The Gun Powder Empires: Empires Born from Tribal Life- Alex B

When one examines the three major Muslim empires of the sixteenth century, one will find many similarities. The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires rose to power under somewhat different circumstances, however under very similar means. It appears that is the common nature of the territory where these empires were born that leads to common systems of organization, as all three of these empires share intense similarities in their origins, their governments, and their militaries. The primary and most illuminating similarities of the three major sixteenth-century Muslim empires are their government, their military, and their respective origins.

When one examines the governmental structure of each of the three empires, one notices a theme of strict monarchical control by one individual, who collected his power through an ongoing organization and control of a smaller local government. The Ottoman sultan represented the center of control in the ottoman empire. Ruling with an iron fist, the sultan brought together all aspects of life within the empire and maintained complete control over his land 1. Focusing on the extension of land, the sultan made use of the military to continue his conquering of villages and land, amassing more and more land, and using their governments to reinforce the empire 2. The Safavid Empire had a nearly identical style of leadership, with a Shah that maintained complete loyalty over a collection of past tribal law. Similarly to the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid used a unique system of checks and balances to maintain control over the massive amount of land. Using strong governmental structure, the shah made sure that each officer had a deputy and superintendent whose job was to keep records on all individual action and report this information to the shah 3. This bureaucratic system of surveillance allowed the shah to ensure that though the territory was large, that there would be no attempts to rebel, as the local governments never knew when they weren’t being monitored. The third empire, the Mughal Empire, shared a similarly monarchical and empirical structure, possessing an emperor who held complete and absolute power. Starting with the major political reforms made by Emperor Akbar, the Mughal empire had an intensely hierarchical monarchical system, with all levels of power leading to the emperor 4. Looking at the political structures of the three empires produces an accurate image of what is necessary to control a large amount of land at this time. Having a central figure, commanding many sub-governments was a policy used by countless other empires, including several major European empires. Having a leader for the military and people to look to for command allows efficiency over large amounts of territory.

Another major similarity between the three empires is their military structure, focusing primarily on using their tribal origins as a fighting force. Primarily the Ottoman military focuses around a system of fiefdom. The empire would provide land to tribal militaries, who would fight for the emperor. The emperor also possessed a collection of Ottoman Janissaries, gunpowder armed soldiers loyal absolutely to the emperor who prevented a rebellion or rising up from one of the tribal militaries under the empire 5. Similarly the military structure of the Safavid empire relied considerably on tribal forces, with the Qizilbash tribal force providing a majority of the military structure up until the eventual military reform of the empire by Shah Abas, which developed a Janissary reminiscent Royal Corps which was able to shut down any possible rebellion developing within the empire 6. Unsurprisingly, the military structure of the Mughal empire was structured with a tribal collection feel. Soldiers from local villages were collected to serve the empire, with limited control from the emperor himself, and were commonly led by local leaders, loyal to the empire 7. These leaders, allowed these tribal collections to remain in line with the goals of the empire. Examining the military structure of these three empires, it becomes evident that the best way to make use of the prior tribal structure in the land is to weaponize it. Instead of producing a massive central military, these empires chose instead to collect the tribal forces and produce loyalty in their own way. Now instead of needing to collect their own soldiers, the empires had masses of already trained soldiers, and with each bit of land they conquered, they added new soldiers to their forces.

The final similarity between these three empires is their origins, all of which begin with a rapid collection of tribes existing in various parts of the Muslim world. The Ottoman Empire was able and grow as rapidly as it did because of its roots in the collection of small villages. Villages which already have a small governmental structure can be seamlessly integrated into the major empire, as they can be both self-sufficient and loyal 8. The Safavids had a similar origin, as they primarily made use of tribal military forces to collect the territories of the fallen Sassanian Empire in Iran 9. Thirdly the Mughal empire was born from the rapid conquering of India by the primary Mughal emperor Babur. He rapidly collected all of the territories from India to Afghanistan and making use of those individual territories to construct an empire 10. These three methods of development of an empire work harmoniously with the methods of government and military already discussed. The empires functioned, in many ways, as vast collections of neighboring towns, villages, and tribes. They use their government to organize these villages together in allegiance to the emperor, shah, or sultan, while they structure their military to incorporate preexisting fighting units into a larger military. These empires are perfect examples of how to unite vast territory, with centralization to one leader, and turning prior independent cities and tribes, into an almost state like system in a greater empire.

  1. Streusand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2011. Print, 41.
  2. Ibid, 43.

  3. Ibid, 143.

  4. Ibid, 214.

  5. Ibid, 61.

  6. Ibid, 153.

  7. Ibid, 225.

  8. Ibid, 41.

  9. Ibid, 140.

  10. Ibid, 209.