There’s a reason Uzbekistan, which celebrated its 18th birthday Tuesday, is one of the world’s most repressive societies.
The man the Uzbeks chose as their national symbol is popularly known as Tamerlane, the 14th-century conqueror whose trail of butchery and gore makes Adolf Hitler look like a saint. Nevertheless, a statue of Tamerlane astride a horse stands in a central spot in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital; the country’s national flag shares the same color as his banner and his visage graces the country’s highest denomination of bank notes.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, known as a brutal ruler in his own right, likes to equate himself with the Islamic conqueror.
Born in 1336 near the Silk Road city of Samarkand, Tamerlane became known as the Scourge of God. He controlled an empire encompassing great swaths of Asia — stretching from India to Turkey — having clawed his way to the top of a Central Asian Tartar tribe descended from Genghis Khan. That famous Mongol emperor ravaged Central Asia during the 13th century.
More than 100 years later, Tamerlane finished the job, leveling the famous cities of the day — Ankara, Delhi, Damascus, Balkh, Aleppo, Saray, Tana, Urganch and Isfahan, to name a few. His trademark was the mountains of skulls his men left as mementos. We’re not talking a few hundred heads; in Baghdad alone, his army left 90,000 skulls.
The unlucky millions left to the mercies of Tamerlane’s armies were buried alive, raped, hung, cemented into walls, sliced in two, trampled by horses or otherwise ripped to shreds. Women and children were forced into slavery or slaughtered. This was not a culture that extended mercy to captives. Entire cities were looted, then burned to the ground.
Just this past week, I finished a book about all this: “Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World,” by travel writer Justin Marozzi. I picked it up just before a 2007 trip to Kazakhstan, the region of steppes near where Tamerlane was based. Hoping to see the famous Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, I applied for a visa at the Uzbek embassy. I was turned down; reporters like me were not welcome by the country’s authoritarian regime.
Tamerlane is little known in the West, Mr. Marozzi points out; a shame because people in the West need to know about this man who single-handedly was responsible for the collapse of Central Asia at a time when its cities and civilizations were far more advanced than medieval Europe. The last of the Crusades had failed in 1394, the Plague had wiped out 25 million Europeans and Islam was ascendant.
It’s curious that the Islamic world, which has vilified the Crusades for more than 600 years, has rarely criticized a conqueror whose armies killed 17 million people. Although Tamerlane killed Christian “infidels” in Russia and Georgia, and dispatched 100,000 Hindus during his foray into India, the bulk of the dead were other Muslims.
Uzbeks have overlooked Tamerlane’s massacres, the author writes, choosing to speak of him as a great propagator of the faith and father of a new nation. Thus, the concept of jihad was manipulated then as it is today. It doesn’t matter if guileless Muslims lie in one’s path; after all, innocent victims go straight to paradise, so why be concerned about them?
They say the conqueror’s mystic power still emanates from his tomb in Samarkand and newlywed couples visit his statues to receive wedding blessings. Small wonder the country is a human rights nightmare. Tamerlane wouldn’t want it any other way.
• Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs on Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.