One of the most epic encounters on the battlefield took place in 1402 in Anatolia. The Battle of Ankara was between the two most powerful men of their day – Timur of the Timurids and Bayezid of the Ottomans – with the result bringing about the near collapse of one of these Empires.
On the one side was a man who claimed descent from Genghis Khan and worked hard to replicate the Mongolian leader’s achievements; Timur had conquered an empire stretching from China in the East to the Mediterranean in the West, in the process conquering and destroying some of the most iconic cities in history. He had inflicted defeats upon powerful states such as the Delhi Sultanate in India and the Mamluks in Egypt.
On the other side was a leader who had brought his realm international acclaim by defeating a Crusade; Sultan Bayezid of the Ottoman Empire had defeated the combined forces of many European kingdoms at the Siege of Nicopolis in 1396 (also referred to as the Crusade of Nicopolis) which earned him the nickname ‘Yildrim’ or Thunderbolt. On the eve of the Battle of Ankara Bayezid was preparing to attack Constantinople, which he had been blockading since 1390.
Timur claimed sovereignty over many of the Turkmen rulers in Anatolia, so when Bayezid attacked them, it gave Timur a favorable excuse to declare war on the Ottomans. But the two leaders had been exchanging unpleasant letters for years before and the natural rivalry between two leading conqueror’s in close proximity of each other was always going to make the prospect of a conflict inevitable. Bayezid reluctantly decided to abandon the siege of Constantinople when he heard Timur was moving in his direction.
It is surprising to learn that a man as accomplished as Timur could be underestimated considering all that he had achieved, but that’s just what Bayezid did. As Bayezid marched toward his foe, he rejected his generals advice to wait for Timur at Ankara which would have been advantageous due to their familiarity with the environment. Timur took his forces around the Ottomans so that he ended up being behind them and actually made use of Bayezid’s old camp at Ankara. Now Bayezid had to force his troops to march back in the direction they came from in haste to relieve Timur’s siege of Ankara. All of this marching took place during the midsummer heat, meaning that the Ottoman forces would have been exhausted when they arrived at the battle site. What’s more, they discovered that Timur had diverted the main water supply available to them.
The number of troops on the battlefield have often been exaggerated in historical accounts, with some suggesting numbers as high as 1.5 million on each side! Considering the swiftness of their movement, each side must of had around 20,000 troops.
Despite being tired and thirsty, the Ottomans fought well; this is especially true of the Serbian contingent under Bayezid’s brother-in-law Stefan Lazarevic. The key moment in the battle came when the Tatars, on Bayezid’s side, switched sides and began attacking the Ottomans. Their allegiance had been previously bought by Timur. In the midst of the confusion, Bayezid’s troops’ broke rank and were decisively defeated by the Timurids. Bayezid himself narrowly managed to escape into the mountains but Timur had the area encircled and soon captured his opponent.
Bayezid was kept in a golden cage for a few months before he died in captivity – A humiliating end to a man who had enjoyed such heights of power and prestige. His Empire lay in ruins as his sons began fighting amongst themselves, a period known as the Ottoman Interregnum (1402-1413). In a remarkable comback story, the Ottomans would bounce back to enjoy far more glory than they had experienced before the Battle of Ankara. Constantinople was gifted an extra 50-years as the seat of the Byzantine Empire. As for the Timurids, Timur ravaged Anatolia before casting his eyes eastward, but the decades of being in the saddle had caught up with him and at the age of 70 he died on his way to attack China in 1405. Soon after his Empire was divided amongst his family, in the process it created a cultural renaissance in cities such as Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Herat (Afghanistan).