Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian

Armenia Azerbaijan Bahrein Cyprus Georgia Iran
Iraq Israel Jordan Kuwait Lebanon Oman
Qatar Saudi Arabia Syria Turkey United Arab Emirates Yemen

A General History of the Middle East


1405 to 1798

This chapter covers the following topics:

Mohammed the Conqueror
White & Black Sheep Turks
The Middle East at the Dawn of the Modern Era
Persian Revival
Selim the Grim
Suleiman the Magnificent
Everyday Life in the Ottoman Empire
The Long Decline Begins
Shah Abbas the Great
The Cage
Back to the Danube
Persia in Turmoil
Oman Takes a Bow
Go to Page Navigator

Mohammed the Conqueror

The collapse of the Ottoman Turks following the battle of Angora offered Christendom a unique opportunity to expel Islam from the Balkans. The Asian half of the empire all but disappeared, and for a decade the sons of Bayezid squabbled over the European remainder. During this time Bosnia and Serbia found themselves free again. But Europe was preoccupied by the Great Schism, the Hundred Years War, and other conflicts that mark the end of the Middle Ages. So nothing was done to prevent the reconstitution of the Ottoman nucleus. In 1413 the youngest son of Bayezid, Mohammed I (Mehmed in Turkish), defeated the last of his brothers and became the undisputed ruler of what remained to the empire. He was succeeded by his son Murad II (1421-51), and Murad showed the Ottoman recovery between 1426 and 1428, by annexing the five emirates Timur had re-erected in southwest Turkey. The Ottoman advance in Europe started again in 1430, with an unsuccessful attack on Albania and a successful conquest of Salonika; the moment for a Christian counterattack had been lost.

This sealed the fate of Constantinople, which had gained a reprieve for two decades when Timur defeated and captured Bayezid. In 1422 the Byzantine emperor unwisely supported a pretender's bid to the Ottoman throne. Murad responded by sending 10,000 men to attack the city. A popular Moslem religious leader predicted that the city would fall on August 24, 1422, but when Murad ordered an all-out assault on that day, it failed to get through the Byzantine defenses. After that they abandoned the siege, as they needed the troops to put down a revolt on the other side of the Bosporus. Constantinople had survived again, but for the last time. An army of Hungarians and Crusaders, led by King Ladislas III and Janos Hunyadi, tried to rescue Constantinople from the inevitable result of the next Ottoman attack, only to suffer total defeat at the battle of Varna (1444).

Constantinople, because it was such a formidable stronghold, and because it was in the heart of the Ottoman empire, gave the Turks compelling reasons for eliminating it. Consequently, when Mohammed II (1451-81) became sultan, the first thing he did was make preparations for a new siege, one that would be far more thorough and better-equipped than any attempted before. The army he gathered included 20,000 mercenaries (both Moslem and Christian) and 80,000 regulars, the finest of which were 12,000 Janissaries. Because Constantinople had often survived in the past by virtue of its navy, Mohammed brought in 250 ships, intending to blockade the city both by land and by sea. The Turks never had much use for gunpowder weapons previously, but this time Mohammed saw they would need them to blast through Constantinople's walls, so he hired a Hungarian engineer named Urban to construct 100 heavy cannon. Urban's largest creation was a monster with a barrel twenty-six feet long, that could reportedly hurl a 1,500-pound stone ball more than half a mile; it took a cart pulled by 60 oxen and an escort of 200 men to bring it from its foundry at Edirne. Against this, Byzantium could only muster some 7,000 troops (2,000 of them foreign mercenaries) and 26 ships.

The 23rd and ultimately successful siege of Constantinople began on April 6, 1453. For weeks a tense competition took place; by night the defenders would come out and work overtime to repair the damage inflicted on the walls; by day the Turkish cannon would blast away as much of the repair work as possible. The main harbor of the city, known as the Golden Horn, kept the Turkish ships out with a large chain stretched across the entrance. To get past this defense Mohammed had seventy ships dragged overland on greased logs, entering the harbor by going around the chain. Now they could attack Constantinople from both land and sea.

After that the war of attrition continued for the rest of April and most of May. The sultan was winning because he had the numbers and the defenders were almost out of food, but he had problems of his own. The cost of keeping his huge army active was phenomenal; every direct assault on the walls had been thrown back; casualties were mounting at an alarming rate; morale was dropping among his advisors, who started talking about a negotiated peace. Accordingly, the sultan ordered a day of rest, to prepare for a colossal assault on the following day (May 29, 1453). This time the city's defenses were at last penetrated. Constantine XI, the last emperor, was killed as the Janissaries led the way through the walls. Half of the city's 100,000 inhabitants were massacred, while the rest were enslaved.

The fall of Constantinople sent shock waves throughout the West. Christendom had not realized what was at stake, and when they finally sent troops to aid the Byzantines, it was too little, too late (they had only gotten as far as the island of Chios when the city fell). Now the reality and importance of the Christian loss became fully apparent. The rest of the Byzantine empire had shriveled away long ago and its end was overdue; in such a context the final sack might have come as an anticlimax. Nevertheless, Constantinople, even the dried husk of it, was the greatest city in Europe, and it was the gate to the East. When the Turks triumphantly marched through streets deserted generations before, the West, shut out of its lucrative Eastern trade routes, saw itself deprived of half its heritage. Two and a half centuries after the Fourth Crusade, its final consequences were now visible.

It was Constantinople that gave Mohammed II his title: "The Conqueror." The city at once became the new permanent capital of his empire, and Mohammed felt it appropriate to launch an ambitious urban renewal project. He repaired the walls, and resettled entire communities of Moslems and Christians inside; the city's greatest church, Hagia Sophia, was turned into a mosque. Soon the city enjoyed new life, as a place where Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Italians and Jews could live together in harmony. The descendant of Central Asian nomads called himself Kayser-i Rum (Roman Caesar), and laid claim to all lands the Roman emperors once ruled. Chroniclers hailed him as a new Alexander.

Mohammed's most impressive building project was the Topkapi Saray, the palace he used when he was not campaigning. Built on a hill in eastern Constantinople, it commanded a magnificent view of the city, the Sea of Marmara, and both sides of the Bosporus. The palace was not one building but a collection of buildings, grouped around beautiful gardens and courtyards. The entrance to the sultan's own quarters was called the Bab-i-Ali, translated by Westerners as the "Sublime Porte"; that term later came to mean the whole Ottoman court. Initially the harem was kept separate from the sultan and the offices of government, in the old Byzantine palace.

We can list Mohammed's other conquests briefly. He conquered most of the Greek mainland in 1456-8, eliminating the Latin, Venetian and Byzantine enclaves that existed there. His siege of Belgrade (1456) failed, but three years later he added the rest of Serbia to his realm.(1) Bosnia fell in 1463, and Albania was taken in 1468 (it held out for the entire lifetime of its national hero, Skanderbeg). Wallachia and the Khanate of the Crimea (a new Mongol state on the northern shore of the Black Sea) became Turkish vassals in 1475, effectively turning the Black Sea into a Turkish lake. In the East, he finished off the Emirates of Kastamuni (1461), Karaman (1468), and the pathetic little Empire of Trebizond (1461). In 1480 he attempted a seaborne invasion of Italy, but he died after capturing only one town, Otranto, and the campaign came to a premature end.

With Mohammed's death came a deadly race for the throne. The custom of royal fratricide started by Bayezid I was declared the law of the land by Mohammed II; each new sultan must begin his reign by killing his brothers. A sultan's death would accordingly be kept secret until they informed and brought the chosen heir to Constantinople. Yet couriers could be waylaid; the grand vizier could oppose his dead master's choice; the Janissaries could bang on their soup cauldrons to announce a mutiny if the new leader was not generous in gold. As a result, whoever got acclaimed first became the ruler, and then all of his brothers would be strangled by a silken bowstring (the Turks, like the Mongols, would not shed royal blood if they could help it). Better for a few to die than imperil the whole realm with a war between the princes. The system worked; the Ottoman empire had the most stable and efficient government in Islamic history. There were no pretenders to the throne, civil strife was almost unheard of, violence was largely restricted to the royal family, and there were only 36 sultans in a dynasty that lasted more than 600 years.

Top of the page

White & Black Sheep Turks

Because Timur had ignored every instrument of government except terror, his empire started withering away once his brutal hand was no longer at the helm. The western provinces broke off immediately, under their pre-Timurid rulers. The Jalayrids reestablished themselves in Iraq, the Black Sheep Turks declared independence in Armenia, while the Aq-Qoyunlu or White Sheep Turks, a rival tribe Timur had set up against the Black Sheep Turks, took Cappadocia. At first the Black Sheep Turks were the most successful. In 1410 they overthrew the Jalayrids and seized Iraq; between 1408 and 1412 they grabbed western Iran. Now that Turk and Timurid were balanced against each other, an uneasy peace settled on the devastated land.

This truce lasted just over fifty years. In 1467 the leader of the White Sheep Turks, Uzun Hasan, vanquished his enemies of the Black Sheep and pushed the expiring Timurids out of the rest of Iran. Yet he went too far when he picked a fight with the Ottoman Turks over Trebizond; as a result he lost Cappadocia to Mohammed II in 1473. If these events are unfamiliar to the reader, it is because they do not grab our attention the way the old Arab and Mongol conquests did. The Middle East was becoming an economic and political backwater.

Top of the page

The Middle East at the Dawn of the Modern Era

To historians the 15th century marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era, because of several unrelated but important trends that worked together to transform the world. One of these trends involved demographics: the Middle East now had fewer people than Eurasia's other major centers of civilization. The arid landscape that made up the Middle East supported an estimated 20-30 million people in the late 1400s, of whom 10% were nomadic herdsmen.(2) Moreover, this population was hardly growing at all. The ravages of war, disease, and barbarian invasions, coupled with the misuse and abuse of the land, are all to blame for this stagnation. By contrast, Europe now had 73 million people, Africa had 40 million, India had 110 million, and China had 120 million. Even Japan was now catching up, with 15 million.

Another important change was political: for the first time in centuries there was no major nomad power. From time immemorial the Central Asian horsemen had terrorized many times their number of peasants. It was a remarkable achievement but one that was entirely dependent on two skills: archery and horsemanship. With the coming of firearms, the military situation reversed, and now the advantage was with the more numerous foot soldiers. Gradually the civilized states, especially Russia and China, moved into the Eurasian heartland. The struggle to eliminate barbarism would last until the late 19th century, but the outcome was never in doubt; by 1600 nomad raids on the Middle East were little more than a bad memory. For better or for worse, the barbarians had separated the Christian, Moslem, Hindu and Far Eastern centers of civilization, and limited communication between them. Now that the barbarian barrier was gone, competition between the civilizations would increase, until one triumphed over the others.

At this stage an impartial observer would have put his money on Islam. Once an area became Moslem, it stayed that way; in 800 years of conquests, only Spain and the Mediterranean islands had been lost to the infidel again. Stretching from Morocco to the Ural mts., a solid wall of Moslem states stood between Christendom and the rest of the known world. The Christian communities in the Middle East had shrunken beyond the point of recovery, and those in Georgia and Ethiopia were isolated, while Islam expanded steadily east and south. The black tribes and kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa, the oases of Central Asia, and the Malays of Southeast Asia were all adopting Islam, because it gave them access to the trade goods and culture of the Middle East. In those parts of India that were not conquered outright, Moslems found acceptance as honorary members of the Kshatriya (warrior) caste. Finally, when it came to military efficiency, nobody could match the Ottoman Turks.

The Ottoman Empire's advance slowed as the 15th century ended, partly because the Turks were outnumbered by their Christian opponents. Still, Islam could fight its way uphill against large populations--it had been doing this in India for centuries. The size of the communities on the Danube gave Central Europe time, but not security.

Islam in 1500
The Islamic world in 1500 A.D. (shaded gold).

What the Europeans had in their favor was increasing literacy. The combination of an alphabetic script and Gutenberg's moveable-type printing press created a smarter, bolder West and opened the way to a more efficient society. With the awakening of the Renaissance a technological revolution began, and the West began to pull ahead of the East.

The first visible sign that things had changed was in the Indian Ocean. Here trade had been under the control of Moslems, especially the Mamelukes. Then in 1498 a Portuguese captain, Vasco da Gama, showed the world how to get from Europe to Asia by sailing around Africa, cutting out the Moslem middlemen completely. The Mamelukes tried to fight this threat, but in vain. Their ships were thin-skinned, oar-propelled galleys, designed to do battle on the relatively calm waters of the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea. The Portuguese, by contrast, had to deal with a stormy Atlantic Ocean, so they built more sturdy ships. These vessels were strong enough to carry cannon, whereas the recoil from such heavy weapons would have shaken a lighter vessel apart. The complete superiority of the new navy became clear at the battle of Diu (1509), where the Portuguese blew away a much larger fleet of Egyptian and Indian ships. Then the Portuguese secured their command of the sea by setting up bases in strategic locations. Among these bases were Hormuz, Muscat, and Bahrein, which gave the Portuguese control over all traffic going in and out of the Persian Gulf. In 1517 they entered the Red Sea, penetrated all the way to Suez, and alarmed Mecca by bombarding Jiddah.(3) Later the Dutch and the English would follow the Portuguese into the Indian Ocean and seize for themselves the riches of the Orient.

Top of the page

Persian Revival

However, the Moslem nations would enjoy a few more triumphs before they succumbed to complete stagnation. In the opening years of the 16th century two new major Islamic powers arose to join the Ottomans: the Safavids in Iran and the Moguls in India. The Moguls were descendants of Timur, and play a major role in Indian history. As for the Safavids, we will cover them here.

The first Safavids were Sufis living near a holy shrine at Ardabil, in Azerbaijan. Their founder was one Safi al-Din (1252-1334), who claimed descent from Mohammed and was highly regarded for his piety. In those days Sufism gained many followers by becoming the creed and refuge for desperate people. During the 15th century the order became a revolutionary movement as it turned increasingly Shiite, militant, and political. Soon they saw the leader of the order as the long-missing 12th Shiite imam--in other words, the Mahdi. Safavid soldiers became known as Qizilbash (Redheads), because they wore distinctive red turbans with 12 folds commemorating the 12 imams. Between 1459 and 1494 three heads of the order died violently. The next leader, Ismail Safavi, was only seven years old when he inherited the job, but the loyalty of his followers was total. In 1501 the young mystic defeated and drove the White Sheep Turks out of Azerbaijan, and he was crowned Shah Ismail I (1501-24) in Tabriz.

During the next nine years, Ismail led many campaigns against his enemies. These gave him control over all of Iraq and Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and half of Afghanistan; these would be the maximum limits of the Safavid dominion.

The new empire was also Shiite in faith. Four and a half centuries of Turkish and Mongol rule had reduced Shiism to a minority within Iran. Now a mixture of fierce proselytizing and even fiercer persecutions made most of the population follow the Qizilbash creed--and the Persians have remained Shiite ever since. Across the border in Turkey, Shah Ismail's supporters launched a rebellion in 1514, defying the Ottoman Turks with fanatical zeal.

For the first time in centuries Moslems had an often embarrassing choice. Disputes between Sunnis and Shiites threatened to erupt into bitter struggles wherever both groups could be found. One's adherence to either sect now determined one's political loyalty. To give just one example, the first two Mogul emperors, Babur and Humayun, both professed the Shi'a faith at low points in their careers in return for much-needed Persian aid against their enemies. The third Mogul emperor, Akbar, was secure enough to practice his own doctrine, a form of Sunni Islam with various Hindu and Christian additions. Akbar's successors felt they owed no debt to Persia at all, and argued with the Shahs over possession of Kandahar, an Afghan border town.

Ismail spent the last half of his reign struggling to hold on to his previous gains. In the east he was up against the newest Central Asian tribe, the Uzbeks, who resented not only his attack on their city of Samarkand but the fact that he had killed their leader, Mohammed Shaibani Khan, and made a drinking cup out of his skull. After he dealt with this, Ismail met his match in the west, where the Ottomans were on the march again. The result was a crushing Safavid defeat at the battle of Chaldiran (1514), which happened because the Qizilbash refused to use firearms. Ismail lost the entire Caucasus and northern Iraq, and Tabriz was sacked. Qazvin, about 75 miles west of modern Tehran, became the new capital.

By the standards of Middle Eastern politics, the Ottoman victory should have led to the conquest of Iran and/or the end of the Safavids, but neither happened. Since many Ottoman soldiers were Sufis, especially the Janissaries, they were susceptible to Safavid propaganda, which added to the disappointment the Turks already felt because they were not allowed to take much booty from Moslem opponents. The Ottoman sultan Selim I was compelled to retire, and Ismail regained Azerbaijan without resistance. From this point on Ismail and his successors made it part of their policy to avoid open conflict with the Ottomans at all cost. This preserved the Safavid army, but it allowed the Ottomans to conquer the last independent Turks in the Taurus mts., and also the Mamelukes, without Safavid opposition (1515-17).

The failure at Chaldiran turned the Qizilbash into troublemakers. Before the battle they regarded Ismail as God's leading man on earth, incapable of error. Now the spell was broken; the Qizilbash went from being followers obedient unto death to tribesmen in need of discipline. Ismail decided that the fires of religious revolution were also getting out of hand, so he summoned Shiite doctors of the Twelver sect from all over the Moslem world. With their help he eliminated false belief and directed Persian Islam along a more orthodox path. Short catechisms were written to teach the tenets of the Twelver sect among nearly all of Ismail's subjects.

For nine years after Ismail's death (1524-33) the Qizilbash ran the country as they pleased. However, Ismail's long-reigning son and heir, Shah Tahmasp (1524-76), became both a capable leader and politician. When he grew up, he brought his unruly subjects under control. He did this by keeping power balanced between the Qizilbash and the Persians, the two main groups in his state. Tahmasp lost more territory to his enemies, but he brought the Safavid state through five Uzbek invasions of Turkmenistan and four Ottoman invasions of the west. The Turkish sultan Suleiman I marched at will through western Iran, taking city after city, but he was unable to shake the loyalty of the people and ended up retiring after making only minor gains.

To make the empire pay, Tahmasp encouraged the silk trade, a government monopoly. He also turned carpet weaving into a state industry; Iran has been famous for its beautiful carpets ever since.

Top of the page

Selim the Grim

Established on both the Danube and the Euphrates at the end of the 14th century, the Ottoman frontier was still there at the beginning of the 16th. The main reason for this was the devastating setback Timur had inflicted in 1402. There was also the need to mop up the Christian remnants the Turks had bypassed when they entered the Balkans, Constantinople being the most important. Finally it was the laid-back, mystical character of Mohammed II's son, Bayezid II (1481-1512), that was to blame. Bayezid wasn't totally passive--he greatly enlarged the Ottoman navy, and took four of the six Venetian fortresses left on the Greek mainland--but for most of his reign he did nothing at all. In the east both the Mamelukes and Persians were hostile, and because trouble could break out elsewhere, Bayezid refused to commit himself in any direction. The Ottoman state, being a military machine, could not tolerate this indecision forever; an army revolt jailed Bayezid, placed his son Selim I on the throne, and set the machine in motion again.

Selim earned his nickname Selim the Grim because he began his short reign (1512-20) with a bloodbath. In observance of the law of fratricide, he strangled two brothers, five nephews, and sixty-two other relatives. Then he went one step further: he killed four of his five sons so that the fifth, Suleiman, would inherit the throne without the need to commit the same grisly acts. Upon his signal, some 40,000 Turkish Shiites were imprisoned and/or executed, since they were viewed as Persian agents. He also put to death seven prime ministers during his reign, leading to a popular curse: "May you be vizier to Sultan Selim!"

Selim I
Selim I.

Selim chose to direct his military activities against his Moslem rivals. The subsequent campaigns showed that Ottoman arms had lost none of their edge. The Persians were swept out of Armenia and northern Iraq, in the aforementioned battle of Chaldiran. Then he turned against the Mamelukes, who had formed an alliance with Persia against him. Late in 1516 he advanced into Syria and the Mameluke sultan, Qansuh al-Ghawri, came to meet him; at the battle of Marj Dabiq, north of Aleppo, the Mamelukes were decisively defeated and their sultan was killed. By the end of the year the Ottoman army had advanced down the Levantine coast as far as Gaza.

When the fighting reached Egypt, the two armies were the same size, at 40,000 men each. Still formidable, the Mameluke cavalry was better than the Ottoman cavalry, the Sipahis. What the Ottomans had in their favor were guns, both cannon and arquebuses (the matchlit muskets of the early sixteenth century). By contrast, the Mamelukes scorned firearms, calling them unchivalrous and unsporting. They were especially offended by the arquebus, calling it "the contrivance artfully designed by the Christians," and commenting that this weapon could be effective "even if a woman were to fire it" (click here for a story in European history where this really happened). Their protests did not make the Ottomans stop using these weapons, so the last Mameluke sultan, Tuman Bey, assembled his own force of cannon to defend Cairo. This was done too late to change the outcome of the war; even before the final battle, the Mameluke caliph went over to the Ottomans. Cairo was taken after hard street fighting in January 1517, and Selim's busy executioner hanged Tuman Bey.

Egypt brought many advantages. It became the granary of the Ottoman empire, as it had been for Rome, Byzantium and the Arabs. By conquering the Mamelukes Selim doubled both the size and wealth of his realm. Before he left Cairo a delegation arrived from the Sharif of Mecca to offer him the keys to Mecca and the title of "protector of the holy places." Yemen, however, was remote enough to be a problem; the independent Zaidi tribesmen in the mountains did not submit to Ottoman rule until 1546.

Top of the page

Suleiman the Magnificent

Suleiman I (1520-66) came to the throne without opposition and with more popular support than any sultan before or after him. His long reign got off to a good start: he built a tomb, mosque, and school in honor of his father; 1,500 Egyptian and Persian captives were freed; merchants were compensated for goods Selim had confiscated; corrupt officials in high places were removed and often executed. His subjects called him Suleiman the Lawgiver because of these acts.

Suleiman the Magnificent
Suleiman the Magnificent. You can call him the sultan with the largest turban if you wish.

A remarkable companion helped Suleiman in the early years of his reign--Ibrahim Pasha, the son of a Greek fisherman. He had been captured as a boy by Turkish pirates and sold into slavery; as a slave, he became a page in the royal household. Yet as we saw in previous chapters, slavery was the way for non-Moslems to advance in Moslem society, especially after they converted to Islam. Intelligent, charming, and the same age as Suleiman, Ibrahim became the future sultan's best friend. Together they practiced wrestling, swordsmanship, archery, horsemanship, and music; they also shared meals and discussed the books they read. After Suleiman grew up Ibrahim was promoted to chief falconer, given his own palace, and married to Suleiman's sister. In 1523 he became grand vizier, and brilliantly served in that post for the next thirteen years. This is the most amazing rags-to-riches story in Turkish history.

In his first two military campaigns Suleiman succeeded where his great-grandfather Mohammed II had failed. Belgrade, Hungary's bridgehead across the Danube, was taken in 1521 after weeks of bombardment and twenty massed attacks. The following year saw a seaborne assault against Rhodes, which fell after a 145-day siege. To the surviving defenders he offered generous terms. The Knights of St. John and their mercenaries could leave in twelve days if they did not want to become Turkish citizens; civilians could depart anytime within three years. Europe praised him for his chivalrous treatment of a gallant foe. Little did he realize that one day he would regret letting the knights go.

Three years of skirmishing followed between Suleiman and Louis II, the teenage king of Hungary. Louis did not fight alone; he had the support of the most powerful family in Europe, the Hapsburgs. Charles V, the current leader of the Hapsburgs, owned Austria, the Low Countries, Spain, half of Italy, parts of modern Germany, and much of America. In 1521 a sister of Charles married Louis II. In turn, Suleiman found an ally in Francis I of France, who wanted to use Ottoman pressure from the east to lessen the Hapsburg pressure on his own domains.

Poor Louis II; he was "born too soon, married too soon, king too soon, and dead too soon." He survived a premature birth to be crowned before his tenth birthday (1516). When he foolishly insulted an ambassador of Suleiman, the cold war suddenly turned into a hot one. More than 80,000 troops were assembled at Constantinople and sent to the plain of Mohacs in central Hungary, where Louis and 30,000 Hungarian soldiers had confusedly gathered. The battle took place on August 29, 1526, and there a modern war machine ground romantic chivalry into the mud. Half the Hungarians were slaughtered; Louis tried to flee, was thrown into a stream by his horse, and drowned in his armor. Most of Hungary subsequently fell under Turkish occupation.

Suleiman gave Hungary to John Zapolya, the anti-Hapsburg prince of Transylvania, who accepted Turkish authority in return for the right to keep his own government and army. Nevertheless, Charles V and his brother Ferdinand, the archduke of Austria, undertook an effort to reconquer Hungary in the name of their dead brother-in-law. In response Suleiman returned to the Balkans with another massive army in 1529. This time he advanced all the way to Vienna, where his main enemy was not the Hapsburgs but the weather. Constant rains slowed him for months, and the mud forced him to abandon his heavy guns before he got to Vienna. After a siege lasting less than three weeks, his underequipped, dispirited troops withdrew--in heavy snow. They suffered badly on the way back to their warmer homelands. However, the peril to Vienna was not over.

One year later the Pope rewarded Charles for his defense of Christendom by crowning him Holy Roman Emperor and king of Italy. Suleiman was furious; to him only one emperor could reign on earth--himself. In 1532 he came back to Vienna with an even mightier army. The incredibly heroic defense of the nearby border fortress of Koszeg delayed him for most of August, so by the time he reached Vienna it was again late in the season. Ferdinand was there, but the enemy Suleiman really wanted to fight, Charles V, was in the Bavarian town of Regensburg, 250 miles farther west. Charles was reluctant to rescue his brother; he had Nicopolis, Varna, and Mohacs to show him what could happen if he gambled everything for glory. Charles finally came to Vienna when Suleiman, out of time, was homeward bound.

In the peace treaty of 1533 Ferdinand gave up his claim to most of Hungary and recognized Zapolya as an Ottoman vassal; Suleiman let the Hapsburgs have the northwestern part of Hungary in return for payment of an annual tribute. This arrangement lasted until 1540, when Zapolya died and unexpectedly bequeathed his lands to Ferdinand. When Ferdinand tried to take his inheritance by force, Suleiman moved in and annexed Hungary, claiming it for Zapolya's infant son, John Sigismund Zapolya. Skirmishes took place in Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia, until both sides agreed to a five-year treaty that restored Hungary's divided status (1547). In 1551 Ferdinand broke the truce, and two years of fighting followed, ending with a treaty that renewed the terms of the 1547 accord. Neither side was completely happy with this arrangement, but diversions on other fronts (Persia for the Turks, Italy and the Protestant Reformation for the Hapsburgs) insured that any future squabbles would be little ones.

We have discussed at considerable length Suleiman's wars with the Hapsburgs, when actually his empire was advancing on every front. On the southern front (Yemen), Suleiman finished the conquest Selim I had started. Cyrenaica was taken in 1521. The Venetians were dislodged from their last foothold on the Greek mainland in 1540 (they still held the islands, including Cyprus, which they had annexed in 1489). The Ottoman Empire was a land power in an age when sea power counted for more, but the Ottoman navy enjoyed several victories during this time. In 1529 Khayr ad-Din, a Janissary's son, built a powerful pirate fleet and used it to capture Algiers; Europeans called him Barbarossa, meaning "red whiskers." Four years later Barbarossa submitted to Ottoman authority, but kept Algeria as a special province to support his fleet. He and the Turks went on to take most of Tunisia (1531) and Tripoli (1551). The Ottomans were now equal to the Europeans in the western Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and supreme in the Red Sea and eastern Mediterranean.

Gradually Suleiman came to regard Persia as his worst enemy and the Shiite creed as a more dangerous heresy than Christianity. He ruthlessly suppressed Safavid agents in eastern Turkey and encouraged the Uzbek tribesmen of Central Asia to attack Persia from the east. He personally led the army on three campaigns (1534-35, 1548-50, and 1554), and the odds were in his favor--for example, in the first invasion he had 90,000 troops while Shah Tahmasp only had 7,000. Yet they were mostly hollow victories. Shah Tahmasp retreated every time, having no intention of repeating his father's mistake of meeting the Turks head on. He employed a scorched-earth policy that made the Ottoman supply lines long and precarious; as in Austria, the result was that Suleiman had to retire every time winter arrived. The only permanent Ottoman conquest was the rest of Iraq (1534), where Suleiman was hailed by Baghdad's Sunni community as a liberator and savior of orthodoxy. The strife finally ended with the Peace of Amasya (1555), by which Suleiman kept Iraq and Armenia, while renouncing Ottoman claims to Azerbaijan. Shiite pilgrims were also permitted to visit Mecca, Medina, and the holy places in Iraq, all of which were now under Ottoman dominion.

All of Suleiman's great personal tragedies were caused by Persia and/or his favorite wife, Roxelana. A Ukrainian slave girl, she was captured and brought to the sultan's harem in the early 1520s, where her bubbly personality earned her the Turkish name of Hurrem, "The Laughing One." Suleiman already had a sultana named Gulbahar ("Rose of Spring"), but soon the two women quarreled, and Roxelana gained the affections of the sultan, rising from wife number three to wife number one. In 1524 she bore the first of several children, a son named Selim.

The Ottoman law of fratricide threatened the lives of Selim and any other children Roxelana might have. To beat it, she used both fair and foul means to keep Suleiman's devotion for the rest of her life, and looked for a way to insure that one of her sons would become the next sultan. Here the biggest danger came from Mustafa, the sultan's firstborn son and likely heir. Since Ibrahim was likely to favor Mustafa, Roxelana chose to get rid of him first. She got her chance when Suleiman proclaimed Ibrahim "Commander in Chief," a title the sultan had always held before. Rumors soon came from the eastern front asserting that Ibrahim took bribes from the Persians and was behaving as if he were the sultan. When he came home in 1536, he was invited to dine with Suleiman, the way he always had before. Next morning he was found strangled.

In 1541 a fire raged across Constantinople, damaging the Old Palace. Since the harem needed a place to live, Roxelana had no trouble persuading Suleiman to move all the women into Topkapi Saray. Now only a few steps removed from the sultan's bedroom, Roxelana gained even more power over her lover. The rebuilding of the Old Palace was delayed a long time, although it was a royal treasury, and the harem never went back to it.

Next Roxelana had to get rid of Mustafa and his mother, Gulbahar. She got both of them away from the court by persuading the sultan to appoint Mustafa governor of an eastern province. She also got an appointment for her son-in-law, Rustem Pasha, elevating him to vizier. When Rustem went off to lead the Turkish army on the last Iranian campaign, he sent back word that the soldiers were clamoring to have Mustafa lead them, instead of his aging father. Suleiman remembered that his own father had gained the throne by such a coup, and summoned Mustafa to explain. They met near Konya, and Mustafa trustingly went into his father's tent. The bowstring did its deadly work.

Roxelana died in 1558, and her two surviving sons, Selim and Bayezid, fought to become Suleiman's heir. Selim won, and Bayezid fled to Persia. However, Shah Tahmasp did not want to risk another war, so he turned Bayezid over to Suleiman's executioner. That left the least worthy of Suleiman's sons, a drunkard who earned the nickname "Selim the Sot." In that way Roxelana, prompted by the instinct to protect one's offspring, played and won a man's game where the highest prize was life.

After Suleiman took Rhodes, the Knights of St. John resettled on the island of Malta. Spain gave them the nearby port of Tunis, and from both ports they harassed Ottoman shipping. The Grand Master of the knights, Jean Parisot de la Valette, was a veteran of the siege of Rhodes and expected an Ottoman reprisal, so he hired Italian architects to build the newfangled star-shaped forts that could stand a greater pounding from cannon than the castles of old. When the Ottoman fleet arrived in 1565, a very nasty "holy war" began, with poisoned wells and a fierce summer sun that felled knights in heavy armor from heatstroke. Men fought like moles in mines, while swimmers with knives performed a deadly underwater ballet over sharpened stakes in a scene that could have come from a James Bond movie.

The Turks thought they could reduce Fort St. Elmo, at the mouth of Malta's harbor, in five days. It took a month. Wounded defenders propped themselves up in chairs so they could strike one more blow before they were cut down. Both casualties and atrocities mounted. Eventually only 600 defenders were left, but they were saved when a false rumor of a relief force lured the Ottomans away. They returned to find their siege works destroyed. Then 7,000 Spaniards arrived; not many, but enough. One thousand miles away from home, they gave the order to abandon the siege before winter arrived. As in Austria and Azerbaijan, the Ottoman military machine had reached its limits.

Suleiman was now 72 years old, and growing darker in mood every day. He insisted on a puritanical lifestyle; the palace musical instruments were smashed; his table was set with earthenware instead of silver. He put rouge on his face to give the image of good health. Let no foreigner report that the empire is not strong at the center.

The failure at Malta bothered him. He also recalled an earlier defeat, Vienna, because the Hapsburgs had stopped paying tribute and raided border towns in Hungary. To wipe out the embarrassment of those defeats, he began his thirteenth campaign on May 1, 1566, determined to teach his Christian enemies a lesson they would not forget.

The going was painfully slow. Heavy rains washed out roads and bridges on the way, and the sultan had to ride in a cart because he was too old to sit on a horse. It took 49 days to get from Constantinople to Belgrade. Word reached him there that a Hungarian count had slain a Turkish governor and was holed up with 2,500 men in Szigetvar, a marsh-girded fort near Mohacs. In a fury Suleiman diverted his entire army (100,000 men) to deal with the rebel. The resulting siege went on for a month, until only 150 Hungarians were left. Since the outcome could not be in doubt, the count dressed in his finest, with a jeweled sword and a purse containing a hundred gold coins (so that the soldier who looted his body would think well of him), and led the last defenders in a suicide charge against the Turks.

But the spectator for whom this act of heroism was meant did not see it. Suleiman had died the night before in his tent. His death was kept secret to avoid demoralizing the army before the battle was over. They issued orders as usual from the tent, and food was sent in. Then the order was given to march back to Constantinople. Three weeks later, word arrived that Selim II had claimed the throne, and the grand vizier, Mehmed Sokollu, finally announced Suleiman's death. He would continue to guide the empire, as one of its greatest viziers, for the next thirteen years, which was a good thing; the empire would never see a ruler like Suleiman again.

Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire at its peak, in the late sixteenth century.

Top of the page

Everyday Life in the Ottoman Empire

In the late 16th century the Ottoman empire had 27 million people who spoke some twenty languages. To maintain order, the empire's subjects were separated and divided into several social classes. At the top, of course, were the Turks. To become a member of the Turkish ruling class, one had to do three things: (1) profess loyalty to the sultan and the state; (2) accept Sunni Islam and the system of thought that went with it; (3) become fluent in Turkish language and customs. Those who did not practice all of the above were considered social inferiors, the "protected flock" of the sultan. As shown previously, people of non-Turkish origin like the Janissaries could rise to the top if they showed those attributes, and Turks who came to lack any of them sank to the level of their subjects.(4)

The Turks treated the Arabs better than their other subjects, because they spoke the language of the Koran and were the original Moslems. At the bottom of the social ladder were most of the other ethnic groups: Armenian and European Christians, Jews, and Shiite Moslems. The Christians and Druze of Lebanon enjoyed an intermediate status of sorts, because they were Arab but not Moslem. Non-Arabs who converted to Sunni Islam, like the Albanians and the Bosnians, enjoyed similar treatment.

Usually the empire's subjects were allowed to govern themselves as they wished. They organized Moslems, Jews and Christians into three communities called millets, each under its own laws and a religious leader who was responsible to the sultan for taxes and security. Each millet took care of matters that the state did not get involved in, such as marriage and divorce, birth and death, health, education, internal security, and justice. Individuals could pass from one millet to another if they wished to convert, but all millets disliked members who left them to join another religion, so the state discouraged such action most of the time. The millet system worked for 500 years by keeping the different ethnic groups separated, reducing internal friction in a highly heterogeneous state.

The empire's non-Moslem subjects may have been discriminated against, but the situation was quite acceptable. The main restrictions upon Jews and Christians were the same as those their ancestors experienced under the first Arab caliphates: they had to pay a special tax, they could not ride horses or bear arms, and they could not enter the army or the civil service unless they became slaves first. Still, this was a definite improvement over what they had experienced in Christendom. The kings and knights of Europe still had medieval ideas concerning their peasants, treating them like animals and slaughtering them when they rose in protest. By contrast, the sultan's Dhimmi did not have to worry about falling victim to the wars of the Reformation or the dreadful agents of the Holy Inquisition.

For example, a wholesale expulsion of Jews and Moslems followed the final victory of the Christians in Spain (1492). Most of them went to North Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East, all of which came under Ottoman rule by the early sixteenth century. Because the Jews brought useful skills and knowledge with them, the sultan at the time, Bayezid II, reportedly said, "They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man but he is a fool. For he takes his treasure and sends it all to me." Later on, in 1658, Sultan Mohammed IV granted an audience to Mary Fisher, a Quaker preacher, a remarkable act of tolerance when one remembers that the Quakers were persecuted back in their English homeland.

Though almost constantly at war, the Ottoman empire brought peace to most of the peoples in it. The Pax Ottomanica built roads and caravansary networks, and encouraged trade and crafts. Social services made it the welfare state of its age. Better records gave the Balkan peasants more security in their land holdings.

European leaders, nobles all, wondered how the Ottoman system worked. A society where people were proud to call themselves slaves? A government that gave more opportunities to ex-Christians than lifelong Moslems? The highest officials low born? The army that championed Islam led by men who were first baptized as Christians? Unbelievable!

Although the Ottoman Turks could claim to be the spiritual leaders of Islam after they conquered the holy places in Arabia, they did not do so at first. Selim I, Suleiman I, and their immediate successors saw themselves as shepherds over many peoples, not all of them Moslem, and only called themselves ghazis or holy warriors as an afterthought. The sultan did not regard himself as an heir, physically or spiritually, to either the caliphs of old or the sharifs of Mecca. He did not even give himself the title of "Commander of the Faithful," which is remarkable in view of how much the early sultans enlarged Dar al-Islam. Most religious and judicial functions were left to the Ulema, judges reared on the Koran, as had been done when the Arabs ruled Islam. When Selim I conquered Egypt, he removed the last Abbasid caliph from office, but did not bother naming a replacement. Not until the late 18th century, when the empire was far into decline, did the sultans take for themselves the title of caliph.

Top of the page

The Long Decline Begins

A remarkable transformation took place in 1566 when Suleiman the Magnificent was succeeded by "Selim the Sot." Whereas all of the first ten Ottoman sultans had been talented leaders, every one that came after Suleiman was mediocre at best. The change is so dramatic that some historians have wondered if the dynasty was secretly replaced at this point. In addition, the sheltered life of the sultans made sure that they grew up with a lack of ability. Selim II had two hobbies, drinking and writing poems about drinking. The Venetian ambassador described him thusly: "He preferred the society of eunuchs and women, and the habits of the saray to the camp . . . he wore away his days in sensual enjoyments, in drunkenness and indolence." Fortunately he inherited a fine vizier from his father, Mehmed Sokollu.

Mehmed Sokollu had a vision to expand the empire onto the south Russian steppe. He wanted to build forts there and dig a canal between the Volga and Don rivers. This scheme had a threefold purpose: (1.) it would stop Russia, which under Ivan the Terrible had overrun the Mongol states on the Volga River; (2.) it would give the Ottoman fleet access to the Caspian Sea, opening a northern front against the Persians; and (3.) it would aid the empire's allies, the Khanate of the Crimea and the Uzbeks of Central Asia. In 1569 he besieged but failed to take the Russian city of Astrakhan. He was forced to abandon his plan, but Ivan was effectively checked, and the resulting peace lasted for more than half a century.

In 1571 the Turks captured Cyprus from the Venetians, reportedly so that Selim could always have his favorite Cypriot wines. This woke up Christendom, which formed an anti-Moslem alliance called the Holy League. 200 Venetian, Spanish, and Papal ships, led by Don John, an illegitimate son of Charles V, sailed eastward. On October 5, 1571, they found the Ottoman fleet wintering in the Greek port of Lepanto. Five hours of savage fighting followed, along a line of battle four miles long. At one point the crew members of one Ottoman vessel ran out of ammunition and threw their supply of oranges and lemons at the enemy--who threw them back with derisive laughter. Eventually the Turkish admiral, Muezzinzade Ali, was killed by a musket ball and his flagship was boarded, giving the Christians a handsome victory. 90 Ottoman ships were sunk and 130 captured; 30,000 Moslems were killed or captured, while the Christians suffered 9,000 casualties. The Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, who lost the use of his left hand from wounds suffered at Lepanto, wrote this about the battle in Don Quixote: "On that day so fortunate to Christendom, all nations were undeceived of the error of believing that the Turks were invincible at sea."

The battle of Lepanto.

Lepanto gave the West a great psychological boost, but it had no practical results. The Holy League was disbanded in an air of mutual distrust, Cyprus remained in Turkish hands, and the Ottoman navy was rebuilt. Selim II and Mehmed Sokollu shrugged off the defeat as irrelevant and went on to take Tunis from Spain in 1574.

Selim II died in the same year (1574) from a drunken fall on the wet marble floor of his bathroom. He left the empire to Murad III (1574-95), who was more serious and sober than his father, but totally dominated by his mother and his consort, Princess Safiye. His mother kept him under her control by constantly finding new concubines for his harem. Murad had an endless appetite for women, sometimes changing his bedtime companion two or three times in a single night. During his reign he fathered 103 children, of which twenty sons and twenty-seven daughters survived him. Because the size and influence of the harem was so greatly increased, we sometimes call this period "The Sultanate of the Women."

Mehmed Sokollu remained in office for the first years of Murad's reign, giving some continuity with the era of Suleiman. The harem and other factions of the palace were jealous of his power, though, and they assassinated him in 1579. During the next sixteen years the grand vizierate changed ten times.

While weak sultans sat on the throne, the devsirme, those soldiers and administrators enslaved from the empire's Christian population, triumphed over the old Turkish nobility. Gradually the regular levies to supply Christian boys for the ranks of the devsirme increased, from one boy out of five every five years to annual expeditions that picked up anyone who showed promise. Of course this caused great misery for the parents and children involved, but because of the opportunities for advancement there were a few cases where families bribed the sultan's officials to select their sons. As membership in the devsirme increased, it became so powerful that the sultan could no longer play off the old nobility against them, and now the devsirme used the government for its own benefit. With the challenge of the nobles gone, the devsirme broke into many political factions, each supporting a prince's bid for the imperial throne and joined by the mother, sisters, and wives of that particular prince. All the evils of corruption and nepotism followed; jobs were either given to members of the winning devsirme-harem political parties, or sold to the highest bidder.

The last years of the sixteenth century were not happy ones for the empire. Inflation and food shortages caused social distress; taxation increased to meet the growing demands of the government. Many landless and jobless peasants fled the countryside to the cities, reducing food supplies even more. Others teamed up with deserting soldiers, acquired horses and weapons, and formed gangs of bandits that preyed on everybody else. The Ottoman army remained strong enough to deal with the worst revolts, but in many rural areas anarchy became a way of life.

Despite the spreading corruption at the top, the Ottomans could make a few more territorial gains. In 1578 they conquered most of Georgia, and helped defend Morocco against Spain and Portugal. In 1583 they achieved the long hoped-for major victory against the Persians in the Battle of the Torches, so called because they fought the conflict by both day and night for nearly a week; disputed Azerbaijan now went to the Ottomans. In 1591 they followed this up with an advance along the Persian Gulf that brought Kuwait, Qatar, and eastern Arabia under Ottoman rule. The new revenue from these acquisitions rescued the treasury from the worst of its financial problems, for half a century anyway.

The reign of the next sultan, Mohammed III (1595-1603), began with the worst fratricidal massacre in Ottoman history. All nineteen of Mohammed's brothers, none of them older than eleven, were ritually strangled. Mohammed's sisters and the harem of his father were banished to the Old Palace, except for seven pregnant widows who were sewn up in sacks and thrown into the Bosporus. After that Mohammed seldom left the Topkapi Saray, giving himself over to the voluptuous and lazy lifestyle of his father.

There was one good episode from Mohammed's reign, though. In 1593 Transylvania and Wallachia revolted, and the Austrians marched across the Danube, taking several vital strongpoints. After a great deal of hesitation, Mohammed decided to unfurl the standard of the Prophet and lead his troops. He met the enemy at Keresztes, on the plain of Hungary, in 1596.

Mohammed did not really "lead"; he sat on the edge of the battlefield and left his grand vizier in charge of everything. For two days the Austrians swept everything before them; Mohammed panicked and urged retreat. On the third day, however, an Italian Moslem named Cicala led a daring cavalry charge that completely turned the scales. Thirty thousand Austrians and Hungarians perished, and all the lost territory was regained. Mohammed went home to a hero's welcome, bewildered at his audacity.

The length of the war (it ended in 1606) and the lack of Ottoman victories for most of it hinted that the most important Ottoman institution, the army, was no longer what it used to be. In the past the Turks had always been willing to learn the latest military technology and tactics, but now they were slow to adopt innovations and were not even properly trained in the equipment they had. Simultaneously there was a relaxing of discipline among the Janissaries. They frequently demanded bonuses and pay raises to keep up with inflation, and rose up in mutiny when they did not get them. The rules against marriage and business ventures were forgotten. Freeborn Moslems and the sons of Janissaries joined the ranks of the corps, as did merchants and artisans who wanted the privileges and tax-exempt status that membership conferred. Thus the elite infantry turned into a rabble, more dangerous to its own side than to the enemy.

The stagnation of the army was mirrored in the increasing conservatism that appeared in other fields around the same time. For example, Murad III built a new astronomical observatory in Constantinople, but he demolished it--on the orders of the religious authorities--after a comet appeared and terrified the population. When the printing press was introduced from Europe, the Turks denounced it as an infidel invention unsanctioned by God. The Marquis de Volney, a European traveler who visited Egypt in the eighteenth century, wrote that local doctors were only expected to know how to bleed and cauterize a wound, and that natives consulted even the valets of European visitors for their medical knowledge "as if they were Aesculapius." (compare this with Chapter 10, footnote #4.)

The Ottoman empire lasted under poor leadership for three centuries because its Western enemies were always too caught up in their own squabbles to launch a united offensive against the Turks. Nevertheless, their inventions and ideas penetrated the Islamic heartland. In knowledge, technology, and wealth the West was now superior and most Moslems did not understand why.

Top of the page

Shah Abbas the Great

When Shah Tahmasp's reign over Persia ended in 1576, the Qizilbash tribesmen reasserted themselves. They divided into factions supporting two of Tahmasp's sons, Haydar and Ismail. First, Haydar was murdered; then, just one year later the drug-addicted alcoholic Ismail II died as well. A half-blind third brother named Mohammed Khudabanda was crowned in 1577, but his Qizilbash backers were the real rulers of the country. Not only was Mohammed Khudabanda a weak ruler, but his blindness disqualified him in the eyes of many; Oriental tradition calls for a ruler to be in full possession of all his senses.

Accordingly, people started taking an interest in the potential of Mohammed Khudabanda's son, Abbas Mirza. Born in 1571, Abbas survived a perilous childhood. His mother was killed by tribesmen who resented her influence on state affairs. His first guardian, the governor of Herat, was killed when young Abbas was five. Then Shah Ismail II sent a Qizilbash chieftain with orders to execute the boy, whom he considered a dangerous rival. The envoy chose to disobey the order, and in the surrounding chaos, he managed to establish himself as both governor of Herat and guardian of the prince. He lost Abbas when a rival defeated him, and the victor, Murshid Quli Khan, raised the banner of revolt in the name of Abbas in 1587.

The revolt spread quickly because Mohammed Khudabanda was clearly unfit to rule. Ottoman armies had taken away the northwestern corner of the realm; Uzbeks raided the east; the rest suffered under tribal strife. As Abbas and Murshid Quli Khan marched from Herat to Qazvin, their advance turned into a triumphal parade. On October 1, 1587, the prince was crowned Shah Abbas I in the Persian capital.

If Murshid expected Abbas to be a pliant puppet ruler, he was fatally mistaken. Nine months after the young king's coronation, Abbas had his overbearing patron killed. He also blinded his brothers to remove any threat from them, and purged the tribesmen responsible for his mother's death. Finally he ruthlessly suppressed the revolts in the provinces.

Yet Abbas still felt insecure. In August 1593 his astrologers warned him that the positions of Mars and Saturn promised bad fortune for the king. Like the kings of ancient Mesopotamia, he got around this by stepping down from the throne and proclaiming a substitute shah in his place. They watched the new king, a condemned heretic from an outlawed sect, for three days. On the fourth day, when the zodiac signs became more favorable, Abbas executed the stand-in shah and resumed his reign.

The problem of Persia's external enemies was less easily solved. Since he could not fight a two-front war, he agreed to a humiliating peace with the Ottomans. The Treaty of Constantinople (1590) acknowledged Ottoman control over the northwest, and to further placate the Sunni Ottomans, he outlawed the cursing of Abu Bekr, Umar, and Uthman, the first three caliphs after Mohammed (Shiites consider them usurpers, for reasons explained in Chapters 9 & 10). Then he turned against the Uzbeks, who did not have a sophisticated military machine like the Ottomans. Eastern cities like Mashhad, Herat, and Merv were retaken in 1595 and 1596, and then the Qizilbash cavalry crossed the Oxus to inflict a major defeat on Uzbek territory in 1598. After that skirmishes and Uzbek raids would continue to be a problem for Turkmenistan, but the security of the whole realm was no longer in danger. To strengthen Safavid control in the northeast, Abbas greatly enlarged the shrine of the eighth imam at Mashhad, and encouraged Shiite pilgrims to go there instead of to the holy cities in Iraq, so they would not spend their money in Ottoman territory. Now Abbas was free to redirect his attention west.

To deal with both the Ottomans and his own unruly troops, Abbas took up an idea pioneered by Tahmasp and created his own Janissary corps. Several thousand Georgians, Circassians and Armenians were living in Persia as slaves or prisoners of war, who by now had become Moslems and adopted the Persian culture. These he formed into his personal elite force, and called them "Friends of the Shah." Then he recruited Persians into new infantry units, giving the native majority a role in defending their own country. The guns to equip these troops came either as spoils of war from the Ottomans and Uzbeks, or from the Portuguese base at Hormuz. The main effect of these reforms was that the power of the Qizilbash over the court was broken at last.

Abbas also began building a magnificent new capital; Qazvin was uncomfortably close to both the Ottoman war zone and to the lands of the Qizilbash warlords. He chose Isfahan, a town right in the center of his empire. Construction started in 1598, and continued beyond Abbas's reign.

The city's center was the Chahar Bagh, a 165-foot-wide avenue that followed a canal. The street was shaded by trees and flanked by fountains, pools, mosques, shops, and gardens. On one end of it was the Ali Qapu palace. This was no monumental pile like Versailles and other European royal residences; instead it was a village of small buildings, each serving a different function and separated by shady gardens, like the Topkapi Saray of the Ottomans. The compound was regarded as sacred ground, and any criminal who managed to reach it and kiss its gate was safe from arrest.

By comparison, no expense was spared when it came to building the nearby royal mosque. Towering over the city with its glorious turquoise dome, it is perhaps the finest example of Persian architecture ever built. We can say the same for the city as a whole. Ever since the time of Shah Abbas, Iranians have said that "Isfahan nisf-i jahan"--Isfahan is half the world.

Alongside both the mosque and the palace is a twenty-acre city square, called the maidan. Much of Isfahan's public life took place here: parades, executions, and sports like polo, horse racing, archery, and wrestling. They announced sunrise and sunset with concerts from the imperial orchestra. The northern end of the square was marked by an archway leading into the great covered bazaar, a maze of shops and workshops extending over more than one and a half square miles. When nothing else was going on the stalls of the bazaar spilled over into the maidan, creating a huge public market. At night it turned into a fair thronged with hucksters, water sellers, prostitutes, preachers, jugglers, acrobats, and animal tamers.

Shah Abbas, scorning European rulers who "always sat indoors," liked to walk around the maidan in disguise while its night life was in progress, sampling the goods on display and admiring the performances. Sometimes he also took part in the polo matches, and the orchestra would sound a fanfare every time he hit the ball.

One shrewd move that Abbas made was the transplanting of a colony of Armenian merchants and craftsmen to a suburb of Isfahan named Julfa, where he gave them tax breaks and self-government. They were such smart businessmen that eventually Armenians dominated the empire's overland trade, especially in raw silk. Because Christians were tolerated in Julfa, Catholic missionaries from Europe also used Julfa as a base. Abbas had fun with the missionaries, leading them to believe that he was on the verge of converting to Christianity; once he joined some Portuguese Augustinian friars in their tent, singing psalms with them and playing the lute. But Abbas did not really want to abandon Islam; he liked Europeans mainly for the military assistance they could provide.

The Europeans who helped him the most were two Englishmen, Anthony and Robert Sherley. They arrived in Qazvin in 1598, right after the victory against the Uzbeks. The two brothers thoughtfully watched while the Qizilbash cavalry returned with their war trophies--necklaces of Uzbek ears and earless heads on lances--and then congratulated the Shah on his success.

Shah Abbas took an immediate liking to them. He sent Anthony Sherley back to Europe with letters for Queen Elizabeth, the Holy Roman emperor, the pope, the king of Spain, and other western heads of state. Robert stayed behind as a military advisor and taught modern artillery and tactics to the troops.

The Shah did not wait long to try out his new army; he used it to take Bahrein from the Portuguese in 1602. In the fall of 1603, he set off with an amazingly large retinue for what he called a "hunting trip." They fell on the city of Tabriz, taking the original Safavid capital back from the Ottomans. The Armenian capital, Yerevan, was captured next, after a lengthy winter siege. The Turks struck back in 1605, only to be badly defeated in a battle near Lake Urmia. Then Abbas invaded Iraq, and six years of skirmishing followed. As in previous conflicts, the Turks had the larger army, but this time they had to fight a three-front war; the other two fronts were Hungary (against Austria) and anti-tax riots in Turkey itself. Unable to concentrate enough of his forces to win a decisive victory on any front, the sultan finally agreed to a peace treaty in 1612 that gave the Shah everything he wanted, including Azerbaijan.

In 1611 Robert Sherley returned to England, to learn if a new Anglo-Persian trade route could be opened in the Persian Gulf, so that the Shah would no longer have to export his silk overland through Turkish territory. The Levant Company (the corporation that controlled England's trade with the eastern Mediterranean) refused to endanger its business with the Turks by making a deal with Persia, but the new English East India Company, based in India, expressed an interest in the idea. In 1622 the Company and the Shah joined forces, attacking and capturing the Portuguese base at Hormuz. Bounty hunters tore up the streets of Hormuz, searching for nonexistent buried treasure, and the island port fell into ruins. In its place the Shah built a new port on the mainland and named it after himself: Bandar Abbas.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman-Safavid conflict continued to smolder. In 1616 and 1618 the Turks sent armies to Yerevan and Tabriz respectively; both were repulsed. In 1622 a Janissary officer expelled the pasha of Baghdad and appealed to Constantinople for recognition as Iraq's new governor. When recognition did not come right away, he revolted and called upon the Shah for assistance. A small Persian force arrived in 1623, just as the Sublime Porte finally agreed to recognize the usurper. Renouncing Abbas, the governor was attacked and killed by the Persians, and Iraq was annexed. The Turks responded by sending a large force into Iraq in 1625, which surrounded Baghdad. The Shah did not dare attack the Turks, but his relief force could blockade them. Besieged by both friend and enemy, the people of Baghdad were reduced to eating palm leaves. It seemed so certain that the city would fall that when the Persian court astrologer predicted that Baghdad would successfully defend itself, Abbas for once refused to believe him. However, this time the forecast was correct. The Ottomans ran out of supplies first, and had to abandon their siege. Abbas allowed them to march back to Turkey. The battle for Baghdad was his last great triumph, though the war continued for the rest of his reign and a decade beyond.

Abbas was praised for being fair and impartial to his people, but he did not behave that way toward his own family. Like many Oriental monarchs, Abbas felt that the greatest danger to his reign came from his relatives. In at least one case he was right; in 1589 the governor of Mashhad and guardian of his second son launched an unsuccessful revolt. After that, he kept all of his sons in the royal palace, where the eunuchs who guarded his harem could supervise their upbringing. Yet that did not eliminate his fear of conspiracy, and the Shah slept in a different bedroom every night to confuse potential assassins.

In 1615, Abbas had his eldest son assassinated after some courtiers accused the young man of plotting against his father. Six years later, he became dangerously ill, and the oldest surviving son made the mistake of celebrating his accession while the previous shah still lived. When Abbas recovered, he had the youth blinded. In 1628 he blinded his last son, again because of conspiracy rumors. Soon after that he fell ill again, and died on January 19, 1629. Because all his sons were dead or disqualified, the crown went to the Shah's eldest grandson, Safi Mirza.

The passing of Shah Abbas marked the end of the best years Iran has seen since its conversion to Islam in the seventh century. His successors, brought up in the rarefied atmosphere of the harem, had no experience in administration and ended up as pawns in factional intrigue. None possessed the force of personality Abbas had, and it was only because of the institutions set up by him that the Safavids survived for nearly a century after his death. A European traveler who visited Persia in the early eighteenth century summed it up in one sentence: "When this great prince ceased to live, Persia ceased to prosper."

Top of the page

The Cage

Sultan Ahmed I (1603-17), who succeeded Mohammed III, did away with the law of fratricide. Instead he isolated the Ottoman princes in different parts of the Topkapi Saray, where under the watchful eyes of guards they were kept from plotting against each other. The heir to the throne received special treatment; he was locked away in a special two-story building, not far from the rooms of the first sultana. Handsome gardens surrounded it, and it had attractive tiled walls, but the only windows were on the second floor, and they looked out to the sea. The building was appropriately called Kafes--the Cage.

For the rest of the Ottoman Empire's history, heirs to the throne were put in the Cage, and here they stayed until they were either called to the throne, or until somebody ended their miserable lives with the bowstring. If a sultan was deposed for incompetence, he would usually be returned to the Cage, too. Some heirs died of old age here, and at least one ex-sultan and one heir committed suicide in the Cage.

The last sultan, Mohammed VI (see Chapter 15), endured the longest prison sentence of all; he was fifty-six years old when he became sultan, and up to that point he had spent his whole life in the harem and the Cage. In the Cage, the prince's only companions were deaf-mute servants--mutilated so that they could neither hear nor tell secrets--and just enough concubines to keep him busy. Once inside, the servants and concubines became prisoners as well. While in the Cage, concubines were not allowed to bear potential heirs to the throne, so if one became pregnant, she was immediately drowned. Fortunately this was rare, since most of the women were sterilized first, usually by the removal of their ovaries.

Ahmed I was probably proud that he had discovered a humane way to deal with his brothers. But it is easy to imagine what years of such solitary confinement can do to somebody. Nor were they trained to manage anything but their concubines, so when they emerged they were never ready to rule. The law of fratricide may have been brutal, but like the Mameluke system, it weeded out the least qualified candidates to the throne. Because the minds and bodies of the latter sultans often vegetated for half a lifetime, we can blame the Cage for both their degeneration and that of their empire.

Today the Turks remember Ahmed for building the Blue Mosque, one of the main landmarks in modern-day Istanbul. He also introduced tobacco to the Middle East, but the Sheik-ul-Islam (the empire's highest religious authority) loudly denounced this, saying: "It is contrary to the Koran. Smoking is a hideous and abominable practice which no true believer should adopt." That, apparently, was that--until someone pointed out that the Sheik had not done his homework, for tobacco is not mentioned anywhere in the Koran. The learned Sheik had to recant, and Turks cultivated tobacco on an enormous scale.(5)

Ahmed's brother and heir, Mustafa I, spent more than ten years in the Cage. He may have been mildly retarded when he went in; when he came out he was completely demented. He appointed two favorite pages--both small children--to be governors of Cairo and Damascus. He dismissed a high-ranking officer so that he could offer the post to a peasant who gave him a drink of water when hunting. After three months of this behavior his servants deposed him--very politely. They arranged a five-day hunting trip for his enjoyment, and while he was away his nephew Osman II (1618-22) was crowned. Mustafa went back to the Cage.

As it turned out, Osman was even madder. His favorite sport was archery--on live targets. Prisoners of war were used at first, and when the supply ran out Osman insisted on using his own pages. Four years of misrule--or rather, no rule at all--convinced the Janissaries that Osman must go. They found him hiding in the harem, broke down the door, and Osman fought them with the added strength that comes to the insane, killing six of his attackers before they cut him down. It was the first regicide in Ottoman history.

Who would rule now? Incredibly, the Janissaries decided to give the luckless, witless Mustafa another chance, but now he did not want to leave the Cage. When he refused to open the door, several men climbed up on the roof, made a hole in it, and saw him sitting on a couch, grinning vacantly with two concubines. These folks lowered a rope and hauled up Mustafa through the roof. They wanted to parade him around on horseback, but Mustafa was too weak to ride because during the disturbances his servants forgot to feed him. Instead, the Janissaries took him to the throne room and showed him to the public in a sitting position.

Mustafa's second reign was a total failure; the first thing he did was order the execution of everyone who had helped drag him out of the Cage. After sixteen months, he was quietly strangled. The next sultan, a brother of Osman named Murad IV (1623-40), was only ten years old at his coronation, meaning that the Cage did not have enough time to break his spirit. His mother, a Greek woman named Kiusem, ruled as regent until 1632. She chose grand viziers wisely, and did something extraordinary: she encouraged the young sultan to become a homosexual, to keep him free of harem influence. For a time it worked, but when Murad grew up and assumed power he went straight again.

Murad was a big and cruel man, the last brave sultan to sit on the Ottoman throne. He was a champion at archery, the national sport, and people said he could outride and outwrestle any athlete in the empire. When he began to rule on his own the Janissaries mutinied, demanding the execution of the grand vizier and sixteen high officials. Murad had to yield, but immediately afterwards he gathered a band of loyal troops, arrested the Janissary officers, and executed 600 of them.

After that Murad had a simple solution for every problem: find a scapegoat and execute him, no matter how slight the suspicion. In 1637 alone, 25,000 of his subjects were put to death. His favorite proverb was "Vengeance never grows decrepit though she may grow grey." He executed the Grand Mufti, the highest-ranked Islamic judge, because he did not like the condition of the roads. The chief musician lost his head for playing a Persian song. He prohibited the use of alcohol, coffee, opium and tobacco, and enforced that ban by patrolling the taverns in disguise at night; if he caught someone indulging in the banned vices he revealed himself, drew his sword and killed the offender on the spot. As one might imagine, Murad's temper, combined with the power he wielded, caused him to lash out savagely against imaginary grievances. When a Venetian built an extra room on top of his house, Murad was convinced that he did it to spy on the harem ladies and hanged the man in his shirt. An unlucky French interpreter was impaled for arranging a clandestine meeting with a Turkish woman. Often Murad spent his spare time on the farthest corner of the palace wall, shooting at passers-by with an arquebus or bow; he thought it was his royal prerogative to take ten innocent lives every day.

On the eastern frontier the Turko-Persian War went on for nearly all of Murad's reign. It began with the conquest of Iraq by Shah Abbas and an unsuccessful Turkish counterattack, as told earlier in this chapter. The second Turkish attack (1629-30) was literally a washout because of bad weather; the third (1630) sacked Hamadan but was turned back at Baghdad. A fourth campaign in 1635 recaptured Yerevan but stalled at Tabriz.

Tradition said that Baghdad could only be taken by a king who fought for the city in person, so Murad spent years preparing to do just that. He was finally ready to go in 1638. His army took 110 days to march from Turkey to Iraq, and numbered half a million men when it reached Baghdad. The Persians desperately defended the prized city, but Murad personally made sure that the morale of the troops never slipped. He worked in the trenches with them, helped to move and point the cannon, and though he made regular visits to the harem he shunned other luxuries, using his saddle for a pillow. When during one sortie a Persian giant challenged the bravest Turk to single combat, Murad accepted and "clove his foe from skull to chin with a saber stroke." The city fell after a six-week siege, 30,000 enemy soldiers and an equal number of civilians were massacred, and Murad went home to a triumphal parade similar to those enjoyed by the Roman emperors. Murad was the last sultan to become a conquering hero, and though he gave the empire a bloodbath, we can say that he tolerated only his own crimes, and he temporarily stopped the empire's decline.

Murad IV was childless, and died of cirrhosis of the liver, suggesting to us that he broke his own rule against alcohol. On his deathbed he ordered the execution of his mad brother, Ibrahim, to keep him from becoming the next sultan. He probably thought it was better to end the dynasty than give Ibrahim a chance to rule, but Kiusem thwarted him this time. She sent a false report that Ibrahim had been strangled, and Murad died with a smile.

Ibrahim (1640-48) had spent twenty-two of his first twenty-four years in the Cage. He knew nothing of politics or war and lived in mortal terror, expecting the deaf-mutes to come for him one day with the bowstring, so that when the soldiers arrived to announce his succession he refused to believe them. He and his concubines dragged the furniture across the room and barricaded the door, until the grand vizier brought the body of Murad and begged Ibrahim to look at it from a window. For a moment Ibrahim stood there with mixed feelings of joy and fear, then he ran down and danced around his brother's corpse, insanely screaming, "The butcher of the empire is dead at last!"

Once on the throne, Ibrahim proved to be the worst of all Ottoman sultans, a Turkish Caligula. He adorned his beard with diamonds, fed gold coins to fish in the Bosporus, and had a morbid craving for ambergris, drenching his clothes, curtains and himself with that heady perfume base. When a concubine told him a story about a king who always dressed in sables, Ibrahim decided to become a "sable king," with sables on all his clothing, sables on the walls and curtains of his favorite room, and even sable coats for his cats. Sables on such a scale were hard to come by, so Ibrahim ordered a general collection of sables from every corner of the empire. Most of all, he was obsessed with sex, practicing it daily and indulging in various perversions which caused even the harem to murmur in protest, to say nothing of the government. The least objectionable of these practices was a fondness for obese women. According to Dimitrie Cantemir, an eighteenth century historian, Ibrahim once saw the vulva of a wild young cow, and found this so exciting that he had a replica of it made in gold, and sent it all over the Empire, with instructions to find a woman for him with private parts like that. The winner was an Armenian girl who weighed more than 300 pounds, named Sechir Para ("Sweet Lump of Sugar"); she quickly became his sultana. His ambitious mother Kiusem provided him with more attractive young women, but he grew tired of these, and developed an insatiable passion for women that did not belong to him. One of those was the Grand Mufti of Constantinople's daughter. When she rejected his initial offer of marriage, Ibrahim had the girl abducted. After ravishing her for several days, he sent her back to her father "with scorn and contempt." The Mufti vowed never to rest until Ibrahim was killed.

Elsewhere Ibrahim had no trouble losing friends and alienating people. When Kiusem complained that the harem did not have enough wood for its fires, Ibrahim executed the grand vizier. Then pirates captured some of his eunuchs while on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and took them to Crete. Ibrahim declared war on Venice, the owner of Crete, although the Venetian government had no involvement in the kidnaping. We call this conflict the Candian War, because the main fortress on Crete, Candia (modern Iraklion), resisted the Turks for twenty-four years (1645-69). This is the second longest siege on record; the longest was the Egyptian siege of Ashdod in Chapter 3. The war took so long because the Venetians controlled the sea, allowing them to blockade the Dardanelles and keep Candia supplied. At the end of the siege the French sent a fleet of ships, the largest of which, the La Therese, displaced 1,000 tons and was armed with 58 cannon. The La Therese was supposed to save the day, but instead, a gunpowder accident blew it up. By then, 70 percent of Crete's population was dead, and there were only about 3600 soldiers left, so the survivors surrendered.

Ibrahim's worst crime was the wholesale murder of his harem. One day "Sugar" told him a rumor that a concubine had been caught in a compromising position with another man. She appears to have gotten the information second hand, for she did not know the name of the woman or any other details--or even if the story was true at all. Ibrahim did not need proof, though. When torture failed to reveal the girl's identity, he ordered that every one of the 280 women in his harem, except "Sugar," should die by drowning. The concubines were tied up in sacks weighted with stones and dropped into the Bosporus.

One concubine escaped. She managed to wriggle out of her sack, swim to the surface, call for help, and was picked up by a boat bound for France. She told her story to the crew before reaching Paris. Back in Constantinople ugly rumors of the massacre swept the city after a diver went into the Bosporus to inspect a wreck. He found the ghoulish evidence when he saw the sacks swaying eerily in the current.

This event gave the Mufti and his followers their opportunity for revenge. Because he was a respected clergyman, he wanted to do it legally, so he led a delegation to Kiusem and announced their intention to depose Ibrahim and replace him with his son, Mohammed IV. She reluctantly gave her consent. The Mufti and the Sheik-ul-Islam next held a public meeting in the Hagia Sophia mosque, before a vast congress which accepted their demands without one voice of dissent. The Janissaries marched to the sultan and announced the decision of the government. Ibrahim accepted the judgment calmly and was taken back to the Cage.

This was not enough for the Mufti, who felt that someone could overturn the coup while the rapist of his daughter lived. He and the other religious leaders passed a death sentence, and the deaf-mutes went forth to carry it out. In a cruel joke of history, Ibrahim, who for so many years had lived in fear of his life, now convinced himself that it would only be a matter of time before they reinstated him. Accordingly, when a group of important people knocked on the door of the Cage, he welcomed them with excitement. But this time it was the bowstring.

Ibrahim's reign had been a disaster for the empire. The Candian war and the harem had drained the treasury; the abuses that Murad IV had stopped came back fiercely. Famine and outbreaks of bubonic plague, tragedies no longer experienced in western Europe, were a regular occurrence in Ottoman cities. In Yemen the Zaidis revolted; they were put down, but Yemen was so far away that the Ottomans never had much control over it.

To deal with these problems, the government decided to end harem rule forever. That meant death for Kiusem, but she did not deserve the end that came to her. Forewarned, the mother of three sultans, now toothless and sixty-two, hid in a chest under a pile of dirty clothing. She was stripped of all her clothes and jewelry, dragged by her feet to a palace gate, and strangled with a curtain cord.

"Sugar" was allowed to live, at first. She remarried, something few sultanas were allowed to do, and when her second husband died, she became the most exclusive prostitute in Constantinople. She specialized in buying young girls, training them in singing, dancing, and other arts, and hired them out to whoever could afford her fees. They knew her everywhere as "the Filthy Sultana." One day one of her many enemies caught up with her and poisoned her coffee with chopped hair and ground glass, causing a long and painful death. Thus the overpowering influence of the harem over Ottoman society ended, to be replaced by the rule of viziers.

Top of the page

Back to the Danube

For the rest of the 17th and 18th centuries the sultans of the Ottoman Empire were nonentities. They still maintained their courts with an exaggerated splendor that was unmatched in Europe, except by Louis XIV, the Sun King of France. They still had their whims, ranging from hunting to tulip gardens, but for the most part their vices were limited and unexceptional. It was a long series of grand viziers and less visible figures who really ran the empire and made it work.

Mohammed IV (1648-87) was only seven years old when his reign began, and never did time in the Cage. Still, he was lucky to be alive, with a father like Ibrahim. Ibrahim once tried to drown Mohammed when he was a baby, and another time Ibrahim stabbed him in the face for telling a joke he didn't like. After becoming sultan, Mohammed hated Constantinople, and got out of town to go hunting at every opportunity, often staying away for months at a time. When there weren't any deer available, Mohammed, like Osman II, would practice archery on live prisoners. Fortunately for him and the state, he had an excellent grand vizier, an Albanian named Mohammed Köprülü, and Mohammed IV gave him a free hand when it came to running the everyday business of the country. Mohammed Köprülü was too old to rule for long (1656-61, he was seventy when he got the job), but he went a long way toward putting the Ottoman house in order. Corrupt officials, judges, and army generals were executed; the navy was rebuilt; discipline returned to the army. Coins worth their full face value replaced debased coins, industry and trade were encouraged, and they tried to overhaul the tax system. Yet these reforms, like those of Murad IV, were too limited to have a permanent effect. They treated the symptoms of the disease, but not the cause of the disease itself, meaning that when the problems disappeared, people resumed the routines that had caused the problems in the first place.

Mohammed Köprülü's son, Ahmed Köprülü, succeeded him as grand vizier and continued his work faithfully for the next fifteen years (1661-76). Under his guidance the empire seemed to gain a new lease on life, at least where the military was concerned. The Turks brought the Candian War to a successful conclusion (1669), took Podolia from Poland (1672-76), and though beaten badly by the Austrians they managed to keep a slice of Hungarian territory they had seized (1663-64). But they achieved these triumphs against weaker states that could not match the Ottoman capacity for waging long-term war; on the actual battlefields Turkish performance was mediocre.

Ahmed Köprülü died in 1676, and everybody expected his like-minded brother, Zade, to succeed him, but for the only time in his reign Sultan Mohammed interfered. He gave the job to Ahmed's brother-in-law, Kara ("Black") Mustafa. He had been the sultan's companion on hunting trips, and according to some rumors, his bisexual lover. This was a fatal choice for the empire, because Kara Mustafa was both bloodthirsty and corrupt.

The key policy of the Köprülü grand viziers was to keep the army busy; wars abroad meant peace at home. They could usually rely on the long perimeter of the empire to provide at least one trouble spot; when that failed they could revive an old quarrel. In 1683 the best excuse for war was the expiration of a twenty-year truce with Austria. Kara Mustafa decided to make a big thing of this. He personally led the army on what was to be its most spectacular foray for a century. The target was Vienna, the city that had withstood Suleiman the Magnificent and whose capture would be undeniable evidence of the success of Koprulu rule.

Kara Mustafa invested the Austrian capital on schedule. After that everything went wrong. To start with, the Holy Roman emperor, Leopold I, escaped with his court before the siege began. The Turkish artillery could not penetrate the walls, the defense was vigorous and the siege bogged down. Leopold had time to hire German mercenaries and King John Sobieski of Poland, whose relief army caught the overconfident Turks off balance and all but annihilated them.(6) The sultan had Kara Mustafa strangled, but his work was less easy to correct.

Sobieski & Hussars
John Sobieski and his Polish cavalry (Hussars) defeat the Turks. Note the wings on the Hussar armor.

With the news of the victory a wave of excitement spread across Europe; the liberation of the Balkans looked like a real possibility. In an atmosphere reminiscent of the Crusades Venice and the Papacy pledged their support while Austrian armies moved down the Danube to Buda (1686), won a resounding victory on the fatal field of Mohacs (1687), and crossed the Danube to liberate Belgrade (1688). However, that was the end of the walkover. The Janissaires deposed Mohammed IV in favor of his brother, Suleiman II; under Suleiman the Turks reorganized, retook Belgrade and counterattacked through Transylvania(7). It took two more victories--the second a brilliant coup by Prince Eugene, the best of the Hapsburg generals--to cement the Austrian hold on Hungary. In 1699 the sultan recognized the loss of Croatia, Hungary, and Transylvania and signed the Treaty of Karlowitz.

Meanwhile the catastrophe at Vienna allowed Turkey's other enemies to make comparatively easy gains. Poland regained Podolia. Venice expanded her Dalmatian province and in a surprising burst of energy sailed to southern Greece and conquered the Peloponnesus. Russia's Peter the Great gained control over one Turkish vassal (the Dnieper Cossacks) and took the Black Sea port of Azov from another (the Crimean Mongols).

Not all of these losses were permanent; the Ottomans managed a partial recovery in the opening years of the 18th century. The Turks briefly supported Sweden in the Great Northern War against Russia, defeated Peter and recovered Azov (1711). Venice provoked Turkish wrath by seizing Turkish ships and inciting a revolt in Montenegro; when the Turks arrived on the scene they took back the Peloponnesus and swept the Venetians out of the Aegean (1714). These victories were possible because Austria was fully committed to fighting France in the War of the Spanish Succession, but once that was over the Austrians immediately turned their attention eastward again. Arguing that Turkish attacks on Venice violated the Treaty of Karlowitz, the Austrians declared war in 1716 and sent Prince Eugene across the Danube with 60,000 men. He won a resounding victory at the battle of Peterwardein, in which the Turks lost 6,000 men, the grand vizier, and 100 cannon. The Austrians gained the Banat of Temisvar (the last Turkish outpost in Hungary), northern Serbia, western Wallachia, and a new frontier comfortably south of the Sava river.

Another war broke out between the Russian and Ottoman empires in 1736. Austria jumped in on Russia's side, and both did unexpectedly bad; when the war ended in 1739 Russia's only gain was Azov, while Austria lost most of the gains of Peterwardein.

After this the Ottomans were always on the defensive against the increasing military/economic might of the West. Russia replaced Austria as the main enemy, proclaiming itself the protector of the sultan's Orthodox Christian subjects. Between 1768 and 1774 Catherine the Great defeated the Turks all around the Black Sea, from Bulgaria to Georgia. She only took a small piece of Ukrainian territory, however, to avoid the jealousy of other Western powers like Austria and Prussia. In 1777 the Turks yielded the province of Bukovina, just east of the Carpathian mts., to Austria. In 1783 Russia conquered the Crimea, depriving the Turks of an important source of manpower (Crimean mercenaries had replaced the Janissaries as the sultan's best troops.). In the same year two Georgian states requested Russian protection, and Catherine established the first Russian garrisons south of the Caucasus. Catherine's second war with the Turks (1787-92) started as another Russian walkover, because she had Austrian support, and ended when Austria crowned an anti-Russian emperor, Leopold II.(8) The Russo-Turkish border now moved west to the Dniester River.

At home the Turkish government also showed its weakness as it lost control over local rulers. This happened not only because the Porte lacked the military resources to suppress them but also because ordinary people often preferred native rulers to the corrupt and incompetent officials appointed by Constantinople. Governors in the Balkans raised private armies of Christians and Moslems, and would offer their services to the sultan in return for autonomy. They further increased their power--and Constantinople's problems--by collecting taxes for themselves and sending only minimal payments to the treasury. The central government stayed on top of things by playing off one troublemaker against another, using Ottoman support wherever it would do the most good.

Between 1701 and 1715 the North African provinces--Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli--came under powerful local rulers, and after that they were known as the Barbary States, an infamous haven for pirates that acknowledged Ottoman authority in name only. It was a similar story in Egypt, where the old Mameluke aristocracy regained most of its privileges, so that the most powerful man in Egypt was not the Ottoman viceroy but the chief Mameluke, known simply as the Bey (great one). In Arabia, southern Yemen became independent under the sultan of Lahej in 1728.

Most 18th-century Ottomans saw little need for the empire to change; they assumed that Turkish culture was still superior to the West and that whatever reverses they experienced were caused by a failure to apply the techniques that had worked in the past. Nevertheless, a few Turks did experiment with Western ideas. Sultan Ahmed III (1703-30) built several lavish Western-style summer residences along the Bosporus, and his grand vizier Ibrahim Pasha encouraged the court to dress like Europeans. Growing tulips became a fad among rich and poor alike, so that we sometimes call the years 1717-30 the "Tulip Period." In 1727 a Hungarian Moslem named Ibrahim Muteferrika produced the first books printed in Turkish, and though the Porte often closed the press, it provided many books on history and geography during the rest of the century to open the minds of those who saw and read them.

Top of the page

Persia in Turmoil

The decline of Safavid Persia had much in common with that of the Ottoman Empire, but here the decay was more rapid and violent. The personal army of slaves established by Shah Abbas I grew corrupt and incompetent, and so did the government when taxes were raised to pay for its steadily increasing costs. The confinement of the royal princes in the female quarters of the palace to keep them from plotting against the shah meant a more stable government, but it also meant that future shahs would come to the throne with little experience of the world, dominated by powerful harem factions and Shiite clergymen. All four shahs who ruled after 1629 were drunkards; two of them, Shah Safi (1629-42) and Shah Sulayman I (1666-94), slaughtered a large portion of their nobility; Hussein I (1694-1722) was noted for his piety and the buildings he erected. Only Abbas II (1642-66) showed any of the qualities one expects in a ruler.

As royal capacities weakened, the dynasty also lost the religious legitimacy it had carefully nurtured in the 16th century. Gradually an organized Shiite clergy arose, and it challenged the ideology which made the shah the "shadow of God on earth." Arguing that nobody could claim to be the twelfth or hidden imam, the clergy put the custody of the true faith in the care of mutjahids, individuals who by their religious studies and virtuous lives proved themselves fit to lead the community and interpret how the faith applied to everyday life. Those mutjahids who achieved the highest honors in education and piety were given the additional title of ayatollah.

Because they had the respect of the people, the power of the mutjahids increased, until they had completely taken over the shah's religious functions. The leading ayatollah at the end of the 17th century, Mohammed Baqir Majlisi, was so influential that he wiped out the last remnants of the Safavid Sufi order which had put the shahs on the throne, and imposed his strict view of Islam on the state to such an extent that he had tens of thousands of bottles of wine from the royal cellars publicly smashed.

By 1700 the empire was rotten to the core. When Hussein I made his pilgrimage to Mashhad he did not make the journey on foot in 28 days, as Abbas I had done, but took with him his harem, his court, a retinue of 60,000, spent a year in the process and beggared the provinces he passed through on the way. When a band of Baluchis raided the land in 1697-98, and penetrated to within 200 miles of Isfahan, Hussein had no troops to resist them, and had to appeal to a visiting Georgian prince for help. That got him off the hook, but Persia did not recover afterwards. In 1709 Afghanistan revolted; Hussein procrastinated, and when he finally sent troops to put down the rebellion they were too confused to win any battles. In 1722 an army of 20,000 ragged Afghan tribesmen marched through southeastern Iran to Isfahan, captured the capital and murdered the Shah.

What happened next was disastrous. Half the Safavid realm now fell under Afghan rule, and civil war engulfed the rest. The Ottoman Turks, taking advantage of the Persian weakness, invaded from the west, occupying territory from Tbilisi to Hamadan. Peter the Great also got involved in the civil war, to keep the Turks away from the Caspian Sea; he grabbed Tabaristan and all of coastal Azerbaijan for Russia. A Russo-Persian treaty was signed in 1723, and the Ottoman Empire, backed by Britain, opposed it. It took a second treaty (1724) to prevent a direct war between the Russians and Turks; in this agreement the Turks got Tabriz, Kermanshah, and Hamadan in return for recognition of Russia's acquisitions. In 1725 the Afghans captured Tehran and defeated the Russians and the Turks in separate battles during the following year. That stopped further encroachments from foreign powers and left the Afghans as the supreme rulers of Persia for the moment.

What happened to the Safavids? Tahmasp II, the son of Shah Hussein, fled to Turkmenistan, where he found a champion in Nadir Khan, a Turkoman (Turkish nomad) from the Afsharid tribe. Gradually developing a disciplined army, Nadir began conquering the Afghan-held territory between Tehran and Herat, wisely avoiding open battles until he was ready. When the time came for battles, Nadir won every time; by 1730 he had chased the Afghans out of Persia and Tahmasp was crowned in Isfahan. Then he turned against the Ottomans, driving them out of Hamadan, Kermanshah, and Tabriz, and sending raiding parties across the prewar frontier to make trouble on Ottoman territory.

The Ottomans were slow to react because of a serious mutiny at home. Sultan Ahmed III had refused to send the Janissaries into Persia, leaving them both unemployed and unpaid. When Nadir's raiders spilled across the Turko-Persian frontier in 1730, 12,000 Albanian troops, backed by the Janissaries, revolted in Constantinople. They strangled the grand vizier, the chief admiral, and several other top officials; they also deposed the sultan (but spared his life) and crowned his nephew, Mahmud I. Nevertheless, the new sultan turned against his benefactors. The Janissary leader was summoned to a meeting of the Divan (the Turkish privy council), at which he was seized and strangled in front of the sultan. During the next three weeks some 7,000 rebels were killed and 43,000 were banished. That left the Turkish army decimated, but now the war against the Persians was ready to proceed.

This Turko-Persian war lasted for six years (1730-36), and Nadir Khan had the advantage, though he was fighting the Afghans at the same time. He won back control of Armenia and Georgia and built a navy in the Persian gulf to challenge the Ottoman fleet; his only failure was a 1733 siege of Baghdad. On the diplomatic front he persuaded Russia to return the Caspian territories Peter had taken, since the Turks were the main enemy of Russia and Persia alike. At the same time relations between Nadir Khan and the shah soured, so in 1732 Nadir got Tamasp drunk, showed him to his courtiers, and asked if a man in Tamasp's condition was fit to rule. When the court said no, Nadir deposed Tahmasp in favor of his infant son, Abbas III. Four years later Nadir got tired of ruling through puppets, so he removed Abbas, too; this time he crowned himself, changing his name to Nadir Shah.

Nadir Shah
Nadir Shah.

Before 1736 was over, however, Nadir had a peace treaty on his own terms, and he turned his attention back to the Afghan rebels. To deal with Kandahar, which was at that time the best fortified city in the world, he built a new city nearby, Nadirabad, and made it his base from which to direct the siege. Kandahar fell by deceit in 1738, but its walls, 30 feet thick in many places, proved too tough to demolish completely; they still stand as ruins today. At this point Nadir Shah ran out of money, so after resting for two months he embarked on his most celebrated campaign, an invasion of India. His excuse for the invasion was that some Afghan rebels had taken refuge in India, and the current Mogul emperor refused to hand them over. Nadir's advancing army captured Ghazni, Kabul, Peshawar, Sindh and Lahore; knocked the Indian army out of the way in a big battle at Karnal, and entered Delhi unopposed on March 20, 1739. When a rumor of Nadir's death prompted some Indians to attack the Persians, Nadir struck back savagely, killing 20,000 Indians; the survivors coined a new word, nadirshahi, just for the massacre. Delhi was sacked, and the Persians hauled away 300+ years of accumulated wealth, including the Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-nor diamond. This expedition was such a success that Nadir Shah did not have to collect any taxes for the next three years.

But even this heist was only a temporary solution to Persia's financial problems. How large they must have loomed in Nadir's mind is shown by his increasingly morbid obsession with money and jewels. That, combined with deteriorating health and suspicion of plots against him, caused his mind to go completely unhinged. When the Ottomans refused to declare orthodox a moderate Shiite sect, the Ja'fari, he declared war on the Turks; that conflict lasted for four years (1743-47) and ended with no territory changing hands and Nadir Shah dropping his demand for Ja'fari recognition. Meanwhile he punished his subjects by raising taxes and by blinding or executing ineffective officials, until he could no longer be tolerated. The victims included his son Reza, whom he accused of being behind an unsuccessful assassination attempt, and had him blinded. In 1747 Nadir was murdered in a conspiracy that included his own Afshars and some Qajar chiefs--a sad end to one of Persia's most successful leaders.(9)

At his peak in the early 1740s, Nadir Shah ruled Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, both sides of the Persian Gulf, part of Iraq, the Caucasus region, Turkmenistan, and part of Uzbekistan. This made him the last great Asiatic conqueror. Not since the time of the Sassanian empire was Persia ever so powerful; nor would it ever be this strong again. Upon Nadir Shah's death the military machine he had so carefully built up broke apart, as its military commanders went forth to create kingdoms of their own. Ahmad Shah Durrani went to Kandahar and created an independent Afghanistan from there. Another Afghan general, Azad Khan, briefly held Azerbaijan before the Qajars expelled him. Mohammed Hasan of the Qajars, a descendant of the Qizilbash tribesmen who had backed the Safavids, took Tabaristan (modern Mazanderan). Shah Rokh, Nadir's blind grandson, managed to hold onto Turkmenistan, ruling from the holy city of Mashhad. Isfahan was held by an ally of Shah Rokh, Abu ol-Fath Bakhtiari; in the south a new dynasty arose, that of the Zands.

The Zand leader, Mohammed Karim Khan, began his career as an ally of Ali Mardan Khan, a chief of the Bakhtiari (a nomadic tribe living on the eastern slopes of the Zagros mts.). Together they ousted Shah Rokh's nominee from Isfahan, and agreed to replace him with a grandson of Shah Hussein, Shah Ismail III, but Ali Mardan Khan broke the compact and was killed. That left Karim Khan as the most powerful man in central and southern Iran. Leaving Ismail in Isfahan, he set up his headquarters in Shiraz and proclaimed himself regent over the powerless Safavid prince. He chose to tolerate, though he did not support, Shah Rokh and the Afghans, and concentrated his attentions on the Qajars. Peace finally came around 1760; the Qajars got to rule the northern third of Iran, while their crown prince, Agha Mohammed Khan, lived as a hostage in Shiraz.

Karim Khan, the Persian ruler who never called himself shah, spent the rest of his life attempting to improve the lives of his subjects. He built many fine buildings, lowered some taxes, and encouraged trade with the British in India. Upon his death in 1779, however, trouble hit the fan again. Agha Mohammed Khan escaped to Qajar country, gathered a large force, and began a war of conquest. The Zands were unable to defend themselves effectively, because they were also fighting among themselves for Karim Khan's legacy. Zand unity did not return until 1789, when only one of their chiefs, the gallant Loft Ali, was left. Agha Mohammed relentlessly hunted him down and killed him at the southeastern city of Kerman in 1794. Then the Qajar leader massacred, mutilated, or blinded the people of Kerman for supporting the last of the Zands.(10)

With his most powerful rival gone, Agha Mohammed crowned himself "King of Kings" over all Persia. Later in the same year (1796), he marched northeast and took Mashhad. Shah Rokh died of the tortures inflicted on him to reveal the complete tally of his treasure. Justice repaid Agha Mohammed's extreme cruelty--he was assassinated in 1797--but the dynasty he established, the Qajars, ruled Iran until the Pahlavis took over in the 1920s, and his capital city, Tehran, is still the capital of Iran today. Unfortunately, the struggles between the Qajars and Zands had ruined the country's prosperity and economy. When the British reopened trade in 1800, the Persians, like the Turks, found they were no longer in any shape to defend themselves against Western economic and political penetration.

Top of the page

Oman Takes a Bow

While good times ended for the Turks and Persians, Oman enjoyed some good years as a regional power. In 1625 the Ya'rubid dynasty was founded when Nasir ibn Murshid, the leader of the local Ya'rub tribe, was elected imam of Islam's Ibadi sect. In 1649 the Ya'rubids took Muscat, expelling the Portuguese, and then they went on to harass the Portuguese outposts in East Africa. By 1700 all of the coast of modern Kenya and Tanzania was under Omani rule, and marauding Omani fleets became a danger to any European merchants sailing in the Arabian Sea.

At the end of the 1730s the dynasty dissolved in a dispute over the throne, and the Persians captured Muscat. A local leader named Ahmad ibn Sa'id rose up in 1741 and began the task of liberating Oman from the Persians. He finished the job and was proclaimed imam in 1749, founding the Al-Bu-Sa'id dynasty. Thus began the government that still rules Oman today.

This is the End of Chapter 13.


1. Montenegro was never directly ruled by the Ottomans. That fiercely independent little republic started paying tribute to the Turks after the battle of Kosovo, and was completely surrounded by the campaigns of Mohammed II, but the sultan allowed it to keep an elected bishop, to rule over the region's quarrelsome tribes. I'm pointing this out here because Montenegro does not appear again on most maps of Europe until the 19th century.
This system broke down once, when a pretender to one of the most important thrones in Europe showed up in Montenegro, dressed in a worn-out monk's robe. He had the Serbian name of Šćepan Mali (Stephen the Little), and he claimed to be the Russian tsar, Peter III. Everybody knew that Peter had been murdered a few years earlier (1762); Stephen's story was that instead of dying, Peter had escaped his enemies, and here he is now! In Russia such pretenders were killed within a year or two of their appearance (remember False Dmitri and Emelian Pugachev), and Stephen did not in any way look like Peter III, but the Montenegrins accepted him wholeheartedly. Perhaps they felt it was time to give their country some law and order.
The Ottman Empire saw a well-run Christian kingdom in the Balkans as a threat, and in 1768 the sultan sent an army of 60,000 to get rid of Stephen. Against this, Stephen had an army of just 10,000, who were also short on weapons, so to maximize their effectiveness, he had them hold the narrow Ostrog Mountain Pass, the way Leonidas had placed his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. On the first day of battle, the Turks slaughtered more than half of the Montenegrins. Then on the second day a fearsome thunderstorm halted the battle, and after being spooked when a lightning bolt struck a powder keg, causing an awesome explosion, the Turks got up and left. The sultan had a good reason to call off the campaign--Russia had just declared war, meaning that the sultan needed to save his army for a real enemy--but Stephen declared himself the winner anyhow.
The current Russian ruler, Catherine the Great, also didn't like the idea of a fake Russian tsar in the Balkans, for personal reasons--the real Peter was her husband. In 1769 she sent Prince Geogriy Dolgorukov, a man who had known the real Peter, to investigate the situation and capture Stephen. But Stephen knew the greatest Russian weakness, so when the Russian prince and his entourage reached Montenegro, he welcomed them, and entertained them with vodka and beautiful women until they saw things his way; after the party, they went home without him. Thus Stephen was able to rule until 1773, when the Turks bribed Stephen's barber to kill him; with the pretender gone, Montenegro returned to the state of anarchy that was its normal condition.

2. Herding is a highly inefficient lifestyle, only recommended for those climates that are too hot, cold, or dry to permit sedentary agriculture. Herding on the average can feed and provide a living for 1-10 people per square mile, whereas rain-watered or irrigated farms feed at least ten times that amount. Since many Turks chose to continue living by herding when it was no longer necessary, it helped to keep their population stable while that of their more settled rivals was on the increase.

3. The Portuguese viceroy of the Indian Ocean, Alfonso de Albuquerque, had plans to control the Red Sea as well, but he failed to take Aden and found it impractical to maintain a garrison on waterless Socotra. Operations finally ceased when it was realized that there was little traffic in the Red Sea. The only significant result of Portuguese activity in this area was that it enabled Abyssinia to survive as a Christian kingdom, with Moslem neighbors on all sides.

4. Western European Christians who converted to Islam often got good jobs in the sultan's government. One such convert was Samson Rowlie, a sixteenth-century Englishman who changed his name to Hasan Aga, and became the treasurer and confidant of the Ottoman high admiral, Uluç Hasan Pasha. Westerners regarded such individuals as traitors, while Turks called them Muhtedi ("one who has found the true way").

5. A similar story surrounds coffee. Native to Africa, coffee trees were planted in the town of Mocha, Yemen, some time between 1200 and 1400 A.D. From there the Yemenis exported coffee to parts of the Middle East. The oldest known coffee shop opened in Constantinople in 1475, so to any Starbucks fans reading this, you're following a tradition that's older than you think. Over the course of the sixteenth century, everyone who came in contact with the Turks discovered the drink, and the ulema almost unanimously took the view that coffee-drinking is the same sort of vice as wine-drinking. Two sultans we'll be reading about soon, Murad IV and Ibrahim, actually executed some people for satisfying their caffeine cravings. This time, however, the will of the people prevailed, and coffee is now consumed even by fundamentalists.

6. The Austrians celebrated by putting a captured battle standard, a golden Turkish crescent, on top of St. Stephen's Cathedral, as a trophy of victory. When they got tired of seeing the crescent up there, one chef invented a pastry with the same shape and color, the croissant. So next time you eat a Burger King "croissandwich," remember that you are commemorating the defeat of Islam, the last time it invaded central Europe before our own era!

7. Suleiman II spent forty of his first forty-five years in the Cage. While there, he was understandably fearful that Mohammed IV might order his execution. One day in 1687, a group of palace officials came to see him, and Suleiman broke down in sobs, saying, "If my death has been commanded, say so. Let me perform my prayers, then carry out your order. Since my childhood I have suffered forty years of imprisonment. It is better to die at once than to die a little every day." It took a lot of coaxing to convince Suleiman that he was the new sultan, before he would leave the Cage and accept the Sword of Osman, the sultan's ceremonial weapon.

8. If there was anything in the war that the Turks could be happy about, it was Austria's performance. Especially with the battle of Karánsebes, the worst "friendly fire" incident of all time. Romania was the only place where both the Russians and Austrians could engage the Turks, and in September 1788 the Austrian army set up camp around the Romanian town of Karánsebes. Some scouts rode ahead on horseback to see if there were any Turks in the neighborhood; they didn't find any, but they found some Gypsies with a load of schnapps, bought the schnapps from them, and eagerly started drinking it. Soon after that, some infantrymen marched to the same spot. When they saw the scouts having a good old drinking party, they demanded some of the booze. The drunken scouts refused, and then they set up makeshift fortifications around the schnapps barrels, as if this was a silly wargame. The scouts and infantry started arguing, until one soldier fired a shot, starting a battle between the two units.
If you thought that was stupid, it gets worse. Some of the infantry began shouting "Turks! Turks!", as if the Turks, and not the scouts, were shooting at them. Thinking the Turks were behind them, the scouts broke and ran, and so did the infantry, seeing the fleeing scouts as proof that the Turks were really approaching. Some Austrian officers among the infantry tried to restore order by shouting "Halt! Halt!" However, the Austrian army was made up not only of German-speaking Austrians but also Hungarians, Italians, and an assortment of Slavs. Those soldiers who did not speak German thought the officers were shouting "Allah! Allah!", which only made them run harder.
When the first scouts reached the main camp, a corps commander got the idea that the men coming at him must be part of a Turkish cavalry charge, and ordered artillery fire on them. Now the rest of the army woke up, and when they saw they were in the middle of a battle, they fled in every direction. The troops fired at anything they thought might be the Turks; usually it was other Austrian soldiers. Soon the whole army was retreating from an army that wasn't there; probably the funniest incident was when the Austrian leader, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, got pushed off his horse into a stream.
Two days later the real Ottoman army arrived at Karánsebes, and it found 10,000 dead and wounded Austrian soldiers. The Turks probably thought it was great that they didn't have to kill anybody--the Austrians had done it for them!--and then they seized the town. And that wasn't all; in 1789 the Austrians stopped a Turkish advance in Serbia and captured Belgrade, only to give Belgrade back when the war ended two years later.

9. Still, he would have been awful company, even when things were going well for him. When told that there is no warfare in Paradise, Nadir Shah asked, "How can there be any delights there?"

10. Agha Mohammed's cruelty and depravity have been attributed to bitterness caused by his castration at the age of five by political foes.

© Copyright 2000 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



A General History of the Near East


Other History Papers

Beyond History