Timur, whose remains lie entombed within the aquamarine-domed Gur-e-Amir, was one if the most fearsome men to ever live. In terms of empire building he’s up there with Genghis Khan (of whom he’s a descendant), and Babur, founder of the Mughals (and a descendant of Timur’s). In terms of mass extermination of human lives Timur can be compared with the likes of Mao Zedong, Stalin, and Hitler. His military campaigns are thought to have killed up to 17 million people, accounting for 5% of the world population at the time. And yet few people outside of Central Asia have even heard of him.
Who is Timur?
Born to a family of minor nobles in the Barlas Confederation (a band of nomadic Turkic-Mongols) in 1336 CE in Transoxiana, Timur showed aptitude and shrewdness for military strategy from a young age and quickly rose to a position of prominence and power. He was shot in the leg with an arrow while in his his twenties – apparently for trying to steal a sheep – and was burdened with a limp for the rest of his life, earning him the moniker: Tamerlane (Timur the Lame).
He lived a long life in spite of his crippling injury, dying at age 68 while on a military campaign against Ming China. His empire in its entirety stretched from Turkey to China; it included all of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, and parts of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia; it included Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan and continued into Russia; it encompassed all of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Northern India; and included Iraq, Kuwait, and extended into Syria and Saudi Arabia.
He conducted mass beheadings of captives and innocents everywhere he went.
His empire crumbled shortly after his death.
Gur-e-Amir is Persian for the Tomb of the King. Timur’s tomb is located in the capital of his former empire, Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Timur’s sons are also buried in Gur-e-Amir, as is his grandson, the academic and pre-eminent astronomer, Ulugh Beg.
Although it might not be obvious, the onion dome of Gur-e-Amir is the inspiration, and architectural precursor, for the Taj Mahal (built by Shah Jahan – another descendant of Timur’s).
An inscription inside the tomb of Timur is purported to read: Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.
In 1941 Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov, an archaeologist and anthropologist from the Soviet Union, brazenly cracked open the sarcophagus of Timur. Three days later Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union.
Make of it what you will.
Practical information and how to reach Gur-e-Amir:
Samarkand is 300 km from Tashkent. There are trains running between the two cities (3 hours); otherwise you will need to find a share-taxi. More transport info here.
Read more on Samarkand in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.