On September 8, 1404, the Castilian diplomat Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo reached the Silk Road city of Samarkand. He had travelled over five thousand miles by foot, sail, horse and camel; passed through steppe, deserts, seas and mountains.
Now he had reached his destination: the capital of a vast new empire created by a military genius, mass murderer and patron of the arts named Timur (meaning “iron” in Persian). De Clavijo’s lord, King Henry III of Castile, had dispatched him to learn more about the man who Europeans called Tamurlane. If possible, he was to forge a peace treaty with the world-conqueror, whose sack of Baghdad alone caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
Clavijo recorded his entrance to the capital in great detail, noting the stores of “silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb” carried from China, the painted elephants, vast tent pavilions with fluttering jeweled banners, and the frenzied pace of construction. He noted that work on the largest mosque in the city had been completed just before his arrival, but Timur ordered its gate to be torn down again because it lacked grandeur.