Taimur the Conqueror-Plunderer



23, Dec 2016

Six centuries after he conquered and plundered the country, Taimur - an invader of Turkish-Mongol ancestry and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia - is back in India, this time on social media. A famous Bollywood couple named their newborn son after Taimur and trigged a debate. Refusing to analyse the art and science of naming babies, Knappily profiles Taimur, his conquests and controversies.

What is the story of Taimur?

Taimur, also known as Tamerlane, was a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder and the first ruler of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia.

  • Taimur is the European derivation of Taimur’s Persian nickname, Taimur-e Lang, which means `Taimur the Lame’.Taimur's body was exhumed by a Russian team lead by archaeologist Mikhail Gerasimov in 1941, and they found evidence of two healed wounds on Taimur's right leg. His right hand was also missing two fingers.

Born into the Barlas confederation in Transoxiana on 9 April 1336, Taimur gained control of the western Chagatai Khanate by 1370.

  • Transoxiana is the ancient name used for the portion of Central Asia corresponding approximately with modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and southwest Kazakhstan. Geographically, it is the region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers.
  • The Chagatai Khanate comprised the lands ruled by Chagatai Khan, second son of Genghis Khan, and his descendants and successors. Initially it was a part of the Mongol Empire, but it became a functionally separate khanate with the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire after 1259.

From that base, he led military campaigns across Western, South and Central Asia, Caucasus and southern Russia, and emerged as the most powerful ruler in the Muslim world after defeating the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the emerging Ottoman Empire and the declining Delhi Sultanate. From these conquests he founded the Timurid Empire, but this empire fragmented shortly after his death.

  • Taimur is considered the last of the great nomadic conquerors of the Eurasian Steppe, and his empire set the stage for the rise of the more structured and lasting Gunpowder Empires in the 1500s and 1600s.
  • Taimur envisioned the restoration of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan.Taimur's armies were inclusively multi-ethnic and were feared throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. Scholars estimate that his military campaigns caused the death of 17 million people, amounting to about 5% of the world population.

Why was he a brilliant strategist?

Taimur is regarded as a military genius and as a brilliant tactician with an uncanny ability to work within a highly fluid political structure to win and maintain a loyal following of nomads during his rule in Central Asia. He was also considered extraordinarily intelligent – not only intuitively but also intellectually.

  • His military conquests saw him conquer land that comprises the modern day countries of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, large parts of Turkey and Syria, and the north-western portion of India.
  • Taimur idolized Genghis Khan and used similar methods to build his empire. For example, he was a military mastermind who led a multi-ethnic army. He instilled great loyalty, and was adept at taking advantage of temporary weaknesses in the political state of his enemies. He also used spies and propaganda to sow the seeds for invasion, and planned his campaigns years in advance.
  • Taimur was not of royal blood, but came from humble stock. He was a natural leader who worked his way up the ranks.He spent his teenage years leading a band of petty thieves. They stole livestock from farmers, and property from travellers and merchants. In his twenties, Taimur fought under the rule of various Khans and Sultans. His leadership skills led to him being given command of a thousand soldiers for an invasion of Khorasan (in north-east Iran). The success of this mission led to further commands and prestige.

When did his exploits spread fear?

It may seem surprising that the ruler who would be later considered as one of the most brutal invaders ascended the throne because others considered him as a lesser threat.

  • During Taimur's youth, Transoxiana was riven by conflict between the local nomadic clans and the sedentary Chagatay Mongol khans who ruled them. The Chagatay had abandoned the mobile ways of Genghis Khan and their other ancestors, and taxed the people heavily in order to support their urban lifestyle. Naturally, this taxation angered their citizens.
  • In 1347, a local Amir named Kazgan seized power from the Chagatay ruler Borolday. Kazgan would rule until his assassination in 1358. After Kazgan's death, various warlords and religious leaders vied for power. Tughluk Taimur, a Mongol warlord, emerged victorious in 1360.
  • Taimur's uncle Hajji Beg led the Barlas tribe at this time, but refused to submit to Tughluk Taimur. Beg fled, and the new Mongol ruler decided to install the seemingly more bendable young Taimur to rule in his stead.

In fact, Taimur was already plotting against the Mongols. He formed an alliance with the grandson of Kazgan, Amir Hussein, and married Hussein's sister Aljai Turkanaga. The Mongols soon caught on; Taimur and Hussein were dethroned and forced to turn to banditry in order to survive. They were even imprisoned in Persia for two months. It seemed that Taimur’s ambition to lead his people was over.

  • If nothing else, Taimur was as brave as any soldier could be. Taimur's bravery and tactical skill made him a successful mercenary soldier in Persia, and he soon collected a large following. In 1364, Taimur and Hussein banded together again and defeated Ilyas Khoja, the son of Tughluk Taimur. By 1366, the two warlords controlled Transoxiana.
  • Taimur's wife died in 1370, freeing him to attack his erstwhile ally Hussein. Hussein was besieged and killed at Balkh, and Taimur declared himself the sovereign of the whole region. Over the next decade, Taimur seized the rest of Central Asia, as well.
  • With Central Asia in hand, Taimur invaded Russia in 1380. He helped the Mongol Khan Toktamysh retake control, and also defeated the Lithuanians in battle. Taimur captured Herat in 1383, the opening salvo against Persia. By 1385, all of Persia was his territory.
  • With invasions in 1391 and 1395, Taimur fought against his former protege Toktamysh in Russia. The Timurid army captured Moscow in 1395. While Taimur was busy in the north, Persia revolted.He responded by burning entire cities and using the citizens' skulls to build grisly towers and pyramids. By 1396, Taimur had also conquered Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mesopotamia and Georgia.

Next stop – India.

Where did Taimur’s Indian exploits leave the country?

After Feroze Shah, the Delhi Sultanate fell steadily into decline. His many successors, Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq II, Nasir-ud-din Muhammad, Ala-ud-din Sikander Shah and Nasir-ud-din Mahmud Tughlaq came and went so quickly that their collective tenure have no historical value.

  • Towards the end of 1397, news reached Delhi that the armies of a certain Turkish king of Mongol descent had crossed the Indus. By the time the nobility woke up to the gravity of the situation, the invading army had whizzed past the Indus, Chenab and Ravi rivers and occupied Multan.
  • What led Taimur, who was in his sixties and already a major success in Central Asia, to come to India His own autobiography cites an auspicious dream which prompted him to invade India. It has also been suggested that he wanted the earth to be rid of Kafirs (non-believers)this last could hardly be true since the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate were as Islamic as he himself was.
  • Taimur’s own religious affiliation is unclear, and he may have been using Islam as a means to consolidate and exert power. He had brutally murdered millions of Persians and displayed their dead bodies to send out a message - hardly an Islamic act to do. Indeed, he was a highly intelligent politician who spoke Turkish, Mongolian and Persian.When he attacked and slaughtered fellow-Muslims, as he very frequently did, they were always described as ‘bad Muslims’. It is safe to assume that Taimur was interested in Delhi’s wealth and did not want to let go of the opportunity that the political instability of the Delhi Sultans had presented him with.
  • Taimur plundered Lahore on his way to Delhi. He did not personally visit the city but sent his grandson to punish Lahore for not paying a ransom. Lahore was stripped of every penny and every horse.
  • Taimur then plundered North India, particularly Delhi.The sack of Delhi by Taimur has gone ringing down as the worst ever in the history of the city. According to a contemporary account, “…the city was utterly ruined and those of the inhabitants who were left died, while for two whole months not a bird moved wings in Delhi.” The Tughlaq Empire was completely liquidated and its majesty and glory destroyed. Timur ordered a general massacre and plunder which continued for 15 days.Delhi was left with no glory, no riches, no people, no joy and no master. By perpetrating greater cruelties upon the Hindus (though Muslims were targeted too), Timur’s invasion sowed the seeds of hostilities between the Hindus and the Muslims who were living rather peacefully till the invasion.
  • Timur started his back journey from Delhi in January 1399. On his way he plundered Meerut, Hardwar, Kangra and Jammu. Before leaving India, he appointed Khizr Khan as governor of Multan, Lahore and Dialpur.

Note: The Sultan of Delhi used war elephants, covered with chain mail, to terrify Taimur’s troops. In a stroke of cruel genius, Taimur placed hay on the backs of camels, set the hay on fire, and prodded them until they painfully charged at the elephants. The elephants turned and stampeded their own troops, granting Taimur an easy victory.

Who benefited from his rule?

Taimur was not kind in victory. He did care for his troops - only because it was a practical necessity. Like every great conqueror that has ever lived on this planet, even Taimur wanted to leave physical reminders of his greatness through works of art and architecture.Though he destroyed a large number of beautiful buildings and temples in Delhi, he took back with him all the skilled artisans he could find to be employed for the buildings at his capital Samarkand. These artisans from his conquered territories designed and constructed several buildings in Central Asia.

  • He took all the riches and craftsmen he could get his hands on and hauled them back to Samarkand. Yet Taimur seemed to have little interest in the spoils of war. He rarely gave his armies a chance to enjoy the fruits of their victory before he forced them into another campaign.
  • During his reign and the reigns of his immediate descendants, a wide range of religious and palatial construction projects were undertaken in Samarkand and other population centres.
  • Samarkand became the Athens of Central Asia. It was known as the "garden of the blessed” and "the forth place." Taimur reportedly once boasted, "Let he who doubts our power look upon our architecture."

Taimur was a patron of art and learning and he turned Samarqand into an exquisitely beautiful city.His empire, which was never more than the expression of his personal dominance, did not survive his death.

No empire built on the skulls of dead people can survive the test of history.

Note: The most prominent symbol of his empire is the Gūr-i Amīr, his mausoleum in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It occupies an important place in the history of Persian-Mongolian Architecture as the precursor and model for later great Mughal architecture tombs, including Gardens of Babur in Kabul, Humayun's Tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra, built by Taimur's Persianised descendants, the ruling Mughal dynasty of North India. It has been heavily restored.

How brutal is his legacy?

It may seem like a cruel joke by nature that the mighty conqueror no one could defeat died of common cold in his old age. To his credit, he was leading an expedition to China at the time of his death. His body was taken back to Samarqand to be interred beneath the dome of the Gur Amir mausoleum in a steel coffin under a slab of black jade six feet long, which was then the largest piece of the stone in the world. An inscription records: “This is the resting place of the illustrious and merciful monarch, the most great Sultan, the most mighty warrior, Lord Timur, Conqueror of the World.”

Great he was. Mighty he was. But merciful he was not.

  • Taimur dreamed about world domination, and once reportedly said:"There is only one God in the sky, and there should be only one king on the earth, the whole world does not deserve to have more than one king". In his life time, it has been said Taimur conquered more territory than anyone else except Alexander the Great.
  • Taimur has been called the most pointlessly destructive of nomadic horse chieftains of the steppes. He is most famous for leaving behind pyramids of skulls in the places he conquered from Baghdad to New Delhi.
  • Taimur levelled cities and planted barley in the ruins. Before Taimur's armies left for battle it is said they placed a stone on a pile. When they returned they took a stone off.The number of dead was calculated by how many stones were left.
  • After his death no one could hold Taimur's empire together. Taimur's descendants ruled separately in small kingdoms.His grandson Babur was the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India. When Taimur died, the Ottomans under Murat II regained much of their lost territory, plus some taken by Taimur.

The curse of Taimur

Taimur’s tomb was allegedly inscribed with the words “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble”. His coffin supposedly read:“Whoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I”.

  • Soviet leader Stalin had ordered the exhumation of Taimur’s body in spite of being warned against it. Nazi Germany under the command of Adolf Hitler invaded Soviet Union (now Russia) on June 22, 1941. This was exactly two days after Tamerlane’s tomb was opened and the remains of Timur were sent to Moscow. This invasion came without any formal declaration of war and Hitler named it as Operation Barbarossa.
  • After numerous defeats at the hands of Germans, Stalin eventually ordered that the remains of Timur be returned to his tomb with full Islamic burial rights. Shortly after Taimur’s remains were put back in his tomb, German forces surrendered and the Soviets won the Battle of Stalingrad which was one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. This turned the tide in favour of the Soviets and the Allied Powers.

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Tags | Central Asia Persia Taimur Taimur invasion Taimurid Empire