On September 26, 1371, 8001 or 4000 Ottoman troops crushed an army of 70,000 soldiers of the Serbian Empire at the Battle of Maritsa (Meriç).
Although the size of both armies is disputed, the Ottoman numbers were significantly very smaller. According to contemporary sources, the Ottomans were no more than 800 men. However, some historians have also estimated a number somewhere around 4,000. On the other hand, the Serbs numbered somewhere around 50,000 to 70,000 according to numerous sources.
In any case, the superior tactics of the Ottoman army and quality over quantity sealed the victory for the Turks. It was a catastrophic defeat for the Serbians and for the whole cause of eastern Christendom. Both the Serbian prince and king, Uglješa Mrnjavčević and Vukašin Mrnjavčević, were killed in the battle.
As a matter of fact, the Battle of Maritsa had perhaps more far-reaching consequences than any other Turkish victory before 1453. This victory allowed the Turks to extend their control over southern Serbia and Macedonia and also opened their gates to Greece.
Previously, the Ottomans conquered the city of Adrianople (now Edirne) in 1369 (or 1362/1366). The city occupied a strategic position at the confluence of the Maritsa and Tundzha rivers, giving access to central and eastern Bulgaria, and to western Thrace. It was probably, therefore, the imminent danger to the lands lying to the west of Edirne that motivated the Christian states to make an alliance against the Ottomans in 1366 to drive them back. However, their efforts ended in failure.
The Ottomans had reached the Serbian Empire’s border. Therefore, the king of Serbia Vukašin Mrnjavčević along with his brother Uglješa Mrnjavčević decided to attack Murad I and his forces on the Maritsa river in 1371.
The battle was organized to make a surprise attack on the Ottomans in their capital city, Edirne, while Murad I was in Anatolia, leaving Lala Sahin Pasha as the guardian of the city. Confident in their bigger force, the two brothers began their march. Their plan was to go down the stream of the river Maritsa and lead a surprise attack. Lala Shahin, however, knew what was going on.
Overconfident Serbians could not have an idea of the measures taken by Lala Shahin Pasha. He employed shrewd tactics and waited for the right moment. On the night of 25 September, the camped Serbians celebrated their future victory and many of them slept drunk. Therefore, Lala Shahin attacked the Serbian camp in the early morning hours of 26 September.
There was chaos all around. Thousands of Serbian soldiers were killed. Whoever tried to escape drowned in the river Maritsa. Lala Shahin planned the attack in a way that the Serbs could not understand whether there were only 800 men or a full army commanded by Murad I himself. The Serbians would once again come into conflict with the Ottomans in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.
- Chalkokondylēs Laonikos, et al. The Histories. Harvard University Press, 2014.
- The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power, Colin Imber
- The Cambridge History of Turkey, Kate Fleet
- The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600, Halil Inalcik
- The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1 453, Donald M. Nicol
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