PART I

The Advent of the Modern Age

This book is about the modern Middle East. The underlying argument of this book is that the eighteenth century marked a new phase in the evolution of world history. As stated in the introduction, two important characteristics distinguish modern history: a world economy unlike any that had existed before and a world system of nation-states. On the one hand, the modern period marks the emergence of an integrated world market, binding together nations in a global division of labor. On the other hand, during the modern period a new form of political association — the nation-state — appears on the world stage for the first time, spreads, and achieves primacy worldwide. These twin systems have affected economic, social, cultural, and political life everywhere in ways that were unprecedented in world history.

Neither the world economy nor the world system of nation-states appeared overnight. Both needed an incubation period, during which they could be refined and expand throughout the globe. This incubation period took place during an era called by historians the “early modern” period, which lasted from about the beginning of the sixteenth century through the first half of the eighteenth century. Thus, to understand the modern history of the Middle East or any other region, it is necessary first to understand its roots in the early modern period.

Three events occurred in the first decades of the sixteenth century that would redefine the Middle East forever. Only one of these events actually occurred in the Middle East. The other two occurred far away from the Middle East, but would define the global environment in which the Middle East would evolve.

The first event that took place at the dawn of the early modern period was the emergence of large-scale, long-lived empires in the Middle East and beyond. Three such empires emerged during this period. The largest and longest-lived of these great empires was the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire survived for more than four centuries until it was finally dismantled at the end of World War I in 1918. The Ottoman Empire provides us with a direct link from the early modern period through the modern period.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire governed a huge expanse of territory, not only in the Middle East, but in North Africa and southeastern Europe — Greece, Hungary, the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria — as well. Indeed, there is reason for the famous quip by the nineteenth-century Austrian statesman Prince Klemens von Metternich that “Asia begins at the eastern gate of Vienna.” The Ottomans, in fact, had laid siege to Vienna itself twice, the first time in 1529, the second in 1683. No wonder, then, that an English historian writing in the beginning of the seventeenth century called the Ottoman Empire “the present terror of the world.”

The second empire to emerge at the beginning of the sixteenth century was the Safavid Empire. The Safavid Empire was centered in Persia but at its height included territories that stretched from the Caucasus mountains in the north to eastern Iraq. The Safavid Empire lasted from 1501 to 1722, when it was overthrown by an invading army from Afghanistan. After a disastrous interregnum period, most noted for bringing Persia incessant war, depopulation, deurbanization, and intermittent famine, another Turkic dynasty took over from the Safavids. This was the Qajar dynasty, which ruled from 1796 to 1925. Although the Safavid dynasty itself lasted only half as long as the Ottoman Empire, its significance lies in its twofold legacy: The Safavid Empire established a state whose boundaries roughly coincided with the boundaries of present-day Iran and, under the Safavids, the population of Persia became adherents of the Shi‘i branch of Islam.

One other Muslim empire emerged during this period, which bears mentioning even though its history lies outside the scope of this book: the Mughal Empire of India. Founded in 1526, the Mughal Empire stretched, at its height, from Afghanistan in the north three-quarters of the way down the Indian subcontinent. The Mughal Empire ran afoul of British imperialism and, in 1858, was demolished by the British, who then made India into a British colony. The Mughal Empire resembled the Ottoman and Safavid empires in many ways: Like the other empires, it was founded by a people from Central Asia (the first Mughal emperor, Babar, claimed descent from the half-Mongol, half-Turkish conqueror, Tamerlaine) and it shared political and economic structures and intellectual traditions with the Ottomans and Safavids. Unfortunately, the Mughal Empire lies outside the artificial boundaries we set for ourselves in writing the history of the modern Middle East. Its history is instead commonly addressed by historians who focus on another artificial geographical division, historians of India.

The second event that occurred at the dawn of the early modern period was the commercial revolution in Europe. During the early sixteenth century, trade among Europeans, on the one hand, and between Europe and other parts of the world, on the other, began to increase dramatically. A variety of factors encouraged the commercial revolution: technological breakthroughs, such as the use of the compass and adjustable sails and multiple masts on ships; new institutions for organizing trade and banking; the introduction of new crops — from tomatoes and potatoes to tobacco — from the New World; the introduction of massive quantities of New World gold and silver into Europe; and the establishment of overseas colonies, from the Persian Gulf to the newly discovered Americas. According to many historians, the commercial revolution set off a chain of events that would culminate in the establishment of the modern world economy. The impact of the commercial revolution on the Middle East is the topic of Chapter 3.

The final event that took place at the dawn of the early modern era was the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation is commonly dated from 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral in present-day Germany. Luther's theses both protested various policies and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and advocated new ones. The Protestant Reformation split Europe into separate Protestant and Catholic kingdoms and principalities, thereby ending the idea of a universal Christian state. It culminated in a series of religious wars during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Europe that emerged from these wars was very different from the Europe that entered them. As a result of the religious wars, Europe divided into highly competitive and sometimes highly efficient political units. European history became marked by attempts of these states to gain advantage or achieve a balance among themselves. In effect, then, modern nation-states and the nation-state system might be traced to the Protestant Reformation. The spread of the modern state system would have a profound effect on the Middle East.

Of course, the ways in which the three aforementioned events affected the Middle East were to a large extent determined by their interaction with existing social structures, economic arrangements, and cultural norms. Thus, to understand the impact of this period on the Middle East we have to understand the legacy of the earlier history of the region. That is where Part I of this book begins.

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The Middle East in Late Antiquity

CHAPTER 1

From Late Antiquity to the Dawn of a New Age

That which might be called the Islamic “core area”—the area of the first Islamic conquests — is the area that stretches from the Nile River in the west to the Oxus River in the east. The Islamic core area consists of five parts. First, there is the area called the Levant. The word Levant is derived from the French word lever, to rise, as the sun does in the east. Accordingly, the Levant is the area that stretches from the Mediterranean coast as far east as the Euphrates River — the eastern Arab world. In the north, the Levant extends to the Taurus Mountains in the Anatolian peninsula (the site of present-day Turkey); in the south, it extends to the northern border of the Arabian peninsula.

To the south of the Levant lie Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. To the east lie Mesopotamia and Iran. The name Mesopotamia is derived from the Greek words meaning “middle of the rivers,” much as the word hippopotamus is derived from the Greek words meaning “river horse.” The term Mesopotamia refers not only to the territory between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, but to the areas immediately surrounding the two rivers as well. Iran is the name given to the territory that was once called Persia. In 1935, the shah (ruler) of Persia decreed that foreigners should use the word Iran, a word of ancient pedigree, when referring to his country. The story goes that the shah was so enamored of the racial theories popularized by Adolph Hitler that, at the suggestion of the Persian embassy in Berlin, he had the name Persia changed in diplomatic parlance to Iran to illustrate the “Aryan” roots of his nation. Needless to say, the name has stuck, and even the contemporary rulers of the country refer to their state as the Islamic Republic of Iran.

If you look closely at a map of the core area, you will see at the center a plain surrounded on all sides by mountains, deserts, and plateaus: to the north, in Anatolia, the Taurus Mountains; to the west, a range of mountains that divides the central plain from the coastal plain and the Mediterranean Sea; to the east, the Iranian plateau and the Zagros Mountains; and to the south, the Arabian desert. The plain has been both prize and passageway for conquerors from both the east and the west for millennia.

Islam arose in an era known as Late Antiquity, a period that began in the fourth century and ended in the seventh. At the end of the sixth century, two empires contended for control of the central plain. To the west of the central plain lay the Roman Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire. Its capital was Constantinople, a city built on the site of a previously existing village, Byzantium (hence, the name Byzantine Empire). It is now called Istanbul. Constantinople was founded by Emperor Constantine in a.d. 324. Toward the end of that same century, the Roman Empire was divided into two administrative parts, with capitals at Rome and Constantinople. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire in a.d. 476, Constantinople was, in effect, the sole capital of the Roman Empire. For most of Late Antiquity, the emperors ruling from Constantinople held sway over the Anatolian peninsula, the western Levant, and Egypt.

The Sasanian Empire lay to the east of the central plain. The Sasanian Empire had been founded in the early third century and lasted until the year a.d. 651. For most of its history, the Sasanian Empire actually controlled an area larger than contemporary Iran, incorporating parts of the old Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. As a matter of fact, the Sasanian capital was Ctesiphon, in what is now Iraq, not far from present-day Baghdad.

Ancient empires were not like the nation-states we know. Imperial governments were mainly concerned with collecting taxes and tribute from their populations, expanding the territory from which they might collect taxes and tribute, and maintaining order in their empires to make that tax and tribute collection possible. Imperial governments did not attempt to impose a single language or ideology or culture on their populations. Nor did they much care that the peoples who lived in them were of different ethnic backgrounds. Thus, although the state language of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity was Greek and the state religion was Orthodox Christianity, the empire included diverse peoples — Greeks, Latins, Semites, and others — who spoke a variety of vernacular languages and practiced a variety of religions. These included non-Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Greco-Roman paganism, and local cults. Likewise, the Sasanian Empire housed a variety of ethnic groups that spoke a variety of languages. Although the empire was governed by a Persian ruling class that spoke a language called Pahlavi (the forerunner of modern Persian), Kurds (mainly in the mountains), Aramaic-speaking Arabs (mainly in Iraq), and a variety of other peoples inhabited the empire. The Sasanian Empire sponsored a state religion, Zoroastrianism. Nevertheless, in many of the most densely inhabited places such as Iraq, Christianity overshadowed the official religion.

During the sixth century, energetic leaders in both the Sasanian and Roman empires sought to centralize control and expand their territories. The wars they fought against each other were fought mainly in the Middle East. In a.d. 602, the Sasanian emperor Chosroes II launched an offensive against the Roman Empire and conquered as far west as Syria and Egypt. He even laid siege to Constantinople before the Roman emperor, Heraclius, counterattacked. The war was devastating for both sides: The Sasanian Empire was, in effect, destroyed by the costs of incessant campaigning and by the loss of Iraq, which had provided more revenue than any other province. The Roman Empire survived, but in a truncated and weakened form. Both empires were thus vulnerable to a challenge from the south.

Islamic history begins in a.d. 622, when the prophet Muhammad fled to the western Arabian town of Medina from his hometown of Mecca, also in western Arabia. Muhammad was a merchant. According to Muslims, at the age of about forty he started receiving revelations from God brought by the archangel Gabriel. Persecuted in Mecca, Muhammad established the first lasting Islamic community in Medina. It is significant that, whereas Christians use the birth of Christ as the starting point of their calendar (a.d. 1), Muslims use the formation of the first Islamic community as the starting point of theirs: 1 a.h. (which stands for “after hijra”, i.e. the year of Muhammad's migration) is, in the Christian calendar, a.d. 622. The notion of the community of believers is important in Islam, and the first community established by Muhammad is particularly important because, as we shall see later, it has provided many with a model for the ideal Islamic community.

Over the course of the next ten years, Muhammad's community continued to grow. By the time of Muhammad's death, much of the Arabian peninsula had joined or was affiliated with the Islamic community of Medina.

The period following Muhammad's death was one of vast Islamic expansion. Within a hundred years of Muhammad's death, Arab/Muslim armies had conquered all of Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant. They had pushed back the frontier of the Byzantine Empire in the north, had traversed North Africa, and had crossed the Mediterranean. There is still a trace of this crossing in the name of the island between North Africa and Spain — Gibraltar — derived from the words jabal Tariq, the mountain of Tariq, the general who led the Muslim armies into Spain. In a.d. 732 a Muslim army even launched a foray into the territory that is now France, but was turned back. The Islamic conquests were followed by settlement of Arabs throughout the conquered territories. Different historians have given various reasons for the expansion of Arab settlement: Some claim it was the lure of booty or military pay, others religious or warrior zeal.

During the first century of Islamic history, the Islamic community was united in a single empire. Over time, most of the population of the empire converted to Islam. This did not occur overnight, nor did it occur at the same rate in every territory. Using as evidence the adoption of Arab/Muslim names — Persian children who would have once been named Ardeshir were now bearing the name Muhammad — historians have estimated that one hundred years after the Muslim conquests only about 8 percent of the Persian population was Muslim. By the tenth century, from 70 to 80 percent of the Persian population was Muslim. The rates of conversion were probably faster in Iraq and slower in Egypt. With the exception of Persia, most of the population of the core area adopted Arabic as their language.

Three other aspects of the early period of Islam are important for understanding the subsequent history of the region. First, after the death of Muhammad, there was the question of whether or not there should be a leader of the Islamic community and, if so, who that leader should be. Prominent members of the community gathered and chose the first caliph, that is, the first successor to Muhammad. Unlike Muhammad, caliphs did not have a special religious role. Muhammad was, according to Islam, the “seal” (the last) of God's prophets. The function of the caliphs was to protect the interests of the community. Questions of religion and religious law remained in the hands of religious scholars called ulama (singular: ‘alim). They still do. Since 1924, when the last caliph was deposed by the secularizing government of Turkey, the Islamic community has functioned quite well without a caliph.

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The Islamic World at the Time of Muhammad

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Islamic Conquests to 750

During its history, both the nature of the caliphate and its seat of power varied. At first, the caliph acted much like a tribal leader. He was “first among equals” who relied more on his persuasive abilities than on his coercive abilities to lead the community. Later, caliphs adopted much of the pomp and ceremony of the Byzantine and Sasanian courts, and even assumed the title “shadow of God on earth,” a title originally used by Sasanian shahs. Over time, as caliphs increasingly lost political and military control to local princes, the role of the caliph became more and more symbolic.

The first four caliphs ruled from Medina. Their immediate successors ruled from Damascus. This was a logical development because the city lay on major trade routes linking Arabia with the north and Byzantine territories and provided caliphs with access to reserves of warriors from Arabia. As the center of gravity of Islamic territories shifted to the east, and as more and more non-Arabs converted to Islam, the caliphs ruled from Iraq. As a matter of fact, the city of Baghdad was originally built as the administrative capital of the caliphate.

The second aspect of the early Islamic period that would have ramifications for later history was one of several splits in the Islamic community. The split was originally over who would act as successor to Muhammad. Some in the community thought that ‘Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin, should have succeeded Muhammad. They became known as the partisans of ‘Ali, or shi‘at ‘Ali, and later just Shi‘is. Most of the Islamic community followed the choice of a group of leading notables, acquiring the name Sunnis (from the phrase “the people of [Muhammad's] example [sunna] and community”). Over time, the split hardened as each community developed its own traditions and sets of beliefs. Today, Shi‘is form a majority of the population in several of the states this book discusses: Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. Sunnis are predominant in Turkey and, with the exception of Iraq and Lebanon, most of the rest of the Arab world.

One aspect of Shi‘ism merits further explanation. At its inception Shi‘ism was an opposition party. During the early Islamic period, various Shi‘i sects arose that were united by a fundamental set of beliefs, even though they had political differences. At the center of these beliefs was the notion that the imam, the leader of the community, should be chosen from the house of ‘Ali, Muhammad's closest male relative. Over time, the Shi‘i tendency adopted three other beliefs as well. First, Shi‘is came to believe that the imam alone was the community's teacher and religious leader. Furthermore, they believed that the imam had a special, esoteric (hidden) knowledge. This contrasted with the view of the Sunnis that proper Islamic belief was preserved by the community as a whole. Finally, Shi‘is came to believe that the next imam had to be designated by the previous imam.

The line of imams continued without interruption from ‘Ali through six generations. The sixth imam named his son Isma‘il as his successor. But Isma‘il died before his father, and so his father selected his second son, Musa, to succeed him. For some Shi‘is, this could not be: After all, the imam had secret knowledge and so the father must have foreseen Isma‘il's absence. These Shi‘is thus believed that Isma‘il was not really dead, but instead had gone into what is called “occultation.” In other words, Isma‘il was around, they just did not know where. At the end of time he would return and establish justice and equity on earth. Because Isma‘il was to have been the seventh imam, these Shi‘is were sometimes called Isma‘ilis. The contemporary Isma‘ili community in India, which is under the spiritual leadership of the Agha Khan, are their descendants.

Other Shi‘is, however, acknowledged the ‘Alid line as it ran through Isma‘il's brother's son, Musa. But after the eleventh imam died without apparent heirs, they faced a problem similar to the one they had faced earlier. They came up with a solution similar to the solution at which the Isma‘ilis had arrived. They believed that the eleventh imam had had a son, but that he was in occultation. These Shi‘is came to be known as Twelvers, because they awaited the return of the twelfth imam. These are the Shi‘is who are predominant in Lebanon, Iraq, and parts of the Gulf today — and, of course, the home of the largest contemporary Twelver Shi‘i community, Iran. The idea of occultation raised two issues that would be of crucial importance to the Shi‘i community in the future: who should govern the community until the reemergence of the hidden imam and how the community should organize its affairs in the meantime.

The final aspect of the early period of Islam that is important for understanding later developments stems from the fact that the number of Arab conquerors was small in comparison with the number of those conquered. This disparity naturally created difficulties for the conquerors. The caliphs attempted to resolve these difficulties by borrowing administrative techniques from the Sasanians and Byzantines. For the most part, the conquerors allowed the inhabitants of the territories they administered to retain their landed property and to maintain local governance. “Peoples of the book” — a category that included Christians and Jews — were, at least in theory, accorded the status of protected minorities and were allowed to continue practicing their religions. Pagans (polytheists) whom Muslims encountered were not so lucky, and Hindu parents on the Indian subcontinent still spook their children with stories of the eleventh-century Muslim conqueror Mahmud of Ghazna, whose plundering expeditions into India were accompanied by wholesale massacres. To prevent the conquering Arab/Muslims from being swallowed up by a much larger local population, Muslim generals in Egypt and Iraq often housed their armies and administrators in settlements outside towns. These settlements were called amsar (singular: misr), from which we get the Arabic name for Egypt (Misr). The custom of allowing local control would continue through Ottoman times.

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From Nadir to Zenith

Benjamin Disraeli, the first (and only) Jewish prime minister of Great Britain, once dressed down an anti-Semitic detractor by reminding him that when his adversary's ancestors were swinging from trees, Disraeli's ancestors were priests in the temple of Solomon. A similar relationship held between the peoples of the Middle East and Europe during the Middle Ages. While Europe was dominated by unlettered men with axes, the caliphate was a world center for scientific inquiry and cultural enrichment. Through encounters in Spain, the Mediterranean, and, during the Crusades, the Middle East, Arabs introduced Europeans to a variety of ideas as well as foods and wares associated with the good life. Many of the Arab contributions to the societies of Europe can be traced through etymology — the study of the origin and development of words. It can be assumed that the introduction of words from Arabic occurred simultaneously with the introduction of ideas and commodities from the Middle East. Some of the following common English words originated in Arabic; others originated in ancient Greek, Persian, and Sanskrit — languages largely unknown in Europe — and were transmitted to English through Arabic:

admiral

alkali

atlas

camphor

adobe

almanac

aubergine

candy

albatross

amber

average

caper

alchemy

amulet

azimuth

carat

alcohol

aniline

azure

caraway

alcove

antimony

borax

carmine

alembic

apricot

cable

carob

alfalfa

arsenal

caliber

check

algebra

artichoke

camel

checkmate

algorithm

assassin

camise

cipher

coffee

ghoul

mocha

sine

cork

giraffe

mohair

sirocco

cornea

gypsum

monsoon

soda

cotton

hashish

mummy

sofa

crimson

hazard

mufti

sugar

crocus

henna

muslin

syrup

cumin

jar

nadir

tabby

damask

lacquer

orange

talc

drub

lemon

popinjay

talisman

elixir

lilac

racket

tamarind

gala

lime

safari

tariff

garble

lute

saffron

tarragon

gauze

macabre

satin

zenith

gazelle

magazine

sequin

zero

genie

massacre

sherbet

zircon

gerbil

mattress

sheriff

 

Some words — like coffee, jar, and gazelle — were simply borrowed from Arabic. Others bear more colorful histories. Tabby comes from a street in Baghdad noted for its striped cloth. Assassin comes from hashish, which, according to legend, a Shi‘i group called the “hashishun” purportedly smoked before going out to kill Crusaders. Racket (as in tennis racket) is derived from the Arabic word for the palm of the hand — the original racket. Gala — as in a gala occasion — comes from the Arabic for a robe of honor or investing with a robe of honor. Satin refers to the city in China to which Arab merchants went to trade for the cloth. And checkmate comes from a Persian/Arabic phrase meaning the king (shah) is dead (mat). As chess aficionados know, a match ends with the trapping (and implied elimination) of the opponent's king.

Islam continued to spread long after the period of the first conquests. For example, it was not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that Islam became firmly established in Indonesia, today the most populous Muslim state. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the tenth century, the core area of the Islamic world began to fragment politically. Part of the reason for this political fragmentation was that the Islamic world was subjected to invasion from the outside.

A variety of groups came into the Middle East: crusaders from the West, Mongols from the Far East, and Mongol wannabes (like the legendary Tamerlaine) from Inner Asia. While most Westerners know about the Crusades, most of these military campaigns failed miserably. In fact, the Crusades might actually be considered a sideshow to the main event: invasions from the north and east. For example, the devastation wrought by the Mongols in the Middle East was enormous. According to contemporary accounts, between two hundred thousand and eight hundred thousand people died during the sack of Baghdad. Another city, Nishapur, one of the centers of learning in Persia, never recovered from the command of a Mongol general that “not even cats and dogs should be left alive.” But the Mongol invasions brought more than doom and gloom to the Middle East. Just as the Crusades exposed Europeans to the culture and products of their eastern neighbors, the Mongol invasions and subsequent “pax Mongolica” (Mongol peace) exposed the inhabitants of the Middle East to their eastern neighbors as well. The Mongol invasions introduced Middle Easterners to new forms of cultural expression, such as miniature painting and Far Eastern motifs still found in Middle Eastern carpets, and Middle Easterners were quick to take advantage of newly opened trade routes linking the eastern Mediterranean with China — as was Marco Polo, who traveled along the famed silk route on his journey from Venice to Cathay.

In spite of ail this, it might be argued that the groups that had the most lasting impact on the Middle East were, in fact, Turkish-speaking peoples from Central Asia. Turkic peoples entered the lands of Islam in two ways. In the tenth century, bought or captured Turks were brought into Islamic lands to be used as imperial guards for caliphs or slave soldiers for local warlords. These military slaves were known as mamluks (those who were owned). Caliphs and local warlords found mamluk warriors useful because they had no connections to any group in the region except their masters. It was therefore assumed that they would be entirely dependent on — and loyal to — those masters. Nevertheless, since mamluk armies often held the balance of power, they were known to seize it. For example, in 1250 slave soldiers of a local dynasty in Cairo pushed aside their former masters and began to rule in their own right. Replenishing their ranks with new mamluks, often from the Caucasus, they ruled independently until 1517 and continued to exercise power in Egypt until the beginning of the nineteenth century. We shall thus meet up with the Egyptian mamluks again later in our story.

Starting in about the eleventh century, entire Turkic tribes began migrating from the Central Asian steppes into the Middle East. Tribes might be defined as groups of people who claim descent from a common ancestor, whether or not they are in reality related to that common ancestor or even to each other. The Turkic tribes that entered the region were, for the most part, pastoralists (think sheep and goats). No one knows for sure why they began migrating south and west. Some historians cite population pressures in their original homelands. Others cite climatic changes that affected all of Eurasia, a strengthening of the Chinese Empire, or the fact that the Middle East was a center of a flourishing civilization whose wealth would naturally attract the attention of outsiders: After all, how are you going to keep them down on the steppe after they've seen Baghdad?

In any case, the Turks who came in were dazzled by the superior civilization of Islam. For their part, many inhabitants of the Middle East had nothing but contempt for these uncouth tribesman and sheepherders. The great tenth-century Arab historian al-Mas'udi wrote of the Turks as follows:

Because of their distance from the circuit of the sun when it rises and sets, there is much snow among the Turks, and cold and damp have conquered their habitations; their bodies are slack and thick, and their backbones and neckbones so supple that they can shoot their arrows as they turn and flee. Their joints form hollows because they have so much flesh; their faces are round and their eyes small because the warmth concentrates in their faces while the cold takes possession of their bodies. Those who dwell sixty miles beyond this latitude are Gog and Magog. They are in the sixth climate and are reckoned among the beasts.

The most powerful Turkic tribes that entered the Middle East took control of a given area and established principalities. There they adopted many of the local customs, including Islam. Some of these Turkish states covered large expanses of territory: The state established by a tribe called the Seljuks, for example, stretched from eastern Iran to Syria. Nevertheless, these Turkish states were, for the most part, short-lived. Not only was the size of tribes small in comparison to the populations they sought to control (there were only ten to fifteen thousand Seljuks, for example), illiterate tribesmen are inherently better at conquest than at rule. There is the story of how one (apparently feisty) Chinese scholar chided a Mongol leader: “An empire can be conquered on horseback, but it cannot be governed on horseback.” (We have no record as to how the Mongol leader took this criticism.) In addition, tribes are notoriously unruly, constantly dividing and reconstituting themselves and constantly warring on each other. As a result, the boundaries of the tribal states were continuously in flux. Often, there was no permanent site of government. Instead, the capital was commonly situated wherever the army was camped. Hence, there could be no self-perpetuating bureaucracy to maintain the authority of the state over time. Thus it is that few readers of this book have ever heard of the Ghaznavids and Ghurids, the Saffarids and Samanids, and the Akkoyunlu and Karakoyunlu— the so-called white sheep and black sheep tribal confederations. All these tribes established states in the Middle East between the tenth and the fifteenth centuries.

Two states that emerged at the beginning of the sixteenth century did leave a more lasting mark on the region, however: the Ottoman and Safavid empires. The Ottoman Empire began as many other Turkish states had begun. The Ottomans traced their history back to a legendary founder, Osman. Hence, their Turkish name: Osmanlis. Osman lived in the thirteenth century on the northwestern tip of Anatolia. According to legend, Osman was divinely chosen to found a great empire. While a guest of a respected Muslim preacher, the story goes, Osman went to bed and had a dream:

A moon arose from the holy man's breast and came to sink in Osman's breast A tree then sprouted from his navel, and its shade compassed the world. Beneath this shade there were mountains, and streams flowed forth from the foot of each mountain. Some people drank from these running waters, others watered gardens, while yet others caused fountains to flow.

According to the legend, when Osman awoke he told the story to the preacher. The preacher told him, “Osman, my son, congratulations for the imperial office bestowed upon you and your descendants by God, and take my daughter to be your wife.” Apparently, Osman did so.

Sagas report that Osman was a leader of a band of warriors known as ghazis. Much of Anatolia at this time was a lawless frontier, sort of like the Wild West. The only law in town was the Byzantine Empire, which, by the thirteenth century, was a mere shadow of its former splendor. Ghazis made their living by plundering the wealth of their neighbors. Most ghazi principalities therefore consisted of little more than gangs of bandits. But the principality founded by Osman was different: Because it bordered on the Byzantine territories, Osman's state had more to loot and therefore attracted increasing numbers of ghazis. Because increasing numbers of ghazis led to increasing wealth, Osman's state could also attract artisans, merchants, religious scholars — all the elements necessary to establish a real state. Even peasants were attracted to the Ottoman state: Under the Byzantines, peasants had been serfs; that is, the property of their lords. The Ottomans never introduced serfdom into their domains. The Ottoman peasantry was not property, nor was it legally bound to the land.

The descendants of Osman began their conquests in the far west of Anatolia and in the Balkans, the mountainous territory of southeastern Europe. By the 1350s the Ottomans had a permanent foothold in Europe. In 1389, they defeated a coalition of Serbs, Hungarians, and Bulgarians at the Battle of Kosovo. Less than a hundred years later, the Ottomans finished off the Byzantine Empire by conquering Constantinople. For the next seventy years, they consolidated their position in Anatolia and the Balkans.

In the meantime, a threat to Ottoman power was arising to the east. During the first half of the fifteenth century, a band of Turkish pastoralists who lived in northern Persia gave their allegiance to another legendary figure, Safi al-Din, after whom the Safavid dynasty is named. Safi al-Din was the leader of a sufi order, that is, the leader of one of a variety of popular, often mystical Islamic movements. The followers of Safi al-Din were distinguished by their distinctive red headdress and, as a result, were called Qizilbash (red head) by the Ottomans.

Qizilbash missionaries spread throughout eastern Anatolia and northern Persia. By 1501, the Safavid leader Isma‘il, who claimed to be a descendant of Safi al-Din, entered the northern Persian city of Tabriz and proclaimed himself shah. He was fourteen at the time, putting Alexander the Great, who took his throne at the ripe old age of twenty, to shame. Within ten years all Persia was under Isma‘il's control. Soon thereafter, Shah Isma‘il proclaimed Shi‘ism to be the official religion of his realm and imported Shi‘i religious scholars from Lebanon and the Persian Gulf island of Bahrain to spread Shi‘i doctrines.

The establishment of an expansionist Shi‘i state on their borders was a strategic threat to the Ottomans. Ottoman sultans were fond of quoting the thirteenth-century Persian poet Sa'di, who wrote: “Ten dervishes can sleep in one blanket, but two kings cannot be contained on a continent.” War soon erupted between the two states and, in 1514, at the Battle of Chaldiran, Ottoman gunners overwhelmed the Safavid cavalry and pushed back the Safavid army. In the wake of the battle, a border was established between the Safavid and Ottoman Empires that roughly corresponds to the present-day border between the Republic of Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Perhaps even more important, to protect the southern flank of their new domains, the Ottomans began their conquest of the Arab Middle East. They did not stop until they reached the Iraqi-Persian border in the east, the Arabian peninsula in the south, and the borders of Morocco in North Africa in the west.

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