Battle of Angora: Tamerlane’s Turko-Mongol forces defeat Ottomans

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Battle of Angora: Tamerlane’s Turko-Mongol forces defeat Ottomans

Today in Military History: July 20, 1402

My history lecture for today takes us to the early 15th century in the Middle East, where a descendant of Mongols sought to unite the Muslim nations of that area into a consolidated empire. They were led by a man named Timur, who known to present-day history as Timūr-i-lang (Timur the Lame) or Tamerlane.


One of the oddities of the Mongol Empire was that, each time a supreme ruler died, the generals of all armies were required to return to their homeland to elect a new khan. This process often interrupted Mongol military campaigns at critical junctures. A Mongol raid into Europe in 1241 – which included victories over the Poles at Liegnitz and the Hungarians at the Sajó River – was cut short by news of the death of Grand Khan Ogedai.

After the Mongol conquests of the 13th century, their empire fragmented as no one descendant of Genghis Khan was strong enough to rule the entire territory. Consequently, by the mid-fourteenth century, individual kingdoms of Mongol-descended rulers stretched from Manchuria in eastern Asia to Russian and the Baltic Sea in western Asia/eastern Europe. One such “horde," the Ilkhanate, was centered upon modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. The last Mongol Ilkhanate ruler died in 1335, creating a power vacuum in that area of the world.

In about the year 1370, Timur established himself as a Turko-Mongol military leader bent on recreating the empire of the Great Khan Genghis. He belonged to a Mongol tribe, the Barlas, who had settled in what is today southern Kazakhstan. He was also a devout Muslim, at one point in his career referring to himself as the “Sword of Islam." Timur was further a follower of Persian literature and culture, which was used as a unifying force in his burgeoning empire.

Timur in a 15th century miniature painting
Timur in a 15th century miniature painting

Tamerlane began a campaign of conquest which made him master of Persia, Afghanistan, Central Asia, western and northern Pakistan, and eastern Iraq. These conquests were characterized by exceptional brutality. For example, when the city of Isfahan surrendered to Timur in 1387, he initially treated it with relative mercy as he commonly did with cities that surrendered without resistance. However, soon afterwards the city revolted against Timur's punitive taxes by killing the tax collectors and some of Tamerlane's soldiers. In retaliation, he ordered the complete massacre of the city's population, killing a reported 70,000 citizens. An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers of severed heads, each constructed of about 1,500 heads.

In 1385, Timur led his army in a war against the Golden Horde. Invading what is today modern Russia, his army was said to be around 100,000 men, but so large a force soon strained its supply lines and was near starvation. Tamerlane ordered a great steppe hunt, which fed his army and gave his soldiers practical wargame-like experience. He finally defeated the Golden Horde at the battle of the Terek River in 1395. Soon afterward, he destroyed the Horde's capital of Sarai and raided its commercial centers, disrupting the Silk Road trade route. The Golden Horde clung to political life for slightly more than a century before finally disintegrating in 1502.

In the meantime, Tamerlane's march to recreate the Mongol Empire continued. Between 1395 and 1401, he invaded India, Syria, Armenia, and Georgia, obtaining immense amounts of booty and slaves, while slaughtering hundreds of thousands. He would spare local artisans and have them deported to his capital of Samarkand. One historian claims that Timur employed 90 elephants to transport precious gems captured in India back to his capital, where a mosque – named Bibi-Khanym for one of his wives – was constructed to house them.

Color photograph – taken between 1905 and 1915 – showing the collapsed condition of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque after an 1897 earthquake
Color photograph – taken between 1905 and 1915 – showing the collapsed
condition of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque after an 1897 earthquake

The Angora Campaign

At some point in the 1390's, Timur began corresponding with the Ottoman sultan Bayezid, who survived the battle of Kosovo Field in 1389, becoming the Ottoman leader on the assassination of his father. [For more on this fight, please read my Burn Pit posts of June 23 & 24, 2011, "Battle of Kosovo Field: Turks and Serbs Fight to a Bloody Stalemate on the 'Field of Blackbirds'" and "Part II – Battle of Kosovo Field."] During this time, Timur had claimed leadership of some of the Turcoman states of Anatolia, which angered Bayezid, as he regarded these entities as his vassals. The letters between the two monarchs became increasingly caustic and insulting. Finally, while wintering in the Caucasus Mountains in late 1401 to early 1402, Timur decided to strike at the Ottoman Empire. He gathered his forces and began crossing the Anatolian plateau, intent on attacking the Ottoman army which was besieging the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

Hearing of the approach of the Timurid army, the Ottoman sultan raised the siege of Byzantium and began to march eastward. Tamerlane's army moved west rather swiftly, passing the city of Angora, seeking out the Ottoman army. Coincidentally, Bayezid's force had already passed Angora, moving eastward in search of the invading Timurid army. Tamerlane then reversed course, and descended upon Angora, and began to invest the city.

However, Bayezid soon received scouting reports that the Timurids were besieging Angora, essentially behind him. In fact, the Turko-Mongols were using the same campground that the Turks had recently used in their eastward march. The Ottomans reversed course, and began a series of forced marches to try and catch up with the enemy. Breaking off its siege, Timur's army redeployed several miles northeast of Angora near the town Çubuk. Timur then began preparations to meet the Ottomans on a field of his choosing, under conditions that would not benefit the Turks.

It was the middle of summer, and the Anatolian plateau gets very, very hot; modern meteorological data shows the Ankara (modernized name of Angora) area has a mean summer temperature of 95º F, very low relative humidity, and average seasonal rainfall of 8 inches. A meaningful supply of water was essential to both armies. After receiving reports from his scouts, he developed an ingenious plan to give him an advantage in the coming conflict.

Timur decided to use his large corps of engineers and his 32 trained elephants to his advantage. While the Timurids waited for the Ottomans to appear, Tamerlane ordered a diversion dam built across Çubuk Creek, the only major water source in the area – with the exception of a few wells. A gap was left in the diversion dam, to give the approaching Turks the illusion that the creek still flowed unimpeded. Then, a canal of about 2000 meters length was dug parallel to the creek. The canal then made a northwest turn along a smaller tributary creek which ran through a small but deep valley. Finally, a somewhat smaller diversion dam was constructed to temporarily contain the diverted water in a reservoir after the first diversion dam was closed.

As the Turkish army approached the battlefield – hot, thirsty, and nearly worn out from several days of forced marches – they saw the Timurid forces arrayed in battle formation along the banks of Çubuk Creek just south of the town. Then, before their very eyes, the Turks saw their main source of water reduced to a trickle, and shortly disappear altogether. Frantically searching for an alternative source, the Ottomans found a single well. It had, however, been befouled by the Timurids. With no other source of water available, the morale of the Ottoman army plummeted. Sultan Bayezid decided to put his army into battle formation immediately.

The Timurid Army

Both armies were quite large; many outrageous figures have been cited by historians. One participant in the battle claimed a total of 3 million men were involved in the battle. I tend to think that both armies were somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 to 120,000 each, with the Turkish army slightly larger (I will explain why below).

The Timurid army was organized similarly to the old Mongol army, by groups of tens. It was most likely entirely mounted. At the forefront were tens of thousands of light horse archers wearing little real armor and wielding composite bows. A huge amount of missile fire could be brought to bear on an enemy by these swarming units of men.

Timurid cavalrymen (photograph courtesy of
Timurid cavalrymen (photograph courtesy of

Much of a Timurid army was medium-to-heavy cavalry, with the main weapons being the composite bow, lance, mace, and sword. Heavy cavalrymen wore plated chain mail or metal lamellar armor, with their horses also wearing leather or metal lamellar barding. Conical metal helmets – sometimes with demonic faceguards – and a shield completed the costume. Discipline was strict, and drunkenness almost unknown (this was an ostensibly Muslim army, after all was said and done). Except for a larger number of heavy cavalrymen – and the fact that those horsemen wore better armor – a Timurid army was nearly indistinguishable from a Mongol army of two centuries previous.

As mentioned above, Tamerlane's army also included nearly three dozen elephants, obtained during his 1397-1398 raid into northern India. These pachyderms were trained to fight with huge sharpened blades attached to their tusks. They also scared an enemy army's horses by their appearance and smell. However, if the elephant's driver was injured or killed, the elephants would lose control and rampage uncontrollably, possibly back onto their own army. To give the war beasts some protection from enemy troops, foot bowmen and some armored infantry were interspersed with the elephants.

Timurid war elephant armor, located in Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, UK (Photography courtesy of
Timurid war elephant armor, located in Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, UK
(Photography courtesy of

 [Rather than give an extensive overview of the Ottoman army, please see the Burn Pit article "Battle of Kosovo Field…" mentioned earlier for that information.]

Tomorrow: Part II – Battle of Angora

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How long before your interpretation of part II makes it to my screen?

Part II came out the day after Part I. As the system does not allow me to send links, I suggest you use the search function at the top right of this page, using battle Angora Part II

u said one historian give the number of elephants was about 90. do u care to share the name of historian?

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.