Tamerlane & the Reawakening of Mongol Asia

Peter Jackson

The author of a new history of the Mongols profiles Tamerlane, the great 14th century conqueror.
Timur reconstruction, by Gerasimov
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Tamerlane (Timur ‘the Lame’, c. 1327-1405) was the last major conqueror to emerge from Inner Asia. He was not himself a nomad – except insofar as he spent several decades in incessant campaigning.  But the kernel of his army was made up of nomadic cavalry. Although a Muslim, he inflicted considerable devastation on much of the Islamic world and created a sensation in Christian Europe, where he many saw him as a potential saviour from the growing threat of the Ottoman Turks. My new book, From Genghis Khan to Tamerlane: The Reawakening of Mongol Asia, examines Timur’s career and aims against the background of fourteenth-century events in Central and Western Asia.

So who was Tamerlane?  He was of Mongol extraction. He was born, and grew to prominence, in the Central Asian khanate of Chaghadai, named after Genghis Khan’s second son. His career spanned four decades. His rise coincided with an era when Mongol rule in Genghis Khan’s former empire was either weakening or was approaching its end. Tamerlane played an active role in the conflicts among the aristocrats of the Chaghadai khanate, attaining supreme power himself in 1370, and then headed a series of victorious campaigns against outside rulers. These included the Mongol khan of the Golden Horde, the Sultan of Delhi, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and the Ottoman Sultan, and a host of lesser princes. His ambitions appeared boundless.  At his death he was preparing to invade the newly-established Ming Empire in China, from where the Mongol rulers had been expelled in 1368.

Tamerlane had no prestige by birth. He was a minor member of the clan that headed one of the Turco-Mongol tribes in the Chaghadai khanate. As a commoner, he could not reign; and so, given the unrivalled prestige and charisma attached to Genghis Khan’s descendants, he could only govern through a figurehead khan descended from Genghis. Unlike Genghis Khan and his immediate successors, however, Tamerlane was able to draw on his status as a highly successful Muslim ruler as a source of legitimation. His opponents were characterised either as infidels or as inadequate Muslims – lawful targets, in either case, of holy war.

His early career mirrored that of Genghis Khan. From a few followers he built up a warband and grew in power and influence through a series of shifting alliances.  Like the Mongol conqueror, he embarked on a programme of external expansion that would redirect absorb the turbulent energies of the tribes of the Chaghadai state. Yet that was where the resemblance ended.  Where Genghis Khan had installed Mongol governors over the conquered territories and ensured a continuous flow of taxes, Tamerlane was content with a lesser degree of control.  The Mongol advance begun by Genghis Khan was steady and systematic; Tamerlane’s appears haphazard and poorly focused.  His military activities often amounted to no more than plundering campaigns designed to enhance his fame, extract tribute, and enrich his capital city, Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan.

Was Tamerlane trying to accomplish more than this? In modern scholarship he has often been depicted as seeking to recreate the Mongol empire, but we lack direct evidence for this. It seems that he was intent, rather, on restoring a ‘Mongol order of things’. He aimed, at the lowest level, to suppress disorder – local insecurity for travelling merchants and pilgrims – and, at the highest level, to quash the pretensions of those who had usurped rule over the one-time Mongol dominions, particularly in Iran.

Although his fifteenth-century biographers were at pains to stress that his exploits surpassed those of Genghis Khan, Tamerlane’s empire failed to match the dimensions of the Mongol empire at its greatest extent. On the other hand, whereas Mongol territorial expansion had occurred in the course of three generations of the Mongol imperial dynasty, Tamerlane’s conquests were the achievement of one man. The price paid for this was his failure to leave behind an administrative framework capable of underpinning his family’s domination. His empire began to fray at the edges in the years following his death. Within little more than a century none of his conquests remained in the hands of his descendants, although one of them, driven from Central Asia, crossed the Hindu Kush and founded the Moghul Empire in India.

Tamerlane’s renown, even so, has persisted down the centuries. His triumphs have been commemorated in drama (by Marlowe), in opera (by Handel, among others) and in verse (by Edgar Allan Poe). Most recently, he has been adopted as the remote forebear and national symbol of the republic of Uzbekistan.

Peter Jackson is the author of From Genghis Khan to Tamerlane: The Reawakening of Mongol Asia, published by Yale University Press.