Civil War That Almost Destroyed the Ottomans

Civil War That Almost Destroyed the Ottomans. The year is 1403. It had been over a year since the great defeat at Ankara. For the last twelve months, you have seen your world turn upside down by the Timurid onslaught. The countryside and the endless farmlands of your homeland had been put to the torch along with its great towns of villages. Many of your loved ones have either been killed or taken away to the east as slaves.

After a long day of salvaging the last memories of your loved ones in the burnt remains of your former home, you hear the sound of thousands of men marching in unison coming from the town square. As you get closer to the noise you are confronted by cheering crowds and off in the distance you see soldiers marching with flags and banners that you haven’t seen since last summer. Then from one of the soldiers, you hear:

Battle of Ankara

“Make way for the sovereign lord of Anatolia, Karamania, and the land of the Romans, Sultan Mehmed Khan, son of the thunderbolt himself and restorer of our world With Sultan Bayezid I’s defeat at the Battle of Ankara and his captivity at the hands of Timur, the Ottoman realm was plugged into one of the most turbulent periods of its history. In only eight months, the emir of Samarkand had almost undone more than thirteen years of military campaigning and political maneuvers of Sultan Bayezid I.

With the House of Osman’s legitimacy shattered and its armies scattered in the Balkans and Anatolia, a power struggle had erupted between the sons of Bayezid, members of the Ottoman military class, and the former vassals of Edirne. A race to seize the levers of power had been initiated, and now it looked like the road to civil war was wide open. Escaping with the majority of the routing Ottoman army from Ankara, Suleyman Çelebi, the eldest son of Bayezid, had raced westward towards Bursa to escape the wrath of the Timurid onslaught.

History of Sultan Bayezid I

Crossing into Europe by August 1402,  the Ottoman prince was accompanied by his father’s influential Grand Vizier, Candarlizade Ali Pasha. After entering the capital of Edirne, Suleyman was declared ‘sultan’ by the religious ulema of the city and his troops. Having personally served in his father’s military campaigns in Anatolia and the Balkans during the last thirteen years, the eldest lion of “the thunderbolt” was seen by many as the most legitimate and experienced member of the House of Osman to succeed his father.

Upon taking the throne, Suleyman entered into a series of diplomatic talks with the local Christian powers of the region to consolidate his insecure position in the Balkans. The newly crowned Ottoman Sultan knew he had to secure his flank if he ever wanted to march into Anatolia one day and reunite his father’s former realm. After three and a half months of negotiations with the Byzantines, Genoa, and Venice, the Treaty of Gallipoli was signed in the first months of 1403, resulting in major Ottoman concessions to the Christian powers.

History of The Ottoman Sultan

Land concessions to the Byzantines included the major cities of Thessalonica and Nicomedia in addition to their surrounding territories, the Aegean coast of Thessaly, and lastly, several settlements alongside the Thracian Black Sea coast up to Mesembria. A series of free trade agreements for Byzantine, Venetian, and Genoese merchants were established, and all tributes from these states to Edirne from the time of Bayezid I were canceled.

The Ottoman Sultan was also obliged to defend Constantinople in the event of a Timurid attack, in addition to releasing all Byzantine and Genoese prisoners to their respective states. Although the treaty was unpopular with many in Edirne, Suleyman had secured peace in the Balkans and now turned his attention to developments coming from Anatolia. In the months after the Battle of Ankara, Anatolia was devastated by the rampaging armies of Timur, which saw major towns like Smyrna and Bursa being brutally sacked.

The Ottoman states

As anarchy reigned supreme in Anatolia, the former Turkic Beyliks of the region were restored by the Emir of Samarkand to destabilize the Ottoman state further. As Anatolia was divided back to its pre-1390 borders, the Ottomans were left with only Bithynia, Mysia, the former lands of the Eretnids, and a small strip of land around Ankara. It was from these lands that the remaining sons of Bayezid established their new rump Ottoman states.

After fleeing the onslaught at Ankara, Isa Çelebi and Mehmed Çelebi both took their retinues and established their courts in Bursa and Amasya, respectively. Unlike their older brother Suleyman, who had managed to escape the wrath of Timur’s armies by fleeing to the Balkans, the two junior Ottoman princes had no real military or political power base in Anatolia to resist the Timurids. As a result of their weak positions, the pair reluctantly submitted to the suzerainty of the emir of Samarkand.

Vassal of Timur

Despite being an official vassal of Timur, the younger of the brothers, Mehmed Çelebi, spent the rest of 1402 and the start of 1403 campaigning in the lands around Amasya against other fellow Timurid vassals. In a minor skirmish at Tosya, the seventeen-year-old Ottoman prince defeated the nephew of Isfendiyar Bey, Kara Yahya, and in another battle defeated Kara Devletşah, a Timurid commander, near the outskirts of Amasya.

Mehmed continued his winning streak by capturing the key mountain pass settlement of Niksar, launching raids into newly reestablished Beyliks of Canik,  and defeating waves of migrating Turkic tribes from the east. These early victories attracted many to the court of Mehmed, such as military men and former Ottoman notables fleeing from Timurid rule.

The First Signs of Civil War

In only a couple of months, the third eldest son of Bayezid gained a sizeable following and was now seen by many as a champion for the ghazi warrior tradition of old. While Mehmed was off winning victories in Eastern Anatolia, the last two sons of Bayezid, Musa Çelebi, and Mustafa Çelebi, were held in captivity alongside their father in Akşehir as political prisoners. Never before in its history had the Ottoman state seen so many claimants to its throne.

Since the days of Murad I, the ‘sultans of Edirne’ often practiced fratricide toward their male siblings to keep the line of succession as peaceful as possible. This meant fierce competition between the five Ottoman claimants even when Bayezid I ruled a united Ottoman Sultanate. The first signs of civil war were already present by the early spring of 1403 when the former sultan of the Ottomans died suddenly while in captivity, which killed off any potential opportunity for the sons of Bayezid to reconcile their differences.

The Ottoman Civil War

With Timur and his military host beginning to leave Anatolia for the east during the same period, all bets were off as civil war loomed over the greater region. However, before leaving Anatolia for good, the ruler of the Timurids permitted Musa Çelebi to bury his father in the former Ottoman capital of Bursa while Mustafa Çelebi accompanied him back to Samarkand.

It was to be the actions of the former to lay rest to his father which sparked a chain of events that engulfed the Ottoman world in civil war for the next decade.  In a surprise turn of events, upon arriving in  Bursa, a grieving but scheming Musa seized the city and its garrison from his brother Isa,  resulting in the latter fleeing to the town of Balıkesir. However, the Ottoman prince was not able to hold the former Ottoman capital for long as he had no real following in the local area, having been the prisoner of Timur for the last year.

Ottoman Empire

After mustering troops in Mysia, Isa launched a counterattack and recaptured Bursa in a short engagement which resulted in Musa fleeing to the court of Germiyanids and then to the Karamanids. It seemed as if, once more, an uneasy peace between the sons of Bayezid was reestablished. Nonetheless, the status quo in Anatolia would once again be shaken as during the aftermath of his victory over Musa, Isa received a letter from his younger brother, Mehmed Çelebi, from Amasya.

The Ottoman prince had offered Isa to rule Anatolia together, perhaps in an attempt to consolidate their strength against their more formidable brother in the Balkans. However, the offer of unification was rejected by Isa as he thought due to being Mehmed’s older brother, he should be automatically subordinate to him. After a series of hotly exchanged letters, the two brothers made ready for war to decide the fate of Ottoman Anatolia.

Battle of Ulubat

Eventually, during the late spring of 1403, the two armies of Isa and Mehmed clashed in a decisive engagement near Ulubat, which saw the latter crush the forces of the former. With Isa first fleeing to the protection of Constantinople and then to the court of Suleyman, Mehmed entered Bursa and declared himself ‘sultan’ with the backing of the city’s ulema. In the weeks after the Battle of Ulubat, the remaining lands of Ottoman Anatolia fielded loyalty to the third eldest son of Bayezid. 

With Mehmed Çelebi unifying Anatolia under his control and proclaiming himself sultan, the ball was in Suleyman Çelebi’s court to respond to what he saw as his greatest rival to his throne. By 1404, the ‘sultan of  Edirne’ dispatched a rehabilitated Isa Çelebi with a sizeable army to retake Bursa as a way to destabilize the region further. The invasion started promising as Isa captured Balıkesir and its surrounding lands while Mehmed was off campaigning in Eastern Anatolia.

Siege of Bursa

However,  the fortunes of the Ottoman prince turned sour after his siege of Bursa was lifted when a  3,000-strong relief force from the east sent by Mehmed scattered his army beneath the walls of the city. With the former capital in flames from the recent siege, Isa Çelebi fled to the court of Isfendiyar Bey of the Candarid Beylik, where he recruited another army to continue his war effort against Mehmed.

However, this army, too, was scattered near the outskirts of Ankara by ‘the sultan of Bursa’ which now saw Isa flee to the western Anatolian beyliks of Saurhan, Aydin, Menteşe, and Teke for military help. The Turkic beys of the region all saw Mehmed as a greater threat to their newly won independence,   and so supported the weaker side of Isa. After months of assembling a large host, the Ottoman prince once again attacked Bursa but was defeated again in three different engagements between 1404 and 1405.

The Sultan of Edirne

Failing to get military assistance from the Karamanids and having no army left to take Bursa back, Isa Çelebi went into hiding in  Bithynia. However, the Ottoman prince was found by Mehmed’s agents during the fall of 1406 and was killed while at a Turkish bath in Eskişehir.  With the defeat of Isa in the east and the  Balkan front remaining stable after the Treaty of Gallipoli, Suleyman Çelebi and his Grand Vizier,  Candarlizade Ali Pasha, made plans to launch a massive campaign against Mehmed.

The ‘sultan of Edirne’ had with him the bulk of the elite Ottoman Kapikulu core on his side and so had the advantage over Mehmed’s exhausted Turkoman-ghazi army, which had spent the last three years campaigning around Anatolia. Launching his campaign in the spring of 1406 and Mysia alongside the major cities of Bursa and Ankara. In addition to capturing large portions of Ottoman Anatolia, the eldest son of Bayezid defeated and scattered Mehmed’s army near the town of Yenişehir, resulting in the latter fleeing to Amasya. 

History of Sultan Mehmed II

It seemed like, in only a couple of months, the Ottoman realm would be united under one ruler once more. However, by the winter of the same year, Suleyman’s campaign into the region stalled in momentum when his much-trusted Grand Vizier passed away in Ankara due to natural causes. Ali Pasha had been instrumental in organizing the main Ottoman bureaucracy in Edirne to support Suleyman in the early days of the interregnum and had been vital in the military successes of the last half year.

The cessation of conflict caused by the Grand Vizier’s death gave Mehmed some time to conclude an alliance with the Karamanids, which saw him reunite with his younger brother Musa Çelebi, who had lived at the court of Mehmed II Bey since his defeat to Isa in 1403. These new political developments brought new life into Mehmed’s struggle for the Ottoman throne, and so the civil war dragged on. 

Battle of Kosovo

The war in Anatolia had effectively become a stalemate by the year 1409, so Mehmed decided to employ the very tactic that  Suleyman employed on him years prior. Sending Musa to create chaos in the Balkans, Mehmed wished to destabilize Suleyman’s realm like he had done so with Isa against him. Taking a ship from the Candarid Beylik, Musa landed on the Thracian Black Sea coast, where he immediately began to contact the Ottoman marcher lords and Christian leaders of the local region.

Before we discuss the fruits of Musa’s diplomatic scheming, let us go back in time to see the political developments of the Balkans during the last seven years. Like their Byzantine counterparts, the rulers of Serbia and Wallachia had not been idle during the Ottoman Civil War. Ever since the aftermath of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Principality of Serbia under its ruler Stefan Lazarević had been a loyal vassal to Edirne.

Despot of Serbia

The young prince of Serbia had fought bravely alongside his heavy knights in the many military campaigns of Bayezid I from Rovine to Nicopolis to Ankara. However, in the aftermath of Timur’s crushing victory at Ankara, Stefan and his retinue of Serbian knights escaped westward and found themselves in  Constantinople at the court of Manuel II.

Most likely as a way to establish an alliance between their two states, the Roman Emperor bestowed the   Serbian prince with the highly coveted court title of Despot, which was only reserved for the family members of the Imperial dynasty. Returning from the Battle of Ankara as the Despot of Serbia, Stefan had spooked the newly established feeble regime of Suleyman Çelebi as Ottoman power projection in the Balkans had greatly diminished after the defeat at Ankara.

History of Sultan Suleyman

Edirne felt like their Serbian vassal and other Christian rulers in the region could any day declare war on the Sublime Porte or, worse yet, form another great crusader army. Fortunately for Suleyman’s government, the only power that could greatly hinder Ottoman presence in the Balkans, the Kingdom of Hungary, was too preoccupied with wars in Bohemia and Italy to truly take advantage of the Ottoman civil war.  

However, with Serbia seemingly drifting out of Ottoman hegemony, Suleyman blocked Stefan’s land route back to his realm, which resulted in the Serbian despot traveling by sea through the lands of his brother-in-law Durad II Balsic of Zeta. Once home, Stefan was faced with a turbulent political scene as his nobility were split on the decision to free themselves from Edirne’s suzerainty or to support Suleyman in the upcoming civil war.

Battle of Tripolje

The nobleman Durad Brankovic, the son of the infamous Vuk Brankovic who had fought and abandoned his liege lord during the   Battle of Kosovo in an attempt to usurp Stefan, had invited Ottoman troops into Serbia. Tensions turned into open conflict as Durad’s and  Stefan’s armies clashed at the Battle of Tripolje during the fall of 1402. Being supported by his brother Vuk Lazarevic and troops from Zeta, Stefan successfully routed the forces of Durad and, in the months after his victory, consolidated his position on the Serbian throne. 

By the following year, the Serbian despot had renounced his vassalship to Suleyman in favor of fielding suzerainty to King Sigismund of Hungary, thus freeing himself from Muslim overlordship. Likewise, Wallachia also took advantage of the Ottoman civil war. After defeating Vlad I to reunite his realm in the months after Nicopolis, Wallachian Voivode Mircea I had been pushed to the defense as Ottoman Akıncıs plundered his lands in a series of devastating raids.

Almost Destroyed the Ottomans

However, after Ankara, Mircea had gone on the offensive and refortified his holdings in northern Dobruja, launched raids of his south of the Danube, and even supported a Bulgarian rebellion in the wider region. With another son of Bayezid arriving on the shores of the Balkans in 1409 came new opportunities for the Wallachian ruler to make gains against Edirne. Mircea invited the Musa to his realm and concluded a marriage alliance with his daughter, Arina of Wallachia, to the Ottoman prince.

In addition to the newly formed alliance, Musa began recruiting a large army made out of Wallachians supplied by Mircea and Turkomans supplied by the local Ottoman marcher lords of the region. Vuk Lazarevic also joined Musa’s cause alongside a small contingent of Serbian troops after falling out with his brother after Tripolje. By year’s end, the Ottoman prince had already won multiple victories in Bulgaria over the local forces of Suleyman, and by year’s end, the Ottoman capital of Edirne fell to him. 

Edirne and Constantinople

With his holdings in the Balkans now under threat, a now panicked Suleyman decided to abandon his Anatolian campaign against Mehmed and began withdrawing from the region. To ensure the safety of his crossing into Europe, the ‘sultan of Edirne’ met with Byzantine Emperor Manuel II to obtain assurances and logistical support for his army in return for his presumed heir, Kasim Çelebi, to be sent to the Byzantine capital as a political hostage.

To solidify the alliance between Edirne and Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor married his niece to Suleyman in return for military aid for the sultan’s war effort against Musa. By the summer of 1410, the crossing was completed, and the two sons of Bayezid clashed at Kosmidion in what was to be a bloody affair for both sides. The fate of the battle was only decided when Suleyman and his bodyguard suddenly stormed into Musa’s camp, thus resulting in a full rout of the latter’s army.

The Victory over Musa

A month later, the brothers again clashed near the gates of Edirne, which again saw Musa being decisively defeated after his Serbian troops under Vuk Lazarevic prematurely fled the field of battle. While Suleyman heroically reentered Edirne, Musa withdrew north with the remains of his army to Sofia, not before executing Vuk for treason along the retreat. In the months after his victory over Musa, Suleyman Çelebi, instead of pursuing the scattered armies of his brother up north, secluded most of his time in the Imperial palace of Edirne.  

According to later biased Ottoman sources, the overconfident sultan had always been a heavy partier, and now, without his trusted Grand Vizier by his side, he indulged himself in the luxuries of his harem. Meanwhile, back in Anatolia, Mehmed had recaptured all the lands he had lost to Suleyman back in 1406, along with defeating Hizir  Shah of the Sarukhanids and installing his brother Omar Bey as an Ottoman vassal.

Serbia and the Byzantium

Unhappy with the sultan’s leadership, the reversal of fortunes in Anatolia, and the very unpopular terms of the  Treaty of Gallipoli, the Ottoman bureaucracy at the capital, in addition to the Kapikulu elite of the military, began rapidly defecting to Musa en mass. However, during his journey to the Roman capital,   he was caught and beheaded by a group of villages who resented him as a tyrant ruler, thus bringing an end to the eldest son of ‘the Thunderbolt.

By the start of 1411, Musa entered Edirne thus, only two claimants for the Ottoman throne were left. In the days after entering the Ottoman capital, Musa began to distance himself from his subordination to Mehmed and declared himself as ‘sultan’ in front of the city’s populace. Now in power and sharing his father’s relentless temper, Musa went on a path of revenge and declared war against Serbia and the Byzantium for their past transactions against him.

Battle of İnceğiz

While Ottoman Akıncıs began raiding southern Serbia, the new Ottoman sultan continued his father’s work of blockading Constantinople while he suppressed a Bulgarian rebellion led by the son of the late  Tsar Ivan Sratsimir, Constantine II. With his capital city under blockade once more, followed by the sudden fall of Thessalonica and the various coastal settlements of Thrace and Thessaly, Manuel II began negotiations with Mehmed Çelebi to form a united front against Musa.

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Agreeing to reinstate the Treaty of Gallipoli once he was in power, Mehmed and his army crossed the Bosphorus with the aid of Byzantine ships and clashed with his brother west of the Roman capital at the Battle of İnceğiz in the spring of 1412, but Mehmed’s Turkoman troops were again no match for the elite Ottoman Kapikulu and thus had to retreat to Anatolia. However, the determined ‘sultan of Bursa’ played his hand again and crossed into the Balkans with an even larger army during the summer of 1413.  

Battle of Çamurlu

By this period, the harsh and impulsive rule of Musa had caused many bureaucrats in Edirne, such as the brother of the late Grand Vizier, Candarli Ibrahim Pasha, to declare for Mehmed. Many statemen thought Musa’s relentless wars in the Balkans would bring further ruin to the state and thus wanted a quick resolution to the Ottoman civil war. With the backing of Serbia and the elite Ottoman Kapikulu, Mehmed defeated Musa at the decisive Battle of Çamurlu near the Bulgarian town of Samokov.

Having Musa strangled after the battle, Mehmed entered Edirne and declared himself the sole sultan of the Ottoman Sultanate, thus bringing an end to ten years of civil wars.  Even though the Ottoman interregnum was over, and Sultan Mehmed I had reunited his father’s realm, dark clouds still loomed over Edirne as a new set of crises reared upon a recovering Ottoman state.  

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