Enemy of My Enemy, Part 5

Continued from here

After Uzun Hasan’s death in 1478, the Akkoyunlu empire collapsed into a civil war that ended when one of Hasan’s grandsons, the grand master of the Sufi Kilizbaş religious order, forced the other factions into submission. That man, who became Shah Isma’il, established the Safavid empire in the former Akkoyunlu territories from the Euphrates river to the edge of Afganistan. Unlike the Akkoyunlu, the Kilizbaş were Twelver Sh’ias—they believed religious authority in Islam descended via Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali through the twelve imams to the twelth and final imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi.

Otherwise, the early Safavid state was similar to the empire which it replaced.  Its military strength came from the horse archers Isma’il recruited from among the Kilizbaş, and like Uzun Hasan Isma’il looked to the Ottoman empire’s European neighbors for assistance against their common enemy. Now, though, circumstances were different. The Venetians were uninterested in an alliance, as was the Portuguese viceroy of the Indian Ocean, to whom Shah Isma’il offered assistance in a war to control the spice trade.  The Ottoman sultan, Selim I, was more successful in finding allies, encouraging the Sunni Uzbek khanate in Afghanistan to attack the Safavid’s eastern border.

The critical battle of the first Ottoman-Safavid war, fought at Çaldiran in 1514, was surprisingly similar to the Akkoyunlu defeat at Başkent.  Chaining their cannon together and filling the gaps with janissary musketeers, the Ottomans shattered each attack made by Isma’il’s Kilizbaş cavalry. Çaldiran was an even more striking victory for the combination of horse archers and entrenched gunpowder weapons. Twelve years later the same combination smashed the flower of Hungarian chivalry at the battle of Mohacs, where King Louis II of Hungary and his knights rode into the same trap.


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