THIS year sees the 500th anniversary of the Battle Of Chaldiran – an important moment in the history of the muslim world, and one that kicked off the Ottoman-Persian Wars. These wars put the Ottoman empire up against the various Persian dynasties and descended into a series of bloody Shia- Sunni conflicts for control over the regions of Turkish Anatolia, Iraq and the Caucasus.
The outcome of these wars has shaped these regions and heavily influenced the political thinking of the Middle East.
Today as we approach the ‘end game’ in Syria and look at the ‘post conflict’ Iraq, with the recent strategic alignment of Iran with the West and the Iraqi shia ‘call to arms’ against sunnis, I thought it would be worth reflecting on the legacy of Chaldiran and its relevance today, 500 years on.
On that day, (23 August 1514 ) the bravery of the Persian horse archers was no match for the cannon and matchlock rifles of the Ottoman Jannisaries under Sultan Selim, and a crushing defeat deeply traumatised the Persians and forced them to re-organise their entire military system. The battle marked the boundary between the two empires with Ottomans taking northwest Iran.
The centuries that followed saw Persians embarking on an endless series of wars with the Ottomans for control of what is now the regions of Iraq and the Caucasus.
Much of the shia- sunni wars were focused on Baghdad, for example when in 1624 the army of Persian Shah Abbas captured Baghdad and proceeded to massacre the sunni population in an attempt to make it a shia city. It was a point of honour for the Ottomans to recover this city and the Sultan Murad IV himself took to the field to do so.
Finally the Ottoman victory in 1639 saw the persians lose Iraq, forever – a region that had been part of the ancient persian empire for thousands of years. The peace treaty that followed marked out the western border of Iran Iraq and Turkey to this day.
The relentless attacks by the Persians was the major distraction that prevented the Ottomans from overrunning Europe, draining Ottoman resources and forcing them to halt their European campaigns to avoid a fight on 2 large fronts.
The following Ottoman – Persian (sunni- shia) wars took place:
Battle of Chaldiran 1514: Ottoman victory – Ottomans take northwest Iran
War of 1532-1555: Ottoman victory – Ottomans gain large parts of Iraq, kurdistan, and parts of Armenia and Georgia
War of 1578-1590: Ottoman victory – Ottomans take Azerbaijan and caucasus region
War of 1602-1618: Persian victory – Persians recover Baghdad, Tiblisi, caucasus and eastern anatolia
War of 1623-1639: Ottoman victory – Ottomans take Iraq and Persians lose Baghdad for ever
War of 1722-1727: Draw – Ottoman control over parts of Iran and caucasus
War of 1730-1736: Persian victory- Persians recover Iranian territory, and take Armenia and Georgia
War of 1743-1747: Draw – no territorial changes
War of 1775-1776: Persian victory – Basra taken by Persians
War of 1776-1779: Ottoman victory- Basra retaken by Ottomans
War of 1821-1823: Draw – no territorial changes
So it is of great significance that today we see Iraq – and in particular the city of Baghdad – a city that has been in sunni control for 370 years – transforming to shia control. In Iraq its easy to understand the sense of dread and foreboding felt by the sunnis as well as the sense of triumphalism of the shias after decades of brutality under Saddam. A tectonic change is happening in this region.
With the conflict in neighbouring Syria, this means that the boundaries too are likely to change to reflect the shia- sunni struggle for domination. The involvement of the West to tip the balance in favour of the shias is also ominous.
Turkey is viewing this situation with growing alarm, but its Ottoman legacy has long gone. One wonders – will the sunnis see another Chaldiran today?