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The Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran, 1639 - 1682

May 16, 2024 at 2:13 pm

The Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran, 1639 - 1682
  • Book Author(s): Selim Gungorurler
  • Published Date: March 2024
  • Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
  • Hardback: 208 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9781399510103

Between 1514 and 1639, the Ottomans and Safavid Empires engaged in a series of wars, clashes, skirmishes and destabilisation attempts. After the Treaty of Zuhab on 17 May 1639, the hostilities between the two powers largely came to an end and, for many historians, the story ends there as there seems little to tell afterwards. It is like the two Empires went their separate ways and had little to do with each other, but this view is mistaken and Selim Gungorurler’s new book, The Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran, 1639–1682 Diplomacy and Borderlands in the Early Modern Middle East, demonstrates there was life between the two after 1639. The year 1639 ushered in a new era of unbroken peace, diplomatic initiatives and relations, argues Gungorurler. ‘While it is true that the years after 1639 we find nothing like the density of war-referenced military, diplomatic, financial and literary records as that pertaining to Ottoman-Safavid relations in the period prior to this date, closer investigation yields a host of lesser-known sources that attest to how this relationship lived on and required constant upkeep on both sides.’

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In 1639, the Safavid accepted the idea that the Ottomans were a superior and more powerful Empire than them. The Ottoman superiority was reflected in official diplomatic functions between the two Empires; in-built into the post-war framework was the notion, for example, the Ottoman Grand Vizier outranked the Safavid Grand Vizier; the Ottoman Vizier held a rank at a kingly-level, whereas the Safavid one was more akin to a European grand duke. What this meant, in practice, was that the Safavid Vizier could not write or receive letters from the Ottoman Sultan, whereas the Ottoman Vizier could write and receive letters and conduct business with the Shah directly. Often, the Ottoman Vizier would hold in-person talks with the Shah and could negotiate, threaten and come to agreements with them. This hierarchy also extended to Ottoman border governor-generals who would correspond directly with the Shah, whereas it was unthinkable for Safavid governors to do the same. The reason why the Safavids accepted this unequal relationship is the century and half of conflict and warfare with the Ottomans had made the Shahs believe that, ultimately, the Ottomans were unbeatable, any victory against them was short-lived and they could make you pay a very heavy price.

The signing of a treaty did not mean the Ottomans relied solely on the word of the Shah to honour it. During the wars with the Venetians, the Ottomans also deployed an army to Armenia near the Iranian border to remind Isfahan that, while Istanbul might be fighting in Europe, it still had the ability to crush the Safavid armies if they violated the agreement. Indeed, during the 1645 war with the Republic of Venice, the Italian-city state through Polish-Lithuanian diplomacy, sought to court Iran into joining an anti-Ottoman alliance. A trader named Domenico de Santis went on a covert mission to Isfahan in 1646, ‘Though he was welcomed warmly, de Santis’s mission proved unsuccessful. Abbas II disregarded the Polish and Venetian calls, and de Santis left Isfahan not as warmly as he had been welcomed.’ The treaty, preconceived views about Ottoman supremacy, the build up of Ottoman forces along the Iranian frontiers and news of Ottoman victories in Europe likely convinced the Shah that entering into an anti-Ottoman alliance would be catastrophic.

The relationship could even be warm, at times. In 1648, the Ottoman Sultan, Ibrahim Pasha, wrote to Shah Abbas II and asked for him to send 2 elephants and 500 pieces of seraser-type golden cloth. Pasha had developed an interest in elephants after a courtier told him stories about Indian monarchs riding around on them. In July of that year, Ibrahim Pasha visited Shah Abbas II at his encampment at Bastam in Iran. While there, the palace guards who accompanied him were tasked with ordering the elephants and cloth, but this private mission to Iran had another purpose: to discuss India and the Mughal invasion of Kandahar. Outwardly, the Sultan was neutral towards any confrontation between the Mughals and the Safavids but, during the meeting, ‘Ibrahim also wished Abbas II well for the start of his campaign against Mughal India.’ This was a big deal, as essentially this meant the Ottomans were giving their blessing for the Safavids to go to war with the Mughals, even if that war meant invading India itself. For the Shah, this meant both the Treaty would be intact as they invaded Afghanistan and that the Ottomans had given them a free hand. The Sultan got his elephants and cloth, too, but was dethroned before he could receive it.

The Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran is a cheerful and interesting read that sheds light on a neglected topic. Those interested in diplomatic history, relation between states and regional order before the advent of the modern western-led international rules based order. It provides a fascinating snapshot into the functionality of these ties post-conflict and will, hopefully, spearhead more scholarship in this area.

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