Disaster at Ankara

Battle of Ankara, 1402

The huge Turkish victory at Nicopolis made the position of Constantinople look even more perilous than ever. The city did not fall to an Ottoman siege this time, but the loss of the allied army on the Danube made it less likely in future for any European prince to urge a crusade to save it. Nevertheless, in 1399 Emperor Manuel II went in person to plead his cause in the courts of Europe. His pleas for aid were eventually answered, but help came from an entirely unexpected direction.

The campaigns of Bayezid the Thunderbolt had consolidated his rule on both sides of the Bosphorus: the European and Balkan front known as Rumelia, and the Asian side of Anatolia. So successful had he been in the latter direction that his conquests had brought him into contact with another emerging power: that of the heir of the Mongols called Timur Lenk (Timur the Lame), known to the west as Tamberlane.

While Bayezid had triumphed in the western part of what is modern Turkey, Timur had staked an equally formidable claim in the east, capturing the strategic city of Sivas in 1400. Throughout his campaigns along the Anatolian marches and in Syria diplomatic exchanges had continued between Timur and the Christian lands nearby. These included the emperor of Trebizond (Trabzon), who feared the Ottomans more than Timur and hurried to send tribute. Nor had Timur neglected to keep Bayezid I informed of his latest conquests, and the capture of Sivas was waved in front of his face as a taunt. Timur sought in particular the return from Bayezid’s protection of certain dignitaries who had escaped the fall of Baghdad. Bayezid’s response was to assemble his troops, drawing large numbers of vassal soldiers out of the Balkans and suspending the long siege of Constantinople just at the point when his blockade was beginning to show some effect. Envoys were sent to Timur and met him near Sivas. Timur made a grand show of reviewing his troops within sight of the envoys. The army included magnificently attired reinforcements recently sent from Samarkand.

Bayezid secured his rear by stationing nine ships at Gelibolu and another 20 in the Aegean. He then moved eastwards as quickly as possible to prevent a deep penetration of his territory by the enemy. His objective was the strategic city of Ankara, now Turkey’s capital and already important owing to its position at the crossroads of the routes from Syria and Armenia. Summer was coming to an end and the crops were ready for harvesting, so it was a bad time to be going on campaign. The sultan rejected the advice of his councillors to wait for Timur near the well-watered region near Ankara. Instead he left a reserve garrison there and continued eastwards.

Timur was being kept informed of the Ottoman movements by scouts and be beaded south-west from Sivas, following the curve of the Kizilirmak River. After six days of forced marches they reached Kayseri without meeting any opposition from Ottoman forces. They rested there for four days then rode for another four days across Cappadocia to the environs of Kirsehir, where the first armed contact was made with Ottoman scouts.

Three more days brought Timur’s Army to the camping grounds to the north-east of Ankara that had recently been vacated by Bayezid. Timur gave orders for immediate siege operations against Ankara’s mighty Byzantine walls. The city’s water supply was diverted and the mining of the ramparts began. Mongol troops were already scaling the walls when news came in that Bayezid had abandoned bis march to Sivas and was two days away from Ankara.

When the Ottoman Army arrived they were in a very poor state. The only source of water available for Bayezid’s troops was a spring that Timur had arranged to be fouled. They were therefore in no position to fall upon the rear of a besieging army, so Timur was given ample opportunity to organise his battle lines. They looked magnificent, being crowned at the front by the presence of war elephants from India.

Bayezid’s Army included Serbian troops under his brother-in-law Stephen Lazarevic and the Serbs scored the first gain of the day by driving back Timur’s left wing. But there were problems among the Ottoman ranks. Certain contingents from Anatolia were from a similar ethnic background to Timur’s own troops and his agents had been active among them. At Ankara they were fighting their own kind, not Balkan Christians. Many of them recognised their former masters in the opposing ranks and came over to Timur’s side. Faced by rear attacks along with the frontal assault the Ottoman Army began to give way. On the right wing Lazarevic’s Serbs hung on until forced to retreat to cover other contingents’ withdrawal. Soon only Bayezid and his janissaries were left. He held on until nightfall, then retreated with only 300 warriors left to accompany him. The enemy followed in hot pursuit and killed Bayezid’s horse from under him.

Osmanlı sultanı Yıldırım Bayezid Han ile Timur Han’ın, Ankara’da yaptıkları savaş (1402).

In a dramatic end to a dramatic campaign Bayezid the Thunderbolt was taken prisoner and with him went Johann Schiltberger, the boy who had been spared at Nicopolis and had then entered the Sultan’s service. Schiltberger gives us the best close-hand account of the last days of the great Sultan:

Weysit [Bayezid] took to flight, and went with at least 1,000 horsemen to a mountain, Temerlin surrounded the mountain so that he could not move and took him. Then he remained eight months in the country, conquered more territory and occupied it … and he would have taken him into his own country but he died on the way.

Other accounts tell how the city of Ankara quickly submitted. Timur’s Army headed west hunting down the remnants of Bayezid’s Army. They finished by plundering the vast wealth of Bursa, including its magnificent bronze gates. The extent of the disaster can be imagined when one notes that Bayezid’s son Suleiman had to escape across the Sea of Marmara on a Genoese galley. But far from massacring the escaping Turks the citizens of Constantinople generously helped ferry them across the Bosphorus to freedom, albeit for an enormous fee.

Bayezid the Thunderbolt was taken as a captive across Anatolia and died in March 1403, probably at Timur’s own hand. Timur’s Mongol Army devastated the Ottoman lands as far as the Aegean and then laid siege to Izmir, which had been won back from the lurks in 1344 by the Knights of Rhodes. His victory there ensured that Timur had succeeded where his prisoner Bayezid had failed and had extinguished the last Christian outpost on the mainland. But Timur had also captured the Sultan and driven his son into exile. It appeared that Timur the Lame had utterly destroyed the Ottoman Empire.