In Europe the name Timur iLeng, Timur the Lame, became Tamerlane or Tamburlaine. Lame he was, merciful he was not.
As his latest biographer Justin Marozzi says, the millions he slaughtered – ‘buried alive, cemented into walls, massacred on the battlefield, sliced in two at the waist, trampled to death by horses, beheaded, hanged’ – would have had a different opinion.
Of Mongol ancestry from what is now Uzbekistan, he began as a sheep-rustler and bandit, and was injured in a skirmish which left him lame in his right leg and unable to raise his right arm. In 1941 his tomb was opened by a Soviet archaeologist, Mikhail Gerasimov, who confirmed the injuries.
Building up a force of several hundred horsemen, Timur took service under an invading Mongol chieftain, seized Samarqand, took a wife descended from Genghis Khan and went on to an astonishing career of conquest until he ruled from Damascus to Delhi.
Efficiently organised armies under his horse-tail standard covered immense distances. He destroyed the Golden Horde, conquered Persia and Mesopotamia, invaded Russia, Georgia, India, Syria and Turkey. Thousands of women were carried off as slaves. At Baghdad he had 90,000 of the inhabitants beheaded so that he could build towers with their skulls. At Sivas in Turkey, where he promised no bloodshed in return for surrender, he had 3,000 prisoners buried alive and pointed out that he had kept to the letter of his oath.
His atrocities were intended to strike terror into the hearts of opponents, and cities which surrendered promptly were sometimes spared a sack. He was a Muslim and he justified his campaigns against Christians and Hindus as spreading the true faith, while when he attacked and slaughtered fellow-Muslims, as he very frequently did, they were always described as ‘bad Muslims’.
Timur was a patron of art and learning and he turned Samarqand into an exquisitely beautiful city.
He called one of history’s most brutal butchers and died on February 18th, 1405. His empire, which was never more than the expression of his personal dominance, did not survive his death.