In the 1300’s, there was one ruler who’s name sent fear throughout Central Asia. He invaded a number of nearby countries in order to expand his territory and in doing so, destroyed entire cities. Timur the Lame, better known as Tamerlane, was born in 1336 CE in the city of Kesh. This was located near the oasis of Samarkand in an area known as Transoxiania. He was a direct descendent of Ghenghis Khan and was driven by the need to rebuild the Mongol Empire that Ghengis had constructed.
He was born to a chieftan of the Barlas tribe. His father owned land and was settled, a very different lifestyle than that lived by his Mongol ancestors. By the year 1360 CE, Tamerlane was beginning to show his skill as a military leader. He commanded the local Turkic tribesmen who lived in the area. He was involved in fighting against several other tribes and rose to importance in the area.
Tamerlane was a brilliant military commander in many ways. He ensured that his troops were provisioned properly for upcoming campaigns and was known to lay in supplies up to two years before his armies went on the move. He was also known for acts of stunning brutality and atrocities the likes of which have not been seen today. His campaigns were successful in part because he used propaganda in order to spread fear among his enemies. They were often very successful and a wave of panic spread before Tamerlane’s armies.
Tamerlane captured the city of Herat in 1383 and went on to take much of Persia as well. He ruled fairly according to many reports but when confronted by any kind of revolt or resistance was known to slaughter entire cities to a man. In the city of Isfahan, Tamerlane built pyramids made from thousands of skulls. He did this in response to a revolt in which several of his tax collectors were killed.
When Tamerlane began his invasion of India, he became truly brutal. He took the city of Delhi in 1398 and when he did, put 100,000 people to death. His troops, while well fed and supplied, were not paid and instead were encouraged to loot the cities that they captured. Loot included precious metals and stones as well as women and horses. Totals suggest that he may have killed as many as fifteen to twenty million people during the course of his military career.
At the same time that Tamerlane was a vicious and brutal military commander, he also was a strong patron of the arts. He had architects build structures in Samarkand that still stand to this day. Artisans from conquered lands were brought to Samarkand and allowed to work in relative freedom. He was also known for communicating with western rulers and there are still samples of the letters they wrote to each other available today. Tamerlane was popular with western rulers as he was seen as an ally against the armies of the Ottoman Empire that were invading Eastern Europe.
Tamerlane’s reputation lives on even after his death in 1405. He has been viewed as both a monster and a patron of the arts and has been immortalized in a number of books and poems.