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Book Review: Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World (Justin Marozzi)

I, and many others, have been exhausted in recent months by the nonstop political noise machine. So I pulled this book off the shelf, figuring that a biography of the 14th Century warlord Tamerlane would be pretty much non-political. Maybe not as non-political as a coffee table book about, say, flowers, but close, and to me more interesting. I was not disappointed. This book proved an informative escape—depressing at times, certainly, like any tale of violence, but at least I didn’t have to think or talk about 21st Century politics at any time, and won’t in this review. For like all of us, I am weary unto death of all that (though not weary enough to not return to it).

Most of us, to the extent we think of Tamerlane, lump him in with Genghis Khan, into the historical grouping “Mongols who rode horses and killed a lot of people.” I know little about Mongols, except what everyone knows, roughly that they swept out of the steppes beginning with Genghis Khan about 1200 A.D., conquering from China to the Middle East; were stopped by the Mamluks at Ain Jalut in Syria in 1260, preventing further conquest in the Middle East; and dominated much of Asia south of today’s Siberia for several hundred years. This book helped me fill in the gaps.

Tamerlane is popular biographical history, interspersed with travelogues describing the condition today of the stomping grounds of Tamerlane—Temur the Lame. These are centered around what is today’s Uzbekistan, and stretch from Constantinople (nearly) to Delhi. The author, Justin Marozzi, visited many of the places important in Temur’s life. From references to the Taliban being in control of cities he visited, even though the book was published in 2004, he must have traveled prior to 2001. Not that it really matters—most of the areas involved have not changed much since Temur’s death in 1405, and to the extent they have changed, it has almost exclusively been slow devolution and decay, punctuated by aggressive destruction of ancient architecture and ways of life during the Soviet era.

I understand that in the past few years revisionist history about Genghis Khan and the Mongols has been all the rage, led by Jack Weatherford, who claims that the Mongols were wonders of rationality and tolerance, not the casual killers of tens of millions history has told us. Or, cribbing from the blurb for one of Weatherford’s books, “In nearly every country the Mongols conquered, they brought an unprecedented rise in cultural communication, expanded trade, and a blossoming of civilization. Vastly more progressive than his European or Asian counterparts, Genghis Khan abolished torture, granted universal religious freedom, and smashed feudal systems of aristocratic privilege.” I don’t know the truth of the matter, although revisionist history is always suspect, since it holds rich rewards for the author, at least if the revision is in the direction approved by the society of the day. Weatherford apparently claims that the European Renaissance was largely based on copying the Mongols, and his latest book apparently tries to not only make the case that Genghis was uniquely religiously tolerant, but that Thomas Jefferson relied heavily on Genghis Khan for his political theory. Like the stupid tale that the American Constitution was founded in any way on Iroquois political organization, those derivations are probably completely false. But maybe I will opine further on that another day, since I know my readers are aching for my opinions on every topic under the sun. Today we will stick to this history, which is not especially revisionist, but it is balanced.

Marozzi uses three main sources. The two “local” ones he identifies as both terribly biased, in opposite directions. One, Ahmed ibn Arabshah, was a Syrian captured as a boy during the destruction of Damascus by Tamerlane in 1401. He loathed Tamerlane—a pretty good idea of his approach can be gotten from his description of Tamerlane’s birth: “The birthplace of this deceiver was a village of a lord named Ilgar in the territory of Kesh—may Allah remove him from the garden of Paradise!” And that’s relatively tame. The second was Sharaf al-din Ali Yazdi, a contemporary and acquaintance of Tamerlane, who became his grandson’s sycophantic court historian. The third source is Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, a Spanish nobleman sent as ambassador by King Henry III of Castile in 1402. Clavijo spent time at Tamerlane’s court in Samarkand near the end of Tamerlane’s life, at the height of his power, and was a fascinated, objective, generally positive observer. Marozzi does a good job of combining these three sources (and he rejects the supposed autobiographies of Tamerlane “discovered” in the 17th Century as fake).

Tamerlane was born around 1336, the son of a minor nobleman from a Turkic Mongol tribe. Other than that, he had no blood connection to Genghis Khan, even if popular association of the two creates endless confusion in trivia games. He showed boldness early, and rose in local conflicts, receiving in his twenties the two injuries to his right arm and leg that gave him the accurate sobriquet “Lame.” (In the 1940s Russian archaeologists exhumed Tamerlane’s skeleton and confirmed the injuries, though how he received them is obscure.) In the usual manner of Asian nomads, alliances were constantly shifting, betrayal was the norm, customary law was important (such that Tamerlane ruled under a nominally superior puppet khan), and settling down regarded with contempt.

The conqueror’s career then pretty much unfolded as you’d expect. He consolidated power in a small area, then he expanded his power, then he consolidated it again. He campaigned almost every year of his long life, often (but not always) wintering somewhere, and rarely returning for long to his theoretical capital, Samarkand. He conquered all of Persia, much of the Caucusus, and Asia Minor. He defeated the Ottomans and took prisoner the Sultan, Bayezid the Thunderbolt, the first and last time the Ottomans were defeated until World War I. (I always like the descriptive nicknames the Ottomans gave to their Sultans, like Suleiman the Magnificent and Selim the Sot.) Then he conquered northern India, the Levant and Egypt (but not Arabia, probably because there wasn’t enough booty). And he was on the way to China with a massive army, to subdue the (other) Mongols who ruled there, when he died at about the age of seventy—whereupon his empire quickly fragmented.

Tamerlane’s own religious beliefs were as fluid as most men of conquest. He was Muslim, most definitely, but cared little for the details. Sometimes he posed as Shia, sometimes as Sunni. He liked Sufis. He kept court astrologers; when he liked what they said, he agreed with them; when he didn’t, he excoriated them as anti-Muslim. He killed far more Muslims than Christians, although he constantly said he intended to smite the heathen, the Christians and the polytheists, instead he almost always ended up smiting other Muslims, whom he of course characterized as deficient Muslims so he had an excuse. Like most Mongols, religion wasn’t really his thing; he took an opportunistic, instrumentalist approach to it (which, contra Weatherford, is not the same thing as tolerance).

It would be a silly exercise to try to subtly analyze Tamerlane’s motives, and to his credit Marozzi doesn’t try. Tamerlane was a hugely ambitious man driven by raw desires: for conquest, to feed his ego; for booty, to enrich himself and motivate his armies; and for the pleasures of the flesh—alcohol, food, and women. If we’re being honest, that makes him not much different from most men—just more successful and less restrained. In pursuit of these goals, he slaughtered enormous numbers of men, women and children in the most gruesome ways, including live burials and leaving literal towers of skulls all over a vast area. This makes him a bad person, and one of history’s great killers, along with Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Romanticizing him would be a mistake, as would be ascribing his atrocities in some fashion to Islam itself (which certainly gave him theological backing for jihad, but he interpreted that in an utterly self-interested fashion, and if he hadn’t had that excuse, as Genghis had not, he would have found another). It was another time, and a long time ago, and the only lesson is that human nature, when unrestrained, does not, whatever Steven Pinker says, lead to good things.

Sure, the book has a few clunkers. Several times in the book Marozzi refers to Tamerlane using Greek Fire, the Byzantine incendiary mixture. I had never heard of Greek Fire being used other than by the Byzantines (its recipe was a state secret and now lost), much less by horse-borne nomads, and a little research showed that while Tamerlane may occasionally have used some form of incendiary such as flaming pitch, it was not Greek Fire. It is not true that Tamerlane’s grandson, Ulug Beg, created star tables “still in use at the time England appointed its first Astronomer-Royal in the seventeenth century,” by which Marozzi apparently means to imply they were used in England at that time. They were still in use in the Muslim world, since Muslim science as a whole had come to a crashing halt centuries before, and Ulug Beg was a rare exception. But the tables were never used in Europe, since Ulug Beg’s star tables were not available in Europe until after Tycho Brahe (who had a telescope, as Ulug Beg did not) had already published vastly more complete and accurate tables, starting in the 1570s. And while Christians appear little in this book, Marozzi is often guilty of the common modern obeisance to political correctness of whitewashing atrocities against Christians by Muslims, such as noting the massive slaughter of Christians at Antioch in 1263 by not mentioning the word Christian at all, thus concealing the slaughter had anything to do with Christians, but highlighting the reverse at every opportunity.

None of these minor errors and foibles really have a significant effect on the book, though. And I was able to escape the 21st Century for a few hours, which is definitely a good thing. Plus, now I am more likely to win at trivia games that ask me to distinguish among Mongol warlords!

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