TimurTimur’s facial reconstruction from his skull, by Soviet anthropologists.

By Periklis Deligiannis

Timur, wrongly quoted in Western literature as “Tamerlane” or “Tamburlaine”, was born around 1336 in Kesh, near Samarkand in Transoxiana (corresponding roughly to modern Uzbekistan). The name “Tamerlane” comes from the Greek-Latin version of Timur’s Persian address as “Timur Lenk’, meaning “Timur the lame”. Timur was a member of the Mongol Barlas tribe (or Barulas) which had been Turkified after settling in Transoxiana in the 13th century AD, following Chagatai (the son of Genghis Khan) in Central Asia. The Barlas with their headquarters at Kesh, had always been allied to Chagatai and his Chagataid successors. During the distribution of the sub-khanates of the Mongol Empire (the Great Khanate) among the Genghisids, namely the descendants of Genghis Khan, Chagatai became the Khagan (Khan) of the Mongol Khanate in Central Asia. The Khanate of Chagatai soon became a Moslem state. Its rulers and their Turco-Mongol followers and fighting men (and ancestors of Timur) embraced Islam in order to tie in religion with the populace of their khanate.

Later Timur claimed descent from Genghis Khan, but it is certain that this was not the case. It was an attempt to legitimize his power and later to claim the Genghisid heritage from Mongolia and China to Russia and the Middle East. Aiming the same objectives, he later married a Genghisid princess thus ensuring at least the status of the kurgan, that is the “imperial bridegroom” as the Mongol or Turk warlords who had married princesses-descendants of Genghis Khan were called. However Timur had no illusions, knowing that he could not seriously promote himself as a Genghisid: thus he was using the weak Chagataid khagans (genuine Genghisids) as his puppet-kings, in order to legitimize his authority. But he possessed some foundations in order to claim the heritage of at least the Chagataids: he was the main representative of the Barlas who had constantly provided skilful military commanders and imperial bodyguards to Genghis Khan and his descendants. Karachar Noyon, the most important ancestor of Timur, was the head of the imperial guards adhered to the Chagataids after the death of Genghis. So the Barlas had always been a strong politico-military factor in the Chagatai Khanate, decisively influencing the ascent of several Chagataid khagans on the throne.

Before analyzing the history of Tamerlane, a report on the environment that he acted and developed his empire is necessary. Timur was born in an Islamic World in ferment, as was also the case in the Christian European countries of the time. Beyond the millions of victims in Europe, the deadly plague of the 14th century (the so-called “Black Death”, essentially a series of resurgent epidemics) had swept among other lands the Seljuk Asia Minor, Egypt, the Fertile Crescent (Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia), Iran, the Chagatai Khanate and the Golden Horde. The Mongolian Khanate of the Golden Horde also resulted from the division of the Mongol Empire, and controlled the vast steppes from modern Moldova to Kazakhstan being also the suzerain of most Russian principalities. In the 14th c., the Mongols of the Golden Horde had been Turkified and their khanate was based mainly on the Turkic tribes, mostly on the Kipchaks (known as the Cumans to the Byzantines, and as the Polovtsy to the Russians).

The successor khanates of the Mongol Empire, 1260.
The plague had caused the decimation of the population of the aforementioned areas and the weakening of their trade, contributing to political instability and disorganization of their semi-feudalist socio-economic organization. Unlike Europe whose peoples reacted to the devastation caused by the epidemic with explosions of religious hysteria, the Islamic peoples reacted calmer, almost stoically, with a further adhesion to the clan in which they belonged as individuals, and with a lower birth rate. The numerous victims of the plague and the falling of the birth rate brought about the decline of agriculture, leaving large fallow areas to be delivered to the traditional nomadism of the Arabs, Turks and Mongols which met a new flourishing. Indeed some traditionally isolated Bedouin tribes had only a few victims by the plague.
The epidemic had considerably affected the Chagataid Khanate where Timur was born, increasing nomadism and intensifying political instability which was characterized by civil wars between several Chagataid princes who were claiming the throne. In fact, the khanate existed only formally having lost its coherence: until the mid-14th century, it was transformed into an informal confederation of Turco-Mongol tribes such as the Suldus, the Arlat, the Barlas, the Jalayr, the Apardi and the Yasauri, and of individual Turco-Mongol warlords who were fighting each other for their prevalence on the region, under the nominal (virtual) power of the Chagataid khagan. Thus the politico-military ferment in the khanate favored the emergence of powerful warlords who were trying to seize power, most of whom were not Chagataid but tribal leaders. Timur has evolved into one of them. The Mongol tribes that had settled in the area under the Genghisids, remained mainly nomadic and especially in the western and central steppes had been largely Turkified in language and customs. Even in the eastern steppes (Moghulistan) where they had maintained some ethnic autonomy, they were heavily intermixed with the Turks. Moreover, the Mongols and the Turks are kindred peoples belonging to the same Altaic group (also including the Tungus, the almost vanished Yeniseans and according to a popular theory, the Proto-Koreans and the Proto-Japanese (Yayoi culture people)). Even Genghis Khan’s initial Mongols included a strong Turkish element: the Naiman and the Kerait, two major tribes of the tribal confederation that he founded, were rather Mongolized Turks and Genghis himself was probably a Turk from his mother’s side, taking into account  that her tribe, the Kongirat (or Qongirat, Khongirad) was a Turkic people. Moreover most of the combatants used by the Mongolian invaders of the 13th century in Central Asia, the Islamic realms and Europe, were Turkic/Turanic cavalrymen and horsemen.
The Chagatai Khanate consisted of two quite different areas. The eastern part was Moghulistan (so-called “Land of the Mongols”) which is certainly not identical with Mongolia, located in the southwest of the latter. Mongolia proper belonged to the Empire of the Genghisids of China (the Great Khanate), with Khubilai Khan being their best known representative, on whom details are provided by the Italian merchant-explorer Marco Polo. Moghulistan had mostly nomadic economy with limited farming, few cities and a small number of actual Muslims.
The western part of the Chagatai Khanate was Transoxiana (ancient Northern Sogdiana), the homeland of Timur, having a predominantly agricultural economy, a good number of urban centers and faithful Muslim inhabitants. In the mid-14th c., the cities of Transoxiana were flourishing and enriching because of trade. They were mainly inhabited by Iranians, descendants of the ancient Sogdians and ancestors of the modern Tajiks. Today the Sogdians/Tajiks are diminished in Uzbekistan (roughly Timurid era Transoxiana) due to their Turkification, surviving mostly in neighboring Tajikistan. However the vast majority of the Transoxianian populace was already Turkish, residing mainly in the countryside. In previous centuries, the Turks/Turanians had flooded Central Asia assimilating the native Iranians. Additionally, we mentioned above that the Mongolian ruling class of Transoxiana had been Turkified.
Concerning the other Muslim countries, Egypt and Syria were ruled by the mostly-Turkish Mamluks/Mameluks (former slaves of fallen Arab dynasties) and significantly affected by the plague resulting in the partial weakening of the famous Mamluk army. But the Mamelukes continued to be strengthened with newcomer slaves, mostly from the Caucasian region and southern Russia, leading to fully compensating their losses while the martial aristocracies of the other Western Muslim countries did not have this opportunity because they consisted of free-born nobles. But the massive introduction of Circassian slaves in Egypt in order to maintain the needed number of Mamluk fighting men, eventually led to the prevalence of the Circassian ethnic element among them at the expense of the Turkic (but temporarily). In Asia Minor, the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum based on the former-Byzantine city of Iconium began to decline in AD 1237. In 1242 the Mongols appeared threatening in its east borders.
The Seljuk Sultanate had been for many decades the refuge of Turkoman/Oghuz refugees from Iran who were fleeing terrified by the mounted warriors of Mongolia. In 1243, the latter under the general Baiju Noyon invaded the Sultanate and crashed the Seljuk army. Then they marched to Caesarea sowing havoc at the local population. But the sultanate was not destroyed because of a coincidence: in 1241 the Mongol Great Khan Ogedei died and Noyon had to return with his army to the Mongolian capital Karakorum in order to participate in the election of the new emperor. The Mongols made the shattered Seljuk Sultanate their vassal, and the same did with the neighboring Byzantine Trapezus kingdom. The Sultanate gradually split into several Turcoman emirates (principalities), while the Seljuk sultans continued to exist as puppets of the Mongol Il-Khanid dynasty of Iran with no real power, until the death of the last sultan which marks the end of their dynasty (AD 1307/1308). One of the Turcoman emirates was the initially small Ottoman one (actually a feud), the cradle of the Ottoman Empire. The Crusader Knights of St John ruled the wealthy city of Smyrna, while the Genoese navigators of Italy controlled the trade of the Black Sea by maintaining colonies in the Crimea, the northern coast of Asia Minor and the Thracian Bosphorus. Finally the Byzantine Empire was constantly shrinking.
Iraq of the mid-14th c. AD with the largest Muslim metropolis Baghdad belonged to the Mongol dynasty of the Jalayrids, an offshoot of the aforementioned Jalayr tribe, part of which was dwelling in Transoxiana. The Jalayrids additionally controlled the area of Atropatene Media (modern Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran). Iraq and Atropatene/Azerbaijan previously belonged to the Mongol Khanate of the Il-Khanid dynasty, another successor state of the Mongol Empire. This once powerful khanate fell apart in the mid-14th century resulting in the independence of the Anatolian Turkomans and the Jalayrids, while the rest of its territory, namely Iran, was partitioned between the following dynasties, also former vassals of the Il-Khanid dynasty. The Arab Muzafarids were now controlling western Iran, the Kartids ruled east Iran, and finally the south coast of the Caspian and the area of modern Afghanistan were ruled by several smaller dynasties. The Sarbadarian state in the southeast of the Caspian Sea was a special case having been founded by the Sarbadarians, Iranian Shiite villagers who had revolted against the Mongols and were in constant war with the neighboring dynasties. The latter were fighting zealously the martial Sarbadarians, worried by this Iranian national reaction against the established order on the Islamic world of the time, which according to the view of the various dynasties had to consist exclusively of Turks, Mongols or at least Arab descendants of the Prophet. Further east, a Turko-Iranian Muslim nobility was ruling the extended Delhi Sultanate in Northern India controlling many tens of millions of Hindus.
The “Christian island” of Armenia (among the Muslim territories) was claimed by Turcoman, Mongol and Kurdish warlords, but also by the Christian Georgians. The other “Christian island” Georgia, in Caucasia, had already been freed from the pressure of the Golden Horde and was expanding towards the Caspian region. Further north, the Golden Horde had gone into decline but continued to be the suzerain of most Russian principalities.
Timur appears on the historical scene in 1361 as one of the leaders of the Barlas tribe. In 1357 the emir Kazgan, ruler of Transoxiana, died and in 1361 the Khan Tugluk Temur of Moghulistan based on Kashgar, conquered Samarkand, the political center of Transoxiana, thereby uniting the divided Chagatai Khanate. His grandson and successor of Kazgan, Amir (emir) Hussein managed to escape. Timur being the brother-in-law of Hussein, chose to join Tugluk Temur. The latter appointed his son, Ilya Khoja, governor of Transoxiana and Timur as his lieutenant. Timur did not benefit from it, and a little later he left Samarkand and sided with the exiled Hussein. The two men were victorious in a battle against Ilya Khoja (1364) and until 1366 the emir Hussein became ruler of Transoxiana, which he ruled in the name of a Chagataid puppet-monarch as his predecessors did. Timur was displeased by his exclusion from any office (perhaps a result of his initial decision to join Hussein’s enemies) and retired to the area of Merw (1367) from where he was unleashing raids. At the same time he was gathering resources and an army to march against Hussein. In 1369, when Timur gathered a formidable force including the Barlas aristocracy, he marched against Hussein and defeated him. The latter escaped from the battlefield and was besieged in the city of Balkh (ancient Bactra-Zariaspa) by the Timurid forces but later he was murdered by emirs who were supporting Timur.

Timurid 14-15th Cent
A Timurid Era steel helmet from Iran, 14th-15th centuries AD.

Tatar emir of the Golden Horde bearing helmet with mail-visor, elaborate scale armour, internal mail armour, an elaborate shield and a curved saber. The arms and armour of the Chagatai khanate warlords and tarkhans (champions) were similar to these (Museum of Kulikovo Battlefield, representation by M. Gorelik).

Arms, helmets and mail armour of the Turkomans of Iran (unknown museum).
Timur was established in Samarkand, from where he was ruling Transoxiana through another Chagataid puppet-khan (1370). But several rulers and warlords of the Chagatai Khanate did not recognize his authority; the rulers of Moghulistan being his main refusers. Timur needed a decade of hard fighting in order to subdue them. Initially he attacked the tribes of Moghulistan and Khwarezm. In 1372/73 he subjugated through a series of bloody campaigns the Turco-Mongol Kongirat dynasty of Khwarezm, distant kinsmen of Genghis Khan’s mother. In 1375 he annexed the fertile Ferghana Valley where he appointed as governor his son, Umar Sayh. In 1377 he managed to occupy Kashgar, the capital of Moghulistan, the possession of which region ensured by campaigning to the rivers Yulduz and Irtys. Until 1380 his last opponents inside the Chagatai Khanate surrendered and Timur became the undisputed master of the khanate. In 1376 he had installed Tokhtamysh in Otrar (north of the large river Syr Darya). Tokhtamysh was a real descendant of Genghis Khan and a pretender to the throne of the Golden Horde, ousted from power of the Blue Horde, a sub-khanate of the former horde. In 1377 Timur invaded the steppe of the Kipchaks (north of the Chagatai Khanate) on behalf of Tokhtamysh but he was actually seeking expansion at the expense of the Golden Horde.
In 1377 Tokhtamysh, reinforced with the forces of Timur who returned to Samarkand, defeated Temur Malik, the khagan of the Blue Horde and seized its throne. The vigorous Tokhtamysh was also facing the reaction of Mamay, the Mongol khan of the Golden Horde and dominator of the Blue Horde who considered the former a usurper. In 1380 he defeated Mamay occupying the throne of the greater Khanate and continued his campaigns against the Russian principalities which had revolted against the Golden Horde, taking advantage of its civil war. Being always strengthened with the troops that Timur left to him, he invaded the Russian principalities capturing several towns including Moscow (1382). In the same year he defeated the strong Lithuanian army at Poltava.
Meanwhile Timur with the bulk of his army campaigned in 1380 for the first time in Iran, in the wealthy Khorasan area. In 1381 he captured the important city of Herat, capital of the Kartid dynasty despite being his ally, and he appointed one of his sons as its military governor. In the same year the Sarbadarian rulers came under his suzerainty, as did the neighboring Mongolian Jauni Kurban tribe after its defeat in battle against him. In 1383 Timur ousted the last Kartid puppet-ruler of his from Herat, officially annexing the Kartid kingdom. In 1383 he conquered the strategic region of Seistan (Sakastan, from the name of the earlier Saka/Scythian rulers of it) soon annexing all of eastern Iran (including Afghanistan). Thus he opened the way to the conquest of the wealthy western Iran. In 1384 he marched to Sultaniya in Azerbaijan from which he expelled the Jalayrid troops. With this first western expedition of his, Timur did not seek the annexation of land but looting. But the attack of his former ally, Tokhtamysh, already Khan of the Golden Horde, in Tabriz in 1385, indicated to him that he had to move fast because Tokhtamysh was seeking to fill the power vacuum left by the decline of the Il-Khanid dynasty in Iran and Iraq. Thus began the bloody struggle of the two Turco-Mongol warlords which was meant to last for a decade.
Periklis Deligiannis