Eastern Christendom reprieved by an epic battle between the World's two greatest warriors.

The Rise of the Ottomans

Sultan Bayezid prisoned by Timur, Stanisław Chlebowski, 1878

The dusty plain of Çubuk, within sight of the old Byzantine citadel of Ankara, was the scene of an epic conflict on 28th July 1402, between the two greatest warlords of their day. When the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Beyazit confronted the armies of Timur, the great conqueror from the steppes, both men were at the height of their reputations, and had a phenomenal record of conquest behind them. Both war leaders had gathered all the available forces they could muster for the occasion, and from an encounter of this magnitude there could be only one empire left standing at the end of the day.

A pair of Solaks, the janissary archer bodyguard of the Sultan

The Ottomans had made their presence felt from Eastern Anatolia to the Balkans from the middle of the 14th Century, becoming the most successful of the emirates appearing within the former territories of the Byzantine Empire. To Christendom the Ottomans represented the recrudescence of the great terror of militant Islam, which had irrupted upon the world some 800 years before, but had finally been halted at the gates of Constantinople. Militant Christendom's had then gone on the offensive during the Crusades. In the late 14th Century the wheel had turned full circle, and it was clear to the crowned heads of Europe, that the threat of Islamic conquest was back in the shape of the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans were all the more frightening for being a fusion of two of Medieval Christendom's greatest fears; the Asiatic hordes such as those of Attila or Genghis Khan, and the relentless fanatical Muslims.

Later Ottoman chronicles portray the Emirate of Osman as the premier Ghazi principality, and the anointed successor to the Sultans of Rum, thus inheriting the mantle of the Seljuk Empire. The reality was that the Ottomans were the most successful of the many bands of Turks who had been moving into Anatolia in the face of the declining power of the Byzantine Empire. Crucially many of the Turks had managed to cross into Europe, establishing themselves in the Balkans, becoming contenders for power alongside the Serbs, Bulgarians and the remnants of Byzantine Imperial authority.

Battle of Kosovo 1389, sixteenth-century Russian miniature

In the early years the importance of Ottoman expansion was not fully appreciated, until Murad I moved the Ottoman locus of operations to the European side by making Adrianople the new Ottoman capital. Murad defeated the Serbs at the battle of Kosovo in 1389, destroying the Serbian Balkan Empire and firmly establishing Ottoman dominance in the region. Ironically Murad I was assassinated on the field of Kosovo, but was succeeded by his son Beyazit, who proved more than equal to his forebears. Beyazit acquired the epithet of Yildirim, the thunderbolt, due to his ability to reappear in Europe or Anatolia unexpectedly to assert his authority. The Byzantine Emperors in Constantinople had been surrounded since the 1350's, and as vassals to the Ottoman Empire, were compelled to send warriors to accompany the Ottoman armies on campaign. After Kosovo the Ottomans had a large contingent of Serbian vassals in their armies, and took the allegiance of the Bulgarians too.

The Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, widely regarded as the last large-scale crusade of the Middle Ages, failed to stop the advance of the victorious Ottoman Turks, (Battle of Nicopolis, 1396. Painting from 1523)

Beyazit was master of the Balkans and in the East had the prestige of being the Sultan of Rum, but these possessions were divided by the Bosporus straights and a campaign on one side frequently meant a rebellion on the other. In 1393 Beyazit "invited" his European vassals to his court, unbeknownst to one another, to then threaten them if they contemplated disloyalty. After this incident Manuel II Palaiologos ignored further calls to Beyazit's court, feeling next time he might not return alive. This recalcitrance provoked Beyazit to blockade Constantinople in September 1394, which was the beginning of the siege which would last eight years. Finally the forces of Christendom were galvanised into action, and Pope Boniface IX's call for a Crusade in 1394 was heeded by the King of Hungary and a Crusader army mostly from France and Germany, but also an assortment of other countries. When the Crusaders finally arrived in the Balkans, Beyazit soundly defeated them at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, and the appetite for further crusading activity was quelled for some decades to come.

Although the Ottomans defined themselves as Ghazis, warriors of the faith, they had to frequently make war on their co-religionists for dominance in Anatolia. When news of the death of Murad I reached Anatolia, several emirates rebelled against Ottoman vassalage, such as the Karamanids, centred on Konya (Iconium), and the Eretnids based around Sivas and Kayseri. This was the first serious test of Beyazit's leadership, and from 1389 to 1392 he fought hard to crush this rebellion. After re-establishing his dominance, Beyazit dispossessed or executed many of the offending emirs, installing men more compliant to his rule and replacing the loose vassalage ties with a stricter form of obligation. It was Beyazit's activities in Anatolia which brought him into conjunction with an equally powerful ruler to the East.

Timur the Lame – The Great Emir.

Timur (9 April 1336 – 18 February 1405) historically known as Tamerlane and referring to himself as the Sword of Islam, the statue of the  Turko-Mongol ruler in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan

Timur, or Tamurlane of western folklore, was an awe inspiring Asiatic war leader, who was immortalised in poetry, theatre and opera in later centuries. Timur started life as a minor leader of a war band, and belonged to the Barlas clan residing in Transoxiana. This was within the Chaghatay Khanate, one of the successor states of Genghis Khan's great Empire of the Steppes. Timur's early years were a tawdry struggle amongst many such war bands vying for power in what is now Uzbekistan, although the tale that Timur started out as a cattle thief may or may not be true. What is known is that in these early years Timur received a crippling injury to his leg, thus becoming known as "the Lame". From this modest start Timur began to devour his enemies one by one, and the more success he gained the more warrior nomads he attracted to his standard. Among the steppe warriors Timur was always handicapped by his lack of Chinggissid ancestry, and thus he styled himself the Great Emir, and had to use a puppet khan of blood of Genghis to add legitimacy to his rule. As well has the physical scars, Timur's early years had instilled in him great experience and cunning. Despite his historical reputation as the wild Tatar, Timur was an extremely calculating and cautious campaigner with all the forethought of a great chess player, a game he loved. Once Timur became master of the Chaghatay Khanate his campaigns of conquest and destruction ranged across Central and Western Asia and the Middle East and beyond. The Golden Horde, the Mamluks of Egypt, Persia, Iraq and the Sultanate of Delhi in North India were to feel Timur's sword. As often as not Timur's armies did not stay long. Usually he was satisfied with establishing his suzerainty and a payment of tribute. Timur was by nature a steppe warrior and politically perhaps less sophisticated than his great forerunner Genghis Khan, who left an imperial administration after his death. Although Timur occasionally paused to beautify his beloved Samarqand, he was never absent from the campaign trail for more than a year or two.

Bayezid I "Thunderbolt" (1354 – 8 March 1403) was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1389 to 1402

Like Beyazit, Timur considered himself to be a Ghazi warrior, but like Beyazit, many of Timur's conquests were of fellow Muslims. However, it is not clear that Timur had a specific design to take on Beyazit. The conflict between the two empires actually stemmed from their encroachment their shared border, as Beyazit extended his authority in Anatolia and Timur moved through Persia, Georgia and Armenia. When Beyazit re-established his dominance in Anatolia, several of the emirs who escaped found their way to Timur's court. Timur now had a group at court that had every interest in fomenting war with the Ottomans. For his part Beyazit gave asylum to Timur's enemies; the Jalayrid Sultan Ahmed, erstwhile of Baghdad, and Qara Yusuf, head of the Qara Qoyunlu (Black Sheep Turks) a tireless antagonist of Timur. Beyazit entered into negotiations with them and the Egyptian Sultan against Timur. For once Timur sought a peaceful solution and sent a letter to Beyazit, demanding the return of the rebels and a cessation to these machinations. Timur fully supported Beyazit's wars against the European infidels and had thus refrained from war, but drew the Ottoman's attention to the consequences of those who made war on the Tatars. Beyazit, at the height of his confidence, but also unwilling to show weakness, replied in insulting terms, rather than await Timur's wrath he might well be coming to meet the great Tatar himself. The military tension ratcheted up when Beyazit sent his son and heir, Suleyman Çelebi into Armenia to attack Timur's ally Taharten of Erzincan in the winter of 1399-1400, taking the city of Kamakh. Timur's response was characteristically decisive and merciless. He launched a lightening campaign in the summer of 1400 to besiege Sivas. The Muslim population were mostly spared on payment of ransom but the Armenian Christians were murdered wholesale, many buried alive. Timur then departed as quickly as he had come for other business in Egypt, but the road to war had begun.

The Road to War

Manuel II Paleologus (27 June 1350 – 21 July 1425) was Byzantine Emperor from 1391 to 1425

In Constantinople the privations of the long siege were becoming intense. The Emperor Manuel II had left for the courts of Europe in 1399 to beg help, leaving his nephew John behind as regent (formerly Emperor John VII Palaiologos for a short time in 1390, in the chaos that was Byzantine politics). Manuel visited Rome, Milan, and the court of Charles VI in Paris and even the court of Henry IV in England. The French King had sent a contingent of knights to Constantinople, enabling Manuel to escape the blockade, but no further help came of the long sojourn. The monarchs of Christendom had their own problems and had no appetite for Crusades. There were even indications that the regent John was on the verge of surrendering to Beyazit to end the suffering. The diplomatic correspondence between the two leaders continued throughout 1401 with varying levels of acidity, but Timur had not been idle. The campaigns in Egypt and Syria decimated any chance of an alliance between the Ottomans and the Mamluks, and Timur opened communications with Beyazit's Christian enemies. Manuel III Komnenos, Emperor of Trebizond, the tiny fragment of the Byzantine Empire on the Black Sea coast (an empire in a constitutional sense), was very keen to befriend the Great Emir, to counter the Ottomans, and took the earliest opportunity to offer his submission to Timur. The regent in Constantinople followed suite, and the reply came back to them; supply twenty galleons each.

Janissary Recruitment in the Balkans, Ottoman miniature painting from the Süleymanname, 1558

In Beyazit's later messages he even included insulting references to Timur's harem, a gross breach of normal protocol. However, this was probably not the deciding factor which caused Timur to finally confront the Ottomans in person. His main focus was to keep his massive army active and on the move, and he did this for two reasons. Firstly this army needed to be paid, and this could only be done with the booty of fresh conquests. Secondly if the army was on the march his emirs were not in their ancestral homeland speculating on rebellion, as was their normal habit. In this way Timur ensured that he was directing the wildness of the Turkic and Mongol hordes and not trying to contain it. Beyond keeping a tight grip of the Chaghatay Khanate, Timur never made great efforts to administer the conquered territories, payment of tribute and an acknowledgement at prayer time was enough for him. If these acknowledgements of his primacy were withheld, a visit from Timur himself was a strong possibility. The Ottomans faced a very similar problem in Anatolia and the Balkans. They had risen to dominate the Turkmen tribes of Anatolia, but mastering the unruly Turkic emirates was an immense challenge; even the Mongol armies of the Il Khans had had great difficulty containing the Turkic nomads, for how could you administer a population who refused to stay in the same place. The Ottoman solution was entirely different, and still in its infancy in Beyazit's time. From the reign of Murad I male children of Christian families in the Balkans were taken as a human tax, converted to Islam, and brought up to be part of the Janissary Corp, meaning New Soldiers. This was actually a modification of a traditional Islamic practice of using slave soldiers. This infantry force was highly trained and loyal to the Ottoman Sultan, thus becoming a counter balance to the rebellious Turkic emirs.

Emir Timur's army attacks the survivors of the town of Nerges, in Georgia, in the spring of 1396.

When Timur's armies marched out of winter quarters at the dawn of 1402, it was clear that an expedition to confront Sultan Beyazit was now Timur's main priority. Initially Timur's emirs were not keen on the idea, and cited the findings of the court astrologer to warn that this was an inauspicious time to make war. The army had been campaigning for three years without intermission, and they were aware that Beyazit was a renowned war leader with massive reserves of manpower at his disposal. Timur responded by deploying an astrologer with more favourable predictions, and the progress towards Anatolia began. Timur was under no illusions that Beyazit was a different league to most of his opponents and sent to Samarqand for fresh forces led by his grandson, the heir Muhammad Sultan. Timur's forces entered Anatolia's North Eastern corner, and a detached section retook the city of Kamakh, for Timur's ally Tarhaten. The main army marched through Erzurum and on to Sivas, where Beyazit's envoys finally encountered them. Although they were received Timur did not accept their gifts, and both parties restated their previous demands. Timur would not be deterred from war and the envoys were treated to a review of Timur's army. Contingents from all parts of Timur's realm, from Chaghatay, Persia, India, Georgia and many other lands were paraded, and their leaders swore loyalty to Timur one by one. Most of the army were horse archers, although some were heavily armoured in mail or plate, but there was also a contingent of Indian war elephants. Timur had bested this weapon when he first encountered them in India, but he was sufficiently impressed to make use of them himself as a shock weapon. Beyazit was also busy gathering all available forces from his own territories and his allies. The core of Beyazit's army was the distinctly dressed Janissary infantry, and the Sipahis, armoured feudal cavalry. From the Balkans Beyazit was joined by a large force of armoured Serbian cavalry, led by his brother-in-law, Stefan Lazarević, among other Balkan forces. A contingent of Qipchak Tatars were brought over from the Crimea, and many more Turkic cavalry were levied from the Anatolian territories, including Turkmen from the recently re-conquered emirates such as Karaman and Eretna.

Timur's Ruse

A depiction of Ankara from the 18th century, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Beyazit was probably unsurprised by Timur's response to his delegation, and suspended the siege of Constantinople before marching into Anatolia to confront the Tatars. Beyazit assumed that Timur would favour a battle at Ankara, as its broad plains would favour his Asiatic cavalry army, and for its place on the highways of Anatolia. When Beyazit's army, marching to the pace of the infantry, finally reached Ankara, they heard reports that Timur was ravaging the area around Tokat, north of Sivas. This forested terrain of mountains and defiles was a tempting prospect for Beyazit, as it would have given his infantry the advantage over cavalry. When Timur learned that Beyazit was approaching he led his army away from Sivas, moving rapidly south west, along the Kizilirmak (River Halys) to Kayseri, and after some rest and foraging for the horses, further on and up towards Ankara. Apart from a brief run in with an Ottoman scouting party, Timur reached Ankara unopposed. The siege of Ankara began immediately, and Timur set about preparing the area to his liking. When Beyazit heard that Timur had reappeared at Ankara, in his rear, he had to go back the way he had come, and the Ottoman army reached the vicinity of Ankara tired and thirsty after eight days of forced marches. Timur was kept well informed and when he knew that Beyazit had retuned, he gathered in all his forces that were out foraging and withdrew his troops from the beleaguered walls of Ankara Castle. Timur had time to thoroughly prepare a defensive position on the plain of Čubuk north east of the town. The defensive line was augmented with palisades, and incorporated the best water sources of the area. Beyond this perimeter the springs were stopped up or fouled to prevent the enemy using them. Beyazit's arrived on 27th July, and some of his subordinates suggested he attack immediately before Timur was fully prepared. It is doubtful whether this would have been a good idea and Beyazit chose to spend one night in rest and prayer, before arraying his forces on the plain of Čubuk on Friday 28th July 1402.

The Battle and its Aftermath

In this era the numbers of troops present is always difficult to verify, the confused Bavarian squire, Johann Schilteberger, who had been captured at Nicopolis, puts the numbers in millions, but tens of thousands is probably more credible. Most accounts agree that Timur's forces were larger, but not overwhelmingly so. Timur's army of many nations and peoples was arrayed with their backs to Ankara. The left wing was commanded by Timur's son Shahrukh, and the right wing was commanded by Timur's third son Miranshah. The biggest contingent was the centre, commanded by Timur's heir Muhammad Sultan, commanding the magnificently caparisoned cavalry from Samarqand and the complement of armoured Indian war elephants. Timur himself commanded the reserve division behind the centre. Facing him Beyazit's army had deployed. Though footsore and thirsty, they must still have been an awe inspiring spectacle. Beyazit's left wing was commanded by his son Süleyman Çelebi, which was made up of Rumelian forces and the Turkmen from Anatolia, including those from Karaman and the like. On the Ottoman right the forces were commanded by Stefan Lazarević, consisting of Serbian cavalry in dark plate armour and other Turkmen cavalry from farther Anatolia. Beyazit himself commanded the centre, supported by his three sons Isa, Musa and Mustafa, and this comprised the Janissaries, and Azap infantry. Behind them the Ottoman Sipahi cavalry formed the reserve.

Battle Of Ankara 1402 (map of battle)

At about 10 o'clock the battle commenced, and the wings of Timur's army advanced upon the Ottoman army. On the Ottoman right Lazarević's Serbs gave an excellent account of themselves and started to push Shahrukh's forces back. The Serbs were in danger of forcing too far ahead before they were recalled, getting savagely mauled cutting their way back. This demonstrates that Beyazit's command was exceptionally strong, and his judgement good. On the Ottoman left it was a different story. The Turks of Asia Minor under Süleyman Çelebi gave ground immediately, and still worse the Turks of Karaman, Aydin and Menteshe saw the standards of their erstwhile lords in Timur's ranks and changed sides, falling upon the loyal Ottoman forces. This was probably no coincidence, since Timur's agents had not been idle in Anatolia. Süleyman Çelebi felt the battle was lost and began to leave the field with his loyal forces, but the battle was not over. Beyazit stood firm with his Janissaries, and when the Tatars charged them, the Janissaries fought off this attack, replying to the mounted archery with withering and more accurate archery from foot. The Ottoman reserve division of Sipahis stabilised the beleaguered left wing but this meant the entire Ottomans army was now committed. Timur now saw it was time to commit the Samarqand division led by his grandson Muhammed Sultan, swiftly followed by the war elephants. This decimated the Ottoman forces. Beyazit had moved his Janissaries onto a small hill, but was still supported by his doughty vassal Lazarović and some of his Sipahis, and prepared to fight to the end. Lazarović begged Beyazit to take flight, but he refused. This may have been to ensure the escape of his heir, Süleyman Çelebi, but when Beyazit finally did try to escape his horse tripped, and he was captured. Beyazit was to spend his few remaining months in captivity, although tales of incarceration in an iron cage are probably apocryphal.

Timur was the undisputed master of Anatolia and restored his Turkic vassals to their old emirates. He also made arrangements for the Ottoman princes to continue in minor emirates under his lordship; Süleyman Çelebi was "granted" the Balkan territories he had fled to. Of the remaining Christians, Timur took the last Crusader enclave in Asia, the Knights of St. John's fortress at Smyrna. A siege was followed by a comprehensive massacre. Manuel II Palaiologos, now Timur's vassal, was summoned to Constantinople. To Christendom it seemed that the Ottoman bogey had been superseded by something far more terrible. In the event there was little to entice Timur further West and he returned whence he came. Timur's arrangements for the Ottoman princes kept them fighting a civil war for some years to come, but as is well known the Ottomans recovered from this tribulation to finally conquer their prize of Constantinople in 1453, and created an empire which lasted until the Twentieth Century. As for Timur, he had to continue feeding the Tiger he was compelled to ride. An old man of sixty one during the Anatolian campaign, Timur expired on campaign in 1405, on an expedition directed at China, a long held ambition. Unlike the Ottomans, Timur's legacy did not continue for very long, as his unique personal form of leadership failed to outlast him.


Doukas – Historia Byzantina, Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks, trans. H.J. Magoulias (Detroit, 1975)
Ahmed Ibn Arabshah – Tamerlane or Timur the Great Amir, trans J.H Sanders (London, 1936)
Johann Schiltberger – The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger in Europe, Asia and Africa 1396-1427, trans. J. Buchan Telfer (London, 1879)
Beatrice Forbes Manz – The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane, (Cambridge, 1989)
Justin Marozzi – Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World, (Cambridge, 2006)
Hilda Hookham – Tamburlaine the Conqueror, (London, 1962)
Donald Nicol – The Last Centuries of Byzantium 1261 – 1453 second edition, (Cambridge, 1993)
Halil Inalcik – The Ottoman Empire – The Classical Age, 1300-1600 (London, 1973)
Erik Hildinger – Warriors of the Steppe: Military History of Central Asia, 500BC - 1700AD (New York, 1997)


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