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The warriors of Central Asia

For two thousand years Central Asia was the womb of terror, where an implacable queue of barbarian races waited to impel one another into history. Whatever spurred their grim waves - the deepening erosion of their pasturelands or their seasons of fleeting unity - they bore the same stamp of phantom mobility and mercilessness.

Two and a half millennia ago the shadowy Scythians of Herodotus - Aryan savages whose country was the horse - simmered just beyond the reach of civilisation, like a ghastly protoplasm of all that was to come. Then the Huns flooded over the shattered Roman Empire in a ravening swarm - fetid men clothed in whatever they had slaughtered, even the sewn skins of fieldmice - and they did not stop until they had reached Orleans, and their rude king Attila had died in unseasonable bridebed, and their kingdom flew to pieces. But the Avars followed them - long-haired centaurs who rocked Constantinople and were eventually obliterated by Charlemagne at the dawn of the ninth century. Soon afterwards an enfeebled Byzantium let in the Magyars, and the fearsome Pechenegs rushed in after -Turanian peoples, all of them, who evaporated at last in the gloomy European forests, or settled to become Christian on the Great Hungarian Plain.

Then, at the start of the thirteenth century, as Christian Europe ripened and Islamic Asia flourished, the dread steppeland unleashed its last holocaust in the Mongols. This was not the random flood of popular imagination, but the assault of a disciplined war-machine perfected by the genius of Genghiz Khan. Unpredictable as a dust-storm, its atrocious cavalry - neckless warriors with dangling moustaches - could advance at seventy miles a day, enduring any hardship. Only their stench, it was said, gave warning of their coming. In extremes, they drank from the jugulars of their horses and ate the flesh of wolves or humans. Yet they were armoured in habergeons of iron or laminated leather scales, and they could fire their steel-tipped arrows with magic accuracy over more than two hundred yards at full gallop. Consummate tacticians and scouts, they soon carried in their wake siege-engines and flame-throwers, and around their nucleus of ethnic Mongols rode a formidable mass of Turkic auxiliaries.

By Genghiz Khan's death their empire unfurled from Poland to the China Sea. Within a few years his sons and grandsons came within sight of Vienna, laid waste Burma and Korea, and sailed, disastrously, for Japan. Meanwhile, in their Central Asian heartland, the Pax Mongolica was instilling administrative discipline, commercial recovery, and a frightened peace.

Tamerlane, the Earth-Shaker, was the last, and perhaps most awesome, of these world predators. Born in 1336 fifty miles south of Samarkand, he was the son of a petty chief in a settled Mongol clan. He acquired the name 'Timur-i-Leng' or 'Timur the Lame' after arrows maimed his right leg and arm, and passed as Tamerlane into the fearful imagination of the West. By his early thirties, after years of fighting over the splintered heritage of Genghiz Khan, he had become lord of Mavarannah, the 'Land beyond the River', with his capital at Samarkand, and had turned his cold eyes to the conquest of the world.

From the accounts that are left of him, he emerges not only as the culmination of his pitiless forerunners, but as the distant ancestor of the art-loving Moghals of India. Over the terrified servants and awed ambassadors at his court, his eyes seemed to burn without brilliance, and never winced with either humour or sadness. But a passion for practical truth fed his unlettered intelligence. He planned his campaigns in scrupulous detail, and unlike Genghiz Khan he led them in person. He clothed his every move with the sanction of the Islamic faith, but astrology and omens, shamanism and public prayers, were all invoked to serve his needs. An angel, it was rumoured, told him men's hidden thoughts. Yet he assaulted Moslems as violently as he did Christians and Hindus. Perhaps he confused himself with God.

No flicker of compassion marred his progress. His butchery surpassed that of any before him. The towers and pyramids of skulls he left behind — ninety thousand in the ruins of Baghdad alone - were calculated warnings. After overrunning Persia and despoiling the Caucasus, he hacked back the remnants of the Golden Horde to Moscow, then launched a precipitate attack on India, winching his horses over the snowbound ravines of the Hindu Kush, where 20,000 Mongols froze to death. On the Ganges plain before Delhi, the Indian sultan's squadrons of mailed elephants, their tusks lashed with poisoned blades, sent a momentary tremor through the Mongol ranks; but the great beasts were routed, and the city and all its inhabitants levelled with the earth. A year later the Mongols were wending back over the mountains, leading 10,000 pack-mules sagging with gold and jewels. They left behind a land which would not recover for a century, and five million Indian dead.

Now Tamerlane turned his attention west again. Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus fell. In 1402, on the field of Ankara, at the summit of his power, he decimated the army of the Ottoman sultan Beyazid, and inadvertently delayed the fall of Constantinople by another half century.

Between these monotonous acts of devastation, the conqueror returned to the Samarkand he cherished. At his direction a procession of captured scholars, theologians, musicians and craftsmen arrived in the capital with their books and tools and families - so many that they were forced to inhabit caves and orchards in the suburbs. Under their hands the mud city bloomed into faience life. Architects, painters and calligraphers from Persia; Syrian silk-weavers, armourers and glass-blowers; Indian jewellers and workers in stucco and metal; gunsmiths and artillery engineers from Asia Minor: all laboured to raise titanic mosques and academies, arsenals, libraries, vaulted and fountained bazaars, even an observatory and a menagerie. The captured elephants lugged into place the marble of Tabriz and the Caucasus, while rival emirs - sometimes Tamerlane himself -drove on the work with the parvenu impatience of shepherd-princes. The whole city, it seems, was to be an act of imperial power. Villages were built around it named Cairo, Baghdad, Shiraz or Damascus (a ghostly Paris survives) in token of their insignificance. It was the 'Mirror of the World', and the premier city of Asia.

Tamerlane himself confounds simple assessment. He kept a private art collection, whose exquisitely illuminated manuscripts he loved but could not read. His speech, it seems, was puritan in its decorum. He was an ingenious and addicted chess-player, who elaborated the game by doubling its pieces - with two giraffes, two war-engines, a vizier and others - over a board of 110 squares. A craving for knowledge plunged him into hard, questing debates with scholars and scientists, whom he took with him even on campaign, and his quick grasp and powerful memory gave him a working knowledge of history, medicine, mathematics and astronomy.

Yet at heart he was a nomad. He moved between summer and winter pastures with his whole court and horde. Even at Samarkand he usually pavilioned in the outskirts, or in one of the sixteen gardens he spread round the city: watered parks with ringing names. Each garden was different. In one stood a porcelain Chinese palace; another glowed with the saga of his reign in lifelike frescoes, all long vanished; yet another was so vast that when a workman lost his horse there it grazed unfound for six months.

In such playgrounds were held the fetes champetres witnessed by the Castilian envoy Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo. At the wedding of six royal princes (including the eleven-year-old Ulug Beg) he described how 20,000 tents covered the meadows near Samarkand for a month. The central pavilion alone accommodated 10,000 guests. Its forty-foot mountain of silk cascaded from a dome woven with eagles, billowed down above 500 vermilion guy-ropes, then reared up again to turrets crested with silk battlements. In the banqueting tents a gluttonous feasting and drinking took hold. Enormous leather platters were dragged in, heaped with sheep's heads, horse-croupes and tripe in balls the size of a man's fist. After one such feast came a ceremonial presentation of gifts, and Clavijo writes with pride that his Spanish tapestries were outshone only by the Egyptian delegation's presentation of nine ostriches and a giraffe. The city's guilds threw themselves into sumptuous displays of ingenuity. The linen-weavers constructed an armoured horseman in pure linen, 'even to the nails and eyelids', while the cotton-workers erected a hundred-foot minaret in flax, crowned by a cotton stork. The butchers dressed up animals as humans; the furriers disguised humans as wild beasts.

But among the tents, in black warning, there dangled from gallows the bodies of the mayor of Samarkand and the emirs who had bungled the gateway of the Bibi Khanum mosque, with the corpses of merchants who had overpriced their wares.

At last, as the autumn nights darkened towards winter, Tamerlane ordered the tents rolled up and turned his ageing eyes towards the richest quarry remaining: China. With an army quarter of a million strong, he marched north towards the Jaxartes valley, planning to strike east with the first hint of spring. But the winter was the coldest in memory. The rivers froze and blizzards howled out of Siberia. Men, horses, camels, elephants struggled through deepening drifts. 'Seared by the cold,' wrote Tamerlane's Arab biographer, 'men's noses and ears fell off. They froze to death as they rode .... Yet Tamerlane cared not for their dying, nor grieved for those who had fallen.'

Soon after they reached their base-camp, the emperor fell into a shivering sickness. Wine laced with spices and hot drugs had no effect, so his doctors laid ice-packs on his chest and head, until he coughed up blood. Then they despaired. 'We know of no cure for death,' they said. Towards nightfall, while a thunderstorm raged outside, Tamerlane called together his family and emirs, and appointed his successor. Then to the sound of imams' chanting in the neighbouring room, and the crashing of the tempest, the monster died.

He was buried in Samarkand in the mausoleum which he had prepared for his favourite grandson, dead of wounds two years before. The college and hospice which once enclosed it have been effaced by earthquake, and it rises alone among alleys intimate with mulberry trees, whose fruit crunched underfoot at my approach. Its courtyard gate stood up in fragile solitude. Ruins made a phantom geometry inside. Amongst them a marble platform, carved with flower-tendrils, had been the coronation-stone of the emirs of Bukhara.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron