The Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia

The Ottoman Empire

The single most powerful state of the early modern period in the region of Western Civilization was not based in Europe, but the Middle East: the Ottoman Empire.  The Ottoman Empire was the very model of a successful early-modern state, politically centralized, economically prosperous, and engaged in not just warfare but an enormous amount of commerce with other states, very much including the states of Europe.

The Ottoman Empire originated in various small Turkic kingdoms that were left in the wake of the devastating Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century.  The Turks are an interrelated group of peoples originating in Central Asia; they spoke various related dialects and share a common ethnic origin.  Traditionally, along with the Mongol people further to their east, the Turks were among the most fierce steppe nomads, living by herding animals and raiding the “civilized” lands to their south and west. 

The Turks began the transition from steppe nomads to the rulers of settled kingdoms by the tenth century, culminating with the Seljuk invasion of the eleventh century.  The Turks were driven by two motivations: the tradition of warfare against non-Muslims, and the straightforward interest in looting defeated enemies.  They made frequent war against Byzantium, the Arab Muslim states, and, as often, against each other.  While organized initially along tribal and clan lines, they took pains to imitate the more settled Islamic empires that had come before them by practicing Islamic (shariah) law and sponsoring Islamic scholarship.  In the early fourteenth century, a Seljuk lord named Osman captured a significant chunk of territory from the Byzantines in Anatolia, and he founded a dynasty named after his clan, anglicized to “Ottoman.”

The Ottoman Empire in 1451
The Ottoman Empire in 1451

The Ottomans went on to conquer vast territories, including both the lands of the earlier Caliphates and, for the first time, parts of Europe that had never before been held by Islamic rulers, including the islands of the eastern Mediterranean, Greece, and the Balkans.  In 1453, the Ottoman Sultan (king) Mehmed II succeeded in conquering Constantinople and, with it, the remnants of Byzantium itself.  He moved the capital of his empire to Constantinople and restored it to its former glory.   By his death in 1481, it was once again one of the great cities of Europe, and by 1600 its population had reached 700,000, making it the largest city in Europe or the Middle East.  The capture of Constantinople inaugurated a new phase of Ottoman history, one in which the Ottomans saw themselves as the inheritors not only of the earlier Islamic states, but of the Roman Empire as well.

The entry of Sultan Mehmed II into Constantinople
The entry of Sultan Mehmed II into Constantinople

Vlad III (Dracula)

History bunny trail:
In 1459, Mehmed II sent envoys to Vlad III (Dracula), the ruler of Wallachia to urge him to pay a delayed tribute of 10,000 ducats and 500 recruits into the Ottoman forces.

This map shows the location of Wallachia in 1600, 124 years after Vlad's death.
This map shows the location of Wallachia in 1600, 124 years after Vlad’s death.

Vlad III refused and had the Ottoman envoys killed by nailing their turbans to their heads, on the pretext that they had refused to raise their “hats” to him, as they only removed their headgear before Allah. He also impaled the Sultan’s envoys.

Books describing Vlad’s cruel acts were among the first bestsellers in the German-speaking territories. In Russia, popular stories suggested that Vlad was able to strengthen central government only through applying brutal punishments, and a similar view was adopted by most Romanian historians in the 19th century. Vlad’s reputation for cruelty inspired the name of the vampire Count Dracula.

Dracula is the Slavonic genitive form of Dracul, meaning “[the son] of Dracul (or the Dragon)”. Vlad’s father was a member of the Order of the Dragon and nicknamed Vlad Dracul, hence Vlad’s nickname. He himself signed his two letters as “Dragulya” or “Drakulya” in the late 1470s. In modern Romanian, dracul means “the devil”, which contributed to Vlad’s reputation.

End of the history bunny trail and back to the Ottomans:

The sixteenth century was the high point of Ottoman power, influence, prosperity, and prestige.  Under Sultan Selim I (“The Grim,” r. 1512 – 1520), Ottoman forces conquered Egypt from the Mameluke Turks and took over rulership and oversight of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, hitherto under Mameluke control.  Selim was equal parts ambitious and pragmatic and proved himself a skilled politician and effective military commander.  He also continued the traditional Ottoman practice of raising his sons away from the capital, having each trained in politics and war to ensure that each was well prepared to take the throne.  The ruthless corollary expectation was that, when the sultan died, his sons would compete to win over the court and military command, the winner then having his brothers murdered to eliminate his rivals and to consolidate power. 

Selim I
Selim I

Selim set the stage for his son, Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520 – 1566) to preside over the golden age of Ottoman power in precisely this manner – Suleiman outmaneuvered his brothers when Selim died and promptly had his brothers killed.

Suleiman supervised a deliberate, focused campaign to enrich, extend, and glorify the empire.  He conquered territories in southeastern Europe including all of Hungary, and ultimately besieged the Habsburg capital of Vienna in 1529.  Although the siege failed, the empire now occupied an enormous stretch of Europe.  Ottoman forces also conquered Mesopotamia from the Safavids of Persia (dealing the nascent dynasty a serious blow in the process).  Next to China under the Ming dynasty, the Ottoman Empire was now the largest in the world. 

The Ottoman Empire upon the death of Suleiman the Magnificent
The Ottoman Empire upon the death of Suleiman the Magnificent

Suleiman was not just a conqueror, however.  He oversaw vast building campaigns, funding the construction of mosques, madrasas (schools of Islamic scholarship), caravanserais (waystations for trade), and other public buildings that served both practical purposes and amplified the sultan’s power and influence.  He strongly supported the orthodox Sunni ulama (clergy), insisting on strict religious observance, but he also insisted on the sultan’s prerogative to rule without interference from the religious authorities.  He increasingly staffed the highest ranks of both the military and the state bureaucracy with Janissaries, boys taken from Christian lands who were raised to be elite soldiers and officials. The Janissaries, while technically slaves, actually enjoyed more power and influence than any free Ottoman elite besides the sultan himself.  During his lifetime, the Janissaries were loyal and effective in both war and governance.

Although he had no way of realizing it, however, some of Suleiman’s policies would prove destructive in the long run.  First, the Janissaries slowly devolved from elite soldiers and bureaucrats to parasites, living in lavish “barracks” in Constantinople, manipulating weak sultans, and spending more time enriching themselves in commerce than serving the state.  Also, late in life Suleiman retired to the inner chambers of the palace to live out his days as a reclusive mystic, setting a disastrous precedent that left governance in the hands of advisers.  Rather than having his sons raised far from the capital, trained as future rulers (albeit rivals who would attempt to murder one another when they came of age), Suleiman had his children raised in the inner palace.  From then on, rivalry and murder remained an essential part of royal intrigue, but now it was carried out by assassins and the royal pretenders being killed were unlikely to be effective even if they survived.

Of course, at the time, few would have realized that the empire faced long-term decline.  The seventeenth century did not see territorial expansion to speak of, but neither did it succumb to invasion.  Even decades-long periods of infighting and incompetence at the top levels of Ottoman governance did not seriously disrupt the prosperity and power of the empire as a whole.  Instead, what is clear in historical hindsight is that the early centuries of Ottoman rule had been so successful in creating a political culture centered on Constantinople that the empire remained intact regardless of what was happening in Constantinople – trade flowed, local elites prospered, and there were few signs of dissent across the vast breadth of Ottoman territory.  It was not until European powers began to chip away at Ottoman sovereignty (a process that began in earnest with an enormous Habsburg victory in 1699) that the true decline of the empire became visible.

Even though there was unquestionably a religious component to Ottoman conquests, the empire itself was comparatively tolerant, something that helps to explain its longevity.  Regional governors were dismissed if they were so heavy-handed or intolerant that their subjects rose up in rebellion.  Non-Muslims were officially tolerated as dhimmis, protected peoples, who had to pay a special tax but were not compelled to convert to Islam.  Both the Christian patriarch of the Orthodox Church and the head of the Jewish congregation of Constantinople (as well as the Armenian Christian patriarch) were official members of the Sultan’s court, with each religious leader carrying both the privilege and the responsibility of representing their respective religious communities to the Ottoman government.  They ran their own distinct educational systems and were responsible for tax collection among their communities, referred to as millets.  To be clear, non-Muslims were held in a socially and legally secondary position within Ottoman society, but they still enjoyed vastly better status and treatment than did religious minorities in Christian kingdoms in Europe at the time.

Safavid Persia

One other Renaissance-era society deserves consideration: that of Persia.  Persian (Iranian) political and intellectual traditions were, by the time of the Turkic migrations, the better part of two thousand years old, tracing their origins all the way back to the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE.  When Persia came under Turkic rule starting in the tenth century it was only through Persian administration that a modicum of stability was ever realized by various dynasties.  Even then, the Mongol invasions, the subsequent invasion by the Central Asian warlord Temur, and the constant infighting among Turkic tribes meant that Persia was rarely united as a state for more than a few decades at a time (although, importantly, both Islamic and secular scholarship prospered despite the political instability).  The Mongol invasions had been devastating, Mongol rule cruel and extractive, and the Timurid period that followed was no better, collectively leading to a marked decline in the prosperity of Persia as a whole.  Tribal confederations revolved around the military prowess and charismatic qualities of individual leaders, so even with Persian bureaucracy they rarely held together for long.

An outstanding exception to the state of semi-anarchy came about because of an individual whose personal qualities appealed to the Qizilbash Turks who dominated Persia at the time: Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty.  The Safavids were a clan of Sufi (Islamic mystics) pirs, masters or spiritual leaders, who also happened to be capable military and political organizers.  In 1501 Ismail conquered the city of Tabriz in northwestern Persia, proclaiming his own identity as the bearer of religious truth in the period leading up to the end of the world. 

Ismail declares himself shah by entering Tabriz
Ismail declares himself shah by entering Tabriz

Importantly, Ismail and his followers were Shia Muslims, the branch of Islam that had long held a strong presence in Persia, and Ismail could claim that he represented the true interpretation of Islam against the corruption of the (Sunni) rulers in neighboring lands.  The appeal to a mystical, millenarian identity helped unite the fractious Turkic tribes and Ismail was able to bring all of Persia under his rule in a short amount of time. 

The word millenarian comes from the Latin mille, meaning thousand.

Millenarianism (also millenarism), from Latin mīllēnārius “containing a thousand”, is the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming fundamental transformation of society, after which “all things will be changed”. Millenarianism exists in various cultures and religions worldwide, with various interpretations of what constitutes a transformation.

He named his kingdom Iran, following the precedent established by the last pre-Islamic Persian dynasty, the Sasanians.

Ismail fused three distinct identities in promoting his rule: he was a Turkic warlord, a Shia Sufi pir, and (he claimed) the inheritor of the pre-Islamic political tradition of Persia.  Among his other titles he claimed to be the rightful shah (king) and to be a latter-day Alexander the Great (known as Iskandar in Persian).  His meteoric rise to power was cut short, however, when he led his forces against the Ottomans in 1514 and suffered a crushing defeat, shattering his carefully-cultivated aura of divine power.  In the aftermath the Ottomans seized Safavid territory and forced Ismail to retreat to the Iranian plateau.  For the next seventy years Ismail and his descendents lost control of the Turkic tribal confederacy he had briefly united, to the point that the Safavid shahs were nothing but figureheads controlled by Turkic warlords until late in the century.

Despite the return to the nearly anarchic conditions of tribal rule, the one area in which the Safavids proved successful was in supporting the growth of the Shia ulama, or Muslim clergy, supporting pilgrimages to Shia holy sites, funding madarasas and mosques, and encouraging the expansion of Shia Islam at the expense of the remaining Sunnis.  This was perhaps the most significant historical legacy of the Safavids: their dynasty cemented the identity of Iran as a Shia state, something with significant political consequences down to the present.

Safavid rule was revived by Shah Abbas I (r. 1587 – 1629).  Placed on the throne as a puppet by his Turkic warlord “protector” in 1587, Abbas went on to seize real power and use it to restore Iranian military, commercial, and political strength. 

Shah Abbas I and his court
Shah Abbas I and his court

He built up an imperial monopoly on silk production that served as a vital source of revenue for the state and did everything in his power to protect the interests of merchants (including non-Muslims: both Christians from Georgia and Armenia and Hindus from India were welcome as long as they contributed to Iran’s economy).  He moved away from the reliance on tribal warriors in war to the use of slave soldiers armed with firearms, a practice that the Ottomans had already used to great effect in their conquests to the west.  He patronized the Shia ulama but based his own authority on pre-Islamic kingship traditions, just as Ismail had.  By the end of his rule Iran’s borders coincided with the heartland of the ancient Persian dynasties (which nearly match those of the present-day Islamic Republic of Iran).

 Abbas presided over what is remembered in Iranian history as a true golden age, one that flourished simultaneously with golden ages in the Ottoman Empire and, to the east, the Muslim-ruled Mughal Empire of India.  In 1600 these three empires were among the largest and wealthiest in the world, exceeded only by China under the Ming dynasty.  It was a period in which trade and scholarship flowed from India to Europe via Iranian and Ottoman trade routes, enriching all three empires enormously.  Iran under Abbas enjoyed its greatest period of political coherence and military might until the twentieth century, and it established the precedent of an Iranian state that traced its lineage back to Shia Islam and pre-Islamic monarchy in equal measure.

Unfortunately for the regime (and for the Iranian economy), the shahs that followed Abbas I were a litany of incompetence.  Between Abbas’ death in 1629 until the dynasty itself came to an end in 1722 Iran suffered from ineffective leadership and a reversion to the semi-anarchy of tribal rule.  The imperial silk monopoly collapsed and, in contrast to Abbas’ pragmatic tolerance of religious minorities, the state (encouraged by conservative Shia clerics) launched waves of persecution against Sunnis, Christians, Jews, and Hindus.  Those groups had been at the heart of Iranian commerce, and thus the brief golden age brought about by Abbas came to an end almost as soon as it had begun.  

The significance of the Safavids, despite the fact that only Ismail and Abbas I were especially effective rulers, is that they presided over a period in which Persian identity fused together its most important constituent elements: a ruling dynasty that saw itself as the inheritors of all of the dynasties of the past (be they Persian, Macedonian, or Turkic) and, even more critically, the establishment of the Shia ulama as the official religious authorities of the empire.  Simply put, from the Safavid period on, Persia was the heart of Shia Islam.

Middle Eastern Economics

Like settled societies everywhere in the pre-modern era, the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia were dependent on agriculture.  Most people were farmers and most wealth was derived from taxes and fees associated with farming.  That being noted, what set the economic systems of the Middle East apart from many other societies (such as Europe at the time, with the exception of Renaissance Italy) was the care taken by rulers to cultivate trade.  Empires like those of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals all saw focused campaigns to build and protect roads, caravanserais, and markets.  Unlike in most European societies, merchants were treated with respect and honor.  

Special political and economic status was given to merchants, something that was most evident in the legal protections extended to non-Muslims who were economically useful.  As noted above, Hindus and Christians played key economic roles in Safavid Persia, just as Jews and Christians were a major part of the Ottoman economy.  Until the eighteenth century, the Ottoman state benefited from treating Jews and Christians as distinct legal entities, allowing them a high degree of legal autonomy and self-rule (while still answering to the central government).  Those arrangements were the origin of the “capitulation agreements” that would prove a major weakness to the Ottoman state in the long run, but originally they were in place to encourage economic dynamism among the religious minority communities.

The Middle Eastern economy during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries was part of a genuinely global trade network.  As they always had, Europeans desperately wanted luxury goods from the east, including spices, silks, and porcelain.  Once the Spanish discovered the vast silver deposits of South and Central America in the early sixteenth century, gigantic quantities of silver bullion flowed from Europe into the Ottoman and Safavid economies, most of it en route to India and points farther east.  The one Persian industry that generated wealth independently from the east-west trade was silk: under Shah Abbas I the state established a royal silk monopoly that produced the lion’s share of tax revenue for the state, and when that monopoly fell apart because of the incompetence of his descendents the state struggled to stay afloat financially.

The Ottoman state was not nearly as dependent on a single source of revenue.  It enjoyed highly productive agricultural lands in various parts of the vast breadth of the empire and it also generated significant tax revenue from the jizya, the tax on non-Muslims (who represented a sizable part of the population).  As the gatekeepers of the east-west trade, the Ottomans were able to tax both exports and imports to Europe, and during the major period of Ottoman imperialism conquered territories provided lucrative plunder as well.  Unfortunately for the Ottomans, the conquest of both Safavid and Habsburg territories in the first decades of the sixteenth century cost more to defend and maintain than they brought in with tax revenue, bringing about a brake on Ottoman imperialism itself.

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Next: Exploration and Conquest

Ottoman Empire 1451 map: By Chamboz at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Shah Abbas: By ninara from Tehran, Iran – 485, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Ismail: By Chingiz Mehbaliyev, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Safavid Empire map: By Arab_Hafez, edited by HistoryofIran (me). – File:Safavid_Empire_1501_1722_AD.png, Public Domain,

Ottoman Empire map 1566: By Chamboz (talk · contribs) – Wikipédia, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Selim I: By Naḳḳāş ʿOs̠mān – Seyyid Loḳmān Çelebi: Ḳıyāfetü l-İnsānīye fī Şemāʾili l-ʿOsmānīye (Şemāʾil-nāme). Library of the Topkapi Palace Museum, Hazine, Nr. 1562., Public Domain,

Mehmet: By Fausto Zonaro –, Public Domain,

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

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