10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters

Patrick Lynch - February 7, 2018

Commonly known as Tamerlane in Europe, Timur was one of the most dominant military commanders in human history. He was also one of the cruelest as his military campaigns were responsible for the deaths of at least 17 million people, or 5% of the world’s population during the 14th century when he terrorized Western, Southern, and Central Asia along with nations in the Caucasus. That’s the equivalent of 360 million+ deaths today.

Outside of historians, Timur is not well known in the West which is probably why his reputation hasn’t suffered. Indeed, there are those who gloss over his butchery and fawn over his incredible military skills. He was born in 1336 (although many historians believe he was born a decade earlier) in modern day Uzbekistan and became the leader of the Western Chagatai Khanate in 1370. Timur held this position until his death in Kazakhstan in 1405. In this article, I will look at interesting facts about this tyrant including details of the atrocities he was responsible for.

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters
Statue of Timur in Uzbekistan – Thousand Wonders

1 – He Had Notable Physical Disabilities

The Western versions of Timur’s name, ‘Tamberlane’ or ‘Tamerlane,’ come from the nickname ‘Timur-i-leng’ which means Timur the Lame. When a pair of Soviet scientists were sent to Samarkand to exhume the body of Timur in 1941, they uncovered a variety of disabilities in the tyrant’s body. Stalin, and a large number of Russians were curious to determine if it was the real tomb of Timur and whether the stories about his injuries and lameness were true.

The forensic findings determined that the warlord would have dragged his right leg when walking and he was missing the small and ring fingers on his right hand. Furthermore, Timur’s left shoulder was significantly higher than his right. There are different theories as to how he sustained his various injuries in a topic that usually leads to a great deal of disagreement amongst historians.

An author named Arabshah claimed that Timur and his band of thieves were shot by arrows when stealing sheep. It is probably untrue and also worth noting that Arabshah’s writing was generally anti-Timurid. His goal was to paint Timur in a bad light and suggest he got his wounds in a cowardly fashion. The more likely cause of the injuries was a battle when he was fighting for the Khan of Sistan in Iran. He was probably in his late twenties when it happened, and he wouldn’t have become the leader of the Khanate for another few years.

Whether the injuries and subsequent deformities altered his personality is unclear. After all, he had a torrid early life as he joined his mother and brothers as prisoners of the Mongol army when he was eight or nine years old. To survive, Timur stole from travelers as a child, and he was part of a gang. This is where Arabshah gets his story from. Regardless of how he suffered his injuries, they didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the greatest commanders the world has ever seen.

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters
Map of the Timurid Empire – The Chaihana – WordPresscom

2 – He Was a Military Genius

Timur’s military career began in an inauspicious manner as he plotted against the Mongols. When the enemy learned of his plan, he had to flee and become a bandit to survive. His success as a mercenary in Persia helped him garner a large following, and he collaborated with Amir Hussein to start conquering territory. By 1366, the duo had control of Transoxiana, but four years later, he killed Hussein, so Timur became the leader of the entire region.

From this point onward, Timur was dedicated to expansion and spent the final 35 years of his life in a state of constant conflict. The so-called Timurid Empire was founded by him in 1370, and he spent the next decade conquering the rest of Central Asia. In 1380, he assisted the Mongol Khan Toktamysh in his invasion of Russia, and he began his Persian campaign with the capture of Herat (in modern day Afghanistan) in 1383. Within four years, all of Persia was his; marked by the conquest of Isfahan in 1387.

Timur’s next task was a five-year campaign west which began in 1392 with an attack on Persian Kurdistan. Shiraz surrendered the following year, and Timur also found time to turn against Toktamysh beginning with an invasion of Azerbaijan in 1385. Timur destroyed his enemy’s army at the Battle of the Kondurcha River in 1391 and ended the matter with Toktamysh by comprehensively beating him at the Battle of the Terek River in 1395. Although Toktamysh survived for another decade, he never held his former power again. Timur destroyed the capital of the Golden Horde, Sarai, and started his campaign against the Tughlaq Dynasty with an invasion of Northern India in 1398.

Despite facing harsh conditions, Timur captured Delhi in 1399 and began a war with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Bayezid I, in the same year. Other cities to fall included Aleppo, Damascus, and Baghdad before he died at the beginning of his campaigns against Ming China. The Timurid Empire he founded lasted until 1507 when the Uzbeks of Muhammad Shaybani conquered Samarkand and Herat. Although Timur was generally merciful to cities that surrendered, this was not always the case. If you tried to fight, Timur would annihilate the inhabitants of the city and liked to experiment with varying forms of grotesque punishments.

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters
Skull Pyramid Depiction – Pinterest

3 – The Massacre at Isfahan & Skull Pyramids

When it came to enemies who resisted, Timur was merciless. It was normal for his men to throw enemies off cliffs or else they were burned alive. His army would also kidnap women and leave their young babies alone to die. One of his favored punishments was to create a pyramid comprised of the skulls of enemies who refused to surrender. Among the most infamous example of this gruesome act occurred at Isfahan in 1387.

The Persian city of Isfahan was a prosperous, intellectual, multicultural and artistic place where the arts thrived. Alas, it didn’t possess the level of military might to stand a chance of fighting against an enemy as powerful as Timur. When his army arrived at Isfahan, the city opened its gates and immediately surrendered. Timur showed mercy and didn’t oversee his usual bloodshed. However, the city made the terrible mistake of revolting against the warlord’s taxes and killed the 3,000 men stationed there. Timur returned to Isfahan and easily captured it after a short siege.

This time, there was no mercy as the Timurid army massacred up to 70,000 people. Timur apparently ‘encouraged’ his men to commit the slaughter by giving each troop a ‘quota’ of decapitated heads to collect. An eyewitness said that there were 28 towers consisting of 1,500 skulls. There was more than that amount, but the person who counted and recorded the number stopped in revulsion.

Some historians believe the death toll at Isfahan was closer to 200,000, but we will never know the true figure. What we do know is that Timur continued massacring any city foolish enough to rebel against his invasion. In future campaigns, Timur was more selective in who were massacred and tended to spare educated individuals and artists. Yet there were occasions when he simply didn’t care and would order wholesale executions.

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters
Depiction of Timur in India – The Muslim Issue

4 – The Massacre at Delhi

Timing is everything, especially in warfare, and Timur picked the perfect moment to launch his invasion of India. Between 1388 and 1394, there were six different Sultans and when Nasiruddin Mohammed gained the throne, he became embroiled in a three-year war of succession with Firuz Khan. The chaos can be summarized by the fact that there were two ‘Sultans’ operating at the same time; one at Delhi and the other at Firuzabad.

When Timur launched his invasion in 1398, India was in disarray, so the warlord was able to blitz through the country at lightning speed. After entering Indian territory in April 1398, Timur marched through the Khyber Pass, entered Punjab and looted the Pakpatan and Dipalpur peoples. After overcoming the Governor of Meerut’s army, Timur arrived in Delhi in December and on the 17th, he fought against Sultan Nasir-ud Din Mahmud Shah Tughlaq. While the Sultan’s men fought bravely, the internal strife of recent years took its toll, and Timur’s army won the day.

What happened before the battle will live on in infamy. Of course, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to the residents of Delhi since Timur’s reputation for cruelty was well established. Also, he had ravaged a number of cities en-route to Delhi including Sirsa, Fatehabad, and Tohana. At Tohana for example, 2,000 people were executed. Yet Timur surpassed his violent ways immediately before the Battle of Delhi. He ordered the execution of 100,000 Hindu prisoners because he believed they might try to escape and help the enemy in the forthcoming battle.

According to N. Jayapalan in History of India, “The whole country was bled white. Plundering and devastation went on for several days.” One Muslim chronicler wrote about how “high towers were built with the heads of Hindus, and their bodies became the food for ravenous beasts and birds.” Everyone who survived the atrocities became a prisoner of the Timurid Empire. One of the reasons for the scale of the massacre is probably an uprising. Delhi didn’t recover from the invasion for a century.

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters
Depiction of Timur in Baghdad – Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers

5 – Butchery at Baghdad

When he conquered Baghdad, Timur once again indulged in his favored passions: Mainly, massacring resistance and creating pyramids out of skulls. By 1399, Timur and his army had already conquered an incredible amount of territory, but he was far from being finished. It is impossible to say how much he could have conquered had he stayed alive for another decade, although it is worth noting that he was possibly in his mid-seventies when he died and was certainly in his late sixties.

After taking Delhi, Timur’s next goal was to gain territory in the Levant, and he began this particular campaign by starting a war with the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid I, and the Egyptian Mamluk Sultan, Nasir-ad-Din-Faraj in 1399. Along the way, he invaded Georgia and Armenia, capturing an estimated 60,000 people and using them as slaves. Then, he moved onto Syria where he plundered Aleppo and Damascus. Unlike in previous campaigns where everyone died, Timur spared artisans who were deported to the capital of the Empire, Samarkand.

By the time he reached Baghdad and encountered resistance in 1401, Timur was in no mood to show mercy. Once the city had been captured, an estimated 20,000 citizens were murdered. As was the case in previous campaigns, Timur demanded that each man reached a quota. In this instance, they had to bring back at least two severed heads. What happened next clearly illustrated the fear Timur put into his men. When they ran out of people to slay, they resorted to killing prisoners they had previously captured. Then, they began beheading their own wives in a desperate attempt to placate their leader. Some sources claim there were 90,000 people executed and their skulls created 120 towers in the city.

When Timur defeated Bayezid and took him, prisoner, he decided to invade Western Anatolia. In the meantime, the leader of the Kara Koyunlu dynasty, Qara Yusuf, attacked and captured Baghdad in 1402. Timur, never a man to take anything lying down, quickly made his way back to Persia to regain the city. He ordered his grandson (which shows you how old Timur was at this stage) Abu Bakr ibn Miran Shah to recapture the city and the young commander was successful in his mission.

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters
Reconstruction of Timur – Wikipedia

6 – He Crushed the Christians

The Knights Hospitaller had succeeded in holding off the Ottomans for over a century because they created an impressive stronghold in the 14th century. It was located close to Rhodes on the Asia Minor coast. The town, Bodrum, was once called Halikarnassos and was the birthplace of Herodotus. Although they were able to fend off the Turks, they underestimated the strength of Timur and his army.

When he arrived at a Hospitaller castle in Smyrna in December 1402, the defenders were confident that he would be unable to break through. After all, there was a deep ditch that separated their castle from the mainland. Extra men and supplies were sent to them via the sea, so there was no chance of being starved out. However, Timur ordered his engineers to build a giant platform to block the port and started bombarding the castle. Then, his men dug beneath the castle and collapsed the tunnels. Timur was able to storm the city and butchered the inhabitants; their heads were displayed on spikes. The surviving knights fled to Bodrum.

Two years previously, Timur attacked Sivas in Turkey which was defended primarily by Christian Armenian soldiers. He told the inhabitants that no blood would be shed if they surrendered. They believed him and, technically, he kept his word. Instead of slaying them by the sword, he ordered the 4,000 soldiers to be buried alive. While he murdered the Christian soldiers, he spared the Muslims.

Timur found Georgia to be a more difficult conquest and invaded it seven times. Eventually, King Bagrat V of Georgia, after briefly losing his crown, agreed to Timur’s request to convert to Islam. However, the king secretly remained a Christian. Timur sent 12,000 men to help with the conversion, but they were slaughtered by the Georgians. The irate warlord wreaked terrible revenge by ravaging the Georgian countryside, killing the elderly and capturing everyone who did not resist as a slave. In Kvabtakhevi, Timur told the villagers to convert or die. They chose death and were burnt alive. Legend has it that they sang psalms to God as the flames consumed them.

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters
Amir Timur Tour in Tashkent – Advantour

7 – He Was an Equal Opportunities Butcher

Although Timur considered himself a Muslim, some of his most vicious acts were carried out against his fellow Muslims. After dealing with the Georgians, Timur focused on Syria and in particular, Aleppo and Damascus. It was his conduct at the latter city that ensured he was declared an enemy of Islam. It is entirely possible that those who lived in Damascus at the time could see the smoke rising into the sky that signified the destruction of Hama and Aleppo. Now, it was their turn and the only thing preventing them from annihilation was a Mameluke army brought by the Sultan of Egypt.

Damascus stood a chance with these legendary warriors to call upon but then, disaster struck. The Mamelukes held their own in the initial skirmishes but word came from Egypt that the Sultan’s throne was under attack; they were ordered to return as soon as possible. Now, Damascus was at the mercy of Timur, but it still took his army a full month to capture the city. Indeed, this only happened because the residents surrendered, probably because they were running out of supplies. Timur showed no mercy and ordered the plunder of the city followed by all-out slaughter.

The scale, and the manner, of the massacre at Damascus, is truly horrifying. There are reports that some residents were crushed to death in wine presses, while others were burned. Rape and general slaughter were the norms in the city as thousands of people died. The survivors were carted off to slavery although when mothers were snatched, the children were left behind to starve. Finally, Timur ordered his men to bring the best craftsmen, artisans, and skilled workers back to the empire’s capital.

Timur claimed that he only destroyed Damascus because Muawiyah I, the caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate, murdered Hasan ibn Ali. This had happened in 670 AD. He also cited the murder of Husayn ibn Ali by Yazid I in 680 AD as another reason. Why were these deaths important to him? Both men were grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad. In later life, Timur would gain an arch-nemesis and once again show that he was not a man to mess with.

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters
Bayezid as Prisoner – Die Welt

8 – He Humiliated the Ottoman Sultan

Timur had first begun his campaign against the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid I, in 1399. Initially, the two men exchanged relatively diplomatic notes relating to border town issues, but it was inevitable that two of the most powerful men in the world would clash. Matters quickly escalated, mainly because Timur killed Bayezid’s son, Prince Ertoghrul, during the capture of Sivas. Then the two engaged in what can only be described as childish insults. Bayezid called Timur a ‘dog,’ and a ‘coward’ and intimated that he would gang rape his wives.

Bayezid soon learned the folly of insulting one of history’s most fearsome warriors. When Bayezid learned that Timur was marching towards Ankara in 1402, he marched his army towards his enemy as fast as possible to ensure the battle took place far from the city. It was a terrible mistake because, in his haste, Bayezid did not stop to get supplies, the biggest error was not bringing enough water. To make matters worse, the Ottoman Sultan forced his army to march over desert terrain.

Timur outsmarted his enemy by changing the direction of his march, so his army ended up behind him. He now had a clear run on Ankara, so Bayezid had to bring his men back to the city quickly. The Ottoman army consisted of 85,000 exhausted and thirsty men, and they were up against 140,000 strong and healthy Timurid warriors. During his march, Timur ensured that his horses were grazed, and his men were well fed. Moreover, he destroyed the land as he marched; a scorched earth policy that remained popular in 20th-century warfare. Timur’s archers weakened the Ottomans who fought bravely but were overwhelmed. Bayezid was captured when his horse was killed. He had the ignominious fate of being the first, and only, Ottoman Sultan to be captured by an enemy.

Timur took great pleasure in humiliating his former foe. Bayezid was locked in a small iron cage and was placed in the middle of the table when Timur had guests. The Sultan’s wife was forced to serve these guests while naked, and Bayezid was given scraps from the table. Writers from Timur’s court dispute this and claim the Sultan was well treated. Timur was apparently upset when Bayezid died. The cause of his death is also a mystery. It is suggested that he committed suicide by bashing his head against the iron bars in his cell.

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters
Depiction of Battle of Ankara 1402 – YouTube

9 – He May Have Inadvertently Saved Europe

This is a controversial claim, but perhaps his victory over Bayezid at the Battle of Ankara in 1402 saved Europe from a Muslim conquest? European historians referred to the Ottoman Turks as the ‘scourge of the world,’ and they were making real inroads in terms of European conquest by the end of the 14th century. Before the formation of the Ottoman Empire in 1299, the Seljuk Turks were causing havoc. They conquered the last European stronghold in the Holy Land, Acre, in 1291 and while they lost their power, the Ottomans came on the scene and were a much bigger threat.

They began their European invasion in 1354 and soon took their first territory. Soon enough, the Ottomans had taken much of Turkey and were eating into what remained of the Byzantine Empire in Europe. They captured Thessaloniki in 1387, and after defeating the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, they were free to expand into Europe. A loss at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 temporarily halted their momentum, but it seemed inevitable that they would take over most of Europe.

When Timur destroyed the Ottoman army at the Battle of Ankara, emissaries from all over Europe traveled to meet and greet Timur. The warlord was only too happy to accept the praise and even called the King of Spain “his very own son.” The capture and eventual death of Bayezid caused havoc in the Ottoman Empire in the short-term as there was a bitter war of succession. It took them decades to fully recover, and in the meantime, Europe managed to regroup and was better prepared against future invasions.

Although the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453 and even conquered as far west as Hungary after victory at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, further western expansion was halted at the Siege of Vienna in 1529. While Timur only intended to punish the Ottomans, he might have helped Europe gain some valuable breathing space against the marauding Turks. We can at least be thankful that he never set his sights West.

10 Things You Never Knew About Timur: One of History’s Biggest Monsters
Figurine of Timur – Stone Carving.ru

10 – Timur was a Learned Tyrant

It is easy to dismiss Timur as a bloodthirsty tyrant but he was not only extremely intelligent and a military genius, he also had an appreciation for the arts. During his extensive travels, Timur brought distinguished scholars with him and learned the Turkish, Mongolian, and Persians languages, although he was unable to speak Arabic. In one exchange with a Persian poet named Hafez, Timur was astounded by a particularly clever and witty answer and presented the poet with incredible gifts.

In his early campaigns, it was normal for Timur to order the deaths of everyone in a city or town that resisted his rule. He softened his stance as he got older and allowed artisans and other learned men to live. They were typically brought back to Samarkand. One of the earliest examples of this tactic occurred at Isfahan in 1387 where the educated and talented people of the city escaped the pyramid of skulls.

These artisans were put to good use in the Timurid capital as magnificent structures were created by these prisoners. These buildings were gilded with glazed tiles as Samarkand became not only one of the architectural leaders in Central Asia, but also one of the best cities in terms of commerce and learning. Timur’s grandson built an observatory on the city’s outskirts to gaze at the heavens. It led to a giant leap in astronomical knowledge by the standards of the time.

Of course, Timur’s violent nature always came to the fore, even when dealing with artisans. In one case, his favorite wife, Bibi Khanym, commissioned the creation of the mosque that shares her name in Samarkand while her husband was away conquering foreign land. It was meant to be a gift for when he returned home. The architect apparently kissed the queen forcibly, and she reported it to her husband. Timur ordered his men to tie the architect up and throw him from one of the mosque’s minarets which was 150-feet high. The unfortunate architect fell to his doom on the stone-paved courtyard below.



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50 Great Military Leaders of All-Time – Jann Tibbets

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History of India – N. Jayapalan

The Knights Hospitaller – Helen J. Nicholson, Helen Nicholson

The Venture of Islam, Volume 2: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods – Marshall G. S. Hodgson

1001 Battles That Changed the Course of History – R. G. Grant

The Secret History of Iran – Hamad Subani

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Central Asia: A Global Studies Handbool – Reuel R. Hanks

Journeys on the Silk Road Through Ages – Romance, Legend, Reality – Avijeet Bhattacharya