Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, stretching back at least 5,000 years! Since then it has been an important centre for numerous empires.
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The city’s first spell as an imperial capital came under the Arameans, a Semitic people who gave the world the language of Aramaic (language spoken by Jesus or Isa). One important thing the Arameans did was setting up a water distribution system by building canals; this system was used and expanded upon by the Romans and the Umayyads later on and even serves the old part of the city today!
After passing between the hands of superpowers of Antiquity, e.g. the Neo-Assyrians and the Achaemenids, Damascus re-emerges into prominence after the Greek conquest of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. The Hellenistic chapter of the city’s history saw much prosperity thanks in part to the excellent organisation that the Greeks brought with them; for instance, they set the city on a grid plan (similar to what you have now in the USA).
After almost seven centuries under Roman rule, Damascus finally came under Muslim control in 635 AD. Soon after, Muawiyah, the first Ummayad Caliph, made it the capital of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750 AD). It was during this period that the city gained its greatest monument: the Great Mosque of Damascus.
But its fortunes changed when the Abbasids came to power and moved the Caliphate’s capital to Baghdad. Damascus lost its imperial glow, although it still served as a regional centre. Despite a brief interruption of its woes in the shape of the Mameluks, Damascus suffered throughout the Medieval period. It was targeted by the Crusaders during the 12th century; the Black Death plague (1346-53) wiped out half of its population; in 1400, the Turkic conqueror Timur sacked the city and constructed a pyramid of human skulls!
Damascus was saved from its poor run of events by the Ottomans who took over Syria in 1516. Their rule allowed the city to prosper once again, not least of all because of the Hajj season. Since the Ottomans also controlled Mecca, Damascus was designated as the meeting point for pilgrims coming from the north (Anatolia, Bosnia etc) and the east (Persia, Afghanistan, India etc.). Caravanserais – which were like hostels for traders to spend the night – were established.
Damascus was the scene of a massacre against its Christian population, a grisly event that was a part of the 1860 Mount Lebanon Civil War between the Druze and the Maronite Christians.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Damascus became the centre of a burgeoning class of Arab nationalist intellectuals who wanted independence from the Ottomans and form their own Arab nation. This was exploited by the British in WWI when they sent Lawrence of Arabia to stoke tension between the Arabs and the Ottomans in what is known as the Arab Revolt. Damascus became a part of French Mandate of Syria after WWI.
Since Syria’s independence from France in 1946, Damascus has served as the capital of the country. Thankfully, the city and its rich heritage has not been as affected as other historic areas of the country in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
Mahmud of Ghazni was born in 971 AD and became the greatest ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire which stretched from Western Iran to Northern India. Coming to power in 998 AD, he went on to be the first ever ‘Sultan’, a title he assumed in order to assert his political authority. At the same time he observed the spiritual authority of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, at a time when the Caliph’s authority was significantly less important than before; but Mahmud didn’t necessarily do this out of the goodness of his heart – gaining the religious legitimacy of the Caliphate strengthened his call for a Jihad against the Hindu kingdoms of the Indian Subcontinent.
The booty and riches taken from a total of 17 expeditions to the Subcontinent allowed him to establish Ghazni as an imperial city which could attract scholars such as Ferdowsi and al-Biruni. The latter actually accompanied Mahmud on one of his expeditions to India and was able gain a lot of knowledge in a range of subjects that the Indians had excelled in (e.g. Astronomy and Mathematics), ultimately compiling his knowledge in an encyclopedia of sorts on India.
Mahmud’s invasions of India played a decisive role in expanding Islam in to the Indian Subcontinent (the earlier Umayyads had only conquered up to Sindh). He has since been heavily criticised for his religious policies, especially amongst Indian Hindus. But despite his yearly raids on Hindu kingdoms and stripping the Temples of their materials, Mahmud was much more of a pragmatist than he is often given credit for. His army included Hindus who were allowed to observe their own religion. He didn’t even bother imposing the Jizya tax on his non-Muslim subjects. I mean he even had a male lover! Today he is considered a national hero in Afghanistan, where his capital Ghazni is situated.
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Built during the second half of the 12th century by the Almohads, a Moroccan-based Berber Muslim empire (1121-1269). When the Almohads took over Marrakesh in 1147, they destroyed many monuments credited to the Almoravids (their predecessors who they considered heretics). One of the causalities was a previously-built mosque that was taken down and replaced with the Koutoubia Mosque. Subsequently, the Mosque metamorphosized into its present form throughout the second half of the 12th century, with the vital works being carried out during the reign of Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur (1184-99).
Its name, ‘Koutoubia’, is derived from the Arabic word ‘Koutoubiyyin’ or ‘bookseller’ as there were many booksellers plying their trade in a nearby souk (market). The mosque has beautiful, verdant gardens surrounding it and has a distinct minaret which merges Berber, Arab and Andalusian architecture to create a dazzling monument. Built with sandstone, the minaret stands at 70 meters and overlooks the Jema el-Fna, the centre of the old city in Marrakesh.
The Almohads would go on to build other momentous building throughout Morocco and Spain that would share similarities with each other; the Koutoubia’s counterparts can be seen in the form of the La Giralda in Seville and the Hassan Tower in Rabat. (see below).
A key centre for regional powers, Herat’s history stretches back to the Achaemenids circa 500 BC. Since then it has enjoyed the full ups-and-downs of the region’s history. Alexander the Great built a city on its site in 330 BC; the Herat Citadel still stands today and is a testament to his legacy in this city. Herat continued to prosper after the burgeoning Rashidun Arabs wrested it away from the Sassanian Persians in 652 AD. In subsequent centuries it became known as the “Pearl of Khorasan” and benefited largely from its location on the Silk Road, serving as a linking point in the trade routes between India, the Middle East and China.
The Mongols devastated it in the 13th century before more devastation was brought down by the Turco-Mongolian conqueror Timur who destroyed it in the 1380s, even constructing a skull pyramid after putting its inhabitants to the sword. Timur’s successors, on the other hand, turned Herat into one of the finest cities in the Islamic world during the 15th century. The city served as the capital of Timur’s son Shah Rukh, who made it one of the principle centers of the Timurid Renaissance, a period characterised by increased intellectual and artistic activity. In this period, Herat was home to poets like Jami and painters like Behzad.
The city eventually fell into the hands of the Safavid Persians who used it’s governorship as a training role for the eventual Shah during the 16th century. At the beginning of the 18th century, the nascent Afghans claimed it and ever since then, it has been one of the major cities of Afghanistan. Today Herat is recovering after decades of conflict but the splendour of its Timurid heydays are long-gone. The city has fallen prey to wars and natural disasters. A notable victim of this is the Mousallah Complex, which included a madrasa and a mosque that were initiated at the behest of Goharshad Begum (Shah Rukh’s wife) – it was mostly destroyed in 1885 by the British so the Russians would not be able to use it in case of an invasion (this is now known as the Panjdeh Incident).
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Ibn Rushd or Averroes as he is known in the West was a 12th century Andalusian polymath most famous for his philosophical works. Whilst his talents ranged from geography to astronomy, much of his renown comes from his defence of Aristotelian philosophy. Born in 1126 to a prominent Cordoban family, he received an excellent education. In the 1160s he met Ibn Tufayl (the man who wrote the world’s first philosophical novel), who introduced him to the Almohad ruler Abu Yaqub Yusuf, who made Ibn Rushd the Qadi (chief judge) and later the chief physician. It was actually the Almohad ruler who commissioned Ibn Rushd to write a new commentary on Aristotle, and it’s this work which has subsequently become his defining work.
He was alive during a period when much of the Islamic world was beginning to turn away from the study of philosophy, largely due to the works of al-Ghazali (1058-1111). Al-Ghazali’s pivotal works included the ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers‘ which criticised the role played by Muslim philosophers, e.g. Ibn Sina, during the 8th-11th centuries for what he saw as them rooting their intellectual inspiration in Ancient Greek philosophy. Critically, the book further underlined that each and every event was the will of God; Ibn Rushd rebuked this notion in his book ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence‘ and put forth his belief that God had created the natural law which allowed every event to take place but that every act was not a manifestation of God’s direct interference.
In 1195, many of his books were burned, he was stripped of his position and forced into exile because of public pressure against his ideas. Nonetheless he was soon re-established and died shortly after in Marrakesh in 1198.
After his death, his legacy followed a strange path. He was held in very high regard in the West, even being called “The Commentator” for all of his commentaries on Aristotle’s work. The philosophical school of thought Averrorism was popular through European educational institutions in the 13th century. His works even had a great impact on Jewish philosophers. But amongst Muslim societies his legacy did not gain the same level of appreciation, primarily because al-Ghazali’s ideas about religion’s relationship with philosophy still hold sway over much of the Islamic world.
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.
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.
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.
Sultan Selim sent an army of up to 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 must have been fairly confident against the encroaching Ottomans because of his military successes thus far and the fact that 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.
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.
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”.
At the ripe age of 26, Suleiman I inherited the Ottoman Empire in 1520 at a period when it was going through aggressive expansion. He would further this expansion of territory whilst embellishing the state in a manner which earned him the sobriquet “Magnificent”. Domestically, he reformed the judicial system so emphatically that he was referred to as “Kanuni” (Lawgiver) by his subjects. Over the course of a 46-year reign, he left a definitive mark on the Ottoman Empire.
Born in 1494, Suleiman received a high-quality education in the imperial school at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, studying science, history, literature, theology and military tactics. In keeping with Ottoman tradition princes were required to command a certain province, so Suleiman gained crucial experience of governorship when he served in various provinces of the empire. He also learnt spoke four languages Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Serbian. The Ottomans had the tradition of every Sultan acquiring a skill in a certain craft, Suleiman became a skilled jeweler.
In 1521, Suleiman’s mother gave him Aleksandra, a young slave girl from modern-day Ukraine whose father was an Orthodox priest. In time she would become Hurrem Sultan, the favourite concubine and later legal wife of Sultan Suleiman. Sultan Suleiman freed Hurrem Sultana and married her in 1533. He was the first Ottoman Sultan to wed for almost 200 years. He also wrote poems to Hurrem Sultan under the pseudonym Mugib. She went on become super powerful to the discomfort of many in the imperial administration. Perhaps her greatest rival was Prince Mustafa, heir and son of Suleiman through another wife. The power struggle in the Ottoman empire between Prince Mustafa and Hurrem Sultan ended decisively when Mustafa was falsely accused of trying to overthrow his father – he was called to the Sultan’s tent where he was strangled in front of his father in 1553.
Suleiman’s Grand Vizier at the beginning of his reign was Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, who was his childhood friend. Gaining a reputation after crushing rebellions in Syria and Anatolia, Ibrahim Pasha gained too much power and made a fatal mistake when he awarded himself a title including the word ‘Sultan’ which could have been taken the wrong way by Suleiman. His downfall was cemented when he trod on the toes of the Hurrem Sultan after giving his support to Prince Mustafa, he was consequently executed in 1536.
Right from the beginning of his reign in 1520, Suleiman sought to further Ottoman expansion into Europe and when the Hungarians refused to pay tribute in exchange for peace and even cut off the nose and ears of the Ottoman ambassador, he had found his reason for war. First on his list was Belgrade, the key to central Europe; a siege of the city lasted two months in 1521 until the Ottomans emerged victorious. In the summer of 1526 Suleiman gained an even more momentous victory when at the Battle of Mohacs. The Ottoman army outnumbered the Hungarians by 3:1 and had 300 canons. After five hours of battle the Hungarians were heavily defeated and became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.
In a bid to end the Hapsburg Empire’s meddling in Ottoman Europe, Suleiman attempted to strike at the heart of the Hapsburgs: Vienna. But in the end the 1529 Siege of Vienna failed due to bad weather and overstretched supplies lines. Yet it still shows how powerful the Ottomans were that they almost conquered their enemies capital.
Suleiman also established the Franco-Ottoman alliance with Francis I of France in 1526 to counter the Hapsburg Charles V. In order to highlight the supremacy of the Ottomans, look at the letter written from Suleiman to Francis:
I who am the Sultan of Sultans, the sovereign of sovereigns, the dispenser of crowns to the monarchs on the face of the earth, the shadow of the God on Earth… All this your saying having been set forth at the foot of my throne, which controls the world. Your situation has gained my imperial understanding in every detail, and I have considered all of it.
The Ottoman Navy had undergone a tremendous transformation under Selim I but Suleiman expanded this project beyond his father’s achievements. In 1522, he put this newfound naval confidence to the test by besieging the island of Rhodes, the home base of the Knights Hospitaller, the last remnant of the Crusaders who invaded the Middle East 400 years ago. Suleiman used 400 ships and personally led an army of 100,000 soldiers. After heavy casualties on both sides over a five month period, Sultan Suleiman decided to offer generous terms which were accepted by the defenders. The Knights Hospitaller were given twelve days to leave and take with them their weapons and religious icons.
Suleiman was aided in his quest for Mediterranean domination by famous admirals such as Hayreddin Barbarossa. In 1538 at the Battle of Preveza in Greece Barbarossa defeated the Holy League alliance of the Spanish Empire, Portuguese Empire, Papal States and the Italian Republics of Venice and Genoa. The Ottomans even went on to sack the coast of Italy, Spain and Sicily. After Preveza, the Ottoman Navy emerged as the dominant naval power throughout the Mediterranean. The Ottoman fleet also fought for control over the Indian Ocean with the Portuguese.
He did however also suffer setbacks, most notably the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. After four unsuccessful months, the Ottoman fleet pulled back with great casualties after aid from Spain as well as a resilient defence from the Maltese spelled out Ottoman defeat.
In the east, the Ottoman’s main opponent was Safavid Persia and in the year 1533 Sultan Suleiman order his Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha to lead his army into the east. Tabriz was taken without resistance. The scorched-earth policy of the Persians, along with the harshness of winter caused many Ottoman casualties. Yet this was not enough to stop the momentum of the Ottomans, as Sultan Suleiman conquered Mesopotamia, part of Georgia and Azerbaijan from the Safavids.
As well as enjoying a positive military reputation, Suleiman I is often commended for the judicial reforms he introduced, hence his nickname “Kanuni” (Lawgiver). The Ottomans had established themselves as a preeminent power mainly through the sheer force of its military prowess, but the circumstances the Ottomans found themselves in by Suleiman’s reign, a wide array of ethnicities occupying a vast realm, required a more nuanced approach to the maintenance of law and order.
Suleiman’s reign saw the introduction of many vital reforms in the Ottoman legal system. Taxes were streamlined through the establishment of a transparent tax rate based on income; he went further by removing many of the superfluous taxes imposed by his father Sultan Selim I. Bureaucracy underwent a similar process of reform; meritocracy was encouraged to be the standard of qualification for employment, rather than nepotism or personal discretion. In this sense, an overt and conscious attempt was made to hold all Ottoman citizens to the law. In order to compliment the multi-cultural nature of the empire, Suleiman denounced blood libels* against Jews in 1553 and freed Christian farm labourers from Serfdom.
Sultan Suleiman died in 1566 during a siege in Hungary. He was 71 years old and spent over ten years in military campaigns. In a twisted way, his hard-work and success paved the way for a future filled with complacent and incompetent Sultan’s. Future Ottoman Sultan’s would find themselves more intrigued by the pleasures of the Harem or uninterested in leading the imperial army to war or under the influence of other interest groups.
* Blood libels – The belief that Jews would kidnap and sacrifice children for their own rituals.
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Check out Kallie Szczepanski’s concise and insightful article on Suleiman: