Tamerlane by Justin Marozzi

by Tim O'Neil

18 July 2006


In the realm of historical conquerors there are few who approach Temur in terms of stature, military might, or historical importance (he’s more widely known as Tamerlane or Tamburlaine to us occidentals—this is an insult, a corruption of “Temur the lame”). And yet while his historical peers Alexander and Genghis Khan are household names (they’ve both been the subjects of numerous films), Temur has passed into the realm of semi-obscurity. On the face of it this doesn’t make a lot of sense to the casual observer.

Part of the motivation behind Justin Marozzi’s treatment is to understand just why the man is so dimly remembered, at least in the west, while also taking a stab at examining why the places that Temur ruled have also fallen into disrepair since his death in the opening years of the 15th century. As such this is far from an ordinary historical biography: part travelogue, part cultural history, this is more of a cook’s tour than a standard scholarly treatment. But unfortunately, such a diffuse focus calls for a writer of greater skill than Marozzi seems to possess, because the result is patchy, episodic, and at times plodding.

cover art


Justin Marozzi

Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World

(Da Capo)

How is it possible to botch a biography of Temur? This is a man who rode his Tatar hordes across Asia, leaving ravaged cities and towering piles of skulls in his wake. It was not unusual for Temur’s forces to totally raze a recalcitrant subject city, leaving no stone unturned as they raped, murdered, and dismembered tens of thousands of men, women, and children. One of the reasons why western Asia and the Middle East fell from the positions of cultural and economic eminence they held during the Medieval period is that warlords like Temur had a habit of demolishing major urban areas, impoverishing the surviving population, and destroying traditional trade routes. Sometimes after destroying a city Temur would rebuild it, sometimes not. A massacre like that at Isfahan in 1387, where 70,000 people—the city’s entire population—were methodically exterminated, their heads piled into enormous columns, was not necessarily unusual for Temur. He killed 90,000 in Baghdad in 1401.

So obviously there’s a lot of material here for the conscientious biographer. But part of the problem is that Marozzi presents the material in a consistently haphazard fashion. History aimed at the general reader needs to be presented in as smooth a fashion as possible, because otherwise it’s simply too easy to become bogged down in minutiae or extraneous information. Tamerlane careens from dry historical recitation to military history to first-person travel memoir at will. Rather than making the transitions between these disparate approaches gel, it essentially prevents the book from gaining any momentum whatsoever by forcing the reader to switch gears every few pages. The ingredients of an interesting book are all present: for instance, when discussing Temur’s capitol of Samarkand, Marozzi pulls from a wide variety of sources regarding the architecture and craft of Temur’s period through to the present, the city’s history from its founding and construction through to the post-Soviet era, and the cultural history of the peoples who live and have lived in the area now known as Uzbekistan. But rather than weave these elements into a more holistic narrative, he lays out these ingredients seemingly at random, presenting a multi-page catalog of architectural detail followed by a few more pages of cultural history followed by a few more pages of his own experiences in the modern-day provinces. To his credit the portions of the book told in the first person are invariably the most interesting: he’s an experienced travel writer and his ability to conjure up the feel and mood of distinctly alien cultures is truly uncanny. He has the raconteurs’ ability to illustrate a much larger point through specific personal anecdote. If he had changed the focus of the book from being a hybrid biography of Temur to something more along the lines of Following in Temur’s Footsteps, that would probably have produced a much more satisfying read.

But it’s bad form to judge a book based on what the reviewer wishes he had read. Leave it be said that Marozzi is simply nowhere near as surefooted as he would need to be to juggle all the different elements of Tamerlane. He’s not a historian, and it shows in his somewhat obsequious attitude towards his primary sources. It’s good that he reproduces lengthy passages from contemporary chronicles, but it’s not so good that his general attitude towards historical accuracy is simply to proffer the material with a general grain of salt. Again, were he writing a more general history of the cultural perception of Temur, this would be acceptable, but these portions of the book rub uneasily against the more straightforward historical passages as well as the intermittent travelogue.

In any event, one of the key reasons why no one—at least in the West—remembers Temur in accordance with his historical stature is the fact that the vast empire he constructed faded almost immediately after he died. There was no external bureaucratic structure constructed in Temur’s time: basically, the only thing that held his empire together was the fact that his army was continuously on the move, and if you withheld your taxes chances are he’d lay waste to your city in retaliation. In terms of military tactics and logistics, he was a genius, but aside from a number of striking architectural marvels scattered across the continent his legacy was purely destructive. All the treasures of his military campaigns, the incredible amounts of precious gems and gold and diamonds and beasts from across the world, all of which are methodically detailed in Marozzi’s narrative, have passed away through the proverbial sands of time. Unfortunately, Marozzi has failed to provide a more lasting monument.

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