Timur, or Tamerlane (1336-1405, reigned 1370-1405)

Timur, or Tamerlane, was the founder of the Timurid Empire who conquered territories stretching from Anatolia through Persia and Central Asia to Delhi in Northern India. The importance of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, as a glorious cultural center on the Silk Road is due to Timur and his successors in the Timurid dynasty.

The Europeanized form of Timur’s name, Tamerlane, comes from the Turco-Persian name, Timur-i lang (The lame Timur) used by some Persian sources. He received this name because his right leg was maimed by an injury he sustained early in his life (Soucek 123). Timur was born to a minor noble around the year 1336 in the city of Kesh (now Shahrisabz in present day Uzbekistan), around 80 kilometers south of Samarkand  (Soucek 123, Marozzi 7). The date of Timur’s birth is disputed; some scholars such as Beatrice Forbes Man argue that Timur was five years older than he claimed (Marozzi 7). Timur may have changed the date of his birth to a more auspicious date for propagandistic purposes.

Timur first made a name for himself in 1360 when he offered to serve the leader of invading Moghul forces. His offer was accepted, and Timur was appointed the Moghul Khan’s ruling vassal, making Timur the leader of an entire tribe (Marozzi 29-30). However, Timur’s subservience to the Moghuls did not last; between the years 1366-1370 Timur made temporary alliances with another warlord, Husayn, to repel the Moghuls (Marozzi, 41). After successfully driving off the Moghuls, Husayn and Timur came to a head, fighting each other for control of the region. Timur defeated Husayn, and by his rights as victor, he took Husayn’s widow, Saray Mulk-khanum, as his wife. Saray was a princess descended from Genghis Khan, which aligned Timur with the lineage of the Great Khan (Marozzi 42-43).

Although his marriage to Saray bolstered his legitimacy as a ruler, Timur was not of royal blood, and the tradition laid down by Genghis Khan required that only a man of royal blood could act as supreme commander. To get around this dilemma, Timur appointed Suyurghatmish as nominal ruler, or khan, although power remained in Timur’s hands (Marozzi 44). Timur’s lack of royal blood meant that although he controlled a large expanse of land and founded his own empire, Timur could never obtain the supreme title of khan like his predecessor Genghis Khan (Soucek 125).

The capital of Timur’s empire was Samarkand, although later Timurid rulers moved the capital to Herat, Afghanistan (Soucek 126). Samarkand held special significance for Timur, as it was his first notable military victory and conquest. After Timur captured the city from the Sarbadars, he began making repairs, which included rebuilding the walls encircling the city that the armies of Genghis Khan had raised in 1220 (Marozzi 207). Over the years, Timur built Samarkand into a sprawling metropolis that was home to 150,000 people from across his vast empire (Marozzi 208). Samarkand is home to many important Islamic Monuments, including the Bibi Khanum Mosque complex, Gur-I Amir (Tomb of the Amir), and the funerary site Shah-I Zinda.

Throughout his life Timur led campaigns to capture more territory for his empire. In 1404, when Timur was in his sixties, he rode off on his last campaign with Ming China as his ultimate target. Instead of waiting for spring to begin his campaign, Timur led his troops out of Samarkand in the winter. The cold was especially brutal that year; when the army stopped to rest in the city of Otrar, Timur became ill and later died (Marozzi 397-400). His body was brought back to Samarkand and buried in his mausoleum, Gur-e Amir.

Contributor: Marina Schneider

Works Cited:

Marozzi, Justin. Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. Da Capo Press, 2004.

Soucek, Svat. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge University Press, 2000.