Turkmens in Safavid Era: Potential Alley or Actual Enemy?

  July 25, 2021   Read time 3 min
Turkmens in Safavid Era: Potential Alley or Actual Enemy?
Shah 'Abbas's reign saw the beginning of the end for the Turkmens, the decline of their military and political influence and the eclipse of their social status. This was indeed an ideological hostility and a potential alley turned into an actual enemy through a systematic antagonization.

The contempt and distrust with which they were regarded by the ruler resulted in their being squeezed out of the most important military commands. We witness in effect the disbanding of the praetorian guard into which the Qizilbash had developed after the accession of Shah Tahmasp I. This is not to say that they disappeared from the scene altogether: there were still Qizilbash units in Persia during the reign of Shah 'Abbas and even down to the collapse of his dynasty in the 12th/18th century. But henceforth they were no longer the sole military caste.

After they had been neutralised the structure of the Safavid empire was fundamentally transformed. Shah 'Abbas could only achieve a lasting success by creating a counterbalance to the Qizilbash on the one hand and by compensating for the loss of military striking power on the other. He employed various means to this end. One was a procedure associated with the term shablsavani which aimed at polarising feeling among the Qizilbash. It took the form of a summons to "those loyal to the king", the royalists. It seems that in this way reliable elements among the Qizilbash were identified and then probably reorganised into fresh military units. However, we have no detailed knowledge of this.

We know a good deal more about the establishment of a new corps in the Safavid army, the cavalry formation of royal squires (qullar or ghulaman-i khassa-yi sharifa) whose commander bore the title of qullaraqasi. These royal squires, mostly Muslim converts descended from Christians of diverse races, had either come to Persia as children or had been born of Georgian, Circassian, Caucasian and Armenian parents, often prisoners of war, who had already settled in Persia. This corps, which was raised by 'Abbas shortly after his accession, proved so valuable that the Qizilbash formations were soon reduced to a half or even less of their original establishment.

As their first commander, a Georgian convert to Islam by the name of AllahvardI Khan, won great esteem and was honoured with the title of Sultan. Qullar who proved their worth could rise to high office: they were employed as governors - AllahvardI Khan himself succeeded in becoming governor of Fars - or were even appointed commanders of Turkmen troops when the latter failed to produce suitable candidates for vacant positions from among their own ranks. In time they came to occupy about a fifth of all the key positions in the administration.

Among the royal squires there was a secondary troop, the corps of musketeers {tufangchtydri) which had already existed in a more modest way under Shah Tahmasp I. It was composed of the most diverse ethnic elements, among them representatives of the Persian peasantry, Arabs and also Tiirkmens. In addition there was an artillery corps (tupchiydri), a military arm of which the Persians were not particularly enamoured. Although the Safavids exploited it readily enough in siege situations, they did not make much use of artillery in the field. Sir Robert Sherley, an English adventurer, is usually credited with the introduction of artillery into Persia. He arrived at the Persian court in 1598 with his brother Sir Anthony and a group of other Europeans. It is a fact that Shah 'Abbas sought this man's advice on the question of military reforms and AllahvardI Khan adopted his suggestions for the reorganisation of the army. He also supervised the production of artillery pieces. But he had nothing to do with the introduction of artillery into Persia, because the Persians had long since been familiar with it.
By the end of the ioth/i6th century the number of troops at the shah's disposal - in addition to the Qizilbash - amounted to 37,000 men. This total comprised the corps of royal squires (10,000), a bodyguard again formed by squires (3,000), and the corps of musketeers and artillery (12,000 each). The artillery was equipped with 500 cannons.2 The essential characteristic of these new formations was that they were not tied to any one tribal organisation and hence were not commanded by members of the Turkmen military aristocracy. Moreover they were paid directly out of the royal chest, not out of the military appropriations like the Qizilbash.