The Legendary Biographies of Tamerlane: Islam and Heroic Apocrypha in Central Asia

By Broadbridge, Anne | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 2013 | Go to article overview

The Legendary Biographies of Tamerlane: Islam and Heroic Apocrypha in Central Asia


Broadbridge, Anne, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


The Legendary Biographies of Tamerlane: Islam and Heroic Apocrypha in Central Asia. By RON SELA. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. New York: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011. Pp. xvii + 164. $85.

The purpose of this concise volume by Ron Seta is to introduce to scholarly and lay audiences a large set of unknown or disregarded manuscripts of legendary biographies of the Transoxanian warlord Timur (d. 1405), composed in Persian prose and produced in Central Asia beginning in the eighteenth century. Sela based this monograph on nine unpublished manuscripts, which form a representative sample of a larger body of work. All the biographies share certain characteristics: they are long, sometimes reaching 1,000 pages (500 folios); their authors and copyists are unknown; and they do not seem to have been produced for wealthy patrons. Although some Turkic versions also exist. Sela did not use them for this study. Because the legendary biographies originated when and where they did--within Central Asia starting in the early eighteenth century--Sela is able to disprove the scholarly claim that Timur's legacy vanished from the region within a century of his death, surviving only in Mughal India, Safavid Iran, and the Ottoman empire until reappearing in Central Asia in the early twentieth century as a result of Soviet interest.

Sela describes the legendary biographies as heroic apocrypha--heroic, meaning their protagonist. Timiir, is a heroic figure: and apocrypha, meaning their material is largely legendary and imaginary, even though some of it draws explicitly from the canon composed by Timurid court historians and their successors. Sela hypothesizes that we might also view these works as Central Asian popular histories, given the authors' departures from the official record. But thus far modern historians have largely ignored the legendary biographies because of their "folkloric and fantastic" elements. Similarly, literature scholars, unable to classify the biographies neatly as epics, oral history, or poetry, despite elements of each within the texts, have labeled the biographies unsophisticated and unworthy of attention.

So, if historians disregard them and literature scholars sneer at them, why should we pay attention to them? Sela's answer hinges on the crucial detail that these works appear to have been wildly popular. As evidence he points to the dozens of manuscripts created from the early eighteenth century down to the twentieth, many of which were copied and recopied throughout this period. Nor has their appeal flagged: one major new edition of a legendary biography was produced in the 1990s with an initial print run of 200,000, and other editions are in the works. As further evidence Sela highlights the modern Uzbek fascination with Timur's history and legacy, which has made him into a national hero of Uzbekistan in recent decades (the above-mentioned 200,000-copy edition was published in Tashkent). Scholarly disregard of these manuscripts, therefore, is wildly at odds with popular interest and should be rethought in light of their potential to tell us something new about the periods in which they were produced and about the reasons for their tremendous appeal to such wide audiences.

The body of the monograph under review consists of six chapters. In the first, "The Origins and Usages of Timu's Heroic Apocrypha," Sela summarizes the biographies' introductory materials, proposes some conclusions that may be drawn from them, and provides other useful information about this body of work. The biographies all begin with a fairly standard prologue, in which Sela reads a statement about the duality of authority shared between prophets and caliphs on the one hand, and kings and sultans on the other. Apparently most works also mention Timar's genealogy, but only briefly: Sela notes that genealogy seemed far less interesting to the authors than it did to Timur himself, or has since then to modern scholars of the warlord. …

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