On June 20, 1941, the dictator of the Soviet Union, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, ordered to open a tomb in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Local residents and Muslim clergy tried to stop and warn them of the curse that would lie ahead if they did not heed. They ignored them, and the archeologists opened the tomb, the sweet smell of curse escaping out. The person buried there was a man responsible for killing 5% of the 14th-century world population, Tamerlane. On his sarcophagus was it was said that two inscriptions were carved,

‘Whoever disturbs my tomb will unleash an invader more terrible than I am”

Perhaps Stalin’s men laughed at the backwardness and superstitious beliefs of the locals but just two days later, Hitler, without warning, invaded the Soviet Union. The Soviets suffered lost battle after lost battle against the German army which would at one point be only 30 miles from Moscow.  Fearing perhaps that the curse was responsible for their ill fortunes in war Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane’s body to Samarkand and its reburial with full honors in November of 1942. Just a month later, the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad and the war in Russia had reached a turning point in favor of the Soviets. But the curse was already loose and WWII was the most destructive war in human history killing some 60 million people, including 20 million Russians.

Shrine of Tamerlane located in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. (Willard84, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

From Being Thief To Becoming An Emperor

Timur was born Transoxiana, now known as Uzbekistan, in the year 1336. He was a Muslim Turk who, as a teenager, was part of a small band of thieves who would raid travelers for supplies, goods, and animals like sheep, horses, and cattle. It was believed that he tried to steal a sheep from a shepherd once and was hit by two arrows, causing him to be permanently disabled: he became limp on the right leg and lost two fingers on his right hand. Because of this, his enemies called him the Timur-i-Lang, which translates to Timur the Lame. The Europeans misspelled his nickname and thought it was Tamerlane.

In an era when hand-to-hand combat and mounted archery equates to political power, Tamerlane did not let his handicap stop him. With his charisma and intelligence, he became a military leader of Turkic tribesmen. He made use of his family connection, skills, and 10,000 horsemen to invade the Chagatai Khanate by 1370 successfully. He was also able to control Khwarezm and Urgench.

When his ally Qazaghan was murdered, he was sent to negotiate with a descendant of Genghis Khan who wanted to take sovereign power. Instead, he joined with him and received Transoxania as his reward for his betrayal. In 1395, he also invaded and destroyed former ally Tokhtamysh, the khan of the Golden Horde. A few years later, in 1400, he would conquer the Ottoman and show how utterly cruel as an opponent he was.

Ottoman Leader Became An ‘Ottoman’

Tamerlane began a war with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Bayezid I, before the end of 1399. The conflict started when Bayezid began conquering the territory of Turkmen and Muslim rulers in Anatolia, but Tamerlane claimed sovereignty over it, so the Turks took refuge behind him. Throughout the years, Bayezid and Tamerlane would exchange insulting letters, trash-talking and mocking each other in their own way. When Bayezid wrote that he was a coward and that he would rape his wife, Tamerlane decided it was time to teach the Ottoman a lesson.

19th-century painting by Stanisław Chlebowski, depicting Bayezid I being held captive by Timur.

It was said that Tamerlane brought with him a 140,000-strong army, including 32 war elephants. Bayezid, on the other hand, had 85,000. When Bayezid found out that Tamerlane was behind his back, he reluctantly ordered his forces to march back to Ankara in midsummer heat. His soldiers were dying from heat and thirst, but they kept marching, knowing that a river was waiting for them near the city, only to find out that Tamerlane’s engineers had built a dam to divert the water away from them. When the battle ensued at Catal Hill, the Ottomans were greeted by swarms of arrows and dropped in the hundreds. Exhausted and thirsty, some members of the Ottoman army tried to surrender. Tamerlane’s troops slaughtered them, and Bayezid I himself was dragged back to Samarkand. There was a story that Tamerlane used him as a footstool to mount his horse and he was displayed in an iron cage during state dinners, while his wife was made to serve guests while fully naked.