Biography of Tamerlane, 14th Century Conqueror of Asia

Tamerlane statue

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Tamerlane (April 8, 1336–February 18, 1405) was the ferocious and terrifying founder of the Timurid empire of Central Asia, eventually ruling much of Europe and Asia. Throughout history, few names have inspired such terror as his. Tamerlane was not the conqueror's actual name, though. More properly, he is known as Timur, from the Turkic word for "iron."

Fast Facts: Tamerlane or Timur

  • Known For: Founder of the Timurid Empire (1370–1405), ruled from Russia to India, and from the Mediterranean Sea to Mongolia.
  • Birth: April 8, 1336 in Kesh, Transoxiana (present-day Uzbekistan)
  • Parents: Taraghai Bahdur and Tegina Begim
  • Died: February 18, 1405 at Otrar, in Kazakhstan
  • Spouse(s): Aljai Turkanaga (m. about 1356, d. 1370), Saray Mulk (m. 1370), dozens of other wives and concubines
  • Children: Timur had dozens of children, those who ruled his empire after his death include Pir Muhammad Jahangir (1374–1407, ruled 1405–1407), Shahrukh Mirza (1377–1447, r. 1407–1447), and Ulegh Beg (1393–1449, r. 1447–1449).

Amir Timur is remembered as a vicious conqueror, who razed ancient cities to the ground and put entire populations to the sword. On the other hand, he is also known as a great patron of the arts, literature, and architecture. One of his signature achievements is his capital in the city of Samarkand, located in modern-day Uzbekistan.

A complicated man, Timur continues to fascinate us some six centuries after his death.

Early Life

Timur was born on April 8, 1336, near the city of Kesh (now called Shahrisabz), about 50 miles south of the oasis of Samarkand, in Transoxiana. The child's father Taraghai Bahdur was the chief of the Barlas tribe; Timur's mother was Tegina Begim. The Barlas were of mixed Mongolian and Turkic ancestry, descended from the hordes of Genghis Khan and the earlier inhabitants of Transoxiana. Unlike their nomadic ancestors, the Barlas were settled agriculturalists and traders.

Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Arabshah's 14th-century biography, "Tamerlane or Timur: The Great Amir," states that Timur was descended from Genghis Khan on his mother's side; it is not entirely clear whether that is true.

Many of the details of Tamerlane's early life are from a spate of manuscripts, dozens of heroic tales written from the early 18th through 20th centuries, and stored in archives across Central Asia, Russia, and Europe. In his book "The Legendary Biographies of Tamerlane," historian Ron Sela has argued that they were based on ancient manuscripts but serve as "a manifest against the corruption of rulers and officials, a call to respect Islamic traditions, and an attempt to situate Central Asia within a greater geopolitical and religious sphere." 

The tales are full of adventures and mysterious happenings and prophecies. According to those tales, Timur raised in the city of Bukhara, where he met and married his first wife Aljai Turkanaga. She died about 1370, after which he married several of the daughters of Amir Husayn Qara’unas, a rival leader, including Saray Mulk. Timur eventually collected dozens of women as wives and concubines as he conquered their fathers' or erstwhile husbands' lands.

Disputed Causes of Timur's Lameness

The European versions of Timur's name—"Tamerlane" or "Tamberlane"—are based on the Turkic nickname Timur-i-leng, meaning "Timur the Lame." Timur's body was exhumed by a Russian team led by archaeologist Mikhail Gerasimov in 1941, and they found evidence of two healed wounds on Timur's right leg. His right hand was also missing two fingers.

The anti-Timurid author Arabshah says that Timur was shot with an arrow while stealing sheep. More likely, he was wounded in 1363 or 1364 while fighting as a mercenary for Sistan (southeastern Persia) as stated by contemporary chroniclers Ruy Clavijo and Sharaf al-Din Ali Yazdi.

Transoxiana's Political Situation

During Timur's youth, Transoxiana was riven by conflict between the local nomadic clans and the sedentary Chagatay Mongol khans who ruled them. The Chagatay had abandoned the mobile ways of Genghis Khan and their other ancestors and taxed the people heavily in order to support their urban lifestyle. Naturally, this taxation angered their citizens.

In 1347, a local named Kazgan seized power from the Chagatai ruler Borolday. Kazgan would rule until his assassination in 1358. After Kazgan's death, various warlords and religious leaders vied for power. Tughluk Timur, a Mongol warlord, emerged victorious in 1360.

Young Timur Gains and Loses Power

Timur's uncle Hajji Beg led the Barlas at this time but refused to submit to Tughluk Timur. The Hajji fled, and the new Mongol ruler decided to install the seemingly more pliable young Timur to rule in his stead.

In fact, Timur was already plotting against the Mongols. He formed an alliance with the grandson of Kazgan, Amir Hussein, and married Hussein's sister Aljai Turkanaga. The Mongols soon caught on; Timur and Hussein were dethroned and forced to turn to banditry in order to survive.

In 1362, the legend says, Timur's following was reduced to two: Aljai and one other. They were even imprisoned in Persia for two months.

Timur's Conquests Begin

Timur's bravery and tactical skill made him a successful mercenary soldier in Persia, and he soon collected a large following. In 1364, Timur and Hussein banded together again and defeated Ilyas Khoja, the son of Tughluk Timur. By 1366, the two warlords controlled Transoxiana.

Timur's first wife died in 1370, freeing him to attack his erstwhile ally Hussein. Hussein was besieged and killed at Balkh, and Timur declared himself the sovereign of the whole region. Timur was not directly descended from Genghis Khan on his father's side, so he ruled as an amir (from the Arabic word for "prince"), rather than as khan. Over the next decade, Timur seized the rest of Central Asia as well.

Timur's Empire Expands

With Central Asia in hand, Timur invaded Russia in 1380. He helped the Mongol Khan Toktamysh retake control and also defeated the Lithuanians in battle. Timur captured Herat (now in Afghanistan) in 1383, the opening salvo against Persia. By 1385, all of Persia was his. 

With invasions in 1391 and 1395, Timur fought against his former protege in Russia, Toktamysh. The Timurid army captured Moscow in 1395. While Timur was busy in the north, Persia revolted. He responded by leveling entire cities and using the citizens' skulls to build grisly towers and pyramids.

By 1396, Timur had also conquered Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Georgia.

Conquest of India, Syria, and Turkey

Timur's army of 90,000 crossed the Indus River in September 1398 and set upon India. The country had fallen to pieces after the death of Sultan Firuz Shah Tughluq (r. 1351–1388) of the Delhi Sultanate, and by this time Bengal, Kashmir, and the Deccan each had separate rulers.

The Turkic/Mongol invaders left carnage along their path; Delhi's army was destroyed in December and the city was ruined. Timur seized tons of treasure and 90 war elephants and took them back to Samarkand.

Timur looked west in 1399, retaking Azerbaijan and conquering Syria. Baghdad was destroyed in 1401 and 20,000 of its people were slaughtered. In July 1402, Timur captured early Ottoman Turkey and received the submission of Egypt.

Final Campaign and Death

The rulers of Europe were glad that the Ottoman Turk sultan Bayazid had been defeated, but they trembled at the idea that "Tamerlane" was at their doorstep. The rulers of Spain, France, and other powers sent congratulatory embassies to Timur, hoping to stave off an attack.

Timur had bigger goals, though. He decided in 1404 that he would conquer Ming China. (The ethnic-Han Ming Dynasty had overthrown his cousins, the Yuan, in 1368.)

Unfortunately for him, however, the Timurid army set out in December during an unusually cold winter. Men and horses died of exposure, and the 68-year-old Timur fell ill. He died on February 17, 1405 at Otrar, in Kazakhstan.

Legacy

Timur started life as the son of a minor chieftain, much like his putative ancestor Genghis Khan. Through sheer intelligence, military skill, and force of personality, Timur was able to conquer an empire stretching from Russia to India and from the Mediterranean Sea to Mongolia.

Unlike Genghis Khan, however, Timur conquered not to open trade routes and protect his flanks, but to loot and pillage. The Timurid Empire did not long survive its founder because he rarely bothered to put any governmental structure in place after he destroyed the existing order.

While Timur professed to be a good Muslim, he obviously felt no compunction about destroying the jewel-cities of Islam and slaughtering their inhabitants. Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad...these ancient capitals of Islamic learning never really recovered from Timur's attentions. His intent seems to have been to make his capital at Samarkand the first city in the Islamic world.

Contemporary sources say that Timur's forces killed about 19 million people during their conquests. That number is probably exaggerated, but Timur does seem to have enjoyed massacre for its own sake.

Timur's Descendants

Despite a death-bed warning from the conqueror, his dozens of sons and grandsons immediately began to fight over the throne when he passed away. The most successful Timurid ruler, Timur's grandson Ulegh Beg (1393–1449, ruled 1447–1449), gained fame as an astronomer and scholar. Ulegh was not a good administrator, however, and was murdered by his own son in 1449.

Timur's line had better luck in India, where his great-great-grandson Babur founded the Mughal Dynasty in 1526. The Mughals ruled until 1857 when the British expelled them. (Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, is thus also a descendant of Timur.)

Timur's Reputation

Timur was lionized in the west for his defeat of the Ottoman Turks. Christopher Marlowe's "Tamburlaine the Great" and Edgar Allen Poe's "Tamerlane" are good examples.

Not surprisingly, the people of Turkey, Iran, and the Middle East remember him rather less favorably.

In post-Soviet Uzbekistan, Timur has been made into a national folk hero. The people of Uzbek cities like Khiva, however, are skeptical; they remember that he razed their city and killed nearly every inhabitant.

Sources

  • González de Clavijo, Ruy. "Narrative of the Embassy of Ruy Gonzalez De Clavijo to the Court of Timour, at Samarcand, A.D. 1403–1406." Trans. Markham, Clements R. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1859.
  • Marozzi, Justin. "Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World." New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
  • Sela, Ron. "The Legendary Biographies of Tamerlane: Islam and Heroic Apocrypha in Central Asia." Trans. Markham, Clements R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 
  • Saunders, J. J. "History of the Mongol Conquests." Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.