On June 20, 1941, the infamous tomb of the 14th-century Persian conqueror, Tamerlane, was opened, and the sharp odor of resin, camphor, rose, and frankincense filled the air. The tombstone had been carefully protected for hundreds of years, and fierce warnings against disturbing the warlord were clearly inscribed. But despite the protests of the locals who feared repercussions, the Russian excavators, with the blessing of Joseph Stalin, were determined to uncover the ancient history buried within. In doing so, many people say the Russians also uncovered one nasty curse that may have directly caused the invasion of their country soon thereafter, eventually leading to one of the bloodiest battles in all of World War II. But it is possible for two such disparate historical events to be related? Perhaps if you knew exactly who they were uncovering, it wouldn’t be so hard to imagine.
The ancient Persian territory of Timur in the 14th century was the center of the Timurid Empire, an area which included modern-day Iran, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, and much of Central Asia. The Timurids were of Mongol origin but had fully embraced Persian culture through tradition and the acceptance of Islamic life.
The people’s lives reflected both their Mongol origins and the artistic, literary, and highly cultured Persian ways, creating a unique and refined lifestyle. The cities were filled with elegant architecture and were home to a fierce army run by the mighty warlord Tamerlane, also known as Timur, the Turkic word for “iron.”
Tamerlane enjoyed his role as warrior and king and was quite pleased with the vast spoils his conquests provided. After his massacre of India and Hindustan, he brought home riches beyond his wildest dreams—trays of gold, carved ivory, and mountains of gemstones such as rubies, pearls, emeralds, turquoise, topaz, cat’s eye, and diamonds of incredible size and value. Tamerlane’s fabled city of Samarkand thrived with literature, art, and poetry while the merchants filled the bazaars with luxurious treasure from afar. The citizens of Timur lived very sophisticated and comfortable lives, making the Persian empire among one of the most civilized places in the world.
Despite the sophisticated nature of Timur, Tamerlane himself was a terrifying figure who struck fear into the hearts of many during his lifetime. Although a great patron of the arts, literature, and architecture, he was remembered as an uncommonly vicious conqueror who razed ancient cities to the ground and put entire populations under his sword. He began his career as a despot after successfully establishing the region of Transoxania (now known as Uzbekistan) through various political betrayals and military campaigns. In allegiance with other rulers in the area, he spent the next ten years fighting to gain territory, supporting the Khan empire in a fight against the Russians and defeating many large, imposing armies. But this was only the beginning of his efforts to lay waste to whatever (or whomever) opposed him. In 1383, Tamerlane began his own series of Persian conquests, challenging several rival dynasties in an effort to preserve his empire and expand his territory.
After securing the majority of eastern Persia and defeating a major Mongol king, Tamerlane and his army occupied Moscow for a year. During his time of absence from Persia, however, major revolts broke out to regain dominance over the region, all of which were ruthlessly repressed by Tamerlane’s military who would happily destroy entire cities if necessary, massacre entire populations, and build towers with their skulls. A clear message, indeed.
Knowing his home territory was being well manhandled by his military forces, Tamerlane was free to move on to his next goal of teaching India a lesson. He felt the sultans were far too tolerant of their Hindu subjects, a religious irritation that must be rectified. He crossed the Indus River in 1398, and leaving a trail of carnage, marched his army into Delhi where he reduced the beautiful ancient city to a mass of ruins from which it took more than a century to emerge. As a result of this conquest, he left the territory with an immense quantity of spoil, using 90 captured elephants to carry treasure and stones from quarries to erect a mosque in his homeland.
Just one year later, Tamerlane again became restless and organized a new military expedition to punish the sultan of Egypt for trying to infringe on his territory. And so, marching on Syria, he stormed and sacked the city of Aleppo, leaving heavy destruction in his path. In 1401, he not only occupied the great city of Damascus but proceeded to deport all the local artisans and riches to his home in Samarkand—an act that would deliver a tremendous blow its prosperity. Tamerlane, never weary, moved on to storm Baghdad that same year and massacred 20,000 of its citizens, destroying all of its buildings and significant monuments in the process. Still, this was not enough bloodshed and conquest for the driven titan, and he soon moved on to China, an ambitious campaign that would be his last.
Setting out in the dead of a freezing cold winter, Tamerlane and his army of 200,000 soldiers traversed through deep snow and frozen rivers, eventually stopping in what is now Kazakhstan for a reprieve. And then the great conqueror often referred to as “the Scourge of God” caught a cold. As Tamerlane’s conditioned worsened, his doctors tried desperately to cure him, even packing him in snow to reduce his fever, all of which failed. As the icy winds howled around the outside of his tent, surrounded by his women and senior commanders, Tamerlane met his end. The Chinese expedition was immediately abandoned, and his body was taken home to Samarkand where it was interred beneath the dome of the Gur Amir mausoleum in a steel coffin under a slab of black jade six feet long, then the largest piece of stone in the world. On the mighty rock was inscribed, “This is the resting place of the illustrious and merciful monarch, the most great sultan, the most mighty warrior, Lord Timur, Conqueror of the World.”
The name Gur Amir is Persian for “Tomb of the King” and is an architectural marvel with an azure dome containing the ancient bodies of Tamerlane, his two sons, his grandsons, and his beloved teacher. The only original part of the 14th-century complex built during Tamerlane’s reign that remains is the foundation, entrance portal, and one of the four minarets. The rest has been constructed around the existing foundation of the tomb and stands in honor of those buried there.
Jump forward some 550 years later to 1941—the bazaars and streets of Samarkand were buzzing with the news of how a Russian expedition was going to open the tomb of Tamerlane and bring the curse down on their heads. Locals and Muslim clergy tried desperately to stop the excavation, but despite their best efforts, the work continued as planned. The Russian archeologists aimed to locate and examine the human remains in the tombs, no matter what. Who’s afraid of a silly curse?
After finding the remains of both his sons and grandsons, they finally came upon the heavy tombstone of Tamerlane himself which read, “When I Rise From The Dead, The World Shall Tremble.” Despite the ominous inscription, Stalin had ordered the opening of the tomb, and there was no going back now. Once inside the coffin itself, there was yet another foreboding message, “Whosoever Disturbs My Tomb Will Unleash an Invader More Terrible Than I.” Unafraid, the Russians continued their work removing Tamerlane’s remains and beginning their invasive studies.
Several elderly locals warned the explorers the curse would take effect within three days from the moment the tomb was invaded, bringing a wrath down on the land of those who dared disobey Tamerlane. Again, the warnings were ignored, and Tamerlane’s embalmed remains were wrapped up and sent to Moscow for further research. And exactly three days later, as foretold, Adolf Hitler gave the command for the Nazis to invade the Soviet Union.
Joseph Stalin was not feeling particularly strong upon hearing the news of the invading Nazis, as the curse of Tamerlane worried his mind. Could it be real? The timing suggested a connection, but it seemed impossible. Turning a deaf ear on these fears for about five months, Stalin continued to watch Hitler massacre Europe and wage a war that eventually killed around 45 million people. Of course, Tamerlane himself had never killed that many during his reign and would certainly have deferred to Hitler as being “an invader more terrible than I.” Stalin decided to err on the safe side and returned Tamerlane to his tomb in Samarkand with full Islamic burial rights. And the locals let out a communal sigh of relief.
Shortly after Tamerlane’s remains were returned to his tomb, Nazi forces came head to head with the Russians in the famous Battle of Stalingrad, well documented as one of the bloodiest of WWII. The fighting occurred in close quarters with substantial air raids, making combat difficult and casualties high. The Nazis were hellbent on controlling the city of Stalingrad in their push to gain the strategic geographical position; it could possibly win them the war. After another two months of heavy fighting, the Soviets were eventually able to cut off reinforcements for a key section of the Nazi army, exhausting their food and ammunition and essentially winning the battle. The Russians had beaten the Nazis! Could Tamerlane be the source of the unfathomable victory?
Even though most people would agree curses aren’t real, the story of Tamerlane could intrigue even the biggest skeptic. He was a man of little sympathy, who spent his time on Earth pushing for more power, wealth, and destruction. Perhaps he would have been proud to see the Nazis, who were even more vicious than he, strike down the Russians who disobeyed his final orders. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that the momentum of WWII was directly correlated to the dates of his exhumation and subsequent reburial. The Soviet’s victory of Stalingrad was impossible, and yet, they managed to prevail despite the immense obstacles. No one knows the answer, but one thing remains true—Tamerlane has been returned to his grave where no one dares disturb him again.
And the rest is history.