Did The Curse of Tamerlane Cause One of the Bloodiest Battles in World War II?
When Tashmuhammed Kari-Niyazov and Mikhail Gerasimov were tasked by Stalin to lead an expedition to Samarkand in Uzbekistan to open the tomb of Tamerlane, they didn’t know just how significant their work would be. To this day, it is still a widely held belief in Russia and ex-Soviet states that it was the actions of the archaeologists Kari-Niyazov and Gerasimov releasing the curse of Tamerlane that caused Hitler to break his peace treaty and attack the USSR. But what, exactly, leads people to believe this?
Who was Tamerlane and How Big was His Empire?
Tamerlane or Timur (his birth name) was born in Transoxiana in modern-day Uzbekistan. Tamerlane claimed to be a descendant of Tumanay Khan, which would mean he shared a male-line ancestor with the infamous Genghis Khan.
Tamerlane was a Muslim Turk who was left permanently disabled as a teenager after being struck by two arrows. This gave him a limp in his right leg and cost him two fingers on his right hand. This earned him the nickname Timur the Lame or Tamerlane as the Europeans called him. Tamerlane was a man of character, however, and he would not let his injuries stop him from achieving his ambitions.
Using his charisma and intelligence, Tamerlane managed to become ruler of his Turkic tribesmen. He made use of his family connections and his 10,000 horsemen to successfully invade and defeat his neighbors. To make a name for himself, he participated in Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai’s campaigns. He succeeded in making a name for himself and when Transoxiana’s ruler Amir Kazgan died in 1357, Tamerlane declared his fealty to the khan of nearby Kashgar, Tughluq Temür, who had overrun Transoxania’s chief city, Samarkand, in 1361.
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Temür made Tamerlane minister of Transoxiana but before long Tamerlane would betray him by fleeing to join his brother-in-law Amir Husayn, the grandson of Amir Kazgan. Together, they set out to conquer Transoxiana and succeeded.
But in around 1370, Tamerlane turned against Husayn, having him assassinated and declaring himself ruler of the Chagatai line of Khans and restorer of the Mongol Empire.
Tamerlane would go on to keep his word, and although his empire was not quite as big as Genghis Khan’s, it was certainly impressive. His Timurid Empire would expand from modern-day Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Afghanistan, as well as parts of Russia, India, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. He even had plans to take Ming China!
During the 35 years that Tamerlane ruled over and expanded his empire, he made a reputation for himself as an intelligent, ruthless, and extremely cruel leader.
The Amir Timur monument and mausoleum in Samarkand, Uzbekistan dedicated to the spirit and curse of Tamerlane, the Mongol emperor who died trying to take over Ming China and caused the horrors of WWII Stalingrad. Source: driendl / Adobe Stock
Tamerlane’s Ruthless Cruelty Was Horrible and Extensive
One story goes that when Tamerlane defeated the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire Bayezid I, he used him as a footstool to mount his horse and had him displayed in an iron cage during dinners while his wife was forced to serve naked. When he successfully invaded Delhi in 1398, he killed off all 10,000 of the prisoners he took in order to avoid an uprising. When the leader of Baghdad insulted him by calling him a cripple, Tamerlane ordered his troops to collect two heads each to create a skull pyramid. Failure to reach the quota resulted in the soldiers’ own head being removed. Supposedly, they were able to erect 120 skull towers containing about 90,000 heads.
In the city of Isfahan, Persia, which revolted against his rule by killing his tax collectors and a garrison he left there, his response was also ruthless. He ordered every single inhabitant of the city to be killed - men, women and children. Some stories say he had the children brought to the front of the city gates where he had them trampled to death by his cavalry as he forced the mothers to watch. Once again, their heads were severed and piled into skull towers. This time an eye-witness reported over 28 towers made up of 1,500 heads.
Despite the huge number of deaths these incidents caused, legend has it that they may not even be Tamerlane’s deadliest events. That may very well have come over 500 years after his death in the middle of World War II.
Tamerlane's extravagant mausoleum in Samarkand, Uzbekistan tells you just how important he was despite all the killing in his name. (Willard84 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Tamerlane Went For Ming China And Cursed Us With His Death
Tamerlane died from a common cold at the age of 68 in 1405 AD. He fell ill on route to a battle in Ming China but never even reached the Chinese border. After he died, his body was embalmed, laid in an ebony coffin and sent to Samarkand where it was buried in the extravagant tomb called Gūr-e Amīr.
The tomb was sealed with warnings which read “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble,” and “Whoever opens my tomb will unleash an invader more terrible than I.”
When two Soviet archaeologists arrived at the tomb, they were met with resistance from the locals who warned them of the curse. The archaeologists did not heed their warnings and opened the tomb anyway on June 20, 1941. They were met with a sweet odor that likely came from the embalming, although some believe it was the smell of the curse escaping. Tamerlane’s remains were removed and sent to Moscow for study, but not before disaster struck. Two days after the tomb was opened, Hitler broke his peace treaty with the USSR and invaded Russia.
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Stalin would eventually order Tamerlane’s remains be returned to his tomb in Samarkand with proper burial rights on December 20, 1942. Shortly after, the Battle of Stalingrad took place. The battle was one of the deadliest in human history, causing over a million deaths and casualties. It did, however, end with the defeat of the Nazi forces.
Or course, the rational response is that the occurrence of the deadliest battle in history just after the curse of Tamerlane threatening the same was invoked is a mere coincidence. But some don’t believe in coincidences.
Top image: Tamerlane's cruelty was legendary and extensive, including 120 skull towers containing about 90,000 heads near Baghdad after the sultan of the city insulted him. (Kanphichaya / Adobe Stock)
By Mark Brophy
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Britannica. 1998. Timur. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Timur
Oksanam. 2011. Facial Reconstruction, Nazis, and Siberia: The story of Mikhail Gerasimov. Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/facial-reconstruction-nazis-and-siberia-the-story-of-mikhail-gerasimov
Sofrep. 2022. Did The Ancient Curse Of Tamerlane Almost Doom The Soviet Union In WWII? Available at: https://sofrep.com/news/did-the-ancient-curse-of-tamerlane-almost-doom-the-soviet-union-in-wwii/