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Wars of the Ottomans and Safavids

Posted January 20th, 2017 at 04:11 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga
Updated January 21st, 2017 at 10:58 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga

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The conflicts between the Ottoman and Safavid empires, as well as their successor dynasty the Afshars, lasted from 1514 until 1747. These series of wars were the result of expansionism and the desire for control of the Middle East by both sides, specifically the threat that the Safavids posed to Ottoman territory. The Ottoman-Safavid Wars were also waged as a continuation of the schism between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Finally the Ottoman-Safavid Wars can also be seen as part of a larger series of wars in the Ottoman conquests.

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Shah Ismail, progenitor of the Safavid Dynasty

First of all the wars between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires were the result of the threat that the Safavids were to the Ottoman Empire and imperialism by both empires. The origins of the war lie with the establishment of the Safavid state. In 1500 Ismail led his Shia warrior sect of Azerbaijan to rebel against the Ak Koyunlu Sultanate. The Ak Koyunlu controlled large areas of Iran, Iraq and the Caucasus and were primarily of the Sunni branch of Islam. By 1502 Ismail and his Shiite Qizilbash followers overran most of the Ak Koyunlu territory so their leader appealed to the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II for assistance. Bayezid agreed and sent an Ottoman contingent to help the Ak Koyunlu fight the Qizilbash, even though both empires were not formally at war. This contingent, led by Zal Pasha and Osman Pasha, was wiped out along with the Ak Koyunlu army at the Battle of Hamadan in 1503. Following this victory Ismail was able to conquer the entire Iranian plateau and destroy the Ak Koyunlu state. During a campaign in 1507 Ismail attacked the Dulkadir Turcomen on the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire. The Safavid army passed through Eastern Anatolia which was Ottoman territory however the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II did not retaliate. The immediate origins of the war took place during the Shia revolts in Eastern Anatolia. A pro-Safavid revolt made up of Shia rebels were led by Sahkulu in the Ottoman provinces of Anatolia. In 1511 Sahkulu began his revolt and met some success against provincial armies. Despite some early victories he was cornered by the Ottoman Imperial army and was killed. Even though Sahkulu died his followers did not surrender; some fled to the Safavids while others retreated into the hills. As can be seen from the events prior to the break out of war both empires were deeply involved in each otherís politics.

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Sultan Selim Yavuz, the victor of Chaldiran

The Safavids however had expanded their territory over Iraq, Iran, the Caucasus and Anatolia. Moreover Ismail had used his supposed descent from Caliph Ali to claim rightful ruler ship of the Middle East among the Shia and his Qizilbash followers. Many of his followers believed that he was the Shia Imam or Messiah; in other words this was an affront to all of the rulers in the area. Discontent among the Janissaries with the threat that the Safavids posed and the seeming lack of response from the present ruler were factors in the overthrow of Bayezid II in favour of his son Selim. Upon his accession to the throne in 1512, Selim began a purge of Shiites and all those which he suspected of being sympathetic to the Safavids. Finally in 1514 Selim declared war on the Safavids with the intent to cut off the source of what he believed was the source of the Shiite rebellions in Anatolia. Selim also wanted to wipe out the threat that the Safavids posed and to conquer the Safavid state. After defeating Ismailís army in the Battle of Chaldiran Selim occupied the Safavid capital of Tabriz. The Sultan wanted to continue into Iran and conquer the Safavid state. The Janissaries did not want to suffer from the scorched earth tactics of the Safavids and mutinied thus forcing Selim to retreat from Tabriz. Selim continued operations against rebellious Shiites and other pro-Safavid forces in Eastern Anatolia until 1517 but there was no formal conclusion to his war with Ismail. Henceforth the Ottomans and Safavids would formally engage in war and begin the first in a long series of wars against each other. The beginnings of the Ottoman-Safavid Wars can be traced back to the ambitions of both empires to rule the Middle East.

The Ottoman-Safavid Wars were also a continuation of the much older conflict of the schism between Sunni and Shia Islam. The original Islamic schism that arose from the succession of the Prophet Muhammad and the deaths of Ali and his son Husayn in the 600ís continued to be a factor by the 1500ís. Until the rise of the Safavids Shiism in politics had been mostly confined to regional or provincial power struggles. The exception was the Fatimid Caliphate which ruled in Egypt during the Early Medieval period, regardless the Safavid Empire was the first state to establish itself as a major power since then. To gain power Ismail used his supposed descent from Ali as legitimacy to lead the religious warrior order known as the Qizilbash. By the time Ismail had established the Safavid state he was the only major Shiite leader in the Middle East. From the Shia perspective he could claim to be the only legitimate ruler due to his descent from Ali. After defeating the Ak Koyunlu Ismail declared himself Shah of Iran and his Safavid state and Qizilbash movement a Shia one. The Sunni populace of the Ak Koyunlu was converted by Ismail to the Shia faith. Because of the Safavids, Iran was converted to a largely Shiite country. For instance when Ismail invaded Iraq in 1508 he destroyed Sunni shrines and mosques in an attempt to disrupt Sunni worship. Ismailís attempts to spread Shiism did not stop there. The revolt of Sahkulu in 1511 can be considered a pro-Safavid revolt. In fact Sahkulu was only a title that meant ďServant of the ShahĒ and Shiite activity in the area was likely meant to spread the idea of Safavid allegiance among the populace. The Shiite revolts and the campaigns to suppress Shiism would continue throughout the reign of Selim and that of his son Suleiman. Shiite revolts in Anatolia would even occur throughout the 1600ís. The revolts themselves were sometimes brought on by poor administration and government corruption however they usually took on the form of religiously motivated uprisings with religious leaders at the head. The sentiment that one or the other branch of Islam was heretical can also be seen in the activities of the empires on the eve of war. Selim had the religious leaders of his empire to declare holy war and likewise Ismail declared holy war on Selim despite both being Muslim rulers. In the letters that were exchanged between Ismail and Selim on the eve of the Battle of Chaldiran Selim wrote to Ismail saying ďyou have subjected the upright community of Muhammad to your devious will, that you have undermined the firm foundation of the FaithĒ to which Ismail responded ďindeed those vain, heretical imputations are the mere fabrications of the opium-clouded minds of certain secretaries and scribesĒ. The roots of Selimís war with Ismail can be seen in the violent conflict between Sunni and Shia.

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Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, campaign in Nakchivan 1555

There were also attempts to reconcile Shiism and Sunnism by both powers in a bid to end the source of conflict permanently. After Selimís victory over Ismail in 1514 there was no conclusion or treaty between the two empires. During the years 1516 and 1517 Selim was occupied with the conquest of the Egyptian Mamluks and was given the title of Caliph by the last Abbasid Caliph. Now that Selim and his successors could claim the Caliphate the Ottoman rulers had greatly increased their legitimacy within the Islamic world. The fact that in the reign of Suleiman the war had been ongoing since 1514 meant that there was no trade between the Safavids and Ottomans or pilgrimages from Iran to Mecca. After Selimís victory in 1514 actual hostilities did not continue until 1532 during the reigns of Sultan Suleiman and Shah Tahmasp. This continuation of the earlier war did not end until 1555 with the treaty of Amasya which formally concluded the war which began in 1514 and the continued hostilities of 1532. The terms of the 1555 treaty of Amasya allowed trade between the Ottomans and Savafids, created a defined border between the two empires stretching the Caucasus down to the Persian Gulf, permitted Safavid pilgrimages to Mecca and the Safavids accepted the Ottomans as Caliphs of Islam. The compromise to allow trade and pilgrimage with a Shiite country in exchange for recognition as leaders of the Islamic world represented the first attempt at reconciliation between Shiite state and a Sunni one, this differed from Selim and Ismailís policy of mutual hostility. The reconciliation did not last long since the Ottomans under Sultan Murad III invaded the Caucasus regions under the control of the Safavids in 1578. The Ottoman army defeated the Safavids in the region and forced Shah Abbas to sign the 1590 treaty of Constantinople. By this treaty the Safavids had to cede the Caucasus regions to the Sultan, accept Murad III as Caliph and to obey the religious rulings of the Ottomans and their Sunni religious leaders. The following treaties were also short lived; the humiliating peace terms imposed on the Safavids were met by a counter attack by Shah Abbas. Shah Abbas was able to retake all former territory in Iraq, the Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia between 1603 and 1618. The Ottomans retaliated and from 1623 until 1639 Sultan Murad IV conquered what Abbas had retaken. In 1639 the Treaty of Zuhab set the border like the Treaty of Amasya had and granted the Ottomans and Safavids the same compromises on religious rights as the previous treaties, all following treaties would use the Treaty of Zuhab as the basis for the borders. The forced concessions by the Shah created a temporary period of peace between the Sunni and Shia empires.

It was only on the disintegration of the Safavid dynasty in 1722 that another war could break out. The Ottomans invaded Western Iran while the Safavids were facing rebels and Sunni Afghan invaders for which the Ottomans had issued a fatwa to fight the heretical Persians. The Safavids were saved by a military leader called Nader who helped them take back the country. In 1736 Nader usurped the Safavids and declared Iran a Sunni state so that the religious differences of his new Afshar dynasty and the Ottomans could be resolved. Nader requested that the Ottomans, who held the Caliphate, make Shiism an unheretical sect of Sunnism called Jafarism. Naderís request to reconcile the Shia and Sunni faiths would have also included his recognition of the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph and the banning of Shia practices that were contrary to Sunnism in exchange for Ottoman recognition of Naderís rule in Iran and Iranian pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1747 the Treaty of Kerden granted these things to Nader but they did not accept the decision to make Shiism a sect of Sunnism. The decision to convert Iran to Sunnism may have been to gain the allegiance of peoples such as the Afghans and Uzbeks who were also Sunni and a major group in Naderís military but also to erase the main source of conflict in the religious dispute. One might infer that this was actually Nader's attempt to appeal to those within the Ottoman state so that Nader could expand his empire westwards. Visiting clerics would claim that Jafarism had retained too much from Shiism and as the two were so similar Nader's religious reforms were still deemed heretical. Naderís empire was not recognized as Sunni by the Ottomans and Iran would remain Shiite. Whether this was due to actual religious reasons or simply a way to maintain the pretext and continue the rivalry is hard to say for certain. Naderís assassination in 1747 caused his empire to collapse and the next ruling dynasties would continue to accept Ottoman religious rulings as Caliphs of Islam; the major source of conflict were border disputes which resulted in a minor war in 1821 and the following treaty was the same as the previous ones in its terms, outside of this war the Ottomans and Iranian dynasties after the Safavids and Afshars were relatively peaceful towards each other. The Ottoman wars with the Safavids and with their successor Nader Shah can be seen in many ways as a part of the Islamic schism. The wars began with a clash between Sunnis and Shiites but ended with the Ottoman Caliphs being recognized as the leaders of the Islamic world despite the fact that the schism between the two Muslim groups was never really solved.

The conflicts between Ottomans and Safavids can also be considered one part in the bigger picture of the Ottoman conquests. While the Ottoman Empire had expanded its power over three continents the Safavids did not have many great conquests over their neighbors with the exception of Nader Shah. The Ottomans had become world powers with many rivals; their major rival in the Middle East had become the Safavids. The Safavids on the other hand were regional powers and waged most of their wars against the Ottoman Empire. By 1514 when the first conflict between the Ottomans and Safavids had broken out the Ottomans controlled most of Anatolia and the Balkans. The Safavid state had only recently conquered Iran and Iraq from the Ak Koyunlu and defeated the Uzbek tribes on his northern border. It was Selimís campaign in 1514 in which the Ottomans found themselves in the rare situation of fighting only one opponent, Selim was able to concentrate his military power on defeating Ismail. After defeating Ismail at Chaldiran Selim looted the Safavid capital of Tabriz and retreated to Anatolia to defeat the Safavid supporters at his back now that the Safavid army was no longer a threat. In 1516 Selim had the religious leaders and courts of his empire declare a holy war upon the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt on the pretext that they had been discussing alliances with the Safavids against the Ottomans. Since Selim was able to defeat the Mamluks he added Egypt and the Levant to his empire and controlled significant amounts of territory in the Middle East.

The succession of his son Suleiman to the Ottoman throne in 1520 saw even more military action in various corners of the empire. At the start of his reign Suleiman fought the Spanish, the Knights Hospitaller and the Venetians in the Mediterranean and North Africa as well as the Hungarians and the Holy Roman Empire in Europe. After Suleimanís conquest of Hungary in 1526 the Ottomans were embroiled in a long war in Europe and the Mediterranean Sea but also in the Indian Ocean with the Portuguese which lasted for the forty-six years that Suleiman ruled. Earlier in 1519 Shah Ismail began to negotiate with the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V to establish an alliance between the Safavids and the Hapsburgs. His successor Shah Tahmasp continued these talks and agreed to fight with Suleiman and create a new front in the war. The ensuing war lasted from 1532 until 1555 and saw a major stalemate for both sides although the Ottomans conquered Iraq from the Safavids. Shah Tahmasp for his part had only been busy reorganizing his military and fighting the incursion of Uzbek tribesmen and otherwise he spent most of his reign fighting Suleiman. At the time of his death in 1566 Suleiman had brought the Ottoman Empire to what many consider to have been its golden age.

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Shah Abbas battles the Ottomans

The Ottoman war with the Safavids continued again from 1578 to 1590. Again the Ottomans were able to concentrate their strength against their Safavid foe. The Ottomans conquered all of the Caucasus from the Safavid Empire. Shah Abbas accepted a peace agreement so that he could focus on reorganizing his military and fighting off Uzbek attacks on the Iranian frontiers. Following their victory on their eastern borders the Ottomans fought the Holy Roman Empire in the indecisive Long War for fifteen years. From that point onward the Ottomans would stop expanding their borders and had to largely rely on defending their broad territory. When Shah Abbas decided to take back his north western territory in 1603 the Ottomans were finishing their battles in the Long War and even began fighting Poland. Shah Abbas continually defeated the Ottoman armies and overran Iraq, the Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia. In 1638 the new Ottoman Sultan Murad IV ended the empireís wars in Europe to defend his eastern possessions from the Safavids. His forces retook much of the territory and negotiated a border settlement with the Safavids. The rest of the 1600ís saw defeats in two wars for the Ottoman in Europe against the armies of the Holy Roman Empire (Austria), Russia and Poland. A final offensive by the Ottoman Turks to take Vienna failed moreover the Ottomans lost control of the Hungarian frontier. The Safavids faced similar upheaval by their own subjects and invading Afghans and Uzbeks. Seeing the collapse of the Safavids the Ottomans took advantage of the situation to grab the entirety of Western Iran. Nader rose to the occasion and was able to defeat all of these threats pushing them out of Iran. Naderís counter attacks pushed into Iraq and the Caucasus in 1735 at the same time that Russia and Austria invaded Ottoman lands in the Balkans and around the Black Sea. Nader was willing to accept the return of Iranian lands but the Ottomans lost territory in Europe to Russia and Austria as well. Naderís victories were short lived and upon his assassination his empire collapsed. Iran would no longer be a major rival to the Ottoman Empire in the Middle Eastern region. Even so the Ottoman Empire would be defeated throughout the 18th and 19th century by its European neighbors and revolts across their empire until it collapsed at the end of the First World War. The Safavid Empire was not the main opponent of the Ottomans; it was their main rival in the Middle East before the Safavid Empire collapsed. The Ottoman Empire outlived the Safavid Empire and their Afshar successors after all of the wars between them that lasted between 1514 and 1747. In that time and afterwards the Ottomans faced multiple enemies on three continents and much of the time their Iranian opponents were only a side theater of a larger war for world hegemony.

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Nader Shah, successor to the Safavids and founder of the Afshar Dynasty

Five wars were fought between the Ottomans and Safavids as well as their short lived offshoots the Afshars. These wars began as a desire for control over the Middle East and as a reaction to the rapid Safavid expansion. The wars had a significant religious aspect since both empires were the major powers of their respective Islamic sects. However despite the long rivalry between them the Safavids represented only one front for the world conquering power that were the Ottomans.
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  1. Old Comment
    RomaVictrix's Avatar
    Fantastic summary of the conflicts of these two empires! A refreshing reminder that Iran's Shia majority has been at odds with the predominantly Sunni Arab (and Turkish) world for centuries. Of course, if they were all Sunnis or Shia they'd find some other reason to fight each other, whether that be economic or some nationalistic grievance, but the religious schism and sectarian fault line certainly helped to encourage combatants on both sides.
    Posted January 21st, 2017 at 12:12 PM by RomaVictrix RomaVictrix is offline

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