How the “Sword of Islam” Gave European Christendom a Half-century Respite [1402 CE]

Sultan Bayezid I, known as the Thunderbolt, had less time than he expected to savor his victory at Nicopolis over Sigismund’s crusading army [1396 CE].

It was not for lack of military success against the Christians. Bayezid’s overwhelming triumph at Nicopolis, made possible by the feckless bravery, strategic incompetence, and ignorant overconfidence of French aristocrats, was just the most recent demonstration of Ottoman military superiority over the armies of Europe.

Bayezid’s career had focused on four major strategic concerns:

• Consolidation of the small and squabbling Islamic states of Anatolia [the Turkish peninsula] into a larger Islamic state under his control

• Conquest of the Christian metropolis of Constantinople, one of the last remnants of the Byzantine Empire

• Expansion of the power of the Ottoman state further north and west in Europe, and

• Defeat of any Christian crusades against Islam in general and the Ottomans in particular.

Bayezid had assembled a military force formidable for its size and skill. He had carefully arranged legal rulings from Islamic scholars justifying his conquest of the welter of tiny Islamic states to his east in Anatolia. These he reduced to submission by 1390. From 1389 to 1395 he expanded his territories to the north in Europe until his army was temporarily checked by hard fighting Wallachians. In 1394 Bayezid began an investment of Constantinople that he returned to after defeating the crusaders at Nicopolis [1396]. It may be doubtful that the cannon technology of Bayezid’s time would have enabled him to conquer the great Christian metropolis, as Mehmet II did in 1453, using field cast artillery to breach the land walls of Theodosius, but Bayezid’s patient siege of Constantinople raised serious doubts about the ability of the city to resist.

With his record of achievement and demonstrated abilities, it may seem unfair that Bayezid is best known in the English-speaking world for his catastrophic loss of the Battle of Ankara in 1402, and propagandistic accounts of the conditions in which he was held as a prisoner of war. His reversal of fortune deserves a closer look.

As Bayezid built up his army and state, an even greater power was rising far to the east. This was the work of Timur [1336 – 1405], a member of a Mongolian clan that had adopted a Turkish language and Islam. Timur dedicated himself to waging war on behalf of his Islamic faith and to the restoration of the Mongol Empire of Chinggis Kahn [Genghis Kahn, 1162 – 1227]. Timur, whose name is recorded in many variant forms including Temur, Temür, Timūr(e)lang [Timur the lame] and Tamerlane, styled himself the “Sword of Islam.” His was the last of the great steppe empires.

Timur’s campaigns left behind them broad swaths of destruction and pyramids of human skulls marking the remnants of conquered cities’ walls. A Moslem historian visiting the ruins of Isfahan counted 28 pyramids with about 1,500 heads each before he stopped his circumambulation of the site and personal tally of the dead. The total for that Persian city alone has been variously estimated at between 70,000 and 200,000.

Estimates of the total number of dead that can be ascribed to Timur’s campaigns range between 7 million and 20 million. A credible median of approximately 17 million deaths has been put forward. By some counts, this would constitute roughly 5% of the total human population of the Earth at the time.

Despite Timur’s fanatical devotion to Islam and his oft proclaimed hostility towards Christians, most of the victims of his wars were Moslems. He devastated Moslem trading cities and centers of Islamic learning and culture, including Karbala, Herat, Isfizar, Zaranj, Isfahan, the Sultanate of Delhi, Aleppo, Damascus, and Bagdhad.

His animus against the Christian infidels found expression on a far smaller scale. He repeatedly terrorized the tiny Christian states of Armenia and Georgia. After demolishing the port city of Smyrna and its complement of Knights Hospitaller, Timur added ghazi [a Moslem warrior against the infidels] to his list of honorifics.

Timur’s campaign against Bayezid was a masterpiece of maneuver and diplomacy. First he enticed Bayezid out of a defensible position near Ankara to chase Timur’s army eastwards. Timur then circled around Bayezid’s forces and established his position at Ankara. Bayezid had no choice but to turn around and conduct a series of exhausting forced marches back to Ankara.

The battle that took place there on the 28th of July, 1402, was hard fought until a large contingent of Bayezid’s Tatars, with whom Timur had been secretly negotiating, deserted Bayezid’s forces to join Timur. The Ottoman force fell apart, and Bayezid was captured.

A Syrian chronicler, who was more consistently hostile towards Timur than he was accurate, reported that Timur caged Bayezid like a wild animal, subjecting the captured Sultan and his wives and concubines to a program of aggressive humiliation.

A historian at Timur’s court, however, indicated that Bayezid was treated with honor, suggesting that in part this may have been because of Bayezid’s record of war with the infidels. Timur frequently established defeated enemies as vassal administrators of conquered territories. He was said to have planned to do the same for Bayezid, and later did so for Bayezid’s sons. Bayezid died in the spring of 1403 before any such plans could be put into effect.

But the lurid stories of Bayezid’s captivity were too good for Christopher Marlowe to pass up when he wrote his play Tamburlaine the Great [1587]. Bayezid was portrayed caged, demeaned, and used as a living footstool. Such humiliations fit Marlowe’s taste, as did the irony that Timur, the self-styled “Sword of Islam,” halted serious Ottoman attacks against Christianity for 50 years by defeating Bayezid. In the build up to the Battle of Ankara, Timur had requested and received pledges of aid from various Christian powers, including the Regent of Constantinople and the Governor of a Genoese colony.

After his victory at Ankara, Timur turned east. He was preparing to attack Ming Dynasty China when he perished in 1405.

The given name Tamerlan in various forms has maintained a certain popularity among the people of Uzbekistan and other regions of Central Asia, notoriously so in the case of the Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died after a shootout with police in Watertown Massachusetts on April 19, 2013. His death was at least in part caused by being run over by a sport utility vehicle driven by his younger brother Dzhokhar.

Further Reading:

• Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World details Timur’s rise and legacy.

• Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities is a handy if unfortunately titled compendium of disasters, with short narratives and summary statistics. He ranks Timur’s campaigns as the 9th largest man-made catastrophe on record.

• Christopher Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare [1564], but matured as a playwright earlier than his ultimately more famous contemporary. Marlowe’s smash hit Tamburlaine the Great [1587] revolutionized the English theater. He was developing along lines quite different from Shakespeare when he was killed at the age of 29, possibly assassinated, in a tavern brawl. The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta is a very dark comedy, resonating in interesting ways with Shakespeare’s Richard III and The Merchant of Venice. Marlowe’s The Tragicall [sic] History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus holds conventional morality and scholarly pursuits in equal contempt, and even in the corrupted and censored texts that have come down to us is ruthless in its depiction of how easy it is for a man to sell his soul for trivialities, and how long it takes to earn damnation. Its last act is as powerful a depiction of the crucial difference between regret and repentance as ever written in the English language.


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