April 19, 2007


Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. By Justin Marozzi. Da Capo. $18.

Napoleon and the Hundred Days. By Stephen Coote. Da Capo. $15.95.

      The reprinting of these very fine biographies as paperbacks provides an opportunity to appreciate, once again, just how good they are. Tamerlane is the story of a conqueror on the scale of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, who eventually imposed his rule from Syria to India, as far south as the Mediterranean and as far north as Siberia. But his vast empire crumbled 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. His name was Temur (or Timur), but a childhood accident left him lame, so he was known as Temur the Lame, which eventually was corrupted to Tamerlane. Scholar-traveler Justin Marozzi uses the standard, though incorrect, name in his book’s title, but calls the conqueror Temur throughout the text, which consists 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. 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 even more widely, both in geography and in time. Much of Marozzi’s analysis is taken from 15th-century Syrian chronicler Ibn Arabshah – with Marozzi spending a good deal of time attempting to debunk Arabshah’s writings, which were fanatically anti-Temur. 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. Marozzi’s book shows Tamerlane as much more of a real-world figure – although quite as fearsome as Marlowe makes him out to be.

      British biographer Stephen Coote’s Napoleon and the Hundred Days is jam-packed with background even before it starts its main narrative about Napoleon’s escape from Elba and fast march through Europe and to Waterloo. Coote is quite even-handed in showing Napoleon’s genius while analyzing not only how his return from Elba failed but also why. Along the way, Coote offers a series of fascinating views of Napoleon from famous and less-famous contemporaries (one nobleman in England persisted in deeming Napoleon “a bully and a thief”). The gossip of the time is particularly intriguing, such as Josephine’s attacks on Napoleon’s virility after their divorce and before he fathered a child with Marie-Louise. As for the battle of Waterloo itself, Coote wisely keeps his discussion short – many other books have treated this subject at great length – and focuses on the aftermath, including Napoleon’s attempt to flee to the United States. Especially intriguing here is Coote’s assertion that Napoleon was, in a sense, the originator of an economic European Union – designed to defeat the British by concentrating economic power on the Continent. As well-written and fast-paced as a novel, Napoleon and the Hundred Days is a first-class read.

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