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

I assume anybody reading this blog has at least heard of the Ottomans (I mean, I have to assume you do read these posts), but I have to say I’d be pretty impressed if any of you have heard of the Aqquyunlu. They didn’t have a very long run as a major world power. But for a few decades in the second half of the 15th century, the Aqquyunlu (“white sheep” in Turkish) tribal confederation controlled all of modern Iraq; parts of Anatolia, the Caucasus, and modern Syria; and southeast through modern Iran to roughly the modern border of Pakistan. They had a heck of a peak, is what I’m saying. And they might have been able to stay at that peak longer than a couple of decades if they hadn’t picked a fight with the Ottomans at a time when that dynasty was just approaching its own peak.

The Aqquyunlu at their farthest extent (Wikipedia)

The Aqquyunlu were one of a number of Turkic tribal groupings that emerged in the chaos surrounding the collapse of Mongol authority in the Iran-Iraq region in the mid-14th century. In 1402 the ruling dynasty’s founder, Qara Osman (d. ~1435) threw in with Timur when the latter decided he’d had enough of early Ottoman aggression 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 southeastern Anatolia.

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 took control of their former home in northwestern Iran (Iranian Azerbaijan, not to be confused with Azerbaijani Azerbaijan), and also (in 1410) conquered Armenia 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 into Anatolia, which put the Aqquyunlu in their sights.

Expanding into Anatolia turned out to be an exceptionally bad idea for the Qaraquyunlu. In 1452 a grandson of Qara Osman, Uzun Hasan (d. 1478), became ruler of the Aqquyunlu, and he turned out to be a pretty effective 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. Some of their descendents may have 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. But they disappear from the Middle East.

Uzun Hasan pushed east (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. Under Mehmed II, the Ottomans were able to expand well into southeastern Europe and to continue their eastward push through Anatolia, bringing all the Turkish principalities there under (or back under) Ottoman control. They conquered Trebizond in 1461, which you can imagine must have made Uzun Hasan’s wife pretty mad. It was inevitable that the Ottomans would run into the Aqquyunlu in Diyarbakr, and Uzun Hasan wanted to be ready for it.

Uzun Hasan’s preparations for the forthcoming battle with the Ottomans relied to a significant extent on forming an alliance with one of the Ottomans’ European enemies, the Venetians. 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 the Venetians to the west. So he cut a deal with the Venetians: equip me with firearms, and I’ll give you your 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.

A side effect of Uzun Hasan’s was that it alerted Mehmed that the Aqquyunlu were preparing to attack him. 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 tough opponent once those Venetian firearms got there, which happened…uh, somebody should check with like DHL or something, because that shipment might still be on its way. No, seriously, the Venetians welched on Uzun Hasan, who hopefully learned a valuable lesson about trusting Europeans, and he 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 just shy of 100,000 men to Uzun Hasan’s roughly 40,000. 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–dealing it some considerable losses–and then by taking the high ground around the Ottoman camp and trying to starve them out. But let’s get real: once the Ottomans, who had the most advanced weaponry and were using some of the most sophisticated military tactics of the period, got over their confusion 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. But over time the Qizilbash became more of a pain in the ass than a useful ally for the Aqquyunlu. 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.

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Author: DWD

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