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 pounding 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 pacific Sunni Sufi order, of all things, but turned Shiʿa and militant (probably in that order), and ultimately came to power on the back of a zealously devoted band of Turkic warriors known as the Qizilbash (“red heads”) after the red headdress they wore (the taj-i Haydari or “crown of Haydar,” named for Ismail’s father). The founder of the dynasty was Shah Ismail I (d. 1524), of mixed but (probably) predominantly Kurdish ancestry. He’s the guy most responsible for the fact that Iran is a predominantly Shiʿa country today. Which is interesting, because while he was alive he promulgated some very extremist (really un-Islamic) teachings—mostly via his poetry, which we still have today and which is mostly written in an early form of Azeri.

In his poems, Ismail claims at various times to be the reincarnation of several mythic Persian heroes, a descendant of Ali and the other 11 Imams, Khidr (a legendary pre-Islamic prophetic figure), 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, even given the relatively loose definition of what can or can’t be 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.

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. Ismail’s impact on the world around him was pretty substantial—he founded a dynasty that restored the concept of “Iran” as a unique political entity and established Shiʿism as its religion. The modern nation of Iran has its roots in the kingdom Ismail built. And when I say “established Shiʿism,” I mean he and his successors worked to convert the Iranian populace to their official father (Twelver or Imami Shiʿism), sometimes coercively. They weren’t like the (Ismaʿili Shiʿa) Fatimid Caliphate in 10th-12th century Egypt, which never made much effort to convert the people under its rule.


Ismail I

As a militant, expansionist Shiʿa leader at the head of a devoted and powerful Turkic war band, Ismail represented a real threat to the dominant power in the Islamic World, the neighboring Ottoman Empire. And the Ottomans came to learn that very quickly. The tribes that made up the Qizilbash confederation were already mostly in Ismail’s army, but they had small branches and sympathizers scattered around the region—in eastern Anatolia, for example, which was Ottoman country.

In 1511 a group of Safavid sympathizers under a man named Shah Kulu rebelled against the Ottomans. The Sultan was an aging Bayezid II, who had been a fairly weak ruler even in his prime—and he was very far from his prime by this point. In fact, 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 killed. 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 making sure that nothing like the Shah Kulu rebellion would ever happen again. He found a mufti who was willing to rule 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, or a great Iranian hero, or maybe even God, and those guys don’t retreat. They fight, and win. It was the “winning” part that would prove to be Ismail’s undoing.

The Safavid army finally met the Ottomans in the field at Chaldiran, in northeastern Iran. Selim 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 Ghujduvan in 1512, had come without Ismail in the field and after most of the Qizilbash deserted a commander they collectively despised. So it didn’t really count. Plus Ismail was, you know, Jesus or whatever. They surely figured they couldn’t lose, and the Ottomans probably weren’t completely sure that they could win.

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.

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. Alexander the Great doesn’t lose, you know? If you follow Safavid history you can trace a real change in the power relations between the Shah and the Qizilbash to the 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.

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. Consequently, it helped to shape the modern boundaries of the nation of Iran.