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”.
** Rumelia – Modern-day Balkans.