in paradox…

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In paradox with his barbaric character, Taimur also possessed the ability to appreciate beauty and refinement, a tendency which matured unhampered by his savage nature. It is said that when he came to Shiraz, he summoned the legendary Persian poet, Hafiz and questioned him about his famous couplet:

Agar aan Turk-e-Shirazi badast arad dil-e-maa ra
Bakhal-e-Hinduash bakhsham, Samarakand-e-Bukhara ra.

(If my heart could lay its hand upon that Turk from Shiraz, I would give away Samarkand and Bukhara over his dark mole).

“I have spent the wealth of nations to beautify Smarkand,” said Taimur angrily, in response to the couplet. “How dare you say you will give it away over some harlot of Shiraz!” To which Hafiz replied with his proverbial wit, “It is due to such extravagance that I have to live in abject poverty.” And appreciating the poet’s rejoinder, sent him away with gifts. Taimur even brought other poets and men of art from Persia to live in Samarkand and enrich the culture.

There is a less reliable tradition which declares that in Damascus, Taimur held a discourse with the famous historian and sociologist, Ibne Khuldun. If that ever happened, one wonders if the scholar had a chance to share with the conqueror his famous theory about the fate of dynasties. Khuldun had propounded that the glory of a dynasty seldom lasted beyond four generations. The first generation is inclined towards conquest, the second towards administration. The third generation, being free from the necessity to conquer or administer, is left with the pleasurable task of spending the wealth of its ancestors on cultural pursuits. Consequently, by the fourth generation, a dynasty has usually spent its wealth as well as human energy. Hence, the downfall of each royal house is embedded in the very process of its rising. According to Khuldun, it was a natural phenomenon and couldn’t be avoided. If so, then the House of Taimur was going to prove him wrong.

Taimur’s most deadly battle was fought against the Ottoman ruler, Bayazid. It started with a skirmish about a certain border territory. Bayazid, who had started a wave of conquests across Christian Europe, didn’t pay much heed to the barbarian and when Taimur persisted he wrote a derogatory reply, which Taimur’s historians consider too offensive to copy. Some believe that the Ottoman had challenged Taimur’s virility while others suspect that he had threatened to rape Taimur’s wife, Sirai Khanum (whom Taimur had married after killing her husband, the brother of Oljai). Whatever may be the case, Taimur defeated the Ottoman ruler at the Battle of Angura and captured all the women in his harem, including Bayazid’s favourite wife, Despina. She had to serve as a naked waitress while Bayazid was forced to watch this as a ‘guest’ during the feast of victory. Despina was later returned to Bayazid, who died of grief soon afterwards. The Ottomans couldn’t recover from this trauma, and the kings of that dynasty never married again, so that no future enemy could humiliate an Ottoman queen. The heirs to the Ottoman throne were begotten from slave girls.

Taimur could have invaded Europe after the defeat of Bayazid, but did not. Maybe he was pleased with the Christian kings who had congratulated him on his victory over the Ottoman giant. Or maybe he wasn’t interested in Europe because Genghis Khan had also never paid attention to that territory. Whatever the reason, he turned instead to China and, just as his armies were about to embark towards the Great Wall, Taimur died at the age of seventy on February 9, 1405.

The House of Taimur had its first brush with civil war soon after his death. Taimur had nominated his grandson, Pir Muhammad as successor. Pir was the son of Taimur’s favourite son Jehangir, now dead for a long time, but Taimur’s will was soon overruled by many generals who asserted their tribal right to choose their own chief from the house of the dead lord. Pir was away in India, and could not come home before the defecting generals had enthroned another grandson of Taimur in Samarkand. This was Khalil, who was begotten when Taimur’s spoilt son, Meeran Shah raped Jehangir’s widow, the Princess Khanzadeh.

Pir returned, but lost his battle. Khalil married a dancing girl and commenced a series of orgies that enraged the generals. They threw him into prison while his queen was subjected to public humiliation – the soldiers’ revenge upon a dancing girl for daring to marry a prince!

The last remaining choice was Shahrukh, a peace-loving son whom Taimur used to hold dear, but didn’t think him capable of running an empire. Shahrukh emerged an excellent ruler. He was known for avoiding warfare as far as possible, but also proved an effective general if waging war was a necessity. His scholarly traits were magnified in his son, Ulugh Beg, who became famous as an outstanding intellectual of his day. Accomplished in mathematics, astronomy and poetry, Ulugh Beg built an observatory in Samarkand and compiled an ephemeris that was to remain the standard instrument for casting horoscopes for more than a century.

Taimur cannot be compared with Alexander, Caesar or Napoleon. He can best be compared with a huge devastating earthquake – something like a beast of nature working on a scale larger than that which is humanly possible, and without motives that can be completely understood in terms of human ambition. When he came, Asia was a graceful cradle for many civilizations. When he left, it was reduced to rubble, but from this debris was to spring a world. The credit for this rebirth doesn’t go to Taimur. It goes to all those who displayed human courage and started over again just like people do after an earthquake or holocaust. Or after a ruler like Tamerlane has wrecked their world.

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