Tamerlane’s Conquests

Tamerlane reunited much of the Mongols and became the greatest conqueror since Genghis Khan.

Summary of Event

By 1380, Tamerlane had risen from obscurity in the Turko-Mongol world to command first a tribe and then the key to Central Asia—the Ulus Chagatai Ulus Chagatai . The ulus, or kingdom, of Chagatai, had as its western nucleus Transoxiana, a principality framed on the north by the Aral Sea and on the south by the Hindu Kush Mountains. On its west and east were the Oxus and the Jaxartes Rivers, and this rectangular dominion linked the trade of China and India with that of the eastern Mediterranean. Transoxiana provided agricultural and pastoral lands for its inhabitants, including some of the best cotton and silk produced anywhere in the world. These lands, with Moghulistan to the east, were the heart of the inheritance of Chagatai, the third son of Genghis Khan. [kw]Tamerlane’s Conquests (1381-1405)
Iraq;1381-1405: Tamerlane’s Conquests[2970]
Syria;1381-1405: Tamerlane’s Conquests[2970]
Central Asia;1381-1405: Tamerlane’s Conquests[2970]
Expansion and land acquisition;1381-1405: Tamerlane’s Conquests[2970]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1381-1405: Tamerlane’s Conquests[2970]

Tamerlane, unrelated to the great khan or to Chagatai, gained sway over the western ulus in the 1360’s and established his capital at Samarqand, the greatest city of Central Asia. Although a nomad, he understood the importance of settled allies, and he spent the next four decades courting the agriculturalists, merchants, and village and city peoples. He enlarged, strengthened, and fortified Samarqand, Bukhara, and other cities in the region. He preserved the peace, constructed new markets, and protected the caravans and trade routes. He never claimed to be khan because he knew that he was not a descendent of the family of Genghis Khan. Yet, he did not hesitate to use the tribal assembly, or kuraltai, to claim the title of saheb caran, “emperor of the age and conqueror of the world.”

At the same time, he slowly undercut the tribal system by depriving the tribe and its leadership of traditional lands, powers, and warriors. In doing this, he limited the ability of each tribe to act independently, and he established new military units, commanded by family or companions, that he could control in their place. His administrators, unlike his soldiers, were either taken from the settled peoples of Transoxiana or from among those that he conquered. All were, of course, chosen for their loyalty and their dependency on him. Using these vehicles, the lord of Samarqand extracted land and trade taxes to support his campaigns and requisitioned food, fodder, and animals for his armies. He also subdivided the Chagatai into tumens, or regions capable of supporting ten thousand soldiers. As in mongol times, the tumen was required to furnish soldiers for war, and beginning in 1380, war it would be.

Secure in the Chagatai and with a large and dependable army at his back, the saheb caran moved westward against Khorāsān and Māzandarān. Both had originally been part of the ulus, and Herāt, the chief city of Khorāsān, had previously sworn loyalty to him. When the city refused to resubmit to his control in 1381, Tamerlane besieged Herāt, demanding the submission of its leaders as well as tribute for his army. These were forthcoming, and he retired, only to return in 1384 when all Khorāsān Khorāsān[Khorasan] rose against him. As would become his custom, when a city fell a second time into his hands, he replaced its rulers by those more favorable to his cause. In the case of Herāt, which had broken faith with him, he made it a conspicuous example. The emperor cemented two thousand of its residents while still alive into twin towers in front of the municipality. Then, he devastated the cities of southern Khorāsān, stripping them of their fortifications, before moving north to the Caspian Sea, and secured Māzandarān and part of Azerbaijan, including the critical fortress of Tabrīz.

Tamerlane (Timur) places the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I on public display in 1402.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The capture of Tabrīz Tabrīz, capture of (1386)[Tabriz, capture of (1386)] , however, created an unforeseen problem and Tamerlane’s greatest challenge. The city was formerly a vassal of the khan of the Golden Horde, and the Horde, another of the fourfold divisions of Genghis Khan’s inheritance, spanned the Caucasus. The leader of the Horde, Toktamish Toktamish , was one of Tamerlane’s oldest allies and owed his crown to the emperor. Yet, in 1386, the khan broke their treaty, captured Tabrīz, and killed Tamerlane’s garrison. Unexpectedly betrayed, Tamerlane seized Tiflis on Toktamish’s border. This city, an important preliminary to any attack on the Caucasus, brought the submission of the king of Georgia and other regional leaders, who had previously been allies of the Horde. With Tiflis in hand and the khan seemingly on the defensive, Tamerlane turned his army on southern Iran. Isfahan, which had once been the greatest city of ancient Persia, surrendered but then slaughtered a party of the conqueror’s soldiers. The earlier treachery of the khan; the discovery while at Isfahan that Toktamish, the Mongols of Moghulistan, and some of Tamerlane’s allies were looting Transoxiana; and the attack on his men were too much to be ignored. Isfahan, even more than Herāt earlier, paid the price. With the exception of only those citizens who had sheltered soldiers, 70,000-100,000 were butchered and their heads stacked into towers as an example. Still, this scarcely disguised the fact that the ruler of Samarqand had been caught off guard again. Unprepared to meet the challenge, Tamerlane hurried north to meet Toktamish.

The emperor first secured the land between the rivers, his homeland. One city, Urganch, which had risen against him, was now completely destroyed and the ground sowed with grain. Others cities were sacked, and Toktamish and the Mongols retreated. While one force checked Toktamish, a second drove deep into Moghulistan in both 1388 and 1389, dispersing enemy concentrations. With this accomplished, Tamerlane assembled a great force, said to be nearly 200,000 men, at Samarqand and set out to break up the Golden Horde. By the summer of 1391, he had captured the khan’s capital, defeated its leader, and killed most of the khan’s army. It was Tamerlane’s greatest triumph. Now, as many times before, the conqueror’s army returned to Samarqand laden with the spoils of war.

The triumph was short-lived. By 1393, the army was back in Azerbaijan and Māzandarān in order to complete the subjugation of the provinces. Those who opposed the emperor fled, enabling him to secure both Baghdad and Mosul. He defeated the Turks of eastern Anatolia, and when Toktamish again challenged him in 1394, he drove the khan much of the way to Moscow, destroying in the process the khan’s alliance with that state. The Horde was now effectively broken up, and the khan and his allies ruined.

However, Tamerlane, by now in his sixties, was so weak that he could no longer walk. Unlike in the past, he began to spend more and more time in Samarqand. He rested from 1396 to 1398 before invading India, probably with the intention of securing his southern flank. He conquered northern India and besieged and captured Delhi. Possibly because of his advancing age, the army’s morale, or local conditions, the soldiers turned on the prisoners and slaughtered nearly 100,000 people. Whatever the reason, the campaign was quietly abandoned in 1399.

Tamerlane again returned to his conquests. His lieutenants, aware of their leader’s failing health and the unreliability of the army, suggested a delay of a year. The emperor would not hear of it. To prove them wrong, he returned to the west and, in a brief campaign, gained Aleppo, Damascus, Armenia, and Anatolia, excluding Constantinople. He defeated the sultan of the Turks and retained him as a captive in his entourage for all to see. With the west, the north, and the south now secure, the army made its way back to Samarqand in 1404.

There, in a leisurely fashion, he summoned his tumens, as he had done against Toktamish more than a decade before. After celebrations, drinking, and dancing, preparations were at last begun to conquer the Moghulistan, the heartland of Genghis Khan. First, Tamerlane reviewed the troops, a difficult task considering that he could hardly see and could no longer walk. The soldiers had to pass before him. Then, he issued final instructions to those whom he left behind. In October, 1404, as winter approached, he set out. Three months later, Tamerlane, often called the World Conqueror or the Earth Shaker, died of an intestinal ailment at Otrar on the Jaxartes River. Like Genghis Khan and others before him, he died as he wished, preparing to assume the offensive.


Tamerlane, in spite of his lowly beginning and infirmity, became one of the great conquerors of history, ranking with Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Attila, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon. As a soldier, he first brought war and then peace and continuity to the region. He was, at times, brutal, particularly to those outside his core territories, and required heavy taxes of his subjects. Still, he brought prosperity and stability during his lifetime.

However, unlike Nebuchadnezzar and Genghis Khan, his reputed mentor, he failed to establish a permanent state. His army and those who performed his administrative duties did so out of personal loyalty and not because they were committed to a Tamerlaneian state. His empire quickly followed him to its grave.

Further Reading

  • Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane, 1403-1404. New York: Harper, 1928. Possibly the best contemporary source on Tamerlane and his court.
  • Hookham, Hilda. Tamburlaine the Conqueror. London: Hodder, 1962. A readable and most thorough account of his campaigns.
  • Lamb, Harold. Tamerlane: The Earth Shaker. New York: Robert M. McBride, 1928. One of the most popular of the accounts.
  • Manz, Beatrice. The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane. New York: Cambridge, 1999. A thoughtful analysis of the conqueror’s work.
  • Nicolle, David. The Mongol Warlords. New York: Firebird, 1990. More informative on the subject of Genghis Khan than on Tamerlane.
  • Sokol, Edward. Tamerlane. Lawrence: Coronado, 1977. The author provides valuable insights into the conquerer’s campaigns.