By 1402, Bayezid I ‘Thunderbolt’, ruled over a vast area of vassal states stretching from Albania to Armenia, and had already tried to take Constantinople. He recognised the problems caused by the vassals who tended to rebel, and the remaining existence of Constantinople between the two halves of his domain. Only way forward was a centralised state with a secure centre. However, disaster was about to strike, and that plan had to wait 50 years.
As the Ottomans got rid of the Turkish beys in Anatolia, the Beys sought refuge in Transoxania, at the court of Timur Leng, arguably the greatest Central Asian conqueror in history after Genghis Khan. Timur contacted the Ottomans and told them that he descended from Genghis Khan and was the successor to the Ilkhanids, and therefore Anatolia was rightfully his. Ottomans were to bow to him and swear allegiance. Ottomans refused to bow and replied to Timur’s propaganda by their own. Their propaganda involved ‘remembering’ that they are also Khans, kings of Central Asians, descended from a prestigious Oguz tribe called Kayi, which traced its origins to the Central Asian conquerors of Oguz legends. Timur was not impressed and moved west with his elephant-reinforced army. Bayezid, together with his Balkan Christian and Anatolian Turkish vassals met him near Ankara in 1402. A great battle was fought near Ankara and arguably the worst case of betrayal in Ottoman history happened when the Turkish troops from the principalities defected to their former masters on Timur’s side. Despite the efforts of the Serb vassals who fought to the end, the Ottomans lost the battle and Bayezid was captured and soon died. Timur overran the rest of Anatolia and re-instituted the old principalities before returning to Samarkand, his capital. Heirs of Bayezid bowed before Timur and lost their sultan status to the Central Asians once more after the Seljuk defeat against the Mongols some 150 years ago, and Europe breathed a sigh of relief.
As was the case for many other Turkic or nomadic people, Ottomans believed that the land belonged to the whole of the ruling family. They followed old nomad traditions and sent the heirs to the throne to different towns as governors, when they were still children. This way, the heirs learned how to rule. There were no formal rules of succession, so when their father died, any one of the heirs, could become the new ruler. Usually the first to get to the capital and enlist the help of the Kapikulu corps (infantry were the Janissary), the standing army of the Porte (the Ottoman court), recruited from slaves and prisoners of war, would be the new sovereign. Sometimes the heirs fought each other for the throne. The losers were usually killed, and sometimes ran abroad and lived in exile, often used by foreign powers as bargaining chips against the Ottomans.
So when Bayezid died, not only the Anatolian princedoms were re-created, but also a civil war for the throne started between his four sons. Thanks to the remarkable resilience of the Ottoman state machinery and the formidable Kapikulu corps, Mehmed I managed to defeat his brothers and keep the core lands. He also defeated a large uprising in Bulgaria by Sheik Bedreddin, a scholar who inspired Muslims and Christians alike to establish a new, communal order. Nevertheless, problems and war between heirs continued even after Mehmed I’s death in 1421, and his son Murad II managed to consolidate the realm only in 1423.
Meanwhile Hungary, still a powerful state, had increased its influence in the Balkans while the Ottomans were trying to recover. When Murad II returned to reclaim Serbia and other buffer-lands, the two powers were set in a collision course. In the beginning, Ottoman advance was stopped by the Hungarian King Janos Hunyadi, who was the greatest enemy of the Ottomans since Timur. He was a capable commander who knew how to fight the unconventional military machine of the Ottomans, unlike other Western kings. While all small Balkan countries have a minor military figure, such as Iskenderbeg or Vlad Tsepes, which their nationalists believe have killed millions of Ottomans and saved Europe, Janos Hunyadi was the only real threat to the Ottomans’ future in the Balkans in the 15th century. After defeating Ottoman armies in Serbia and Transylvania in 1440-1443, Hunyadi went on the offensive and crossed the Danube in 1444 and in 1448, but was defeated in two bloody battles in Varna and Kosovo, respectively. Once more, just like after Nicopolis in 1389, the crusaders had to abandon their goal of driving the Turks back into Anatolia, this time for about 400 years.
When Mehmed II ascended to the throne in 1451, Ottoman state had fully recovered from Timur’s blow. Ottoman cities were rich and safe. They had a powerful army and a navy. Mehmed II thus had the means to fulfil both the prophecy of the prophet by becoming ‘the Conqueror’, and the dream of his dynasty and take on the Byzantine mantle, by creating a centralised state in the lands that lie south of Danube and west of Euphrates.
While the Ottomans expanded both in Balkans and in Anatolia between 1300 and 1453, they were careful to alternate expansion in one direction with expansion in the other. They were afraid of a two-front war, especially in the early stages when they had no navy and had not fully secured the Dardanelles strait. In case of a two-front war in which the straits were blocked by an enemy navy would have meant death to the sultanate. Therefore two main factors, namely the lack of a navy in the beginning, and the existence of the Roman road of Via Egnatia, determined the nature of the Ottoman expansion.
It is also important to acknowledge that both in the east and in the west, Ottoman foreign policy was never determined by religion. Never in their history were the Ottomans a crusading state or a theocracy. Relationship of the Ottoman state with Islam was essentially the same as any other empire’s relationship with its official ideology. For the Ottomans, Islam was always the way to justify their policies, both foreign and domestic. Believing that the Ottomans conquered the Balkans in order to spread their religion is a grave mistake, essentially the same as believing that USA invaded Iraq in 2003 to bring ‘liberty’ to the Iraqi people.
Written by: Beylerbeyi