The Battle of Ankara – Part 1


Battle of Ankara.jpg

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…

Thunder and Lightning

On 15 June 1389, the Ottoman Sultan Murad I was assassinated on the battlefield at Kosovo. His son, Bayezid, also known by his nickname Yıldırım “The Thunderbolt,” was crowned the new Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. It is true that he could impulsively and unpredictable as a statesman. What often gets overlooked is that he was a capable military commander. Bayezid was a natural born leader. However, his leadership was best on the field of battle. This is how he got the nickname “Thunderbolt”; due to his swift maneuvering and attacking in battle.

Portrait of Bayezid I.

Portrait of Bayezid I. (Public Domain)

Bayezid’s lightning-strike military campaigns began with the conquests of the beyliks (beylik was territory under the jurisdiction of a Bey; Bey is Turkish for chieftain) Aydin, Saruhan, Menteşe, and Sivas. The new Sultan continued his rampage throughout Anatolia (modern Turkey) during the fall and winter of 1390, as he confiscated Hamid, Teke, and Germiyan—as well as taking the cities of Akşehir and Niğde, and their capital Konya from the Karaman.

In 1391, the Karaman sued for peace and Bayezid accepted. Soon after, Bayezid moved north against Kastamonu and conquered both that city as well as Sinop.

Riding and Conquering, the Unstoppable Force

With much of Anatolia under Ottoman control, Bayezid turned his attention towards Southeast Europe. First on the list was Bulgaria. Having conquered them, he turned his forces on northern Greece and gobbled up their territory as well. It seemed as though nothing could stop him.

In 1394, Bayezid crossed the Danube River to attack Wallachia. However, the Wallachians proved troublesome against the much larger Ottoman army and were able to defeat them superior in number, but on 17 May 1395, they were defeated at the battle of Rovine, which prevented Bayezid’s army from advancing beyond the Danube.

Battle of Rovine, 1395 (Public Domain)

While Bayezid was confiscating the lands in Southeast Europe, he laid siege to Constantinople in 1394, capitalizing on the city’s political instability. As Bayezid laid siege, the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus sent messengers, as well did King Sigismund of Hungary, to Venice and Paris to lobby for a new crusade that would dislodge the Ottoman Turks from Southeast Europe.  The new Crusade was agreed to and many western European nations responded by sending troops. The king of Hungary (future Holy Roman Emperor) led this large crusading army. Both armies met and fought in what is known as the Battle of Nicopolis, 25 September 1396. The result was a decisive Ottoman victory.

The Battle of Nicopolis, as depicted by Turkish miniaturist in 1588. (Public Domain)

The Battle of Nicopolis, as depicted by Turkish miniaturist in 1588. (Public Domain)

While Constantinople remained under siege, Bayezid decided to push east and conquer new lands. From 1397-1398, Bayezid confiscated new territory throughout Anatolia, including the Djanik emirate and Kadi Burhan al-Din. This would prove to be a big mistake, for taking these lands violated a treaty he had with Timur (Tamerlane). The reason why Bayezid would violate such a treaty was due to his belief that the Ottomans were the heirs of the former Seljuk state in Anatolia. Understand that the violation was more than just territorial interest—Kadi Burhan al-Din represented the Ilkhanid inheritors of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan.

Timur, Powerful Conqueror and Ruler of an Empire

Timur facial reconstruction from skull by M.Gerasimov. 1941 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Timur facial reconstruction from skull by M.Gerasimov. 1941 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Timur, historically known as Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), was a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. Timur was born in Transoxania and was a member of Barlas tribe. He rose to power among the Ulus Chaghatay—a nomadic tribal confederation that formed the central region of Mongolian Chaghadaid khanate.

Timur’s story is similar to Genghis Khan’s. How true those stories are is up for debate. Timur rose through the ranks by gaining the respect of local chieftains due to his personal valor in combat and his brigandage. His actions, whether raiding or in combat, caused many to flock to him. It was also during a battle that arrows struck his right arm and leg that left him partially paralyzed. Because of this, Europeans referred to him as “Tamerlane.”

Portrait of Timur. 15th century

Portrait of Timur. 15th century (Public Domain)

Timur, not being related to Genghis Khan, could not bear the title Khan. Since he could not use the title, he decided to use politics to his advantage. While in the city of Balkh, (now northern Afghanistan), Timur quickly gained allies from among the merchants, peoples, and clergy due to sharing his loot with the locals, while the ruler, Husayn, who also happened to be Timur’s brother-in-law, was not viewed in with such praise. It may be that Husayn was a fine ruler; it is just that Timur had the capital to profit from his ambition.

Timur challenged and defeated Husayn in 1370 and took his other wife, Saray Mulk Khanum, who was a direct descendent of Genghis Khan. This allowed him to become the indirect imperial ruler of the Chaghatay tribe. However, Timur used the title of amir meaning general, instead. In order to legitimize his claim, Timur married the Genghisid princesses Saray Mulk Khanum and took the title Kuregen (Mongolian; “son-in-law”). Afterwards, he appointed a puppet of Genghisid line by the name of Suyurghatmish, as the ruler of Balkh while he pretended to act as a “protector of the member of a Chinggisid line, that of Genghis Khan’s eldest son, Jochi.”

To strengthen his position further, he collected a number of princes from the various branches of the Genghisid branches.

Timur also used Islam to legitimize his position by praising and patronizing the Sufi sheikhs and ulama. He built religious monuments to both please the religious faith and at the same time show that he was favored by the supernatural due to his connection to Genghis Khan. Timur understood the power of charisma as well as using the fear of the divine to solidify his position.

Timur feasts in the gardens of Samarkand. (Public Domain)

Timur feasts in the gardens of Samarkand. (Public Domain)

Timur on the Move

By 1381, Timur ruled over much of eastern Persia. However, he wanted more and campaigned against Kartid dynasty and when the capital of Herat refused to surrender he massacred the citizens and leveled the city. It was during this campaign that Timur sent his general to capture the rebellious Kandahar. 1385–1386 from Russia led by Khan Toktamish who was once his friend and ally. By 1389, much of Persia was under his control. He decided to head westward and conquered Persian Kurdistan. While this was going on, Timur invaded Russia in 1390 and crushed Toktamish but a revolt broke out in Persia that he crushed in 1392.

Timur besieges the historic city of Urganj. (Public Domain)

Land Grabs and Retaliations

Timur then went on to reconquer Armenia, (where it is said he took thousands of Christians from Sivas and buried them alive in moats), Azerbaijan, Fars, and he took Georgia in 1395. Toktamish in 1395 decided to invade once again but was defeated. In retaliation, Timur invaded and ravaged most of southern Russia and Ukraine, reaching Moscow in 1396.

Tode Mongke Khan and the Golden Horde (Public Domain)

Tode Mongke Khan and the Golden Horde (Public Domain)

As the war with the Golden Horde was ending, Timur prepared for another military campaign to the east. The aim of this campaign was to bring northern India under the Timurid fold, which he did with the sack and massacre of Delhi in 1398. With northern India now under his control, Timur turned westward to deal with his new enemy, the Ottomans. Before Timur entered Ottoman lands, he made stops at Aleppo and Damascus and sacked them both. After sacking and massacring 20,000 citizens of Baghdad, Timur let his troops rest for the winter before marching into Anatolia in 1401.

After the Usual Compliments…PERISH IN THE SEA OF PUNISHMENT

A missive from Timur “To the Emperor of Rum, Bayezid the Thunder”:

“After the usual compliments, we let you know, that by the infinite grace of God, the greatest part of Asia is in subjection to our officers, which we conquered by our strength, and the terror of our arms.

Know likewise that the most powerful sultans of the earth are obedient to our commands; that we govern our dominions by ourselves, and have even constrained fortune to take care of our empire; that our armies are extended from one sea to the other, and our guard consists of sovereign kings, who form a hedge before our gate.

Where is the monarch who dares resist us? Where is the potentate who does not glory in being of the number of our courtiers? But for thee, whose true origin terminates in a Turkoman sailor, as everyone knows, it would be well, since the ship of thy unfathomable ambition has suffered shipwreck in the abyss of self-love, if thou wouldst lower the sails of thy rashness, and cast the anchor of repentance in the port of sincerity, which is the port of safety; lest by the tempest of our vengeance you should perish in the sea of the punishment which you merit.

But as we have learned, that in obedience to the precept of the Koran, which orders us to wage war with the enemies of the Mussulman laws, you have undertaken a vigorous war with the Europeans; this consideration hath hindered us from making any insults in the lands which are subject to you: and the reflection that your country is the bulwark of the Mussulmans, hath obliged us to leave it in a flourishing condition; for fear the passage of our armies into it should raise a division among the inhabitants, and cause the Mussulmans to be disquieted, and the infidels rejoice.

Then take care of yourself, and endeavor by your good conduct to preserve the dominions of your ancestors, not suffering for the future your ambitions foot to wander out of the limits of your power, which is but small…. You may remember the precept of Muhammad, to let the Turks remain in peace, while they are quiet: don’t seek to wage war with us; which no one ever dared to do, and prospered….

Though you have been in some considerable battles in the woods of Anatolia, and have gained advantages upon the Europeans; it was only through the prayers of the prophet and the blessings of the Muhammadan religion of which you make professions: don’t be proud at these advantages, nor attribute them to your own valor. Believe me, you are but a pismire: don’t seek to fight against the elephants; for they’ll crush you under their feet…. If you don’t follow our counsels, you will repent it.

These are the advices we have to give you: do behave yourself as you think fit.”

Bayezid’s Reply to Timur:

“It is a long time,… since we have been desirous of carrying on a war with you. God be thanked, our desire has had its effects, and we have taken up a resolution to march against you at the head of a formidable army. If you don’t advance against us, we will come to seek you; and pursue you as far as Tauris and Sultaniah.”

Top Image: Battle of Ankara (Mughal painting) public domain 

By Cam Rea


Alexander Mikaberidze, Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1

Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire

Dennis M. Rose, The Campaigns of Tamerlane

Hamad Subani, The Secret History of Iran

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Marcus Milwright and Evanthia Baboula, Bayezid’s Cage: A Re-examination of a venerable academic controversy, [Online] Available at:

Sharaf al-Dīn ‘Alī Yazd, The History of Timur-Bec: Known by the Name of Tamerlain the Great,

Spencer Tucker, Battles That Changed History: An Encyclopedia of World Conflict

Timothy E. Gregory, A History of Byzantium

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