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Decisive Battles of History: Ankara

Andrew is an avid reader who enjoys researching and discussing history with others.

Political background

Following the Byzantine defeat at the Battle of Manzikert, the Seljuk Turks quickly overran Byzantine Anatolia and set up their own empire. The Seljuk state disintegrated not much later, but the smaller successor states managed to maintain their footholds in Anatolia.

A Byzantine revival followed the First Crusade and during the following decades. The Crusaders and the Byzantines recaptured most of the coastlines of Anatolia, but the interior remained under the rule of the Sultanate of Rum and all Byzantine efforts to destroy this state failed.

The last remnants of Seljuk rule were destroyed when the Mongols swept through the Middle East during the 13th century, and from the second half of the 13th century, Anatolia was ruled by several dozen independent Turkic and Tatar beyliks, usually quarrelling and fighting against one another.

This status quo remained unchallenged for decades, but then rose one who started to rapidly expand at the expense of the others, the Ottomans. Under the leadership of Osman and his sons, the House of Osman rapidly increased its territories in both Anatolia and from the middle of the 14th century they were expanding in Europe also, subduing the small Balkanic principalities.

By the 1390s, the Ottomans reached the Danube and were seen as a sufficiently great threat to call a Crusade against them. A large, if not very united, Crusading force left Hungary for Bulgaria but was checked in its advance by Sultan Bayazid, who smashed the Crusaders at the Battle of Nicopolis.

Bayazid’s ambitions seemed limitless. He followed up his victory at Nicopolis by annexing smaller Anatolian principalities. By 1398 the realms of Bayazid were directly bordering the huge empire of Central Asian warlord Amir Timur, ruler of the rapidly expanding Timurid Empire.

Timur’s rise was one of the most spectacular military histories has ever seen. He rose from a relatively humble background to the service of the Chagatai Khan. His successes gained him enough influence to turn the Khans into his mere puppets. He used the Nomadic warriors of Central Asia, and for three and a half-decade he waged war in India, Persia, against the Golden Horde that was ruling southern Russia, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria, and finally the rising Ottoman state.

Timur’s quarrel with Bayazid began after Bayazid demanded tribute from an Anatolian vassal of Timur, a gest that was seen as a personal insult by the proud warlord. Bayazid was also giving refuge to the Mesopotamian enemies of Timur, with whom the ruler of Central Asia was fighting for the control of Baghdad.

Timur marched into Anatolia in 1400 and sacked the city of Sivas. Bayazid was of course greatly angered by the sack of a city which was under his protection, but for the time being, he did not march against Timur.

Timur retired from Sivas and throughout 1401, he marched against Baghdad and brutally sacked the city. Estimates vary, but historians believe that as many as 90,000 people may have been killed by the soldiers of Timur. After finishing with Baghdad, Timur turned against Syria and fought against the forces of the Mamluk Sultan. For a time, the army of the Sultan held Timur, but a revolt in Cairo forced him to turn round his army and leave Baghdad to its fate, which was to be sacked by the Timurids.

Once his forces looted their way through Mamluk Syria, Timur turned back and was seemingly on his way home to Samarkand. In reality, it was only a trick to deceive his enemies, who returned to Mesopotamia and were nearly captured by Timur when he turned his army around.

The Battle of Ankara

The Timurids then marched rapidly into Anatolia. Bayazid was blockading Constantinople around this time and was unprepared for a fight against Timur when news reached him that his enemies were in Eastern Anatolia. Bayazid had no choice but to lift the blockade and marched against Timur. He reached Ankara in the summer of 1402. His commanders advised him to make their stand at Ankara, as it was a good ground that favoured their forces, and the region was also well supplied with water, which they will badly need in the sweltering summer heat.

It was sound advice, but Bayazid detested the thought of letting Timur freely rampage through his lands and instead decided to take the fight to his enemy and marched eastward. Timur's spies kept him well informed of the movements of Bayazid, and he decided to march behind the back of the Ottoman host. While Bayazid’s army was marching against fresh air, Timur moved in a southwest direction, captured Kayseri and then laid siege to Ankara.

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Bayazid eventually received reports of what was up and turned his army around. He forced marched toward Ankara and arrived a day before Timur estimated that he would arrive. As Timur’s force was still spread out in the region around Ankara, some of Bayazid’s subordinates advised him to attack now, but Bayazid deemed his army was too tired from the forced march and decided to postpone the battle for the next day.

The delay gave time for Timur to recall all his troops and to use his trump card, water.

Before the army of Bayazid arrived, Timur ordered his engineers to build dams that re-directed the flow of the water of the area towards where his army was camping, but crucially the dams severed the water supply to Bayazid’s army.

Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Timur died while he was on his way to conquer Ming China.
    • False
    • True

Answer Key

  1. True

The two armies lined up against one another the next day. Timur probably had an army that numbered over 100,000 men, and possibly as many as 140,000. Bayazid’s army was smaller than Timur’s, and he had between 60,000 and 120,000 men.

Bayazid divided his force into three parts, his two wings were commanded by his son Suleiman and his Serbian vassal Stefan Lazarevic. He took command of the centre. Unkown to Bayazid, the Tartars who were in his army were in contact with Timur, and during the battle, a part of his army defected.

Timur lined up his army in a similar fashion, and his wings and centre were under the command of his sons and grandsons.

The battle began on the two wings where the charge of the Ottoman wing under the command of Suleiman was checked by the Timurids, however, Stefan Lazarevic with his Serbian knights pushed back the Timurid wing. As Stefan overextended himself, it is believed that he stopped to avoid encirclement out of his own judgement or Bayazid sent direct orders to him.

At this time, the battle was still hanging in the balance when the Tartars showed their true colours and attacked both the centre of Bayazid and the wing of Suleiman. Suleiman received assistance from a reserve force led by his brother Mehmed. The two succeeded in extracting the wing of Suleiman, and once that was accomplished retreated from the field.

Stefan Lazarevic fought his way through the Tartars and reached the Sultan sometime later. He advised Bayazid to retreat, but he was rebuffed by the Sultan. He took another son of Bayazid and started a fighting retreat.

Bayazid retreated to a hilltop and made his final stand alongside his janissaries and a few thousand cavalries. His force was surrounded by the Timurids and by the time night fell most of the force was killed. In the dark Bayazid tried to break through with a few hundred horsemen, but he was captured and brought before Timur.

The battle was over, and Timur won yet another decisive victory. During the next year, he raided Anatolia and retreated out of Ottoman territory only in 1403. In the aftermath of their defeat, the Ottomans lost control over most of their former vassals in Anatolia and in some regards were lucky that their state even survived. The sons of Bayazid waged an 11 years long Civil War until Mehmed I emerged the victor and reestablished the unity of the dynasty.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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