands.
Timur's short-lived empire also melded the Turko-Persian tradition in Transoxiania, and in most of the territories which he incorporated into his fiefdom, Persian became the primary language of administration and literary culture (diwan), regardless of ethnicity. In addition, during his reign, some contributions to Turkic literature were penned, with Turkic cultural influence expanding and flourishing as a result. A literary form of Chagatai Turkic came into use alongside Persian as both a cultural and an official language.
Timur became a popular figure in Europe for centuries after his death, not in the least because of his victory over the Ottoman Sultan and the humiliations to which he is said to have subjected his prisoner Bayezid.
Timur was officially recognised as a national hero of newly independent Uzbekistan. His monument in Tashkent takes the place where Marx's statue once stood.
Timur's generally recognized biographers are Ali Yazdi, commonly called Sharaf ud-Din, author of the Zafarnāmeh in Persian (ظفرنامه), translated by Petis de la Croix in 1722 , and from French into English by J. Darby in the following year; and Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Abdallah, al-Dimashiqi, al-Ajami (commonly called Ahmad Ibn Arabshah) translated by the Dutch Orientalist Colitis in 1636. In the work of the former, as Sir William Jones remarks, "the Tatarian conqueror is represented as a liberal, benevolent and illustrious prince", in that of the latter he is "deformed and impious, of a low birth and detestable principles." But the favourable account was written under the personal supervision of Timur's grandson, Ibrahim, while the other was the production of his direst enemy.
Among less reputed biographies or materials for biography may be mentioned a second Zafarnāmeh, by Nizam al-Din Shami, stated to be the earliest known history of Timur, and the only one written in his lifetime. Timur's purported autobiography, the Tuzk-e-Taimuri ("Memoirs of Temur") is a later fabrication, although most of the historical facts are accurate.
More recent biographies include Justin Marozzi's Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World (2006) and Roy Stier's Tamerlane: The Ultimate Warrior (1998).
Timur's body was exhumed from his tomb in 1941 by the Soviet anthropologist Mikhail M. Gerasimov. From his bones it was clear that Timur was a tall and broad chested man with strong cheek bones. Gerasimov also found that Timur's facial characteristics conformed to partial Mongoloid features, which he believed, in some part, supported Timur's notion that he was descended from Genghis Khan. Gerasimov was able to reconstruct the likeness of Timur from his skull. His height was 5 foot 8 inches (1.73 meters), tall for his era. He also confirmed Timur's lameness due to a hip injury.
Timur's tomb is protected by a slab of jade in which are carved the words in Arabic: "When I rise, the World will Tremble".
It is said that when Gerasimov exhumed the body, an additional inscription inside the casket was found reading "Whosoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I." In any case, two days after Gerasimov had begun the exhumation, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, its invasion of the U.S.S.R. Timur was re-buried with full Islamic ritual in November 1942 just before the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad (ref Marozzi 2004)
In the arts
Tamerlano (1724) - opera by George Frideric Handel, in Italian, based on the 1675 play Tamerlan ou la mort de Bajazet by Jacques Pradon.
Bajazet (1735) - opera by Antonio Vivaldi, portrays the capture of Bayezid I by Timur
Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I and II - play by Christopher Marlowe (English, 1563-1594).
Tamerlane - first published poem of Edgar Allan Poe (American, 1809-1849).1
Sources and References