Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World

When I read a biography of someone who lived recently, I’m extremely greedy: I want to know everything, from bare facts to gossip. I want to come away from the book feeling like I’ve actually known the subject, to feel like I know the choices he’d make in a given situation, what kind of people and things would amuse or infuriate him, the sorts of things he’d say at a dinner party.

It’s asking a lot—essentially, I want a biography of a fairly recent figure to have the perceptiveness and breadth of a novel. But talented biographers are able, to my surprise every time, to pull it off. Michael Barber’s biography of Anthony Powell succeeds (though one could argue that Powell, despite his reticence, had laid bare the most interesting aspects of his personality), as does Celeste Alberet’s memoir of Proust and Nancy Milford’s biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Peter Conradi’s book on Iris Murdoch, on the other hand, doesn’t ever quite penetrate her layers of privacy, while Peter Guralnick’s life of Sam Cooke runs up against Cooke’s own seeming uncertainty about who he wanted to be.

But when a biography subject lived further back in history, my standards shift a little. I have little hope of finishing such a biography with a sense that I really know the subject. Too much time has passed, the sources are fewer, the ways of thinking and being have changed so much that, barring Pepys-level self-disclosure, we can’t legitimately hope for a probing psychological portrait. So my requirements for such a biography are necessarily different: in those cases, I’m looking to learn in detail the course of the life and get a sense of what the surrounding world was like. And I want to hear from original sources; I want to be surprised—as I perpetually am—by the amount of first-hand information that does remains available about people who lived hundreds of years ago.

All this is leading up to praise for Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane (2004), which meets all those criteria and is a fascinating, readable introduction to Tamerlane, whom most Western readers only know from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. Marlowe seems simultaneously attracted and repelled by Tamerlane,
That treadeth fortune underneath his feet,
And makes the mighty god of arms his slave,
for while he emphasizes the conqueror’s viciousness (the towers of skulls he left in destroyed cities, the merciless slaughter of women and children in cities that defied him), he also presents a Tamerlane who is supremely self-confident, the only character in the play who knows his destiny and lets nothing stop him from achieving it. In other words, he’s a fairly typical Marlovian semi-hero, the one person on stage you can’t take your eyes off of.

As for the real Tamerlane? Well, though Marlowe exaggerated, he wasn’t totally off the mark. Tamerlane spent more or less his whole life on campaign, winning and holding an empire that, by his death, stretched from Delhi to Cairo. He was by all accounts a brilliant tactician, and having created a fighting force that was the equal of any in the world he understood that he must keep it fighting—that inactivity was the source of boredom, intrigue, and insurrection—so Tamerlane continued fighting until he died of old age while attempting to expand his territory into China.

In victory he was as vicious as Marlowe paints him. Marozzi relates a contemporary account of his conduct after defeating the town of Zaranj in Afghanistan:
Temur granted [peace] on the condition that they surrender all their weapons. “And as soon as they had given this guarantee, he drew sword against them and billeted upon them all the armies of death. Then he laid the city waste, leaving in it not a tree or a wall and destroyed it utterly, no mark or trace of it remaining.”
He followed that by destroying the city’s irrigation canals, turning a thriving agricultural community into a desert that persists to this day.

But if Tamerlane favored a city, it truly flowered, and cities throughout his empire became cosmopolitan centers of trade and intellectual exchange at a time when Europe was deep in the dark ages. Tamerlane’s cities were known especially for their stunning architecture, some of which stands, dazzling, to this day. He continued his ancestor Genghis Khan’s tradition of relative religious tolerance at a time when such a position was rare. In present-day Uzbekistan (our authoritarian, human-rights-abusing ally in Bush's warmongering) where Tamerlane’s capital, Samarkand, was located, he is honored as the founding father, and has been since Uzbekistani independence rendered moot the Soviet prohibition on speaking well of him.

In other words, he was a complex figure, and one of the strengths of Marozzi’s book is that he doesn’t shy away from presenting Tamerlane’s many facets in all their respective horror or glory. He draws from sycophantic court histories and from justifiably hostile accounts written by the conquered, and he adds an unexpected perspective through accounts of his own travels in the region, which allow us to see up close how Tamerlane’s legacy continues in a part of the world Americans rarely find reason to think about. That exploration of Tamerlane’s empire as it now stands in some ways brings us as close as we can get to the essence of Tamerlane himself. Like Homer’s heroes, he knew that posterity would sit in judgment of him; I think he’d be satisfied with his place in his home state of Uzbekistan, if somewhat disappointed with his reputation elsewhere.

We may not be able to know Tamerlane, but through Marozzi we learn tremendous amount about his life and his world, and there’s not much more you can ask for from a biography that reaches so far into the past.

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