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Timur was born in 1336 in a village in an agricultural area thirty-six miles south of Samarkand, a city along the Silk Road in what today is Uzbekistan, a city in Central Asia that had been conquered by Genghis Khan back in 1220. Timur was the son of a pious Muslim who headed the Barlas tribe – described by the Encyclopedia Britannica as a "Turkicized" Mongol "subgroup." His mother tongue was Uzbek.

The area around Samarkand was dry and extremely hot during summer, with nearby crops (cereal, grapes, cotton, irrigated with water that flowed from the Hindu Kush mountains to the south. Samarkand was a cultural center with mathematicians, astronomers, historians, theologians and poets. Samarkand produced textiles, pottery, bricks, tiles, and its craftsmen worked metal, chiseled stone and carved doors. It was a city of Turks, Arabs, Moors, Greeks, Armenians and people from India, with many languages spoken and many faiths. The area's principle crops were cereals, grapes and cotton, which were irrigated with water that flowed out of the Hindu Kush Mountains just to the south.

Long after the break up of the great Mongol Empire in the 1260s various armies passed through Samarkand. At the age of eight or nine, Timur and his mother and brothers were carried off as prisoners to Samarkand by an invading Mongol army. By his twenties, Timur with a small band of followers were raiding travelers for goods, especially animals such as sheep, horses, and cattle. In around 1363, it is believed that Timur tried to steal a sheep from a shepherd but was shot by two arrows, one in his right leg and another in his right hand, where he lost two fingers. Both injuries crippled him for life. Timur's injuries have given him the names of Timur the Lame and Tamerlane by Europeans.

Timur, in the tradition of conquered princes, became a willing vassal of the Mongols. He subordinated himself and his following to Mongol rule, but soon he broke with his Mongol overlords, and 400 miles northwest of Samarkand he formed a coalition with a force led by a brother-in-law, Husayn. In 1364, Timur and Husayn tangled with a Mongol force belonging to the Chagatai khanate (one of the four khanates that emerged from the breakup of Genghis Khan's empire). They emerged supreme in Samarkand, but Islamic rebels called the Serbedar rose against them and controlled the city for about a year, until Timur and Husayn returned, overpowered and executed the Serbedar leaders. Timur and Husayn emerged dominant in Transoxiana, Timur at Samarkand and Husayn at Balkh and other towns. Husayn demanded more in taxes than did Timur, and Husayn paid less attention than Timur to the need for maintaining the goodwill of his subjects. Timur was shrewd enough to see that broad support at his home base was vital. He made a show of generosity and became the most respected person at Samarkand, while reports are that Husayn's reputation for meanness grew.

At Samarkand in 1368, Timur repelled an army of the Chagatai khanate Timur was establishing Samarkand as his capital. A partnership in power was not to be. Husayn and Timur had become rivals. Around 1370, Husayn surrendered to Timur and was later assassinated.

With an established base at Samarkand, Timur began expanding. Entering in forties he saw himself as the new Genghis Khan, in pursuit of the plunder that gave wealth to his followers and some meaning to his rule. (Not a blood relative he did not claim to be a great khan and instead took the title of emir.) Needing live up to Genghis Khan's image he went east and ravaged the countryside around Issyk-kul, and he made the people there his subjects. In the winter of 1377 he fought one of his major battles near Sauran. And in 1380 he occupied Kashgar (now Shufu in eastern-most China).

Then, Timur campaigned west of Samarkand and overran the city of Herat. He went south to Sistan and raged against its capital, Zarendj, and he sought to punish and make an example of its inhabitants for their resistance. He massacred men, women and children, and he burned what he and his army could not carry away. At the city of Sabzavar he crushed a revolt and massacred nearly 2000 slaves, and he is reported to have made a monument with mortar, brick and their bodies as a warning to others against revolt. He conquered in Persia, which had been divided among warlords and torn by dissension. And there, as a Sunni, he berated Shia for what he called their errors, and he executed a local Shia ruler.

(Map of Timur's territorial dominations)

In the summer of 1386, Timur moved his army north into Georgia. Posing as a warrior for Islam he waged war against local Christians. In 1387 he sought control over Armenia on the pretext that Shia emirs there had dared to attack caravans on their way to Mecca. He turned south and conquered Isfahan in central Persia, a rich and cultured city of Muslims and one of the great cities of West Asia. The city rebelled, and in retribution, according to reports, Timur's troops looted, massacred from 70,000 or 100,000 people and destroyed crops.

While Timur was busy in Persia, a Mongol force came south into Georgia, from the forest region around Moscow. In 1391 Timur pushed them back toward Moscow, and late that year, heavily laden with goods, at the age of 55 and in need of rest and reinforcements, Timur and his army returned to Samarkand.

In May 1392, Timur was ready for war again, itching for more campaigning and apparently bored. Persia remained unstable politically, and Timur warred against more rebellion there. In 1393, his army overran Baghdad, as had Genghis Khan. In 1395 a Mongol army (of Golden Horde origin) again drove south from around Moscow to Georgia, and again Timur drove them back. The region around Moscow was without the flocks of animals needed to feed his troops. Timur set fire to and looted several Russian towns and departed — seen in Moscow as a miracle worked by an icon of the Virgin Mary.

More revolts had erupted in Persia, and Timur returned there. Enraged at being defied, again he massacred and destroyed whole towns — to frighten people into submission and his belief that with an enhanced reputation for terror people would be more tractable in their negotiations with him.

In 1396 and 1397, Timur was back at Samarkand. During his stay he heard news from India. With the excuse that Muslim rulers in India were being too tolerant toward Hindus he led an army there. He destroyed the Islamic kingdom centered at the city of Delhi, and he created more carnage and devastation. He is described as having been pleased that he had penetrated India more deeply than had Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan. He returned from India with Indian artists, craftsmen, and booty, distributing much of the latter to underlings who had stayed behind but expected rewards.

Enriched, Timur began more building, ordering work on a great mosque. Two hundred masons worked on the building. Five hundred others cut the stones that were transported to Samarkand by elephant trains. It was the largest mosque yet in Central Asia and one of the largest in the Muslim world. But Samarkand was in a region of frequent earthquakes, and Timur's great mosque was not constructed in a way that could endure intact.

Again after only a couple of years, Timur went campaigning in Persia, then to Georgia, to put things right again in these areas — the burden of empire. With battering rams, stone throwers and flame hurling machines he broke into the city of Sivas. He punished the city for resisting, enslaved its Christian inhabitants and buried alive its soldiers.

Timur believed that Mamluks from Egypt and Ottoman Turks had encroached on his territory, and he marched into Syria, where he defeated a Mamluk army. He occupied Damascus, posing as having delivered it from the Christians and from the Mamluk sultan. In this former capital of Islam's empire, Timur was led to the graves of the Prophet Muhammad's wives, Umm Selma and Umm Habiba. He found the grave sites neglected, and he raged at the city. Some of his army officers led another attack against Damascus in search of more loot. A fire was started that burned for three days, and much loot was deported to Samarkand.

In 1401, Timur and his army again went to Baghdad. He reconquered that city and massacred 20,000. Then Timur argued with leaders of his army over whether to risk war with the Ottoman Turks, who ruled in Asia Minor and had a reputation as conquerors for Islam.

Timur's subordinates reminded him that the Ottoman forces outnumbered his own. He is said to have retorted that only God gives victory and that this has nothing to do with the numbers. Timur believed that with guile he could defeat the Ottoman Turks despite their superior numbers. In negotiating with the Ottoman sultan, Bayezid, Timur demanded two thousands camel loads of butter and two thousand tents. He demanded that he (Timur) be declared a sultan, that he be recognized in Ottoman mosques, that his money be the sole legal tender and that Bayezid's sons serve with him as hostages. Bayezid saw Timur's demands as outrageous and prepared for battle.

In 1402, a great battle was fought at Angora (today Ankara). With superior strategy, Timur defeated Bayezid's army. Bayezid was captured and soon died. Timur was concerned about having helped Christians by defeating the Islamic Ottoman army. So he moved against and conquered the Christian-controlled city of Smyrna (on the west coast of Asia Minor). He ordered the city's entire population, including women and children, annihilated, and the heads displayed in a pyramid. It was Timur's last military action in Asia Minor.

Timur returned to Samarkand in 1404. He planned next for an expedition to China – unfinished business if he were trying to emulate Genghis Khan. He questioned merchants from China about conditions there, and in 1405, at the age of sixty-nine, he and his army departed for China. On route he died. The expedition, with Timur's body, turned around. At Samarkand Timur was embalmed and buried in an ebony casket in a tomb.

Before his death, Timur had designated his grandson Pir Muhammad ibn Jahangir as his successor. But instead of Timur's descendants abiding by Timur's choice, they spent fifteen years fighting to inherit Timur's power. Family strife was to continue through the century, and Timur's empire disintegrated.

People in Samarkand would worship Timur as a great man much as Macedonians had Alexander the Great as their great conqueror. The Mongols would have Genghis Khan, and the French would have Napoleon.

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.