Some years ago I wrote an account of the sanguinary career of Tamerlane for the Time-Life History of the World. After my editor, Charles Boyle, had read the first draft, he went home and dreamed a strange dream in which ‘Old Hoppity’ turned up at Time-Life’s London offices. The dream, in time, metamorphosed into a poem, which he included in his collection The Very Man (1993). It begins:
A man with a limp came towards me
begging for money for liquor – spoke of cairns
built of skulls, of the wind off the steppes
on the night before battle
and the evils of cholesterol.
In what follows the poet wonders (as well he might) why the long-dead warrior has invaded his life. The poem ends with Tamerlane admonishing the poet:
He said ‘You think a life
Has a beginning, middle and end?’
Then he emptied his pockets
And showed me the eyes of Hafiz.
The figure of the blood-boltered Oriental despot has haunted the Western imagination for centuries. Tamerlane, who put cities to the sword and built pyramids of skulls, was preceded by Sardanapalus, King of Assyria, Byronically bored even as he contemplated the immolation of his harem. Then, perhaps, Herod commanding the slaughter of innocent babies: as De Quincey put it, ‘Herod’s sword swept its nurseries of Innocents.’ Tippoo Sahib, the tigerish Sultan of Mysore, was another of the Asian monsters who peopled De Quincey’s night-fears. There was also Nadir Shah, the 18th-century Afghan adventurer, notorious for his cruelty and rapacity, who conquered Persia and invaded India, and in his time was described as a latter-day Tamerlane. Islam Karimov, the current president of Uzbekistan, is one of the most recent, but not the least sinister of those Oriental despots of whom stories can be told that chill the blood. In 1999, he boasted that he was ‘prepared to rip off the heads of two hundred people, to sacrifice their lives in order to save peace and calm in the republic . . . If my child chooses such a path, I myself would rip off his head.’ With Karimov, strong government shades easily into mass sadism. Oriental despots have proved useful in the West for pointing morals and adorning tales.
Justin Marozzi ably retells the story of Tamerlane and his semi-nomadic Chagatai Turkish army, who, from the late 14th century onwards, terrorised the greater part of the known world. In the Middle Ages, nomadic warlords tended not to celebrate their birthdays and we can’t be sure in which year Tamerlane was born: it was some time in the 1320s or 1330s. Some academics also have doubts about the traditional account of his early career as a rustler who turned himself into a warlord, and who ruthlessly used alliances and betrayals to advance himself, before becoming the ruler of a Central Asian empire. The details of Tamerlane’s early career seem suspiciously similar to those of his role model, Genghis Khan, in the early 13th century. It was in the murky early years that he suffered the wound that caused him to limp for the rest of his life: indeed, he is more properly known as Timur-i Lang (literally ‘Iron the Lame’). He came into the full light of history only in the 1360s. In 1366, he took control of Samarkand, the city that was to be his capital. In 1372, he invaded Khorezm. Other invasions followed: Moghulistan (1375-76), Khorasan (1381), Caspian territories (1382), Azerbaijan (1386), Asia Minor (1387), Russia (1390-91), Georgia (1393), India (1398), Syria (1400-01) and Anatolia (1402). He was on his way to conquer China when he died at Otrar in Kazakhstan in 1405.
Apart from invading new territories, he spent an extraordinary amount of time suppressing revolts in places he had already conquered. Those who rebelled were treated with spectacular savagery: Tamerlane was a leading patron of the architecture of cruelty. After a rebellion at Isfizar had been put down, two thousand captives were cemented alive in the walls – their screams echoed across the desert for days. Pyramids of skulls by the roadside reminded travellers of the extent of Tamerlane’s empire. Genghis Khan had previously pioneered the policy of Schrecklichkeit – that is, of atrocity as an instrument of political and military intimidation. It looks as though Tamerlane in the late 14th century was using Mongol tactics in an attempt to recreate the Mongol Empire of the early 13th.
Marozzi writes well enough and vividly describes the places he visited while researching this biography. These include Shakhrisabz, where Tamerlane was born, Samarkand, his capital, and the Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest inland seas, but now the site of an ecological catastrophe in the centre of a poisonous dustbowl. Marozzi also visited Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and the centre today of a revived cult of Tamerlane. In the middle of its main square is a statue of him on horseback which bears the inscription ‘Strength in Justice’. Marozzi quotes Karimov’s speech at the unveiling of the statue: ‘The Uzbek people, trapped for so many years in the clutches of the colonial vice, are no longer deprived of the opportunity to . . . render to him his historical due.’ Marozzi also quotes what Khalq sozi (the official organ of Karimov’s People’s Democratic Party) has to say about Tamerlane: ‘It is well known that this dignified and just ruler always dealt with the world with good and kind intentions. And our independent republic, from its very first steps, has announced the very same goals – to conduct itself in the world with kindness and goodwill . . . The policies of our president, directed at giving due respect to the spirit of our ancestors, teach us all to be worthy of these qualities embodied by Amir Temur.’
Although his life has contemporary resonances, since he and Karimov seem to have a lot in common, there is something a bit dull about Tamerlane. He was not the sort of person who succeeded in turning his life into a work of art. When C.S. Lewis wrote of ‘a hideous moral spoonerism: Giant the Jack-Killer’, he was passing judgment on Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine, rather than commenting on the despot’s actual career. But there is something depressing about that, too. His armies are always vast, his victories inevitable and his treatment of the conquered almost invariably savage. The history of Central Asia in the late 14th century reads like a piece of plotless Grand Guignol. So it’s curious that Tamerlane, though somewhat neglected by the academics, has long been a favourite subject for popular biography, and Marozzi’s book follows works by Harold Lamb, Hilda Hookham and John Ure. History writing at this level seeks to provide us with vivid pictures of how things must have been and even, at times, to allow us to enter the minds of the protagonists. Marozzi opens with an account of Tamerlane on the eve of the Battle of Ankara (1402): ‘On his vantage point beneath the smouldering midsummer sky, the emperor felt no disquiet. Moments away from the most important battle of his life, he felt nothing but unshakable faith in his destiny that had served him so well.’ Marozzi’s visit to Tamerlane’s birthplace is the pretext for a meditation on transience: ‘The once luminous jewel of an ever-expanding empire has become a crumbling ruin in a forgotten former Soviet backwater mired in corruption and poverty. The glory of Shakhrisabz has long gone. Only the ruins, and the gleaming statue of Temur, suggest it ever existed.’ Tamerlane’s predatory career also gives Marozzi many occasions to celebrate Asia’s fabled opulence.
He gets lots of things wrong, however. Tamerlane did not raze the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus: most of the original building survived until the fire of 1893 and even now portions of the original mosaic decoration are still visible on the walls. It is misleading to cite the 13th-century mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi as someone who contributed to the literary life of Balkh. His family left Balkh when he was still a boy and he eventually settled in far-off Konya, where he produced his famous Masnavi. Sunni Muslims do not ‘stress the original dynasty of the caliphs’ and Ali did not begin a ‘rival dynasty of caliphs’. Sunnis and Shias have far more in common than merely ‘three core doctrines’ (which explains why some of his contemporaries were unsure whether Tamerlane was a Sunni or a Shia). Referring to the historian Ibn Arabshah (literally ‘Son of Arabshah’) as Arabshah is like referring to the novelist Alastair Maclean as Lean. The Mongol Hulagu did not conquer Herat. Muslims object to their imams and religious scholars being referred to as ‘priests’. Khalil al-Zahiri was not a ‘14th-century Persian visitor to Cairo’, but rather the son of a Circassian mamluk who lived in Cairo in the 15th century and wrote about Mamluk administration and ceremonial.
These mistakes are not important, for Marozzi, who is not an academic, still gets the essential story of Tamerlane right. The point is that there is still no serious academic biography in the English language. Beatrice Forbes Manz’s The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane (1989) focused quite narrowly on Tamerlane’s relations with his Chagatai military elite. For a fully rounded and properly referenced life, one must turn to Tilman Nagel’s Timur der Eroberer und die islamische Welt des späten Mittelalters (1993). Those who read French may also consult Jean Aubin’s brilliant and wide-ranging essay ‘Comment Tamerlan prenait les villes’ (published in Studia Islamica in 1963); Aubin was especially interested in Tamerlane’s residual shamanism and his reputation for sorcery.
Despotism and the ruins that must inevitably follow it have a long history in Western thought and literature: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ In the 17th and 18th centuries in particular, Oriental despots were a useful way of thinking not only about Asia but also about Europe. There was no Orientalist paradigm here, only a confused babble. Oriental despotism: was it a good thing? Was it the product of Islam? Was it something that contributed to Asian backwardness? Did it exist at all? Or, if it did exist, was it really very different from the rule of contemporary European monarchs? And were the Oriental despots of the same type as the tyrants described by the ancient Greeks?
Many regarded Tamerlane as a hero. They admired his success, boldness, decisiveness, the ability to deliver victories, the desire to conquer the world and the ambition to leave no desire unfulfilled. He was often compared to Alexander and could also be seen (like Vathek and various other imaginary despots) as a Faustian figure. Marlowe was not the only writer to admire Tamerlane’s swagger. Nicholas Rowe’s play Tamerlane, first produced in 1701, is now more or less forgotten, but in the 18th century it was enormously successful, more so than Marlowe’s play, or, for that matter, most of Shakespeare’s plays. Though Tamerlane had failed to turn his life into a work of art, Rowe was one of those who tried to do it for him. Until as late as 1815, his play used to be staged annually on 5 November, the date of William III’s landing in England and the beginning of the end for James II. Tamerlane was a cult play among Protestants, as Tamerlane stood in for William III, while the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet could easily be identified as the loathsome Louis XIV. The trappings were perfunctorily Orientalist, but Rowe and his audience had no interest in the realities of Eastern history. His Tamerlane was a post-medieval hero, who preached toleration, while Bajazet was sinister and arrogant. So the bombastic Ottoman sultan, having forced Tamerlane into war, as a consequence suffers the penalty of hubris. In Rowe’s grandiose, floridly rhetorical epic, the clash of empires was an eminently gentlemanly affair, which played exceptionally well during Marlborough’s campaigns against the French.
Tamerlane’s reputation as quite a gentleman was reinforced by the discovery of what seemed to be his memoirs, as well as his ‘Institutes’, in which the martial sage set out the principles of good government. These turned up in India at the beginning of the 17th century. There are no grounds for believing that they are genuine – unless one is persuaded by the enthusiasm of contemporary Uzbek academics. But the documents were believed to be so in the 18th century and when, after he had been impeached by Parliament, Warren Hastings sought to invoke the precedent of Tamerlane for his exercise of arbitrary power in India, Burke responded by stating speciously that, when Tamerlane invaded India, it was ‘in the character of the great reformer of Mahomedan religion’. Moreover, he would have been ‘as willingly tried by the laws of the Koran or the Institutes of Tamerlane, as on the common law or statute law of this kingdom’ – the arbitrary decrees of Hastings were a different matter. Gibbon, who had also been taken in by the memoirs, wrote of Tamerlane’s ‘magnanimous spirit’.
The disposition and achievement of Tamerlane played a part in larger 17th and 18th-century debates about Oriental despotism. Sir Paul Rycaut described the desolation of the Ottoman Empire and attributed it to the fear and corruption despotism engendered. Montesquieu presented Oriental despotism as conditioned by material and climatic factors: it was savagely arbitrary, demanded blind obedience and was centred on the mysteries of the harem. Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger argued, somewhat eccentrically, that it was a product of the fear caused by the Great Flood and other natural catastrophes. It would wither away as mankind progressed towards enlightenment. On the other hand, the great Orientalist and expert on the Zoroastrian Zend-Avesta, Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, was fiercely anti-imperialist and argued that the concept had been conjured up by Western thinkers in order to justify the oppressive rule of Europeans over Asia. Voltaire, another who found fault with Montesquieu, suggested that France would do well to imitate Ottoman Turkey by getting rid of nobility, hereditary rights and monarchical absolutism – his view of the Ottoman sultanate was somewhat rosy. In his Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations (1756), he argued that Tamerlane, whom he thought of as some kind of Deist, must have had some merits to have been able to conquer so much. Tamerlane made a late appearance, heavily disguised as a whaling skipper operating out of 19th-century Nantucket, for he was certainly one of the sources of inspiration for that latter-day limping despot, Captain Ahab.
The great debate about the nature of Oriental despotism seems to tail off inconclusively at the end of the 18th century. Volney’s Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791), which argued that Oriental despots were, like the French monarchy, a legacy from an oppressive past that was soon to give way to a new age of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, was one of the last contributions. As for Tamerlane, while he still haunts the nightmares of a few, his status as an iconic figure declined in the 20th century, when Europe started producing its own political monsters and mass murderers on a much grander scale.