The Battle of Ankara – Part II


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…

Bust of Timur [left] (CC BY-SA 3.0), and a portrait of Bayezid I [right]. (Public Domain)

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.

[Read Part I here]

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.

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.

Strange Bedfellows

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


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

J.B. Bury; edited by H.M. Gwatkin, The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol IV

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

Cyrus the Great’s Last Campaign: Who Killed Cyrus? – Part II

According to the popular Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus went on his last campaign to subdue the Massagetae, a tribe located in the southernmost portion of the steppe regions of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan around 530 BCE, where he would die in battle. But did he?

The reason to question the narrative surrounding Cyrus’ death is that there are conflicting reports. Therefore, it is crucial to examine the sources of Herodotus, Ctesias, Xenophon, and Berossus to find if Cyrus really died in battle against the Massagetae.

[Read Cyrus the Great: Conquests and Death! – Part I]

Herodotus’ Account

Ten years after subduing the Babylonians in 539 BCE, Cyrus turned his attention towards the northeastern part of the empire to bring “the Massagetae under his dominion. Now the Massagetae are said to be a great and warlike nation, dwelling eastward, toward the rising of the sun, beyond the river Araxes, and opposite the Issedonians. By many they are regarded as a Scythian race.” The Araxes Herodotus mentions is not the Araxes River that runs along the countries of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran in the Caucasus, but instead the Jaxartes, which is northeast of the Oxus River, east of the Aral Sea.

Sunset over Sir-Darya river, Kazakhstan. In Ancient Greek river is called Yaxartes (Jaxartes)

Sunset over Sir-Darya river, Kazakhstan. In Ancient Greek river is called Yaxartes (Jaxartes) (Petar Milošević /CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sometime after Cyrus had subdued the Babylonians, he decided to secure his northern borders, probably due to Saka raids into the Chorasmia satrapy by building a series of forts. One such fort was called Cyropolis, and established on the Jaxartes River .

However, the raids did not stop, and why would they? Even with a series of forts built, the nomadic element would still find a way to penetrate the border undetected. Cyrus, seeing that had two options to consider, took the diplomatic approach first by sending ambassadors to Queen Tomyris, Massagetean ruler “with instructions to court her on his part, pretending that he wished to take her to wife.”

Tomyris as imagined by Castagno, 15th century.

Tomyris as imagined by Castagno, 15th century. (Public Domain)

As the Persian ambassadors crossed into Massagetae territory and approached Tomyris’ residence, she must have sent envoys of her own out to ask the Persian ambassadors as to why they had come. This was probably to check the men for weapons and question the reason for being there. After telling the Massagetae officials of their mission, it was relayed back to Tomyris. Tomyris, considering what they said, realized that it was “her kingdom, and not herself, that he courted.” Instead of hearing it from the Persian envoys, she “forbade the men to approach.” When the Persian envoys returned and informed Cyrus of her answer, he mustered his forces.

Asia in 323 BC, showing the Massagetae located in modern-day Central Asia.

Asia in 323 BC, showing the Massagetae located in modern-day Central Asia. (CC BY 3.0)

Cyrus lead his forces to the Jaxartes River, “and openly displaying his hostile intentions; set to work to construct a bridge on which his army might cross the river, and began building towers upon the boats which were to be used in the passage.” As the Persians were securing their passageways into Massagetae territory, envoys from Tomyris arrived to present Cyrus with a message which stated:

King of the Medes, cease to press this enterprise, for you cannot know if what you are doing will be of real advantage to you. Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hearken to this counsel, since there is nothing you less desires than peace and quietness, come now, if you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetae in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making; let us retire three days’ march from the river bank, and do you come across with your soldiers; or, if you like better to give us battle on your side the stream, retire yourself an equal distance.

Cyrus considered this offer, called his advisors together, and made the argument before them. They all agreed to let “Tomyris cross the stream, and giving battle on Persian ground.” However not all were game to this idea. Croesus the Lydian, who was present at the meeting of the chiefs, disapproved of this advice, stating:

Now concerning the matter in hand, my judgment runs counter to the judgment of your other counselors. For if you agree to give the enemy entrance into your country, consider what risk is run! Lose the battle, and there with your whole kingdom is lost. For, assuredly, the Massagetae, if they win the fight, will not return to their homes, but will push forward against the states of your empire. Or, if you win the battle, why, then you win far less than if you were across the stream, where you might follow up your victory. For against your loss, if they defeat you on your own ground, must be set theirs in like case. Rout their army on the other side of the river, and you may push at once into the heart of their country. Moreover, were it not disgrace intolerable for Cyrus the son of Cambyses to retire before and yield ground to a woman?

Therefore, Cyrus agreed with Croesus that it would be best to face the Massagetae on their territory. Persian envoys delivered the message to Tomyris, stating “she should retire, and that he would cross the stream.” Tomyris thus moved her forces and awaited the Persian army. While he gathered his forces to cross the river, he named Cambyses II as the next king should Cyrus die.

Tomyris had her son, Spargapises lead a third of the Massagetae towards Cyrus’ forces. Cyrus left a small detachment behind with food and drink to lure the Massagetae, which they took, and then defeated the small Persian detachment and begin to eat and drink. Once the Massagetae became inebriated, the Persian forces fell on the camp and killed many, taking a few prisoners alive, including Tomyris’ son Spargapises. Spargapises, learning of what had happened, committed suicide. Tomyris, upon learning what had happened, considered the tactics of Cyrus as cowardly. Tomyris vowed revenge and Cyrus did not take heed to the warning. Cyrus pushed further into Massagetae territory where he and his forces met up with the Massagetae face to face. There are no details of the battle. One can speculate that the Massagetae won over the Persians using steppe tactics, which one would think Cyrus would have been accustomed to and able to defend against. However, whatever counter tactics Cyrus used, was all for nothing. The Massagetae won the battle, killed Cyrus, and recovered his body from the battlefield.

Queen Tomyris had the head of Cyrus cut from his body, which she dipped in blood as a symbolic act of revenge for her son, but also you could say she was giving Cyrus his fill as well. As to how much of this is truth and how much of this is fiction is up to the reader to decide. Herodotus does seem plausible in his account but he is not the only one.

"Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood" by Rubens.

“Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood” by Rubens. (Public Domain)

Ctesias’ Account

To support Herodotus’ view as to what happened to Cyrus, the fifth century BC Greek physician and historian Ctesias states the story slightly differently in books VII-IX of Persika, stating, “Cyrus marched against the Derbices, whose king was Amoraeus.” The Derbices or Derbikes according Strabo 11.8.8, 9.1, the first century BCE Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, are said to have been located east of the Caspian Sea. Pliny indicates in his work Natural History 6.18.48 that the Derbices were on both sides of the Oxus River. However, other modern historians suggest that the Derbices were the Dyrbaians. Ctesias describes the Dyrbaians as living “to the south extending all the way to Bactria and India. Its men are blessed, wealthy, and very just, never committing any crime or killing anybody.” While this seems plausible, more is needed before making conclusions, because Ctesias is describes them as two separate tribes. However, the key words here are “Bactria and India.” As Cyrus entered Derbices territory, they attacked.

Painting of Cyrus the Great in battle

Painting of Cyrus the Great in battle (CC BY 3.0)

By placing their elephants in an ambush, the Derbikes repelled the Persian cavalry causing Cyrus himself to fall off his horse at which point an Indian –  for the Indians were fighting alongside the Derbikes and supplied their elephants –  hit Cyrus after he fell with a javelin below the hip to the bone, inflicting a fatal wound; however, Cyrus was taken up before dying and brought back to camp by his servants.  Each side lost 10,000 men in the battle.  After hearing about Cyrus, Amorges (King of Amyrgians, the Scythians (Saka) tribe) came with all speed at the head of 20,000 cavalries from the Saka; however, after hostilities resumed, Amoraeus (Amoraios, king of the Derbikes) was killed along with his two children in a major victory for the Persian and Sakidian contingent in which 30,000 Derbikes and 9,000 Persians perished.

This inscription seems to suggest that the Derbikes and Dyrbaians may be one in the same. The reason for this is that the Indians were fighting alongside the Derbikes. The Dyrbaians territory extended all the way to Bactria and India, which indicates the plausibility that they had Indian allies who could provide war elephants. If this is the case, Cyrus and his Persian army traveled much further eastward to expand his borders as opposed to Herodotus account. Furthermore, Cyrus does not die but his fell off his horse and was struck with a javelin to the hip. However, he survived only to die later and the battle itself ended up being a Persian victory. Another interesting aspect is where Cyrus fights and dies—fighting the Saka, according to Herodotus, while Ctesias tells us he was aided by them.

The Accounts of Berossus and Xenophon

Herodotus and Ctesias provide the most information concerning Cyrus battle and death. However, two other sources tell a different tale and are short.  According to the Babylonian fourth/third-century priest-chronicler Berossus, Cyrus died fighting the Dahae. According to Xenophon in his work Cyropaedia 8.7.25, Cyrus died peacefully in his own capital with directions for his burial.

Now as to my body, when I am dead, my sons, lay it away neither in gold nor in silver nor in anything else, but commit it to the earth as soon as may be. For what is more blessed than to be united with the earth, which brings forth and nourishes all things beautiful and all things good? I have always been a friend to man, and I think I should gladly now become a part of that which does him so much good.

What can be made from the account provided from Berossus is not much. Yes, Cyrus died against the Dahae or Daai. The Dahae were a Saka tribe much like the Massagetae. However, no details of the reason for war or of the battle survived, thus leaving one to wonder whether the story was similar to Herodotus’ or to that of Ctesias’. As for the account provided by Xenophon, there is no description of being wounded in battle that resulted in his death.

The End of Cyrus

If one takes three out of the four accounts one has a possible connection. Three out of the four speak of war with a Scythian/Saka tribe. Two out of four speak of Cyrus dying in battle. One out of four says he died three days after the battle and the other account of the four speaks of a peaceful death. Only two out of the four accounts mention a name of his adversary. What can be made from this is that Cyrus either sought to expand his empire by attacking the Derbikes/Dyrbaians (if they are truly one and the same) for their riches, or truly fought the Massagetae or Dahae to protect his northeastern borders from further raids. In both cases, he was fighting a Scythian/Saka element. Overall, there is no conclusive way to know how Cyrus died. But given that three of the four accounts speak of a violent death it seems without a doubt that the famous Cyrus the Great, builder of largest empire the ancient world had yet seen, died in battle or shortly after fighting the Scythians/Saka to the northeast of his empire.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Top Image: Deriv; Tomb of Cyrus the Great (CC BY-SA 4.0) and Painting of Cyrus the Great in battle (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Cam Rea


Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2002.

Ctesias, and Nichols, A., (2008) The Complete Fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus: Translation and Commentary with an Introduction (Diss.) University of Florida

Dandamayev, Muhammad A. “Encyclopædia Iranica.” RSS. November 10, 2011. Accessed August 05, 2016.

Herodotus, Histories

Strabo, The geography of Strabo.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia