Rejuvenated under Shah Abbas I (1571-1629), the Safavid dynasty wrested Baghdad and the Armenian border provinces away from the Ottomans, and there were some periods of tranquility, with progress in the arts and crafts. A lasting peace was finally concluded with the Ottomans in 1639. Beautiful, strong horses were plentiful, and some were moved in caravans of a thousand at a time. They were reserved for warfare or treated as luxuries with harnesses of silver, gold, and precious stones.

As in the Ottoman Empire, wealthy Safavid women raised their public stature by becoming patrons of the arts and endowing public buildings. Royal and elite women often funded the construction or maintenance of caravansaries, demonstrating the value of trade to both the state and individual wealth. Safavid art and artistic production reflected Iran’s location at the center of global trade routes, incorporating elements and styles from countries with which Iran conducted trade. The production of silk was one of the most important industries in Iran. Persian carpets of silk and wool were in high demand in Europe and other parts of the Islamic world.

THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE (modern day Turkey)

The Ottoman Empire was the foremost and longest-lived of the Islamic empires of the early modern world. Formed by a small group of Turkic-speaking warriors at the end of the thirteenth century, the Ottoman state lay at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa for nearly seven hundred years.  As was discussed in chapter 3, at its height under Sultan Suleiman I in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman military was the most technologically advanced in the Mediterranean world, threatening the gates of Vienna to the west, reaching the Persian Gulf to the east, and conquering Yemen and the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina to the south. In the seventeenth century, as its enemies grew stronger, the empire became more inward-looking, focusing less on external expansion and more on resolving domestic affairs, professionalizing its bureaucracy, and conducting internal reforms.


Completed in 1616, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is popularly known as the Blue Mosque (Source: Wikimedia)

The Ottoman state’s geographic position was an important advantage from its beginning well into the height of its power in the seventeenth century. After signing a peace treaty with Austria in 1606, the Ottomans fought with Persia and lost Azerbaijan and Georgia. There was a long war with Venice (1645-1660) and again the Ottomans lost. The Treaty of Carlowitz (also spelling Karlowitz) of 1699 by which most of Hungary was surrendered to Austria marked a turning point in the European-Ottoman military balance.

European military technology caught up to and then surpassed Ottoman capabilities over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ottoman territory was gradually lost to European kingdoms, particularly in the western part of North Africa and in the Balkans. While the empire’s land wars against the Habsburgs in Europe continued for another century, culminating in yet another failed siege of Vienna in 1683, it was also recognized at court that foreign wars were becoming more expensive but leading to far less economic and territorial gain.  In addition, the growing power of Russia became another threat from the North. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Russian forces pushed south across the steppes toward Ottoman territory. Under Tsar Peter the Great, Russian armies temporarily captured the Ottoman-held territory of Azov in the Crimea along the Black Sea in 1696.

Other factors also aggravated a growing crisis in the Ottoman state. New sea routes to the East left the great Ottoman ports increasingly bypassed. Silver from American mines swamped the Ottoman economy, cutting the value of the standard Ottoman coin to fifty percent of its former value. The Janissaries, who had reached 51,647 in number in the 17th century, were already deteriorating due to the admission of free Muslims to their ranks in the previous century and the carefully trained slave-militia was no more.

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Learn more by reading The Janissaries: The Military Elite of the Ottoman Empire.


In response to these events, Ottoman rulers attempted to make their control over their core territory more efficient. They sent delegations to several countries in Europe and to Mughal India to observe local systems and make recommendations for improvements at home. Several European military advisers were brought to Istanbul to train soldiers, and Ottoman scientists and engineers were sent to European universities to learn more about engineering, history, and military modernization and the ways in which they could be applied at home.

As the Ottoman state grew in prestige and size, its sultans deliberately set out to become patrons of science and learning. The core of all education was religious; there was no separation between what today would be considered religious philosophy or doctrinal study and the “hard sciences” such as astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. On the contrary, scientific investigation was considered an act of devotion because of its exploration and discovery of the intricacies of the divinely created universe.  The geographic diversity of the empire was also an advantage to the development of medical science because it was possible to compare the results of medical treatments and experiments in several different geographic and climate zones. For this reason, many important medical treatises of the day were written in the Ottoman Empire. The tradition of medical writing built upon the foundation established by such famous Muslim scholars and physicians as Ibn Sina, who composed The Canon of Medicine in the tenth century. The works produced by physicians who made their home in the Ottoman Empire included one of the first treatises dedicated to dentistry, written by the Spanish Jewish scholar Musa bin Hamun, who made his home in the Ottoman Empire after the Jewish people were expelled from Spain in the 16th century.


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