Tamerlane: Return of the Sword of Islam: One of History's Great Leaders, Tamerlane Waged a Series of Bloody Wars in the 14th and 15th Centuries to Build a Mighty Empire in Central Asia around His Glorious Capital, Samarkand. Now the Government of Uzbekistan Is Manipulating His Reputation to Serve Its Political Agenda

By Marozzi, Justin | Geographical, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Tamerlane: Return of the Sword of Islam: One of History's Great Leaders, Tamerlane Waged a Series of Bloody Wars in the 14th and 15th Centuries to Build a Mighty Empire in Central Asia around His Glorious Capital, Samarkand. Now the Government of Uzbekistan Is Manipulating His Reputation to Serve Its Political Agenda


Marozzi, Justin, Geographical


Right in the heart of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a fabulous statue of a man on horseback dominates a cool, tree-lined square. The rider's pose is regal and military. The sculptor has captured the moment of a great leader in action. His right arm is raised aloft, perhaps addressing his troops or surveying the sweep of his empire. With his left hand he reins his horse in tightly, catching the snorting beast in mid-stride, its head sharply bowed, its left foreleg poised in the air. On his left sits a long, gently curved sword secured above a circular embossed shield. Massive boots with protective plates rest in huge stirrups. This is a portrait, above all, of military might, with strength and power etched into every detail of the emperor and every sinew of his stallion.

On a marble plinth are the words rasti rusti--strength in justice--set in bronze. And above them, in larger letters, the name of this mighty warrior: Amir Temur. Better known in the West as Tamerlane, he is a household name throughout the Muslim world, from Cairo to Kuala Lumpur, from Rabat to Riyadh. Taxi drivers will proudly tell you that he was Islam's greatest conqueror and history's most outstanding empire-builder, a man whose blood-drenched achievements sit easily along-side, or perhaps even outshine, those of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.

During Uzbekistan's seven decades of Soviet rule, Tamerlane was vilified by the state, which feared his potential as a nationalist symbol for Uzbek opposition to the USSR. There was a heavy price to pay for anyone who dared to defy the party orthodoxy. In 1968, Ibrahim Muminov, president of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences, published a book on Tamerlane, a revisionist attempt to set the record straight by questioning the Tatar's official pariah status. Although the publication coincided with UNESCO's celebrations of Temurid culture in Samarkand, its timing proved disastrous. Muminov was fired immediately, all copies of his book were confiscated and Uzbek academe was mobilised to destroy his reputation.

But today, Tamerlane has returned. Ignoring his reputation as a destructive tyrant, the government has resurrected Tamerlane's name and cast him as the glorious saviour of Uzbekistan and an inspiring role model for an emerging regional power. While such a comparison between modem-day Uzbekistan and Tamerlane's prosperous empire is entirely fanciful, it becomes unnervingly appropriate in the light of recent reports on the Central Asian country's human-rights record.

Tamerlane is virtually unknown in the West. In London, educated men and women, some with degrees in history, are invariably unable to identify where he came from and when he lived. The best one hears is, "Didn't Christopher Marlowe write a play about him?" He did indeed. In Tamburlaine the Great, Marlowe calls him the "scourge of God and terror of the world". But this is rather like relying on Shakespeare for a history of Julius Caesar. It's also symptomatic of the West's profound ignorance of the history of the Islamic world.

Tamerlane's armies blazed through Asia like a firestorm during the last three decades of the 14th century and the opening years of the 15th, sacking the great cities of the East. Antioch and Aleppo, Balkh and Baghdad, Damascus and Delhi, Herat, Kabul, Shiraz and Isfahan--all were left in flaming ruins. On every battlefield his Tatar hordes built soaring towers from the skulls of their decapitated victims, deadly warnings to anyone who dared oppose them. Under Tamerlane, the imperial capital of Samarkand became the unrivalled Pearl of the East, a dazzling riot of bluedomed mosques and madrasas (religious colleges), parks and palaces of a sumptuousness unknown in a war-torn and penurious Europe divided by the Great Schism. At the rime of his death--in 1405 at the age of 68, en route to war with China's Emperor Ming--he remained undefeated on the battlefield.

Tamerlane's statue in Tashkent was unveiled on 1 September 1993 by President Islam Karimov as part of the second anniversary celebrations of Uzbekistan's independence. …

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Tamerlane: Return of the Sword of Islam: One of History's Great Leaders, Tamerlane Waged a Series of Bloody Wars in the 14th and 15th Centuries to Build a Mighty Empire in Central Asia around His Glorious Capital, Samarkand. Now the Government of Uzbekistan Is Manipulating His Reputation to Serve Its Political Agenda
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