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Justin Marozzi – Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World

Marozzi injects travelogue and portraits of modern post-Soviet life throughout the book far more often than a book about Tamerlane calls for. He is also a little prone to purple prose. But when Marozzi stays on topic, this is a good biography.

Tamerlane was born in a small town in what is now Uzbekistan in 1336. While he spent much of his life on campaign, he also spent many winters and breaks in Smarkand and Tashkent. He was known as Timur or Temur during his lifetime; spellings vary, as do written alphabets. He acquired a limp at an early age, though history has forgotten exactly how; multiple stories circulated in his time and ours, some less honorable than others. Some of his detractors referred to him as Timur-al-Lam, or Timur-the-Lame, hence the Anglicized Tamerlane.

The sources are scarce for Timur’s early life, even after he began to develop a formidable military reputation and the territory to match. As a result, Marozzi spends as much time writing about himself and his travels through Timur’s lands as he does the intended subject of his biography. He also relies more heavily than he should on the 16th century Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine as a source, though he does offer some insightful literary analysis, and is careful to point out that Marlowe was not only writing fiction, but he was writing nearly two centuries after Timur’s death, and in a country, culture, religion, and language that were alien to Timur. Marozzi also has much to say about the impressive architecture Timur sponsored, even if some of it was rushed and eventually collapsed.

The last two decades of Timur life are better covered, and Marozzi does a good job balancing Timur’s political and the personal lives, while also giving the greater regional and historical context Timur operated in.

Timur conquered a huge swath of Asia. From his Uzbek origins, he conquered much of Persia, Baghdad, Mongol-controlled parts of Russia, Seljuk Turkey, Mamluk Egypt, Syria, and India. Every good story needs villains, and Timur had the Golden Horde’s Tokhtamysh, who took multiple campaigns to subdue. A final campaign to China at age 69 proved too much for his diminished health, and his death en route in 1405 may have been the only thing that spared China from his army.

As with Genghis Khan, Timur’s empire fell apart after his death, though his grandson Ulugh Beg was an accomplished scientist as well as an able monarch, and was nicknamed the Astronomer King.

Unlike Genghis Khan, Timur didn’t connect his distant realms to each other with roads, trade, and cultural and intellectual exchange. He seems to have enjoyed the thrill of campaigning and conquering more than the responsibilities that came afterwards. He also used constant campaigning as a way to stay in power. He needed an army’s support against usurpers. But at the same time, that army needed his support. Hence the constant campaigns. They not only subdued rivals, but the spoils kept the army happy and on his side. Timur’s career would be fascinating to view through the lens of Mancur Olson’s theory of roving and stationary bandits. Tamerlane was somewhere in the between, and of course his empire’ stability did not outlast him.