What happens when two great conquerors of the ancient world and their mighty forces go head to head? A successful but unpredictable Ottoman Sultan was matched against a charismatic Mongol leader of an empire – leading to the Battle of Ankara, fought on 20 July 1402. The Ottomans were led by Bayezid I, who brought his troops against the Turkic Mongols (Timurids), led by Timur, also known as Tamerlane. Two great empires, two powerful leaders, with only one outcome…
Troubles on the Eve of Battle
After Timur had rampaged throughout Russia and the Caucasus, he struck deeply into Anatolia by sacking and destroying the city of Sivas before pushing further south. One would think that Bayezid would have countered this loss for Sivas but he did nothing. Bayezid could have attempted to placate Timur, but given his nature, would he accept it? Bayezid could have taken his large army and counter-attacked Timur’s forces as they headed south. However, none of the above happened. Instead, Bayezid waited for Timur to enter his domain before reacting.
In the summer of 1402, Timur moved his armies west to Sivas. This caused Bayezid to stir. Bayezid called off the siege against Constantinople and headed southeast to the fortress of Angora, in central Anatolia.
Timur is said to have prayed all night. When morning arrived, he ordered the drums to sound. The sound of the drums in the early morning would have had a psychological effect on the Ottomans nearby. No matter how battle hardened a soldier becomes, new unknowns bring about unease.
The army Timur had with him is said to have numbered between 140,000 and 200,000 troops. His army consisted primarily of cavalry but he had 32 war elephants at his disposal.
The troop size of Bayezid’s army consisted of 85,000 men. Bayezid’s forces were mostly infantry, including the elite Janissaries, with archers and cavalry (including Serbian knights). However, a quarter of his men were Tatars who were recently conquered, and thus their loyalty was in question.
Tatar soldiers at the vanguard of a battle (1620) (Public Domain)
Matters only got worse for Bayezid as discontent spread throughout the Ottoman ranks. For starters, they were tired after the long march and their pay was overdue. Compounding that, Bayezid’s scouts reported back to Bayezid that Timur had circled in behind the Ottomans and was now approaching from the rear. Yet more problems arose when Bayezid’s men needed access to water. Timur had 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.
The Day of Battle
The terrain of the battlefield consisted of a large plain cornered by mountains on two sides. This is perfect for cavalry attacks. Moreover, it allows both armies to maneuver with fluidity.
The Prince Shah Rukh and Khalil Sultan led Timur’s left wing. Miran Shah led the right wing, with Amir Sheikh Nur ad-Din as his lieutenant general. The main body consisted of the greatest lords of Asia and Timur’s son, Prince Muhammad Sultan led them. Timur led the reserves that consisted of forty companies. In front of Timur’s army was the war elephants armed with towers on their backs with archers and throwers of flame.
Manuscript showing war elephants with archers and soldiers on their backs. The Battle of Avarayr, Sharaknots, 1482 (Public Domain)
Sultan Bayezid arranged his troops in battle order with Pesir, a European Serbian, leading the right wing. The left wing was under the command of Suleiman Chelebi, son of Bayezid. Bayezid led the main body. Muhammad Chelebi commanded the Ottoman reserves.
After Timur had met with his military counsel, he mounted his horse and gave the order to attack. Around 10 a.m. on the morning of 28 July 1402, Miran, commander of the right wing, began the battle by discharging a volley of arrows on the Ottoman left wing.
The Surprising Turns of Battle
It was during the initial stages of the battle that Bayezid made his first error. He placed his newly conquered Tatar cavalry on the front line to take the brunt of the initial attack. Once the battle commenced, they deserted to Timur, and cavalry from the recently subjugated emirates followed suit. This changing of sides reduced the Ottoman army by a quarter and, for all practical purposes, decided the battle.
Battle of Ankara. Mughal painting. (Public Domain)
Bayezid ordered his left wing to attack, covering it by an attack of his Anatolian cavalry. However, it was all for nothing; even though the cavalry fought bravely, they encountered hailstorms of arrows as well as Greek fire (a form of naphtha) and were driven back in confusion, losing some 15,000 men.
Timur then pressed on the attack by pushing at the Ottoman left wing and defeating the cavalry. While the Ottoman cavalry were in disarray, the Serbian kings on the right wing fought heroically.
Timur’s attack was well executed— just as Bayezid’s defenses were well planned. The only difference is that Bayezid lost a substantial amount of his forces due to placing newly conquered men on the front line to take the brunt of the attack. This was a big mistake. The Tartar’s fleeing from the Ottomans to join Timur did not help the psyche of the Ottoman troops. Because of this, the morale of Timur’s troops greatly increased, and so did their numbers. According to what the primary sources suggest, Timur commenced the attack by sending in one wing before sending in the next wing, and in doing so he was able to perform a “pincer movement or double envelopment.”
While Timur’s left and right wings placed tremendous pressure on the Ottoman wings, this opened up the center. The Ottoman center would be at times required to provide aid to the wings in trouble. In doing so, the center deteriorated substantially. Seeing this, Timur committed the remainder of his forces to attacking the center. By placing pressure on the center, it took pressure off his left and right cavalry wings. Moreover, it allowed his central forces to split once they had pushed aside the Ottoman forces, allowing them to converge on the rear of the left and right wings. In doing so, not only did they perform a well-executed pincer movement in the initial stages, they were able to perform with perfection two more to neutralize the Ottoman wings to achieve total victory.
Map by SAİT71 (CC BY-SA 4.0) giving a glimpse into the positions and commanders at the Battle of Ankara (Battle of Angora). Timur performed a pincer movement, flanking the enemy and finally overwhelming them.
Seeing his Serbian cavalry fighting with great fervor yet beginning to succumb to the overwhelming numbers, he sent the remaining Janissaries to support them. The Ottoman forces eventually fled to a small hilltop and continued the fight. The battle raged well into the evening as they beat back several Mongol attacks until nightfall, with Bayezid in the thick of the fight. Late into the night, Bayezid looked to the remainder of his forces and together they attempted to break free, but he was overtaken, unhorsed, and captured.
Bayezid I held captive by Timur (Public Domain)
Once the dust cleared and most of the moans from men and beasts subsided, the Ottomans were seen to have lost between 40,000 and 50,000 troops while the Turko-Mongols had lost 40,000. Besides the great cost of life and supplies lost on the field of battle, came more issues. The Ottoman defeat at Ankara pushed the Ottoman state into a crisis from which the Empire fractured and nearly collapsed when Bayezid’s sons fought for the throne. This Ottoman civil war lasted for 11 years (1402 – 1413). Furthermore, the capture of Bayezid was a first in Ottoman history.
So, what happened to Bayezid?
Some say he was captured and placed in a birdcage. This is false. Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II, r. 1458-64), Asiae Europaeque elegantissima descriptio, written between 1450-1460 and published in Paris in 1509. According to Marcus Milwright and Evanthia Baboula, they state:
“This piece (Asiae Europaeque elegantissima description) brought together the key elements that were to remain fundamental to the European narrative for some two centuries: first, the sultan (often known in European writings as Bajazet) was placed in an iron cage; second, he was forced, like a dog, to eat scraps from under the table of Temur; and, third, Bayezid was employed as the ‘Scythian’ ruler’s mounting block when the latter got onto his horse.”
“Timur the Great’s imprisonment of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid”: The Sultan tied by his waist with a golden rope to Timur’s table, top, and the Sultan bound and on all fours, being used as a mounting-block by Timur, and similarly bound in his gilded cage, bottom. (Public Domain)
The truth of the matter is that Timur treated Bayezid with great respect according to Timur’s court historians. Timur is even said to have mourned the death of Bayezid that occurred on 8 March 1403; He was either 48 or 49.
As for Timur, news of his victory spread far throughout Europe. When the Genoese heard of the victory, they raised flags of Timur at Pera over the city. Interestingly enough, there were plans for a European fleet to help in the fight against the Ottomans. Furthermore, the battle and victory brought relief to the city of Constantinople. However, 51 years later the city would fall to the same besiegers.
Three days after Bayezid had been captured; Timur’s son Miran Shah sent many letters to the monarchs of Europe, offering trade and friendship.
A miniature of Miran Shah (Public Domain)
Surprisingly (and yet not so surprisingly), Charles VI of France and Henry IV of England responded with great joy to Timur. Another interesting aspect is that British playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine in 1587, which portrays Timur humiliating Bayezid and burning the Quran. Timur was made into what a model king should be throughout Europe However, all this would end by the eighteenth century when the anti-Timur literature and works began to change his image.
Timur (Tamerlane, Tamburlaine). (Wellcome Image/CC BY 4.0)
As for the man himself, Timur would not live much longer. As he was leading his massive army to conquer Ming China, he grew ill and died on 19 February 1405 (aged 68) at Otrar, Farab, near Shymkent, Syr Darya (now in Kazakhstan). With Timur’s death, his empire did not last much longer as it fractured and finally collapsed by 1507. However, his future seed would carry on his legacy with the establishment of the Mughal Empire founded by Babur. The Timurid Empire did not last, and the Ottoman Empire nearly fell apart. However, once the Ottoman civil war was over, Bayezid’s conquests in Anatolia that had been lost to Timur were brought back under the Ottoman fold.
As for the campaign leading up to battle itself, it displayed how strong and unrelenting Timur’s forces were as he marched from one end of his empire to another to defend and go on the offensive to reclaim rebellious lands, or push far north into the lands of the Golden Horde. His ability to defend and expand his lands was tremendous. The battle itself pitted two great leaders but Timur was the smarter of the two. He was able to take advantage of the Ottoman forces by diverting a river and making good use of the defecting Tartar army that came to his side at the initial stages of the battle.
Overall, the Battle of Ankara in 1402 brought an empire to its knees, temporarily freed an ancient empire now reduced to the size of a city after many centuries of defeat, and Europe praised a man who in many ways was no different from the Ottoman Turks they faced. However, the Ottomans would recover and pick up right where they left off in conquering portions of southeast Europe, and the Timurid Empire would fade away only to reestablish themselves further to the east in India.
Top Image: Sultan Bayezid is defeated by Timur at Ankara (Public Domain)
By Cam Rea
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