Constantinople's defeat in 1453 by Mehmed the Conqueror was a big blow to Christendom. In 330, when Constantinople was dedicated, Asia Minor and Egypt were vital Roman provinces, and most important Roman cities were located in the east. (The Roman Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305 A.C.E.) created four administrative centers in 293 after deciding that the empire was just too big to manage effectively. This Tetrarchy only lasted until 313, but the empire officially split into the remaining two east-west regions in 395. In 476 the barbarian invasions ended the Western (Roman) Empire, but the eastern half survived for another one thousand years as the Orthodox Byzantines with their capital in Constantinople.) By the Middle Ages, Constantinople – Queen of Cities, what would become, in Turkish, simply the city (Istanbul a corruption of the Greek polis) – was still much bigger and grander than European cities. During the Byzantine Revival (c. 867-1056), it had a population of 800,000.
The memories of Mehmed the Conqueror (r. 1451-1481), and Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566), were clearly still fresh in the minds of sixteenth-century Londoners (Marlowe wrote, “Now shalt thou feel the force of Turkish arms, which lately made all Europe quake with fear!”), for the two sultans who followed Süleyman – his son, Selim II (r. 1566-1574), and grandson, Murad III (r. 1574-1595), posed no direct threat to Europe. Neither of them went on campaign during their reigns, and Selim was a drunkard while Murad refused to leave Topkapkı Palace even for Friday prayer service for fear of a janissary assassination. Yet dread of Turkish subjugation was apparently so strong it cancelled out fear of the vicious Timur, who was long since dead by the time Marlowe’s play was produced, in any case. Christian Europeans even forgave Timur his Islam, choosing instead to see him as an avenging angel of the Christians for routing the Ottomans, a notion that might have amused Timur in his lifetime, who often invoked Allah to justify his actions and victories. He also called himself Sword of Islam.
Tamburlaine the Great was followed by Jean Magnon’s Le Gran Tamerlan et Bajazet (1648), George Frideric Händel’s opera, Tamerlano, (1725), and Antonio Vivaldi’s pastiche Bajazet or Il Tamerlano only 10 years later (1735). Stories of rulers captured in battle were common in opera in the eighteenth century, and in Händel’s opera about the Battle of Ankara and its aftermath in the Beyezid and Timur royal courts, really a soap opera, Händel offers up a fictitious love story between a fictitious daughter (of the Ottoman sultan), Asteria, who was fictitiously captured with Beyezid in battle, and whom Timur supposedly falls in love with. Vivaldi’s opera is much the same story. Both also have Timur keeping Bayezid in an iron cage, an image popularized by Marlowe and John Foxe in The Book of Martyrs before him. It is an arresting medieval image, one that would have given some satisfaction to European opera goers, but probably only a legend. (Bayezid was not shown about all of Asia. He died in Akşehir, in Konya Province, which is several hours due south of Ankara.)
All of the Western European stories make it seem as if Sultan Beyezid was easily routed in the Battle of Ankara. But it was under Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402), and his father, Murad I (r. 1362-1389), that the Ottomans really became ruthless in their quest for more land and more access to the seas. Bayezid and Murad multiplied Ottoman territory nearly tenfold. It was Murad who penetrated Southeast Europe for the first time. In 1361, he took Edirne. In 1363, Plovdiv. And in 1371, Maritsa, giving most of Bulgaria and Serbian Macedonia to the sultan. After the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, in which Bayezid won his nickname the Thunderbolt, the Ottomans ruled over the Balkans until the early twentieth century.
After Bayezid’s defeat in Ankara, there was much scapegoating for it at the Sublime Porte. Aşıkpaşazâde, an Ottoman chronicler, blamed the defeat on Beyezid’s Serbian wife for encouraging Bayezid to drink, and on his minister, Çandarlı Ali Pasha, for consorting with holy men whose religious credentials he considered suspect. A great deal of fratricidal conflict between Beyezid’s sons ensued after July 1402, and the question of succession was not resolved until 1413. In spite of all of this, the Ottomans regained control of Ankara in 1403, and Timur died in 1405 in present-day Kazakhstan on his way to invade China.
And after Timur’s retreat, Ankara remained in Ottoman hands until 1918 when “Angora” became the headquarters of the Young Turk movement led by Atatürk. In 1923 Atatürk and his compatriots made the forgotten village of tradesmen, innkeepers, and craftsmen, where it was said the poor and rocky soil was suitable only for grazing the longhaired Angora goats, the capital of the new Turkish Republic. In 1930, they renamed the city Ankara. Eleven years later, in June 1941, Joseph Stalin sent a renowned Soviet archaeologist, Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov, to Samarkand in Uzbekistan to open the tomb of Timur. Gerasimov confirmed that Timur had indeed been lame, due to a hip injury, and that his facial features were of the “South Siberian Mongoloid type.” He was reinterred in his mausoleum in Samarkand the following year.