Immortalized in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (written in 1587–88), Timur Leng was not a Mongol but a Turk. Though he was said to be lame (hence the name “Leng”) he quickly became one of the world’s greatest conquerors. To legitimize his rule, Timur married the Chagatayid princess Saray Mulk-khanum, daughter of Qazan, the last ruler of Transoxiana. Timur Leng never called himself “Khan,” the Mongol title for a ruler. Instead, he claimed the title “amir,” meaning commander or general, thereby acting in the name of the Chaggatai Khanate rulers.
A portrait of Timur Leng made during his rule.
During his reign, the Chaggatai princes of the western part of the Khanate in Ulus Chagatay were reduced to the role of powerless figureheads and puppets. The eastern Chagatayids attempted to retain their independence, but in the late 1370s and 1380s Timur Leng conquered them as well. The only surviving Chaggatai ruler, Khizr Khodja, finally accepted Timur Leng as ruler in 1397, offering to him his sister Tukal-khanum as a wife. Khizr Khodja then accepted the subordinate title of Khan of Moghulistan under Timur Leng’s rule. (In this capacity, Khizr Khodja still managed to wield significant power, forcing the eastern part of his small Khanate to convert from Buddhism to Islam in a Holy War.)
Timur Leng continued to conquer much of the known world. He destroyed Sarai, captured Delhi, invaded the Levant, and even tried to attack the Ming Dynasty. It was here that he finally met his demise. In 1405, during a brutally cold winter campaign to conquer China, Timur Leng fell ill to fever and plague. He died in Otrar before ever reaching the Chinese border. He is buried in the mausoleum Gur-e Amir, a princely tomb in his capital of Samarkand.
Persian drawing of Timur Leng defeating the Sultanate of Delhi.
Though Timur Leng was a brutal conqueror, he nevertheless continues to receive worldwide attention and praise for his strength in battle, his military genius, and his ability to attract loyal followers. In 1941, Soviet anthropologists exhumed the bones of the conqueror to study his physicality and racial ancestry. Uzbekistan today views him a a national hero, with several monuments erected in his honor.
Map of Timur Leng’s conquests.