The Ottoman Incorporation of Basra

The Ottoman Incorporation of Basra (Southern Iraq)

Basra was vital to Ottoman strategy because of its central location and its well-situated port. Before the Ottoman takeover of the city in 1546–49, the other great naval power, the Portuguese, had already cast a covetous eye on it. After their capture of Hormuz in 1514, an important trading emporium on the Gulf, Basra was deemed to be but one element, albeit a fundamental one, in the Estado da India’s growing empire.

Bordering the Shatt al-Arab, and with direct access to the Gulf and Arabian sea, the port was not only a natural harbor but a meeting place for merchants, sailors, and agents of every kind. From the earliest times, Basra’s reach had extended to the Indian Ocean, East Africa, and even China; in the sixth century, sailing craft put out to sea carrying horses on board for Ceylon (Sri Lanka) (Fattah 1997, 160).

The latter commodity was only to grow in signifi cance as time went on. Basra’s ties with the greater region were to become its chief calling card, and when, much later on, the Ottomans were able to control the chief access routes to the region, they chose to use Basra as a linchpin and point of departure for their commercial empire.

Basra’s obdurate tribal leadership (from the Muntafi q confederation of tribes), however, wanted nothing to do with the Portuguese; they easily controlled the town as well as the periphery, and they brooked no outside interference. The Portuguese, however, did not waver from their goal; having made vast inroads in coastal India and the Gulf, they may have thought that Basra would not mount a diffi cult challenge.

In 1529, the Portuguese sent two brigantines and a force of 40 soldiers to overpower the local ruler of Basra, only to have their intervention add to the unsettled state of affairs in the Gulf. While the ruler of Basra, Shaykh Rashid ibn Mughamis, was defeated and became the subject, if only nominally, of the Portuguese Crown, his surrender was only a temporary respite in the long, drawn-out war between local tribal elements in southern Iraq and the great seafaring powers of the Portuguese and, later, Ottoman Empires.

At about the same time that the Portuguese were attempting to control access in the Gulf and Indian Ocean, the Ottomans were planning a maritime strategy of their own, in which the traditional ports of Yemen and southern Iraq would complement the Ottomans’ hold on the Gulf and Indian Ocean. It took over 20 years, but Sultan Suleyman’s naval forces fi nally accomplished the goal.

After attacks on Yemen and western India, the Ottoman naval fl eet struck the Portuguese positions in the Gulf, eventually occupying Basra on December 26, 1546 (Inalcik and Quataert 1994, 337). Basra, like Baghdad and Mosul, thereafter entered the Ottoman ambit; a military commander was appointed to run the port, its tribal leaders were graced with titles (and compensated with gold), and by 1558, the construction of an Ottoman naval fl eet to guard Basra’s approaches was well under way.

As in Baghdad, however, Basra’s tribal leadership was not awarded timars, or the classic landholding grants bestowed upon Ottoman cavalrymen in the core empire in the early centuries of Ottoman rule. The speculation of scholars is that Basra was too precarious a climate to support an orderly tax regime in the early years of Ottoman incorporation.

Even so, most of the standard histories of the Ottoman occupation of Basra do not gloss over the fact that at fi rst, neither Basra’s local rulers nor Baghdad’s, for that matter, easily settled down as subjects of the Porte.

While the sultan’s name was mentioned in the Friday prayers and his likeness minted on coinage (two traditional symbols of legitimacy in the Islamic world), and while the wily shaykh Rashid ibn Mughamis fi nally achieved his heart’s desire and was confi rmed as beylerbeyi (governor) of Basra, there is no escaping the conclusion that it was the indigenous inhabitants of the new Ottoman province that held the reins of power and not their titular masters.

Rashid’s son, Mani, succeeded his father, squabbled with the more pro-Ottoman shaykh Yahya, whom he was forced to give up his position to, only to witness the latter join up with yet another nominal subject of the Porte and attempt an insurrection against the Ottomans (Ozbaran 1994, 126). Although the Ottoman governor of Baghdad quelled that revolt, the trend is clear. Tribal shaykhs, on whom the Ottomans were fi rst forced to rely, played the Ottomans against each other and sometimes won a brief respite from foreign overlordship as a result.

This said, the Ottomans doggedly continued with their pacifi cation of Basra. In December 1546, they appointed an Ottoman commander, Bilal Pasha, to head the province. He received a set income per year and was in charge of about 2,200 troops. Since the Ottomans had not yet completed their shipyard in Basra, Suez (in Egypt) became the naval base they used to attack the Portuguese.

They spent the remainder of the 16th century attempting to wrest total control of the Gulf from their enemies, having great success in Yemen in 1538 but failing dismally in Bahrain in 1552. Nonetheless, while the Ottomans’ naval attacks against the Portuguese in the Gulf and Indian Ocean failed to dislodge the latter’s hold on Hormuz, the most important trading center in the Gulf, their land armies blocked Portuguese access to the Red Sea. And their control of Basra, shaky though it may have been at times, allowed them direct contact with Aleppo on the land route north and, with it, the burgeoning trade of the eastern Mediterranean.


For the Ottomans, Iraq held the same importance it had held for their Byzantine and Roman predecessors: It was an essential crossroads for trade. It was important enough to grant areas such as Baghdad and Basra a kind of special dispensation with regard to administering fi nances to the empire. But, as in the time of the Seleucid, Sassanid, and Roman Empires, Iraq during the Ottoman domination was also a proxy battleground for foreigners.

This time, the battle was fought between the Sunni Ottomans and Shii Safavids, and their warfare was theological as well as economical in nature. However, these two empires were not the only players in the area.The 16th century marks the beginning of the entry of European trading companies in the Gulf and Indian Ocean, a development that was to cause major changes in the regional trading system of Iraq, Arabia, and the Gulf.

However, in the 16th century, foreigners were not yet the unrivalled masters of the region that they would become later on. No matter who the foreign occupier was and how successful he was in gaining his ends, in the end, it was the local tribal leader, seafarer, or merchant on whom he had to rely for help in attaining his goals.