Tamerlane (1336 - 1405) - The Last Great Nomad Power

Tamerlane, the name was derived from the Persian Timur-i lang, "Temur the Lame" by Europeans during the 16th century. His Turkic name is Timur, which means 'iron'. In his life time, he has conquered more than anyone else except for Alexander. His armies crossed Eurasia from Delhi to Moscow, from the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia to the Taurus Mountains in Anatolia. From 1370 till his death 1405, Temur built a powerful empire and became the last of great nomadic leaders.

Character and Personality
There are abundant ancient sources written about Tamerlane. We have the primary source from Spanish Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, sent by King Henry III of Castile on a return embassy to Tamerlane. There is also a Persian biography of Tamerlane by Ali Sharaf ad-Din and the Arab biography by Ahmad ibn Arabshah; from Marlowe to Edgar Allan Poe, he continues to fascinate us as hero or viper.

Timur claimed direct descent from Jenghiz Khan through the house of Chagatai. He was born at Kesh (the Green city), about fifty miles south of Sarmarkand in 1336, a son of a lesser chief of the Barlas tribe. Sharaf ad-Din explained that he received arrow wounds in battle while stealing sheep in his twenties and left him lame in the right leg and with a stiff right arm for the rest of his life. But Tamerlane made light of these disabilities; by 1369 he had possessed himself of all the lands which had formed the heritage of Chagatai and, after being proclaimed sovereign at Balkh, made Samarkand his capital.

He was said to be tall strongly built and well proportioned, with a large head and broad forehead. His complexion was pale and ruddy, his beard long and his voice full and resonant. Arabshah describes him approaching seventy, a master politician and military strategist:

steadfast in mind and robust in body, brave and fearless, firm as rock. He did not care for jesting or lying; wit and trifling pleased him not; truth, even were it painful, delighted him.....He loved bold and valiant soldiers, by whose aid he opend the locks of terror, tore men to pieces like lions, and overturned mountains. He was fautless in strategy, constant in fortune, firm of purpose and truthful in business.

In 1941, the body of Tamerlane was permitted to be exhumed by a Russian scientist, M. M. Gerasimov. The scientist found Timur, after examining his skeleton, a Mongoloid man about 5 feet 8 inches. He also confirmed Tamerlane's lameness. In his book The Face Finder, Gerasimov explains how he was able to reconstruct exact likenesses of Timur from a careful consideration of his skull.

Different sources indicate that Timur is a man with extraordinary intelligence - not only intuitive, but intellectual. Even though he did not know how to read or write, he spoke two or three languages including Persian and Turkic and liked to be read history at mealtimes. He had aesthetic appreciation in buildings and garden. It has been said that he loved art so much that he could not help stealing it! The Byzantine palace gates of the Ottoman capital of Brusa were carried off to Samarkand, where they were much admired by Clavijo. Ibn Khaldun, who met him outside Damascus in 1401 worte:

"This king Timur is one of the greatest and mightiest kings...he is hightly intelligent and very perspicacious, addicted to debate and argument about what he knows and also about what he does not know!"

Known to be a chess player, he had invented a more elaborate form of the game, now called Tamerlane Chess, with twice the number of pieces on a board of a hundred and ten squares.

The question of Timur's religion beliefs has been a matter of controversy ever since he began his great conquests. His veneration of the house of the Prophet, the spurious genealogy on his tombstone taking his descent back to Ali, and the presense of Shiites in his army led some observers and scholars to call him a Shiite. However his official religious counselor was the Hanafite scholar Abd alJabbar Khwarazmi. Timur's religious practices with their admixture of Turco-Mongolian shamanistic elements belonged to the Sufi tradition. Timur avowed himself the disciple of Sayyid Baraka, the holy man of the commercial city of Tirmidh. He also constructed one of his finest buildings at the tomb of Ahmad Yaassawi, who was doing most to spread Folk Islam among the nomads.

In religion as in other aspects of his life Timur was above all an opportunist; his religion served frequently to further his aims, but almost never to curcumscribe his actions. It was in the justification of his rule and his conquests that Timur found Islam most useful.

Empire and War Machine
The same as Jenghiz Khan, Timur rose from a nomad ruler; however unlike Jenghiz Khan, he was the first one based his strength on the exploitation of settled populations and inherited a system of rule which could encompass both settled and nomad populations. Those who saw Timur's army described it as a huge conglomeration of different peoples - nomad and settled, Muslims and Christians, Turks, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians and Indians. Timur's conquests were extraordinary not only for their extent and their success, but also for their ferocity and massacres. The war machine was composed of 'tumen', military units of a 10,000 in the conquered territories. It consisted of his family, loyal tribes particularly the Barlas and Jalayir tribes, recruited soldiers from nomadic population from as far as the Moghuls, Golden Horde and Anatolia, and finally Persian- speaking sedentarists.

Timur and his army were never at rest and neither age nor increasing infirmity could halt his growing ambitions. In 1391 Timur's army fought and won in the great battle of Kanduzcha on June 18. Following his campaign in India, he acquired an elephant corps and took them back to Samarkand for building mosques and tombs. He led the attack and victory on the Ottoman army in the battle of Ankara on July 28 1402.

With great interest in trade, Timur had a grand plan to reactivate the Silk Road, the central land route, and make it the monopoly link between Europe and China. Monopolization was to be achieved by war: primarily, against the Golden Horde, the master of principal rival, the northern land route; secondarily, against the states of western Persia and the Moghuls to the east in order to place the Silk Road under unified control politically; and finally agaist India, Egypt and China.

Early in his career, he took the title or epithet 'Sahib Qiran' symbolized by three circlets forming a triangle. (See coin on the right with three rings forming Timur's symbol) It was an astrological term which meants 'Lord of the Fortunate Conjuncture'. It expressed his sense not just of balancing or juggling ruler, nomads and sedentarists, as his predecessors had done, but of integrating them into a dynamic institutional system.

China and Death
The first Ming ruler, the Hung-wu emperor (1368-1398), sent embassies to former Yuan (a part of Mongol kingdom) tributaries asking that the Ming be recongnized as the new overlords. One of these reached Samarkand in 1395 and was promptly imprisoned by Tamerlane who was already planning his campaign to control the Silk Road, restore the Yuan, equal Jenghiz Khan and surpass Alexander. The second Ming ruler, Yung-lo emperor (1402-1424), anticipated an invasion from Tamerlane and sent another embassy to Samarkand. He too was imprisoned. In 1405, Yung-lo emperor launched the first of his great naval expeditions to the west under the eunuch Cheng Ho. The primary purpose of these missions was to end China's isolation in the face of an attack from Tamerlane.

Without taking the advice of his generals to remain in Samarkand until the spring, Timur and his army planned to advance northwards without delays, encamp at various points near the river Jaxartes and wait for the first sign of spring to strike towards China. They left Samarkand early in January on a day chosen by the astrologers as auspicious. Thus Tamerlane led an enormous army and departed on his last and most fantastic campaign to conquer China when he was close to seventy years old. He was too weak to walk and had to be carried in a litter. Toward the end of January, they reached Utrar. There Timur's health had suffered from the severity of the journey and he was seriously ill, On 17 or 18 February 1405, Tamerlane died. His body was carried back and buried at the Gur-i-Mir, Samarkand (See picture on the left)

Even though Tamerlane never successfully invaded Ming China, but this threat to do so had a profound impact there.

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