Safavid Empire: Expansion And Military Organization


Persian Musketeer in time of Abbas I by Habib-Allah Mashadi after Falsafi.

The Safavid Empire was not a conquest state: Safavid conquest did not imply a change in the form of administration. During the expansion of the empire, the Safavid regime closely resembled the Aqquyunlu and Timurid regimes that it supplanted. It also came to terms with the Tajik aristocracy, which included the established ulama. Their religious prestige, status as landholders, and role in the transmission of land revenue to recipients designated by the regime made them indispensable. In many areas, the notables made the regime real by connecting it to the peasants. Safavid conquest meant continuity, not change, except for the establishment of Shiism. The mode of expansion did not define the regime, as it did for the Ottomans and Mughals. Substantial parts of the Aqquyunlu confederation, including some components of the paramount Bayandur clan and of the Timurid confederation, joined the Qizilbash confederation.

Safavid military organization inevitably resembled that of the Aqquyunlu and Timurids. The Safavid army had two main components before the time of Shah Abbas, the confederate uymaqs and the qurchis. The qurchis were the Safavid war band but differed from the pattern of earlier tribal confederations. They were recruited as individuals and paid from the central treasury but came from the Qizilbash tribes and retained tribal affiliations. Some 1,500 in number under Ismail I, they served as the retinue of the shah in battle, as palace guards, and as royal couriers and occasionally went on independent expeditions. Positions in the corps were frequently hereditary, and officers were promoted from within. Before the reign of Abbas I, the chief of the qurchis, or qurchibashi, normally came from the dominant uymaq and had little political power. The qurchis were part of the tribal power rather than a means of counterbalancing it. They did, apparently, begin to use firearms during the reign of Shah Tahmasp, who increased their number to 5,000.

Under Abbas, the political and military significance of the qurchis changed. He expanded the corps to 10,000. The qurchibashi became one of the most prominent officials of the state. Abbas appointed qurchis to provincial governorships in place of Qizilbash chiefs. The expansion of the size and role of the qurchis was a central aspect of Abbas’s military reforms. The qurchis were a different mechanism for drawing upon the same pool of manpower that provided the Qizilbash tribal forces. Though becoming a qurchi did not extinguish tribal loyalty, it diluted tribal ties and rein- forced fidelity to the ruler.

The early Safavid rulers drew on other sources of soldiers and military technology to strengthen their positions. Ismail sought artillery and technicians from Venice in 1502 and 1509. The defeat at Chaldiran gave further impetus to the acquisition of firearms. A small corps of artillerymen (tupchis) and infantry (tufangchis) had firearms by 1516. Descriptions of the Safavid order of battle at Jam in 1528 and of a military review in 1530 show that the Safavid forces then included both battlefield artillery—several hundred light guns at Jam—and several thousand infantrymen armed with guns. At Jam, the forces with firearms served in the center of the formation, as the Janissaries and sipahis of the Porte did in the Ottoman army. In the first phase of the battle, the Uzbek tribal cavalry engaged and defeated the Qizilbash tribal cavalry on both wings of the Safavid formation. The Uzbeks did not, however, engage the Safavid center, which was deployed in the Ottoman tabur jangi formation. The Uzbek forces reached the rear of the Safavid army, but this success did not affect the outcome of the battle. When the Uzbek forces were disorganized by victory, the Safavid center, under Tahmasp’s personal command, charged the Uzbek center. The Uzbek forces scattered. At Jam, the Safavids fielded a typical gunpow- der-empire army and won a typical gunpowder-empire victory, even though the Qizilbash continued to dominate internal politics.

Under Abbas and afterwards, the tupchis and tufangchis remained important components of the Safavid army. One historian asserts that each corps had 12,000 men. The Safavids apparently recruited new cavalry units from tribal groups, Iranian and Turkic, outside the Qizilbash, in addition to expanding the tupchis and the tufangchis. Infantry units became a substantial part of the army by the time of Abbas’s wars with the Ottomans in Iraq. According to Willem Floor, the tufangchis were local peasant levies, organized for local defense but also liable for service on imperial campaigns far from home. Tufangchis from Khurasan fought in Anatolia. At least some, probably most, tufangchis were Tajiks; some must have been peasants. But they never became a potent force in Safavid politics. Since the Safavid Empire had a far weaker agrarian base than the Ottoman Empire, it is not surprising that the peasants carried less political weight.

Military slaves (qullar) frequently commanded the tupchis and tufangchis. Tahmasp apparently began development of a military slave corps. The prisoners from his Caucasian campaigns, converted to Islam and made military slaves, probably became the nucleus of the corps of ghula- man-i khassay-i sharifa (slaves of the royal household; also called the qullar), which is first mentioned under Abbas. The ethnic origin of the ghulams did not matter; the extraordinary loyalty and reliability of military slaves in general, coupled, apparently, with same high level of military training as the Janissaries, did. Because all of the new corps apparently served in the center of the battle formation, the precise tactical role of the ghulams is unclear. They were mounted but used firearms; presumably they fought as dragoons (mounted infantry). There may have been separate cavalry and infantry components, on the Ottoman model. Contemporary historiography on the Safavids pays little attention to military history; Martin Dickson’s description of Jam is the only battle history. For this reason, assessment of the precise military roles and effectiveness of the new army units is difficult. As the next two sections explain, ghulams frequently served in high positions in the central and provincial administrations during and after the reign of Abbas I. Abbas created the office of sipahsalar (commander-in-chief ) for the commander of the central army, supplanting the Qizilbash amir al-umara, mentioned below.

Abbas’s reforms created an army capable of meeting the Ottoman army in the field. The Safavids no longer needed the Fabian strategy of Tahmasp’s time. Though they were recruited directly, these forces were not always paid directly from the central treasury. They actually constituted a new provincial army because many of them, especially the qullar, held land-revenue assignments (tiyul, a Turkic word comparable to the Arabic iqta) in the provinces. In fact, these corps constituted a new provincial army, drawing revenue from the khassa provinces rather than the mamalik provinces. Because they held, apparently, individual tiyuls assigned by the central government, these corps, or some components of them, resembled the Ottoman sipahi army. Abbas’s reforms thus created a new provincial army, supported by a new form of provincial administration.

The original provincial army, of course, was the Qizilbash confederation. It first materialized as an army when Ismail summoned his followers to Erzincan in 1500, uniting his distant tribal followers with the men who had been his entourage in hiding in Lahijan. At that time, rivalry between Ismail’s personal followers and the chiefs of the Qizilbash tribes began. Within a decade, the original Sufis of Lahijan, to use Masashi Haneda’s phrase, had lost most of their influence. Turkmen chieftains occupied most high offices. Like other tribal confederations of the period, the traditional battle formation of the Qizilbash reflected the hierarchy of tribes within a confederation. The battle formations reflected the dominance of the Shamlu and Ustajlu tribes.

At the time of the 1530 military review, the Qizilbash tribes provided 84,900 of 105,800 troops. The tribal proportion of actual fighters was probably greater. The chief of the most powerful Qizilbash uymaq normally held the posts of vakil (royal deputy and chief minister) and amir alumara (commander in chief ) as long as the Qizilbash dominance lasted. The Qizilbash tribes were not, however, taut hierarchies with a single leader. Each normally had two major leaders, one at court and one in the provinces. Tahmasp increased his leverage against the Qizilbash by cultivating lesser chieftains within the tribes.

In the Qizilbash army, the individual soldiers had no direct ties to the ruler at all. Their loyalties were to their relatives and, ultimately, to their tribal leaders. Aside from occasional reviews like that of 1530, the central administration had little or no control over the size, equipment, or composition of the Qizilbash forces. Before the Abbasi transformation, Qizilbash chiefs were provincial governors and the commanders of the troops supported by their provinces. The central regime had minimal control over the provincial forces and governments. From the perspective of military administration, the weakness of the Safavid regime between 1514 and 1594 consisted of the lack of central control over the provincial army or of loyalty on the part of the provincial army to the ruler. One aspect of Abbas’s reforms addressed this issue.

Abbas used the principle of shahisivani to rally Qizilbash to his cause, beginning early in his reign, to gain support against the dominance of Murshid Quli Khan Ustajlu. Abbas organized the Qizilbash who responded to such calls for action into new military units. Like the expansion of the qurchis, the creation of the shahsivin units drew on Qizilbash manpower but bypassed the tribal leadership. The new pat- tern of provincial administration, with Tajiks, qurchis, and ghulams supplanting Qizilbash chiefs, did not end the role of the Qizilbash tribesmen in the provincial army. They continued to serve under the new governors and were paid either by land-revenue assignments or in cash from provincial treasuries.

The institutional structure of the Safavid army changed little after the time of Abbas I, but its fighting power degenerated considerably. External threats did not disappear entirely, but the Uzbeks remained weak and divided; the Treaty of Qasr-i Shirin marked the end of the Ottoman threat, and the Mughal threat to Qandahar ended in 1653. The Safavids did not attempt expansion, perhaps because of the enormous cost of their Qandahar expedition. Financial pressure led to significant reductions in military expenditure, including the abolition of the posts of sipahsalar in 1653–1654 and tupchibashi in 1658.


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