Tamerlane (1336-1405) was a celebrated Turko-Mongol conqueror whose victories, characterized by acts of inhuman cruelty, made him the master of the greater part of western Asia. His vast empire disintegrated at his death.

Tamerlane or Timur (Tamerlane is a corruption of the Persian Timur-i Lang, "Timur the Lame"), belonged to the Turkized Mongol clan of the Barlas, which had accompanied the Mongol armies westward and had settled in the Kashka Valley to the south of Samarkand, between Shakhrisyabz and Karshi. He was born near Shakhrisyabz on April 9, 1336. This whole region, the present-day Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, was then part of the Chaghatai khanate, which received its name from its founder, the second son of Genghis Khan, and which included, besides Transoxiana—the countries between the Amu Darya (Oxus) and the Syr Darya—the whole area to the east of the Syr Darya up to the western borders of Mongolia.

In 1346/1347 the Chaghatai khan, Kazan, who had his residence at Karshi, was defeated and killed by a tribal leader called Kazaghan, and Transoxiana ceased to be part of the khanate. Kazaghan's death (1358) was followed by a period of anarchy, and Tughluk-Temür, the ruler of the territories beyond the Syr Darya (now known as Moghulistan, "land of the Moguls, or Mongols"), invaded Transoxiana in 1360 and again in 1361 in an attempt to reestablish Chaghatai rule.

Tamerlane declared himself Tughluk-Temür's vassal and was made ruler of the Shakhrisyabz-Karshi region. He soon, however, rebelled against the Moguls and formed an alliance with Husain, the grandson of Kazaghan. Together in 1363 they drove Ilyas Khoja, Tughluk-Temür's son, out of Transoxiana; he returned in the following year, having succeeded his father as khan, and inflicted a defeat upon Tamerlane and Husain, but they were able, after his withdrawal, to consolidate their power as joint rulers of the country. They were often on bad terms but with some interruptions maintained an uneasy partnership until 1370, when open war erupted. Besieged at Balkh, Husain was captured and executed, and Tamerlane, now the undisputed master of Transoxiana, took up residence at Samarkand, henceforward his capital city and the base of his operations against eastern and western Asia.


Expansion of Power

Tamerlane's first campaigns were directed against Khiva and his old enemies, the Moguls; it was not until 1381 that he turned his attention westward, leading an expedition into eastern Iran; further expeditions in subsequent years extended gradually into Iraq, Asia Minor, and Syria. The atrocities committed in the course of these campaigns are recorded even by his own court historian. At Sabzawar, in what is now Afghanistan, Tamerlane directed a tower to be constructed out of live men heaped on top of one another and cemented together with bricks and mortar. To punish a revolt in Isfahan, he ordered a general massacre of the population, and the heads of 70, 000 people were built up into minarets.

In 1387 an invasion of Transoxiana by Toktamish, the ruler of the Golden Horde, obliged Tamerlane to interrupt his operations in western Asia, and the repulsion of the invader, followed by expeditions into Moghulistan, was to keep him occupied for the next 4 years. It was not until 1392 that he resumed the conquest of western Asia in what is known as the Five Years' Campaign. After suppressing the Muzaffarid dynasty in Fars (spring 1393), Tamerlane entered present-day Iraq, received the submission of Baghdad, whose Jalayirid ruler, Sultan Ahmad, had fled at his approach, continued northward into eastern Turkey and the Caucasus area, defeated Toktamish in a battle on the Terek (April 1395), and advanced up the Don to capture the Russian town of Yelets, on the border between the Russian principalities and the territory of the Golden Horde. The campaign ended, in the winter of 1395-1396, with the destruction of the two main centers of the Horde at Astrakhan and New Saray, and Tamerlane returned to Samarkand to prepare for his invasion of India.


India, Turkey, and Egypt

This, the briefest of his campaigns, lasting less than 6 months, was the occasion of Tamerlane's greatest massacre: the execution in cold blood, before the gates of Delhi, of 100, 000 Hindu prisoners. There followed immediately the so-called Seven Years' Campaign (1399-1403), which brought Tamerlane into conflict with the two most powerful rulers in western Asia, the Ottoman sultan of Turkey and the Mamluk sultan of Egypt.

Syria, then part of Egypt's territory, was invaded in 1400, Aleppo falling in October of that year and Damascus in March 1401. Tamerlane now turned eastward against Baghdad, which had been reoccupied by Sultan Ahmad's forces and offered stubborn resistance to Tamerlane's attack. It was taken in June 1401, and the slaughter which followed was such that the heads of the dead were piled up into 120 towers. Tamerlane passed the winter of 1401/1402 in the eastern Caucasus before moving westward into Anatolia to deal the final blow to Sultan Bayazid (Bajazet), who was defeated and taken prisoner at the Battle of Ankara (July 20, 1402).

The Sultan died while still in captivity, but the story, familiar from Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, that he was transported in an iron cage like a wild beast, is based on a misunderstanding of a phrase in the record of the historian Arabshah. The last action of the campaign was the storming and sacking of Smyrna, then held by the Knights of St. John, who had recaptured it from the Ottoman Turks a half century before.

Tamerlane returned from the Seven Years' Campaign by slow stages, reaching Samarkand in August 1404. He set off before the end of the year upon a still more grandiose enterprise, the conquest of China, liberated only some 30 years previously form its Mongol masters. He was, however, taken ill at Otrar, on the eastern bank of the Syr Darya, and died on Feb. 18, 1405.


Further Reading on Tamerlane

Hilda Hookham's gracefully written Tamburlaine the Conqueror (1964) is the most detailed and up-to-date work addressed to the general reader. Older works include a 14th-century account in Arabic by Ahmed ibn Arabshah, Tamerlane, translated by J. H. Sanders (1936), and Harold Lamb, Tamerlane, the Earth Shaker (1928). See also the relevant sections in René Grousset, Empire of the Steppes (1939; trans. 1970); Richard N. Frye, Iran (1954); Sir John Glubb, The Lost Centuries (1967), which contains an excellent chapter on Tamerlane; and the Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 6 (1971).