The Story of Timur and the Ant

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Timur, a late-14th century Mongolian/Turkic warlord who tried to rebuild the Mongolian Empire and didn’t care how many people he had to slaughter to do it, probably seems like an odd choice as the protagonist of a children’s fable. And, well, he is. But if you’re trying to convey a lesson about the importance of perseverance, he’s not a subject. Say what you will about the mass killing and destruction and pyramids of skulls and turning his enemies’ skulls into goblets (he had a thing for skulls, I guess), but the guy was deeply committed to conquering the world and he just kept at it until he succeeded, suffering several setbacks along the way. His tenacity was so great that, although he ran roughshod over half of Asia and isn’t well-regarded outside of Uzbekistan (where he’s revered as the national father), there is in fact an old Central Asian-Iranian parable about his encounter with an ant that’s meant to show what can happen if you just keep trying.

Statue of Timur on horseback in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The face is based on the facial reconstruction done by the team that excavated his body in 1941, but an injury to his leg in his youth left Timur unable to ride a horse, so that part is phony.

The 14th century was a difficult time to be living pretty much anywhere in Asia. The Mongol khanates were all in steep decline so chaos and anarchy were on the rise and everywhere you looked there was either some Mongolian prince fighting another Mongolian prince (and usually both of them were just puppets for some powerful tribe or another), or (as in China) outright revolution. Timur was born into a Mongolian tribe in the city of Shahr-i Sabz (literally “The City of Green”), located in modern Uzbekistan, in 1336. He lived in the settled half of the Chaghatai Khanate, which had once been unified but had split into two parts largely on settled/nomadic lines, and we’re told he spent his youth committing petty crimes like cattle rustling, either for the thrill and quick cash or possibly for subsistence.

Timur’s ambition propelled him into tribal politics, and by the early 1360s he was a fairly prominent warlord and the (tenuous) head of the Barlas tribe. Going back to his freebooting days, Timur attracted to himself a band of followers who were personally loyal to him rather than bound by custom or tribal requirement, and this made him a force to be reckoned with. He set about growing his power base, which meant fighting–first with nomadic warlords from the other half of the khanate and then with his former friend, Amir Husayn. His rise to world conqueror status was by no means smooth–in this period Timur lost as much as he won, and frequently found himself on the run after suffering another setback.

It was at one of his ebbs, on the run from a battle that had gone against him, that Timur is said to have taken shelter either in some old ruins or a stand of trees and, lamenting his fate, watched an ant carrying a grain of rice that was at least twice its size up the side of a collapsed wall (or tree, depending on the version of the story). Time after time the ant, struggling with its footing and the size of its cargo, fell back down to the ground, only to get up again and start the climb all over again.

Timur could certainly empathize with this ant, having tried over and over again to take power only to be driven back each time, and, tired and hungry and with nothing better to do, he kept watching this ant and feeling sorrier and sorrier for himself. But finally, on the 20th (50th, 70th, again it depends) attempt, the little ant managed to carry its prize all the way up the wall and on its way back to the nest, and Timur found new inspiration. If an ant can persevere like this, he thought, then surely a man can do the same, let alone a Great Man as Timur was sure he was.

His spirit renewed, Timur resolved that he would never again lose hope, and eventually, around 1370 (the story with the ant is apocryphal but the rest is true), he defeated his rivals and took control of both his tribe and the khanate. By the time he died, in 1405, Timur had built his own empire from Central Asia to Iraq, had broken the the nascent Ottoman principality in Anatolia (they got better) and the rival Mongol Golden Horde on the Russian steppe (they really didn’t), and had beaten and made vassals of the Egyptian Mamluks and the rulers of Delhi/Northern India. He died shortly after starting a campaign to conquer China.

“Timur and the Ant” is basically, with the details changed the story of Robert the Bruce and the Spider. Robert had been repeatedly beaten by King Edward I of England, and one night after another defeat he watched a spider try several times to weave a web only to fail each time. Finally the spider succeeded, and Robert the Bruce was inspired to try again to establish an independent Scotland. The rest is history, and supposedly we owe it all to the spider. I would argue that Edward I’s death and the accession of his much less competent son, Edward II, was more important than the spider thing, but I digress.

Another story about Timur that I like involves his alleged encounter with a Sufi elder named Sayyid Ali Hamadani sometime around 1380, give or take (Hamadani died in 1385). Hamadani was well-known for his habit of always sitting facing the direction of Mecca. Timur, who liked Sufis as long as they didn’t threaten him, summoned Hamadani for an audience to determine whether he was harboring any political ambitions. When Hamdani arrived, he shocked Timur by breaking with his usual practice and sitting with his back toward Mecca. When Timur expressed his surprise, Hamadani supposedly explained that, in order to face Timur, one must necessarily turn his back on Mecca. Timur, who wasn’t a particularly religious guy, nevertheless didn’t like the implication of that comment that very much, but apparently let it slide.

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