Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Chaldiran (1514)

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Today is the anniversary of a battle that had far-reaching implications for the Middle East, but that gets relatively little recognition if you’re not a specialist in either Ottoman or Safavid history. The 1514 Battle of Chaldiran determined, among other things, that the Safavids would not be invading Anatolia, and it established the basic template of the Ottoman-Safavid relationship, by which I mean that the Ottomans, with very few exceptions, would spend the next couple of centuries having their military way with the Safavids whenever the mood struck.

Our story begins in 1501, when control of Iran passed from the Turkic tribal confederation known as the Aqquyunlu (“White Sheep”) to the Safavids. The Safavids began as a very peaceful Sunni Sufi order, of all things, but turned Shiʿa and militant (probably in that order), and came to power on the back of a zealously devoted band of Turkic warrior followers known as the Qizilbash (“red heads”) after the red headdress they wore (the taj-i Haydari or “crown of Haydar,” named for one of the movement’s leaders). The man responsible for transitioning the Safavids from Sufi warlords to Iranian rulers was Shah Ismail I (d. 1524), of mixed but (probably) predominantly Kurdish ancestry.

Ismail’s impact on world history is substantial. The dynasty he founded was the first more or less since the Arab conquests of the seventh century to restore the concept of “Iran” as a unique nation, and therefore he can arguably be called the father of the modern Iranian state. He’s also the guy most responsible for establishing Twelver Shiʿism as the dominant branch of Islam in modern Iran. And when I say “establishing Twelver Shiʿism,” I mean he and his successors made strenuous efforts to convert the Iranian populace to the new faith, sometimes resorting to…oh, let’s say “coercion.” In this sense they were quite unlike the previous large Shiʿa principality in the Middle East, the Fatimid Caliphate in 10th-12th century Egypt, which spent no time trying to convert its mostly Sunni subjects.

Ismail’s personal religious leanings are somewhat unclear, because while he was alive he promulgated some very extremist (really un-Islamic) teachings via his poetry, which we still have today and which is mostly written in an early form of Azeri Turkic (better known as Azerbaijani). In his poems, Ismail claims at various times to be the reincarnation of several mythic pre-Islamic Persian heroes, a descendant of Ali and the other 11 Imams, Khidr (the name subsequent writers appended to an unnamed prophet mentioned in the Quran), Jesus, Alexander the Great, and possibly God Himself. This was a guy who dreamed big.

For the record, reincarnation is one of those things that is beyond the pale of anything that can reasonably be considered Islamic, and that’s even taking into account the sometimes broad historical interpretations of what is or isn’t considered “Islamic.” Ancient Persian mythology isn’t exactly compatible with Islam either. And the notion that Ismail and the other Safavids were descended from the imams is, to say the least, unlikely.

Shah_Ismail_I

Ismail I

Once enthroned, the now-Shah Ismail greatly expanded the territory under his control with a successful campaign in the east against the Uzbek Shaybanid Empire, whose rulers were descended from Genghis Khan. As a militant, expansionist Shiʿa leader at the head of a devoted and powerful Turkic war band, he quickly came to represent a serious threat to the dominant power in the Islamic world, the neighboring Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans became aware of this threat when, in 1511, a group of Safavid sympathizers under a man named Shah Kulu rebelled in eastern Anatolia. The sultan was an aging Bayezid II, who had been a fairly ineffectual ruler even in his prime and was far from his prime by this point. At that moment, the empire was preoccupied by a civil war between Bayezid’s sons, Selim and Ahmed, over the inevitable succession. It was Ahmed who put down the revolt when his army killed Shah Kulu in battle in July 1511, but in the process Grand Vizier Hadım Ali Pasha—Ahmed’s most prominent supporter in the empire—was also killed. The Alevi community in Turkey today can be linked back to these Safavid sympathizers, though that’s a rabbit hole we’d best avoid if we’re going to get to the main point of today’s story.

Bayezid died in 1512 and Selim (Selim I now, or “Selim the Grim” as he is sometimes known) won the civil war. The new sultan resolved to make sure that nothing like the Shah Kulu rebellion would ever happen again. He found a mufti who was willing to decree that Safavid beliefs were outside Islam, in order to remove any religious impediment to attacking them. That done, Selim led his army through eastern Anatolia and into the Caucasus.

selim i

Sultan Selim I (d. 1520)

At first, Ismail did the right thing, the thing that Iranian rulers would learn to do in the face of Ottoman invasions in the future: he retreated and scorched the earth behind him. Selim’s army, marching over difficult terrain, was disoriented and demoralized. But Ismail couldn’t retreat forever—his image wouldn’t allow it. He was Alexander the Great, after all, and also all of those mythical Iranian heroes, and maybe even God, and those guys don’t retreat. This proved to be his undoing.

The Safavid army finally met the Ottomans in the field at Chaldiran, in northeastern Iran. Selim, at the head of an exhausted, hungry army, probably didn’t send Ismail a thank you note, but he should have. Hindsight is 20/20, but Ismail was clearly dooming his army to defeat by offering battle. The Ottoman army was larger, better equipped, and (as it turns out) better led. But at the time, the Safavids and their Qizilbash fighters were the ultimate wild card in the region. They were savage, passionately committed warriors, fantastic horsemen, and had been successful in every major engagement they’d had when Ismail was in the field with them. Their one major defeat to this point, against the Uzbeks at the Battle of Ghujduvan in 1512, had come without Ismail and after most of the Qizilbash deserted their commander, whom they collectively despised. So it didn’t really count. They surely figured they couldn’t lose.

Map - Iran - Safavids & Neighbors

The Safavid kingdom is in purple, though at its greatest extent it also included those areas with the diagonal lines. If you squint and look in the area just west of the Caspian, you can see Chaldiran there.

The Ottomans, as was their usual practice by this point, formed a wagon fort and stationed their artillery and musketeers behind it. The Safavids, according to later chronicles, had a chance to make a quick cavalry charge on the Ottoman position before they could set up the fort. Had they done so, it’s possible they could have routed the Ottomans and won the battle, but Ismail ultimately decided that a victory under those conditions would be dishonorable. It’s hard to say how accurate this is. “We could have won but we wanted to be honorable” is not an uncommon framing for chroniclers on the losing side of a battle. But on the other hand, Ismail seems like he may have been narcissistic enough to care about how he won his victories.

A mural of the battle at the Safavid-era Chehel Sotoun pavilion in Isfahan (Amir Pashaei via Wikimedia Commons)

If Ismail did have an opening and let it pass, it was a huge mistake. The Qizilbash were a cavalry force that depended on speed and maneuverability. They didn’t use gunpowder weapons, either out of some misplaced sense of honor (again) and/or because they just couldn’t acquire any. The Ottoman Janissaries, meanwhile, were a state of the art gunpowder-based force that by this point was arguably the finest fighting unit in Europe and inarguably the finest fighting unit in the Middle East. It was no contest. The mounted Qizilbash charged the Ottoman fortification and were easily driven off. They decided to try outflanking the Ottoman guns, so the Ottomans moved their guns around and drove them off again. This continued until the Safavids had suffered so many losses that they had to withdraw.

From then on Ismail reverted to the scorched earth campaign that he’d pursued before the battle, and again it was very successful. The Ottomans actually captured the Safavid capital, Tabriz, but without an easy means of supply the Janissaries demanded a withdrawal back into Anatolia. The Safavids were able to regain their lost territory in the Caucasus, but they did lose part of northern Iraq to the Ottomans and wisely dropped any plans to sponsor future tribal rebellions in eastern Anatolia.

Selim, his eastern flank now safely calm, turned his attention south, and in 1516-1517 he wiped out the ~250 year old Mamluk Dynasty in Syria, Egypt, and the Hejaz. The addition of Egypt to the Ottoman Empire was huge, but ideologically the incorporation of Mecca and Medina (and Jerusalem) was equally important. Now the Ottomans were the heirs to both the Roman Empire, by virtue of conquering Constantinople, and the Caliphate, by virtue of their ownership of Islam’s holy cities.

Ismail, meanwhile, suffered greatly after his defeat. If you follow Safavid history you can trace a real change in the power relations between the shah and the Qizilbash to their defeat at Chaldiran. Ismail seems to have retired almost entirely from public life and spent his last 10 years (allegedly) mostly drunk and/or depressed. When he died in 1524 the various Qizilbash tribes began feuding with each other for custody of his son and heir, Tahmasb I, which is an assertion of Qizilbash primacy over the ruling dynasty that you would never have imagined before Chaldiran. The power dynamic between the Safavid rulers and their Turkic followers remained contested for the rest of the dynasty’s existence.

War between the Safavids and Ottomans continued on and off until a temporary peace was secured in 1555, and picked up again some time after that, so in that sense Chaldiran was not terribly decisive. But the defeat did set the limits of Ismail’s expansionist plans and established a rough sense of where the border between the Safavid kingdom and the Ottoman Empire would lay.