Ottoman Expansion in Iraq

Ottoman Expansion in Iraq

By the fi rst half of the 16th century, the Ottomans had begun their expansion in the Arab lands. Syria and Egypt fell in 1516, the Ottoman armies were perched to take over Basra in 1546, Yemen succumbed to Ottoman rule two years later, and Ottoman forces reached Morocco in the same period. Iraq was not conquered at once; in fact, the earlier campaigns focused on Mosul and Kurdistan, the latter, on Baghdad and Basra.

Still, it is imperative to understand that what was conquered was not immediately integrated; for instance, the fi rst Ottoman occupation of Baghdad was quickly followed by a countervailing Safavid attack, which in turn led to a second and more permanent Ottoman occupation. A similar development took place in Basra, where the Ottomans were able to wrest the province from nominal Portuguese control, only to have it hijacked later on by local tribal leaders. There was a constant back and forth between the Ottomans and Safavids in the fi rst wave of conquests of the Iraqi provinces.

The Ottoman Incorporation of Mosul (Northern Iraq)

One of the fi rst confrontations between the Ottomans and Safavids took place in 1514 at the epic battle at Chaldiran in eastern Turkey that ended in defeat for the Safavid shah Ismail. The Ottoman sultan Selim I (r. 1512–20) next marched against Safavid forces in Armenia and Azerbaijan. After several pitched battles against the troops of the shah, the Ottoman armies found themselves sweeping through northern Iraq in pursuit of their foe.

Following the fall of Mardin and Diyarbakr (both in what is now southern Turkey) to the Ottomans, the al-Jazeera plain was now within easy reach. The al-Jazeera district was strategically important both for its linkages to southern Anatolia and central Iraq and because it contained the ancient city of Mosul, which had been the regional capital of Arab dynasts throughout the 11th and 12th centuries.

Situated on the Euphrates River with direct access to Baghdad and Basra by water and the mountains and villages of Kurdistan by land, the city was an asset for any conqueror. Although it was undergoing a temporary eclipse in that period, Mosul’s renown in medieval times still harked back to a more prosperous past that could be revitalized under the proper attention.

The Ottoman occupation of northern Iraq also resulted in assimilation of Shahrizor (Kurdistan), which, after Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, became the fourth Ottoman provincial division of Iraq. Shahrizor was a district of rugged mountains; its Kurdish population was composed mostly of pastoral tribes that were sometimes forcibly led to settle down as agriculturists by the Ottomans. Shahrizor also formed part of a belt of Kurdish villages that demarcated the frontiers of Mosul Province, the most important town in northern Iraq (Khoury 1997, 32).

In theory, the administrative model followed at Mosul by the victorious Ottomans was to serve for the whole of Iraq, as indeed it had served for other newly conquered Ottoman provinces elsewhere in the empire. In practice, there was a wide divergence between how Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra were taxed and administered.

For example, in northern Iraq, the sultan’s political adviser, a Kurdish shaykh by the name of Idris alBidlisi, struck a deal with local tribal commanders in Mosul: They were to keep the Safavid army at bay in return for political and economic compensation. But it was only in 1534, under Sultan Suleyman’s reign (r. 1520–66), that Mosul was recognized as suffi ciently secure that a new Ottoman governor could be appointed over the city.

It was then that the full panoply of Ottoman fi scal and administrative law was introduced in the city and its countryside. A system of land grants (ziamets, timars, and khass) was established in the city and its environs, which were contracted out to military commanders and local notables for the provision of troops and the organization of the administration and economy. Mosul was also restructured administratively, becoming the chief province (eyalet) responsible for all other administrative districts in the region; the province itself now stretched all the way to the Persian frontier (al-Jamil 1999, 46).

Mosul’s commercial worth to the empire was gauged by its role as a granary for the provisioning of Ottoman troops. Dina Khoury notes as much, saying, “[F]or the city of Mosul, the Ottoman conquest marked the beginning of commercial prosperity” (Khoury 1991, 60). The city’s population increased, new professional elites from neighboring districts migrated to Mosul as settlers, religious scholars were brought in by the Ottomans to preach Hanafi (Sunni) Islam, and customs dues rose, further proof of the development of an affl uent lifestyle.

This prosperity was to continue throughout the 16th and early part of the 17th centuries. Yet Mosul was never to become the large and dominant center that Baghdad was. In fact, its situation as one town among many, surrounded by an agricultural belt of villages, was only changed in the 17th century when “the Ottoman wars with the Safavids transformed Mosul and some of its hinterlands into supply centers for the armies of the region as well as a clearinghouse for the disbursement of funds for the fortresses of the region” (Khoury 1997, 25).

In most histories of early Ottoman Iraq, the separation between Mosul and the rest of the Iraqi provinces is overly accentuated. Because Mosul was not geographically part of Ard al-Sawad (the alluvial territories of south-central Iraq that went under the name of “the black earth” in Islamic historiography) but part of the northern strip of alJazeera, and because it remained rather more fi rmly tied to Ottoman control than other cities, it is sometimes considered to be a province apart and isolated from Baghdad, Basra, and the country in between.

This impression is belied by the fact that Mosuli trade was fi rmly tied to southern Iraq and eastern Syria in the Ottoman period. In fact, relations between the three major urban centers of Iraq—Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra—were strengthened under Ottoman rule.The Ottoman Incorporation of Baghdad (Central Iraq) Although the conquest of Iraq was accomplished in 1534, stability and security eluded the Ottomans at fi rst so that it was Baghdad’s misfortune (and Mosul’s and Basra’s as well) to be subject to a shaky political climate from the early 16th century onward.

After the fi rst Ottoman occupation of the city (1534), there were 89 years of peace and then war broke out again, with Baghdad besieged and fi nally conquered by Safavid shah Abbas in 1624. The Iranians ruled the city until 1638, when a massive Ottoman force led by Sultan Murad IV (r. 1623–40) fi nally recaptured the city for good. In the years of the fi rst Ottoman occupation and the Safavid interregnum, however, a number of developments took place in the city and its neighboring districts that merit a sustained study.

Sultan Suleyman the Lawgiver (also known as the Magnifi cent) entered Baghdad on December 31, 1534, defeating the Safavid contingent, whose commander fl ed upon the Ottomans’ approach. Shaykh Mani ibn Mughamis of Basra (the son of the local ruler), plus other district shaykhs such as those of the al-Jazeer, al-Gharraf, al-Luristan, and al-Huwaiza, traveled to Baghdad to pledge their loyalty to the sultan and to demand succor from the Portuguese (Ozbaran 1994, 125).

After praying at the main Sunni shrines in Baghdad, Suleyman set about reconstructing the physical infrastructure in the province. He is known to have ordered the construction of a dam in Karbala and major water projects in and around the city’s countryside. But he is also known to have instigated attacks on Twelver Shia, considering them to be a fi fth column and in the pay of the Safavids.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, a new governor was appointed and the creation of a defense force for the town envisaged; it was to be composed of 1,000 foot soldiers and another 1,000 cavalry. More signifi cantly, a new administrative law and taxation regime was instituted that differed from the timar system of land grants established in Mosul, in which an elite of sipahis, or cavalry offi cers, was made responsible both for the military and fi nancial expenses of their district.

In Baghdad (and Basra), a different system entailed salaries being paid out to the provincial governors, either from Istanbul or from the provinces themselves. The beylerbeyi (governor) of the city had to dispatch a fi xed sum of money to Istanbul called the irsaliye, after deducting the military and administrative expenses of the province from its proceeds. Baghdad, like Basra, was sometimes called a salyane province (a province in which the governor received an annual salary). Interestingly, salyane provinces have usually been associated with diffi cult or obdurate provincial administrations or were provinces where sometimes neither the governor nor the notability was seen as completely loyal to the Ottomans.

A case in point is the story of the Baghdad governor, who was instrumental in inviting the Safavid occupation of Baghdad in 1623–24. It all started when the governor, a usurper called Bakr the Subashi (“police chief,” in Ottoman Turkish), called for Shah Abbas’s (r. 1588–1629) help in defeating a pro-Ottoman rival, an action that he would soon regret. Having fi nally reestablished control of Baghdad, the Safavid shah was not going to allow for any potential Sunni disobedience.

He immediately began a campaign to exterminate all those who had stood by Bakr, the latter only being saved after his son pleaded for his life; in fact, “during the Safavid reconquest of Iraq, Sunnis were massively persecuted and the shrine of [the 12th-century holy man] Abdul-Qadir al-Gailani in Baghdad damaged” (Cole 2002, 19). It took another 15 years for the Ottomans fi nally to defeat their enemy. Ottoman historians recount that among the fi rst actions of the victorious sultan Murad IV upon his entry into Baghdad were to repair the damage done to Sunni shrines, rebuild Baghdad’s city walls, and install a governor with authority over 8,000 Janissaries (slave-soldiers who formed an elite guard for provincial governors).

But while much ink has been spilled over the religious controversy that supposedly fueled the Ottoman-Safavid confl ict throughout the 16th century, other reasons for the struggle to control Iraq are mostly passed over in silence. One obvious reason for continued OttomanSafavid hostilities was Iran’s desire to export its silk by way of Ottoman lands. Although by the 15th century a large quantity of Iranian silk was steadily supplying Ottoman silk weavers in Bursa (northern Anatolia), the Ottomans were not always anxious to allow Safavid penetration of their newly unifi ed markets.

Trying to deprive the Safavids of revenue, they “arrested a number of Iranian silk merchants in Bursa and forcibly sent them to Istanbul and Rumeli” (Mathee 1999, 20). Then a customs blockade was established against Iranian products; paradoxically, it ruined Bursa’s own income because customs dues on Iranian silk plummeted, causing a crisis in town. Cut off from this lucrative route, the Iranians then tried to fight the Portuguese in the Gulf over control of the silk route to India.

However, initial steps at a rapprochement between Safavid Iran and the Portuguese in the Gulf did not make a great difference in Iran’s export of silk to the Indian Ocean region. But, starting from the late 16th century, the commodity became attractive to European merchants, and as Iranian profi ts rose, they partially offset the Safavid losses on routes through Ottoman territory.

It has been claimed that the difference between the Ottoman and Safavid strategy for Iraq was that the latter chiefl y focused on control of the Shii shrine cities of Kadhimain, Najaf, and Karbala and the monopoly of the pilgrim traffi c to those cities. The Ottomans, on the other hand, wanted to create a large sea-based empire not only to complement their territorial possessions but also to link the heartland of Anatolia to the Gulf, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and Mediterranean.

Baghdad would be the axis around which these trade networks would hinge. However, as has just been shown, trade was also an important motivator for Safavid designs over Iraq. This becomes even clearer in 1639, a year after Sultan Murad IV recaptured the city from the Safavids, when a peace treaty was signed that gave the Ottomans control over Iraq. The Treaty of Zuhab ended the military confl ict between the two large land empires, but it also opened up new avenues of peaceful Safavid interaction with the Ottomans, one of which was the pursuit of commercial gain. Henceforward, Iranian silk was to traverse the Ottoman Empire with little encumbrance.