How did Timur change the history of the world?

Reconstruction of the face of Timur

Timur (1336-1405), also known as Tamerlane, was a Turkic Conqueror who ravaged over much of Western Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. He was one the last of the great conquerors to have emerged out of Central Asia. He was perhaps in many ways even more ferocious than his Mongol predecessors, and he devastated large areas of Asia. He is now chiefly remembered for the devastation that he caused from the Mediterranean to India.

Unlike Genghis Khan, he was not a great Empire-builder, but he was a major figure in world history. In the wake of his conquest, Asia was transformed, and he left an enduring legacy, despite his predilection for destruction and violence. This article will discuss how he left much of western Asia in ruins, but his reign also led to a Golden Age in Central Asia. It will also examine how his invasions led to the virtual destruction of the Christian Churches in much of Asia.

Life and Career

Timur defeating the Sultan of Delhi

Timur was a member of the Turkified Barlas tribe, who were descended from Mongol nomads and that had settled in Central Asia. Timur was born in modern Uzbekistan, which was then part of the Chagatai Mongol Empire or Khanate. It was ruled by the descendants of Chagatai, who was the son of Genghis Khan. Timur was the son of a minor noble, and he and his mother were captured by raiders and held in the great city of Samarkand.[1]

Later Timur, whose name meant iron in Turkic, became a bandit and rustler. An arrow wounded him during one raid that left him lame, hence his name Timur the lame or Tamerlane. By dint of his personality and ferocity, he soon became the ruler of Transoxiana's rich area in 1366 AD. Timur proved himself to be a military genius. Tamerlane modeled himself on Genghis Khan and used similar savage methods to conquer and subdue his Empire. He was able to lead a multi-ethnic army who were very loyal to him.[2] Timur was shrewd, and he was careful to take advantage of the temporary weaknesses of his enemies. He also developed an elaborate intelligence gathering network and was a careful planner master of logistics. From Samarkand, he expanded his realm and proclaimed himself khan of Chagatai and the restorer of the Mongol empire.

Timur believed that he was the successor of Genghis Khan, even though he was a pious Muslim. He fought against other Khans in Central Asia, and he eventually conquered all of Central Asia. He next intervened in the Mongol Empire of the Golden Horde in support of an ally. He defeated the Russians and the Lithuanians in two great battles. In 1383 Timur turned his attention to Persia, which was ruled by a variety of competing rulers. Timur invaded eastern Persia (1383-1385). Between 1386 and 1390, Timur and his by now huge army conquered western Persia and the Caucasus. His old ally, the Khan of the Mongol Golden Horde (based on Russia), invaded his territories. In a series of bloody battles’, the Golden Horde army was destroyed, and the Khanate was weakened. Timur briefly occupied much of Russia. After a wholesale revolt in Persia, he was forced to retire, and Timur repressed it with great brutality. Timur, now styling himself an Emir left Persia a ‘wasteland of destroyed farms and irrigation works and ruined cities.’ [3]

It was here that he built several towers of skulls. In 1398 by now styling himself an Emir, Timur invaded India on the pretext that the Muslim Sultans of Delhi were not good Muslims. Timur with a huge army, composed mostly of horse riders from Central Asia, crossed the Indus River on, leaving a trail of carnage in his wake, marched on Delhi, which was the Muslim capital Sultans of the Tughluq dynasty. Timur and the Tughluq Sultan met in a great battle at Panipat in 1398. The Khan of Chagatai was the victor, and he went on to capture Delhi and left it in ruins. He took away a great deal of wealth and many prisoners. The conqueror had an insatiable thirst for war, and he then turned his attention to Mamelukes who were based in Egypt and Syria, and he defeated them.

During this campaign, he devastated Baghdad and the Christian kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia. Next, the conqueror campaigned against the Ottoman Turks based in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He defeated the Ottoman Turks at the great Battle of Ankara (1402) and even captured the Sultan Bajzet. At this time, he ruled directly or indirectly a huge area of Western Asia. The Timurid Empire included the modern countries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, through Central Asia encompassing part of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan.[4]

By now, well into his sixties, he still wanted to conquer new territories. He turned his attention to the newly established Ming dynasty in China. Timur assembled a huge army and entered a formal alliance with the Mongols. Timur returned to Samarkand (1404), but he fell during China's invasion and died in February 1405. He was buried in a sumptuous tomb in his beloved Samarkand. Before his death and in accordance with Central Asian customs, he divided his lands among his sons.[5] This led to a series of civil wars after his death, and his sons were not able to hold onto much of his vast domain. After years of internecine struggles, many of Timur’s lands were reunited by his youngest son. The Timurid Dynasty ruled much of Central Asia and eastern Iran for several generations. It eventually disintegrated into several petty kingdoms. Timur's descendants conquered India in the 16th and 17th century and established the Mughal Dynasty.

Timur and Culture

Timur was often portrayed as a barbarian. However, Timur was a complicated character, and he was a well-educated and intelligent man. It seemed that unlike most, he could read and write, and he spoke three languages, and these were Turkish, Mongolian, and Persian. [6] His own religious views are unknown, but like many Central Asian nomads, he may have been sympathetic to the Sufis, a mystical branch within Islam. However, this pacific and contemplative sect did not moderate Timur’s obsession with war and conquest.[7]. He was a great patron of the arts, and his reign was to make the beginnings of a cultural renaissance in Central Asia. Under his patronage, Central Asian cities such as Samarkand became flourishing cultural centers, which attracted scholars, artists, and tradespeople from all over Asia.

Timur’s patronage established the Timurid style of architecture, one of the world’s greatest architectural styles. The arts of mosaics and ceramics also flourished in Central Asia. Tamerlane’s mausoleum, the Gūr-e Amīr, is one of the gems of Islamic art. His successors in the Timurid Dynasty were also great patrons of the arts. They helped establish a school of Persian miniature paintings in Central Asia, which are masterpieces of Islamic Art.[8] The Timurids built many magnificent Mosques and Palaces in cities such as Herat (Afghanistan), which were very influential in Islamic architecture. Timur and his descendants did much to create a Muslim Central Asia culture to shape that region for many centuries decisively.

Timur and Religion

Timurid forces besieging a city in Persia

Timur proclaimed himself to be a pious Muslim and that he was the ‘Sword of Islam.’ He claimed that he was conquering territory to expand Islam and punish those who deviated from the Koran teachings. In proclamations, he stated that he wanted to unify all Muslims into one realm, a long-term aim of many Muslim conquerors. Timur made sure that any remaining nomads in Central Asia converted to Islam. Indeed, Timur made sure that his subjects adopted Islam. Timur’s reign was a disaster for the Christian Church in the East. From the time of Christ, there was a flourishing Church in Western Asia. They were Nestorians, and there were Churches from China to Syria. Christianity had flourished in the East despite periodic persecutions from the Mongols and others.

The rise of Timur was to witness the end of the expansion of the Churches in the East. The massacres of Christians by Timur (1336–1405) destroyed many bishoprics, including the ancient Christian city and cultural capital Ashur. The Timurid army completed the eradication of Christians from much of central and southern Mesopotamia/Iraq. Around the 1390s, many Christianity disappeared from Central Asia. After Timur's depredations, the Eastern Churches were destroyed apart from mountainous areas of Syria and Iraq. Many argue that the real causes of the collapse of the Nestorian Churches, especially in Central Asia, were because of the Black Death. It cannot be denied that Timur and his campaigns played a critical role in the demise of Christianity over much of the Middle East and Central Asia.[9]

Timur and Devastation

Mausoleum of Timur of Samarkand

Timur was exceptionally cruel. Even by the standards of the time, the atrocities committed by the Timurid army were shocking. The Turkic-Mongol warlord deliberately used terror as a weapon of war to secure his victories. He destroyed cities and ordered his men to destroy everything in their path. This had a disastrous impact on the areas that he covered. It has been estimated that some 17 million people died because of his invasions and wars, which accounted for almost one in twenty of the global population.[10] Many ancient cities were destroyed by the armies of the conqueror and trade ground to a halt in many areas. His impact on his Empire was a ‘mixed one.’ [11]

Central Asia flourished because of his patronage and his policies. However, areas such as Iraq, Syria, and the Caucasus were devastated. It has been estimated that it took Delhi and the surrounding hinterland a hundred years to recover. Timur undoubtedly damaged civilization across a large swathe of Asia, from the Mediterranean to India. Yet as noted above, he helped to start a great cultural and economic flourishing in Central Asia. His impact on civilization was a contradictory and a mixed one.[12]

Timur and the fall of Dynasties

The invasions and conquests of Timur disrupted the geopolitics over a large part of the world. His defeats of the Ottomans nearly led to the fall of that dynasty. An able son of the Sultan captured at the Battle of Ankara staved off defeat, but he had to pay homage to the mighty Khan. However, they were lucky compared to others. The Timurid invasion of Indian was to lead to the collapse of the weak Tughluq dynasty. This led to the collapse of the Delhi Sultanate, and for many decades, there was a near-anarchy in Northern India as a host of contenders tried to revive the Sultanate.

Ironically, it was a descendant of the great conqueror, Babur, to end the anarchy when he established the Mughal Empire. Timur changed the history of Russia. The Golden Horde had dominated this for over a century. Timur’s victories so weakened the Golden Horde that it eventually splintered into a variety of Khanates. This was to have profound repercussions for the Mongols in Russia. The demise of the Golden Horde ultimately allowed the native Russian princes to overthrow the ‘Mongol Yoke’ and led to the expansion of the Duchy of Moscow, which was the nucleus of modern Russia. Timur was to change the geopolitics of a great area of Eurasia, and the consequences of this can still be felt to this day.


Timur was one of the last great world conquerors. He carved out a huge Empire and established the Timurid Dynasty. He was a contradictory figure. Timur did untold damage to many great civilizations such as the Persian and India, yet he was also partly responsible for a Golden Age in Central Asia. A cruel tyrant who used terror as a weapon; he was also a cultured man whose patronage led to some of the greatest Islamic art and architecture achievements. Yet, he also destroyed countless great works of art and architecture. Timur’s conquest led to important religious changes, and he reinforced the position of Islam in Central Asia. His reign of terror witnessed the virtual end of the Nestorian Church in the East. It could be argued that Christianity has been in decline ever since Timur. The nomad conqueror also changed the geopolitics of Asia. He caused at least two dynasties to collapse and weakened others, and this changed the future of major regions such as Russia and India. Timur undoubtedly changed the history of a significant portion of Eurasia.


  1. Marozzi, Justin, Tamerlane: sword of Islam, conqueror of the world (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 67
  2. Marozzi, p. 81
  3. Mazoni, p. 178
  4. Martin, Richard. Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (New York, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), p. 134
  5. Martin, p. 213
  6. Manz, Beatrice Forbes. The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.109
  7. Marozzi, p. 213
  8. Manz, Beatrice Forbes “Tamerlane and the symbolism of sovereignty." Iranian Studies. 21 (1-2): (1998) 105–122
  9. Darwin, John. After Tamerlane: the rise and fall of global empires, 1400–2000. (London, Bloomsbury Press, 2008). pp. 29
  10. White, Matthew, Atrocitology: Humanity's 100 Deadliest Achievements (London, Canongate Books, 2011), p. 115
  11. Darwin, p. 314
  12. Forbes Manz, p. 115

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Updated December 5, 2020