All About History
Scourge of God
The so-called ‘Scourge of God’ built an empire that left people quaking from Damascus to Delhi
Meet Timur the Lame, a sheep rustler turned bloody butcher who inspired fear from Damascus to Delhi.
The bloody reputation of Mongol ruler Tamerlane precedes him. Remembered for his gruesome military campaigns in which tens of millions of people may have been slaughtered, the great warrior Tamerlane — otherwise known as Timur — possessed a vast territory, stretching from Delhi to the Mediterranean. As the most powerful ruler in the 14th-century Islamic world, he was both feared and respected by his contemporaries. However, his legacy in the West mainly comes from obscene caricatures, such as Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, in which the savage emperor treats human life with as much respect as he would an ant. But was ‘Timur the Lame’ merely a simple, brutish warrior?
A century and a half before Timur’s birth, Genghis Khan roamed the plains of Central Asia. Famously spending his life pillaging and murdering, when Genghis died, the Mongol conqueror split the spoils of his empire between four of his descendants. Chagatai, his second eldest son, was granted a large tract of land. Becoming known as the Chagatai Khanate, the steppes, deserts and mountains of the region made it one of the most beautiful parts of Genghis Khan’s old empire — but it was also one of the most remote.
Their neighbours to the north, the Golden Horde, were a scary bunch. Ruled by Genghis Khan’s grandson, these lawless tribes pillaged towns and villages from Eastern Europe to the Altay Mountains. The Chagatai Khanate, meanwhile, largely subsisted on nomadic herding and was heavily fraught with internal divisions. The khanate quickly split into two parts — the powerful east was called Moghulistan and the less fortunate west was known as Transoxiana.
It was in this divided world that Timur was born in 1336.
His father, Taraqai, was a minor nobleman from the Barlas tribe — a group of nomads that made their home in the area south of Samarkand. The young Timur never stayed in one place for all that long, as his clan would repeatedly uproot themselves (and their livestock) to find the best grazing pastures whenever the seasons changed.
Realising that there was profit to be made in illegal activity, Timur turned to petty crime.
His first exploits involved rustling sheep from neighbours and he quickly added banditry to his list of dodgy dealings, making travellers tremble in their boots. A man with a clear talent for violence, Timur apparently worked as a mercenary in his 20s, and was once seriously injured by an arrow during a skirmish.