When the eighth Ottoman sultan, Bayezid II, died on May 26, 1512, the Empire he left behind was mostly built on expansion into Europe from the Ottoman heartland in western Asia Minor. The Ottomans crossed the Dardanelles at Gallipoli in 1354 and rapidly began expanding into the Balkans, dominating most of the region by the end of the 14th century. With the capture of Constantinople in 1453, final destruction of the Serbian Kingdom, the new trans-Danubian dependencies in Wallachia and Moldavia, and the submission of the Khanate of the Crimea, its hold was consolidated by the time of Bayezid's death. Although there would be further European expansion (for more on that, read The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, and The Song of Jan Sobieski), the greatest future territorial growth of the empire would occur in the Middle East and North Africa.
Two battles, the first occurring 502 years ago on this date in 1514, and the second, five hundred years ago as of tomorrow, marked the great directional change in Ottoman expansionism, and had repercussions for the history of the region that are still felt today.
(Ottoman Empire in 1500, outlined in red, from euroatlas)
Bayezid's successor was his youngest son, Selim, who was in his early 40s in 1512. The events that brought him to the Sultanate were triggered when Bayezid, who had reigned since 1481, announced his oldest son as his heir. Selim revolted upon this news, defeated his father's troops, forcing him to abdicate and go into exile (he died a month later), and then putting his brothers and nephews to death to avoid future threats to his rule.
Selim faced two external challenges upon ascending the throne. The first, a longstanding rivalry with the Mamluk Sultanate which had ruled Egypt since 1250 and also occupied Syria, and the second, the new, and aggressive, Safavid dynasty of Iran/Persia.
The Safavid's were Selim's first priority. The Safavid family were able to seize power in the early 1500s in the midst of the turmoil and fragmentation that followed the slow disintegration of the empire founded by Tamerlane the Great. They quickly defeated rivals and reassembled an empire that covered all of modern Iran, parts of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq and the eastern part of Turkey. The Safavid's aggressive expansion quickly brought them to the Ottoman borders, and they added a second element to their threat; the Safavid's were Shiite Muslims, while the Ottomans were Sunni. When the Safavids began recruiting soldiers from the Turkish tribes on their border with the Ottomans, and Selim became alarmed that they were trying to provoke a Shiite uprising in the Ottoman lands, he decided on a forceful response. Receiving a religious ruling that Shah Ismail and the Safavids were unbelievers and heretics, he assembled his army and rapidly marched eastwards into the mountainous terrain of Kurdistan.
The Ottomans encountered the Safavid army near the town of Chaldiran (just inside the current border of Iran), and the two armies battled on August 23, 1514. The Ottomans held two advantages; they had perhaps twice as many soldiers as their opponents, and they were better armed, both with firearms and artillery. The result was a rout, and the Ottomans pushed on to temporarily conquer the Safavid capital of Tabriz. Safavid expansion to the west was permanently blocked, and the Ottomans took possession of eastern Anatolia and norther Mesopotamia (Iraq).(Monument commemorating Battle of Chaldiran, from wikipedia)
It was not the end of warfare between the Ottomans and Safavids (their dynasty lasted until 1722). The next hundred years saw frequent and lengthy outbreaks of war. While the Safavids prevailed occasionally, overall the Ottomans were more successful, seizing the rest of Mesopotamia all the way to the Persian Gulf, and holding it until British Commonwealth troops seized it in 1917-18 during World War One.
With the immediate threat from the Safavids checked, Selim turned his attention to the Mamluks. While there had been a war between the regimes in the late 15th century, the Mamluks were not a direct threat to Ottoman rule, although the dynasties vied for control of the spice trade and religious supremacy in the Sunni world.
The Mamluks originated as ethnic Turks and Georgians, brought as slaves to Eqypt to serve its Arab rulers, a process that began in the 9th century. After training and conversion to Sunni Islam, the Mamluks would be freed but were expected to continue to serve their masters, both in administration and in the military. The Ayyubid dynasty of the 12th and 13th centuries made extensive use of Mamluks and they were the backbone of the Sultan Saladin's army which defeated the Christian crusaders and reconquered Jerusalem.
In 1250, a Mamluk uprising was successful and they established their own sultanate, centered in Egypt. The new dynasty consolidated its rule, expanding into Syria and defeating the Mongols, who overran much of the Middle East from 1258 on. During the mid 14th century the original Turkish Mamluk dynasty was overthrown by Circassian Mamluks, from the region of the Caucasus. Relying on their traditional methods of warfare, the Mamluks, unlike the Ottomans, had not adapted the new technologies of firearms and artillery.
In 1516, Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri marched north with his army to bring to an end disturbances in the Syrian portion of his empire. He had been lulled by emissaries of Selim that the Ottomans remained focused on the Safavids and thus did not expect a conflict. However, Selim advanced into Mamluk lands and the armies met on August 24, 1516 at Dabiq, a town in modern Syria, just five miles south of its border with Turkey. As at Chaldiran, Ottoman numbers and technology carried the day and the Mamluks were completely defeated and al-Ghawri killed. Not giving the Mamluks time to regroup, Selim advanced rapidly, capturing Damascus, entering Egypt in early 1517, occupying all of the former Mamluk lands, and becoming protector of the holy sites in Medina and Mecca in Arabia. Even with their success, the Ottomans arranged for members of the Mamluks to administer Egypt on their behalf.
(Portrait of Sultan al-Ghawri from wikipedia)
The successful campaigns of Selim resulted in all of the Middle East falling to the Ottomans, with Egypt remaining under its control for three centuries and the lands of Syria, Iraq and Arabia for yet another century beyond that, until the end of the Ottoman regime in the aftermath of World War One. The Arab world, which had already seen turmoil and decline in the centuries before the arrival of the Ottomans, became even more of a backwater afterwards, as the Ottomans did themselves by the end of the 17th century.
(Empire 1520, from wikimedia)
Selim, who died in 1520, is considered one of the most able Ottoman Sultans. The empire tripled in size during his short reign and he paved the way for his son and successor, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), who expanded the empire further in both Europe, Asia and Africa.
(Empire 1566, from wikmedia)
One final, and chilling note, about Dabiq, the town where the Mamluks met their end. Today, it is the place where, in ISIS ideology, the final battle for domination of the world between Christians and Muslims will take place, and their online magazine is called Dabiq.