In 1525 a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane crossed the Khyber Pass with a tiny army in a desperate gamble: an attack on the powerful Sultanate of Delhi. On the dusty plain of Panipat, he would lay the foundation of India’s mightiest empire: the Mughal!
Few would-be warlords were born with a more illustrious pedigree than Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, commonly known as simply Babur (“Tiger”). Born in 1483 the eldest son of the Timurid king of Ferghana, he was descended from Turko-Mongol conqueror Timur the Lame (known to the English-speaking world as “Tamerlane“) on his father’s side. On his mother’s side, he enjoyed an even more celebrated ancestor: no less than Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire and perhaps history’s greatest conqueror.
But the empires of these two great ancestors had long-since fragmented into petty kingdoms and khanates. Babur’s prospects for future greatness seemed unlikely, his place in the world around him uncertain. As his father’s son, Babur was heir to nothing more than the mountain-girt valley of Ferghana; bordered on the east by Kashgar, and in the west by Samarkand, former capital of the Timurid Empire. The kingdom’s only significance was that it lay along the northern portion of the Silk Road. That, and the excellence of its horses. When his father, Umar Sheikh Mirza, died in 1494 (two years after Columbus discovered the Americas) the twelve-year-old Babur  inherited the throne. The boy’s right to rule was immediately challenged by powerful uncles who ruled neighboring kingdoms (most of the rulers of this region were relatives of the boy, descendants of Timur).
Despite his extreme youth, Babur held onto his throne; thanks to the skill of his maternal grandmother and the kingdom’s regent, Aisan Daulat Begum. This Mongol princess was descended from Chaghatai Khan, the second son of Genghis Khan; and possessed all the courage and political skills of those great men. Throughout his minority, she guided Babur and taught him the arts of king-craft. She also taught him of the military exploits of Genghis Khan and of Timur; his earliest lessons in the art of warfare. Ever prepared to give praise and thanks where it was due, Babur later wrote of her: “Few among women will have been my grandmother’s equal for judgement and counsel; she was very wise and farsighted and most affairs of mine were carried through under her advise.”
In 1497, the ambitious and capable young Babur decided upon nothing less than the capture of the imperial Timurid city of Samarkand. This city was at that time one of the wealthiest and most populous in the world; as well as a place of great learning. In alliance with his cousin Sultan Ali of Bukhara, Babur marched upon the city. This was a bold move for a fifteen year old warlord. The siege lasted seven months; and throughout the young Babur showed a grasp of strategy and far-sighted judgement well beyond his years. As winter came, the young king’s officers wanted to disperse back to their homes. But not wishing to lift the blockade on Samarkand, Babur instead dispersed his army into winter quarters in towns and fortresses around the city.
The haunting ruins of the once-great city of Samarkand
While dispersed about the city, a relief army approached from the north. These were fierce Uzbek Turks, nomads off the steppes north of the Aral Sea. “Untainted” by the softening influences of civilization and wealth, these Uzbeks were possessed of all the savage ferocity and hardiness that was characteristic of the first generation of Mongols who followed Genghis Khan off the steppes, to lay the world beneath their horses hoofs. This Uzbek horde was led by another descendant of Genghis Khan (through his eldest son, Jochi): their formidable Khan, Muhammad Shaybani. This Uzbek leader was the last great Mongol conqueror to come out of the central Asian steppe; and a man who would prove to be the nemesis of Babur’s early life….