Heavy History

04.19.13

Is Tamerlan Tsarnaev Named After a Brutal Warlord?

As the world’s attention levels on the Tsarnaev brothers, a question is bubbling up—was the older brother named after a vicious warlord? By Eliza Shapiro

As information trickles out about the two brothers named primary suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, some in the media are starting to observe that 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed Thursday night in a chaotic shootout with police, may be named after one of history’s most ferocious conquerors.

Amir Temur, also known as Tamerlane, was a Central Asian ruler and warlord who lived in the 14th and 15th centuries. Scholars estimate that his military campaigns throughout Central Asia, Africa, Europe, and the modern Middle East killed about 17 million people, or 5 percent of the world’s population at the time.

Identifying strongly with Mongol culture, Tamerlane wanted to restore the empire of Genghis Khan and conquered the modern nations of Iran, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Syria, India, and southern regions of Russia. He was a devout Muslim who referred to himself as the “Sword of Islam,” even though he razed many of the Islamic world’s greatest cities at the time.

Although Tamerlane died six centuries ago, his legacy still carries enormous weight throughout Central Asia. The Tsarnaev brothers are Chechen, and Tamerlan, the older of the two, fled Chechnya with his family in the early 1990s to escape the bloodshed that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. He came to the United States with his family in either 2002 or 2003 under refugee status from Kyrgyzstan. 

130419-tamerlan-tsarnaev2-tease
Tamerlan Tsarnaev practices boxing at the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts Center in April 2009 in Boston. (Barcroft Media, via Landov)

“To say Tamerlane evokes mixed reaction across Central Asia would be an understatement,” Justin Marozzi, author of Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World, told the Daily Beast. “Respected as a national hero in Uzbekistan, site of his imperial capital of Samarkand, he is regarded with loathing—with good reason—by the country's neighbors, who remember, more than 600 years after his death, the numerous outrages he committed against them.”

Tamerlane’s reign in Central Asia was marked by shocking brutality.

“Tamerlane used terror as a central aspect of his military strategy,” Marozzi says, “and it worked.”

“Enemies were buried alive, cemented into walls, trampled to death by horses. The dreadful hallmark of his military campaigns, his battlefield signature ... were the huge towers built from the severed heads of his slaughtered enemies and set alight as warnings to other cities not to oppose him.”

Despite the towers of skeletons, Tamerlane described himself as a peaceful man.

“I am not a man of blood,” he said after he conquered modern-day Aleppo in Syria, “and God is my witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and that my enemies have always been the authors of their own calamity.”

Quite the namesake.