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Iranian History - Tamerlane and his Successors

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The Chagatai Khanate where Timur was born and raised was a region consisting of northwestern India and northeastern Iran. It straddled the boundary between the settled Muslim world and the nomadic pastoralism of the steppes, two ways of life that were ill-reconciled to each other.

At the time of Timur's birth in the 14th century, the Khanate was disintegrating along these lines, providing a fertile breeding ground for gangsters, bandits and mercenaries. The young Timur was to spend time as all of these, before rising to prominence as an empire builder.

Despite the injuries to his right leg and arm that would mark him out forever as Timur-i Lenk, or Timur the Lame (from which comes the westernised corruption "Tamerlane"), Timur was able slowly to build up an sizeable army of followers attracted to his infamy and step into the power vacuum left by the weakened Khanate.

Timur marched triumphantly on Samarkand alongside his brother-in-law in 1364, eventually becoming the sole ruler of the Transoxiana region in 1369.

Painting of Tamerlane.

A Timurid Painting of Tamerlane.

Timur feasts in the environs of Samarkand.

Timur feasts in the environs of Samarkand.

From that point onwards, the career of Timur was a series of successful campaigns that occupied him mainly in Persia but also took him to surrounding territories. He would begin by subduing the minor Islamic powers that had been squabbling violently over Iran since the decline of the Il-Khanate.

Despite his devout faith in Islam, Timur was a killer of the most cold-blooded sort who did not hesitate to attack other Islamic states if it suited his purposes. Sometimes he would use the notion of jihad or "holy war" as a thin pretence for his wars of conquest and plunder.

Toqtamish, the Khan of the Golden Horde to the north watched the progress of his former ally with envy and decided to attack Tabriz in 1385, igniting a war which Timur finally won in 1391, having ravaged Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Northern Iraq in the process. Isfahan fell in 1387, the massacre there of at least 70,000 is well documented by his own personal historians.

They tell of the entire population being piled on top of one another before having bricks piled up around them to wall them in. These towers then "proclaimed the glory of the world conqueror". Pyramids of skulls and human remains marked his conquests wherever he went. Shiraz was taken and plundered in 1393 and by 1395, he had also subdued Syria and Asian Minor.

Timur was a very different sort of conqueror to Genghis Khan in that he was not at all a constructive monarch. His aim first and foremost was to secure control of the lucrative trade routes connecting east and west and he saw no need to establish long-lasting administrative systems.

Thus, though his military exploits took him west to Syria, north to Russia and the Caucasus and east to India, rather than grow roots in the territories and the cultures that he had conquered as the Seljuks and Il-khans had done, Timur spent his time in between campaigns back at his capital and winter home of choice, Samarkand.

It was to expanding and embellishing his capital that Timur directed his non-military energies. His passion for arts, crafts and architecture meant that skilled artisans were the only people who could count on being spared by his slaughtering armies.

They would be captured and transported to Samarkand where they would work towards constructing and beautifying the great city. The Timurid period marked the highest point in Persian architecture with its great advances in decorative techniques, especially glazed tilework.

Examples of Timurid architecture can be seen in Iran where the successors of Timur built to a lesser extent but with equal artistry. His son and successor Shah Rukh continued in this vein in Khorasan making it the foremost centre of innovation in architecture in the first half of the 15th century.

Timur besieges the historic city of Urganj.

Timur lays siege to the historic city of Urganj.

Timur defeats the Mamluk Sultan Nasir-ad-Din Faraj of Egypt.

Timur defeating the Mamluk Sultan Nasir-ad-Din Faraj of Egypt.

Gowharshad, the wife of Shah Rukh was the most enthusiastic builder of this period, her finest achievement being the magnificent mosque at Mashad which bears her name.

With the death of Timur in 1405, the empire was left to successors who did not share the same force of will that characterised their patriarch. Unity gave way to factionalism and former vassals began to assert their independence in outlying territories.

Before long, all that was left of the Timurid Empire proper was Transoxiana and Afghanistan. The succession passed to Timurs youngest son Shah Rukh (r. 1409-1447) who cared less for conquest than he did for fostering the cultural renaissance that was occurring in Timurid lands at this time.

Calligraphy, miniature painting, music, literature and various scientific pursuits all flourished during this period but Iran was not to be unified again until the rise of the Safavids.

Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari

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