Chapter 12: The Islamic Gunpowder Empires, 1300-1650


At this point in our world history chronology, we are transitioning from the Middle Ages to the modern world. Some say that it is the effective use of gunpowder in military campaigns that signals this shift. This transformation in weaponry had a big impact on three Islamic empires, as you will see below in the chapter outline. However, new weaponry had an enormous impact on the rise of European states and the rise of European hegemony (or world dominance) after 1500. The article by McNeill on "The Age of Gunpowder Empires" in E-reserves provides an overview of the impact of gunpowder on the rise of Europe as well as on the Islamic, Russian, and Chinese empires.

In the 14th century, the Mongol invasions (described in the previous chapter outline) declined. Three great Turkic* empires emerged in the old Mongol and Byzantine domains: the Ottomans in Turkey (Anatolia) and surrounding areas, the Safavids in Persia (Iran), and the Mughuls in India.

The Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughuls built large, impressive empires in the 16th century. All three of these empires shared the Islamic faith, central Asian roots, and Persian artistic traditions. All three aspired to restore the great dominions of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Together, these three empires controlled the land and sea routes of East-West trade. Their armies had firearms that gave them a tremendous advantage over tribal cavalries.

In the 16th century, these Asian empires were the greatest powers in the world. Of the three, the Ottomans were the largest and most powerful state.

The Ottomans

The Ottoman Turks began as nomadic people from the steppes of central Asia. For centuries they wandered Anatolia (Turkey) seeking new pasturelands. Muslim sultans used them as mercenaries to fight off Mongol invaders. In the upheaval following the Mongol invasions, the Turks staked out their own lands. In a remarkable demographic shift these nomadic refugees would conquer a vast territory and create the world’s greatest centralized state to date. The Ottomans were named for their first great leader, Osman.

Mehmet was a subsequent Ottoman warlord who is best known for conquering Constantinople (a shadow of its former self in 1453) and for transforming the Hagia Sohpia (pronounced hiya sofea) from the greatest church in Christendom to the greatest mosque in Islamic civilization. Mehmet was the first to use cast bronze cannons in battle (which he commissioned from European craftsmen.) The Ottomans would reach the height of their power and a cultural golden age under Suleiman.

The Ottoman Empire under Suleiman was the most powerful and wealthy state of the 1500s. The Ottomans took numerous Christian slaves to serve in the military (uprooted Christian slaves were preferred to Muslims who might have conflicting loyalties to family or region.) The highly trained Ottoman infantry, the janisarries, were the first uniformed army in the world, and among the first to be armed with gunpowder weapons. The janissaries were, for a long time, virtually undefeatable.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Eastern Europe to North Africa to Western Asia (from Hungary to Ethiopia to the borders of Morocco, Arabia, and Iraq-- see text book page 248.) For Europe, the question was: how far west would the Ottoman expansion ultimately reach? By 1529 the Ottoman army was at the gates of Vienna, the geographic center of Europe. That unsuccessful siege was repeated in 1681, and finally provoked a unified response from the major powers of Western Europe.

While the Ottoman empire had passed the peak of its power by 1700, it would persist until the 20th century. After World War I, Turkey was declared a republic in 1922, officially ending the 500 year Ottoman empire (1350-1920). Keep in mind, the Ottomans had supplanted an even longer empire in 1450-- the one thousand year long Byzantine (or East Roman) empire (330-1450).

map of Ottoman empire

The Safavids

Persia was one of history's oldest and richest civilizations. In 500 BC (at the dawn of the Roman republic) Persia's Cyrus the Great conquered the region that was Mesopotamia. In 300 BC Alexander the Great conquered Persia. From about 200 to 600 Persia was ruled by the Sassanids (see Islam study guide) until Arab conquest in the 7th century.

The Safavid dynasty ruled Persia from about 1500 to 1630. They were Shiite Muslims and often came into conflict with their Ottoman Sunni neighbors. The Safavid empire was never as powerful militarily as the Ottomans, but Persia was the cultural center of Islam. Persian carpets, tapestries, and ceramics were prized all over the world. Persian literature and painting was extremely rich. Persian art and architechture had tremendous influence on the Mughul and Ottoman empires as well.


The Mughuls

The Mughuls (aka Mughals or Moguls) ruled India from around 1530 to 1860. The Mughul dynasty was the most powerful and longest-lasting Muslim dynasty to rule India and consolidated Islam in South Asia. The Mughuls spread Muslim (and particularly Persian) arts and culture as well as the faith as they produced elegant arts and architecture.

The Muslim Mughuls ruled a country with a large Hindu majority. For much of their empire they allowed Hindus to reach senior government or military positions. The Mughal Empire grew out of descendants of the Mongol Empire. They become Muslims and assimilated the culture of the Middle East, while keeping elements of their Far Eastern roots. They also retained the great military prowess of their Mongol ancestors, and were among the first militaries to use guns.

The Taj Mahal, arguably the most beautiful building in the world, was built during the Mughul Empire.

*Turkic refers to peoples who speak Turkish languages. These peoples originated in central Asia.