What happened after Genghis Khan’s rampage ended?

Tourists who fly to Mongolia’s capital may be surprised to find themselves landing at Genghis Khan International Airport. Certainly, Ulaanbaatar’s choice of name strikes a different note from Liverpool’s John Lennon or Tirana’s Mother Teresa. (Does the muzak in the arrivals hall play a song called Give War a Chance?)

But it’s understandable that present-day Mongolians should feel some pride when they think about this 13th-century warlord, who used the fighting skills of his people to build up an empire the like of which, at its peak, had never been seen in the world. Only the British Empire has covered more territory – and that was the work of more than three centuries, using the advanced technology of ocean-going ships. Genghis and his immediate successors created their empire on horseback in roughly three generations.

The scale of the achievement is astonishing. Mongol-conquered territory stretched from Korea to the Mediterranean; in 1258 alone, Mongol armies attacked both Lithuania and Vietnam. Understandably, though, what modern Mongolians celebrate is not just the power and the victories, but the conditions of stable rule and secure communications that allowed trade to flourish across a huge swathe of Asia – the so-called “Pax Mongolica”.

It’s hardly surprising that, roughly half a century after Genghis’s death, this huge empire was breaking up into a number of successor states. Even with their highly efficient system of relay stations, where messengers and officials could change horses at 25-mile intervals, controlling so much territory from one imperial centre was a near-impossible task. But what is quite surprising is that less than a century after that, another ruler emerged who was able to repeat, to some extent, Genghis’s original achievement. This was Timur Leng, known as “Timur the lame” – he limped, from an early injury – or the Tamburlaine of Christopher Marlowe’s play.

From Genghis Khan to Tamerlane, a new book by Peter Jackson, emeritus professor of medieval history at Keele University, is principally a study of Timur’s life and achievements. But it begins with a long account of the changes that took place in the Mongol empire, and its successor states, in the period between the death of Genghis in 1227 and Timur’s birth roughly 100 years later.

Genghis Khan, 1st khagan of the Mongol Empire

Genghis Khan, 1st khagan of the Mongol Empire – Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Perhaps the most important of these was the spread of Islam, not into every part of the Mongol realms, but certainly into the area where Timur was brought up: the part of Central Asia north of Afghanistan, corresponding to much of modern Uzbekistan, and containing the historic cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Timur would apparently think of himself as a pious Muslim, notwithstanding the fact that hundreds of thousands of other Muslims, whether pious or not, were put to the sword by his armies.

Another difference between Timur and the original Mongol conquerors was that his mother-tongue was Turkish; in this part of Asia, Mongols had gradually merged with the Turkic peoples on whose manpower they had relied. Also, although those Turkic warrior peoples shared the nomadic lifestyle, Timur was born in a town and took a special interest in building up his favoured cities – above all, Samarkand, where he commissioned a spectacular mosque, parts of which remain standing to this day.

So in what ways, if any, did he represent a Mongol tradition going back to Genghis Khan? Not by blood: although he sought prestige by giving himself, and his sons, wives who were “Chingissids” – direct descendants of Genghis – he had no claim to be one himself. Mongol veneration for the dynasty was so strong that, even while he was extending his own rule for thousands of miles, he honoured a Chingissid prince as his formal sovereign, rather as if Napoleon had kept a tame Bourbon on the throne at Versailles.

Peter Jackson, author of From Genghis Khan to Tamerlane

Peter Jackson, author of From Genghis Khan to Tamerlane – Author’s wife

Other elements of Mongol tradition were likewise maintained or manipulated. Despite his adherence to Islam, Timur practised some of the old pagan traditions, such as praying to Heaven from a hilltop, and Mongol customary law, which still had huge prestige, strange though some of its rules were – it prohibited washing in running water, or washing clothes for half the year, on the grounds that such actions would cause thunderstorms. But more importantly, Timur justified some of his campaigns on the grounds that the territory he invaded had once been Mongol-ruled.

Was he actually trying to restore the empire of Genghis? Jackson is doubtful, seeing Timur’s campaigns as more opportunistic and ad hoc – and also more simply focused on plunder, sometimes with no attempt to keep the conquered territory under his rule. It’s arguable that some of his campaigns were concerned with securing trading routes, but the plundering was massive, and so too was the killing, which could only have a hugely depressing effect on local and regional economies.

The roll-call of cities put to the sword is long and terrible, including Isfahan, Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo and Smyrna. In some cases, the only explanation is the desire to cause terror: outside Delhi, Timur had tens of thousands of Indian prisoners executed, pour encourager les autres. And at Sivas, in central Turkey, having persuaded the defenders of the city to surrender by promising not to shed their blood, he had them all buried alive instead.

In the end, Timur emerges from this book as a much less admirable figure than Genghis: his aims were less grand, and his methods more brutal – or, one should say, even more brutal. That judgement is likely to stand for a long time, as this account is a landmark publication by a senior scholar who has spent decades studying all the original sources. What makes From Genghis Khan to Tamerlane so authoritative as a work of scholarship will also make it challenging for general readers, who may need to equip themselves with mental machetes to pass through the thickets of unfamiliar names that spring up on every page. Those who give up should not be blamed – but those who persevere will definitely be rewarded.

From Genghis Khan to Tamerlane is published by Yale University Press at £35. To order your copy for £x, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.

Previous post Long-Term Data Presented at ASH Support beti-cel as a Potentially Curative Gene Therapy for β-Thalassemia Patients Who Require Regular Transfusions Through Achievement of Durable Transfusion Independence and Normal or Near-Normal Adult Hb Levels
Next post Honey Boo Boo pays tribute to sister who dies aged 29