On this day in 1405, Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane, the great conqueror of Central Asia, succumbed to the plague while campaigning on his empire’s eastern border. It brought to the end a reign that was characterised by bloodshed and war, but that also witnessed significant patronage of the arts and architecture, and saw Islam consolidated as the dominant religion in the region.
Timur was born into a wealthy tribal family near Samarkand. At this time the geographical region was known as Transoxiana, an area of central Asia that roughly corresponds to present day Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. He claimed to be a descendant of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, a fact that inspired pride and zeal in Timur, and helped legitimise his thirst for empire building.
In around 1360 he rose to prominence as a military leader, commanding troops of mainly Turkic tribesmen in the region of his birth. He was engaged in a string of prominent battles that mainly involved repelling invading forces that were intent on overthrowing Transoxiana’s ruling Chagatai dynasty.
In return for military successes, Timur was afforded many privileges, which included authority and leadership over several powerful tribes. As the number of military victories increased, so his political influence rose. By 1363, real power rested with two figures: Timur, and another tribal leader and descendant of Genghis Khan, Amir Husayn. Officially the Chagatai Khan was the leader, but in reality power rested with those who were militarily strongest. Following a power struggle between the two pretenders, Husayn was killed in 1369, leaving Timur as the most powerful figure in the region.
Timur never took the title Khan, choosing instead the less self-aggrandising title Amir, meaning commander or general. Over the next thirty years, the self-appointed and all-powerful Amir consolidated the Timurid Empire as the strongest and most fearsome in the region. Timur’s sphere of influence expanded in all directions, his unquenchable thirst for territorial gain prompting successful campaigns across vast swathes of the continent, including Syria, Turkey, Georgia, Persia, India, and Afghanistan.
The nature of his conquests was notoriously brutal. Those who yielded to his forces were treated with leniency, but those who resisted were subjected to the most extreme forms of punishment and retribution. After meeting resistance during the sacking of Baghdad in 1401, Timur ordered that all home-bound soldiers should return with two severed enemy heads. These were then arranged into seven towers: a warning against standing in the way of Timuridian expansion.
Timur’s reign came to an end following an uncharacteristic military blunder. Towards the end of 1404 Timur decided to invade China, which under a revived Ming Dynasty was becoming increasingly threatening to Timurid’s eastern expansion. Timur normally instigated battle during the spring when the weather was more accommodating, but on this occasion he chose to march on China in winter. The season was particularly harsh, and had a devastating effect on Timur’s forces. Many perished in the cold, and Timur himself succumbed to a plague-like illness. His death signaled the end of the short-lived Timurid Empire, but his family would continue to dominate Central Asian politics, and it was a direct descendant of Timur who founded the Mughal Empire in 1526.
Photo Credit: © Jeremy Horner/CORBIS
Photo Caption: An equestrian statue of Tamerlane in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.