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A fascinating look into a different world
on 27 May 2005
For we Europeans, mediaeval history prior to the age of the great explorations tends to revolve around our own neck of the woods, possibly because what happened here was to shape the world as we know it, and continues to do so. However, at the time, when Europe was ploughing its own little furrow, momentous events that utterly dwarfed European ones were taking place elsewhere. To the east, in what contemporary Europeans regarded as barbarian territory, there arose and fell great and terrible empires and great cities bulging with wealth and sophistication, and there took place great battles (making contemporary European ones look like minor street brawls) and astounding military feats.
This book tells the story of the greatest of the Asian conquerors, Temur, derogatorily nicknamed "Tamerlane" (Temur the Lame, after a wound sustained in youth). Tamerlane was a military genius, a patron of the arts and architecture, a devout follower of Islam (when it suited his purposes) and a conqueror of astounding cruelty and barbarism (when he deemed people needed to be taught a lesson - he was a great believer in pyramids of heads as an educational tool). At his zenith, he ruled an empire that extended from the borders of Europe to those of China. The former was spared conquest because it didn't have enough booty to be worth the trouble, the latter because Tamerlane died en route to there. As the empire revolved around this one man (the Mongol and Tatar conquerors weren't big on establishing permanent institutions), it fell apart after his death, Its final flowering was in the supremely civilised Mughal Empire of India, which was to endure in one form or another until the 19th century. Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Temur has, pyramids of heads notwithstanding, become a national hero for several of the former Soviet Asian republics, complete with statues, to replace those of those other liberating influences, Lenin and Stalin. Apparently a local version of Teddy Roosevelt's "our sonuvabitch".
Justin Marozzi tells this fascinating story in a mixture of history and travelogue (he followed Tamerlane's footsteps where he could). One thing's for sure, Mr. Marozzi is A Fan; he acknowledges the frightful massacres (mostly of fellow Moslems) and destruction of Tamerlane, but he also argues strongly for the intellectual side of Tamerlane and his contributions to the arts and architecture (for example, he built Samarkand and imported the best craftsmen and scholars to enrich and enliven it). This is in contrast to Genghis Khan's Mongols, who, with complete contempt for the sedentary inhabitants of the world, knew only how to demolish things. The book is an eye-opener into this other world, almost a parallel universe, which, when it wasn't scaring the willies out of them, only dimly impinged on the consciousness of contemporary Europeans.
In my opinion, the book's one fault is that it falls into the trap into which travel writers tend to fall, it is sometimes too self-consciously literary. Occasionally Mr. Marozzi strays across the hazy line that separates writing for the purpose of informing and writing for the purpose of showing off how clever and erudite the author is. This notwithstanding, this is an interesting and entertaining book, and one that makes one (this one anyway) want to go off to Samarkand and the plains, mountains and deserts of central Asia, to see where it all happened.