As a young man, the 14th-century Turko-Mongol military leader Timur sustained crippling injuries to his right hand and hip. The latter caused a rather severe limp, earning him the nickname Timur-e Lang or “Timur the Lame”—the origin of his European moniker, Tamerlane.
Yet while he may have been lame, the infamous warlord was far from feeble. Tall and broad shouldered, Timur (which means “iron”) displayed a shrewd intelligence and increasing brutality as he forged an empire rivaling that of his idol, Genghis Khan.
Tamerlane was born into the nomadic Barlas tribe in 1336 near the Silk Road city of Transoxiana (what is now Shahrisabz in Uzbekistan). As a teenager, he led a band of young marauders who robbed travelers along the famous trading route; those leadership skills came in handy as a soldier for various Khans and Sultans, and he eventually led a large brigade that successfully invaded the northwestern region of Persia or modern-day Iran. He was chosen as head of the Barlas tribe and, along with his brother-in-law Amir Husayn, seized the Transoxiana region.
Politically savvy with a keen mind—he was an avid chess player—and fluent in Turkish, Mongolian, and Persian, Tamerlane built a vast, multi-ethnic army of both nomads and settled people, eventually comprising 10,000 military units. His prowess and growing power made Amir Husayn jealous, and a rivalry ensued; Timur quickly assassinated his brother-in-law, gaining total control over northern Persia and Afghanistan. He claimed even more territory when he married a Mongol princess descended from Genghis Khan.
For more than 30 years, Timur’s military machine quashed its foes, conquering most of the Muslim world, vast swaths of Asia, and even northwestern India. At its height, the Timurid Empire stretched from modern-day Turkey to Tajikistan, from Georgia and Uzbekistan to Pakistan and Delhi. Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and large sections of Syria all fell to his sword.
Indeed, Tamerlane described himself as the “Sword of Islam,” and he became increasingly sadistic in his conversion methods. He slaughtered Hindus in India and Pakistan, and demanded the severed heads of Christians in Iraq. In all, his army killed upward of 17 million people—roughly 5 percent of the world’s population.
Tamerlane’s final campaign, against the Ming Dynasty in China, was halted on February 17, 1405 when he died of fever; he was 68 years old. The Timurid Empire fell to his son, Shah Rukh, who swiftly lost the western half to the Turks. The rest of the dynasty fell in 1507. While Timur is both reviled and revered by history, he did leave behind one playful legacy—he is credited with inventing the strategic board game Tamerlane Chess, a more elaborate version of his favorite past time.