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Timur Was Brilliant Leader But a Savage

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Timur wanted to be a second Chengiz Khan. He claimed to be descended from Chengiz, but he was really a Turk. He was lame and is therefore called Timur-i-lang or Timur the Lame or Tamurlane. He succeeded his father and became ruler of Samarqand in 1369.

Soon afterwards, he started on his career of conquest and cruelty. He was a great general, but he was a complete savage. The Mongols of central Asia had meanwhile become Muslims and Timur himself was a Muslim. But the fact that he was dealing with Muslims did not soften him in the least. Wherever he went he spread desolation and pestilence and utter misery. His chief pleasure was the erection of enormous pyramids of skulls. From Delhi in the east to Asia Minor in the west he caused to be massacred hundreds of thousands of persons and had their skulls arranged in the form of pyramids !

Chengiz Khan and his Mongols were cruel and destructive, but they were like others of their time. But Timur was much worse. He stands apart for wanton and fiendish’ cruelty. In one place, it is said, he erected a tower of 2000 live men and covered them up with brick and mortar !

The wealth of India attracted this savage. He had some difficulty in inducing his generals and nobles to agree to his proposal to invade India. There was a great council in Samarqand, and the nobles objected to going to India because of the great heat there. Ultimately Timur promised that he would not stay in India. He would just plunder and destroy and return. He kept his word.

Northern India was then, you will remember, under Muslim rule. There was a Sultan at Delhi. But this Muslim State was weak, and constant warfare with the Mongols on the frontiers had broken its backbone. So when Timur came with an army of Mongols there was no great resistance and he went on gaily with his massacres and pyramids. Both Hindus and Muslims

were slain. No distinction seems to have been made. The prisoners becoming a burden, he ordered all of them to be killed and 100,000 were massacred. At one place, it is said, both the Hindus and Muslims jointly performed the Rajput ceremony of jauhar —marching out to die in battle. But why should I go on repeating this story of horror ? It was the same all along his route. Famine and disease followed Timur’s army. For fifteen days he remained in Delhi, and converted that great city into a shambles. He returned to Samarqand, after plundering Kashmir on the way.

Savage as he was, Timur wanted to put up fine buildings in Samarqand and elsewhere in central Asia. So he collected, as Sultan Mahmud had done long before him, artisans and skilled mechanics and master-builders in India and took them with him. The best of these master-builders and craftsmen he kept in his own imperial service. The others were spread in the chief cities of western Asia. Thus developed a new style of architecture.

After Timur’s departure, Delhi was a city of the dead. Famine and pestilence reigned unchecked. There was no ruler or organization or order for two months. There were few inhabitants. Even the man Timur had appointed as his Viceroy in Delhi retired to Multan.

Timur then went west spreading desolation across Persia and Mesopotamia. At Angora he met a great army of the Ottoman Turks in 1402. By brilliant generalship he defeated these Turks. But the sea was too much for him, and he could not cross the Bosphorus. So Europe escaped him.

Three years later, in 1405, Timur died, as he was marching towards China. With him collapsed his great empire, which covered nearly the whole of Western Asia. The Ottomans paid tribute to him, so did Egypt, so did the Golden Horde. But his ability was confined to his generalship, which was remarkable. Some of his campaigns in the snows of Siberia were extraordinary. But at heart he was a barbarous nomad, and he built up no organization and left behind him no competent men, as Chengiz had done, to carry on the empire. So the Empire of Timur ended with him and left a memory only of massacre and desolation. In Central Asia, of the hordes of adventurers and conquerors who have passed through it, four men are remembered still — Sikandar or Alexander, Sultan Mahmud, Chengiz Khan, and Timur.

Timur shook up the Ottoman Turks by his defeat of them. But they recovered soon and, as we know, in another fifty years (1453) they took Constantinople.

[Excerpts from Glimpses of World History by JL Nehru]

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