In Medieval times, while small European kingdoms squabbled over tiny differences of land and religion, the eastern steppes echoed to the thunderous sound of the hooves of the great Khans.
The most terrible and fearsome conquerors in history, Genghis Khan and his generals had defeated every army that stood in their way from China to Hungary, and slaughtered anyone who resisted them.
By the mid 14th century, however, these conquests had fragmented as the descendants of the great Khan fought each other and jealously hoarded their own sections of the empire.
It took another man of equal ferocity and military genius to briefly unite them for one last terrible reign of conquest – Timur – a fascinating individual who combined barbarian Mongol dread with the sophisticated learning of the Islamic near east in a deadly combination.
Timur’s name means iron in the Chagatai language of Transoxiana (modern Uzbekistan), the harsh steppe land of his birth in 1336.
It was ruled by the Chagatai Khans, who were descendants of Genghis’ son of the same name, and Timur’s father was a minor noble in the Barlas, a Mongolian tribe which had been influenced by Islamic and Turkic culture in the century since the Mongol conquests.
As a result, even as a young man, Timur saw himself as heir to both Genghis’ conquests and those of the prophet Mohamed and his followers.
Even lifelong crippling injuries sustained while trying to steal a sheep in 1363 did not deter him from believing in this destiny, and at around the same time he began to find fame as a leader of a band of horsemen in the Chagatai armies.
The weaponry and tactics used by these bands of horseman would’ve differed significantly to their knightly western counterparts.
When his empire’s eastern neighbour Tughlugh of Kashgar invaded, Timur joined him against his erstwhile employers and was rewarded with overlordship of Transoxiana, as well as of the Berlas tribe when his father died young.
He was already a powerful leader in the region by 1370, and was able to fight off Tughlugh when he attempted to change his mind and take Transoxiana off him.
Even at this fairly early stage of his career Timur was showing all the prized qualities of a despot, developing a large following through generosity and charisma before ruthlessly having his half-brother assassinated and marrying his wife, a blood descendant of Genghis Khan.
This latter move was particularly important as it allowed Timur to legitimately become sole ruler of the Chagatai Khanate.
The next thirty-five years were spent in relentless conquest. His first rival was another descendant of Genghis, Tokhtamysh – ruler of the Golden Horde. The two fought bitterly before joining forces against the Russian Muscovites and burning their capital Moscow in 1382.
Then came the conquest of Persia – which involved a massacre of over 100,000 civilians in the city of Herat – and another war against Tokhtamysh which crushed the power of the Mongol Golden Horde.
Timur’s next move ended in a battle which sounds too bizarre to be true, after his men were able to defeat an army of Indian elephants wearing chain-mail and bearing poisoned tusks in front of Delhi, before sacking the city in 1398.
This was a stunning achievement, for the Delhi sultanate was one of the world’s richest and most powerful at the time, and involved many more massacres to stop civilian disturbances. With the east largely cowed by Timur’s multi-ethnic armies of marauding horsemen, he then turned in the other direction.
The Ottoman threat and Chinese plot
Throughout the 14th century the emerging Ottoman Empire had been growing in strength, and in 1399 it found the audacity to attack the Turkman Muslims in Anatolia (modern Turkey,) who were ethnically and religiously bound to Timur.
Outraged, the conqueror sacked the Ottoman cities of Aleppo and Damascus, before turning on the famously wealthy Baghdad and massacring much of its population. Bayezid, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, was finally brought to battle outside Ankara in 1402, and had his armies and hopes destroyed. He would later die in captivity.
Now with free reign in Anatolia, Timur’s horde ravaged the country. He was a shrewd political operator as well as a savage and destructive barbarian however, and took this opportunity to crush the Christian Knights Hospitaliters in western Anatolia – allowing him to dub himself ghazi or warrior of Islam.
This increased his support still further. On the way back east through friendly territory, the now aged ruler began to plot a conquest of Mongolia and Imperial China, via a detour to recover Baghdad, which had been taken by a local rival.
After a nine-month celebration in the city of Samarkand, his armies embarked on their greatest ever campaign. In a twist of fate, the old man planned a winter campaign for the first time to take the Ming Chinese by surprise, but could not cope with the incredibly harsh conditions and died on 14 February 1405, before ever reaching China.
His legacy is complex. In the near-east and India he is reviled as a mass-murdering vandal. This is hard to dispute; the most reliable estimate of Timur’s death count is 17,000,000, a staggering 5% of the world’s population at the time.
In his native central Asia, however, he is still celebrated as a hero, both as restorer of Mongol greatness and champion of Islam, which is exactly the legacy that he would have wanted. When the statue of Lenin was pulled down in Tashkent – capital of Uzbekistan – in 1991, it was replaced by a new one of Timur.
His empire proved ephemeral as it was lost, predictably, between quarreling sons, but ironically his cultural impact has lasted far longer.
As well as everything else, Timur was a genuinely accomplished scholar who spoke a variety of languages and enjoyed the company of prominent Islamic thinkers of his day such as Ibn Khaldun, inventor of the discipline of sociology and widely recognised in the west as one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages.
This learning was brought back to Central Asia, and, through Timur’s wide-ranging diplomatic missions – to Europe, where the kings of France and Castile were in regular contact with him and he was celebrated as a vanquisher of the aggressive Ottoman Empire.
Evil man though he obviously was, his exploits are well worth studying, and still hugely relevant in today’s world.