April 13, 2006


Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. By Justin Marozzi. Da Capo. $26.95.

     He was a conqueror on the scale of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and of equal rapacity.  He sacked, burned and rebuilt cities throughout Central Asia, eventually imposing his rule from Syria to India, as far south as the Mediterranean and as far north as Siberia.  But his vast empire crumbled like a house of cards within a few decades of his death, and while he became the symbol of newly independent Uzbekistan in 1993, he remains virtually unknown in much of the rest of the world.

     If Europeans and Americans know this ferocious military genius at all, it is through Christopher Marlowe’s sprawling and intermittently brilliant play, Tamburlaine the Great, whose title gets the conqueror’s name wrong.  For that matter, “Tamerlane” is itself wrong: his name was Temur (or Timur), but a childhood accident left him lame, from which fact he was known as Temur the Lame, which eventually was corrupted to Tamerlane.  Justin Marozzi uses the standard, though incorrect, name in his book’s title, but calls the conqueror Temur throughout the text – a text made up partly of studies of Temur’s life and many campaigns, partly of Marozzi’s own explorations of the remnants of Temur’s empire in Uzbekistan (formerly Samarkand) and elsewhere.

     Marozzi is a scholar-traveler – a breed never very common and today virtually extinct.  His work combines the fascination of historical rediscovery with the sorts of insights attainable only by someone who has actually been to the areas about which he writes.  The travelogue portions of this book take readers from a brick kern in the roadside Uzbek village of Khoja Ilgar to the splendid Gur Amir mausoleum and the dark, hidden stairway beneath it that leads to the crypt where Temur’s remains – exhumed and examined by a Soviet archeologist in 1941 – actually lie.

     The scholarly parts of the book range more widely, both in geography and in time.  Temur lived from 1336 to 1405.  Much of Marozzi’s analysis is taken from 15th-century Syrian chronicler Ibn Arabshah – and much more of it attempts to debunk Arabshah’s writings, which were fanatically anti-Temur.  It is largely through Arabshah that Marlowe learned of Temur, largely through Arabshah’s portrait that the playwright had the warrior bombastically declare himself “the Scourge and Wrath of God,/ The only fear and terror of the world.”

     Yet although Marozzi argues effectively that Marlowe and Arabshah were wrong in many particulars, it seems that they did successfully capture the glory and vainglory of a man who, at the height of his powers, destroyed the army of the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I, self-styled Sword Arm of Islam, and captured Baghdad – where Temur had his soldiers build a pyramid of 90,000 enemy heads.  Marozzi shows the culture and architectural wonders that Temur brought after scorching the earth with vicious battles, and he chronicles both the remarkable rise of a lame sheep stealer to world-striding tyrant and the abrupt evaporation of Temur’s empire through internecine warfare and generational weakness.  This is an amazing story, told by Marozzi at a breathless pace in prose that, though it certainly does not match “Marlowe’s mighty line,” contains far more authority and accuracy than the great Elizabethan was able to offer.

No comments:

Post a Comment