The short-lived Gurkani Dynasty (the dynasty of Tamerlane and his successors, from Turk. Gurkan: “son-in-law”)) was the most significant chapter of the history of the Greater Iran in the post-Mongol era. Following the downfall of the Il-Khanid Mongols and their various residues around Iran, the former Mongol territories were left in a state of chaos. Some areas, such as Kurdistan and Fars, were ruled by dynasties (Jalayerids in this case) that could claim some nominal control over their territories.  The norm, however, was to have individual local dynasties who seldom ruled over anything more than a town or city.

It was in this environment, and in fact in one of the most divided of the former Mongol lands in Central Asia, that Tamerlane (Teymour, Timour) gained power.  Although the rule of Teymour himself was spent mostly on conquests and battles, his successors managed to leave various monuments from themselves. The arts and science produced during the Gurkanid Period was rich enough to support the legitimacy of this dynasty which under any other circumstances could have been dismissed as footnote in history.  The Gurkani legacy not only left an important footprint in the history of Iran, but it also provided much material for the creation of a magnificent dynasty in India (the Moghuls) and today even manages to fuel the nationalistic feelings of Uzbekistan, where Teymour is considered the national hero.

Birth and Early Career

Teymour (Turkish for iron) was born in 1336 in Kesh, Transoxiana (now Uzbekistan).  He was descended from the third son of Chengiz Khan, Gheghetei, who was given the rule of Transoxiana and Turkistan.  His father was from the Turkish stock, probably also descended from the same Turkish tribes who accompanied the Mongol warriors in their conquest of Transoxiana and then settled in the new territory.  Toraghay (Teymour’s father) was a minor chief in the Turkish Barlas tribe, although his inheritance for his son seems to have been next to nothing.

Teymour’s early career was formed in the service of Toghloq Teymour, the ruler of the eastern parts of the Cheghetei Khanate.  The stories, based apparently on Teymour’s own account, tell us that prior to his entry into Toghloq Teymour’s service, most of Teymour’s life was spent on highway rubbery.  However, upon entry into the service of the ruler of the area, Teymour fast proved his worth and was soon appointed as the ruler of his birthplace, Kesh.

In the meantime, he married the sister of his greatest ally, Amir Hossein Qaraunas, a powerful general and the de facto ruler of much of eastern Transoxiana.  Using this alliance, Teymour and Amir Hossein established their power over much of Transoxiana.  The alliance of highly ambitious people, however, never lasts for long.  So, in 1371 AD, Teymour and Amir Hossein faced each other near the Fortress of Hendowan by Balkh.  Teymour was successful in the battle and captured Amir Hossein and his two sons, all of whom died mysteriously soon after.

With the death of Amir Hossein, Teymour had no opponent in his dominance over Transoxiana.  So, he crowned himself the King of Transoxiana in the same year at Balkh and gave himself the title of Sahebgharan. He then moved to Samarqand, a city he had always dreamt of making his capital.  He spent the next few years in establishing his rule over the area and rebuilding Samarqand which was still not quite back to its former glory following its destruction by the Mongols a hundred years earlier.  Teymour’s residence in Samarqand was nevertheless not meant to last, since he always had the ambition of repeating the deeds of his Mongol forefathers, and thus was soon ready to head south and start his conquests.

Conquest of Iran and the Near East

The conquests of Teymour took place in three major waves, after each one, Teymour just returned to his capital in Samarqand with the spoils of war and spend his gains on making Samarqand the greatest city of its time.  Teymour’s conquests took him from Moscow to Delhi and from Samarqand to Damascus, although in each successive campaign, the scope of the attacks seems to have become more and more limited.

In 1385, Teymour entered the territory of Khorasan in northeastern Iran and started the first leg of his campaign.  His justification was the recent attacks in the pilgrims to Mecca in the area of Luristan in western Iran.  After subduing the ruler of Luristan, Teymour turned his attention to Azerbaijan and defeated Ahmad Jalayeri, the ruler of that region.  He then proceeded to conquer Armenia and Georgia before continuing his campaign towards Moscow.  In 1382, Teymour managed to subdue the remnants of the Golden Horde and had crushed the power of the Prince of Moscow, returning triumphantly to Iran with large amounts of booty.

He then turned his attention to Central Iran and defeated Shah Shoja’, the famous ruler of Fars and contemporary of Hafez, the famous Persian poet.  The legend says that Hafez actually met Teymour and a famous conversation took place between the two that is in all likelihood a legend.  In any case, Teymour turned away from Fars and proceeded towards Samarqand, on the way destroying Isfahan and most of its magnificent Seljuk monuments.  Many stories have been told about Teymour’s interest in building skull-towers from the severed head of war captives, and this probably was demonstrated sufficiently in his campaign in Fars.

Modern bas relief of Timur

Modern bas relief of Timur

Shortly after returning to Samarqand, in 1395, Teymour embarked upon yet another campaign in Iran during which he defeated and killed Shah Mansour, the ruler of Yazd and Kerman and the brother of the aforementioned Shah Shoja’ of Fars.  He then turned his attention westwards towards Baghdad, a city he managed to invade 1396.  He then appointed his son, Miranshah, as the ruler of Iraq and Western Iran and returned for a short visit to Samarqand.

Conquest of India and the Last Campaign

Soon after, in 1398, Teymour attacked India and conquered and destroyed Dehli without any apparent reason other than financial gain.  His disinterest in India is apparent from his failure to appoint any governors to the area, other than a minor ruler in Multan.

In 1401, Teymour proceeded again towards Baghad and once again captured and razed the city to the ground, repeating the actions of Hologu, the first Mongol Khan of Iran. Soon after, Teymour invaded Syria and in 1402, in the Battle of Ankara, crushed the armies of Bayzit, the Ottoman Sultan.  Bayzit was captured and paraded throughout Anatolia in a cage and for a while, it seemed as the young Ottoman Empire was finished.  However, Teymour’s customary disinterest in holding his territories made it possible for Bayzit’s successors to regain their power and revive their destroyed power.

Teymour’s biggest ambition in life was to invade and subdue China.  So, in 1404, he gathered a large army for the invasion of that country and marched to the east.  However, a heart condition stopped this last campaign and Teymour was soon dead in the city of Otrar.  His body was secretly transported to Samarqand and buried at a site that came to be known as Gur-i Amir (the Tomb of the Prince) and is now one of the most popular sites in Uzbekistan.

Teymour as a person

On surface, Teymour was indeed yet another nomadic conqueror from the steppes of Central Asia who descended upon the Near East and left destruction behind him.  However, it is worth noticing several traits in Teymour’s pattern of rule and invasion.  Although he did not manage to make his empire last for long, as we will see, he did succeed in establishing a new way of waging war and campaigns which was different than the ways of his Mongol ancestors.

Teymour was quintessentially a religious person, even to the point of being fanatical about his school of Islam and was known for being able to recite the whole of the Qur’an from the heart.  His attitude was indeed much closer the Ghazi attitude of his enemies, the Ottomans.  Being essentially a frontier warrior, he probably justified much of his actions based in his religious beliefs.

Gur-i Amir, the Tomb of Timur in Shahr-e Sabz, near Samarqand

Gur-i Amir, the Tomb of Timur in Shahr-e Sabz, near Samarqand

He was also an urban invader.  Despite being from a tribal Turkish background, Teymour’s ancestors were urbanized for at least 100 years prior to the rise of Teymour. He relied essentially on the resourced provided to him by the cities.  He also spent most of his war gaining on building the heart of his empire in Transoxiana, particularly the city of Samarqand.

The last point also shows another side of Teymour’s character, and that is a supporter of arts and learning.  The court of Teymour was indeed a refuge for many scholars and scientists personally supported by Teymour, a practice that became prominent among his successors.  His attention to the arts is best evident through the many architectural projects that he commissioned in Samarqand.

In short, despite the undeniable fact that Teymour was a ruthless conqueror, it is also worth noticing that he was also essentially a medieval warrior.  His use of modern means of war, particularly cannons and other uses of gun-powder, was an introduction of these weapons to the Near East and soon to Europe, eventually providing a background for the Gunpowder Revolution.  On the other hand, Teymour was also the last of the historic world-conquerors, one relying almost purely on his military strength for invading new territories.

In Transoxiana and Khorasan, the core of Timur’s empire, his sons started a struggle to control parts of their father’s territories. Officially, Timur was replaced as the great Amir by his grandson, Pir Mohammad, who ruled for a short period in Samarqand. In reality, Timur’s sons Shahrukh and Khalil Sultan managed to partition the empire into a northern segment, centered in Samarqand, and southern one centered in Herat, the old capital of the Kert Dynasty during the Ilkhanid Period. Shahrukh, the ruler of Herat, lasted on the throne for over forty years, developing the city to a center of art, science, and learning. Samarqand, however, was under constant threat by the Uzbeks who were now forming a separate identity from the Golden Horde. In the west, Miranshah, another son of Timur, held nominal power over Azarbaijan and Kurdistan, while his grandson Abu Sa’id managed to play an important role in the politics of Samarqand. In fact, the Timurd rule in Transoxiana was quickly disintegrated into small principalities centered on Samarqand, Bokhara, Urgench, and Khiva, while the more centralized Herat throne thrived under Shahrukh and his successors.

Descendants of Sharukh, including his son Taraghay Ulugh Beg also managed to secure themselves the title of the great ruler of the Timurid line. Ulugh Beg himself, like his father, was a great patron of arts and sciences, founding the observatory of Ulugh Beg in Herat, where a major calendar and astronomical diary was written under him. In fact, most of the future reputation of the Timurids was to initiate from their patronage of culture and science. A later Timurid ruler, Sultan Hussain Bayqara, was also known as a great patron of the arts, and it was in his court that the great miniature painter, Kamal od-Din Behzad, created some of his best works, before moving to the Safavid court in Tabriz.

Politically, the Timurids continued to disintegrate. Samarqand was kept as the nominal capital of the empire, although it came under increasing Uzbek pressure. During the rule of Abu Sa’id, a grandson of Miranshah, the Transoxianan territories were once again united under the same rule, although after the latter’s death, his sons divided the kingdom among themselves, once again creating independent principalities. It is from one of these small principalities in Bokhara that Zahir ol-Din Mohammad Babur, a descendent of Abu Sa’id, started his career, before moving to Kabul and eventually to Lahore and Delhi, eventually founding the Mughal Dynasty of India.

Selected Bibliography

Dastum, Hossein. Tarikh-e Jahangoshay-e Teymouri. Tehran, Nashr-e Punesh, 1374 (1995).

Forbes Manz, Beatrice. The rise and rule of Tamerlane. Cambridge, CUP, 1989.

Gonzalez de Clavijo, Ruy. Embassy to Tamerlane. New York, Harper, 1928.

Ibn Aranshah. Ajaib ul Maqdur fi Nawaib Al Teymour. Cairo, 1979.

Negel, Tilman. Timur der Eroberer und die islamische Welt des späten Mittelalters, München : C.H. Beck, 1993.

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