He spent most of his life campaigning at the head of his army and relied on his personal prowess as a military leader without the need for any supporting institution — political, civil or military.
He was essentially a one-man state. He controlled it as if it were a military unit, so it had no staying power. In his insatiable search for plunder he wrought havoc on settled society and on agriculture alike, building towers of skulls outside many of the cities he had sacked - from Moscow to Delhi. One motive for his conquests was to control the central caravan route linking Asia with Europe; this may explain his calculated destruction of the cities servicing the northerly route (Urgench, Saray, Berke, Batu, Astrakhan and Azov among others).
His rule was reactionary in that he restored the power of the nomad pastoral aristocracy at the expense of settled agriculture, which was left in ruins, and thus he undid the farsighted reforms of Ghazan.
Entire populations were deliberately resettled far from their ancestral lands, while artisans, the human debris of his conquests, were scooped up en masse and dispatched to work on his projects in Samarqand, which he chose as his capital. He embellished it with gardens and palaces galore, with a gigantic Friday mosque named after his consort, and with his own tomb, the Gur-e Amir, which became a family mausoleum. The splendour of his court life is described in exhaustive detail in a lengthy account written by Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, an ambassador from distant Castile who visited Samarqand and Timur’s palace at Kish between 1404 and 1406.
Timur himself was illiterate and had little time for cultural or indeed theological pursuits, though it is recorded that he enjoyed playing chess and that he decorated his palaces with wall paintings of his battles. He defeated the Mamluks in Syria and the Ottomans in Ankara and was on his way to conquer China when death put a stop to him.
His departure unleashed factional strife that lasted for years, from which his youngest son Shahrukh (died in 1447) eventually emerged victorious. He dramatically but wisely retracted the fluid frontiers left by his father’s conquests, and consolidated a significantly smaller empire, comprising Greater Iran, from his base in Herat, leaving his own sons to govern the other provinces of the Iranian world. But factionalism destroyed the Timurid Empire in the later 15th century, and its princes, cultivated though some of them were in several aspects of Persian culture, were powerless to block the rise of new nomadic federations Turcomans who divided most of Iran and some of Iraq and Anatolia between them, or of the Uzbeks of Transoxania. Between them these new polities absorbed most of the crumbling Timurid empire, leaving the last Timurid prince, Sultan Husayn Bayqara (1469-1506 CE) with little more than the rump of his ancestor’s vast empire — the city of Herat and its environs.
It is hard to see Timur’s own legacy as anything more than a balance sheet drenched in blood.
Throughout this period, far too much land throughout the Timurid empire was distributed as fiefs to Timurid princes, military commanders or hereditary rulers who governed them autonomously. These new systems of land ownership weakened the central government by bestowing administrative immunity and tax emption on those who owned the land and already exercised much judicial and military authority.
Timur’s political legacy was disorder and chronic succession disputes. But his descendants presided over a remarkable flowering of the arts and sciences that justifies being termed the Timurid Renaissance.
Shahrukh was by temperament a man of peace; he was also a poet and had a vivid sense of history. His wife Gauhar Shad was the patron of major building campaigns in Mashhad (e.g. the mosque that bears her name) and Herat (where her mausoleum is located).
The Timurid period saw the apotheosis of colour in architecture as well as bold innovations in vaulting and the assured handling of spatial complexities on a vast scale.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled, ‘The Timurids - Conquest, Decline and Cultural Flowering’, from a book entitled, ‘IRAN: Five Millennia of Art and Culture’, edited by Ute Franke, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Stefan Weber, published by Berlin Museum of Islamic Art. The photos were taken from the book.