Today in South Asian history: Nader Shah sacks Delhi (1739)

The Mughal Empire was easily the richest of the three so-called “Gunpowder Empires”–the Ottomans and the Safavids were the other two–that dominated the Islamic world from the 15th century (for the Ottomans; 16th century for the other two) into the 18th century (and, at least in the Ottoman case, well beyond that). In the patterns of east-west trade in Eurasian/North African world, until modern times, India was a seller far more than it was a buyer–its goods moved west while everybody else’s money moved east until it wound up in Indian royal treasuries. Indian products were in such demand that they helped spur the Age of Exploration, when rich merchants were able to stick people on wooden ships to sail for months in terrifying conditions on the hope that they might eventually find a direct route from Portugal to India. So clearly people were willing to go to some lengths for whatever India was selling, and consequently the Mughal court was, by all accounts, a pretty opulent place.

There was no greater symbol of that opulence than the “Peacock Throne,” a reportedly dazzling regal chair constructed for the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (d. 1666), the emperor who also, for the burial place of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal. Allegedly cast in solid gold and covered in countless diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls, and other gems, this throne…well, it probably looked completely ridiculous, and it’s a wonder the Mughals’ subjects didn’t beat the French Revolution to the punch by a century or so, but now I’m ranting…

Source: Today in South Asian history: Nader Shah sacks Delhi (1739)

Today in Middle Eastern history: Iran becomes “Iran” (1935)

Reza Shah Pahlavi

I don’t mean to seem obscure with that title, but it’s a historical oddity that the nation (kingdom, empire, whatever it was at any particular point in history) of Iran was never officially called “Iran” by anybody other than Iranians until 1935, even though most Iranians had been calling it “Iran” for millennia. The rest of the world didn’t catch on until Reza Shah Pahlavi (d. 1944) requested, in December 1934, that as of the next Iranian New Year (Nowruz), all foreign governments should henceforth stop referring to his country as “Persia” and start calling it “Iran.” Sometimes you’ll see this related by Western writers as “Reza Shah changed the name of the country from Persia to Iran,” but that’s dumb and wrong, because, again, Iran was always the name of the country. “Persia” was, for the most part, what’s known as an “exonym,” which is the term used when a group, place, language, or some other national feature is given a different name by people who aren’t part of that group, or don’t live in that place, or don’t speak that language, or all of the above.

With all due respect to Herodotus or whichever Greek writer convinced the rest of the world that the land between Mesopotamia and the Indus River was properly called “Persia,” this was never true…

Source: Today in Middle Eastern history: Iran becomes “Iran” (1935)

Nowruz, the Iraq War, and my eyeballs

Today is Nowruz, the ancient Iranian holiday celebrating the arrival of spring and, in the Iranian calendar, a new year. That really lovely holiday has unfortunately been marred since 2003 by the fact that it falls on the same day as the anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, for which I suppose we should note that no one has ever been held accountable despite the fact that it was a thoroughly criminal act that set of a series of other thoroughly criminal acts perpetrated by the American government.

Yeah, good one bro

As to the third part of the title to this post, well, I just got back from getting dilated at the eye doctor, and even staring at my computer screen for the time it’s taken me to write this has been enough to make me want to scoop my eyes out of my head with a melon baller. So I would invite you to enjoy the post I wrote on this date a year ago, which is short but angry, and includes a link to my own Persian language-inflected attempt at a Nowruz explainer if that’s something you’re interested in reading. And I would say that it is unlikely that I’ll be writing a conflict update this evening–the real conflict, my friends, is with my comically wide open pupils and any source of light. Seriously I expect my eyes will be fine in a few hours but I don’t think that will leave me enough time to actually churn one of those monster posts out tonight. If I’m wrong, I’ll see you later, but otherwise, see you tomorrow.

I suppose it feels like the war is over to most people in the US, which is all well and good, but try telling that to the Iraqi people, who haven’t known so much as a month of uninterrupted peace since the morning of March 20, 2003, when the Project for the New American Century finally got its new American century, the rest of the world be damned (literally). And yeah, Saddam Hussein is no more, and the human race is richer for his demise. But at what cost? At what ongoing cost?

The utterly unnecessary and comprehensively disastrous Iraq War animates a lot of my own views on war and peace, American foreign policy, and the unjustified/unjustifiable deference our political and media discourse still gives to the Professional Experts and Very Serious Pundits who watched the most avoidable foreign policy fiasco in American history unfold before them and did nothing, or else cheered it on. By and large those people haven’t suffered so much as a minor professional inconvenience over their malpractice–they certainly haven’t suffered anything like the Iraqi people have suffered for the past 13 years.

Source: Nowruz, and the Iraq War at 13

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Today in Middle Eastern history: the Fall of Baghdad (1917)

I’ve been a little lax on the World War I centennials lately, and to be honest I’m not about to fix that at 10:30 on a Saturday night, but as I often do on these occasions I can cheat and send you to read the Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn.

For background you’ll want to read his account of the Second Battle of Kut from late February. April 1916’s First Battle of Kut, as we know, was a complete Ottoman victory and one of the low points for Britain in the whole war. Following that disaster, the British army replaced its commander in Mesopotamia, Lt. General Percy Lake, with newly arrived (from Gallipoli) corps commander, Lt. General Frederick Stanley Maude.


Hello, General Maude!

Maude wisely spent the rest of 1916 repairing the damage that had been done in the campaign that culminated at Kut. He recruited new troops from India, trained them, and had his engineers build out a rail network that could support a full-scale northern offensive. His target was Baghdad, which at this particular point in history was really of no great military significance, but which was a high profile target whose capture would be a morale booster for the British war effort. Plus, just advancing that far north would put Maude’s army in position to threaten important Ottoman positions in northern Iraq and Anatolia.

As Dunn notes, the “Second Battle” of Kut wasn’t much of a battle. The Ottomans were damn sure not going to repeat Charles Townsend’s mistake of the year before and allow themselves to be bottled up there, so they withdrew north on February 24 without much resistance. Baghdad fell pretty much the same way:

Maude marched his main force up the east bank of the Tigris, arriving March 8 at the banks of its big tributary the Diyala. With the Turks defending the opposite banks of the Diyala, Maude moved most of his force downstream and crossed to the west bank of the Tigris. Detecting the movement (both sides had aircraft now with Germans flying for the Turks), Khalil moved most of his force to the west bank, leaving one regiment on the Diyala. The British soon pushed this aside, and Khalil, facing British advances on both banks, resolved on a retreat from Baghdad. By the evening of March 10, the Ottoman evacuation of Baghdad was under way, with no major battle having been fought.

Khalil Pasha made straight for–wait for it–the city of Mosul, which was of much greater importance to the Ottomans (still is, apparently, per Sultan Recep I), where he set up a defense and prepared for a British attack that never came. Maude, wanting to avoid Townsend’s biggest mistake–overextending his supply lines–decided to stop his advance at Baghdad and take the necessary logistical steps to properly support the next phase of his advance. In fact, the Brits decided to shut down their Mesopotamian operations for the winter, maybe in part because Maude died of cholera in November.

In 1918, the Levant front was where the action was, and the British Mesopotamian army was ordered to send part of its force west to help on that front. Then, of course, the war ended. Although the Mesopotamian army eventually entered Mosul in November 1918, that was after the Armistace of Mudros had put the Ottomans out of the war, and the post-war status of the city had to be ironed out later on.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

PATRON SPECIAL: Bosniaks and Islam

At Patreon, I’ve started a new feature for my $5/month supporters whereby once a week I try to dive into a question from one of them and write an essay that hopefully helps shed some light on the topic. Today I posted the first in what I hope will be a long series, in response to a question about the spread of Islam in the Balkans under Ottoman rule. I focused on the conversion of the Bosniaks:

When we consider why the Bosniaks wound up by and large converting while other Slavic peoples did not, I think the first thing we need to say is that there’s very little to no evidence of coercion. And, really, that makes sense. Why, after all, would the Ottomans have singled this one community out for coerced conversion to Islam but left Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, Greeks, Bulgarians, etc., alone to maintain their Christianity? Nobody has ever, to my knowledge, produced any evidence that the Ottomans one day said “these people, living in this one specific area, must be converted, but we’ll leave everybody else alone.”

Moreover, the pre-17th century Ottoman system actually depended on maintaining large Christian populations in the Balkans. Christian families paid extra taxes, don’t you know, and–more importantly–their male children were subject to the devşirme, the conscription program that filled the ranks of both the Ottoman bureaucracy and the Janissaries. Conscripts were forcibly converted, but if the Christians of the Ottoman Empire had all converted themselves then this critical source of manpower would have disappeared overnight, since Muslims were forbidden from enslaving other Muslims. Indeed, the Ottomans organized their empire around allowing these communities to keep their own religion and legal codes–though obviously Ottoman law superseded in the case of a conflict–in what was eventually formalized as the millet system. This wound up coming back to bite them in the imperial ass, as the millets later became vectors for the nationalist movements that wound up tearing the Empire apart.

I’m just saying, all this could be yours for a scant $5 a month. If that’s too steep, at $1 a month you can have access to my “ask me anything” feature, where I try to offer some shorter answers to your questions/comments about, well, anything.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Today in Iranian history: the Shahnameh is completed (1010)

Obviously there are a lot of important works of literature that have been created over the years and across the many cultures of the world, so if I were to describe Abu’l-Qasim Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh as simply a great work of literature I would be doing it something of an injustice. It is a great work of literature, don’t get me wrong, but its importance goes far beyond the aesthetic. It could be argued, has been argued in fact, that this epic poem is responsible for saving Iranian civilization and the Persian language from extinction–or, at least, from being completely marginalized.

Source: Today in Iranian history: the Shahnameh is completed (1010)

Today in Middle Eastern history: the Massacre of the Citadel (1811)

Egypt’s Mamluks are one of the rare historical dynasties that gets to have two endpoints, where most just get the one. We’ve talked about the Mamluks before, several times, but since the nature of their dynasty is a big part of the reason why they survived their first “end,” let’s recap. The Mamluk dynasty grew out of the Turkic slave soldiers who were brought to Egypt by the Fatimids and then Ayyubids during the 11th-13th centuries. As the Ayyubid dynasty rapidly began to fall apart in the early 1200s, their slave generals began to assume more direct authority over Egypt and Syria, until they finally usurped full control during a messy ~10 year changeover between 1250 and 1260. They never became a “dynasty” in the traditional sense of a single ruling family handing power from one member to another (son, brother, nephew, whatever), but instead remained a dynasty of freed slaves. When a sultan died, cadres of mamluks (the word means “slave” and in lower case refers to the actual mamluks themselves, as opposed to the dynasty) would jockey, often quite violently (people living in Cairo loved this part) to put their man on the throne. The sons of Mamluk sultans, called awlad al-nas (“children of the people)–who themselves could never be mamluks because they could never be slaves–often tried to throw their hats into the succession contest, but only on rare occasions did they manage to actually sit on the throne.

Because the Mamluk dynasty wasn’t a “dynasty” in the traditional sense, when the Ottomans toppled it in 1516-1517, there were a lot of important mamluk aristocrats and officials still running around Egypt and Syria who had no particular loyalty to the sultan (Tuman Bey) who had just been overthrown. It was much simpler for the Ottomans to leave those people in place, handling the day to day management in cities all across the vast new territory the Ottomans had just won. They simply made a change at the top–instead of being answerable to a sultan in Cairo, these mamluk officials would now be answerable to an Ottoman governor in Cairo, who was in turn answerable to the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople/Istanbul. The Mamluk dynasty as such was over, but mamluks were still, for the most part, running Egypt.

We can skip ahead to 1798 now, and Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Egypt. Continue reading