CLASH OF TITANS: TAMERLANE AND “THE THUNDERBOLT” AT ANGORA, 1402

No man in his day evinced more terror than did Temūr-i Lang, known to western history as Tamerlane. His conquests left nothing but destruction in their wake, and pyramids of skulls to mark his path. But in the second year of the 15th century, a rival warlord with a military reputation almost as fearful marched against him. He was the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I, called by contemporaries “The Thunderbolt”. Their meeting in battle would be a veritable clash of titans!

 Some 30 miles from the heart of modern Ankara lies the farming plain of Çubuk. Well-watered by the local reservoir, it is known for its cherries and pickled cucumbers. But at the dawn of the 15th century this once arid plain played host to a mighty battle, fought between two of the most powerful rulers of the age. Here one of history’s great conquerors, Tamerlane, the red-handed heir to the legacy of Genghis Khan led his Turco-Mongol horde against a new and rising empire that would, in its time, be nearly as powerful as that of the Great Khans: the Ottoman Turks.

THE RISE OF TAMERLANE 

The vast Mongol Empire built by Genghis Khan and his successors began to fragment in the last decades of the 13th century, and from it emerged four independent and rival khanates: the Golden Horde to the northwest of the Caspian Sea; the Chagatai Khanate in central Asia; the Il-khanate ruling Persia and much of the Near East; and the Yuan Dynasty of China and the Mongol homeland, whose khan continued to bear the now empty title of Khagan, or “Khan of Khans”.

It was in the second of these Mongol successor states that Timur was born. His clan, the Barlas, traced its lineage to one of Chagatai Khan’s regimental commanders. It dwelt in the region around Kesh (modern Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan). By the time Timur was born, in 1336, the Mongolian Barlas had become heavily turkified, and were a powerful force in the declining Chagatai state. His father, a clan noble, gave him the name Timur, meaning “iron”.

This was a time of shifting power as the descendants of Chagatai faded into insignificance. Timur learned the arts of skirmish warfare while still but a boy, leading a small band of followers against rivals and enemies. During a raid he was wounded by an arrow in the leg that left him with a permanent limp. From this he came to be called Timūr(-i) Lang (Timur the lame), from which comes the name by which he is best known, Tamerlane.

By the age of 25 he had become a leading warlord in the region, leading an army of Mongol-Turkic freebooters drawn to his success and charisma. When his father died, he became head of the Barlas as well, adding to his power. In 1370 he married a descendant of Genghis Khan and solidified his position as de facto master of the Chagatai horde; though since he was not of the blood of Genghis he continued to rule through a puppet ruler from the House of Chagatai. Timur ever presented himself as the protector of the legacy of Genghis Khan, styling himself as “Amir” or general of the House of Chagatai. As both he and his army were largely Muslims, he also claimed to act as the sword of Islam and defender of the faithful.

In these capacities Timur conducted campaigns far beyond his Central Asian power base, to reunite the empire of Genghis Khan or to punish those who refused to recognize his role. Over the next 35 years he campaigned ceaselessly, his expeditions taking him from the plains of Russia (where he destroyed the Golden Horde in all but name) to the Ganges River, where he defeated the Sultan of Delhi and left that city a smoking ruin. A 100,000 prisoners were executed there, and their heads were stacked into vast pyramids to decorate the ruins!

Enemies of Timur gaze upon a column of skull left in the conqueror’s wake 

Timur conquered all of Persia and Mesopotamia, Armenia and Azerbaijan; and in 1400 invaded Syria where he sacked Damascus. 20,000 inhabitants were slaughtered, the women of the city given to his warriors or sold into slavery, while the skilled artisans and artists were deported to his capital, Samarkand. He also destroyed the  Umayyad Mosque, giving out that he did this to avenge the killing of Hasan ibn Ali by Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I and the murder of Husayn ibn Ali by Yazid I, events in Islam’s early years.

His raids against the Turcoman tribes of eastern Anatolia brought him into conflict with the rising power of the Ottoman Turks. Here he faced a warlord as ruthless as himself: Bayezid “the Thunderbolt”!

THE THUNDERBOLT

According to their own traditions the Ottoman Turks originated in Central Asia, a Turcoman tribe called the Kayi. In the 13th century they fled their homeland to escape the coming of the Mongols under Genghis Khan. There they were granted lands by the Seljuk Sultans of Anatolia, bordering the crumbling Byzantine Empire in the west, in the region known in ancient times as Bithynia.[1]

They tribe took its name, Ottoman, from the dynasty founded by its second ruler, Osman (sometimes transliterated as Othman). From the beginning, the Ottomans were a ghazi state, existing on the border between Christian Byzantium and the Muslim Turkish realms of Anatolia. Its purpose was always to engage in raid and harassment of the “infidel”, waging perpetual holy war.   In 1302 Osman Bey led the Ottoman Turks to their first great victory, over the Byzantines at the Battle of Bapheus, leading to the loss of their final hold on western Anatolia. For the next century-and-a-half, the Ottomans would continue expanding north and westward at Byzantine expense; eventually devouring and replacing that once great empire.

Ottoman troops,  first-half of 14th century

In 1354 the Ottomans captured the fortress of Gallipoli after an earthquake damaged the walls; giving the Turks a foothold for the first time in Europe. From here they expanded gradually throughout the southern Balkans. During this time the Byzantines were engaged in civil war, and beset by Turk and by the predatory Italian maritime states of Venice and Genoa as well. Throughout the period the Byzantines, their Italian rivals, and other Balkans powers negotiated temporary alliances with the Turks against their Christian enemies; allowing the Ottomans to play one-off against the other, and expanding their holding all the while.

The Ottoman dynasty was blessed with having a succession of capable and warlike leaders. By the accession of the fourth Ottoman ruler, now styled Sultan, their empire straddled Europe and Asia, and surrounded the Byzantine capital, Constantinople; now an isolated Christian island in a Muslim sea. Bulgaria had been conquered, Serbia reduced to vassalage, and the long conquest of Greece to the south and Bosnia to the north underway.

This fourth Sultan, Bayezid I came to the Ottoman throne following the death of his capable father, Murad I at the bloody Battle of Kossovo in 1389. There, as the battle was coming to a close and both armies had fought each other to exhaustion and virtual annihilation, a Serbian knight, brought before the Sultan, pulled a hidden dagger and killed Murad before being cut to pieces by his bodyguards. Bayezid, already a proven captain and having earned the nickname “the Thunderbolt”, quickly consolidated his hold on his slain father’s throne by having his brother strangled. The following year he consoled the defeated Serbs by marrying their princess, Olivera Despina, and recognizing her brother, Stefan Lazarević, as his vassal-ruler of Serbia.

That same year he used his Serbian vassals and other troops from his Balkan domains to campaign in Anatolia; where he expanded Ottoman dominion over several minor Muslim beyliks. By the end of 1390 the Thunderbolt had crushed a coalition of Anatolian amirs that had gathered against him; and spent the following year consolidating Ottoman rule along the Black Sea coast. Never restful, he now turned his attention back to the Balkans, where over the next four years he campaigned in northern Greece and along the Danube. His attempt to cross the river and invade Wallachia was repulsed, however, at the Battle of Rovine; the first defeat of his career.

In 1394 Bayezid set his sights upon Constantinople, capital of the fading Byzantine state and long the greatest city in “Christendom”. The Emperors of the city had become vassals of the Ottomans during the reign of his father. But Bayezid was not content to have their submission. He wanted their fabled city, for the crescent of Islam to wave over the holy city of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He began the siege by repudiating the Byzantine’s vassalage, and put the city under a loose blockade. The year before he had begun construction of a castle across the Bosporus from the city, the Anadoluhisarı, at the narrowest point between Europe and Asia. This castle, completed in 1394, constricted (though did not fully impede) seaborne supplies to the city.

Anadoluhisari (Anatolian Castle) sits beside the Bosporus, a reminder of Bayezid’s blockade of Constantinople in 1394-1402

With the great city under siege, Bayezid announced that he would be marching into Hungary to lay waste that kingdom by the following May (1396). Were Hungary to fall, central Europe would be open to Ottoman devastation.

The steady Ottoman advance in the Balkans had not gone unnoticed in the west. Though the militant religious spirit that had inspired the Crusades had largely dissipated, the growing Ottoman threat and pleas from the beleaguered Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus led Pope Boniface IX to call a new Crusade against the Turks.

The call to arms was accepted enthusiastically in France, where the 100 Years War had come to a (temporary) halt.  John, Count of Nevers (later Duke John the Fearless) the 24-year-old eldest son of the Duke of Burgundy, was the nominal commander of a powerful body of French knights and foot soldiers, who marched east to join King Sigismund of Hungary[2] at Buda. The Crusader army that gathered there numbered between 15-20,000 men, and included contingents Hungary, Croatia, Wallachia, Germany, a number of the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes, as well as the French/Burgundian forces.

However, there was division in the Crusader command, with the arrogant French maintaining an independence from the other contingents, and only grudgingly accepting the authority Sigismund, if at all. Besieging Turkish held Nicopolis in September, they were surprised when Bayezid’s army arrived suddenly, having marched rapidly from Adrianople.  At a hasty council of war the French demanded “pride-of-place” and to be assigned as the vanguard, first to strike a blow against the enemy; instead of allowing the Wallachian infantry archers to clear the Turkish skirmishers out of their way.

On the morning of September 25 the two armies met on the field of Nicopolis. For the Crusaders it was a crushing disaster. Any chance of victory was thrown away when the foolishly brave French knights charged the Sultan’s forces without waiting for support from the rest of their army. Though they managed to cut their way through two lines of Turkish troops, by the time they reached Bayezid’s reserves they were exhausted. A counter-attack by the Sultan’s heavy cavalry sipahis, and his personal horse guards surrounded the French and forced their surrender.

The rest of the Crusader army, coming up and seeing the elite French vanguard defeated, lost heart and withdrew from the field, hardly striking a blow. Sigismund along with the German contingent and the Knights of St. John attempted to fight a rearguard action, but were routed by the Sultan’s Serbian allies (commanded by his brother-in-law Stefan Lazarević).

After the battle, Bayezid spared only the highest ranking captives, who could pay a hefty ransom for their freedom; and those under 20 years old, who were sold into captivity[3]. Thousands of others were marched naked before the Sultan’s throne, erected in front of his pavilion, and beheaded or dismembered.

The defeat of the Crusade seemed to spell the end for Constantinople and the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire. It also ended any chance of expelling the Turks from the Balkans and from Europe. Tightening the blockade of the city, he waited for it to eventually surrender while he consolidated his hold over the southern Balkans. Nothing seemed to stand in Bayezid’s way.

Then, relief came to Constantinople from an unexpected source: in the summer of 1402 Timur came out of the east, with his veteran army of 140,000 hardened Turco-Mongol freebooters, and invaded Anatolia.

Breaking off the blockade of the city, “the Thunderbolt” marched rapidly east to meet this challenge.

THE BATTLE OF ANGORA

With Timur pushing west and the Ottomans extending their authority into central and eastern Anatolia, it was only a matter of time till the interests of the two empires clashed. Perhaps it is inevitable that the two bullies on the block will eventually have to fight it out to see who is the toughest. On 20 July, 1402 arguably the two most feared powers in the world met to decide which leader would be paramount in the Middle East and the Islamic World. There was no room for two “commanders of the faithful”.

Bayezid marched east with some 85,000 troops.[4] These were a mixed lot of irregular Muslim Ghazis;  feudal Ottoman sipahi cavalry; the professional soldiers of the Kapikulu, the Sultan’s household troops, both   infantry Janissaries and cavalry Sipahis; the  mixed infantry and horse provided by his Anatolian Muslim vassals; and a strong contingent of Serbian knights led by his brother-in-law,  Stefan Lazarević. A quarter of Bayezid’s army were Tatars, vassals of the Turks from the Crimean region. Though once enemies of Timur, they had more in common with him than their new Ottoman masters.  (For detailed organization of the Ottoman army, go here.)

Artist’s rendering of various Ottoman troop types. Top: Feudal sipahis (l), Akinji light horse (r). Center: Ottoman infantry. Balkans infantry (l), Janissary (c), and N. African pirate (15th century). Bottom:  Anatolian troops. (l) Christian “Yaya” soldier, (c) elite sipahi, (r) Kapikulu (Janissary?) armored infantry

His advisers recommended he let Timur come to him, and meet him in the hills of northwestern Anatolia, where terrain was less favorable to a cavalry army such as the Timurids. But “the Thunderbolt”, in characteristic fashion, disregarded this counsel and marched into the hot Anatolian central plateau to find his enemy.

At Ankara Bayezid set up a well watered and provisioned camp to the northwest, on the Çubuk plain.  But on hearing that Timur’s army was pulling back to the east, Bayezid again disregarded his officer’s advice to stay there where water could be found. Instead he set off after his foe, a foolish endeavor as much of his forces were infantry while the Timurids were all cavalry. This led to an  8-day wild goose-chase, with Timur’s rapidly maneuvering horsemen eventually slipping around the Turkish flank far to the south. Coming back north,  Timur managed to cut Bayezid off from Ankara, which Timur placed under siege. Worse, he captured the Sultan’s well-laden camp, where he waited for the Turks to return.

As Bayezid thirsty troops backtracked towards Ankara, losing some 5,000 men along the way to heat, they found Timur’s army waiting for then on the plain of Çubuk. With his own army well-situated where water was easily had, Timur dammed-off the stream that ran though the plain, and  had sent out riders to poison the other water sources on the Turkish side of the field. It would be a hot, thirsty day for the tired Ottoman army.

 

Artist’s images of Timurid warriors

Timur’s army was mostly composed of Turco-Mongolian light cavalry, armed with the same powerful composite bow as their Turkish enemies. This could send a light arrow flying up to 400 meters in the right conditions. The Timurids also had a large number of heavy cavalry, with both man-and-horse fully armored in the Central Asian fashion (though even the Timurid light cavalry wore some armor). From his Indian campaign Timur had also brought back some 32 war elephants, a fearsome weapon the Ottoman troops had never faced.

Timur’s forces were arrayed in a four divisions, each with its own van and reserve: a vanguard commanded by his grandsons; the right and left commanded by his sons Miran and Rukh, respectively; and a reserve behind the center, where he commanded in person, composed of his elite guards. A larger reserve of light horsemen was further back still, screening the way to Ankara and both preventing a force from breaking through to the city or the garrison sallying out to aid the Sultan. The elephants were arrayed across the center.

Bayezid drew up his army with high ground protecting his rear. Across his center he placed the Janissary and Azab infantry, mostly archers though with some heavier-equipped troops. These were backed up by the Kapikulu Sipahis (the household cavalry, literally “Sipahis of the Porte”). Here Bazezid took personal command. On his left he placed the Rumeli (European troops from the southern Balkans), the best of which were 5,000 heavily armored Serbian cavalry, wearing “black armor” (almost certainly blackened plate) commanded by the reliable  Stefan Lazarević.

Bayezid’s Serbian contingent proved both the most effective and loyal of all his forces

The Turkish right was commanded by Bayezid’s son, Suleiman, and was composed of the army of Anatolia.  Much of this force was the contingents of recently subjugated Anatolian beyliks. These were backed, in turn, by a force of Tartars from the Crimea. In reserve behind the center were more sipahi heavy cavalry.

The battle began at 10 a.m. with the Ottomans advancing both their wings, supported by a cacophony of kettle drums and cymbals, as was their custom. Timur’s forces awaited their advance in silence. On the Turkish right Suleiman’s attack was met with a concentrated barrage of arrow and naphtha fire, the Timurid horsemen slinging balls of this combustible material into the Turkish ranks. Thrown into disorder, the Turks were then counter attacked by Timur’s horsemen. At this moment, the Tartars and many of the Anatolian Beys switched sides, joining Timur against their former master.

On the opposite flank, Timur concentrated his reserves, including the elite Samarkand division and his guards, and broke the Rumeli (Balkans) division as well, except for the Serbs; who repeatedly charged through the Turco-Mongol ranks and back again, “fighting like lions” and gaining Timur’s respect. Three times they cut their way through the tightening noose of Turco-Mongol cavalry. Stefan begged the Sultan to allow him to escort him from the field, but Bayezid refused to withdraw. Finally the Serbs were cut off from the Sultan and were forced to withdraw or be destroyed.

With both of the Turkish cavalry wings routed, Timur now advanced his center of 80 regiments (or minghan)[5] led by the armored war elephants, trumpeting loudly as they thundered forward, against the Janissaries and other Turkish infantry.  Exhausted by heat and thirst, the usually steady Janissaries were overwhelmed by this assault, most perishing or being captured.

The fate of Bayezid is given differently in the accounts. According to Schiltberger, a German who began the battle in Turkish service, was captured and subsequently rode under Timur, the Sultan made a stand with 1,000 horsemen of his guard. Doukas, a Greek chronicler, says that it was among the Janissaries that Bayezid fought on. Finally, the Sultan fled with a few remaining guards, only to be hunted down and captured when his horse stumbled and collapsed.

The Turkish army left 40,000 men dead on the field, the Timurids another 10,000. Proportionately, the Ottomans may have lost as much as half their force, and this from those most loyal to the dynasty.

AFTERMATH

After the battle Timur moved west, with the captive Bayezid in tow,  ravaging Western Anatolia. As a sign of his commitment to fighting the enemies of the faith, he stormed Smyrna, a stronghold of the Knights of St. John. Then, word reached him that an old enemy had taken Baghdad behind his back, and his army turned east again, leaving Anatolia for good.

Timur would recapture Baghdad and, after settling affairs in Northern Iran, return to Samarkand in triumph. He died in 1405 on the way to the conquest of Ming China.

“The Thunderbolt” died in captivity, predeceasing  Timur by two years. A legend grew up that Timur kept him in an iron cage, but this has been dismissed as mythology. But he did remain a prisoner of his enemy till his death, a sad end to the career of this world-shaker.

Timur visiting Bayezid in captivity

Ankara (or Angora as it was known by contemporaries in the west) was a nearly fatal disaster for the fledgling Ottoman Empire. The sons of Bayezid turned upon each other, fighting for the throne for the next 11 years. Only divisions and distractions among the Christian powers in the west prevented them taking advantage of this great opportunity to throw the Turks out of Europe forever. (The short-sighted Genoese and Venetians even helped Turkish survivors of Angora escape across the Bosporus into Europe, using their ships to ferry these forces.)

One Christian prince who did take advantage of the Ottoman’s subsequent weakness was Stefan Lazarević of Serbia. Retreating through Byzantine territory after the battle, where he was well received. Throwing off his allegience to the Turks, he formed a relationship with the Byzantine Empire, the Emperor John VII Palaiologos awarding him the very high title of Despot. Thereafter, till his death in 1427 he ruled an independent Serbia, fought the Turks to a standstill, and ultimately became a close ally of Hungary in defending Christendom’s southeastern borders from the Turks.

Despite losing the Battle of Ankara, the Ottoman state survived and ultimately prospered, becoming one of the great “Gunpowder Empires” of the 16th century. The empire Timur forged with blood faded after his death, leaving nothing but a legacy of destruction and skulls.

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com

NOTES:

  1. During the Byzantine Empire, Bithynia was part of the Opsikion Theme.
  2. Later Holy Roman Emperor, most famous for inciting and prosecuting (unsuccessfully) the Hussite Wars.
  3. One such captive, 15 year old Johan “Hans” Schiltberger spent the next 30 years as a slave-soldier of first the Turks, then of Timur, and later in Tatar Russia before escaping to freedom and return to Germany.
  4. Numbers of combatants for both sides differ wildly according to the source. In some accounts Bayezid out numbered Timur by as much as half-again; in others the reverse is true. Numbers do not seem to have played a great part in the outcome, so are somewhat irrelevant.
  5. In the Timurid army the binlik or minghan was a 1,000 man regiment. That Timur had 80,000 men in his center at this point in the battle seems high. But it is here that our lack of certainty of the exact numbers involved betrays us.
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