Battle of Ankara

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Location of battle (circled)

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.

Background

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Timur (1335-1405), founder of the Timurid Empire

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.

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Bayezid (1354-1403), Sultan of the Ottoman Empire

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.

What happened?

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Battle formations at Ankara

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.

Aftermath

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Timur victoriously views his fallen foe Bayezid

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).

Saladin: Hero of History

There aren’t too many historical figures who are held in as high regard as Saladin in the Islamic world. The military leader who set up the Ayubbid dynasty in the Middle East is most fondly remembered for recovering Jerusalem from the Crusader Christians. This single act, more so than any other, is the reason his name is linked to not only prestige but also piety – he has become the champion of Islam. In addition, Saladin’s greatness is enhanced by the fact that his enemies in Christendom respected not only his martial qualities but also his character.

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Saladin was born in 1138 near Tikrit (same town as Saddam Hussein)* into a Sunni military family who served the Zengid Dynasty of Syria. It is important to remember that Saladin was not Arab, rather he was Kurdish; yet Arab nationalists in the 20th century appropriated his legacy to bolster their ideology. His significance as a symbol of Arab nationalism can be seen by the presence of the ‘Eagle of Saladin’ on many Arab flags.

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Eagle of Saladin

Prior to becoming a ruler, his uncle Shirkoh was vital in helping Saladin rise through the ranks of the military. The history books first pick up his career when Nur-al-Din, the Zengid leader who repelled the Second Crusade, sent him and uncle Shirkoh to Egypt to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Crusaders. Egypt was at this time controlled by the severely declining Shi’a Fatimid Caliphate. Once the last Fatimid caliph died in 1171, Saladin, already the Vizier at this point, became the strongest figure in Egypt. He decided to recognise the Abassid Caliph, thereby ending the only Shi’a Caliphate in history. This helps explain why today if there is any group which doesn’t share in the celebration of his legacy, it would be Shi’a Muslims. Once in control of Egypt, his overlord Nur-al-din requested troops and money but was frustrated by Saladin’s consistent stalling. It is likely that an inevitable clash between the two leaders was only avoided by the death of Nur-al-Din in 1174.

The next decade or so, Saladin spent his energy on conquering Syria and northern Mesopotamia. Once the region was centralised under his authority, he sought to undermine the Crusader states in a bid to achieve his ultimate goal: Jerusalem. In 1187 Saladin routed the Crusader forces at the Battle of Hattin, thus paving the way for the capture of Jerusalem. The city which was holy to three religions was finally under Muslim rule after 88 years.

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Saladin with the captured King of Jerusalem after the Battle of Hattin

Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem forced Christian leaders around Europe to call for a Third Crusade (1189-1192). Arguably the most prominent of all the crusades, the Third Crusade involved Europe’s most illustrious kings; Richard the Lionheart of England, Philip Augustus of France and Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire. This is an important point because the scale and legacy of the Crusader effort helps to explain the magnitude of Saladin’s fame – not only as an effective military leader but as a chivalrous opponent. This is especially true in Europe where intellectuals as such as the poet Dante viewed him as a “virtuous pagan” similar to Julius Caesar (doesn’t seem like a compliment but trust me it is). Militarily, the Crusaders won every major encounter – their armies imperiously marched down the Levantine coast, followed closely by their ships for supplies and reinforcement. Yet their desire to recapture Jerusalem was stifled and formally accepted in the Treaty of Ramla in 1192 whereby Saladin would keep control of the Holy City whilst allowing entry to Christian pilgrims – which effectively made the contest a draw.

Musings

Saladin’s greatest quality did not necessarily lie in an angel-like character who was devoid of any wrong-doings. In this sense, we often conflate romanticisations of events or figures with the evidence at hand. From all the sources, it would seem Saladin’s greatest achievement was the centralisation of authority in the region. His forces consisted of feudal levies (a type of medieval conscription) who fought seasonally. Rather than being shocked at the fact that the great Saladin was defeated in battle, it is more pertinent that even in the absence of a regular standing army, Saladin was still able to force a draw against the finest kings Europe had to offer. After his death in 1193, the unity he fought so hard and long for also died with him. In the year 1227, Jerusalem was handed back to the Crusaders.

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Artistic rendition courtesy of Elias Feroz

* Saddam Hussein, ruler of Iraq (1979-2003), drew comparisons between himself and Saladin to enhance his own image as a champion of the Arabs.


Did you know?

Saladin’s birth name was Yussuf.


Check out Elias Feroz’s artwork on his:

Instagram – @mefchannel

YouTube – M.E.F Channel

Istanbul: Jewel of the World

“The crossroads of the world. Many generations of men have ruled this city, but they have never subdued her. She always bounces back.” Yusuf Tazim, Assassin’s Creed.

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Seafront of Istanbul – Courtesy of Aytek Ogreten

Origin & Name

About as iconic as a city could wish to be, this city has had its name changed three times by three different civilisations. Its story started out as Byzantium, a Greek colony in 657 BC – named after the mythological figure of King Byzas. Eventually it became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and was renamed Constantinople in honour of its patron Emperor Constantine in 330 AD. The Ottomans did not officially change its name but over time its Muslims citizens referred to it by another name – which came about as a development from the Greek phrase ‘es tein polin’ (‘in the city’). In fact, it was only officially renamed Istanbul in 1930.

Istanbul has had two significant chapters in its history; respectively serving as the capital of the Eastern Roman (later known as Byzantine) Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

Byzantine Empire (395-1453)

Since Antiquity, the city has benefited from its strategic location straddling Asia and Europe but did not really achieve any real kind of splendor until the Roman Emperor Constantine made it his capital in 330 AD. After the final partition of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, the Eastern Roman Empire which became known as the Byzantine Empire developed a distinctly Greek identity as opposed to its Roman roots.

A significant event in this period was Emperor Justinian’s rule (527-565 AD). During his reign, the Nika Riot occurred (532 AD) and tore the city up – after which Justinian was able to rebuild the city with many splendid monuments such as the Hagia Sophia.

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Hagia Sophia – Salik Photography

Constantinople remained a key cosmopolitan city until the Medieval period but was handicapped by warfare and conflict, much of it coming from Islamic powers. Some conflicts came in the shape of sieges (e.g. 674 AD; 860 AD) which had to be fended off. These were defended due to Constantinople’s impressive fortifications as well as technological developments such as “Greek Fire”.

The city was eventually conquered by an unlikely source: members of the Fourth Crusade from Europe. It was a short-lived foray, 1204-1261, but it did retard the progress of the city as loot was rampant. When the Byzantines recaptured it in 1261, they found a city which had gone financially bankrupt with a decreasing population. One of its most visible monuments today, the Galata Tower, was built in 1348 by the Genoese contingent in the city.

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Galata Tower (centre) – Courtesy of Aytek Ogreten

Ottoman Empire (1453-1922)

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Sultan Mehmet II entering Constantinople victoriously – By Italian painter Kusatma Zonaro

The Byzantines would hold on to the city for almost 200 more years before the surging Ottomans, who had throughout this time been taking over territory on both the Asian and European side of Constantinople, conquered the city in 1453. Mehmet I succeeded where others had failed by dragging his ships inland across the Golden Horn*. He allowed his troops three days of looting, after which he spent the remainder of his reign  (1451-1481) rebuilding the lost grandeur of the new Ottoman capital. Sultan Mehmet commissioned the construction of the Grand Bazaar (one of the largest markets in the world), Topkapi Palace and the Fatih mosque.

In 1509 a catastrophe known as the “Lesser Judgement Day” devastated the city – an earthquake followed by a tsunami killed 10,000 people and destroyed more than 1000 houses. But to highlight the peaks and valleys of this city’s history, this dark day was followed by generations of Ottoman Sultans who contributed to Constantinople’s glory by building magnificent mosque’s and monuments. These are scattered throughout the city but are most conspicuous in the Fateh District. The architect Mimar Sinan (1489-1588) was responsible for many of these sites.

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Sultan Ahmed Mosque – Courtesy of Salik Photography

Constantinople continued to be a major world city even as the Ottoman Empire’s power began dwindling from the 18th century onward. It eventually became romanticised in the ‘Orientalist‘* imagination of many Western Europeans.

Republic of Turkey (1923 – Present)

Istanbul was briefly occupied by the Allies after World War One when the Ottoman Empire emerged on the losing side. In the aftermath of the Nationalist victory during the Turkish War of Independence, Mustafa ‘Ataturk’ Kemal moved the capital of the new-born state to Ankara and thus the newly-named Istanbul suffered. But from the 1940’s onward, Istanbul reclaimed some of its former glory when it gained incentive from immigration and increased commercial activity. Some of this would be at the expense of certain historical sites which were sacrificed as the price for propelling the city’s economic growth.

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View from the top of Galata Tower – Courtesy of Click Photographic 

Musings

The city is a product of all the glorious cultures and civilisations that have come in contact with each, whether through trade, conflict or dialogue. This is most evident in its architecture; the Hagia Sophia was a church which was transformed into a mosque. The fact that almost every layer of its history has been allowed to flourish; pagan, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, speaks volume of Istanbul’s confidence as a city to feel pride in every aspects of its heritage. This is refreshing to see in a region of the world which is so rich in history but is struggling to come to terms with it.


* Golden Horn – The channel of water separating Istanbul.

* Orientalist – The European tendency to view Islamic cultures as exotic and uncivilised during the 19th and 20th century.

Did you know?

The old city stands on a peninsula, meaning it is surrounded by water! It has seven hills – the majority of the historical landmarks are situated within this small area.


A massive thank you to everyone who sent us photographs of Istanbul! An even bigger thank you to the generosity and skill of the photographers featured in this article:

Aytek Ogreten – Instagram @aytekogreten

Salik Photography – Instagram @salik_photography

Click Photographic – Website http://www.clickphotographic.co.uk/                                                                                  Instagram @clickphotographic

Battle of Talas

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Pivotal or Overblown?

Some battles are seen as landmark moments; their result could be the catalyst for monumental change for centuries to come. The Battle of Talas in 751 is considered as one of those moments. Let’s explore why.

What happened?

In the years leading up to 751, both the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the Arab Umayyad Caliphate had both been expanding aggressively into Central Asia – rendering a collision inevitable. The region had already featured prominently in Islamic history because the Abbasid Revolution in the late 740’s, which replaced the Umayyads with the Abbasids, was centred around the province of Khorasan (modern-day western Afghanistan, north-eastern Iran and Uzbekistan). Other than serving the goals of an expansionist religious or political creed, Central Asia was super important because it was a nexus point for the lucrative Silk Road.

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The furthest extent of the Tang Dynasty.

The spark for the Abbasid-Tang conflict was provided by the local city-states. In 750, the King of Fergana had a border dispute with the ruler of neighbouring Chach. Fergana asked the Chinese for help, which was duly obliged by General Kao of the Chinese western army. Chach’s ruler was beheaded but his son escaped and sought refuge with the famous Abbasid General Abu Muslim Khorasani, who was keen on curbing Chinese influence in the region.

The Arab forces were joined by the Uighurs and the Tibetan Empire (which was a major regional power at the time).  The two sides met at Talas, in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. After five days of intense fighting, the Battle’s result was determined by the Karluks’ (Turkic nomadic tribe) defection from the Chinese to the Arab side, which consequently led to the destruction of the Chinese forces.

Aftermath

The reality of Talas’ consequences has been mixed with mythology in the popular imagination. For instance, it is claimed that the Muslim victory caused the Chinese to abandon Central Asia. This is simply not true. Even though the result of Talas was decisive and caused much damage to the Chinese army, only a few years after, in 755, the Tang dynasty recruited a large army to contest the influence of the Abbasids in the region. The plan was cut short by the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), when the seditious Chinese General An Lushan declared himself Emperor of a new dynasty and marched on the imperial Chinese capital. In the ensuing conflict the An Lushan Rebellion was eventually put down but the imperial authority of the Tang would never properly recover, so much so that they no longer had the privilege of casting their sights on expansion but rather focus their efforts on the heartland of their realm. This is how the the Chinese came to lose what they called the ‘Western Regions’ (Central Asia).

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The Abbasid Caliphate (light green) at its height.

But Talas’ place in history is assured by the fact that it may have been impetus for bringing paper-making technology to the Middle East and on to Europe. Supposedly (there is historical debate on this) Chinese prisoners captured at the Battle of Talas shared their knowledge with their captors – the Chinese had been using paper for centuries whilst the rest of civilisation slacked behind with more primitive methods such as clay, papyrus and parchment. This theory is aided by the fact that there is documented evidence of these expert individuals, such as Tou Houan. In addition, paper manufacturing can be observed in the Middle East for the first time by the end of the eighth century, which resulted in the proliferation of texts produced in centres of learning such as Baghdad.

Conclusion

It seems that the Battle of Talas’ reputation as spelling the end of Chinese influence in the area was, at best, circumstantial due to the occurrence of the An Lushan Rebellion which happened only a few years later and was the real reason. Whilst Talas’ geopolitical ramifications may have been blown out of proportion, its significance in transmitting paper-making technology definitely warrants consideration as being a truly significant event in history.