Timur Khan (1336-1405)
©Edward J. Vajda
Timur (Tamerlane, Timur-i Lenk) was born a Turk in the crumbling Chaghatai Khanate of Central Asia. This was a time of political fragmentation across all of the formerly great Mongol Empire. The Mongol Ilkhan Dynasty that had ruled Iran, Iraq and eastern Turkey collapsed into warring local states in 1335. The Black Death (bubonic plague) swept over Eurasia in the next two decades. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty ended in China in 1368, replaced by the native Chinese Ming Dynasty.
Despite the fact that he was a devout Muslim, Timur could neither read nor write. And despite the fact that he was no descendent of Chinggis Khan, he was to go on to create the largest nomadic empire since the time of the great khans. Unlike Chinggis Khan, Timur was often wantonly cruel and destructive, often killing thousands of people in sadistic ways as a type of vengeful sport. Some say Timur became sadistic after suffering a permanent crippling arrow wound in his leg, which made it difficult for him to move around when not on horseback. He was also an excellent chess player, and had a passion for discussing Islamic philosophy.
Much of Timur's early life was spend as the leader of a robber band. At times, he was reduced to hiding in the mountains and legend has it that once after a particularly bad patch of luck, he was reduced to a single follower. Eventually, he teamed up with a local ruler and together they drove the last ruling Chaghatai prince out of power, finding a true descendent of Chinggis Khan as figurehead. By 1369 Timur came to control a large portion of Central Asia. Now a great khan, he falsely claimed that he was Chinggis' great-great grandson.
From his capital of Samarkand (in modern Uzbekistan), Timur embarked on several decades of military campaigns. These campaigns were stunningly successful and utterly destructive.
1380s – destruction of much of Afghanistan and eastern Iran
1391, feud with Tokhtamysh, Khan of the Golden Horde, who is defeated at the battle of Kunduzcha near Russia's Volga River.
1393 – occupation of Baghdad
1395-6 – utter destruction of most of the cities of the Golden Horde, total defeat of the Golden Horde. Timur turns back before destroying Moscow and the Russian cities.
1398-9 – invasion of India and destruction of the Sultanate of Delhi
1400-1401 destruction of Mamluke Syria
1402 Defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Ankara, Sultan Bayezid is taken captive and dies as Timur's prisoner. The Ottoman Turks take decades to recover.
1404-5 Preparations for an attack on Ming China, but Timur dies en route.
Most of the areas conquered by Timur revert to self-rule once he is dead, but his legacy is mostly one of destruction of the cities and agriculture of much of southwest Asia. The Mamlukes and Ottoman Turks revive. The Mongols of the Golden Horde, in particular, never recovered, paving the way for the rise of Muscovite Russia. Persia revives under the Shi'ite Safavid dynasty, but vast areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are still wastelands due to Timur's campaigns. Some of Timur's descendents go on to found the Mogul Empire in India and Afghanistan, on the ruins of Timur's savage conquests of those areas.