The Timurids

The disintegration of the Mongol Empire left a power vacuum in Central Asia into which stepped one of the most notorious empire-builders of all time, Timur, popularly known as Tamerlane. He was born probably in the 1320s in the Mongol Barlas tribe, which contended for power in the region around Kesh (Shahr-i Sabz) south of Samarkand. He fought his way to power and secured it in part by marrying true royalty, that is, a woman who descended from Chingis Khan. Establishing a Chingizid lineage was one key to success in Central Asian politics. By 1370, Timur had established his capital in Samarkand. Timur spent much of his life campaigning, extending his control over Iran and Iraq, destroying the cities of the Golden Horde in 1395 and sultanate of Delhi in 1398, and defeating the Ottoman Turkish Sultan at the battle of Ankara in 1402. Angered by insults from the newly established Ming Dynasty in China, in 1405 Tamerlane set out to conquer China, but he died before getting there.

While some of the popular images of Tamerlane's impact are piles of skulls, we tend to remember him and his successors as some of the greatest patrons of the Islamic arts in Central Asia and the Middle East. Following the pattern of earlier conquerors, he conscripted artisans and promoted urban development in the cities that were important to him, most notably Samarkand. A city that had been significant already in the time of Alexander the Great, Samarkand then flourished for centuries under the Sogdians. It declined, was decimated by the Mongol invasion in the early thirteenth century, and finally entered a glorious age under Tamerlane. The Spanish ambassador to Tamerlane, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, who visited there in 1404, has left a detailed description of the city's flourishing commerce and crafts. Wares came from all over the Middle East, from Russia, from India, and especially from China. This influx of wealth enabled Tamerlane to sponsor major architectural projects, which can still be seen in the mausoleum complex of the Shah-i Zinda, the Bibi Khanum mosque and the family mausoleum where Tamerlane himself is buried, the Gur-i Mir. The architectural style of these buildings was that prevalent in the Iranian Middle East.

After Tamerlane's death, the capital was moved to Herat, where throughout the fifteenth century royal patronage supported notable schools of literature and painting. This became a Golden Age of Persian miniature painting. Samarkand also continued to be important under the administration of Tamerlane's grandson, Ulugh Beg, who is known for his educational and scientific achievements. His observatory drew upon earlier models established by the Ilkhanids in northern Iran and became the most important one in the Islamic world. The accuracy of its astronomical measurements was not surpassed until the advent of the telescope at the turn of the seventeenth century.

The arts under the Timurids are of particular interest for the history of the Silk Road. Many Chinese decorative motifs entered the visual arts of the Middle East in this period. Thanks in part to the great Ming treasure fleets, Chinese blue and white porcelain flooded the region and had a substantial impact on the design of Islamic ceramics. Chinese lacquer ware influenced tile work and wood carving, and Chinese painting served as a model for Islamic miniature painting. The Persian miniaturists of the Timurid courts even copied images of religious figures but, of course, stripped them of their religious content.

The last chapter in the Timurid legacy was to be written in Mughal India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Mughals descended from the Timurids and never forgot the ancestral capital of Samarkand. In the 1620s we find the Mughal Emperor Jahangir entertaining a Samarkand author, inquiring about the Gur-i Mir, and promising to pay for its upkeep. That ancestral tomb was an inspiration for the great Mughal mausoleums, the most noteworthy of which was, of course, the Taj Mahal.

-- Daniel C. Waugh

K. Z. Ashrafyan, "Central Asia under Timur from 1370 to the early fifteenth century," and R. G. Mukminova, "The Timurid states in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries," Chs. 16-17 (pp. 319-363) in History of civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. IV. The age of achievement: A.D. 750 to the end of the fifteenth century. Part One. The historical, social and economic setting, M.S. Asimov and C. E. Bosworth, eds. (Paris: UNESCO, 1998).

Clavijo, Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406, Guy le Strange, tr. (New York and London: Harper, 1928).