Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran, 1370-c. 1500

The Timurids and the Turkmen

The Timurids’ ancestor, Timur (Tamerlane), belonged to a branch of the Turkic-Mongol Chagatay clan, which had settled in Central Asia. He had married a Mongol princess whose family was supposed to have been descended from Genghis Khan. Like the Mongols, Timur amassed an enormous realm within a short span of time. From his capital of Samarkand, he conquered Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan in 1370 and carried out victorious campaigns against the Mamluks in Syria and the Ottomans in Anatolia. In the southeast, he and his troops penetrated far into India, where they plundered Delhi, and only his death in 1405 put an end to a campaign in China. Timur’s empire was divided up among his many relatives, as the Turkic and Mongol tradition for inheritance prescribed. As a result of this fragmentation and pressure from Turkmen tribes, the Timurid Empire was soon reduced to Central Asia and the eastern part of Iran.

Various nomad Turkmen groups were among the many Central Asiatic peoples that were forced westward before the Mongol advance in the first half of the 13th century. At the beginning of the 15th century, some of them were able to occupy the Timurids’ lands in the west. The Aq Qoyunlu (white sheep) Turkmen became the region’s leading power for a short time under the great commander Uzun Hasan, whose dream of an empire was stopped by the Ottomans in Anatolia in 1473. After his death, the realm quickly disintegrated because of dissent among his successors and pressure from the Ottomans and Iran’s new power, the Safavids.

Under the Timurids, Samarkand and Herat played an important role for long periods as both capitals and art centers. The Timurids were great patrons. They commissioned enormous building projects and founded workshops that employed captive artists and craftsmen. The diversity of their background is reflected in their artistic output, but the influence of Far Eastern culture is especially characteristic. Often very colorful Timurid art features Chinese mythical beasts and flowers, and the forms of ceramics were also inspired by Chinese porcelain. Numerous Timurid princes were themselves calligraphers and great bibliophiles. They founded workshops to make costly manuscripts, and Timurid miniature painting from Herat in the 15th century is considered one of the culminations of Persian painting.

Timurid art had a decisive influence on Ottoman and Safavid art, both through booty taken in war and through the artists who were captured and worked for the new rulers.