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Safavids ( Part 2)


Safavid Dynasty (2)

Many historians, old and new, believed that the cause of the Ottoman victory at Chaldiran was their use of firearms, not only muskets but especially field artillery. A persistent myth held that firearms were unknown to the Safavids and that they acquired them only in the early seventeenth century when Abbas I led his armies to victory against the Ottomans. This myth has now been exploded by historical evidence. Firearms, including artillery, had been used in siege warfare before Ismail, for example when his own father Heydar had laid siege to Shirvan. But historians have instead suggested that the Qezelbash did not use firearms in field warfare because they regarded them as unmanly and cowardly in comparison with their mounted archers.

There may be some truth in this, though it is not sufficiently clear why the use of firearms in siege warfare was not likewise thought to be unchivalrous. However that maybe the argument still assumes that Ismail lost the battle of Chaldiran that mainly because his men were not armed with firearms. Yet this theory has almost universally overlooked that Ismail’s army was at least two and half times smaller in size than its opponent. It is true that Ismail had in earlier battles defeated armies larger than his own, but those armies were much smaller than the Ottomons’, and the differences in their relative sizes had not been as great; whereas this time he had faced an excessively large army put in the field by the greatest war machine that the world of Islam had yet seen, the greatest military power perhaps even western Asia and the whole of Europe. That, surely, was the main reason why Ismail lost the battle of Chaldiran.

From the inauguration of the new monarchy Ismail faced problems arising from the very nature of his revolution and the regime he was founding. He himself was regarded not just as Shah but, more importantly, as a direct descendant of the Prophet and Imam Ali and the vicegerent of the Mahdi, the hidden Imam. More than this, at least until the defeat in Chaldiran the Qezelbash went even further in their beliefs and thought of him as a divine being. He was the commander-in-chief of his army and, again until Chaldiran, personally led them to fields of battle.

It does not come as a surprise that the death of Ismail was followed by chaos, as had been the normal pattern in Iranian history. As a matter of fact, all Iranian rulers enjoyed arbitrary power. Some of them were strong and absolute rulers as well and were able to impose order, often by taking harsh measures and striking fear into the heart of the people, especially soldiers, administrators and tribal and provincial chiefs and potentates. Weak rulers on the other hand presided over a semi-chaotic situation which could lead to further chaos and/or the emergence of strong ruler who would then bring back order, discipline and security to society and, with it, normal social and economic activity, which in turn brought prosperity. This was the definition of “the just ruler”, who was normally disliked in his own time but missed and lamented when his disappearance once again led to chaos.

In the twelve years since the death of Shah Tahmasp domestic chaos, strife rebellion and civil war had left little or no central authority. Since the assassination of the queen, Mohammad Shah and his son Hamzeh Mirza had been no more than pawns in the hands of conflicting Qezelbash chiefs. The country’s external weakness was a direct consequence of its internal discord and anarchy. The Ottomans had occupied considerable tracts of Persian territory in the north-west and west, including most of Azerbaijan. The Uzbeks had helped themselves to large territories in Khorasan and Sistan and were posed to occupy the whole of the province.

Thus Abbas faced an enormous task of putting down domestic turmoil and recovering lost Persian territory. He began by reasserting his authority against rebellious and unruly Qezelbash chiefs, including reprisals against those responsible for the death of his brother, Hamzeh Mirza. At first he used the assistance of his mentor, whom he named as Vakil, but – and this was the refrain of Iranian history – soon had him killed because he did not want a man as powerful as the mentor, in charge of the affairs of state, especially as he had proven himself to be a skilled coup-maker by bringing Abbas himself to the throne.

The long-term task of achieving domestic peace and stability required a significant reduction in the power and influence of the Qezelbash chiefs. That could be best achieved by creating a military countervailing power which would be permanently and directly under the Shah’s own command. Apart from such small forces as royal guard detachments, Iran had not had a standing army during Islamic times, the bulk of the army being made up of provincial lives which, in Safavid times, the Qezelbash chiefs would raise from their tribes and governments when required.

There never was a feudal system in Iran. In principle, the state – and ultimately the Shah – had the sole monopoly of the land. The assignees – governors, landlords or whoever – were not independent freeholders of the land assigned to them, and the state had the right to withdraw their title and give it to someone else or add it to the state or crown lands, which under the Safavids were known as “Khaseh”. When the state was weak it may have been difficult for it to impose its will in practice, but as long as the state had the physical power to enforce its decisions the rule remained unchallengeable.

Shah Abbas had both the will and the ability to transfer some of the provinces to “Khaseh” land, so that a large proportion of provincial revenues could be paid directly to that state: and by considerably increasing state revenues he was able to meet the financial requirements of his “gholam” army. Further than that, this policy reduced the wealth, weight and importance of the “Qezellbash” had at the same time enabled him to appoint “gholam”s to governorship of the reclaimed provinces, as in the case of “Allahverdi Khan”, thus extending his patronage to those whose loyaly was solely and directly to himself. Read more

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