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

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. I happen to know a bit about both (though I wouldn’t call myself a specialist in…well, anything, come to think of it), so if you’ll indulge me I’d like to tell you a little about the Battle of Chaldiran, which took place on August 23, 1514.

We have to start our story in 1501 (hey, where are you going?), when control of Iran passed from the Turkic tribal confederation known as the Aqquyunlu (“White Sheep”) to the Safavids, who were a Sufi order-turned dynasty of “Turkicized Persian” (i.e., ethnically Iranic–Kurdish, specifically–but culturally and linguistically Turkic) origins who 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 founder of the dynasty was Shah Ismail I (d. 1524), and he’s the guy most responsible for the fact that Iran, which had been mostly Sunni prior to his defeat of the Aqquyunlu, is a predominantly Shiʿa country today. At the time, though, he was preaching some very extremist (really un-Islamic, even by the liberal academic definition of what constitutes “Islamic”) stuff, mostly via his poetry, which we still have today and which is mostly written, oddly enough for an Iranian shah but understandably for a Turkicized Iranian shah, in an early form of Azeri Turkish.

In his poems, Ismail claims at various times to be the reincarnation of several mythic Persian heroes (both reincarnation and the Persian mythic tradition being mostly Islamic no-nos), a descendant of Ali and the other 11 Imams (this is…highly unlikely, to put it mildly), Khidr (a legendary pre-Islamic prophetic figure), Jesus, Alexander the Great, and possibly God Himself. This was a guy who dreamed big.

He lived big too, enlarging the territory under his control with a successful campaign in the east against the Uzbeks. Ismail was what some irritating Silicon Valley bro might call a “disruptor”: he’d come out of nowhere at the head of a powerful army, suddenly turned Iran into a major power again, and had established Shiʿism as the guiding ideology behind an expansionist, evangelizing polity, which is a position in which the minority branch of Islam had rarely found itself. Adherents of a different Shiʿa branch had founded the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt and North Africa centuries earlier, but they had never made any effort to convert the people under their rule the way the Safavids did. Ideologically and militarily, Ismail represented a real threat to the dominant powers in the Islamic World, the top dog of which at this time was the Ottoman Empire.

Ismail I

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–particularly in eastern Anatolia, which was Ottoman country. So the Safavids were actually an immediate, backyard threat for the Ottomans, not just a foreign one.

In 1511 a group of Safavid sympathizers under a man named Shah Kulu rebelled against the Ottomans. These rebels got considerably more traction than they should have been able to get, owing to the fact that the Sultan was an aging Bayezid II, who had been a fairly weak ruler even in his prime and by now was a virtual non-entity. In fact, the Ottoman Empire was at the time occupied by a civil war between Bayezid’s sons, Selim and Ahmed, over the inevitable succession. Bayezid died in 1512 and Selim (Selim I now, or “Selim the Grim” as he is sometimes known) won the succession contest, and the new sultan was committed to making sure that nothing like the Shah Kulu rebellion would ever happen again. He found a mufti who would rule that Safavid beliefs were outside Islam–so as to eliminate any potential theological objection to attacking them–and invaded Ismail’s empire 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. He was Alexander the Great, after all, or a great Iranian hero, or maybe even God, and those guys don’t retreat–they take the offensive, they stand and fight, they conquer.

So Ismail the would-be conqueror formed up his army to meet Selim’s at Chaldiran, in northeastern Iran. It was probably took all the self-control Selim could muster not to send Ismail a thank you note. In hindsight, it seems clear that as soon as Ismail decided to stand and fight he was dooming his army to a major defeat–the Ottoman army was larger, better equipped, and 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 fight they’d had under Ismail’s rule (they were defeated in 1512 by the Uzbeks at Ghujduvan, but Ismail wasn’t there personally and they’d really lost because the Qizilbash hated their commander and deserted him). Plus Ismail was, you know, Jesus, or whatever. They surely figured they couldn’t lose, and the Ottomans probably weren’t sure that they could win.

Map - Iran - Safavids & Neighbors
The Safavid Empire. If you squint and look in the area just west of the Caspian, you can see Chaldiran there.

The Ottomans adopted their usual, highly effective tactic of forming their baggage carts into a kind of battlefield fortification and stationing their artillery and musketeers behind it. The Safavids, according to later chronicles, debated making a quick cavalry assault on the Ottoman position before they could set up, which might have routed them 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–“I could have won but I wanted to be honorable” is a common refrain among losers, but on the other hand Ismail seems to have been just the right kind of narcissist to care about the manner in which he won his victories.

If Ismail did opt to wait on purpose, it was a big 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 (they weren’t easy to come by in those days, and the Ottomans were way ahead of any of their Middle Eastern rivals in this regard). The Ottoman Janissaries, meanwhile, were a state of the art gunpowder-based force that by this point was the finest fighting unit in both Europe (arguably) and the Middle East (not really very arguable). It was no contest. The mounted Qizilbash charged the Ottoman fortification and were easily driven off. They decided to try outflanking the Ottoman guns; 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 lost part of northern Iraq to the Ottomans and wisely dropped any plans to sponsor any 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 Hijaz. The addition of Egypt to the Ottoman Empire was huge, but ideologically the incorporation of Mecca and Medina was equally important. Now the Ottomans were the heirs to both the Roman Empire, by virtue of conquering Constantinople, and the old Caliphate, by virtue of their ownership of the two holy cities (three if you include Jerusalem).

Ismail, meanwhile, suffered greatly from the 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, and when he died in 1524 the various Qizilbash tribes began feuding with each other for custody/control of his son and heir, Tahmasb I, which is an assertion of Qizilbash primacy that you would never have seen 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 decisive. And, again, in hindsight the outcome of the battle was pretty obvious from the start. But looking at it from the point of view of the people living in the region at the time, this battle was a major event. It ended permanently the seemingly very real possibility of a Qizilbash army bringing the entire Islamic world under Ismail’s rule, and in the process it helped to define the geographic scope of the Safavids’ political and ideological influence, thereby helping to shape the modern nation-state of Iran.

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