Tamerlane, the most influential Central Asian military leader of the Middle Ages, restored the former Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan. During his long military career, Tamerlane engaged in an almost constant state of warfare in order to extend his borders and maintain his vast territory, which reached from the Mediterranean in the west to India in the south and Russia in the north.
Born in 1336 to a minor Tartar military family at Kesh, which today is Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan, Tamerlane came by his name from Timur Lang, or Timur the Lame, because of a partial paralysis in his left side. Despite his modest birth and his physical disability, the intelligent Tamerlane advanced in the political and military ranks of the Jagatai Mongols in the Central Asian region that today makes up Turkestan and central Siberia.
In 1370, Tamerlane, who had risen to prime minister, overthrew the khan and assumed leadership of the Jagatais, now declaring himself a Mongol and a directed descendant of Genghis Khan, with the goal of restoring the former empire. For the next thirty-five years Tamerlane conducted offensives against new territories and suppressed all internal strife. Unlike Genghis Khan, however, Tamerlane focused on looting the lands he conquered and returning their riches to his palace in Samarkand. Instead of uniting new states as part of his greater empire, Tamerlane left behind massive destruction marked by huge pyramids of his enemy’s skulls that he built as memorials to his victories. Although he expressed a great appreciation for art and literature and made Samarkand a center of culture, Tamerlane led field operations that encouraged barbarism and atrocities.
Focusing first on controlling neighboring tribes, Tamerlane then turned toward Persia and, between 1380 and 1389, conquered Iran, Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Georgia. In 1390, Tamerlane invaded Russia and in 1392 moved back through Persia, putting down a revolt by killing all those who opposed him, murdering their families, and burning their cities.
Tamerlane possessed excellent talents in tactics, and his personally bravery highly motivated his army, which often exceeded one hundred thousand men. His military forces closely resembled those of Genghis Khan; cavalry forces armed with bows and swords leading spare mounts loaded with rations and supplies for long campaigns.
For no apparent reason other than a love of fighting and a desire to increase his royal coffers, Tamerlane invaded India in 1398. His army captured Delhi and remained only long enough to massacre its inhabitants and destroy what they did not remove to Samarkand. Destruction was so complete that it took more than a century for Delhi to return to its preinvasion stature. Tamerlane did not limit his victims to civilians. After the Battle of Panipat on December 17, 1398, Tamerlane put one hundred thousand captured Indian soldiers to the sword.
In 1401, Tamerlane conquered Syria and slaughtered twenty thousand residents of Damascus and the following year defeated the Ottoman sultan Bayazid I. By then, even those countries beyond the grasp of Tamerlane recognized his might and paid him tribute to keep his furious hordes from invading their territories. In 1404, Tamerlane even began receiving contributions from both the sultan of Egypt and Byzantine emperor John I.
Tamerlane’s empire now rivaled that of Genghis Khan, and he had a palace laden with treasures. As an old warrior in his sixties, Tamerlane was not yet satisfied, however, and began planning an invasion of China. Before he could execute his plan, he died on January 19, 1405, at about the age of sixty-eight. His tomb, the Gur-e Amir, remains today one of the greatest architectural monuments of Samarkand.
In his will, Tamerlane divided his empire among his sons and grandsons. Not surprisingly, Tamerlane’s heirs proved to be blood-thirsty and ambitious. In 1420, after years of fighting, Tamerlane’s younger son Shahrukh assumed the leadership of his father’s entire empire by right of being the only survivor of the internal conflicts.
Without questions, Tamerlane was a mighty military leader, but he lacked the political motivation to build a true empire. Conquered territories merely provided Tamerlane storehouses to loot and populations for his soldiers to ravish and murder. He left no accomplishments except vanquished peoples, scorched earth, and mounds of glistening skulls. Yet there is no dispute over the vastness of his conquests or the fear that spread ahead of his advancing army. His direct influence dominated Central Asia for much of the fourteenth century and produced an extensive increase in militancy as nations armed to defend themselves against Tamerlane and his cavalry hordes.
Tamerlane gained power and territory through the size and might of his army, and he maintained control by pure ruthlessness. On this list, his counterparts are Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein; Tamerlane ranks between the two because his slaughter exceeded that of the latter’s and fell far short of the former’s.