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Battle of Chaldiran

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Battle of Chaldiran
Plain of chaldiran-01.jpg
Plain of Chaldiran (the battlefield)
Date Rajab 1st, 920/September 1st, 1514
Location Plain of Chaldiran, northwestern Iran
Result Defeat of the Safavid Army
Cause Ever increasing influence of the Safavids over Anatolia and increasing popularity of Shi'ite Islam in that region
Ottoman Empire Safavid Government
Sultan Selim I Shah Isma'il
approx. 3000 approx. 2000

Battle of Chāldirān (Persian:جنگ چالدران) was the first battle between Safavid and Ottoman governments which occurred in the plain of Chaldiran, northwestern Iran, in 920/1514. Isma'il I was the commander of the Savaid army, and Selim I was the commander of the Ottoman army. The battle led to the defeat of the Savaid army and as a result, Isma'il I locked himself in the house.

Grounds of the Battle

The occurrence of a battle between Iran and the Ottoman empire was inevitable because of the expansion of the Ottoman territories eastwards, the fall of Bey or Beyg regions of Anatolia, the Ottoman reign over the west banks Euphrates leading to the defeat of Uzun Hasan and the victory of Sultan Muhammad Fatih after the Battle of Utluq Bili in 877/1472, as well as the increasing influence of the Safavi order in Asia Minor (Anatolia), and the establishment of the Qizilbash movement leading to the establishment of the Safavid government (reign:ca. 906/1501-1135/1736) and the expansion of Shi'a.

Bayezid II avoided to engage in a battle with the Safavids because of his domestic and foreign concerns. Ismail I (reign: ca. 906/1501-930/1524) who was not yet prepared to fight with Ottomans adopted a friendly policy towards Bayezid. However, the relationship was broken in 916/1510 when Isma'il I defeated Shayabak Khan Uzbek and sent his head—filled with straws—to the Ottoman king together with a conceited letter of victory. This led to Bayezid's anger, and therefore, he wrote a letter to Isma'il and threatened that he would wage a war against Iran.

Bayezid's could not materialize his threat, because he was ousted from the throne, and was replaced by Selim I. When he learned about the political-religious activities of Qizilbash forces—affiliated with Isma'il I—in Anatolia, Selim decided to attack Iran. Meanwhile, Nur 'Ali Khalifa, a missionary sent by Isma'il I to Central Anatolia, gathered many Alawites and the Qizilbash around him, and managed to defeat the army sent by Selim to crush them. When he occupied Tokat, Nur 'Ali delivered a sermon in the name of Ismail I. Moreover, Khan Muhammad Khan Ustajlu (the ruler of Diyarbakır) sent offensive letters to the Ottoman palace at the command of Isma'il. What is more, Isma'il supported the claimants of the Ottoman sultanate both publicly and secretly; for example, he encouraged Sultan Ahmad to oppose his brother, Selim I, and when Sultan Ahmad was killed, Isma'il gave refuge to Ahmad's son, Sultan Murad, in Iran, and assigned him the rule of some parts of Fars.

Thus, Selim decided to attack Iran after crushing the claimants of the Ottoman kingdom and securing Ottoman borders. He sought to crush Isma'il's supporters in Eastern and Central Anatolia, that is, the Qizilbash. He received fatwas from scholars that gave him the permission to launch a jihad against the Qizilbash and unbelievers. After identifying the Qizilbash in the Ottoman territories, he ordered their murder and arrest. Their number was about 40,000 people. He feared that if he attacked Iran, they may start an uprising against the Ottoman while he is at war.

Then, the Ottoman king moved from Edirne to Azerbaijan on Muharram 23, 920 (March 20, 1514). He also wrote a letter to 'Ubayd Allah Khan Uzbek and encouraged him to attack Iran. The Ottoman army arrived in the borders of the Safavid government on Jumada Il 19, 920 (July 12, 1514).

Correspondences between the Two Kings

Selim I feared the consequences of Isma'il's possible retreat to internal territories of Iran. Thus, during his advance towards Iran, he wrote four offensive letters to Isma'il in order to provoke him to fight. The first letter was in Persian sent from Izmir. He addressed Isma'il as “Amir Isma'il” and the “'Ajam Commander”, accusing him of infidelity and sedition, and asking him to fight “like a man”. Selim's letters to his rulers in this period reflect his preparedness for a battle with the founder of the Safavid dynasty. Selim received a reply to his third letter on Jamadi al-Awwal 23, 920 (July 16, 1514), that is, four days after entering the Safavid territories near Erzincan.

Unlike Selim, Isma'il addressed Selim respectfully as “refuge-seeker in Islam” and considered the offensive contents of Selim's letters to be because of the writing-style of opium-addicted scribes of the Ottoman palace. He then warned Selim about invading the Safavid realm.

When he received the letter, Selim ordered the murder of the messenger out of anger, and sent his fourth letter to Isma'il in Turkish. The letter was full of offensive, provocative phrases, and attached a rosary, a robe (khirqa), and a kashkul to the letter (to imply that Isma'il was not competent to be a king and that he had better stay a Dervish like his fathers).

In these days, Selim encountered protests by some Ottoman rulers who opposed a war with Iran, as well as riots by some Janissaries, but he immediately crushed them.

Isma'il was in Hamadan at the time. When he learned about Selim's invasion of Iran, he went to the eastern parts of the plain of Chaldiran through Tabriz and Khoy. About a week later, the Ottoman army arrived there on Rajab 1, 920 (August 22, 1514) and settled in its northwestern hills. Khan Muhammad Khan Ustajlu and Nur 'Ali Khalifa suggested that they attack the Ottoman army without giving them the time to repose and make military arrangements, but Durmish Khan rejected the idea as cowardice and Isma'il I agreed with him. Thus, the Ottomans had the opportunity to repose and arrange for war. On the other side, many Ottoman commanders asked one day of rest for the tired army, but Piri Muhammad Pasha, the bookkeeper of Rumelia (the former province of the Ottoman empire), rejected the idea, since many Aqanjis in the Ottoman camp (people who attended attacks on foreign countries as spies, saboteurs, and plunderers) were Shi'as and were inclined to the Qizilbash, and so, if the war was postponed, they would be likely to join the Safavid camp under the influence of Safavid propagators. Thus, Selim I immediately prepared for the war. There is no precise information about the number of the two parties' forces. Some people presented exaggerated figures. It seems that the Ottoman army consisted of 80,000 to 100,000 people, and the Safavid army consisted of about 20,000 people. The number seems accurate, because some of the Qizilbash forces were engaged in skirmishes on Eastern Safavid borders, and Isma'il did not intend to engage in war with the Ottoman king. Moreover, because of Qizilbash sacrifices, Isma'il had managed to win wars with a smaller number of troops.

The Arrangement of the Two Armies

The military arrangement of the Ottoman army consisted of Janissaries armed with guns and swords as the main forces of the army, draft camels and mules as protecting walls for Janissaries, 200 cannons, 100 mortars ahead of the troops, and infantries (unorganized soldiers in the frontline) who played the role of camouflages for the cannons as well. The King Selim I settled over a hill overlooking the plain of Chaldiran in the heart of the army. This arrangement reflected their resolution and preparation for a full-fledged war. Iranian historians claim that the Ottoman army refuged inside an iron enclosure of chariots and chains.

The Iranian army was different from the Ottoman cavalry in all respects. Their horses were fat and strong, and their riders were all healthy and sturdy, unlike Ottoman forces who were sick and tired. However, Iranian weapons were Chachi bows and iron maces, and they had no artilleries and infantries. Their military arrangement involved a right wing, a left wing, and a heart. Isma'il and a group of elite cavalries settled on one side looking over the army in order to send help when necessary. According to some historians, Isma'il wandered around to hunt quails amid the war.

Start of the War

A scene from the Battle of Chaldiran painted on the interior walls of Chihil Sutun Palace in Isfahan, Iran.

At first, Safavids overcame Ottomans, but they had to retreat very soon. At this time, Isma'il went to the battlefield and undertook the commandership of the right wing of the Qizilbash army by himself. He knew that Selim wanted to force the Safavid army to the range of his cannons and thereby impose a heavy strike. So, he decided to put both wings of the Ottoman army under pressure at the same time so that the infantries could not step aside the cannons, and after passing the cannon lines, he planned to defeat special wardens of the king and have the Qizilbash attack Janissaries on both sides from behind.

Although Isma'il I defeated the left wing of the Ottoman army and advanced to the place where the rearwards of the Ottoman army were located, but the left wing of his own army was shot and defeated by the cannons. Later, the right wing and the heart of the army were also defeated. Isma'il was injured and his horse got stuck in the mud. When he was close to be captured by the enemy, a Qizilbash, whose name was “Mirza Sultan 'Ali” and was similar to the Safavid king, introduced himself as Isma'il, and a hobbler, called “Khidr Aqa”, gave his horse to the king Isma'il, and saved him from the trouble. Since the Safavid king found it pointless to continue the resistance, he escaped to Darjazin through Tabriz, together with a group of Qizilbash veterans. Selim thought of Isma'il's escape as a military tactic to trap the Ottoman forces and so, he did not allow his forces to chase him and plunder. Only after darkness, the Ottomans began to plunder and confiscate the things left from the Safavid camps.

Reasons for the Defeat of the Iranians

The main reason for the defeat of the Safavids and the victory of the Ottomans in the Battle of Chaldiran was that the latter possessed advanced military equipment and weapons, and in particular, artilleries and infantries equipped with guns. Although Safavids were familiar with artilleries and guns, they believed that it was cowardice to use firearms. According to Iranian sources, Selim had promised Isma'il that he would not use artilleries, but he broke his promise during the war. Other reasons for the defeat of Iranians in Chaldiran include conflicts among the heads of the Qizilbash, the arrogance of Isma'il because of his consecutive victories, not meeting military principles, launching attacks instead of defense, and underestimating the Ottoman forces.

Casualties of the War

There is no exact information about the casualties of the Battle of Chaldiran. In most of the Iranian sources, the number of casualties on both sides of the battle is said to be 5000: 3000 of the Ottomans, and 2000 of the Qizilbash. Some Turkish researchers believe that Ottoman casualties were about 30,000 people and the Iranian casualties were two times more, but it does not seem accurate. However, since the Ottomans used firearms in the battle and made minarets with the heads of Iranian captives in Chaldiran, casualties of the Qizilbash should be more than then 2000.

After the War

Selim went from Chaldiran to Tabriz. He planned to chase Isma'il after spending the winter in Tabriz, but due to dissatisfactions in the Ottoman army because of the lack of provisions, long period of staying away from the homeland, opposition of some members of the army to the war with Muslim Iranians, and out of the fear from a sedition, Selim left Tabriz on Rajab 25, 920 (September 15, 1514) after usurping the treasuries and property of Isma'il and the heads of the Qizilbash, and forcing some men of profession and art immigrate from Tabriz to Istanbul together with their families. According to most of the Iranian historians, Selim's hasty return to Istanbul was out of the fear from the return of Isma'il. According to Caterino Zeno, Selim was forced to leave Tabriz because of the disobedience of the people of Tabriz and his fear from King Isma'il's return with renewed power.


With the victory of the Ottomans in the Battle of Chaldiran, parts of the eastern Anatolia which were occupied by the Safavid government as well as the emirate of Dhu l-Qadr were annexed to the Ottoman territories, and Diyarbakır was no longer in the Safavid realm. After the Battle of Chaldiran, Iranians adopted a defensive policy toward the Ottoman government until the sultanate of Abbas I (reign: 996/1588-1038/1629). The loss in the Battle of Chaldiran affected Isma'il so deeply that he no longer interfered in governmental affairs until his death: he did not attend in any battles and turned into an aimless, self-indulgent king. According to Mulla Kamal, no one saw the king smile after the Battle of Chaldiran. Moreover, the exaggerated belief of his Qizilbash followers in him as the perfect master faded, and tribal skirmishes and disobediences were intensified. The Battle of Chaldiran dismissed the myth of Isma'il's undefeatability, but Ottomans could never annex Iran to their territory and force people to abandon Shiism. Since then, the Safavid government was reduced from a divinely legitimate government into a mundane royal administrative system.