The Ottoman Empire was around for an impressive 624 years, from its (murky but generally accepted) beginnings in 1299 with the reign of Osman I (the guy who put the “Ottoman” in “Ottoman Empire”), to its official downfall in 1923. But historians have this irritating need to periodize everything, especially something that goes on for 624 years, and so if you want to study the Ottoman Empire you’ll usually find the material chopped up into chunks. One very good period point is 1453, for obvious reasons, because the conquest of Constantinople was a huge event that signifies the Ottomans’ rise to world power status. Another often-cited period break happened in 1402, at the Battle of Ankara, a battle that almost destroyed the Ottoman Empire before it really got going.
Most of the Middle East in 1402 belonged to–or at least owed allegiance to–one man, Timur (also known in the West as Tamerlane). Timur was a Central Asian (he’s often called “Turko-Mongol” which basically means that he was ethnically Mongolian but culturally Turkic) conqueror who set out in the late 14th century to rebuild Genghis Khan’s empire. He didn’t come that close (when he died in 1405 he was on his way to try, at least, to conquer Ming China and restore Mongol rule there), but he came closer than anybody other than Genghis Khan ever has, and after a half-century of virtual chaos everywhere from Central Asia in the east to the borders of Mamluk Syria in the west, Timur restored some order. Of course, that order was restored on top of literal piles of human skulls.
Ah, well, they may have been literal, we don’t really know. The point is that he killed a whole lot of people–estimates range from 8 to 20 million in his roughly 35 year (1370-1405) conquering career. But, hey, you can’t make an omelet, etc.
Anyway, Timur was undeniably great at what he did, which happened to be conquering places and killing people. He didn’t fully restore the old Mongolian Empire at its height. He never permanently subjugated the Khanate of the Golden Horde (see above), though he reserved the right to invade it and sack its major cities pretty much at will. Central Asia east of modern Uzbekistan was too pastoral to really be “conquered.” And, again, he died on the way to China. But he actually surpassed the OG Mongols in a couple of areas. The Mongols never attempted a serious invasion of India, ostensibly because the climate repelled them, but Timur cut through the Sultanate of Delhi in 1398, looting as much as he could before heading back across the Hindu Kush. Also, the Mongols were totally stymied by the Mamluks in Syria and Egypt, but Timur handled them pretty easily, capturing Damascus in 1400 and subordinating the Mamluks to him for the five years until his death.
It was around the time of his invasion of Mamluk Syria that Timur encountered another conquering power in the region, the early Ottoman Empire. Timur’s successful campaigns in the southern Caucasus and in Syria had convinced a number of the Turkish principalities that ruled bits and pieces of eastern Anatolia to pay tribute to him (Timur usually, it seems to me, preferred business to violence, but as he was effectively running a protection racket on a grand scale, his business often required violence). But to the west, the Ottomans were on the march. Since 1389 they had been ruled by Bayezid I (d. 1403), known as Yıldırım or “the thunderbolt” because of his military prowess, who succeeded his father Murad I after the latter was killed at the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. Bayezid consolidated Ottoman gains in Europe before trying something a little different from his predecessors: focusing some attention on expanding into central and eastern Anatolia instead of putting all his attention on Europe. Anatolia at this time was divided into cantons, beyliks in Turkish, each ruled by a different dynasty. Some of these were quite powerful, like the Karamanids in southern Anatolia, but many were pretty small and could be easily brought under control.
Bayezid ping-ponged between campaigns in Anatolia and campaigns in Europe, but his forces appear to have been large enough to campaign in both directions simultaneously, as he defeated Karaman in 1397 while he was also laying siege to Constantinople. If the Ottomans had taken Constantinople at this time, when much of the possibility for resistance in Eastern Europe had been exhausted either at Kosovo or at the 1396 Battle of Nicopolis (an unsuccessful attempt by several allied European kingdoms to come to Constantinople’s relief), it’s entirely possible that the Ottomans would have had a clear path right into central Europe. But Bayezid, who was riding high at the time, made the mistake of drawing Timur’s attention by demanding tribute from Timur’s Anatolian vassals. The response from Timur was, you might say, decisive. The Thunderbolt was about to meet his match, and plans for further Ottoman expansion would have to be put on ice for a while.
As usual, the size of the armies that met in a plain outside of Ankara can’t be reliably gleaned from the historical sources, some of which give Timur 600,000, 800,000, even over a million men, which would have been logistically impossible. Timur clearly seems to have had more men than Bayezid, and a reasonable estimate would probably put his army at somewhere around 150,000 against something less than 100,000 (90,000 or so) for the Ottomans, most of them hurriedly marched east from among the forces besieging Constantinople and others that had been sent to campaign in Hungary. This was a problem for Bayezid, but the bigger problem for Bayezid was that many of his men were there because they had to be, because they were from one or another of those Anatolian beyliks that Bayezid had been swallowing up as he expanded east. Given the choice between paying tribute to Timur and being absorbed into the encroaching Ottoman Empire, many of the soldiers of these beyliks preferred Timur.
So when the fighting started, it didn’t take much for quite a few of those soldiers to abandon Bayezid and surrender to Timur or even, in a couple of cases, to turn around and fight for him against the Ottomans. Ironically, among Bayezid’s best fighters were his relatively new Serbian vassals, who’d been forced to accept Ottoman suzerainty after Kosovo. They seem to have done a great deal of damage to Timur’s forces, in part because their stronger armor rendered them less vulnerable to Timur’s mounted archers. But ultimately Timur’s advantage in men and his crafty decision to divert a nearby stream in order to deprive the Ottomans of access to water was enough to carry the day. Bayezid briefly managed to escape Timur’s men, but he was quickly caught and spent the rest of his life (such as it was; he died several months later) as Timur’s prisoner. Timur, as I’ve already mentioned, died in 1405, and his empire was ruled ably (though its days of expansion were over) by his son Shahrukh (d. 1447) for over 40 years, but it began to fall apart after Shahrukh’s death. It was altogether gone by 1507, when the Uzbeks conquered Herat, but a descendant of Timur, Babur (d. 1530), tired of trying and failing to win back his birthright from the Uzbeks, conquered northern India and established the Mughal Empire in the 1520s.
Ankara shattered the early Ottoman Empire and almost scattered the remnants to the winds. The Ottomans lost all of their recent gains in Anatolia and had many of their gains in Europe rolled back (the Serbians became independent again, for example, and the Byzantines got a reprieve from their eventual demise). But Timur didn’t entirely do away with the Ottoman dynasty. Instead, he left them their core territory plus their European holdings and effectively told them to go and sin no more. Four of Bayezid’s sons (Isa, Musa, Suleyman, and Mehmed) spent the next 11 years fighting one another for the throne, a period known as the Ottoman Interregnum. Suleyman initially looked like the strongest of the bunch, but Mehmed ultimately emerged as the undisputed sultan in 1413. Bayezid’s fifth son, Mustafa, or someone claiming to be Mustafa (he’d disappeared after the Battle of Ankara) then emerged in 1414 to claim the throne and remained a problem for the Ottomans until he was finally executed by Mehmed’s son and successor, our friend Murad II, in 1422. Clearly this post-Ankara crisis wasn’t fatal to the Ottomans, but nevertheless it was a major crisis.
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