Ottomans Claim Sovereignty over Mesopotamia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In his first military campaign against the Persians, Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent captured Baghdad and claimed sovereignty over Mesopotamia, the region known today as Iraq. The area remained part of the Ottoman Empire through the early twentieth century.

Summary of Event

The Ottoman Empire was built on war and steady territorial conquests. Beginning as a small Turkish tribe that migrated to Anatolia (now Turkey) in the fourteenth century, its hereditary rulers, called sultans, achieved a remarkable record of military victory. In 1389, the Ottomans defeated the Serbs in the Balkans, and in 1453, they captured the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), which became their capital. Ottoman Empire Mesopotamia, Ottoman conquest of Süleyman the Magnificent Ismāՙīl I Ṭahmāsp I Selim I Ibrahim Paşa Selim I Ismāՙīl I Ṭahmāsp I Ibrahim Paşa

In the early sixteenth century, the accomplishments of Sultan Selim I included the annexation of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. The reign of his son, Süleyman I (called “the Magnificent” by Europeans), is remembered as the golden age of Ottoman power and grandeur. In his early campaigns, Süleyman captured Belgrade (1521) and Rhodes (1522), defeated the Hungarians (1526), and laid siege to Vienna (1529).

The expansion of the empire was due in part to its military organization, to the relative weakness and disunity of its opponents, and to its practical policies for governing a large and diverse empire. From the mid-1300’, well-paid professional soldiers called Janissaries included volunteers, war captives, and Christian youths from various parts of the empire. These recruits were converted to Islam, trained with the strictest discipline, and not allowed to marry until they retired from the service.

Despite the Ottomans’ reputation for despotism, they allowed a great deal of local autonomy, as long as taxes were paid and order was maintained. In an intolerant age, the Ottomans permitted religious freedom for Christian sects and Jews (called millets), although non-Muslims paid special taxes and were not allowed to serve in the army or hold positions in the central government. Religion;Ottoman Empire Taxation;of non-Muslims

After 1502, the newly founded Ṣafavid Dynasty Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty] of Persia (now Iran) became a significant threat to Ottoman interests in southwestern Asia. In 1514, Sultan Selim I, determined to restrain the Ṣafavids, attacked their forces. Prevailing in several battles, he extended the Ottomans’ eastern frontier. This began a long-standing rivalry between the two imperial powers. Although the major issue was dynastic hegemony, differences in religion added to the bitterness of the rivalry. The founder of the Ṣafavids, Shah Ismāՙīl I, recognized the Shīՙite form of Islam as the state religion, whereas the Ottomans were committed Sunni Muslims, often claiming the title of caliph (or successor to the prophet) after their conquest of Egypt. Both sects viewed the other’s religious doctrines as heretical.

The area that Europeans called Mesopotamia (meaning “between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers”) was the main frontier separating the Ottoman and the Ṣafavid Empires. Mesopotamia therefore became the theater for most of the fighting between the two dynasties. Although almost all Mesopotamians were Muslims, they spoke dialects of the Arabic and Kurdish languages mostly, and they resented external rule by either Turks or Persians. Fragmented into a variety of warring tribes and independent villages, however, the Mesopotamians were in no position to defend themselves against their powerful neighbors.

While Süleyman was busy leading campaigns in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, he was almost powerless to deal with the situation in the east, more than 1,000 miles away. Thus, the Ṣafavid Empire was able to expand its holdings and make additional political alliances. In 1532, Shah Ṭahmāsp I acquired influence over the town of Bitlis in eastern Anatolia, which had been within the Ottoman sphere of influence.

After making a temporary peace with the Habsburg Empire, Süleyman in 1534 gave orders for his army to consolidate eastern strongholds and stop Persian advances. Although it was customary for the sultan to lead the troops into battle personally, Süleyman appointed his trusted vizier,Ibrahim Paşa, as commander of an invading army of about 100,000 troops. Süleyman then went on a religious pilgrimage. The Persians, because of their relative weakness, avoided direct confrontations and adopted a scorched-earth strategy. On July 13,Ibrahim took control of the mountainous city of Tabrīz in Azerbaijan. Süleyman, always envious of his authority, became disturbed when he received reports thatIbrahim was signing himself as sultan. Fearing possible disloyalty, Süleyman hurried eastward to take personal charge of the army.

Arriving in Tabrīz, Süleyman discovered that the enemy’s tactics were making it difficult for Ottoman troops to obtain adequate supplies, and he also learned that a Persian ambush had succeeded in killing about ten thousand soldiers. Süleyman decided to move south along the Tigris River and establish a base in Baghdad. When they reached Baghdad, they found it in a state of economic and political weakness. On November 30, the city surrendered without a struggle. The sultan paid respect to its many holy shrines, and he allowed no looting or injury to the inhabitants, which was considered a gracious gesture. One devout Muslim dervish proclaimed that Süleyman had the holy attributes of the Prophet. Islam;Ottoman Empire At just the right moment, a caretaker of the graves claimed to have found the remains of the famous Islamic teacher and jurist Abā Ḥanīfah (c. 699-767). Although the identity of the grave was questionable, both Baghdad citizens and Turkish soldiers appeared to accept the discovery as a sign of Süleyman’s divine mission.

After gaining control over Baghdad, Süleyman sent troops to occupy the port city of Basra, which provided naval access to the Persian Gulf. He also made agreements with several local rulers and tribal leaders of Mesopotamia. From his perspective, the great alluvial plain of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers was important mainly as a frontier stronghold to contain Persian expansion. The potential for taxation was limited because of a long-standing decline in agricultural production—a result of the growing salinization of the soil and reduced irrigation. On April 1, 1535, Süleyman left Baghdad and returned to Tabrīz. Knowing he could not hold such a distant place, he ordered the sacking of the town and destruction of the palace. As his troops marched back to Istanbul, Persian raiders inflicted heavy casualties.

Returning to Istanbul on January 8, 1536, Süleyman remained suspicious of Vizier Ibrahim Paşa, whose position was already weakened as a result of his many personal enemies.Ibrahim had recently succeeded in having one of his enemies, his chief treasurer, executed on charges of financial malpractice. Before his death, however, the treasurer wrote the sultan a letter admitting his guilt and claiming thatIbrahim had joined him in a conspiracy to seize power. It is not known whether Süleyman believed that the accusation was true. In any case, he invitedIbrahim to a private dinner at the Topkapi Palace, where the unsuspecting vizier was strangled by palace executioners.


Süleyman had staked out claims to Mesopotamia, but frontier issues would force him to lead two additional campaigns against Persia (in 1548-1549 and 1553-1555). It would take the Ottomans about one century to incorporate Mesopotamia into the empire as three separate provinces, organized around the cities of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. Even then, the political situation of the complex region remained fragmented, and the Ottomans never were able to exercise unified control over all of the Arab and Kurdish tribes along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Military leaders of the three provinces, called pashas, would acknowledge the sovereignty of the sultan, but they became increasingly outside his control. Nevertheless, Mesopotamia continued to be a nominal part of the empire until the end of World War I—a period of almost four hundred years.

During Süleyman’s long reign, the Ottoman Empire reached almost to its maximum geographical extent. Not long after his death, however, there were clear signs that the empire was beginning a slow process of contraction and decay. There were many factors, including incompetent leadership, internal conflict and corruption, the more-dynamic modernization of European rivals, and growing dissatisfaction on the part of the many ethnic and religious minorities in the empire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Written by an outstanding scholar, this readable account includes a great deal of information about Ottoman rule over Iraq and other Arab regions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kafadar, Cemal. Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Argues that ethnic, tribal, religious, and political affiliations were important to the empire, which saw itself as leader of the world’s Muslims and heir to the Eastern Roman Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kunt, Metin, and Christine Woodhead. Süleyman the Magnificent and His Age: The Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern World. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995. An excellent work that emphasizes the role of Süleyman in the expansion of the empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1823. New York: Longman, 1997. A very readable summary of the Ottoman Empire, including a great deal of information about its expansion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Stanford Jay. Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808. New York: Cambridge University Press. An informed and readable work, controversial because of its emphasis on the empire’s toleration and decentralized structures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A general history that includes a useful chapter discussing the Ottomans’ conquest and control of the Iraqi region.

1454-1481: Rise of the Ottoman Empire

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

1501-1524: Reign of Ismāՙīl I

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

1520-1566: Reign of Süleyman

June 28, 1522-Dec. 27, 1522: Siege and Fall of Rhodes

1578-1590: The Battle for Tabrīz

1587-1629: Reign of ՙAbbās the Great

1589: Second Janissary Revolt in Constantinople

1593-1606: Ottoman-Austrian War

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