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Middle East Team Dispatch

Tamerlane : Not a Very Nice Guy
March 29, 2000

The world has seen many great leaders, and most of those who lived long ago were also brutal warriors who didn't care about human lives lost, as long as they conquered the world. They treated human life like Kleenex and threw it away after using and abusing it.

The trekkers are now in Iran and one of the rulers of that area was the Turkmen Mongol conqueror Tamerlane (1336-1405 CE). He is an example of the brutal leaders that the Middle East and Asia endured during the Middle Ages. He was an Islamic ruler whose army swept from India to Russia to the Mediterranean Sea like a tornado, leaving death and destruction in its' wake. Tamerlane's name actually means "Timur the Lame" in Turkish, but this guy was anything but a loser.


Tamerlane was born in what is now the country of Uzbekistan. He was born a member of the Barlas tribe, which was comprised of Mongols who had accompanied the feared Genghis Khan (see below) on his conquests of Asia. Tamerlane's first language was Turkish and he grew up believing in Islam. His father died when he was 10, forcing him to take care of himself.

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In the 14th century, what is now the Middle East was a region full of warring tribes because the Mongol Empire was falling apart and creating a lot of discord. All around Tamerlane there were various khans who were fighting tooth and nail for power, wealth, and land.

Starting out as a fierce bandit-warrior, Tamerlane began his career as a scoundrel by stealing a few sheep from local villages. He thought it would be a good idea to start out slow and work his way up to Master of the Universe! While out on one of these raids, he was badly wounded and his left side was disabled, which is how he came to be known as "Timur the Lame."

The Campaigns

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With a band of rogues 100-strong, Tamerlane declared his loyalty to Jagataid Khan Tughluq Timur who made him ruler of a local region called Transoxiana in 1364 CE. Besides the Mongols, there were Turks and Persians in Transoxiana whose presence added to the already tense situation in the area. When Tughluq died, Tamerlane took advantage of the chaos of the region, and rose up to power. By 1370 CE, he took over the region that was formerly Genghis Khan's empire. Like many other rulers, he wanted to legitimize his rule and so he spread the story (even though it wasn't true) that he was a direct relative of the feared and mighty Genghis Khan. Even in those days, a ruler elaborated and exaggerated his personal history in order to win the support of his subjects.


khans - rulers of tribes in Asia during the Middle Ages
chaos - a state of total confusion or disorder
subjugate - to bring under complete control, to conquer
scribe - a person who serves as a penman or copyist, a writer of official documents

Tamerlane spread the wealth he collected on military campaigns around to different communities, which kept people happy for a while. Over the next 10 years he set out with a mix of infantry, engineers, and cavalry to conquer regions far and wide. In 1381 CE he campaigned in Iran, and had to continually re-invade the country in order to conquer it because its strong, proud people wouldn't give up their freedom so easily. He also subjugated Armenia, Georgia, Syria, Turkey and India, finally capturing the sultan of the Ottoman Empire-not too shabby for a guy known for his bad leg.

The Mongol leader Genghis Khan (1167-1227CE) was one of the greatest conquerors in the history of the world.

This guy didn't take "No" for an answer. Named Temujin and born in a small tribe in northeastern Mongolia, his father died when he was a wee boy of 10. In 1206 he united all the warring Mongol tribes and declared himself Genghis Khan or universal ruler. His bloody invasions of Asia extended to the Caspian Sea where the warriors finally defeated the Russian army in 1223. Eventually, the empire extended from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Black Sea in the west. For centuries afterwards, the name of Genghis Khan sent shivers up the spines of many people in that region of the world. The legends of his cruelty and barbarity lived on even after he had passed away.

Difficult Times

However, Tamerlane's luck was about to start changing. His rival, Tokhtamish emerged as a powerful enemy in Russia and though Tamerlane was eventually victorious over an enormous empire, by 1402 CE he was only holding on to these far-flung regions by a delicate thread. Tamerlane died in 1405 CE in present-day Kazakhstan while on a campaign to conquer China. Following his death, his grand empire disintegrated. His burial site is one of the region's greatest architectural monuments.

The Lighter Side

But, hey, let's face facts. Tamerlane probably wasn't a very nice guy. In Iran, he brutally massacred 70,000 people and constructed towers from their bones. His atrocities were just as legendary as his military genius. Although he was a cruel warrior who committed many horrible acts and killed hundreds of thousands of people, he was also a scholar and lover of the arts. It is perhaps this contrast in his personality that makes him such an interesting person to study. He was a patron of Turkish and Persian literature. His scribes recorded Tamerlane's adventures in the Zafar Nama, or Book of Victory. Of course, this book is full of wrong information and a blatant rewriting of history designed to make Tamerlane look good. Still, it is an interesting source for historians who want to study this important ruler.


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