The regions north and south of the Hindu Kush, approximating to modern Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, form an indeterminate part of the empire of Genghis Khan. They are inherited by descendants of his son Chagatai, but the district is fought over by many rival cousins. Here, more than anywhere in the Mongol empire, the Turkish influence is all-pervasive. By the end of the 14th century even the fiercely competitive petty princes of the region are vague as to whether they are Mongols or Turks – a fact reflected in their contradictory name. They are known as Chagatai Turks.
The greatest of them is born near Samarkand in 1336. His name is Timur, but he is more familiar in the west as Tamerlane.
Timur is known in his local variety of Turkish as Timur i Leng, meaning Timur the Lame. It is this phrase which has been transliterated in European accounts as Tamerlane (also spelt Tamburlaine).
Timur sees himself as restoring the great Mongol empire. Like Genghis Khan, two centuries earlier, he spends the first half of his life establishing control over local rivals. He is almost fifty when he begins, in 1383, an astonishing two decades of far-flung military campaigns. During them he reconquers, single-handed, the western half of the Mongol empire.
Timur’s conquests: AD 1383 – 1405
Timur begins his campaign with the capture in 1383 of Herat, a city on the border of Afghanistan and Iran which will later, under his own descendants, become a great centre of Persian culture. In the next two years he subdues the whole of eastern Persia.
By 1394 he has extended his rule throughout Persia and Mesopotamia and up between the Black Sea and Caspian into Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In 1396 he storms into Russia and occupies Moscow for a year.
Timur’s rule is brutal. In Persia frequent uprisings are put down with a severity similar to that of Genghis Khan. Populations of entire cities are massacred, and Timur develops an effective new form of memento mori. The skulls of the dead form the masonry for towers, firmly cemented together to stand as cautionary tales.
In 1398 Timur outdoes one of Genghis Khan’s expeditions. He invades India, but unlike his predecessor he does not stop at the Indus. He marches on to Delhi and devastates the city. He then spends several months collecting treasure, which he carries home on 120 elephants.
Home is Samarkand, the city closest to his birthplace. Timur is busy turning it into a great centre of Muslim architecture and art. Together with the Indian elephants come the best craftsmen of Delhi, who will be set to work in Samarkand – where they join, in 1399, a community of skilled captives from previous expeditions.
The conqueror himself, now in his mid-sixties, has more practical business to attend to. Before the end of 1399 he marches west, to restore order in his outlying provinces.
The conqueror’s declining years: AD 1401-1405
In 1401, in Syria, Timur defeats a Mameluke army from Egypt. He then takes and destroys Damascus, despatching a new consignment of talented craftsmen back to Samarkand. Later in the same year Baghdad is stormed and sacked, and 20,000 of its population massacred. In 1402 the aged warrior advances into Anatolia. He defeats an army of Ottoman Turks near Ankara, capturing their sultan, Bayazid I (who dies in Timur’s care). He then moves on west, as far as the Aegean, to take Izmir from the Knights of Rhodes.
By 1404 he is back in Samarkand. But even now, two years short of seventy, he is not ready to settle. He has set his sights on an even more ambitious project.
Late in 1404 Timur rides east to invade China. He gets no further than Chimkent before he falls ill, in January 1405, and dies.
Though he has reconquered much of the western Mongol empire, it is the example of Samarkand which most influences his descendants (known as the Timurids). His domed mausoleum, the Gur Amir, decorated with blue ceramic tiles, begins the tradition of Muslim buildings developed at Herat and Isfahan. A century later, an inherited interest in art brings superb results at the court of a family descended from both Timur and Genghis Khan – the Moghul emperors of India, whose name perpetuates the memory of the Mongol dynasty.
The Timurid tradition: AD 1405-1510
Shahrukh, Timur’s favourite son, is his family’s greatest patron of the arts. From about 1405 he rebuilds Herat, devastated by his father in 1383, and actively encourages the Persian school of miniature painting – which has already begun to flourish under the patronage of the Mongol Il-Khans.
With some difficulty Shahrukh maintains control over the empire conquered by his father in central Asia and Persia. In subsequent generations the descendants of Timur fight constantly among themselves over their shared inheritance, weakening their joint defence against their enemies. But Herat remains a centre of Timurid civilization until it falls, in 1510, to the founder of the new Safavid dynasty.