Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Otlukbeli (1473)

The Aqquyunlu confederation challenges the Ottoman Empire, and winds up regretting it.

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I assume most or even all of you have heard of the Ottomans, but I’m not sure how many have heard of the Aqquyunlu (“white sheep” in Turkish) tribal confederation, as it is considerably more obscure. The Aqquyunlu didn’t have a very long run as a major world power, hence the obscurity. But for a few decades in the second half of the 15th century, they controlled much of modern Iraq and Iran as well as parts of Anatolia, the Caucasus, and modern Syria. They had a heck of a peak, is what I’m saying. And if they hadn’t picked a fight with the Ottomans they might have gotten to stay there for a while longer.

The Aqquyunlu were one of a number of Turkic tribal groupings that emerged in the chaos surrounding the mid-14th century collapse of Mongol authority in the Iran-Iraq region. In 1402 the ruling dynasty’s founder, Qara Osman (d. ~1435) threw in with Timur when the latter decided he’d had enough of the early Ottomans and invaded Anatolia to do something about it. After the Battle of Ankara, where Timur decisively crushed the Ottomans, he rewarded Qara Osman with control over the province of Diyarbakr, a region whose historic borders are a little sketchy but that was located in extreme northern Mesopotamia (mostly southeastern Turkey today).

After Timur died in 1405, the Aqquyunlu undoubtedly would have been interested in expanding their territory. But they were blocked by another Turkic tribal confederation, the Qaraquyunlu (“black sheep”). The Qaraquyunlu had been Timur’s enemies, and after his death they seized control of the Azerbaijan region, conquered Armenia in 1410, and took control of Baghdad away from the Mongolian Jalayir tribe. As Timur’s descendents proved less and less capable of defending their territory to the east, the Qaraquyunlu kept expanding, until they controlled southern Iraq and some parts of the eastern Arabian peninsula by about 1450. Then they decided to expand north, which put the Aqquyunlu in their sights.

The decision to turn northward proved to be an exceptionally bad one for the Qaraquyunlu. In 1452 a grandson of Qara Osman, Uzun Hasan (d. 1478), became ruler of the Aqquyunlu, and he seems to have had some talent as a military leader. In 1467 the two confederations met in a decisive battle in eastern Anatolia, and, well, you don’t really hear from the Qaraquyunlu again after that. One of their number, Qara Yusuf (d. 1420), migrated east and founded the Qutb Shahi dynasty in the Indian region of Golkonda (around modern Hyderabad), which survived mostly as a Mughal vassal until the late 17th century, so the dynasty didn’t disappear completely. But it did disappear from the Middle East.

Uzun Hasan expanded his domains to the east (also at the expense of the Timurids) until his new empire reached the borders you see in that map above, but what he desperately wanted was to defeat our friends the Ottomans. They’d recovered so thoroughly from Timur’s 1402 thrashing that, as we all know, in 1453 they finally closed the book on the Byzantine Empire for good by conquering Constantinople. This in itself put them on Uzun Hasan’s bad side, because the Aqquyunlu had long had close ties with the Byzantines. For example, Uzun Hasan’s queen consort was a princess of the Byzantine successor “empire” of Trebizond, on the southern shore of the Black Sea. Which the Ottomans conquered in 1461. Apart from the personal affront(s), it was inevitable that the rapidly expanding Ottoman sultanate would eventually reach and try to conquer Diyarbakr, still the political center of the Aqquyunlu empire. So Uzun Hasan decided to get ready for that.

It was around this time when Uzun Hasan decided to form an alliance with one of the Ottomans’ European enemies, Venice. It was actually the Venetians who made the first move here. They were at war with the Ottomans over the Aegean Sea and parts of modern Greece and Albania from 1463-1479, and around 1463 they sent an embassy to Diyarbakr to see if Uzun Hasan would be amenable to attacking the Ottomans from the east. Uzun Hasan stalled, but ultimately decided that he’d never get a better chance to deal with the Ottoman threat than while they were occupied with a war against another enemy to the west. So he cut a deal with the Venetians: equip me with firearms, and I’ll give you a two-front war. At the same time he made an alliance with another Turkish dynasty, the Karamanids in southern Anatolia, who were the Ottomans’ only real rival for Anatolian supremacy.

Unfortunately for the Uzun Hasan, his correspondence alerted Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II that the Aqquyunlu—who probably weren’t on the Ottomans’ radar quite yet—were going to be trouble. So Mehmed decided to take the initiative and marched his army east. In 1471, the Ottomans defeated the Karamanids and knocked them out of the fight. The Aqquyunlu were next, but they’d be a very tough opponent once those Venetian firearms got there, which…never happened. Yes, the Venetians never came through with Uzun Hasan’s guns. The Aqquyunlu ruler, who hopefully learned a valuable lesson about trusting Europeans, had to send his mounted archers out against what was one of the most modernized armies in the world.

Estimates in the various histories of the period vary, but the Ottomans probably fielded an army of around 100,000 men to roughly 40,000 Aqquyunlu fighters. To his credit, Uzun Hasan tried to make the best of a bad situation, first by harassing the marching Ottoman column on August 4 as it tried to cross the Euphrates and then by taking the high ground around the Ottoman camp and trying to starve them out. But let’s get real—the Ottomans had much more advanced weaponry, were using some of the most sophisticated military tactics of the period, and had a large advantage in numbers. Once they pulled themselves together and engaged the Aqquyunlu in a pitched battle, it was no contest. The two armies met at Otlukbeli, near the city of Erzincan in northeastern Anatolia, on August 11, 1473, and, to make a not particularly long story a little shorter, the Aqquyunlu army was crushed.

The Aqquyunlu were finished as a serious Middle Eastern power, but they managed to hang on to what they already had for almost three decades after the battle. Uzun Hasan died in 1478 and was succeeded by his son, Yaqub, who ruled until 1490. Yaqub never thought about going after the Ottomans again, but he did find himself dealing with a domestic problem. Uzun Hasan had formed an alliance with another Turkic confederation called the Qizilbash, which was led by a dynasty of Sufi warlords known as the Safaviyah. For a while they proved to be fairly reliable auxiliaries when the Aqquyunlu needed military assistance. But over time the Qizilbash became more of a pain in the neck than a useful ally, particularly when they started raiding territories controlled by Aqquyunlu allies in the Caucasus.

After Yaqub died, his sons spent the next decade squabbling over the throne while simultaneously trying to put down their growing Qizilbash problem, but the latter proved too much for them. In 1501, the Qizilbash decisively defeated the Aqquyunlu and installed their leader, Ismail, as the ruler first of Azerbaijan and then of all of Iran. Ismail I inaugurated the Safavid Dynasty, which ruled Iran for the next two centuries (give or take). Ismail, who was Uzun Hasan’s grandson on his mother’s side, would soon try to take on the Ottomans himself, and it went about as well for him as it had for his grandfather. But that’s for another time.