A Disturbing Collection of History’s Most Brutal Rulers

A Disturbing Collection of History’s Most Brutal Rulers

Khalid Elhassan - April 30, 2022

A Disturbing Collection of History’s Most Brutal Rulers
Tamerlane. Time Ghost TV

3. History’s Most Brutal Ruler?

If the question of who was history’s most brutal ruler was asked, many would assume it must have been Genghis Khan. However, while Genghis is one of history’s scariest people, he was not as lethal as an even deadlier medieval warrior: Tamerlane (1336 – 1405). Byname Timur Link, which means “Timur the Lame” in Turkish, Tamerlane was the last of the great Eurasian Steppe conquerors to terrify the civilized world with widespread devastation and butchery. He is chiefly remembered for his savagery, and his wide-ranging rampage, from India to Russia and the Mediterranean and points in between. Tamerlane is estimated to have exterminated about 17 million people, or about 5 percent of the world’s population at the time. That would be equivalent to almost 400 million people in 2022.

A Disturbing Collection of History’s Most Brutal Rulers
A medieval depiction of Tamerlane feasting in Samarkand. Wikimedia

A Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, Tamerlane was born in the Chagatai Khanate in today’s Uzbekistan. It was ruled by Genghis’ descendants at the time, and Tamerlane’s rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the Chagatai Khan. However, the Khan was executed by rivals, and that triggered a struggle for power. When the dust settled, Tamerlane had emerged as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead Chagatai puppet, through whom Tamerlane ruled.

Also Read: How to Host Medieval Feast?

A Disturbing Collection of History’s Most Brutal Rulers
Tamerlane and a tower of skulls. Pinterest

2. A Steppe Warrior Who Spent Decades Terrorizing Everybody

Tamerlane’s supposed descent from Genghis Khan might have been dubious. That did not stop him, however, from using it to justify his conquests as a restoration of the by then-defunct Mongol Empire. He claimed that his conquests were a re-imposition of legitimate Mongol rule over lands that had been wrongfully seized by usurpers. With those justifications, Tamerlane spent 35 years roiling the medieval world. In that stretch, he earned a reputation for brutal savagery as he brought fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and Volga rivers, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean.

Among the cities he left depopulated and in ruins were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000. Tamerlane was also in the habit of piling up pyramids of severed heads. Additionally, he liked to cement live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erected towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize would-be opponents.

A Disturbing Collection of History’s Most Brutal Rulers
A nineteenth-century painting depicts Tamerlane gloating over a captive Bayezid. Wikimedia

1. “When I Rise From the Dead the World Shall Tremble

Tamerlane’s most dramatic victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks. A rising power in their own right, the Ottomans were as exuberantly confident in their prowess as was Tamerlane. For years, heated letters were exchanged between Tamerlane and the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid, until Tamerlane finally showed up with his army in 1402, crushed Bayezid, and took him captive. In one of history’s greatest acts of ownage, Tamerlane humiliated his prisoner by keeping him in a cage at court, while Bayezid’s favorite wife was made to serve the victor and his courtiers, naked.

A Disturbing Collection of History’s Most Brutal Rulers
Facial reconstruction of Tamerlane, based on his unearthed skull. Wikimedia

Tamerlane’s decades-long rampage finally ended in 1405. As he prepared to invade China, he took ill, and died before he could launch the campaign. His grave was reportedly cursed. His body was exhumed by Soviet anthropologists on June 19th, 1941. Carved inside his tomb were the words “When I rise from the dead, the word shall tremble“. Two days later, the Nazis launched the largest military operation of all-time against the USSR, and the Soviets survived only by the skin of their teeth. Just to be on the safe side, in November 1942, shortly before Operation Uranus which led to the first major Soviet victory at Stalingrad, Tamerlane was reburied with full Islamic rituals.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Badass of the Week – Ranavalona the Cruel

Biography – Pol Pot

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Clements, Jonathan – The First Emperor of China (2006)

Cojean, Annick – Gaddafi’s Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya (2014)

Daily Sabah, August 6th, 2015 – The History of Fratricide in the Ottoman Empire, Part I

Daily Sabah, August 8th, 2015 – The History of Fratricide in the Ottoman Empire, Part II

Davis, Brian Lee – Qaddafi, Terrorism, and the Origins of the US Attack on Libya (1990)

Drees, Clayton J. – The Late Medieval Age of Crisis and Renewal, 1300-1500: A Biographical Dictionary (2001)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Hulegu, Mongol Ruler of Iran

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ivan the Terrible

Encyclopedia Britannica – Muammar al Qaddafi

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ranavalona I

Encyclopedia Britannica – Timur

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Part II (1994)

Guardian, The, March 31st, 2011 – Dictator Lit: Saddam Hussein Tortured Metaphors, Too

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Hinton, Alexander Laban – Why Did They : Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (2005)

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Kim, Hyun Jin – The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe (2013)

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Man, John – Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome (2009)

Manz, Beatrice Forbes – The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane (1999)

Marozzi, Justin – Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World (2006)

Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2002, Volume 9, Number 1 – Saddam Husayn’s Novel of Fear

Ranker – The Most Brutal Medieval Monarchs

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