Siege of Vienna

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The Siege of Vienna in 1683 was arguably one of the most important events in Islamic history because of the potential stakes and the aftermath of the result. The Habsburg-Ottoman rivalry had already lasted for almost two centuries leading up to 1683. This rivalry was marked by long periods of coexistence (brought about by treaties) with violent outbursts of conflict. At the expiry of one such treaty, those in charge in Constantinople decided to pursue aggression towards their long-standing rivals. There are differences as to what the motivations behind this Ottoman aggression were; some historians claiming the Sultan only ordered the capturing of border fortresses in Upper Hungary; whilst others argue the decision to besiege Vienna was taken by the Sultan’s chief Vizier, Kara Mustafa, an ambitious man belonging to the Koprulu family who had monopolised the position of Viziership for half a century. Expansionism served a key aim for Kara Mustafa – to play a distracting role to the internal issues faced by the Ottomans, notably the increasingly damaging role played by the Janissaries.

The Ottoman army, along with the help of its Calvinist Hungarian allies, besieged Vienna with a force of around 150,000 soldiers. The Hapsburg Emperor, Leopold I, was immediately forced to flee the city. By the beginning of September the Ottoman miners  had dug underground tunnels to Vienna’s inner walls and actually made significant headway; at the same time, the siege had dragged on for six weeks and living conditions had taken its toll on the city.

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In the backdrop of such dire straits for Vienna, Jan Sobieski showed up at the head of the Holy League army (which had been brought together by Pope Innocent XI). Roughly 70,000 Holy League troops descended upon the Ottoman forces on September 12. The ensuing battle would last for 15 hours and resulted in the decisive defeat of the Ottomans. Apparently, it took the Holy League a week to collect all the booty left behind by the Ottomans.

The fact that the Ottomans targeted the capital of it’s rival, not once but twice (a disastrous attempt had previously been made by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1529), whilst the Hapsburgs couldn’t dream of conquering Constantinople, shows how unequal the rivalry was. But that changed after 1683. When the Holy League forces, led by Jan Sobieski defeated the Ottoman forces just outside of Vienna and lifted the siege, the Ottoman Empire began a stubborn decline which saw their power erode whilst their European adversaries gained strength. In fact this battle is often seen as the turning point in the rivalry between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. Beyond 1683, Muslim states launched no direct assaults on Europe; from that point on, Europe was in the ascendance.

If you’re interested in military history, check out this video we did on Saladin’s victory at the Battle of Hattin in 1187!

Battle of Chaldiran

Known in Turkish as Çaldıran Muharebesi and جنگ چالدران  (jeng-e chalderan) in Persian, the Battle of Chaldıran is one of the most important battles in the last 500 years of the Middle East as the decisiveness of the Ottoman victory over their Persian Safavid foes led to long-term ramifications which saw the Ottomans emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East.

Battle of Chaldiran
Battle of Chaldiran 1514

Background

Though the battle was fought between the Ottoman Sultan Selim I and Safavid Shah Ismail I on 24 August 1514, the origins of the battle began about a decade before with Sultan Bayezid II. After Shah Ismail, a follower of the Twelver Shi’a Sufi sect known as Safeviyye, established the Safavid Empire in 1501, he also decreed that the new Iranian state would be a Shi’a state—effectively a mass conversion of the formerly majority Sunni region.* This served two purposes: first, it would separate the Safavid Empire from its rivals, the Sunni Ottomans and second it would allow Shah Ismail to take a special position as the sheikh in Safeviyye belief, making the Qızılbash­—Azeri Turkish fighters who followed the order—loyal to him. This was difficult for the Ottoman Sultan to ignore as it directly undermined his power on an ethnic and sectarian level – losing the Turkish Qizilbash to a Shi’a leader who proclaimed himself the lawful leader of the Muslim community.

Shah Ismail Shi'a Declaration
Declaration of Shi’ism as state religion of Persia by Shah Ismail

The Qizilbash­ were spread around the region in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Azerbaijan. Because they spanned the territories of two empires, Bayezid became suspicious of them. After some campaigns, Ismail managed to capture some key cities in Eastern Anatolia such as Erzincan in 1501. Bayezid then prevented the Anatolian Qizilbash­ from going to Iran and executed anyone suspected of having gone.

Two successful reconquest campaigns by Sultan Bayezid and Şehzade (prince) Selim, brought part of the Eastern Anatolia region under Ottoman control. After rising to the throne in 1512, Selim had to make deals with several internal traitors who had made deals with the Qizilbash­. Şehzade Korkut, Şehzade Ahmet and Koca Mustafa Pasha, who was the Sadrazam (Grand Vizier).


Battle

After putting down their uprisings, Sultan Selim sent an army of 100,000 Rumelian** and Anatolian troops from the Ordu-yi Hümayun (Ottoman Army) to East Anatolia aimed at fighting Shah Ismail. The army established a military center at the Chaldiran plain and soldiers were posted on hills. Shah Ismail was expecting a victory against the encroaching Ottomans because he had been working with the Vali of Diyarbakir, Ustacluoğlu Mehmet and Mir Abdülbaki. On the battlefield, Shah Ismail managed to kill the Beylerbeyi (Vizier) of Rumelia himself, but Sultan Selim had brought a far higher number of troops and the latest war technology. Ismail’s small army was less organised and their weapons were less advanced, so the Ottomans were able to win in one day. Selim’s troops continued and entered Tabriz, the Safavid capital city on 6 September 1514.

Sultan Selim I
Sultan Selim I
Shah Ismail I
Shah Ismail I

Consequences

After the fighting ended, several major events occurred. First, the alliance between the Mamluks—the rulers of Egypt, Syria, and the Hijaz—and the Safavids ended. This made it significantly easier for Selim to expand the Ottoman Empire into the region, conquering the Mamluk territories in five months. Second, the Ottomans now controlled the Van-Tabriz part of the Silk Road that had previously been under Safavid control. Third, important Anatolian and Mesopotamian cities such as Erzincan, Bayburt, Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Bitlis all became Ottoman territories, which solidified Ottoman control of Anatolia.

Shah Ismail had not only lost the battle but also his aura of invincibility; up until Chaldiran, the Shah was seen to have prophetic-martial qualities and had not lost a major battle. At Chaldiran, Shah Ismail had two of his wives and his entire harem captured by his Ottoman foe; he subsequently became depressed and effectively became an alcoholic – he virtually stopped participating in governing his realm until he died in 1524. More positively, the loss at Chaldiran persuaded the Safavids to adopt more modern weaponry which led them to become one of the Gunpowder Empires.


Hikma Musings

The Battle of Chaldiran offers two particularly important insights. It reinforced the necessity of a constant pursuit of technological progress – since the Ottoman superiority of weapon, exemplified by their usage of rifles and cannons, was was a key reason for their triumph over the Safavids, who still relied heavily on swords and non-gunpowder instruments. Secondly, it is also a lesson about the harshness of fate – since Shah Ismail was riding a military win streak for almost 20 years, the Battle of Chaldiran knocked this once indefatigable champion of war to his knees and he never recovered. This forces the question – was Shah Ismail really that great? Isn’t it more difficult and therefore admirable to get up after being knocked down than to remain unbeaten and never demonstrate the ability to bounce back from defeat?


 * Even though Shah Ismail himself was an Azeri Turk, the Safavid Empire is considered Persian because it ruled over the historically Persian-controlled territories and even self-identified as an “Iranian state”.

 ** Rulemia – Modern-day Balkans.


This article was contributed by the incredible Deniz Çıtak (Instagram)

 

Battle of Ankara

Inked Turkey Map
Location of battle (circled)

One of the most epic encounters on the battlefield took place in 1402 in Anatolia. The Battle of Ankara was between the two most powerful men of their day – Timur of the Timurids and Bayezid of the Ottomans – with the result bringing about the near collapse of one of these Empires.

Background

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Timur (1335-1405), founder of the Timurid Empire

On the one side was a man who claimed descent from Genghis Khan and worked hard to replicate the Mongolian leader’s achievements; Timur had conquered an empire stretching from China in the East to the Mediterranean in the West, in the process conquering and destroying some of the most iconic cities in history. He had inflicted defeats upon powerful states such as the Delhi Sultanate in India and the Mamluks in Egypt.

Bayezid I
Bayezid (1354-1403), Sultan of the Ottoman Empire

On the other side was a leader who had brought his realm international acclaim by defeating a Crusade; Sultan Bayezid of the Ottoman Empire had defeated the combined forces of many European kingdoms at the Siege of Nicopolis in 1396 (also referred to as the Crusade of Nicopolis) which earned him the nickname ‘Yildrim’ or Thunderbolt. On the eve of the Battle of Ankara Bayezid was preparing to attack Constantinople, which he had been blockading since 1390.

Timur claimed sovereignty over many of the Turkmen rulers in Anatolia, so when Bayezid attacked them, it gave Timur a favorable excuse to declare war on the Ottomans. But the two leaders had been exchanging unpleasant letters for years before and the natural rivalry between two leading conqueror’s in close proximity of each other was always going to make the prospect of a conflict inevitable. Bayezid reluctantly decided to abandon the siege of Constantinople when he heard Timur was moving in his direction.

What happened?

Ankara 1402
Battle formations at Ankara

It is surprising to learn that a man as accomplished as Timur could be underestimated considering all that he had achieved, but that’s just what Bayezid did. As Bayezid marched toward his foe, he rejected his generals advice to wait for Timur at Ankara which would have been advantageous due to their familiarity with the environment. Timur took his forces around the Ottomans so that he ended up being behind them and actually made use of Bayezid’s old camp at Ankara. Now Bayezid had to force his troops to march back in the direction they came from in haste to relieve Timur’s siege of Ankara. All of this marching took place during the midsummer heat, meaning that the Ottoman forces would have been exhausted when they arrived at the battle site. What’s more, they discovered that Timur had diverted the main water supply available to them.

The number of troops on the battlefield have often been exaggerated in historical accounts, with some suggesting numbers as high as 1.5 million on each side! Considering the swiftness of their movement, each side must of had around 20,000 troops.

Despite being tired and thirsty, the Ottomans fought well; this is especially true of the Serbian contingent under Bayezid’s brother-in-law Stefan Lazarevic. The key moment in the battle came when the Tatars, on Bayezid’s side, switched sides and began attacking the Ottomans. Their allegiance had been previously bought by Timur. In the midst of the confusion, Bayezid’s troops’ broke rank and were decisively defeated by the Timurids. Bayezid himself narrowly managed to escape into the mountains but Timur had the area encircled and soon captured his opponent.

Aftermath

Timur-Bayezid
Timur victoriously views his fallen foe Bayezid

Bayezid was kept in a golden cage for a few months before he died in captivity – A humiliating end to a man who had enjoyed such heights of power and prestige. His Empire lay in ruins as his sons began fighting amongst themselves, a period known as the Ottoman Interregnum (1402-1413). In a remarkable comback story, the Ottomans would bounce back to enjoy far more glory than they had experienced before the Battle of Ankara. Constantinople was gifted an extra 50-years as the seat of the Byzantine Empire. As for the Timurids, Timur ravaged Anatolia before casting his eyes eastward, but the decades of being in the saddle had caught up with him and at the age of 70 he died on his way to attack China in 1405. Soon after his Empire was divided amongst his family, in the process it created a cultural renaissance in cities such as Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Herat (Afghanistan).

Battle of Talas

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Pivotal or Overblown?

Some battles are seen as landmark moments; their result could be the catalyst for monumental change for centuries to come. The Battle of Talas in 751 is considered as one of those moments. Let’s explore why.

What happened?

In the years leading up to 751, both the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the Arab Umayyad Caliphate had both been expanding aggressively into Central Asia – rendering a collision inevitable. The region had already featured prominently in Islamic history because the Abbasid Revolution in the late 740’s, which replaced the Umayyads with the Abbasids, was centred around the province of Khorasan (modern-day western Afghanistan, north-eastern Iran and Uzbekistan). Other than serving the goals of an expansionist religious or political creed, Central Asia was super important because it was a nexus point for the lucrative Silk Road.

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The furthest extent of the Tang Dynasty.

The spark for the Abbasid-Tang conflict was provided by the local city-states. In 750, the King of Fergana had a border dispute with the ruler of neighbouring Chach. Fergana asked the Chinese for help, which was duly obliged by General Kao of the Chinese western army. Chach’s ruler was beheaded but his son escaped and sought refuge with the famous Abbasid General Abu Muslim Khorasani, who was keen on curbing Chinese influence in the region.

The Arab forces were joined by the Uighurs and the Tibetan Empire (which was a major regional power at the time).  The two sides met at Talas, in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. After five days of intense fighting, the Battle’s result was determined by the Karluks’ (Turkic nomadic tribe) defection from the Chinese to the Arab side, which consequently led to the destruction of the Chinese forces.

Aftermath

The reality of Talas’ consequences has been mixed with mythology in the popular imagination. For instance, it is claimed that the Muslim victory caused the Chinese to abandon Central Asia. This is simply not true. Even though the result of Talas was decisive and caused much damage to the Chinese army, only a few years after, in 755, the Tang dynasty recruited a large army to contest the influence of the Abbasids in the region. The plan was cut short by the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), when the seditious Chinese General An Lushan declared himself Emperor of a new dynasty and marched on the imperial Chinese capital. In the ensuing conflict the An Lushan Rebellion was eventually put down but the imperial authority of the Tang would never properly recover, so much so that they no longer had the privilege of casting their sights on expansion but rather focus their efforts on the heartland of their realm. This is how the the Chinese came to lose what they called the ‘Western Regions’ (Central Asia).

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The Abbasid Caliphate (light green) at its height.

But Talas’ place in history is assured by the fact that it may have been impetus for bringing paper-making technology to the Middle East and on to Europe. Supposedly (there is historical debate on this) Chinese prisoners captured at the Battle of Talas shared their knowledge with their captors – the Chinese had been using paper for centuries whilst the rest of civilisation slacked behind with more primitive methods such as clay, papyrus and parchment. This theory is aided by the fact that there is documented evidence of these expert individuals, such as Tou Houan. In addition, paper manufacturing can be observed in the Middle East for the first time by the end of the eighth century, which resulted in the proliferation of texts produced in centres of learning such as Baghdad.

Conclusion

It seems that the Battle of Talas’ reputation as spelling the end of Chinese influence in the area was, at best, circumstantial due to the occurrence of the An Lushan Rebellion which happened only a few years later and was the real reason. Whilst Talas’ geopolitical ramifications may have been blown out of proportion, its significance in transmitting paper-making technology definitely warrants consideration as being a truly significant event in history.