Battle of Ankara

Battle of Ankara

The Battle of Ankara (then known as Angora) on July 20, 1402, matched two redoubtable commanders. Sultan Bayezid I led an Ottoman army against a force led by the Turkic Mongol leader Timur. Bayezid became sultan in 1389 after the assassination of his father Murad on the battlefield at Kosovo. Although impetuous and unpredictable as a statesman, Bayezid was a capable military commander with an excellent instinct for battle. The swift movement of his armies earned him the nickname “Yildirim” (“Lightning”).

After massacring much of the nobility of Serbia in retaliation for his father’s death, Bayezid agreed that Serbia might be an autonomous vassal state. He then turned his attention to Asia Minor, conquering territory that secured access to the Black Sea port of Sinop (Sinope) and made him master of most of Anatolia. Turning back to Europe, in 1391 he undertook the first great Ottoman siege of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). He next had to deal with a large Crusader army led by King Sigismund of Hungary, who planned to drive the Turks from Europe. On September 25, 1396, in the Battle of Nicopolis (Nikopol), Bayezid defeated the Crusaders. He was preparing the coup de grâce against Constantinople when a new threat arose to the east.

Mongol leader Timur (1336–1405), known in the West as Tamerlane (Timur the Lame) for an injury he had suffered as a youth, had built a considerable empire. He belonged to a Mongol clan in Transoxiana (present-day Uzbekistan) that had adopted Islam as its religion and Turkish as its language. He claimed descent from Genghis Khan, and was certainly the most powerful central Asian ruler to follow him. Timur joined with his brother-in-law, Emir Husayn, to secure all Transoxiana during 1364–1370. With the assassination of Husayn in 1369, Timur assumed sole rule.

During 1370–1380 Timur secured Khwarizm and Jatah (present-day Tajikistan). He invaded and conquered eastern Persia, including Khorasan, during 1383–1385 and also defeated an invasion during 1385–1386 from Russia led by his former lieutenant Toktamish. Timur took the remainder of Persia, including the territory of present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Mesopotamia, during 1386–1387. Toktamish invaded again and was again defeated in 1388 and 1389.

Timur invaded Russia in 1390 and crushed Toktamish but was forced to return to Persia to crush a revolt there in 1392. Timur then reconquered Armenia, Azerbaijan, Fars, and Iraq, and he took Mesopotamia and Georgia in 1395. After defeating yet another invasion by Toktamish in 1395, in retaliation Timur invaded and ravaged most of southern Russia and Ukraine, reaching Moscow in 1396. He next invaded India and defeated Mahmud Tughluk’s army at Panipat on December 17, 1398, taking Delhi.

There had been tensions between the Mongol and Ottoman empires for some time, but there need not have been war had Bayezid not been imprudent. Timur’s interest lay to the south in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but Bayezid’s demand for tribute from an emir loyal to Timur was taken by the Mongol ruler as a personal insult and a reason for war.

Taking the field, Timur besieged and captured Sivas and then buried thousands of its Armenian Christian defenders alive in its moats. He then turned south. Invading Syria, he took Aleppo in October 1400. After sacking it, he took Damascus. Capturing Baghdad, he massacred its population. With his army in winter quarters in 1401, he finally turned his intentions to Anatolia.

Bayezid meanwhile had failed to counter the loss of Sivas. Increasing debauchery had taken its toll, and the sultan showed none of the military characteristics of his nickname. He had let pass the opportunity posed by Timur’s campaign in Mesopotamia and had taken no steps to placate the Mongol leader. Only in the summer of 1402, when Timur again moved his army west to Sivas, did Bayezid stir. He broke off his blockade of Constantinople and marched his army southeast to the fortress of Angora, in central Anatolia.

Bayezid’s army was a hardened and disciplined force of perhaps 85,000 men. It boasted a large number of elite Janissaries as well as other infantry and cavalry and included Serbian knights. Fully a quarter of the men, however, were recently conquered Tatars of questionable loyalty. The army was also spent by its long march, and there was discontent among the men because their pay was in arrears.

As Bayezid’s generals contemplated strategy, scouts discovered that Timur’s army had circled in behind the Ottomans and was now approaching from the rear. Timur probably commanded between 140,000 and 200,000 men, principally cavalry, and also had 32 war elephants. He took Bayezid’s former base camp and made it his headquarters. He also built a reservoir and, on the day of the battle, diverted the principal water source for the area, Cubuk Creek, denying its use to the Ottoman army, which was now advancing from the east.

Battle was joined on a plain before the city of Angora. Timur’s two grandsons commanded the vanguard of the army, while his sons Mirah Shah and Shah Rukh commanded the right and left wings, respectively. Timur commanded the center.

Bayezid planned a defensive battle. His left flank consisted of his best troops, commanded by his eldest son Suleiman; the right flank was composed of Serbs and the most loyal European troops under his Serbian brother-in-law, Stephen Lazarevotch. Bayezid’s son Mehmed commanded the rear guard, while Bayezid took up position in the center with the Janissaries. In making his dispositions, Bayezid committed a major error by placing his Tatar cavalry in the front line to take the brunt of the initial Mongol attack. No sooner had the battle begun than they deserted to Timur, and cavalry from the recently subjugated emirates followed suit. This reduced the Ottoman army by a quarter and, for all practical purposes, decided the battle.

Bayezid ordered an attack by his left wing, covering it by an attack of his Anatolian cavalry. Although the horsemen fought with courage, they encountered hailstorms of arrows as well as Greek fire (a form of naphtha) and were driven back in confusion with the loss of some 15,000 men. Timur then went on the attack, easily defeating the Ottoman cavalry on the left wing. The Serbs on the right fought heroically, and Bayezid ordered his remaining Janissaries to support them. Although surrounded on a small hilltop, they held off several Mongol attacks until nightfall, with Bayezid in the thick of the fight. After dark Bayezid ordered the survivors to attempt to break free, but he was overtaken, unhorsed, and captured. Subjected to great humiliation by Timur, he is supposed to have lost his mind and died in March 1403.

The capture of Bayezid and destruction of his army (each side lost up to 40,000 men) brought considerable devastation to Asia Minor. Bayezid’s conquests in Anatolia were restored to their former lords. Civil war broke out between Bayezid’s four sons. Timur went on to capture Smyrna (Izmir), and received tribute from the sultan of Egypt and Byzantine emperor John I before returning to Samarkand in 1404. He was preparing an invasion of China (which had driven out the Mongols in 1389), when he fell ill and died in January 1405.


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