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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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”.
The Taj Mahal is considered to be amongst the most beautiful and impressive works of architecture in history. This Wonder of the World attracts almost 8 million visitors annually; part of its allure comes from the story that a heartbroken Emperor built the Taj Mahal for his dead wife as a token of his grief. Yet it is important to remember that its construction served to highlight the triumph of its patrons, the Mughals – a tremendously wealthy Persian-ised Turkic Dynasty that ruled over much of the Indian Subcontinent and Afghanistan from the 16th to the 18th century.
At the peak of its imperial glory, the Mughals were ruled by Shah Jahan (1628-1658) who had a wife, Mumtaz Mahal, he was devoted to – so much so that he decided to build this incredible edifice in her memory when she died giving birth. Under the instruction of Ustad Ahmad Lahori more than 20,000 workers from across India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and even Europe were employed to construct the Taj Mahal between 1632 and 1654. This included masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans. Don’t forget about the 1,000 elephants used to carry materials!
The mausoleum itself, dedicated to the deceased Mumtaz Mahal, was completed by 1639 but it would require more than an extra decade to finish the buildings next to it and the decoration work. The complex sits on a 315 ft square marble platform and has four minarets which are around 140 ft tall. The mastery of the architects and craftsmen is demonstrated by the usage of proportions. For instance, the four surrounding minarets appear upright from afar but actually lean outward: as well as being a cool trick of the eye, this ensures that the minarets would crumble away from the main tomb in case of an earthquake (a real architectural concern in this period). Also, from the main gate of the Taj Mahal the monument appears close and large but the closer you get, the smaller it becomes! The Taj Mahal’s bag of tricks doesn’t end there – like a chameleon, it can change its colours. Well, the hue of the colour at least. Thanks largely to the sun, the Taj Mahal can appear gray and pink during sunrise, white at noon, orange-bronze when the sun sets and at night it seem blue.
The gardens – which are often intended to be an earthly representation of paradise in Islamic architecture – are actually rooted in the British style due to the intervention of the British Indian Government under Lord Curzon (1899-1905), who is also largely responsible for renovating and maintaining the Taj Mahal after decades of neglect. This neglect included the looting of its semi-precious stones by British soldiers in the aftermath of 1857 Indian Mutiny.
There are a lot of popular myths associated with the construction of the Taj Mahal. One of which relates that Shah Jahan wanted the mausoleum to be a unique masterpiece. In order to guarantee this, he supposedly cut off the hands and gouged the eyes of the artisans and craftsmen involved in its construction so that another like it would not be built. Even though it makes for a cool story, there is no evidence to suggest this happened. On the contrary, historians have found that Shah Jahan was more ruthless than romantic. Although the Taj Mahal has been considered a symbol of love and devotion, it is undoubtedly also a symbol of absolute power. The extravagant attempt to build something perfect – architecturally speaking in its symmetry – can be regarded a source of propaganda, fit for a man who named himself Shah Jahan, “King of the World”.
The famous poet Rabindranath Tagore called the Taj Mahal “a tear suspended on the cheek of time”. But was this tear worth the staggering $800 million in today’s valuation that it cost to build it? As a fan of architecture I can’t help but appreciate the symmetrical beauty of this timeless monument. But if I put myself in the shoes of a Mughal subject in the 17th century, I can’t help but feel anger at a leader who would dedicate so much of the nations resources for his own grief (or vanity). Too often this has become a model of behavior for leaders in the Islamic world, we only tend to notice it in times of want and need.
Check out our YouTube video on the Taj Mahal!
All these great photos have been contributed by Omar Rais – check him out on:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 comeback 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).
Check out our YouTube video on the Battle of Ankara!