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The Gunpowder Empires

The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Dynasties


In the 15th and 16th centuries, three great powers arose in a band across western and southern Asia. The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal dynasties established control over Turkey, Iran, and India respectively, in large part due to a Chinese invention - gunpowder.

The western empires' successes depended in large part upon advanced firearms and cannons. As a result, they are called the "Gunpowder Empires."

1. The Ottoman Empire in Turkey

The longest-lasting of the Gunpowder Empires, the Ottoman Empire in Turkey actually was first established in 1299, but it fell to the conquering armies of Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) in 1402. Thanks in large part to their acquisition of muskets, the Ottoman rulers were able to drive out the Timurids and restablish their control of Turkey in 1414.

The Ottoman Janissary corps became the best-trained infantry force in the world, and also the first gun corps to wear uniforms. Although the Ottoman Empire soon lost its technological edge, it survived until the end of the First World War (1914 - 1918).

2. The Safavid Empire in Persia

The Safavid dynasty also took control of Persia in the power vacuum that followed the decline of Timur's empire. Unlike Turkey, where the Ottomans fairly quickly re-established control, Persia languished in chaos for around a century before Shah Ismail I and his "Red Head" (Qizilbash) Turks were able to defeat rival factions and reunite the country by about 1511.

The Safavids learned the value of firearms and artillery early, from the neighboring Ottomans. Safavid history is rife with clashes and wars between the Shi'a Muslim Safavid Persians and the Sunni Ottoman Turks. Early on, the Safavids were at a disadvantage to the better-armed Ottomans, but they soon closed the arms gap. The Safavid Empire lasted until 1736.

3. The Mughal Empire in India

The third gunpowder empire, India's Mughal Empire, offers perhaps the most dramatic example of modern weaponry carrying the day. Babur, who founded the empire, was able to defeat Ibrahim Lodi of the last Delhi Sultanate at the First Battle of Panipat in 1526.

Babur's victorious Central Asian army used a combination of traditional horse cavalry tactics and new-fangled cannons; the cannonfire spooked Lodi's war-elephants, which turned and trampled their own army in their hurry to escape the fearsome noise. The Mughal Dynasty would endure until 1857, when the incoming British Raj deposed and exiled the last emperor.

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