Share This Article

The military heir to Genghis Khan ensured his legacy through the creation of detailed histories illustrated with small but splendid paintings.

After Genghis Khan’s empire disintegrated in the 14th century, another brilliant and ruthless general reconquered Central Asia. Born to a minor Mongol chieftain, Timur Barlas, the self-described “Scourge of God,” shrewdly and aggressively built an empire that ultimately reached from Russia to Mongolia. Tamurlane, as he was called in the West, was also an impressive propagandist and patron of the arts who knew that his fastidious manipulation of recorded history and erection of elaborate buildings would help to secure his rule—and his historic renown.

So he seized poets, artists, and scholars from every city he sacked, then employed them to create perhaps his most lasting legacy: one of the richest manuscript traditions in history.

Although Timur’s contentious heirs failed to maintain his dominion, their continued patronage of the arts transformed their capitals into dynamic centers of Islamic culture, famous in particular for the art of the book. Under their direction, busy workshops of gifted artists created unique manuscripts, roughly the size of a modern magazine, illustrated with exquisite miniature paintings.

The most important of these was the copy of the Zafarnama (or Book of Victory) commissioned by Sultan Husayn Bayqara, Timur’s great-great-grandson and the last of the great Timurid princes.

Indeed, Timurid patrons like Sultan Husayn and the illustrated manuscripts they commissioned became the standard against which Islamic rulers and their artists were measured until well into the 17th century.

Timur began his career as the leader of a small, nomadic band. Through a combination of treachery and warfare, he soon became the head of the Chaghatay ulus, transforming it from a loose alliance of Turco-Mongolian tribes into the military elite of one of the largest empires in history.

By marrying a great-granddaughter of the great Mongol conqueror, Genghis Khan, Timur was able to call himself Temur Gurghan, “son-in-law of the Great Khan,” and thus claim to be the legitimate reviver of the Mongol khanates. Timur never took the title of khan himself. Instead, he installed a series of minor members of the Chingizid dynasty as puppet khans.

For 35 years, from 1370 to 1405, Timur was constantly at war, expanding his empire until it reached from Russia to Mongolia, stretching southward toward Afghanistan, Persia, and Mesopotamia. He raided and pillaged as far south as Delhi and as far north as Moscow. He burned cities that refused to surrender, building cairns of skulls outside the walls. Yet he spared the artists from every city he conquered, sending them back to his capital, Samarqand, with the rest of his plunder.

The growth of Ottoman power under the leadership of Sultan Bayezid, known as “the Thunderbolt,” attracted Timur’s attention in 1402. When Bayezid began to overrun Turkish principalities in western Anatolia, Timur abandoned the conquest of India in order to protect his western frontier. He swept through Central Anatolia, defeating the Ottomans near Ankara, taking Aleppo, and sacking Damascus. He reportedly kept the captured Bayezid in a cage until he died in 1403.

Timur was a history buff by any standard. The 15th-century historian Ibn Arabshah tells us that Timur often had “chronicles, the stories of prophets,…the deeds of kings, and the accounts of men of the past” read aloud to him. Conscious of the power of written history, Timur employed Iranian and Turkish secretaries to record the daily events of his reign. These chronicles were read aloud so Timur could verify their accuracy and approve them for inclusion in the more polished histories created in his kitabkhana, a combined library and workshop that both produced and collected manuscripts.

Timur died in 1405 while leading an expedition to restore Mongol control in China, where the first Ming emperor had overthrown Kublai Khan’s dynasty in 1368. His body was returned to Samarqand and buried in the Gul-i-Mir mausoleum under a six-foot slab of black jade.

After Timur’s death, his empire was torn apart by wars of succession and external attacks until nothing remained but a cluster of warring city-states that grouped and regrouped as Timur’s heirs fought among themselves. But even as the dynasty’s political power waned, its cultural dominance grew. Herat, Samarqand, Shiraz, and Tabriz, the cities ruled by Timur’s sons and grandsons, remained centers of Islamic culture for a century.

Like Timur, his heirs lavished resources on their kitabkhanas. A progress report to one of Timur’s grandsons, Sultan Baysungher, written in the 1420s in Herat, lists 23 individual artists engaged in at least 22 different projects: craftsmen who ruled the pages as the first step of working on a manuscript, followed by painters, illuminators, calligraphers, and chest makers.

The miniatures produced in the kitabkhanas of five generations of Timurid princes combined the artistic traditions of Persia with those of Central Asia and, to a lesser extent, China, creating a style of painting that art historians have described as polished, brilliant, refined, jewel-like, and technically perfect. Among the manuscripts commissioned by Timur’s successors were histories that celebrated the legacy of Timur’s achievements, using images from the dynasty’s past to create an impression of continuing political power.

The Zafarnama was completed around 1425 by poet-historian Sharaf al-Din ’Ali Yazdi. Timur’s grandson, Ibrahim Sultan, summoned Yazdi to Shiraz in 1419 and 1420 to produce an official biography of the dynasty’s founder. According to Yazdi, a team of scholars and poets compiled and verified accounts of Timur’s life. Once an official version of the facts of Timur’s life had been agreed on, Yazdi shaped them into a highly stylized Persian narrative that was praised by his contemporaries for its elegance. Ibrahim Sultan retained tight control over the project; many drafts were prepared and read aloud to the prince before he approved the final text. Yazdi’s Zafarnama was one of the most popular texts in the Muslim world of the 15th century. At least 30 copies were commissioned between its completion and the sack of Herat by the Uzbeks in 1507.

Sultan Husayn’s copy of the Zafarnama was created by calligrapher Shir Ali and painter Kamal al-Din Bihzad, described by a contemporary critic as the “most perfect painter of the age.” The copying of the text was completed in 1467 and 1468; the paintings appear to have been added around 1480. The text was written in the expressive new nasta’liq script, which was originally used for transcribing poetry, and illustrated with six double-page miniatures, arranged so that two miniatures faced each other to represent a single incident.

The manuscript is a celebration of the foundation of Timurid power, created as the dynasty neared its end. Five of Bihzad’s pairs of miniatures deal with the classical Persian theme known as razm u bazm, fighting and feasting. Of these, four are battle scenes and one shows Timur holding audience in Balkh on his accession as leader of the Chaghatay ulus. The sixth documents the construction of the Great Mosque at Samarqand, which Timur commissioned in 1399.

The battle scenes illustrate four critical victories in Timur’s career. In the first two pairs of paintings, Umar Shaykh, Timur’s oldest son and Sultan Husayn’s great-grandfather, leads attacks against two of the small states that rose from the remains of Genghis Khan’s empire: Kwarazum, in northwestern Uzbekistan, and Mughulistan, in modern Kazakhstan. Timur conquered both states early in his career, when he was still consolidating his power over the Turco-Mongolian tribes. In the remaining battle scenes, Timur himself leads his troops in the destruction of the Kipchak army after defeating it on the banks of the Volga in 1395 and attacks the fortress of the Knights of St. John at Smyrna (modern Izmir) in 1402.

Sultan Husayn’s choice of illustrations subtly changes the emphasis of the manuscript. Yazdi’s text not only placed Timur’s career within the context of Islamic and Mongol history but also established Timur’s fourth son and successor, Shah Rukh, as the legitimate heir to both Timur and the previous rulers of Iran.

In Sultan Husayn’s copy, the text remains unchanged but the illustrations shift the focus to Sultan Husayn’s own ancestor, Umar Shaykh. With his choice of illustration, Sultan Husayn emphasizes the role played by Umar Shaykh in the conquest of the core areas of Timurid power and by extension establishes his own claim to the Timurid empire.

If Sultan Husayn’s political aspirations shaped the overall program of the illustrations, Kamal al-Din Bihzad’s artistic vision informed the details. Although he was the most famous miniature painter of the period, and continued to influence the style of Muslim painting through 18th century, very little is known about Bihzad’s life.

Born in Herat around 1460, Bihzad was originally a protégé of Ali Sher Nawai, who was a close friend and advisor of Sultan Husayn and an important patron of the arts. Bihzad worked at the Timurid court of Herat until it fell to the Uzbeks in 1507. He ended his career as the head of the kitabkhana in the Safavid court of Tabriz, where he shaped the Safavids’ use of Timurid artistic conventions.

Bihzad introduced a new sense of humanity into the classical Persian miniature. In his paintings, the lives of ordinary men begin to intrude into tales of princes. As a result of Bihzad’s eye for the minutiae of daily life, the miniatures in Sultan Husayn’s copy of the Zafarnama give us a picture of Timurid warfare, framed within the conventions of the Persian miniature. The paintings are small, the colors brilliant, the drawing exquisite, the battles brutal.

The first thing that strikes the modern viewer is that this is a culture of armed horsemen. Unlike European paintings from the same period, foot soldiers are rare. Timur’s soldiers are clearly marked not only by their conical helmets and round shields but also by the quilted armor on their horses. Even standard-bearers and trumpeters take the field on horseback. The horses are as individual as their riders; both move believably across the page.

The only soldiers without helmet and shield are Timur and his son, slightly larger in scale than their troops, who direct each battle from horseback.

Three of the scenes show a strong forward thrust from the right panel into the left. In The Troops of Timur Attacking the City of Khiva, Umar Shaykh drives the retreating forces of Kwarazum back into the city over a wooden drawbridge. In A Battle on the River Oxus, his troops cross the river on wooden rafts, their horses swimming behind them. Once across, some soldiers scramble to remount while others use the rafts like moving ramparts as they press the enemy army off the left edge of the panel. In Assault on the Fortress of the Knights of St. John, Timur’s men have stormed across both panels, constructed a bridge across the moat, and broken into a side entrance of the fortress, which is flattened against the background, without even the minimal depth of Khiva’s towers, as if the fortress itself has retreated against the onslaught.

The fourth scene, The Destruction of the Remnant of the Kipchak Army, has a very different composition. A rocky precipice fills both panels. Two wildcats stalk their prey at the foot of the cliff, paralleling Timur’s search for the fleeing Kipchak soldiers. On the right panel, Timur’s soldiers thread their way up a narrow defile on horseback; on the left, Timur watches from above as his soldiers are lowered over the edge in baskets to flush out Kipchak soldiers hiding in caves in the cliff face.

The overall effect of all four compositions is a remorseless push across the panels toward victory. Within the larger pattern, the details of each painting show the effects of the battle on individual men. Fallen soldiers lie trampled at the edges of each panel. Empty helmets, and an occasional severed limb, litter the battlefields. One of the besieged Knights of St. John falls from the forced entrance of the fortress. A body that has been cut in two lies in the field outside Khiva, at the bottom corner of the right panel, almost unnoticed except as part of the larger pattern of line and color that weaves the details of the miniature into a harmonious whole.

Timurid rule effectively ended in 1507, when the Uzbeks took Herat, though Timurid princes continued to fight for the thrones of Central Asia. One of those princes, Zahir-ud-din Muhammed Babur, forged a new kingdom for himself in Afghanistan and went on to found the Mughal dynasty that ruled parts of India until 1857.

Sultan Husayn’s copy of the Zafarnama became a prized possession in the library of the Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan, descendants of Timur through Babur, who were all eager to claim the mantle of his success.


Originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.