Timur: History, Military Conquests & Accomplishments
Born in the early 14th century in the Chaghatayid Khanate, Tamerlane, also known as Timur the Lame or Tamerlane the Conqueror, is best remembered for rising from an obscure sheep bandit to one of the greatest conquerors the world has ever seen. He was the first ruler and founder of the Timurid dynasty, which was founded in 1370.
In the article below World History Edu presents the history and major accomplishments of Timur, showing that there was more to him than just being a bloodthirsty ruler.
A Mongol and Turkic descent
Timur was born on April 9, 1336 in the Barlas confederation in Transoxiana (in present-day Shahrisabz in southern Uzbekistan). The Barlas were a Mongol and later Turkicized nomadic confederation in Central Asia. This means that Timur was of both Mongol and Turkic descent.
His father, Taraghai Bahdur, was the minor chief of the tribe, while his mother was called Tegina Begim. The Barlas were a nomadic tribe that often locked horns with other rival tribes.
He is said to have grown up in the city of Bukhara, where he tied the knot with his first wife, Aljai Turkanaga. Upon the death of Aljai, he went on to marry many daughters of a rival tribe leader called Amir Husayn Qara’unas. One of the women he married was Saray Mulk.
Timur’s association with Genghis Khan
Some have said that he was indirectly related to Genghis Khan on his father’s side. There are some accounts, according to 14th-century historian Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Arabshah, that claim his mother, Tekina, might have been a descendant of Genghis Khan. However, there is no concrete evidence to substantiate such claim.
In an attempt to boost his claim as ruler of the khanate, he married a woman called Saray Mulk Khanum who was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. As a result, he came to be known as Guregen or Gurkani (Persian Gurkan), which means son-in-law. Thus Timur and his successors came to be called the sons-in-law of Genghis Khan.
How did Timur come to be called “Timur the lame”?
Tamerlane, also known as the Great Timur, was given the derogatory nickname “Timur the lame” (Timur-i-leng) by his Persian enemies. In Europe, the name gradually became Tamburlaine or Tamerlane. In his early years of banditry and fights, Timur sustained many injuries to many parts of his body, including his arm and leg.
As a nomad, Timur spent his early years stealing and sheep raiding. Those kinds of vices were seen as the norm in a region that could be unforgiving and hostile. Young men that weren’t born into a royal family or a ruling class often took to pushing themselves to the limit in order to rise up the social hierarchy. The commonest of those daring activities was to raid rival tribes and steal their sheep, cattle, and horses. Timur probably sustained those injuries while stealing or fighting.
In the early 1940s when Soviet archeologists, led by Mikhail Gerasimov, excavated the tomb of Timur, they found two injuries to his right leg. Additionally, the corpse had two missing fingers.
Timur’s defection to a rival khan
There are some accounts that state Timur hailed from a slightly upper class family. His uncle and brother-in-law were senior ministers of the khanate. After years of gaining their trust, Timur is said to have jumped ships and defected to a rival tribe. However, he would later patch things up with his tribe.
Growing up in Transoxiana, Timur witnessed all the horrors that came from the numerous bloody conflicts among local nomadic clans. The rulers of the clans – the Chagatai Mongol khans – were described as corrupt and abusive, imposing heavy taxes on the people. Having had enough of the Chagatai rulers, a warlord by the name of Kazgan carried a coup. A little bit of order prevailed for some time until Kazgan’s death. Many warlords and tribal chiefs armed themselves and battled each other for ultimate control of the region. In the end Tughluk Timur of Kashgar came out on top.
Timur was sent by his tribe to negotiate with Tughluk Timur, who was the Khan of the Eastern Chagatai Khanate. Timur would end up defecting to Tughluk’s side. In exchange for his support, Timur was given control of his Hajji Beg’s territories. Hajji was Timur’s uncle.
In another bold political move, Timur went into an alliance with the grandson of Kazgan, Amir Hussein (Amir Husayn), in order to depose Tughluk Timur. He even married Hussein’s sister Aljai Turkanaga to seal the political pact. When news of Timur’s treachery reached the Mongols, Timur and his brother-in-law were forced to go into exile. The two men then became fierce bandits, stealing whatever they could lay their hands on in order to survive.
After a brief period in Persia, where he was once imprisoned, Timur would make his way back to power in Transoxiana. He combined his forces with Hussein and defeated Ilyas Khoja, the son of Tughluk TImur. Timur and Hussein became overlords of Transoxania.
Unlike his brother-in-law, Timur was much beloved for his kindness. As a result he gathered many followers, including merchants, Muslim scholars, the aristocrats and farmers. Hussein on the other hand, was known for plundering the people’s resources and imposing heavy taxes on the people. As result Timur ousted Hussein and became the sole ruler of Transoxania in 1370. Following the assassination of Hussein, Timur took seized the properties of Hussein and even married Hussein’s widow Saray Mulk Khanum, a decesendant of Genghis Khan. He married Saray because he wanted to boost his claim as the ruler of the region.
Timur – the Great Amir
In spite of his marriage to a descendant of Genghis Khan, Timur could not hold the title of khan as he was not a direct descendant of the Great Khan. His desire to rule the Mongol Empire was also hampered by this fact. Therefore, Timur got creative. He made one of his associates, Suyurghatmish, as the Khan of the Chagatai Khanate. Timur then took the title Amir, which means general. The real power behind the Khanate was none other than Timur as Suyurghatmish was a mere ceremonial head. To further consolidate his rule, he made his son Miran Shah marry Urun Sultan Khanika, one of the daughters of Soyurghatmish.
As the protector of the Chaghatai Khanate, Timur also took the title Gurkani, which means son-in-law. Thus Timur and his successors came to be called the sons-in-law of Genghis Khan.
To further boost his reputation in the Muslim world, he started calling himself as God’s chosen leader of the people.
Military conquests and expansion of the Timurid Empire
Majority of the fighters that followed Timur were said to be from Turkic tribes in the region. Often times, he would team up with the Khan of the Chagatai Khanate to raid tribes in Transoxiana. After rising to power in Transoxiana, he would spend the decade that followed bringing the entire of Central Asia under his control.
In a bitter power struggle between Tokhtamysh and his cousin Urus, the khan of the former Ulus of Orda, Tokhtamysh fled and took refuge in the court of Timur in 1876. Timur took Tokhtamysh under his wings and helped him become the new khan of the Golden Horde.
With some support from Tokhtamysh, Timur invaded Russia in 1380. In 1382, the Central Asian powers burned Moscow. Timur also defeated the Lithuanians near Poltava. A year later, he marched his army into what is now Afghanistan and captured Herat, the capital of the Kartid dynasty. It’s said that he razed Herat to ground as the city refused surrendering to his army.
The conquest of Herat spurred him on to launch a lengthy military campaign in Persia, which at the time was very much fractured. Timur’s military campaigns in Persia saw him capture areas near the Zagros Mountains, Tehran, and Soltaniyeh (located in modern day Zanjan Province in northwestern Iran). Timur also destroyed Zaranj (located in southwestern Afghanistan), the capital of the Mihrabanid dynasty. In less than three years, he had successfully brought all of eastern Persia under his dominion.
Between 1386 and1394, the Timurid ruler conquered Fars, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iraq, Mesopotamia, and Georgia.
After his former protégé Tokhtamysh, the khan of the Golden Horde, invaded Azebaijan in 1385 and later Transoxania in 1388, Timur paused his military campaigns in order to focus his attention on defeating the Golden Horde. The Timurid warlord and ruler chased Tokhtamysh all the way into Russia and secured a resounding defeat. Tokhtamysh’s second fight against Timur ended in a defeat in 1395. Timur’s victory over Tokhtamysh substantially weakened the Golden Horde forever.
The devastation of Delhi
In 1398, Timur invaded the Tughlag dynasty, a Muslim dynasty of Turkic origin that ruled large parts of the Indian subcontinent. On his way to Delhi, Timur laid waste to cities like Tulamba and Multan. In many cases, the Indian nobility and governors of those cities did not put up a fight. In Bhatner (located in present day Indian state of Rajasthan), the rulers refused surrendering; therefore Timur plundered the city and thereafter slaughtered all of its inhabitants.
The biggest battle of his Indian campaign came in Delhi in December 1398. Timur outsmarted his opponents, who were fighting with elephants. Following his victory over the Delhi sultanate, he plundered the city, killed many people and took over 100,000 prisoners. It would take the city of Delhi over a hundred years to recover from the devastation unleashed upon it by the Timurid army.
Timur’s campaigns against the Mamluk Sultanate and the Ottoman Empire
After his magnanimous victory in India, Timur set his sights upon the Mamluk sultan of Egypt and the Ottoman sultan Bayezid. Timur had accused them of eating into some parts of the Timurid Empire. He marched his army into the Levant and captured places like Aleppo and Damascus in 1401.
A year later, he conquered Baghdad, killing more than 20,000 of its inhabitants. Many top scholars and artisans in the Levant were deported to the Timurid capital Samarkand.
In 1402, he fought and defeated Bayezid I, the sultan of the Ottomans, at the Battle of Ankara. Timur’s reason for attacking the Ottomans was because he wanted to restore the Seljuks as rulers of Anatolia.
During the battle, the Ottoman ruler was captured by Timur’s forces. Bayezid would later die while being held captive. Bayezid’s son, Mehmed Çelebi (later Sultan Mehmed I), was in effect the vassal of Timur during the early years of the Ottoman Interregnum (1402-1413).
Timur also famously defeated the Christian Knights Hospitalers at the siege of Smyrna in December 1402. Following the victory, he started referring to himself as ghazi, which is a title given to an individual who took part in a military expedition or raiding (ghazw).
How did Timur die?
In 1404, Timur began making preparations for a massive military expedition to China. Timur had wanted to conquer the Ming Empire as the ethnic-Han Ming Dynasty had toppled the Yuan, who were his allies in China.
He set off from Samarkand in December 1404; however, by February 1405, which was unusually cold, he had succumbed to a terrible illness. Timur died at Farab (present day Otrar, Kazakhstan) on February 17, 1405.
His body was embalmed and placed in an ebony coffin before it was sent to the capital Samarkand. The Timurid ruler was buried in a tomb called Gūr-e Amir (located in present day Uzbekistan).
While on his deathbed, he ordered that his grandson Pir Muhammad succeed him to the throne. However, a bitter power struggle broke out among his two sons and grandsons. Soon a civil war ensued until Shah Rukh, Timur’s youngest son, succeeded in bringing order to the empire.
Timur’s mixed legacy
In many Central Asian countries, Timur is fondly remembered with the epithet Buyuk Babamiz, which means “Our Great forefather”. This explains why there a number of monuments of him across Central Asia. However, in Europe and many places of the Middle East, Timur is mostly despised for the atrocities he committed in those regions.
When the southern Persian city of Isfahan (located in modern day Iran) revolted due to his heavy taxes, he proceeded to massacre the city’s inhabitants. The total number of people who died from the revolt was estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000. To serve as a deterrent to other cities thinking of revolting against his rule, he placed over 1,500 heads on standing pikes, forming a pyramid of skulls.
After a revolt in Khorasan, a historical eastern region in the Iranian Plateau, Timur mercilessly punished the people. It’s said that he killed the ringleaders by cementing them into the walls alive.
His incessant war against his neighbors undermined the Mongol and Muslim worlds. As a result, Western Europe was very pleased with his wars against tribes in the region.
The cities that he plundered and razed to the ground, including Baghdad, Aleppo and Delhi, needed about hundred years to recover. Timur’s conquest often times left destruction and pain, especially in places that refused to yield to him. For this, some historians have described him as the destroyer of cultural heritage.
Notwithstanding all the atrocities that he committed, Timur also brought a bit of order into Central Asia, a region that was rife with instability and bloody tribal fights.
Timur is often regarded as the last of the great conquerors of Central Asia. During his reign from 1370 to 1405, Timur was able to accomplish a number of important things. Some of his major accomplishments are as follows:
- The Timurid Empire that Timur founded spanned Western, South and Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Southern Russia.
- Timur defeated Khans of the Golden Horde, the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, and the emerging Ottoman Empire under the leadership of Sultan Bayezid I. he also defeated the late Delhi Sultanate of India.
- He was the most powerful ruler in the Islamic World at the time. He is also regarded as the last great nomadic conqueror of the Eurasian Steppe.
- Timur was also known for his numerous infrastructural projects, including irrigation canals that boosted agriculture in Timurid Empire.
- In some accounts, he is described as very generous because he helped the poor, offering food and meat to the poor every day.
- His unification of central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan in many ways helped boost the Silk Road. During his reign, many thriving commercial hubs sprouted up. That in turn augured very well for the entire region’s economy.
- Timur, although an illiterate, was a patron of educational, art and religious institutions. He sometimes spared the lives of artisans, scholars, and writers, which he would deport to Timurid Empire.
- Arab historian Ibn Khaldun and Persian Hafiz-I Abru were of immense praise of Timur after interacting with the warlord.
- Timur’s armies were described as very multi-ethnic fighting force. The sheer scale of terror and destruction they left in their wake made them to be feared across Asia, Europe and Africa.
- His reign ushered in the Timurid renaissance of the 15th century, a time when art, science and other forms of scholarship thrived in Central Asia, India and Persia.
- He improved upon the military techniques inherited from Genghis Khan.
- Timur wasn’t just known for his conquest; he was also a builder of architectural monuments, especially in the capital city Samarkand. It’s said that he wanted to make Samarkand the most developed in the Islamic world.
Sword of Islam
Timur often used Islamic language and symbols to justify his conquests of former territories of the Mongol Empire, including places in Iran, the Mamluk territories, and the Ottoman Empire. As a result, he sometimes styled himself as the “Sword of Islam”.
He also constantly reminded his people of his divine role as the protector of the Mongol and Muslim worlds.
The Tamerlane chess was invented during the reign of Timur. This chess is often seen as a more complex variant of the chess we know today. It is unique in the sense that it has varieties of pawn. According to some accounts, Timur invented the chess himself.
Other interesting facts about Timur, the Great Amir of Central Asia
Timur, also known as Tamerlane, was the founder and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty. Timur’s empire, the Timurid Empire, covered places in modern-day Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia. Here are a few more interesting facts about Timur.
- Timur sustained many injuries during his years of raiding sheep from rival tribes. Those injuries, including the ones sustained during his early military conquests, caused him to develop a permanent limp; and therefore the origin of his nickname “Timur the lame”.
- It’s been said that Timur was was responsible for the deaths of more than 16 million people, which at the time represented about 5% of the world population. Some say this death toll was exaggerated in order instill fear in his enemies.
- His name Timur in the Chagatai language translates to “iron”.
- He was a Sunni Muslim.
- Timur was the grandfather of Timurid sultan Ulugh Begh. Ulugh was a famous mathematician and astronomer who ruled Central Asia from 1411 to 1449. Ulugh Beg is famed for building the largest astronomical observatory in the world at the time.
- His great-great-great son Babur (1483-1530) was the founder of the Mughal Empire, which came to be home to about 25 percent of the world’s population at the time. The Mughal Empire is most known for architectural marvels such as the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort.
- The Timurid capital was Samarkand, which is located in modern-day Uzbekistan.
- Timur’s life, rise to power, and military conquests inspired English writer Christopher Marlowe’s late 16th century play title Tamburlaine the Great. The play, which contains two parts, not only captures the atrocities of perpetuated by the tragic hero but also the illustrious achievements of Timur.