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The death of Tamerlane

After spending the autumn of 1404 feasting outside Samarkand and enriching the glory of the city, Tamerlane advanced an army of 200,000 men against China. He had chosen the hardest winter in memory. As his Arab biographer recorded, "scorched by the cold, their noses and ears fell off... if a man spat, his spittle, warm though it might be, froze to a ball before it reached the ground". By late January the 69-year-old warrior lay stricken by fever in Otrar. Hot drugs and ice-packs made him "foam like a camel dragged backwards with the rein", until his doctors conceded defeat and to the sound of crashing thunder the "Hand of Death gave him the cup to drink" on February 18, 1405.

Gerasimov admires Tamerlane's skullEmbalmed with musk and rose-water, his body returned in an ebony coffin for burial in the Gur Emir. According to Johann Schiltberger, a Bavarian captive in Samarkand, Tamerlane suffered posthumous regret- "the priests that belong to the temple heard him howl every night during a whole year . . . His friends went to his son and begged that he would set free ... the craftsmen his father had brought to his capital, where they had to work. He let them go, and as soon as they were free, Tamerlane did not howl anymore."

Although an inscription on his grave threatened "Were I alive, the world would tremble", and locals warned of disaster surpassing Tamerlane's atrocities if his body were disturbed, Soviet scientist Gerasimov won permission to exhume. He began in the dead of night on June 22, 1941. Within hours came the news of Hitler's invasion of Russia. The investigation revealed a man tall for his race, a tuberculosis sufferer and lame from wounds to both right limbs. Red hair still clung to the skull from which Gerasimov reconstructed a bronze bust.

When Ulug Beg was exhumed, his severed head was found beside his body, proof of his son's treachery. The findings were written in Chinese waterproof ink on fine 19th-century Kokandi paper, and sealed in glass and marble, as the skeletons were reinterred with Muslim burial rites at the end of 1942. Five weeks later came news of the German surrender at Stalingrad, the turning point of the Great Patriotic War.