Apr 092019
 

Today is the birthday (1336) of Timur (Persian: تیمور‎ Temūr, Chagatai: Temür), historically known as Amir Timur and Tamerlane (Persian: تيمور لنگ‎ Temūr(-i) Lang, “Timur the Lame”), the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia, and the first ruler in the Timurid dynasty. It is not normally my custom to celebrate brutal conquerors, and I am not going to spend much time on his bloody exploits. I’ll give a brief potted history, and then turn to the fact that he was the focus of so many works of stage and literature from soon after his death to the present day – with the ever-lingering question hovering: WHY?

Timur was born in Transoxiana (in modern-day Uzbekistan), speaking Chagatai as his native language, and by the age of 34 had gained control of the western Chagatai Khanate. From that base, he led military campaigns across Western, South and Central Asia, the Caucasus and southern Russia, and emerged as the most powerful ruler in the Muslim world after defeating the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the emerging Ottoman Empire, and the declining Delhi Sultanate. From these conquests, he founded the Timurid Empire, but this empire fragmented shortly after his death. Timur was the last of the great nomadic conquerors of the Eurasian Steppe, and his empire set the stage for the rise of the more structured and lasting Gunpowder Empires in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Timur envisioned the restoration of the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan (d. 1227) even though he was not ethnically related to, nor a descendant of, Genghis Khan. For example he justified his Iranian, Mamluk, and Ottoman campaigns as a re-imposition of legitimate Mongol control over lands taken by usurpers. To legitimize his conquests, Timur relied on Islamic symbols and language, referred to himself as the “Sword of Islam”, and patronized educational and religious institutions. Timur also decisively defeated the Christian Knights Hospitaller at the Siege of Smyrna, styling himself a ghazi (holy warrior). By the end of his reign, Timur had gained complete control over all the remnants of the Chagatai Khanate, the Ilkhanate, and the Golden Horde, and even attempted to restore the Yuan dynasty in China. Timur’s armies were inclusively multi-ethnic and were feared throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe, sizable parts of which his campaigns laid to waste. Scholars estimate that his military campaigns caused the deaths of 17 million people, amounting to about 5% of the world population at the time.

Timur was the grandfather of the Timurid sultan, astronomer and mathematician Ulugh Beg (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ulugh-beg/ ), who ruled Central Asia from 1411 to 1449, and the great-great-great-grandfather of Babur (1483–1530), founder of the Mughal Empire, which ruled parts of South Asia for over three centuries, from 1526 until 1857. Timur was a great patron of art and architecture, and interacted with intellectuals such as Ibn Khaldun (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ibn-khaldoun/ ) and Hafiz-i Abru.

Literary versions of the life of Timur abound. Tamburlaine the Great, written by Christopher Marlowe (1587) was a milestone in Elizabethan drama, breaking new ground with its use of blank verse, strong passions, and larger-than-life characters. It could well have been one of the first London plays that Shakespeare saw (and was influenced by). Marlowe’s play was successful enough to prompt the writing of a sequel. Marlowe was not concerned about historical accuracy, and portrayed Timur as a Scythian shepherd who rose to great heights, and mostly invented the events in his life. Still, the theme was popular for a time.

The 18th century saw numerous musical productions, including Tamerlano (1724), an opera by George Frideric Handel, in Italian, based on the 1675 play Tamerlan ou la mort de Bajazet by Jacques Pradon; Bajazet (1735), an opera by Antonio Vivaldi that portrays the capture of Bayezid I by Timur; and Il gran Tamerlano (1772): opera by Josef Mysliveček that also portrays the capture of Bayezid I by Timur.

Tamerlane (1827) is the first published poem of Edgar Allan Poe. It is epic in length, but mostly concerns Timur’s abandonment of his first love, a peasant girl, in favor of conquest and fame. On his deathbed he laments trading an empire for a broken heart. In the 20th century we have Tamerlane, an historical novel by Harold Lamb, Lord of Samarkand by Robert E. Howard, and Tamerlan, a novel in Spanish by Colombian writer Enrique Serrano. Into the 21st century we have Tamburlaine: Shadow of God, a BBC Radio 3 play by John Fletcher, broadcast 2008, a fictitious account of a meeting between Tamburlaine, Ibn Khaldun, and Hafez.

It is said that Timur’s favorite food was plov (i.e. pilaf) and nowadays you can easily get a dish called (something like) Timur’s plov in many parts of Central Asia. I was invited to an impromptu cooking class in Kyrgyzstan to make a version, and was happy to primarily take photos and taste the result (rather than spend holiday time peeling and chopping vegetables). The good part of the lesson was that the local cook had an enormous vessel for cooking the plov that looked like a giant cast iron wok over a wood fire.  The quantities here are not quite banquet sized, but the recipe will feed 10 royally. This is not a complex plov, as many are, with cascades of ingredients, but perfectly basic. It is not, however, easy to make unless you know what you are doing. After the recipe I will give a video.  You will see that the experience comes in when it comes to adding liquid to cook the rice.

Timur’s Plov

Ingredients

1 kg rice, thoroughly washed in cold running water
500 gm lamb, cut in chunks
1 kg carrots, peeled and cut into strips
4 onions, peeled and sliced
vegetable oil
salt, cumin, and cayenne pepper

Instructions

Heat some oil in a cauldron until a little smoke appears. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until they take on a little color. Add the meat and continue the browning process. Finally add the carrots and continue to cook until they are browned a little. Add water to cover plus salt, cumin, and cayenne to taste, bring to a boil, and cook for about 45 minutes.

Add the rice plus more water to come slightly above the surface of rice. The amount of water is critical. Cook uncovered until the rice has absorbed all the liquid, and then cover and cook over very low heat for about 20 minutes.

Jan 192016
 

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Today is the birthday (1809) of Edgar Allan Poe, best known now for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. But Poe is sometimes considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and is also credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. In his day he was perhaps best known as a literary critic with a sharp tongue and bitter wit. He was the first well-known U.S. writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career. Nowadays commentators are often quick to point out that Poe’s hard times were “his own fault” (in those words). I find such a judgment hard to take. Yes, he was an alcoholic, and, yes, he made some poor decisions. But he was a man of integrity and honesty. I certainly don’t see his desire to live by writing as a flaw, but, rather, as an enviable stance to take, requiring a dedication that few are capable of.

So . . . I’ll leave you to read about his life if you are interested – his childhood abandonment by his father and death of his mother; his troubled relationship with his stepfather; his lifelong addiction; the death of his brother; the full scope of his literary career; his marriage to his cousin when he was 26 and she was 13; etc. etc. Instead I want to dwell on three things: his death, the Poe toaster, and “The Cask of Amontillado.” The last, first.

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I’m not a fan of Poe’s writing in general. I find it all a bit bleak and troubling. But I return to “The Cask of Amontillado” once in a while. I am not sure of the precise nature of my fascination. Some of it lies in the inherent vagueness of the plot. Under it all is the tale of a man whose fortunes have suffered, he believes, at the hand of another, and seeks revenge. His revenge via murder is cunning and brutal. The details in the story are at one and the same time crystal clear and obscure, yet the broad strokes are straightforward enough – “you have wronged me, so I am going to kill you in a way that is cruel and undetectable.” Poe, master of the detective story, presents us with a perfect crime. I don’t doubt there was an element of fantasy in the tale, as many have suggested, of Poe seeking revenge on a real opponent. With whom do you empathize – murderer or victim? I’ve tended to vilify the victim, but I can’t bring myself to praise or identify with the murderer. The story is complex and keeps me pondering from time to time. Does revenge solve anything?

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On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore delirious, “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance”, according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington Medical College, where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849, at 5:00 in the morning (at the age of 40). Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own. Poe is said to have repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds” on the night before his death, though it is unclear to whom he was referring. Some sources say Poe’s final words were “Lord help my poor soul.” All medical records, including his death certificate, have been lost. Newspapers at the time reported Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation”, common euphemisms for deaths from disreputable causes such as alcoholism. The actual cause of death remains a mystery. A fitting end for the master of the macabre. Yet . . .

“Poe Toaster” is a media name popularly used to refer to an unidentified person (or more probably two persons in succession, possibly father and son) who, for over seven decades, paid an annual tribute to Poe by visiting the cenotaph marking his original grave in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early hours of January 19, Poe’s birthday. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would pour himself a glass of cognac and raise a toast to Poe’s memory, then vanish into the night, leaving three roses in a distinctive arrangement and the unfinished bottle of cognac. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity and was rarely seen or photographed.

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According to eyewitness reports and notes accompanying offerings in later years, the original Toaster made the annual visitation from some time in the 1930s (though no report appeared in print until 1950) until his death in 1998, after which the tradition was passed to “a son.” Controversial statements were made in some notes left by the post-1998 Toaster, and in 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made by several onlookers to detain and identify him. In 2010 there was no visit by the Toaster, nor has he appeared any year since, triggering speculation that the 75-year tradition has ended (2009 being the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth).

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Reports have it that Poe survived on bread and molasses during his more impoverished times. Washed down with a glass of brandy (or amontillado) that would certainly be a fitting, if sparse, tribute. Otherwise I can find precious little indication of his food tastes. However, the rather small, regional pizza chain, Dewey’s (Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri) offers the “Edgar Allan Poe.” I cannot find the reasoning behind the name. If you can’t travel to a Dewey’s location you can make a reasonable simulacrum. You’ll need to make a thin crust (I buy the dough), brush it with good olive oil, then top with mushrooms, kalamata olives, whole roasted garlic cloves and three cheeses: mozzarella, fontina, and crumbles of fresh goat cheese.