By: Victoria Yates

Timur was born on the 8th of April 1336 in Kesh (the Green City) in Transoxiana, modern day Uzbekistan, thirty-six miles south of Samarkand, a cultural center of the time. He was a member of the Barlas, a Turkized Mongol tribe that represented the remnants of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes. The Mongols lost power in Transoxiana when Timur was 10, and under the Emir’s (warlord’s) reign, Timur developed into an aggressive individual, honing his skills in riding and fighting. His primary activity was soldiering, being put at the head of a small army. The Emir’s assassination when Timur was 22 was followed two years later by the return to power of the Mongols, and with it Timur subordinated himself and his army to Mongol governance. 

In 1364 he formed a coalition with the grandson, Hussein, of the murdered Emir and attempted to overthrow the new rulers, beating them and forcing a retreat. But the Mongols returned in 1365, beating the pair in the Battle of Mud. Timur was forced to retreat. However the returning Mongols encountered resistance in Samarkand in the form of Islamic rebels, the Serbedar, who took control of the city for a year. When Timur returned he feigned friendship with the group until he had regained enough power within the city to have them executed.

Recognising the necessity for a stable base of support from home, Timur cultivated a feeling of good will amongst his subjects, even offering to help with his own wealth. This quickly saw him solidify his position as the most respected person in Samarkand. Hussein on the other hand was known for his meanness, imposing harsh taxes and paying little attention to his subjects. On the death of Timur’s wife (Hussein’s sister) the tie between the pair was severed, and Timur began hostilities. After a brief truce in which the pair expelled another Mongol incursion, Timur won support from the people and the influential leaders of the region, beating Hussein but granting him passage for a trip to Mecca. Instead, whilst attempting to escape, Hussein was killed by a former general.

By 1370 Timur was the most powerful man in Transoxiana, founding the Timurid Empire. He modelled his army after his ancestor Genghis Khan although it was composed less of horsemen and more of foot soldiers drawn from settled groups. In an attempt to further secure his position, Timur had those close to Hussein executed, with his widows and children “divided up” between Timur and his followers.  Timur improved the capital, Samarkand, making improvements to the walls and market places and creating great gardens and palaces that made the city a magnificent and prosperous source of envy for others.  At home, he was a true patron of the arts.

However, seeing himself as the new Genghis Khan, Timur didn’t remain settled but choose instead to conquer. Interestingly he never claimed the title of Khan, remaining Emir. He and his army sought to plunder, and first headed east, ravaging the land and forcing subjection to Timur’s rule as he went. By 1380 he occupied an area of Eastern China.  Next, his army moved west of Samarkand, overrunning Herat. The stiff resistance the army met in the southern expansion into Sistan led to Timur making an example of the city of Zarendj. Here he massacred men, women, and children, and had everything burned that he and his army could not carry away. His bloody incursions continued, massacring 2000 slaves in the northern city of Sabzavar, and turning their bodies into components in a sculpture.

One of the most formidable of Timur's opponents was another descendant of Genghis Khan. After having been a refugee in Timur's court, Tokhtamysh became ruler of the Golden Horde. He quarrelled with Timur over the possession of Khwarizm and Azerbaijan, but still got his support against the Russians. In 1382 Tokhtamysh and the Golden Horde invaded and burned Moscow. It was in 1385 that he finally turned against Timur and invaded Azerbaijan.

The battles between the two warrior’s armies were vast and dangerous. Sarai, Tokhtamysh’s capital, was destroyed by Timur’s forces and the Golden Horde’s (Silk Road) economy was eventually broken. The conflict lasted until 1395 with the battle at the Terek River. Tokhtamysh’s power was broken for good, and Mongol unity in the region was permanently shattered.

In 1386 Timur made it into modern-day Georgia where he waged war against Christians, and then the following year sought control in Armenia. Returning south, he conquered Isfahan, central Persia, a major cultural hub in the Muslim world. The inhabitants rebelled, and reports say that between 70,000 and 100,000 people were killed and crops razed by Timur and his army.

By 1392 Timur choose to counter the continued instability in Persia by waging further wars there. He was also forced to return to prevent Tokhtamysh’s invasion of Georgia, where he looted towns and set them alight before leaving. The continued revolts in Persia angered Timur who set out to destroy whole towns in an effort to create submission through terror.

From 1396 to ’97 Timur stayed in Samarkand before using the excuse that Muslim leaders in India were being too tolerant of Hindus – so giving him a reason to take his army once again to war. He destroyed the Islamic kingdom around Delhi, using his trademark tactics to create devastation where he went. His loot from India included craftsmen, artists, as well as other physical goods. With this new wealth Timur set about building a new Mosque. It was the largest in central Asia but frequent earthquakes meant the building did not survive.

His next conquest was Syria where he occupied Damascus where he asked to see the graves of two of the Prophet’s wives. Finding them in disrepair, he once again raged against Damascus, the city was looted and a fire started that would continue for days. It took the city years to recover from the attack. Instead of marching on Jerusalem, where a plague of locusts was being reported, Timur turned next on Baghdad in 1401, massacring 20,000 people.

Timur also sought war with the Ottomans, a vastly greater empire than his own and seen as a power for all Muslims against the Christians. Not wanting to be seen as starting a war with another Muslim power, Timur set out a list of outrageous demands to the Ottomans. In 1402 the forces clashed at Ankara where Timur, using superior strategy, prevailed. Fearing that his actions had in some way aided Christians, he sent message to the Christian Knights of Rhodes who ruled Smyrna (on the Mediterranean) that they must convert or pay tribute to him, both of which they refused believing their city to be unconquerable.  Timur and his army attacked and annihilated the entire population - men, women, and children, of the city, displaying their heads on a Pyramid.

Powers in the west had a growing interest in Timur who they felt could be of help in removing the Turks from the Holy Land. They sent friendly correspondence to Timur who was interested in promoting trade.  In 1404 Timur was preparing for his return to China, setting out a year later. He died en route, however, upon which point the army returned to Samarkand and had his body embalmed. His empire eventually disintegrated, but the people of Samarkand continued to see Timur as the great man of their people. His impact on central Asia made him a leader of great importance in the region, while Arab, Indian, and Persian accounts continued to vilify him.

An intelligent and brilliantly tactical warrior whose ruthlessness and ambition rivalled the most revered conquerors of any age made Timur a great leader of his people. He was the founder of the Timurid Empire  (1370–1405) and great great grandfather of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty, which survived until 1857 as the Mughal Empire of India. Yet he was also a patron of arts and learning, making him a fascinating mixture.

Whatever one’s opinion of the man, national hero or violent tyrant, Timur was always successful in what he attempted to do, and he consistently gathered forces around him whose intense loyalty was a personal testament to his skills.