Quite a Gentleman

Robert Irwin

  • Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World by Justin Marozzi
    HarperCollins, 449 pp, £25.00, August 2004, ISBN 0 00 711611 X

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.

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