Few chess players, and fewer non-players, are familiar with the version of the game that is played on a board of 110 squares and wields, in addition to the regular pieces, a pair each of camels, giraffes, sentinels, war engines and viziers. The game dates to the 14th century. It is called Tamerlane chess.
Tamerlane, or Timur as he is also known, was the last of the Mongol chieftains to overrun Asia. He was believed to be born in 1336 near what is now Samarkand, Uzbekistan, a century after Genghis Khan taught the world to tremble. Tamerlane acquired several colorful titles such as "Scourge of God," "Unconquered Lord of the Seven Climes," and, most cosmically "Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction" -- but his territorial conquests never matched those of Genghis Khan. Yet, a new biographer would have us remember that culturally, it is the legacy of Tamerlane that redeemed Mongolian marauders in the annals, gave the world the palaces of Bibi Khamun and the Taj Mahal, and allows modern Uzbeks to claim a chess-master as father of the nation.
Justin Marozzi's story of Timur is an excellent distillation of modern biography (Harold Lamb, Edward Gibbon, and Bernard Lewis) and of the ancient chronicles (Ahmed ibn Arabshah. Sharaf al-din Ali Yazdi and Ruy Gonzales Clavijo, the Spanish ambassador to Timur's court). His Tamerlane is well researched and engagingly told. Marozzi starts with Timur's own inauspicious beginnings as a young thief, when a rock-wielding shepherd left the future emperor with his first and most lasting moniker, Timur-the-Lame, which foreigners twisted into Tamerlane. After a satisfactory prelude of Tatar culture and the geopolitical nuances of 14th century Eurasia, Marozzi seats his subject in the warrior's saddle and lets him loose on two hellacious decades of conquest.
Tamerlane is unstinting in its brutal details. We learn of the suffering of Isfizar, where Timur orders that a tower be erected of bricks, mortar and 2,000 "miserable wretches," cemented alive. Knights attempting to break Timur's siege of a Crusader garrison in Smyrna are bombarded with the decapitated heads of their brethren. One hundred thousand prisoners are executed en route to Delhi, the pillaging of which is so complete, it will take a century for the city to rise again. In Baghdad, Timur commands his soldiers to bring back two heads each from the vanquished populace. The Tigris flows red and vultures feast on 90,000 corpses and 120 pyramids of severed heads. Now that's shock and awe.
Mindful of the risk that his account might become a "remorseless blur of savagery and slaughter," Marozzi offsets the bloodshed early and often. Soon after introducing his subject within the larger context of the Mongolian conquests, the author jumps in place and time to 16th century England to unveil Christopher Marlowe's "fire and brimstone Tamburlaine," who, writes Marozzi "sprang onto the Elizabethan stage like a thunderbolt from the heavens" and was the first popular representation of Timur in the West. It is one of the most fascinating chapters in the book, raising such unlikely and amusing visions as Albert Finney as the fierce Mongol and Marlowe himself being hounded by puritans as "daring God out of heaven with that Atheist" Timur.
Timur's piety is surely subject for debate. Though he has subtitled his biography with another of Timur's titles, "Sword of Islam," Marozzi characterizes the emperor as on opportunistic jihadi. At best, he used faith as a premise for attack his invasion of India in 1398, for example, was an overt incursion upon infidels. Less than a year later, however, Timur took his army on a "pilgrimage of destruction" through Aleppo and Damascus, looting, raping, pillaging and laying waste to every mosque and madrassa in sight. Nor did this self-proclaimed warrior of Islam find it necessary to pray regularly. Certainly his savagery cleaves better to the barbarism of his Mongol forbears, than to the crescent banner under which he rode. But Timur did have a pragmatic reliance on Islam, writes Marozzi. "That Islam and wholesale slaughter were incompatible bedfellows was beside the point. The same could be said of the Christian faith and the Crusaders."
A journalist with a well-worn passport, Marozzi spares no shoe-leather in following Timur's marauding footsteps. He wisely leaves a sweeping analysis of how the region has fared since the Middle Ages to another book, limiting himself to a few intriguing but tangential comments on the despotism of Uzbekistan's current leader, Islam Karimov, as well as on the despoiled, arid landscape that is now Samarkand, a city once known as the "Pearl of the East."
One of the book's strongest arguments is that Timur ought be credited with more than ancient aggression. One need look no further than the Mongol's beloved Samarkand, which counted among its court the continent's most esteemed scholars, poets, and artists. "If soldiers were his first love
Elizabeth Kiem is a freelance writer based in New York.