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 (https://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 (https://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.
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
salt, cumin, and cayenne pepper
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.