This Week in History recalls memorable and decisive events and personalities of the past.

22nd November 1386 – Timur of Samarkand captures and sacks the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, taking King Bagrat V of Georgia captive

Timur giving orders to the General Assembly for a campaign against Georgia, while receiving Mutahartan, Emir of Erzinjan in Armenia

At the beginning of the 1200s the Mongol ruler Temujin, better known as Genghis Khan, began a series of conquests that would see him establish the world’s largest empire, stretching from Korea to the plains of Hungary. While the Mongol Empire was very impressive, it did not last very long.

During the life of Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, in the mid- to late-1200s, the Mongol Empire fractured into a group of successor Khanates, each founded by the family of one of the sons of Genghis. These were, the Golden Horde, which dominated the steppe in the west around modernday Russia, Ukraine, and east towards Kazakhstan; the Ilkhanate, which ruled much of the Middle East centered on Persia but stretching into the Levant; and the Chagatai Khanate, which ruled central Asia from northern Afghanistan to the modern countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and what is today Xinjiang in western China, where the Uyghur peoples live. In the east, the largest and most powerful of the successors ruling China and Mongolia was the Yuan dynasty.

These successors were as much enemies of one another as they were enemies of the surrounding peoples and often battled for supremacy, slaves and loot. The ruling classes of these khanates also often fought one another for control of the Khanates, and they were plagued by frequent civil wars. During this period the Mongol cultures of the ruling class fused with the Turkic cultures of the steppe people they had conquered in the west, to form a Turko-Mongolic culture. This also saw the introduction of Islam into the Mongol Khanates and, before their fall, the Golden Horde, Ilkhanate and Chagatai Khanate had all converted to Islam.

Into this world somewhere around the 1330s was born a man named Timur, who bore a Turkified version of Genghis Khan’s original name, Temujin. During his life, Timur would go on to echo the life of the great Khan in many more ways than just his name.

Timur, a forensic facial reconstruction by M.Gerasimov. 1941 [shakko, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9494028]

Timur was born to a middling Turko-Mongolic noble family in the region of Transoxiana, which is today in modern Uzbekistan, then part of the Chagatai Khanate. The young Timur led a band of mercenaries and warriors who travelled around central Asia fighting in the armies of local rulers; when not employed ,they often took to banditry, rape, pillage and rustling cattle and sheep.

It was during this period of his life that many historians believe Timur gained his defining physical feature – when, during an attempt to steal some sheep, he was shot with two arrows in the leg and hand, he lost two fingers and suffered a leg injury that would cause him to limp for the rest of his life, earning him the nickname, Timur the Lame, or as Europeans would come to know him, Tamerlane.

During the 1360s, Timur gained prestige and renown, leading his group of Turkic tribesmen into many successful battles. At first Timur served in the armies of the Chagatai Khans, but after the death of the Khan, a civil war erupted in the Khanate and Timur and his brother-in-law backed a man called Soyurgatmish, whom they effectively made their puppet. Soon after, Timur fell out with his brother-in-law, defeated him and became the sole power behind the throne.

Despite Timur’s fearsome reputation and power, Mongol tradition held that only descendents of Genghis Khan could rule with the title Khan. This is why Timur held the title of Amir, ruling in the Khan’s name, despite in reality being the true power. Much of Timur’s time in power would be spent trying to boost his legitimacy through marriage and myth-making.

Once he’d secured his power over Central Asia, Timur began a long series of conquests of the lands around him, butchering all who resisted, and burning and pillaging all the cities that refused to submit. He also battled the Golden Horde. During this time he conquered all of Persia and kept marching west. He surged over the Middle East and would sack the cities of Baghdad and Damascus, major centres of Islamic culture, learning and power. To this day, some in the Middle East still to harbour resentment towards Timur, marking his sackings of these cities as the point at which they began to decline.

Timur receives envoys during his attack on Balkh in 1370

In 1386, Timur’s  army entered the small mountainous Christian kingdom of Georgia in an attempt to secure it so as to help block raids into Timur’s territory by the Khan of the Golden Horde from the north. The Georgians resisted and fortified themselves in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. By this time, however, Timur was a master of conquest and siege, and on 21 November 1386, the city fell to the armies of Timur. Most of the city’s population were massacred or enslaved. The Georgian King Bagrat V was taken captive and forcibly converted to Islam. As Timur had business elsewhere he placed the newly converted Georgian king at the head of an army of 12 000 troops loyal to Timur and sent him to secure Georgia for Timur and Islam.

King Bagrat, however, had been in secret communication with his son, who now led the Georgians, and an ambush was set up to free the king. This worked, with the Georgians killing the Muslim bodyguard of King Bagrat (who had effectively been keeping him prisoner) and he escaped back to his son’s fortress to begin rebuilding his forces.

In 1387, Timur returned to punish the Georgians for their rebellion, but an attack by the Golden Horde forced him to withdraw. Timur’s armies would not return until 1394, when he sent his generals to raid south-eastern Georgia. The Georgians managed to defeat this force and bought more time to build up their defenses.

In 1398 Timur took his armies east and invaded India. At the time northern India was ruled by the Delhi Sultanate, an Islamic Turkic Sultanate that ruled over a mostly Hindu population with their capital based in Delhi. Timur justified his invasion of India by claiming that he was punishing the local Muslim elites for being too tolerant of the Hindu people they ruled over; in reality he likely simply desired to loot the rich cities of the region. On 17 December 1398 Timur defeated the Delhi armies – according to legend, he routed the terrifying Indian war elephants by loading flammable materials onto Camels and then setting them alight, running the camels towards the elephants and causing them to run back into their own lines, trampling the Indian troops.

Timur’s army attacks the survivors of the town of Nerges, in Georgia, in the spring of 798/1396. A miniature from the 16th-century ‘‘Zafar-namah’’ of Sultan Husayn Mirza by the artist Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād.

The armies of Timur invaded Georgia again in the year 1400 and defeated the Georgians, carrying out a campaign of destruction against the local population, raiding and enslaving all they could find. In 1401, Timur invaded again and this time the Georgians sued for peace. At the time Timur was planning a campaign against the rising power of the Ottoman Empire, and so decided to accept the peace terms so long as the Georgians supplied him with troops to fight the Ottomans.

Timur invaded Anatolia in 1402, and at the battle of Ankara decisively defeated the Ottomans, capturing the Sultan and nearly collapsing the Ottoman Empire permanently (it would spend the next 11 years in civil war). Timur then attacked the fortress of Smyrna, a Christian fortress of the Knights Hospitaller, which he captured and sacked.

Timur was not yet done with the Georgians, and turned his army around to march back to the Caucuses. The Georgian king, perhaps planning to rebel again, had not come in person to congratulate Timur on his victory over the Ottomans and this apparent lack of respect for his lord and master was used as justification by Timur to launch a brutal attack on Georgia, apparently destroying 700 towns across region in the process.

In 1404, Timur began military campaigns against the Ming Empire, which had recently driven the Mongols out of China. Perhaps he was seeking to emulate the conquests of his role model, Genghis Khan, in conquering China – but in the winter of 1405, he would die while on campaign. So ended his bloody reign.

Timur’s brutal rampage across the Middle East and Central Asia is sometimes credited as marking the beginning of decline in those regions, which has left them relatively underpopulated and impoverished even today. Regardless of the truth of these claims, Timur remains a controversial figure in the Islamic world. Many today still see him as a bloodthirsty murderer and tyrant who destroyed everything in his path. He is also fingered as primary cause of the destruction of the Christian Church of the East, which was once the main branch of Christianity in the Middle East and Asia and today makes up a tiny minority in Iraq and Syria.

In the country of Uzbekistan, he is considered a national hero and his tomb in Samarkand has been lovingly restored by the Uzbek government.

The shrine of Tamerlane in Samarkand, Uzbekistan [Willard84, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60864374]

A large statue of Karl Marx was erected during the Soviet years in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Uzbekistan became independent, the statue was toppled and replaced with one of Timur.

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