Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal



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  1. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal

The history of the Ottoman Empire actually extends before 1450. You might recall from the previous chapter that the territories of the former Islamic Empire were overrun by the ubiquitous Mongols in the thirteenth century. Recall also that the Byzantine Empire, centered in Constantinople, controlled most of Turkey and influenced southeastern Europe and Russia. As the Mongol Empire fell, the Muslim Ottoman Empire, founded by Osman Bey, rose in Anatolia (eastern parts of Turkey) to unify the region and challenge the Byzantine Empire. As it grew in the fourteenth century, the Turks (as the Ottomans were called) came to dominate most of modern-day Turkey and eventually, in 1453, invaded Constantinople, thereby ending the Byzantine Empire. So perhaps 1450 isn’t such an artificial boundary after all.

The Ottomans made Constantinople their capital city, renamed it Istanbul, and converted the great cathedrals such as the Hagia Sophia into mosques. In the expanding empire, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religions, making the empire one of the more tolerant of the time. Within a hundred years, the Ottomans conquered most of the regions previously held by the ancient Roman Empire, except for Italy westward. In other words, the Ottoman Empire extended from Greece eastward to Persia, and then all the way around the Mediterranean into Egypt and northern Africa.

As the empire grew, so too did religious persecution. To conquer large territories, the Ottomans enslaved children of their Christian subjects and turned them into fighting warriors, known as Janissaries. Much of this expansion here occurred during the reign of Selim I, who came to power in 1512. Significantly, Selim claimed that he was the rightful heir to Islamic tradition under the Arab caliphs. With that claim, and with such a huge empire, Istanbul became the center of Islamic civilization.

Just eight years later, Suleiman I (a.k.a Suleiman the Magnificent) rose to power. He not only built up the Ottoman military, but also actively encouraged the developments of the arts. For this reason, the Ottoman Empire experienced a golden age under his reign, which lasted from 1520 until 1566. During this time, the Ottomans tried to push into Europe through Hungary. You already read that the Holy Roman Empire was weakening during the Protestant Reformation. The Ottomans took advantage of this weakness; after taking parts of Hungary, the Turks tried to movie into Austria. In 1529, the empire laid siege to Vienna, a significant European cultural center. Had the Turks successfully taken Vienna, who knows what the history of Western Europe would have been? From Vienna, the Turks could have easily poured into the unstable lands of the Holy Roman Empire. But it wasn’t meant to be. Vienna was as far as the Turks ever got. Although Austrian princes and the Ottomans battled continually for the next century, the Ottomans were never able to expand much beyond the European territories of Byzantine influence.

Still, the Ottoman Empire lasted until 1922, making it one of the world’s most significant empires. In that time, it greatly expanded the reach of Islam, while also keeping Eastern Europe in a constant state of flux. This allowed the powers of Western Europe to dominate, and once they started exploring the oceans, they were able to circumvent their eastern neighbors and trade directly with India, China, and their American colonies.

It is worth mentioning the chief rivals of the Ottoman were their eastern neighbors, the Safavids. This centralized state was based on military conquest and dominated by Shia Islam. Its location between the Ottomans and the Mughals, in what is modern-day Iran, resulted in often contentious relationships between the Muslim states, alliances with European against the Ottomans, and a continuation of the long-standing rift between the Sunni and Shia sects.

Remember the Mongols? In 1526, Babur, a leader who claimed to be descended from Genghis Khan but was very much Muslim, invaded northern India and quickly defeated the Delhi Sultanate (also Muslim). Babur quickly established a new empire, known as the Mughal Empire, which dominated the Indian subcontinent for the next 300 years.

The Mughal Empire was distinctive for several reasons. First, within about 150 years, it had united almost the entire subcontinent, something that hadn’t previously been done to the same extent that northern India experienced a series of invasions and empires, many of which you reviewed in previous chapters. The same was not true of southern India. The Deccan Plateau in southern India had remained mostly isolated. It was there that Hinduism became mostly established.


Babur’s grandson, Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605, was able to unify much of India by governing under a policy of religious toleration. He allowed Hinduism and Islam to be practiced openly. He eliminated the jizya, the head tax on Hindus that had been a source of great anger to the people, and tried to improve the position of women by attempting to eliminate sati, the practice in which high-cased Hindu women would throw themselves onto their husbands’ funeral pyres. He even married a Hindu woman, and welcomed Hindus into government position. For nearly 100 years, Hindus and Muslims increasingly lived side-by-side and, consequently, became more geographically mixed. The result was a golden age of art, architecture, and thought. Shah Jahan, Akbar’s grandson, the Taj Mahal was built. However, after Akbar, two developments forever changed India.

The first was that religious toleration ended. The Muslim government reinstated the jizya; Hindu temples were destroyed. The consequences of this development were significant for later centuries, but for the moment, understand that by 1700, Muslims began to persecute Hindus and Hindus were organizing against their Muslim rulers and neighbors.



The second development was the arrival of the Europeans. In the early seventeenth century, the Portuguese and British were fighting each other for Indian Ocean trade routes. In the beginning, Portugal had established trade with the city of Goa, where it also sent Christian missionaries. By 1661, the British East India Company had substantial control of trade in Bombay. By 1691, the British dominated trade in the region and founded the city of Calcutta as a trading outpost. While the Mughal emperors were annoyed with the Europeans, they generally permitted the trade and regarded the Europeans as relatively harmless. Of course, the Industrial Revolution would turn Britain into an imperial superpower. But before 1750-the calm before the storm-India didn’t feel particularly vulnerable to the Europeans, except in its port cities. It was a huge country with tons of resources united strong Muslim rulers. It couldn’t be conquered, right? At the time, Indians probably couldn’t imagine that a century later, a British woman named Victoria would be crowned empress of India.

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