Tamerlane (1336-1405), a brutal leader of Turkish descent who claimed to be related to Genghis Khan, established a new empire in Central Asia with a capital in Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan) in the 1300s after the collapse of the Mongol empire. Tamerlane was also known as Timur and Tanburlaine. Tamerlane is a conjunction of “Tamer the Lame,: a name he received because of a limp he received from a wound in his leg. The word Timur means "iron" in Turkic dialects and it was an appropriate name for the man who grow from a prince of a small Turk-Mongol tribe to the ruler of an expanding empire that stretched from Delhi to Anatolia. The dynasty that Tamerlane founded was called the Timurids.
Tamerlane was a Muslim and great folk hero across Asia and the Muslim world in his time. During a 19-year campaign between 1386 and 1395, he conquered lands present day Iran, Iraq, Syria, eastern Turkey, the Caucasus, northern India, and added these to his home base in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Tamerlaine dreamed about world domination, and once reportedly said: "There is only one God in the sky, and there should be only one king on the earth, the whole world do not deserve to have more then one king". In his life time, it has been said Tamerlane conquered more than anyone save Alexander the Great. His armies crossed Eurasia from Delhi to Moscow, from the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia to the Taurus Mountains in Anatolia. But as large as Tamerlane's empire was it but only occupied the southwesterly quarter of the realm of the Mongols when they were at their peak. Tamerlane justified his conquests with the belief that he was punishing local Muslim leaders for corruption. Although his subjects were appalled by his brutality they appreciated the stability that strong government brought.
In a review of Erik Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, Christopher Berg wrote: “ Through active and loyal service, Timur Lenk was given positions of favor under the Mongols. He was an adept politician who exploited the situation to his advantage. Timur was ruler of Transoxiana but that was not enough. He spent the rest of his life consumed with war and carnage. He conquered Khwarezim, Iran, Georgia, Armenia, Persia, India, Syria, and Turkey. [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University deremilitari.org /^\]
Websites and Resources: Ottoman Empire and Turks: The Ottomans.org theottomans.org ; Ottoman Text Archive Project – University of Washington courses.washington.edu ; Wikipedia article on the Ottoman Empire Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on the Ottoman Empire britannica.com ; American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century Shapell Manuscript Foundation shapell.org/historical-perspectives/exhibitions ; Ottoman Empire and Turk Resources – University of Michigan umich.edu/~turkis ; Turkey in Asia, 1920 wdl.org ; Wikipedia article on the Turkish People Wikipedia ; Turkish Studies, Turkic republics, regions, and peoples at University of Michigan umich.edu/~turkish/turkic ; Türkçestan Orientaal's links to Turkic languages users.telenet.be/orientaal/turkcestan ; Turkish Culture Portal turkishculture.org ; ATON, the Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University aton.ttu.edu ; The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia
Tamerlane's Early Life
Tamerlane claimed direct descent from Genghis Khan through the house of Chagatai. Tamerlane's rise was not all that different from Genghis Khan's. He was born on April 9, 1336 into a the Barlas clan, a small Turkish clan of aristocrats based in the village of Hoja Ilghar about 30 kilometers south Samarkand. His father, Taraqai, was a small-scale landowner. The Barlas tribe was a Turko-Mongol tribe which was originally a Mongol tribe and was Turkified. Tamerlane grew up in the nearby town of Kesh (present-day Shahr-i-Sabz, Shakhrisabz). After taking control of his clan, he united other clans into a powerful army.
Tamerlane became lame in his right arm and right leg from injuries he suffered when he was 25. Sharaf ad-Din said he received the arrow wounds in battle while stealing sheep. In 1941, Soviet anthropologists opened his grave and confirmed that he was in fact lame and that he was also tall for his time (170 centimeters).
Shakhrisabz (45 miles south of Samarkand) is regarded as the birthplace and hometown of Tamerlane. Located in the foothills of the Zeravsshan mountains, it is today a town with 60,000 people and features a number old structures associated with Tamerlane, including part of a 14th century palace and mausoleum. In its day Shakhrisabz was probably just as grand as Samarkand but much of the city was destroyed by the Emir of Bukhara in the 16th century.
Early in his career, Tamerlane took the title 'Sahib Qiran' symbolized by three circlets forming a triangle. It was an astrological term which meants 'Lord of the Fortunate Conjuncture'. It expressed his sense not just of balancing leadership and the demands of nomads and a settled population but of integrating them into a dynamic institutional system.
Tamerlane's Appearance, Character and Religion
Tamerlane is said to have been strongly built and well proportioned, with a large head and broad forehead. His complexion was pale and ruddy, his beard long and his voice full and resonant. Arabshah describes him approaching seventy, a master politician and military strategist: “Steadfast in mind and robust in body, brave and fearless, firm as rock. He did not care for jesting or lying; wit and trifling pleased him not; truth, even were it painful, delighted him.....He loved bold and valiant soldiers, by whose aid he opened the locks of terror, tore men to pieces like lions, and overturned mountains. He was faultless in strategy, constant in fortune, firm of purpose and truthful in business.”
Different sources indicated that Timur was a man of extraordinary intelligence. Even though he did not know how to read or write, he spoke two or three languages including Persian and Turkic and liked to be read history at mealtimes. Ibn Khaldun, who met him outside Damascus in 1401 wrote: "This king Timur is one of the greatest and mightiest kings...he is highly intelligent and very perspicacious, addicted to debate and argument about what he knows and also about what he does not know!" Known to be a chess player, he is said to have invented a more elaborate form of the game, now called Tamerlane Chess, with twice the number of pieces on a board of a hundred and ten squares.
Tamerlane was a Muslim but the exact nature of his religion beliefs has been a matter of controversy. His veneration of the house of the Prophet, the spurious genealogy on his tombstone taking his descent back to Ali, and the presence of Shiites in his army led some observers and scholars to call him a Shiite. However his official religious counselor was the Sunni-Hanafite scholar Abd alJabbar Khwarazmi. Tamerlane’s religious practices also embraced Turko-Mongolian shamanism and Sufi rituals. Tamerlane reportedly belonged to the allegedly peaceful Naqshbandi Sufi sect of Islam. he claimed to be a disciple of the holy man Sayyid Baraka. One of finest buildings he had built was tomb for Ahmad Yaassawi, known for spreading a kind of folk Islam among nomadic horsemen. In religion as in other aspects of his life Timur was above all an opportunist; his religion served frequently to further his aims.
Tamerlane defeated some of history's most famous armies. namely the Mongols, the Golden Horde and the Ottoman Turks. While the Mongols were preoccupied with a Chinese uprising in Beijing, Tamerlane began the first stage of his own plan of world conquest when he seized power from the Mongol Changhatai rulers in 1386, and claimed much of modern day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. By 1387, Tamerlane had conquered Iran and Iraq. In 1395 he defeated the Golden Horde in Russia. While he was conquering Central Asia he established diplomatic relationship with Turkey, Spain, France, England and Venice.
Tamerlane based his strength on the exploitation of settled populations and inherited a system of rule which could encompass both settled and nomad populations. Those who saw Timur's army described it as a huge conglomeration of different peoples - nomad and settled, Muslims and Christians, Turks, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians and Indians. His war machine was composed of 'tumen'’military units of a 10,000 made of soldiers from conquered territories. These were lead by family members, loyal tribes particularly of the Barlas and Jalayir tribes. Soldiers were also recruited from nomadic population, including the Moghuls, Golden Horde and Turks.
In 1398 Tamelane invaded India and sacked Delhi and massacred thousands of Hindus. In a key battle there Tamerlane faced Sultan Mahmud Khan's army, which had 120 war elephants armored with chain mail and with poison on their tusks. With his Tatar forces afraid of the elephants, Tamerlane ordered his men to dig a trench in front of their positions. Timur then loaded his camels with as much wood and hay as they could carry. When the war elephants charged, Timur's army set the hay on fire and prodded the camels with iron sticks, causing them to charge at the elephants howling in pain: Timur had understood that elephants were easily panicked. Faced with the strange spectacle of camels flying straight at them with flames leaping from their backs, the elephants turned around and stampeded back toward their own lines. Timur capitalised on the subsequent disruption in Mahmud Khan's forces, securing an easy victory. Tamerlane claimed the sultan’s elephant corps and took them back to Samarkand to build mosques and tombs. [Source: Wikipedia]
In 1400 he stormed through the Middle East and what is now Turkey. He sacked Damascus and triggered a massacre in Baghdad. Tamerlane reportedly killed 90,000 men in Baghdad. Severed heads were heaped in big piles.
Tamerlane ruled over an empire that, in modern times, extended from southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, through Central Asia encompassing part of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and even approached Kashgar in China. In 1404, Tamerlane launched a campaign against the powerful Ming dynasty in China and might made headway there if he didn't die in 1405.
Tamerlane Crushes the Ottomans
Europe was given a respite from Turkish threats and the Ottomans suffered a major setback , when Tamerlane swept in Anatolia from Samarkand in Central Asia. Tamerlane's great achievement was the conquest of much of Asia Minor from the Turkish Empire through the defeat and capture of the Ottoman sultan Bajazet I.
Tamerlane crushed the Ottomans at Angora in 1402 and captured the Bajazet I and carried him away in chains. The unfortunate sultan died in captivity the next year, leaving four heirs, who for a decade competed for control of what remained of Ottoman Anatolia. He advanced as far west as the Aegean port of Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), where he captured a crusader castle and massacred all of its defenders. The Byzantine palace gates of the Ottoman capital of Bursa were carried off to Samarkand, where they were much admired by Clavijo.
Christopher Berg wrote: “After enticing Bayezet to follow him in feigned retreats throughout central Turkey, he brought Bayezet to the plain of Ankara. Bayezet’s army could not withstand the efficient horse-archers of Timur’s army and soon succumbed. However spectacular this victory may have been for Timur, it was ephemeral. Hildinger concludes that, “his great victory, in the end, had achieved nothing, because of a lack of consolidation,” and that Timur’s legacy is irrevocably tied to “looting and conflict.” [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University deremilitari.org /^\]
Before the Tamerlane conquest, a, Ottoman policy had been directed toward consolidating the sultan's hold over the gazi amirates by means of conquest, usurpation, and purchase. Many Turkish gazis had defected to Tamerlane’s side. By the 1420s, however, Ottoman power had revived to the extent that fresh campaigns were undertaken in Greece. When Tamerlane died, the Ottomans under Murat II (ruled 1421-51) regained much of their lost territory, plus some taken by Tamerlane.
Tamerlane’s Cruelty and Plundering
Tamerlane has been called the most pointlessly destructive of nomadic horse chieftains of the steppes. He is most famous for leaving behind pyramids of skulls in the places he conquered from Baghdad to New Delhi. His methods won him the title of man who "went forth with insolent swords." The conquests of Timur are claimed to have caused the deaths of up to 17 million people; an assertion impossible to verify.
Tamerlane’s conquests in Persia were characterised by exceptional brutality. For example, when Isfahan surrendered to Timur in 1387, he initially treated it with relative mercy as he commonly did with cities that surrendered without resistance. However, after the city revolted against Timur's punitive taxes by killing the tax collectors and some of Timur's soldiers, Timur ordered the complete massacre of the city, reportedly killing 70,000 citizens. An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers, each constructed of about 1,500 heads.
In 1399 Tamerlane sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army. The city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. In 1400 Timur invaded Christian Armenia and Georgia. Of the surviving population, more than 60,000 of the local people were captured as slaves, and many districts were depopulated. He invaded Baghdad in June 1401. After the capture of the city, 20,000 of its citizens were massacred. Timur ordered that every soldier should return with at least two severed human heads to show him. (Many warriors were so scared they killed prisoners captured earlier in the campaign just to ensure they had heads to present to Timur.) [Source: Wikipedia]
Tamerlane plundered the lands he conquered. He took all the riches and craftsmen he could get his hands on and hauled them back to Samarkand. Yet Tamerlane seemed to have little interest in the spoils of war. He rarely gave his armies a chance to enjoy the fruits of their victory before he forced them into another campaign. Sometimes his soldiers exhausted the soil in fertile areas he conquered and moved on.
Tamerlane leveled cities and planted barley in the ruins. Before Tamerlane’s armies left for battle it is said they placed a stone on a pile. When they returned they took a stone off. The number of dead was calculated by how many stones were left.
Tamerlane and the Arts
As cruel as he was Tamerlane had a reputation for being more of cultured man than Genghis Khan. It has been said that he loved art so much that he could not help stealing it! The Byzantine palace gates of the Ottoman capital of Bursa were carried off to Samarkand, where they were much admired by Clavijo.
Tamerlane was a supporter of the arts, astronomy and scholarship. Regarded as a man who "appreciated knowledge," he welcomed the great Arab scholar, Ibn Khaldun, to Samarkand and brought in "learned men, weavers, tailors, gem cutters, carpenters, farriers, painters, bow-makers, falconers, in short, craftsmen of every kind" from Damascus.
In the late 14th century, Central Asia was arguably the home of the most advanced culture in the world at that time. Among those who were active at the time were Alisher Navoi, perhaps the greatest of Central Asia’s poets, and the astronomer Ulugh Be. Great architectural masterpieces were built on Samarkand and Bukhara.
Tamerlane sent emissaries to Iran, Syria and India. He was captivated by Persian culture. He filled the great Persian cities he conquered---Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz---with artists and poets He has also been described as an advocate of women's rights.
Tamerlane and Samarkand
Timur initiated the last flowering of Mawarannahr by gathering in his capital, Samarqand, numerous artisans and scholars from the lands he had conquered. By supporting such people, Timur imbued his empire with a very rich culture. During Timur's reign and the reigns of his immediate descendants, a wide range of religious and palatial construction projects were undertaken in Samarqand and other population centers. Timur also patronized scientists and artists; his grandson Ulugh Beg was one of the world's first great astronomers. It was during the Timurid dynasty that Turkish, in the form of the Chaghatai dialect, became a literary language in its own right in Mawarannahr--although the Timurids also patronized writing in Persian. Until then only Persian had been used in the region. The greatest Chaghataid writer, Ali Shir Nava'i, was active in the city of Herat, now in northwestern Afghanistan, in the second half of the fifteenth century. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
After the Mongol attack Samarkand remained a backwater until Tamerlane made it the capital of his new empire in 1370. At its height Tamerlane's empire stretched from Mongolia through Central Asia to Europe. Samarkand became the Athens of Central Asia. It was known as "garden of the blessed” and "the forth place." Tamerlane reportedly once boasted, "Let he who doubts our power look upon our architecture.”
Tamerlane patronized the arts, supported scholars and filled Samarkand with beautiful buildings. He filled the city with booty and craftsmen brought back from his conquests. A Spanish nobleman who visited Samarkand in 1403 described communities of captive craftsmen---ilk weavers, potters, glassworker, armorers, silversmiths---gathered from the cities of conquest."
Bibi-Khanym Mosque (one kilometer north of the Registan) was built by Tamerlane with the aim of outdoing anything that he had seen during his conquests. When it was completed shortly before his death in 1405 it was the largest mosque in Central Asia. The main gate was 35 meters high, the columns rose 50 meters into the sky and the blue dome looked like it belonged on top of an arena.
In the end the mosque was a clear symbol of Tamerlane wasteful extravagance. Its cupolas began to crumble under their own weight before the mosque was even completed. Over time the mosque was devastated by earthquakes and wars, and finally collapsed in an earthquake in 1897. Bibi-Khanym Mosque is largely a ruin now. Work is being to being done but it will be decades if not centuries before the work is finish.
Enough pieces of the mosque remain to show off its size and extravagance. The blue dome, the caved in cupolas, ceramic minarets, outer walls and a massive archway are still there. The massive, marble Koran holder is visited by women having trouble conceiving. They crawl under it on the their hands and knees in the hopes that the act will bring them children
According to legend Bibi Khanym was Tamerlane's first wife. She was a beautiful Chinese woman and it is said that she ordered the mosque built in her husband's honor to surprise him after he returned from one of his campaigns. She hired a famous architect to design the grandest structure in the empire. The architect fell in love with Bibi and refused to finish the mosque until Bibi kissed him. She agreed. The kiss left a mark on her cheek, which Tamerlane immediately spotted on his return. Enraged, Tamerlane had the architect killed and decreed that all women had to wear the veil so as not to tempt men.
Tamerlane’s Tomb, Relatives and Teachers
Tamerlane died suddenly of pneumonia at Otyrar in Kazakhstan 1405, while on his campaign to conquer China. By that time he was an old man at the age of 69. His body was transferred to Samarkand and buried in mausoleum Guri-Emir Gur-Emir (one kilometer southwest of the Registan) is a mausoleum where Tamerlane, two of his sons, two of his grandsons (including Ulugbek) and other descendants are entombed. Built in 1404, it is a glorious but modest building with a ribbed dome decorated with colored tiles and 30-foot-high ancient kufic script that reads: "There Is No God But Allah and Mohammed Is His Prophet."
The mausoleum seems relatively small. This is partly because the madrasah that once stood next to it is gone except for the gate. The restored interior is decorated with carvings and colorful tiles and boasts a golden cupola placed over one of the world's largest slabs of jadethe marker for Tamerlane’s tomb. The jade was once a single piece but in broke in two when it was carted away by a Persian warlord in 1740. According to legend, the warlord suffered many hardships, including the near death of his son while the jade was in his possession and his string of bad luck only ended when the jade was returned to Samarkand.
”Guri Amir” is Tajik for tomb of the emir. Next to the jade slab are six white marble cenotaphs, which are said to contains the remains of Tamerlane's relatives and teachers. The plain marker to the left of Tamerlane belongs to Ulughbek. The one to the right is for Mersaid Baraka, one of Tamerlane’s teachers. The one in front belongs to his grandson Mohammed Sultan. Behind Tamerlane’s marker are stones for his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah. Behind these is the marker for Tamerlane’s beloved teacher, Sheikh Rukh.
Tamerlane apparently wanted to be buried in his birthplace, Shakhrisabz, and had a simple crypt built there. Guri Amir was intended for his sons. The story goes that when Tamerlane died suddenly of pneumonia in Kazakhstan in 1405 in the winter all the passes to Shakhrisabz were closed so Tamerlane was buried at Gur Emir instead.
The seven tombs are just representational. The actual tombs lie in a spare, brick-lined, subterranean crypt, which can be visited if security officials at the mausoleum are in the right mood. In 1941, Soviet anthropologists opened Tamerlane’s grave and confirmed that Tamerlane was in fact lame and that Ulughbek was beheaded. According to an often told story the anthropologists uncovered an inscription that read “whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I.” The next day, June 22, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
The opening of the tomb caused a major scandal. Some said the written inscription on the jade slab over the tomb was a warning that anyone who disturbed the tomb would suffer a fate like those in the movie The Mummy (in reality the line is a passage from the Koran). Mikhail M. Gerasimov (1907- 1970)---an archeologist, paleontologist and sculptor who developed a method for determining what faces of the dead looked liked based on their skulls---was involved in the excavation of Tamerlane’s tomb. He was the inspiration for the brilliant scientist who helps solve murders in the novel Gorky Park. Gerasimov planned to reconstruct Tamerlane’s face but never did.
Tamerlane’s campaigns sometimes caused large and permanent demographic changes, northern Iraq remained predominantly Assyrian Christian until attacked, looted, plundered and destroyed by Tamerlane’s leaving its population decimated by systematic mass slaughter.
The Timurid state quickly broke into two halves after the death of Timur. The chronic internal fighting of the Timurids attracted the attention of the Uzbek nomadic tribes living to the north of the Aral Sea. In 1501 the Uzbeks began a wholesale invasion of Mawarannahr. [Source:fantasticasia.net]
No one could hold Tamerlane’s empire together. Tamerlane's descendants ruled separately in small kingdoms. His grandson Babur was the founder of the Moghul dynasty in India. Another grandson Ulughbek made Samarkand into an even grander city that is was under Tamerlane.
When Tamerlane died, the Ottomans under Murat II (ruled 1421-51) regained much of their lost territory, plus some taken by Tamerlane. Tamerlane's battles with the Gold Horde in southern Russia, weakened the Mongol hold in that region. allowing Russian vassal states to gain power and eventually throw the Mongols out.
Stories about Tamerlane's wealth and brutality were relayed to the West by the Spanish envoy Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo. These stories have fascinated Westerners ever since. Edgar Allen Poe is among those who wrote about him.
Tamerlane was immortalized in the West by the Elizabethan dramatist Marlowe who wrote the tragedy Tamerlane the Great.” Primary sources on Tamerlane include the Spaniard Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, sent by King Henry III of Castile to Central Asia; Ali Sharaf ad-In, who wrote a Persian biography about Tamerlane; and Ahmad ibn Arabshah, who wrote an Arab biography about him.
“Tamburlaine the Great” is a play in two parts by Christopher Marlowe. It is loosely based on the life of Timur. and was first performed in 1587. One part regarded as anti-Islam goes:
Now, Casane, where’s the Turkish Alcoran.
And all the heaps of superstitious books
Found in the temples of that Mahomet
Whom I have thought a god? they shall be burnt.
Here they are, my lord.
Well said! let there be a fire presently.
[They light a fire.]
Now, Mahomet, if thou have any power.
Come down thyself and work a miracle:
Thou art not worthy to be worshipped
That suffer’st flames of fire to burn the writ
Wherein the sum of thy religion rests:
Why send’st thou not a furious whirlwind down,
To blow thy Alcoran up to thy throne,
Where men report thou sitt’st by God himself?
Or vengeance on the head of Tamburlaine
That shakes his sword against thy majesty,
And spurns the abstracts of thy foolish laws?–
Well, soldiers, Mahomet remains in hell;
He cannot hear the voice of Tamburlaine:
Seek out another godhead to adore;
The God that sits in heaven, if any god,
For he is God alone, and none but he.
Tamerlane Adulation in Uzbekistan
Tamerlane is regarded as a national hero and a symbol of national pride in Uzbekistan. Since Uzbekistan became independent in 1991, he has been repackaged as an enlightened prince and placed on a pedestal. His image popped up everywhere: on equestrians statues with the slogan "My Strength Is in Justice;" on the dashboards of taxis and buses; on tourist brochures. For a while they were as plentiful as Lenin and Marx images were in the Soviet era.
Toasts are made in Tamerlane's honor at weddings. Children praise his name at school. On anniversaries of his birthday huge spectacle with dancers, musicians, horses and costumed poets are staged in his honor.
Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov called him "auspicious one who always keenly felt the pain and suffering of his people, turned a land trampled by occupying forces into the most powerful sultanate on earth." There are few mentions of his less than appealing qualities.
One resident of Samarkand told the Los Angeles Times, “He was the leader of the nation. He’s our pride. In Soviet times they were calling people like Tamarlane “thugs” and “cutthroats.”
The descendants of Tamerlane (Timur) who ruled in Central Asia after his death were called the Timurids. They ruled for about a century and were regarded as great patrons of the arts. The Timurids spoke Persian and a Turkic court Languages, called Chaghatai, which was the lingua franca in Central Asia for centuries.
Suzan Yalman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Timurids were the final great dynasty to emerge from the Central Asian steppe. In 1370, the eponymous founder, Timur (Tamerlane), who belonged to a Turko-Mongol tribe settled in Transoxiana, became master of this province and established Samarqand as his capital. Within thirty-five years, he subjugated all of Central Asia, greater Iran, and Iraq, as well as parts of southern Russia and the Indian subcontinent. To the west, Timurid forces defeated the Mamluk army in Syria and that of the Ottomans at Ankara (1400–2). In 1405, while preparing to invade China, Timur died. The vast empire he carved proved to be difficult to keep; his son and successor, Shahrukh (r. 1405–47), barely managed to maintain the empire's boundaries, and subsequent Timurid princes sought to establish their own kingdoms, weakening the empire with internal strife. Eventually only Khorasan and Transoxiana remained Timurid, and during the remaining years of the dynasty, these were ruled by separate branches of the Timurid family. [Source:Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, Based on original work by Linda Komaroff Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
Art and Architecture During the Timurid Period (ca. 1370–1507)
Suzan Yalman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “By bringing craftsmen from different conquered lands to his capital in Samarqand, Timur initiated one of the most brilliant periods in Islamic art. Timurid art and architecture provided inspiration to lands stretching from Anatolia to India. Though Timur's extensive empire itself was relatively short-lived, his descendants continued to rule over Transoxiana as leading patrons of Islamic art. Through their patronage, the eastern Islamic world became a prominent cultural center, with Herat, the new Timurid capital, as its focal point. [Source:Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, Based on original work by Linda Komaroff Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
“Timurid rulers were sympathetic to Persian culture and lured artists, architects, and men of letters who would contribute to their high court culture. Some of these rulers were also great patrons of the arts of the book, commissioning manuscripts that were copied, compiled, and illustrated in their libraries. Due to the flourishing of manuscript illumination and illustration, the Herat school is often regarded as the apogee of Persian painting. The Timurid period saw great achievements in other luxury arts, such as metalwork and jade carving. This cultural efflorescence found its ultimate expression at the court of Sultan Husain Baiqara (r. 1470–1506), the last effective Timurid ruler.\^/
Many Timurid princes were also prodigious builders—religious institutions and foundations such as mosques, madrasas, khanqahs (convents), and Sufi shrines were the main beneficiaries of their building programs. Major architectural commissions from Timur's lifetime include the Aq Saray palace (Shahr-i Sabz, ca. 1379–96); the shrine of Ahmad Yasavi (Turkestan City, ca. 1397); Timur's congregational mosque (Samarqand, ca. 1398–1405), popularly known as the mosque of Bibi Khanum after his wife, who built a madrasa next to it; and the Gur-i Amir (Samarqand, ca. 1400–1404), Timur's burial place. Trademarks of the Timurid style were monumental scale, multiple minarets, polychromy tilework, and large bulbous double domes. The Timurid period also witnessed women as active patrons of architecture. Along with their immediate successors, the Shaibanids, the Timurid cultural tradition was also partly carried on by the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires.\^/
Books: Golombek, Lisa, and Maria Subtelny, eds. Timurid Art and Culture: Iran and Central Asia in the Fifteenth Century. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992; Lentz, Thomas W., and Glenn D. Lowry Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century. Exhibition catalogue.. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989.\^/
Sah Rukh was Tamerlane’s forth son. He made Herat in present-day Afghanistan his capital and married Gawhar Sad. Under Sah Rukh and Gawhar Sad Heart became the center of an empire that stretched from China to Iraq.
Herat was reborn under the Turkish-speaking Timurids.. Mosques, minarets and madrassahs were built under Sah Rukh and Gawhar Sad. Described as the Florence of Asia, Herat became a great center of religion and scholarship and Persian culture. The great Central Asian poets Jami and Alisher Navoi were based in 16th century Herat and miniature artists developed a distinctive Herat style.
Gawhar Sad was a women of great influence, who patronized the arts and gave her husband advice on military matters. She outlived her husband by ten years, tried to maneuver her favorite grandson to the throne and was ultimately murdered. In an often told story, Gawhar Sad once inspected a madrassah with 200 female attendants. All the male students were cleared except for one, who had fallen asleep in his cell. He was discovered and seduced by the attendants. When Gawhar Sad found out she forced the attendants to marry the students on the madrassah.
Sultan Husain Baiqare was Shah Rukh’s great-great rand nephew. Based in Herat, he ruled the Timurid empire from 1470 to his death in 1506. He indulged himself in sex, art and sport and neglected the military, paving the way for the end of the Timurid dynasty.
Ulughbek, the Scholar
Ulughbek, Tamerlane's grandson, ruled a Samarkand-based kingdom much smaller than Tamerlane's empire from 1409 to 1449. He took power only four years after Tamerlane's death. Ulughbek was Tamerlane’s favorite grandson and the son of Tamerlane’s son Shah Rukh. As a young man he was made the viceroy in Samarkand and later the ruler of Tamerlane’s Central Asian empire. But unlike Tamerlane, Ulughbek is remembered more as a scholar than a conqueror. "Religions dissipate like fog, kingdoms vanish, but the works of scientist remain for eternity," he said.
Ulughbek was a humanist, historian, poet, and composer and a pioneer in mathematics and medicine. He built a astronomical observatory and mapped 1,000 stars, 200 of them previously unknown, using a massive 30-meter marble astrolabe, and calculated the length of the year with a high degree of accuracy. In 1420, he founded Samarkand madrassah, regarded as one of the greatest “universities” in the Muslim world.
Not everyone appreciated Ulughbek love of science. The conservative Muslim clergy in Samarkand preferred that he look to the Koran rather than science for truth In 1449, the 54-years-old Ulughbek was beheaded in a palace coup led by reactionary members of his court and involving his own son Abdul Latif. His observatory was condemned as work of evil and destroyed. Fortunately, much of his scholarly work was saved and published in the west to great acclaim.
Ulughbek and Samarkand
Samarkand was further embellished under Ulughbek. He made Samarkand into great city of learning and brought in astronomers, mathematicians and scholars from all over the Muslim world. Ulughbek was a scholar and astronomer himself. He built a great observatory and many grand buildings. Many of the great buildings found in Samarkand today date back to Ulughbek not Tamerlane.
The Registan in central Samarkand is arguably the most famous site in Central Asia. Built over a 250 year period from the early 15th century to the mid-17th century, it is a stunningly beautiful monumental square with both grand architecture and exquisite details. It was intended to convey the artistic achievements and the power of Tamerlane and his descendants. Although the Registan is associated with Tamerlane, its main buildings were built by his Grandson Ulughbek, and the Uzbek Shaybanids that came after the Timurids.
Registan means "sandy place." The square itself is about the size of three football fields. One side of the square is open. The other three sides are each fronted by a massive madrassah, or Islamic religious school. The three madrasahs are what stand out most. The Registan is no longer functioning. But when it was it served as an elite, private school, university, religious center and commercial area. The main square contained a huge bustling bazaar.
The English statesman Lord Corzon called the Registan the "most noble public square in the world" and said no piazza in Europe approached it. To do so he said it needed to be "commanded on three of its four sides by Gothic cathedrals of the finest order." Explorers such as Ibn Batuta, Fitzoy MacLean and Laurnes van der Post described it in equally grand terms.
The three madrasahs of Registan are: 1) Ulagh-Beg (on the left), built between 1417 and 1420; 2) Tilla Kari (in the middle), built between 1641 and 1660; and 3) Sher Dor (on the right), built between 1515 and 1631. Each madrasah features dazzling 30- to 40-meter-high arched facade, covered with colorful mosaics and tiles; blue domes; and pedestal-like minarets. One the inside are lecture halls, prayer rooms, dormitories and cells for scholars and imam. What makes the buildings so magical are the elaborate geometric designs of blue, red and black tiles that cover everything. Ulagh-Beg is the oldest madrasah. Named after Tamerlane's grandson and completed in 1420, it boasts a magnificent mosaic-covered facade, four minarets, two floors and 50 Khujaras (cells), where a hundred students lived. Ulugbek occasionally delivered lectures on mathematics and astrology in the main lecture hall..
After the Timurids
After the Timurids the Timurid states were further divided into smaller Muslim feudal states. The three main political powers in Uzbekistan after the Timurid era were: 1) the Khanate of Kokand in the Fergana Valley; 2) the Khanate of Khiva in the Khorezm region; and 3) the Emirate of Bukhara.
The Bukharan Emirate and the Khoban and Kokand khanates emerged as the major political states. They were cruel regimes that put making profits and keeping slaves ahead of patronizing the arts and science. They endued until the Russians conquered them in the mid- and late-1800s.
Samarkand went into a period of decline after the Uzbek Shavybanids came to power in the 16th century and they established their capital in Bukhara. By the 18th century it had been leveled by a series of earthquakes and was essentially a ghost town. Samarkand wasn’t truly revived until the Russians arrived in the 1860s and connected it to the Trans-Caspian Railway. Samarkand was the capital of the Uzbek SSR from 1924 until 1930, when it was replaced by Tashkent.
Mantiq al–Tayr Manuscript
This illustrated manuscript of Farid al-Din Attar's mystical poem Mantiq al-Tayr (Language of the Birds) is one of the most important illustrated manuscripts from Timurid Persia (1370–1507) and a highlight of the Islamic collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This manuscript has several distinctive features. It was initiated under the Timurid court atelier in Herat and completed in the Safavid court atelier in Isfahan. It contains illustrations which are often attributed to the celebrated painter Bihzad, who served the Timurid monarch Husain Baiqara (r. 1470–1506) and a nobleman, cAlishir Nava'i (1440–1501), and is one of the few extant illustrated manuscripts of the Mantiq al-Tayr. [Source:Yumiko Kamada Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, The Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
Yumiko Kamada of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “As the colophon states, this manuscript was completed on the first day of the fifth month of the second year of the last ten years preceding 900, that is, AH 892 (April 25, 1487) and several illustrations were attached. Although four illustrations can be dated to the late 1480s, for some reason the manuscript was not completed. More than a hundred years later, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it came into the possession of Shah Abbas (r. 1587–1629), whose artists remounted the folios and added a frontispiece and four contemporary illustrations in a new binding. Shah Abbas then presented the manuscript to the Ardabil shrine in 1608/9.\^/
Attar (ca. 1142–1220), the author of the Mantiq al-Tayr, is one of the most celebrated poets of Sufi literature and inspired the work of many later mystical poets. The story is as follows: The birds assemble to select a king so that they can live more harmoniously. Among them, the hoopoe, who was the ambassador sent by Sulaiman to the Queen of Sheba, considers the Simurgh, or a Persian mythical bird, which lives behind Mount Qaf, to be the most worthy of this title. When the other birds make excuses to avoid making a decision, the hoopoe answers each bird satisfactorily by telling anecdotes, and when they complain about the severity and harshness of the journey to Mount Qaf, the hoopoe tries to persuade them. Finally, the hoopoe succeeds in convincing the birds to undertake the journey to meet the Simurgh. The birds strive to traverse seven valleys: quest, love, gnosis, contentment, unity, wonder, and poverty. Finally, only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh, and there each one sees his/her reflection in the celestial bird. Thus, thirty birds see the Simurgh as none other than themselves. In this way, they finally achieve self-annihilation. This story is an allegorical work illustrating the quest of Sufism; the birds are a metaphor for men who pursue the Sufi path of God, the hoopoe for the pir, the Simurgh for the Divine, and the birds' journey the Sufi path.\^/
One of the eight illustrations, The Conference of the Birds (63.210.11), is the only illustration that depicts the main story. The remaining seven illustrations belong to anecdotes told in the story as precepts. Recent study has revealed that this manuscript originally consisted of sixty-seven folios and had nine illustrations. Since many text pages and illustrations had been lost or damaged, Safavid artists added or replaced fifteen text folios, four illustrations, and a frontispiece in order to reconstruct the manuscript. However, an illustrated Timurid folio is still missing. It may have been supplemented at that time or removed later.\^/
While the Safavid illustrations provide straightforward pictorialization of the text, the Timurid illustrations include many motifs that await study and analysis. The latter's complex riddlelike nature is consistent with Persian poetry of the late Timurid period, which is characterized by a taste for intricacy. Rulers and influential men at the Timurid court held literary gatherings called majlis and enjoyed solving poetic riddles with rhetorical devices such as homonymic puns. The participants of a majlis may have found pleasure in deciphering the Timurid illustrations of this manuscript.\^/
At the end of the fifteenth century in Herat, many aristocrats and high officials patronized art and literature. Possessing rare and luxuriously illustrated books was one of the key pastimes of the nobility. Some had their own ateliers, but no one is known to have operated an atelier equal to that of either Husain Baiqara or cAlishir Nava'i.\^/
The quality of the illustrations and the fine calligraphy accompanying the illuminations indicate that this manuscript was produced in a leading atelier. However, the colophon suggests that its patron was not the ruler, Sultan Husain Baiqara, but rather cAlishir Nava'i, a sophisticated poet-statesman who had his own atelier, patronizing many poets, scholars, calligraphers, musicians, and painters, including the celebrated Bihzad and Mirak Naqqash. He was so impressed with Attar that he wrote the Lisan al-Tayr, in imitation of Attar's Mantiq al-Tayr. This manuscript clearly demonstrates the close connections between painting, poetry, and Sufism at the end of the fifteenth century.
Books: Kamada, Yumiko "A Taste for Intricacy: An Illustrated Manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Orient 45 (2010), pp. 129–75.. 2010; Kia, Chad "Is the Bearded Man Drowning? Picturing the Figurative in a Late Fifteenth-Century Painting from Heart." Muqarnas 23 (2006), pp. 85–105.. Swietochowski, Marie G. "The Historical Background and Illustrative Character of the Metropolitan Museum's Mantiq al-Tayr of 1483." In Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, edited by Richard Ettinghausen, pp. 39–72.. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972.
Babur, the founder of the Mogul dynasty in India, was descendant of Tamerlane on his father’s side and Genghis Khan on his mother’s side. He was born in Andijan in the Fergana Valley of present-day Uzbekistan to the Fergana ruler Umar Sheikh Mirzo. The Mogul empire was founded in 1526 by Babur when he defeated the last Delhi sultan . The Moguls ruled northern India in various degrees from 1526 to 1858 and were the unchallenged rulers rules of India from mid 16th and century to the end of the 17th century.
Babur became a chief at the age of 11 after his father died when his pigeon house toppled over the edge of a cliff. Babur later wrote his father "flew, with his pigeons, and their house, and became a falcon." Babur ruled over the Fergana Valley, which was sought after by his tribal rival. Wise noblemen helped Babur govern the territory until he was able to rule for himself. When that happened, Babur soon set his sight on acquiring more territory for himself.
Babur was fascinated withe “modern” weapons such as crude matchlocks and mortars. He set his sights on conquering Samarkand, the famously wealthy Silk Road city a few hundred miles to the southwest, when he was in his early teens. At the age of 14, his forces conquered Samarkand but lost it the next year and then won it again. While engaged in these campaigns, he lost the Fergana Valley, at age 17, to the Uzbek Shaybanids.
Unable to keep Samarkand, Babur shifted his attention southward towards Afghanistan and India. In 1504, he laid siege to lightly guarded Kabul and easily captured the city. This time he was able to keep the city and he used it as a base of operation for other conquests. He also began calling himself padshah ("supreme lord") rather a lower level mirza. Shah is a shorten version of "padshah."
Babur lived in Kabul from 1504 to 1526, before he conquered northern India. He loved the city. The liked to get drunk in the terraced gardens he built Seventeen of his children were born in Kabul. After he died in Agra in 1530 his remains were brought to Kabul and buried there.
Babur main obstacle to claiming India was Ibrahim Lodi, Sultan of Delhi. Babur siezed Kandahar in 1524 and Lahore in 1524. In 1526, he faced off against Ibrahim and his force of 100,000 men and 1,000 war elephants at the Battle of Panipat. Panipat is about 50 miles north of Delhi. Even though they were outnumbered four to one, Babur's army defeated the army of the Delhi sultan by using rudimentary artillery (matchlocks and mortar probably obtained the Turks). It was the first time such weapons were seen in northern India. Babur also utilized an ingenious barricade consisting of a ditch behind farm carts latched together, and surrounding their enemy using Mongols-style flanking tactics.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin; History of Arab People by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000); and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated February 2019