Behind the Pyramids of Skulls

Part history book, part travelogue, Marozzi's biography of Tamerlane brings us face to face with the world of the powerful 14th-century warlord.

Ruth Almog
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Ruth Almog

"Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World" by Justin Marozzi, HarperCollins, 450 pages, 25 pounds sterling

Justin Marozzi's new book, "Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World," has won rave reviews in England and is sure to hit the best-seller list. Ever since 16th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote "Tamburlaine the Great," the persona of this brutal warlord has fired imaginations. The play was very successful in its time, attracting large crowds with its crude mixture of megalomania, violence and lust. But it is also very much to blame for Tamerlane's image problem - at least in England. One of the small ironies of history, says Marozzi, is that the man who had no historians and did not record his military and other exploits for posterity was made famous by an Elizabethan dramatist with a taste for sensationalism. But, of course, Tamerlane's story is sensational.

While Justin Marozzi tries to portray another side of this Asiatic conqueror, the reviewers have their doubts about whether he has succeeded. Very few European historians have written about Tamerlane for the simple reason that up until recently, the Byzantine Empire was a closed book, even to graduates of university history departments. Today, of course, the Uzbeks are very proud of their "Amir Timur." They don't call him "Tamerlane" because they consider it insulting: It is a corruption of "Timur Leng" - i.e., Timur the Lame.

Marlowe's play, however, is not the only reason for Tamerlane's bad press in the West. Like many warlords from the Orient, most of what was written about him was written by his enemies. By and large, they were citizens of the cities he conquered, who saw him as a savage occupier whose one saving grace was spreading Islam. A more positive picture emerges from the diary of the Castilian diplomat Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, one of the few Europeans that met him. Clavijo, an ambassador of the Spanish court who was sent to Samarkand, wrote a travelogue of his journey and recorded his impressions of Tamerlane. His book is a classic in the travel genre, but until modern times it enjoyed a very small readership.

The Mongols, led to glory by Tamerlane in the 14th century, were a loose federation of nomadic tribes from the steppes of eastern Asia that were briefly united in the early 13th century by another world conqueror: Genghis Khan. Within 50 years, Tamerlane's Mongolian armies conquered all of Eastern and Central Asia, and then set their sights on the Arab kingdoms in the Middle East. Their success on the battlefield was founded on their expertise in using the bow and the horse - the two most important weapons of war in medieval times.

The Mongols' problem was that they were better at the art of war than the art of government. There were not enough of them to settle the vast territories they occupied, so their mode of operation was to invade cities, plunder them and make off with the booty. Unlike the Arabs and the Ottomans, who also started out as nomads, the Mongols did not colonize, and their seat of power was far away. What they did have was first-class intelligence. Marozzi writes that Bush and Blair could learn from them. If there were uprisings, they were cruelly suppressed. Hence the pyramids of skulls at the gates of conquered cities and the enormous towers built of human bones.

Wiped out the Turks

Tamerlane's beginnings were rather modest. He was a Tatar (Mongolian-Turkish) tribal chief from the central Asiatic steppe east of the Aral Sea, born some time around 1330 to a family of minor nobility. His fame began to grow in 1366 when he conquered Samarkand and made it his capital. Over the next four decades, his armies occupied western China, Afghanistan and northern India, then penetrated northward beyond the Volga into Russia.

Tamerlane brought the Ottoman Empire to its feet, wiped out the Turkish army in Ankara and captured the Turkish sultan, the most powerful ruler in the Islamic world at that time. He defeated the Persians and invaded India, reaching all the way to Delhi. Toward the end of his life, he planned the takeover of the Ming dynasty in China. By the time he died in 1405, he had invaded the western heartland of Islam, conquering Damascus and Baghdad.

Conquest and power

In the Muslim world, writes Marozzi, Tamerlane was admired as a mighty conqueror and disseminator of Islam, although some say he practiced Shamanism. In fact, Tamerlane cared little for any religion unless it served his aims: conquest and power. He was as cruel as his predecessor, Genghis Khan, but unlike him, he did not just destroy - he also built. The fabulous mosques and madrassas of Samarkand, the gardens and the palaces, each of them gems, reveal a great appreciation of art and architectural beauty that was totally foreign to Genghis Khan. Tamerlane's achievements in the 14th and 15th centuries had no equal, says Marozzi, citing as proof the awe of the Spanish ambassador at the splendor of Tamerlane's court and the sophistication of his armies.

Tamerlane was indeed a cruel tyrant. Inhabitants of the cities he conquered were butchered if they resisted. He left pyramids built from 70,000-90,000 skulls. He did leave memoirs, but they exist only in a Persian translation that appeared 200 years after his death. Marozzi thinks they are unreliable, although the Uzbeks insist otherwise.

Marozzi quotes at length from Clavijo's journal and the work of two biographers: one was a Persian court scribe, Sharaf a-din Ali Yazdi, and the other was a Syrian historian, Ahmed ibn Arabshah, who was eight years old when Tamerlane's army marched into his hometown - Damascus - in 1401. No one can say for sure how credible these biographies are.

Tamerlane's accomplishments were not long-lived. His empire vanished within two generations. The horses of the Mongols turned out to be no match for the new weapons of war: artillery. Marozzi deftly moves from the golden age of Samarkand, Bukhara and Herat under the Mongol dynasties, to the European empires of 19th century Asia, and on to the ecological and economic catastrophes that befell the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

"Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World" is part history, part travelogue. After traveling the length and breadth of Tamerlane's empire, Marozzi laments the changes that have taken place in the ancient landscapes of Central Asia. He describes the decay of medieval monuments and mourns the disappearance of a way of life that had almost stood still from the time of Herodotus until the 18th century.

Marozzi has written a wonderful book that brings the world of Tamerlane face to face with our own. He introduces readers to a colorful character that not everyone has heard of, and at the same time, opens their eyes to the breathtaking landscape of the central Asiatic steppe and to an extraordinary chapter in human history.



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