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Iran, the Safavids and Ottoman Expansion

War between Shia and Sunni | The Ottoman Empire Expands to Egypt and in Europe | The Safavids, Bloodletting and Shia Politics to 1629 I Shah Abbas opens Iran to the West | The Ulama in Safavid Iran | Safavid Decline and Fall

Ottoman Empire and Tributary States, 1566 to 1699

Ottoman Empire and Tributary States, 1566 to 1699

War between Shia and Sunni

While under the rule of the Mongols, in the 1200s, the Persians had given up on politics and militarism and had submerged themselves in Islamic devotion, Sufism and religious eclecticism. During these times, Iran had Mongol and Turkish immigrants who adopted the Persian language and Persian customs. In the 1300s, a dynasty founded by a grandson of Genghis Khan, Hulagu, ruled in Iran. It wavered between Christianity and Islam and chose Islam. Meanwhile a militant Islamic order, the Safavids, appeared among Turkish speaking people, their home base at Ardebil, west of the Caspian Sea. And the Safavid order survived the coming of Timur (Tamerlane) in the 1300s.

By 1500 the Safavids had adopted the Shia branch of Islam. Safavid males wore red headgear for identification, and they were eager to advance Shi'ism by military means. They viewed their religious leader as a perfect guide as well as an able military chieftain, and they viewed their leader's position as rightly passed from father to son – in the Shia tradition.

In the year 1500, the thirteen-year-old son of a recently deceased Safavid leader set out to conquer territory. In 1501 the Safavids seized Tabriz and made it their capital. And they conquered in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Khurasan. The Safavids became the strongest force in Iran, and their leader, Isma'il, now fifteen, was declared Shah (king).

The area of the world thought of as Iran was mountainous and it had a variety of nomadic tribes with egalitarian traditions not yet completely erased. In addition to Persians, Iran had Kurds, Arabs, Turkomans and Baluchis to name a few. At Isma'il's court a Turkish language was spoken, but having adopted much of Persian culture the Safavids were thought by outsiders to be Persian. To help organize the state the Safavids used Persian bureaucrats with a tradition in administration and tax collecting, and they tried to create religious unity. Isma'il described himself as a descendant, on his father's side, of the Prophet Muhammad. Shi'ism became the state religion, Isma'il denigrating the Sunni branch of Islam and trying to force people to become Shia – a difficult task as his authority with a variety of tribes had been little accepted.

The Ottoman sultan, Bayezid II (ruled 1481-1512), a Sunni Muslim, congratulated Isma'il on his military victories and suggested that he and his Shia followers stop destroying the graves and mosques of Sunni Muslims. Convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the evil of the Sunni branch of Islam, the Safavids ignored Bayezid.

In 1512 the aged Bayezid was ill. His three sons fought each other for his throne at the Ottoman capital, Constantinople. Those special warriors, the Janissaries, were a power behind the throne and chose as the new sultan the son that was most warlike: Selim. Bayezid was dethroned, and Selim secured his rule by having his two brothers and their sons executed by strangulation.

Selim embarked on a war against what he saw as the heresy of Shi'ism. He is reported to have exterminated thousands of Shia Muslims in Asia Minor. Then he launched a war against the Shia king of Persia: Isma'il. Selim's armies advanced through northern Mesopotamia, and in August 1514, just west of Tabriz, Selim's army defeated the Safavid army, which had cavalry with only spears, bows and swords against Ottoman artillery and muskets.

Isma'il had been accustomed to victory, and he and his Safavid followers had believed that Allah was on their side. They were bewildered by their defeat. Isma'il found relief from psychological depression in wine.

Isma'il died ten years later at the age of thirty-seven. His dynasty lived on, Isma'il succeed by a son aged ten. The family dynasty lasted for two centuries and was to leave a legacy in Iran of Shia Islam as the official state religion, into the 21st century.


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