Ak Koyunlu Dynasty Controls Iraq and Northern Iran Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Ak Koyunlu ruled much of present-day eastern Turkey, Iraq, and Iran in the late fifteenth century. They established diplomatic relations with Venice and became an international power whose rulers were recognized for their patronage of architecture, metalwork, and the literary arts.

Summary of Event

The Ak Koyunlu (Turkish for “white sheep”) were a nomadic Turkoman community named for the white sheep they pastured between the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in eastern Anatolia. Their banners displayed a white sheep in contrast to the black sheep designating their rivals, the Kara Koyunlu Kara Koyunlu Dynasty , who came from east of Lake Van. Ak Koyunlu Dynasty Kara Osman Uzun Ḥasan Yaՙqūb Mehmed II Kara Osman Uzun Ḥasan Jihān Shāh Abū Saՙīd Mehmed II Yaՙqūb Alwand Muḥammad (Ak Koyunlu ruler) Murād (Ak Koyunlu ruler) Ismāՙīl I

The first known reference to the Ak Koyunlu mentions a leader named Tur Ali Bey, who in 1340 began attacking the Trebizonds along the Black Sea. The Trebizonds Trebizond were the heirs to the Christian Byzantine Empire after the Latin crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204. When Tur Ali failed to conquer them, he chose to ally himself with them, establishing important diplomatic relations that continued between these two peoples for more than a century. The Trebizond emperor Alexius III (r. 1349-1390) arranged a marriage between his sister, Maria, and Kutlu, Tur Ali’s son. He later married his daughter to Kara Osman, the son of Maria (known as Despina) and Kutlu.

Ruling from 1403 to 1435, Kara Osman is considered the founder of the Ak Koyunlu Dynasty. He joined forces with Tamerlane (also known as Timur) after Tamerlane invaded Mesopotamia. Tamerlane first captured Baghdad and Mosul in 1393 and then set his sights on western Anatolia. When local groups began to revolt, Tamerlane turned to local chieftains to provide equilibrium. Thus, in 1402, Osman was granted complete control of the city of Diyarbakir at the headwaters of the Tigris River. This control provided Osman with the base of power he needed to consolidate and expand his rule.

Beginning the following year, Osman established the Ak Koyunlu state with numerous neighboring communities joining under its authority. At this time, the Kara Koyunlu, situated east of Lake Van, represented a significant obstacle to Ak Koyunlu expansion. By 1410, this rival group had conquered Baghdad and made it their capital. For nearly three decades, Osman was occupied fighting unsuccessfully against Kara Koyunlu rulers Kara Yusuf and Iskander, keeping them in check until his death in 1435. The Kara Koyunlu seem to have had the superior military of the two, but because of the strong threat from the Timurid empire to the east, the Kara Koyunlu were unable to commit sufficient resources to their western front to advance farther against the Ak Koyunlu. Thus, a stalemate existed between the two groups.

Under Osman’s grandson, Uzunḥasan, however, the Ak Koyunlu were able to expand to become the major power of the region. In 1466, Uzunḥasan enticed the Kara Koyunlu ruler, Jihān Shāh, to leave his capital city of Tabrīz with a large army and to engage him in battle near Lake Van. For eighteen months, Uzun Ḥasan frustrated Jihān with various delays.

On November 11, 1467, when Jihān was retreating with his army to their winter quarters, Uzun Ḥasan made a surprise attack that utterly defeated the Kara Koyunlu army. Jihān was captured and killed, and the Kara Koyunlu Dynasty came to an end. In 1469, Uzun Ḥasan defeated the Timurid ruler, Abū Saՙīd, eliminating the threat to his eastern borders. Within a short time the Ak Koyunlu controlled Mosul, Baghdad, the Persian Gulf, Azerbaijan, and Khorāsān. Uzun Ḥasan moved his capital from Diyarbakir to Tabrīz.

Meanwhile, the situation to the west had been more grim for the Ak Koyunlu. In western Anatolia, the Ottoman Ottoman Empire;Ak Koyunlu Dynasty and sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453. He then expanded eastward toward Ak Koyunlu territory, incorporating various Turkish principalities as he went. Uzun Ḥasan sought diplomatic ties to counter this effort. He renewed the long-standing mutual defense pact with Trebizond, taking the hand in marriage of Katerina, the daughter of Emperor John IV. Uzun Ḥasan sent his army to prevent the Ottomans from attacking Trebizond but was defeated. Afterward Uzun Ḥasan sent his mother, Sara, to negotiate. In 1461, Mehmed II rejected his offer and attacked Trebizond, bringing that empire to an end. Sara was allowed to return home with the valued jewels of the Trebizonds.

In 1464, Uzun Ḥasan contacted the Venetians Venice, Republic of;Ak Koyunlu Dynasty and , who had been longtime rivals to the growing Ottoman power. Over the next several years, envoys were exchanged, very similar to modern ambassadors. The Venetians promised military aid and provided the confidence needed to keep the Ottomans in check. This led, however, to conflict with the Mamlūks, who defeated the Ak Koyunlu in northern Syria in 1472. From this point on, the Ak Koyunlu did not venture west of the Euphrates River. The Ottomans, however, moved eastward with an army of seventy thousand.

The Ak Koyunlu attempted to resist the Ottoman onslaught. At first, Uzun Ḥasan and his son managed a number of victories, but in the long run they were no match for the massive ammunitions of the Ottomans. Their hope was to hold off the threat until they could be reinforced with Venetian weaponry. Yet, the promised arms never arrived, and Uzun Ḥasan was defeated at Tercan in 1473.

Embarrassed, Uzun Ḥasan returned to Tabrīz, where he continued to rule for another five years. He had already begun construction of the magnificent Nasriyya palace. He gained a reputation as a patron of the arts, including metalworks, calligraphy, miniature painting, and architecture. Art patronage;Ak Koyunlu Dynasty He also supported writers and scholars, including the court historian Abu Bakr Tihrani-Isfhani and the prominent philosopher and theologian Dawānī, who dedicated many of his works to Uzun Ḥasan. As a ruler, he was also known for enacting laws that protected equally the pasturing rights of competing tribal groups.

The successors of Uzun Ḥasan worked to hold off further Ottoman advance and to hold on to their territory in the east. Yaՙqūb turned his attention inward. In 1484, the Nasriyya mosque and complex were dedicated. Travelers described the complex as an earthly paradise and noted the surrounding schools, hostels, markets, and baths. Poets and writers flocked to Tabrīz. Yet, religious conflict soon became an issue, as religious leaders became increasingly involved in fiscal policy. More and more, the local population showed discontent with the Ak Koyunlu, who were Sunni Muslims and had imposed their form of Islam Islam;Ak Koyunlu Dynasty upon the previously Shīՙite region.

Following the death of Yaՙqūb, leadership among the Ak Koyunlu passed through six different rulers over the next eighteen years. Among them were three brothers, Alwand, Muḥammad, and Murād, who fought among themselves. Eventually, they were replaced by the Shīՙite Ṣafavid Dynasty from Azerbaijan. The most devastating defeat, at Nakhichevan in 1502, came at the hands of Ismāՙīl I, who then declared himself to be shah and established the Ṣafavid Dynasty Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty] at Tabrīz.

In response, Alwand began retreating westward and inflicted damage on his own cities of Mardin and Diyarbakir. By 1508, Ismāՙīl’s army had conquered Mosul and Baghdad, defeating Murād and bringing the Ak Koyunlu Dynasty to an end. Soon thereafter, the Ottomans, after inflicting a defeat upon Ismāՙīl, were able to wrest control of northern Mesopotamia while the Ṣafavids remained in control of Iran and Azerbaijan.


Prior to the domination of the Middle East by the Ottoman Empire, two Turkoman tribal groups controlled the region of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and Iran for over a century: the Kara Koyunlu and the Ak Koyunlu. Their names, meaning respectively “black sheep” and “white sheep,” derived from the images on the banners they carried into battle.

These two tribal confederations controlled the territory occupied by the Kurds today: the Kara Koyunlu to the east of Lake Van in the region of Azerbaijan, the Ak Koyunlu to the west centered near the headwaters of the Tigris River at Diyarbakir. They remained rivals, with first the Kara Koyunlu (1351-1469), then the Ak Koyunlu (1469-1508), gaining the upper hand.

While both tribal groups were known for their fighting skills, the Ak Koyunlu went beyond their rival in diplomacy, intermarrying with the Christian kingdom of Trebizond in northern Anatolia and making alliances with the Venetians to keep in check the growing Ottoman threat. The Ak Koyunlu also surpassed their rivals in building programs and as supporters of the arts and philosophy.

Eventually, the Ottomans were victorious in Mesopotamia. Like the Ak Koyunlu, they were Sunni Muslims, while the Ṣafavid in Iran adopted the Shīՙite Islam of the Kara Koyunlu. This territorial split between the Shia and the Sunnis would have lasting consequences for the history of the region over the next five hundred years.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Peter. The Cambridge History of Iran: The Timurid and Safavid Period. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A compendium of articles concerning trade, economics, religion, art, and architecture, as well as historical surveys of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1996. The first chapter presents an overview of the early history of the Kurds and various ruling powers. Detailed maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Kane, Bernard. Studies in Persian Art and Architecture. Cairo: The American University Press, 1995. A collection of O’Kane’s previously published articles on various aspects of art for this region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woods, John E. The AqKoyunlu: Clan, Confederation, Empire. Rev. and exp. ed. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999. First published in 1976, this has been the standard scholarly resource for a generation. Now updated.

1454-1481: Rise of the Ottoman Empire

1463-1479: Ottoman-Venetian War

1481-1512: Reign of Bayezid II and Ottoman Civil Wars

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

1578-1590: The Battle for Tabrīz

Categories: History