The Battle for Tabrīz Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Since the era of Sultan Selim I, Tabrīz repeatedly had been conquered and lost by the Ottomans. The seesawing battles between the Ottomans and the Persians, two long-time Muslim adversaries who fought over territory, power, and religion, continued with the Ottoman occupation of Tabrīz in 1585 and a treaty in 1590. The region’s borders were not fixed until the nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

In 1578, Ottoman sultan Murad III decided to attack Persia despite his own court being a hotbed of feuds involving palace slaves and two harem factions. The intrigues, major internal turmoil, and civil war relating to the succession to the Ṣafavid Persian throne, and the intermittent dissidence and double-dealing of various Kizilbash tribes, provided Murad with the opportunity to engage in what he mistakenly thought would be the permanent conquest of the Caucasus, the land between the Black and Caspian Seas, which Persia controlled. Tabrīz, battle for (1578-1590)[Tabriz, battle for (1578-1590)] Ottoman Empire ՙAbbās the Great Hamza Mirza Muḥammad Khudabanda Murad III Özdemiroglu Osman Paşa Ṭahmāsp I

By this time, his Ottoman Empire was in decline, and unfriendly European powers were always threatening. The hostility of the Ottomans toward their eastern neighbors, the Ṣafavid Persians, had to do not only with the contested power of two empires but also with the actions of the Ṣafavid Dynasty’s founder, Ismāՙīl I (r. 1501-1524). Ismāՙīl I had overseen his nation’s transition to Shiism, Islam;Shīՙites[Shiites] which orthodox Sunni Ottomans considered to be heretical. Since the Ottoman heads of state appropriated the title of “caliph,” indicating that they were successors to the Prophet Muḥammad and thus the spiritual leaders of Islam, they were therefore unwilling to countenance any possible challenge to their position.

Following an earlier round of fighting and the Ottoman conquest and loss of the territory in and around Tabrīz, Süleyman’s Ottomans had been compelled to return much of it to the Persians under the 1555 Peace of Amasya. In 1578, however, Murad was encouraged by the perennial strife for succession in the Persian Empire in which the Kizilbash feudal lords fought each other and the shah over the matter. These tribal people of Turkmen origin became especially troublesome during the rule of Shah Muḥammad Khudabanda, a mild-mannered ascetic. The Kizilbash were trying to persuade him to choose a weak successor while, to ensure the success of their own schemes, they became involved in the execution of most Ṣafavid princes (paradoxically, ՙAbbās, who later became the strong Shah ՙAbbās I, was to be one of the exceptions). Accordingly, Ottoman grand vizier Mehmed Paşa Sokollu was unable to persuade Murad to abide by the 1555 treaty signed by Süleyman.

Thus, in the summer of 1578, the Ottoman commander in chief Lala Mustafa Paşa assembled a large army of crack Janissary infantrymen and feudal sipahi cavalrymen at Trebizond (Trabzon) on the south shore of the Black Sea.

Advancing with the main army from Erzurum that summer, Ozdemiroglu Osman Paşa scored two victories—the first in August, 1578, at Childir, north of Kars, and the second a month later near the Alazan River. The decisive breakthrough remained elusive, however. That winter, while the main army was withdrawn to Erzurum, Osman Paşa remained behind to defend the conquered territory. It was now the Persians’ turn, under Crown Prince Hamza Mirza, to counterattack. The shah’s son fought valiantly, and Osman was forced to retreat to Derbend on the Caspian Sea. It was not until reinforcements reached him that the Ottoman general was finally able to defeat the Persians in the spring of 1583, dislodging them from Shirvan and Daghistan on the western shore of the Caspian. Osman continued his advance, and by 1585, he had reached Tabrīz. He seized its citadel and occupied the town. Prince Hamza Mirza failed to recapture the city and was assassinated.

Throughout the campaign, the long lines of communication and the problems of resupply, all under the harassment of hostile tribesmen, had slowed the advancing Ottoman army. Shah Khudabanda, for his part, was deserted by some important feudatories. Conditions were not ideal on either side, and the war dragged on even after the fall of Tabrīz.

A humiliating treaty in 1590 forced the Ṣafavids to concede all Azeri land to the Ottomans. The new shah, ՙAbbās the Great, however, reorganized the army with more firearms and artillery, which the Persians had been reluctant to adopt widely. Also, the Turks were too distracted by rival European powers to want to press their earlier victory at Tabrīz.

Thus, by 1603, ՙAbbās had retrieved the city, thereby denying the Ottomans the ability to establish a permanent presence in the Caucasus. It was not until the nineteenth century that the borders between the two formerly hostile great powers were fixed. Through much of their feuding there was an impasse, with the Ottomans unable to control conquered Persian territory and the Persians unable to militarily defeat the Ottomans.


Murad III’s victory provided only temporary relief from the empire’s increasing financial difficulties. By this time, the Ottomans were squeezed by decreasing revenues from diminishing war booty, and corruption and bribery plagued the government. Also, military recruitment increasingly targeted Muslim-born populations, because the earlier devshirme—the recruitment of Christian boys from the Balkans—was sharply reduced after the Janissary corps began to allow its members to marry and to enlist their relatives and friends, many of them no-shows. These conditions led to a breakdown of discipline and military effectiveness.

There also was growing administrative atrophy, increasing anarchy, misrule by incompetent sultans, high inflation, and the fragmentation of the empire into hostile communities. Thus, Tabrīz, because of its geographical location and because it was in the middle of ongoing disputes between the two empires, was to change hands several more times, as in the centuries before.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cicek, Kemal, ed. The Great Ottoman-Turkish Civilisation. Vol. 1. Ankara, Turkey: Yeni Turkiye, 2000. This illustrated volume focuses on the politics of the strategically important Caucasus. The chapter by Mustafa Budak, “The Caucasus and the Ottoman Empire (sixteenth to 20th Centuries),” is especially helpful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Michael A., ed. A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Provides a good account of the Persian-Ottoman wars of 1578-1590. The chapter by V. J. Parry, “The Successors of Sulaiman, 1566-1617,” is especially useful. Maps, bibliographical notes, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, Godfrey. The Janissaries. London: Saqi, 1997. Discusses how the Ottoman Empire’s elite infantry corps became involved in public policy making and war strategy and tactics. Genealogy, glossary, bibliography, illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Inalcik, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600. Translated by Norman Itzkowitz and Colin Imber. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Orpheus, 1989. Highlights the role played by the Persian campaign in the Ottomans’ ascent as a world power from 1529 to 1596.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Peter, ed. The Cambridge History of Iran. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Volume 6 includes a good account of the 1578-1590 battles. Plates, maps, table, bibliographies, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, David. Medieval Persia, 1040-1797. New York: Longman, 1988. Examines how Persia dealt with one of its traditional enemies, the Ottoman Empire. Map, genealogy, glossary, bibliographical survey, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Savory, Roger M. Iran Under the Ṣafavids. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. A masterful study of Persia and Ṣafavid rule. Map, illustrations, index.

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

1534-1535: Ottomans Claim Sovereignty over Mesopotamia

1574-1595: Reign of Murad III

1589: Second Janissary Revolt in Constantinople

1593-1606: Ottoman-Austrian War

Categories: History