Imagine thousands of armed, scowling horsemen galloping furiously across the barren steppe — or toward your hopelessly under-defended city. If you were anywhere in Inner Asia or Europe’s eastern fringes during the 14th century, it was a frighteningly familiar sight, one likely followed by either subjugation or unimaginable slaughter. Sounds like Genghis Khan is coming, right? Not exactly.
Just about everyone’s heard of Khan and his brutal exploits across Asia and beyond. But far fewer — in the West, anyway — have heard of Tamerlane, the Turkic-Mongol chief who sought to cast himself as the continent’s next pre-eminent ruler nearly 200 years later. Looming large over Eurasian history as a fearsome conqueror whose lifetime accomplishments, some experts believe, may have actually rivaled Khan’s, Tamerlane is considered a national hero in modern-day Uzbekistan. There, he’s anything but forgotten.
Born in 1336 in the Chagatai khanate of central Asia, part of the remains of Khan’s fractured Mongol Empire, Tamerlane (also known by his birth name, Timur) was endowed with an automatic leg up on the infamous ruler he eventually sought to emulate: Unlike Khan, he was a Muslim, a trait that would lend him considerable leverage later in life when he bridged the Turkic-Mongol and Persian worlds.
After gaining control over much of his native Chagatai khanate, Tamerlane set his sights on neighboring territories and, eventually, the doorstep of modern-day Europe.
Before that, however, he fought his way to the top of a patchwork of tribes scattered throughout historical Transoxania. Not that it posed much of a problem: Tamerlane, writes historian Beatrice Forbes Manz in her 1989 book The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane, “pursued power with an awesome singleness of purpose.” After gaining control over much of his native Chagatai khanate, he set his sights on neighboring territories and, eventually, the doorstep of modern-day Europe. After all, the late 14th century was still the age of great nomadic warriors — even if Tamerlane would later become known as the last of them. “These guys were very mobile,” says Scott Levi, a professor of history at Ohio State University. “You could move armies in the tens of thousands very, very quickly.”
And so Tamerlane did, employing his military prowess to dispatch hordes of fighters in all directions, then using his managerial chops to keep some of those conquests effectively administered. He waged campaigns as far as Moscow and Anatolia to the east and the Tian Shan mountains to the west. “He was fantastically successful as a commander,” says Manz, a professor of history at Tufts University, “and he had real discipline in his troops.” Ferocity was his calling card, as he sought legitimacy by following Khan’s tradition of massacring residents of unruly cities (but sparing those that submitted). Millions were believed to have been killed by his men.
During his career, Tamerlane conquered more territory than his more famous predecessor, according to Manz, leaving a trail of puppet khans to rule in his stead. At the height of his power, he ruled over the lands of modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey and southern Russia, as well as much of central Asia and part of the Indian subcontinent.
But Tamerlane wasn’t all about brutality. The Timurid dynasty he established became associated with the flourishing of high culture. After Tamerlane’s death, in 1405, his descendants distinguished themselves as patrons of art, embarking on great religious building projects and embracing hitherto foreign Persian Islamic traditions. “That cultural legacy was very prestigious,” says Manz, “and the styles they created were the ones that influenced later dynasties.” Today, Tamerlane’s gleaming imperial capital of Samarkand, one of Uzbekistan’s key cities, still stands as one the Islamic world’s greatest treasures.
While Genghis Khan’s territories grew exponentially after his death to eventually become history’s largest-ever contiguous land empire, Tamerlane’s land conquests didn’t last long after his death. But that’s no obstacle to his legacy in modern-day Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic whose heroes throughout most of the 20th century were Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and other communist luminaries — men whose historical value was ultimately fleeting. “In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, within Uzbekistan there was a need to fill that void,” Levi says.
So Tamerlane returned to prominence, forming a cornerstone of the newly independent country’s nation-building project. The current regime, itself not known for its kindness, has played down the warrior’s brutality and instead emphasized his dynasty’s contributions to central Asia’s rich cultural history. Monuments honoring Tamerlane command public spaces and broadcast a simple message: This is Uzbekistan’s founding father.
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