After the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire had fragmented into separate khanates as his descendants squabbled amongst themselves. The empire he built was too big for any of them to rule, so it was split into pieces and divided between them. The northwestern portion was called Golden Horde, and by 1336 the majority of it was ruled by Sultan Mohammed Oz Beg. His domain ran from Moscow to the Aral Sea and his capital was Sarai.
Also in 1336, a son was born to a Turco-Mongol tribal leader of the Barlas in Transoxiana. Transoxiana is located at the edge of the mountains just south of the beautiful city of Samarkand. This is in modern day Uzbekistan. The boy was called Timur. Timur’s father was one of the first tribesmen to convert to Islam, and so the young boy grew up reading the Qur’an and educated in the ways of Sunni Islam. He earned the nickname “the lame”, or Timurlane, after being shot in the thigh early in life. Stories vary as to whether this was sustained participating in local rebellions or after being caught by a farmer for stealing sheep. When Timur was 10 years old, there was a rebellion against the Mongol leader in Transoxiana and a man named Kazgan became emir. There was a period of anarchy for several years as the battles were fought to bring the area back into Mongol control. Mongol armies marched into Transoxiana in 1360 and 1361, and Timur acted like a good tame prince and submitted to the new Mongol governor, Ilyas Khodja, becoming a minister within his government. They didn’t realize who they were dealing with.
Unbeknownst to the Mongols, Timur made an alliance with Hussein, the grandson of the Kazgan, who originally freed Transoxiana in Timur’s youth. Together they fought the Mongols winning victories in 1364, but ultimately being defeated in 1365 at the Battle of the Mud. They withdrew to consolidate power. It wasn’t always a happy partnership as neither of them seemed to like each other very much, but it was successful in that they were able to eventually drive the Mongols from Transoxiana. An Islamic uprising in Samarkand and a plague affecting the Mongol’s horses helped matters immensely. With the common enemy of the Mongol’s retreating, Hussein and Timur’s partnership was deteriorating rapidly as both of the were jockeying for supremacy over Transoxiana. Timur spent his time charming the local emirs, princes and merchants as well as a man from Mecca who claimed to be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. It came to open warfare when Timur’s wife died as she was also Hussein’s sister. Without the ties of family between them, the two clashed. Hussein was captured at the siege of Balkh in 1370 and executed, leaving Timur the undisputed master of Transoxiana. He set up his capital at Samarkand, and began consolidating his power. Anyone who had been loyal to Hussein, including most of the inhabitants of the city of Balkh, were bound in chains and beheaded.
Samarkand was improved and beautified as Timur’s favorite and capital city. New walls were built which were surrounded by a deep moat. The marketplace was enlarged and beautiful gardens and palaces were built. Soon Samarkand was the envy of even Cairo and Baghdad. Leaving a nominal king behind in Samarkand to rule, Timur took his army out for a test drive. The make up was similar to the Mongols, however, there were more foot soldiers. The army took great pride in Timur and his warrior prowess. Their loyalty was to their commander, not their state. They moved east and took on his old enemies, the Mongols. In 1381, they turned west and moved through Iraq, Asia Minor and Syria. Their atrocities were legendary. Even Timur’s own court historian didn’t try to pretty it up. For example, at Sabzawar, Timur had a tower built out of live men and cemented together with bricks and mortar. Populations were massacred as a matter of course and minarets were made of decapitated heads. Not a nice guy. By 1385 all of Persia was under his control.
Then he moved north into what is now Georgia and Armenia. He wrapped himself in the mantle of a warrior for Islam as he claimed these kingdoms were attacking caravans on their way to Mecca. The Christians there were slaughtered. The Mongols attacked him there again, but he pushed them back to Moscow. By 1392, things were pretty much settled and Timur was itching for another fight. He after putting down more rebellion in Persia and Georgia and practiced a scorched earth policy by destroying entire towns. Then he turned his greedy eyes to India.
Claiming the Muslim rulers there were being too tolerant of their Hindu neighbors, Timur attacked. He destroyed the Islamic kingdom centered around Delhi and bragged about getting further into India than Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan. Then he turned westward again, leaving the Indian builders and artisans he took from Delhi in Samarkand, Timur headed to Syria. He took on the Mameluks and occupied Damascus. During the looting of Damascus, a fire started that burned for three days. Damascus took years to recover. He was getting too close to the Ottoman Turks, who engaged them in battle in 1402 at Angora, today’s Ankara. Timur crushed them. Moving on to Smyrna, he demanded the Christian crusader knights there convert to Islam. When they did not he conquered the city and had the entire population killed. Their heads were built into a pyramid.
Timur returned to Samarkand and began planning a new expedition into China. Luckily for China, he died in 1405 enroute with the army. At Samarkand, Timur was embalmed and buried in an ebony casket. Like Genghis Khan before him, Timur’s sons could not hold his empire and squabbled amongst themselves. By the end of the century the empire was fractured and gone.
Sources available on request