Firepower at the Battle of Jam, 1528, Part Two

Back to Part One

The battle of Jam came in 1528, at the climax of the first set of Uzbek-Safavid wars. By then Shah Ismail was dead. His successor, Shah Tahmasb, had lived for much of his youth on Iran’s north-east frontier in the city of Herat.

Known as the “pearl of Khorasan,” Herat had been the capital of the last great Timurid prince, Sultan Husayn Mirza. Conquered by the Uzbeks in 1507 it fell to the Safavids after the battle of Merv and Tahmasb lived there from 1516 to 1522. Curator Stuart Cary Welch says “growing up in Herat was for a Safavid prince like being sent to Athens for a young Roman. In this case, however, the infant’s departure from Tabriz was probably first ascribable to the political need to station a member of the royal family near the Uzbek frontier” (in his catalog on the Houghton Shan-nameh).

In any case, when the Uzbeks besieged Herat in 1528 Shah Tahmasp marched to relieve the city and met the Uzbeks nearby at Jam. Martin B. Dickson, whose dissertation describes the battle in some detail, admits that it’s hard to sort out what happened at the battle based on vague and conflicting accounts. But enough is known to judge the basis for the Safavid victory.

At Chaldiran the Safavids had been defeated by Ottomans firearms that were protected by a line of chained wagons, which prevented the Safavid cavalry from riding over the slow-firing weapons. Fourteen years later and campaigning on the other side of the empire, the Safavids now brought their own wagon-laager to the battle. One Safavid history calls them “‘European’-style ‘caissons’ replete with light cannon” (the word for European, in this case, is farangi). Babur, who recorded several accounts of the battle in his memoir, describes the Safavid center as “arrayed in Rumi [e.g. Anatolian] fashion” with “matchlock and cart” or “cart, culverin and matchlockmen.”

An army camp under attack, from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, fol. 241r. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

An army camp under attack, from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, fol. 241r. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the first phase of the battle, the Uzbeks routed both Safavid flanks, reaching and looting the Iranian camp. However, while the Uzbeks dispersed in pursuit and plundering, the troops from the wagon-laager counter-attacked and routed the enemy army. Shah Tahmasb, only fifteen years old, led the charge himself. In his diary, he modestly records that “I went a few steps forward.” What Babur records is a little more effusive: “those behind the carts loosed the chains and came out … Thrice they flung the Auzbeg back; by God’s grace they beat them.”

Despite being a perfect example of how the application of firearms in conjunction with cavalry could tilt the balance in Eurasian warfare, the battle of Jam did little to affect the long-term balance of power between the Safavids and Uzbeks. The Shaybanids continued to be a threat, conquering Herat (again) in 1588. Their seventeenth-century successors (the Ashtarkhanids, or Janids) continued to be an important regional power. Though the Safavids would increase their infantry over the course of the following century, both bringing more firearms into service and shifting the balance of political power within the empire, guns needed to be paired with horses to secure success on the battlefield.


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