Apparently, every three years I get the urge to write about the military history of early modern central Asia. Last time it was the fifteenth-century Akkoyunlu, the Turkic confederacy led by Uzun Hasan whose defeat by the Ottomans at the battle of Bashkent prefigured the wagon-laager tactic (in Turkish, tábúr cengí) that would be the centerpiece of military victories all across early modern Eurasia. This time, it’s the sixteenth-century Uzbek empire of the Shaybanid or Abu’l-Khayrid dynasty, whose victories and defeats show the ambiguous impact of gunpowder weapons in central Asia.
The impetus for this was reading the prolific military historian Jeremy Black’s War in the World: A Comparative History, 1450–1600. For years, Black has been integrated more and more non-European history in his books. This time, he’s peppered the text with enough references to the Uzbeks to make me want to chase down more of the story.
Like the Akkoyunlu, the Uzbeks were a nomadic polity whose core were clans of horse-rearing nomads. The Shaybanids could trace their lineage back to Chinggis Khan’s eldest son Joshi, which was a necessity to make a claim for supreme authority in post-Chinggisid Central Asia (non-Chinggisid leaders with aspirations had to fine a compliant khan with the right ancestry to serve as a figurehead). In the early sixteenth century they toyed with claims too supreme religious authority too, with Shaybani Khan having his name read in the Friday sermon in the city of Herat – the classic declaration of supreme religious and political authority over the Islamic world. Though their territory included important cities like Samarkand and Bukhara, the empire’s muscle came not from the sedentary population but from the Uzbek pastoralists to whom the empire’s grasslands were parceled out for grazing and taxation.
In 1501, the Uzbeks went to war against the future founder of the Indian Mughal empire, Babur. In his autobiography, Babur describes his loss at the battle of Sir-e-pul when the Uzbeks turned Babur’s flank and defeated his army in a concentric attack. In Babur’s own laconic words:
“We fought those who made the front-attack on us, turned them and forced them back on their own centre. So far did we carry it that some of Shaibaq [e.g. Shaybani] Khan’s old chiefs said to him ‘We must move off! It is past a stand.’ He however held fast. His right beat our left, then wheeled (again) to our rear … The enemy attacked us front and rear, raining in arrows on us … This same turning-movement is one of the great merits of Auzbeg [e.g. Uzbek] fighting; no battle of theirs is ever without it.” (from the translation by Annette Susannah Beveridge)
Babur’s defeat was followed by the conquest of Balkh and of Herat, but nine years later the Uzbeks lost a battle near the city of Merv against the first Safavid shah, Ismail I, who had wrested control of most of Iran from the Akkoyunlu. For more than fifty years the Safavids have been described as one of the three major “gunpowder empires” that combined the firepower of early cannon and matchlocks with the traditional strength of an army of nomadic horse archers. (The other two are the Ottomans and the Mughals.) Early analyses emphasized the revolutionary effects of gunpowder; more recent ones tend to put emphasis back onto synergy of horse archers and firearms.
In any case, of the “gunpowder empires” the Safavids are usually judged the slowest and least widespread adopters of firearms. (Rudi Matthee’s article on the subject in the Encylopedia Iranica has many details, for those who are interested). Though Iran was richer and more densely settled than the central Asian steppe, the early Safavids were as reliant as the Uzbeks or the Akkoyunlu on their army of nomadic horse archers. Unlike the Uzbeks, their authority came not from a Mongol lineage but from religious authority – Ismail was the grand master of the Safaviyya Sufi order – and a the pre-Islamic Iranian monarchical tradition.
According to Jeremy Black’s summary of the battle of Merv, a feigned retreat by the Safavids drew the Uzbek army out of the city. Caught with nowhere to retreat after having crossed a river, the Uzbeks were slaughtered and their commander, Shaybani Khan, had his skull set in gold and used as a drinking cup.
Despite Shaybani Khan’s death, the setback to the Uzbeks was very much temporary. Within two years the Uzbeks were raiding the Safavid border again. Shortly thereafter, the Safavids suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the Ottomans at the battle of Chaldiran. That battle seems to have been decided by the Ottoman success in making use of their firearms: a solid line of chained wagons, supported by cannon and other firearms, that threw back the Safavid cavalry charge. Using a wagon-laager or temporary fortifications to protect troops with firearms was not a new tactic. It had helped the Ottomans win the battle of Bashkent against the Akkoyunlu and would give Babur victory over the Delhi sultanate at Panipat. In Ottoman Turkish it was known as tábúr cengí. And, having helped the Ottomans smash Shah Ismail’s army at Chaldiran, it would migrate to the battlefield between the Safavids and the Uzbeks.
On to Part Two