500th Anniversay of the Battle of Chaldiran (Aug. 1514): Letter Exchange between Sultan Selim I (d. 1520) and Shah Ismail (d. 1524)

Today (August 23rd 2014) marks the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Chaldiran, an event that had a major transformative impact on the geo-political and religious landscape of the Middle East. It limited the expansion of the Safavid state, allowing it to consolidate itself as a Shi’i-majority state on the Iranian plateau, while facilitating the expansion of the Ottoman empire into the Middle East on the other. The aftermath of the battle witnessed the confessionalization of the Near East into two distinctive political-sectarian camps with an aggressive Sunnism being promoted by the Ottomans in response to the militant Shi’ism that was imposed by the Safavids on the Iranian plateau (for more on this, see my piece: https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/the-conversion-of-iran-to-twelver-shiism-a-preliminary-historical-overview/).

(Battle of Chaldiran, Chehel Sotun Palace, Isfahan)

The following is an interesting exchange (preserved in Feridun Bey’s Munsha’at, a sixteenth-century collection of documents) between the Ottoman sultan Selim I, and the founder of the Safavid Dynasty, Shah Ismail al-Safawi. It was sent in the context of Selim’s march eastwards to confront Shah Isma’il. None of the translations are my own; I drew upon various sources which had translated the letters into English or Arabic.

LETTER FROM SELIM TO ISMAIL, 1514 (Feridun Bey, Munsha’at, Vol. 1, pp. 382-383):

“It is from Solomon: ‘In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Do not exalt yourselves above me, but come to me in all submission.’” (Qur’an 27: 30-31)

May God’s blessings be upon the best of his creation, Muhammad, his family, and all his companions.

“And We have revealed this Scripture truly blessed. Observe it and keep from evil, so that you may find mercy. (Qur’an 6: 156)

This missive, which is stamped with the seal of victory and which—like inspiration descending from the heavens—is witness to the verse “We do not punish a nation until We have sent forth a messenger to forewarn them.” (Qur’an 17: 15) has been graciously issued by our most glorious majesty—we who are the Caliph of God Most High in this world, far and wide; the proof of the verse “that which profits men remains on the earth” (Qur’an 13: 17) the Solomon of Splendor, the Alexander of eminence; haloed in victory, Faridun triumphant; slayer of the wicked and the infidel, guardian of the noble and the pious; the warrior in the Path, the defender of the Faith; the champion, the conqueror; the lion, son and grandson of the lion; standard-bearer of justice and righteousness, Sultan Selim Shah son of Sultan Bâyezid, son of Sultan Mehmet Khan —and is addressed to the ruler of the kingdom of the Persians, the possessor of the land of tyranny and perversion, the captain of the vicious, the chief of the malicious, the usurping Darius of the time, the malevolent Zahhak of the age, the peer of Cain, Prince Isma‘il.


As the Pen of Destiny has drawn up the rescript “You bestow sovereignty on whom You will” (Qur’an 3: 26) in our sublime name and has signed it with the verse “The blessings God bestows on men none can withhold” (Qur’an 35: 2), it is manifest in the Court of Glory and the Presence of Deity that we, the instrument of Divine Will, shall hold in force upon the earth both the commandments and prohibitions of Divine Law as well as the provisions of royal proclamations. “Such is the grace of God: He bestows it on whom He will.” (Qur’an 57: 21).
It has been heard repeatedly that you have subjected the upright community of Muhammad (Prayers and salutations upon its founder!) to your devious will, that you have undermined the firm foundation of the Faith, that you have unfurled the banner of oppression in the cause of aggression, that you no longer uphold the commandments and prohibitions of the Divine Law, that you have incited your abominable followers to unsanctified sexual union and to the shedding of innocent blood, that—like they “Who listen to falsehood and practice what is unlawful” (Qur’an 5: 42)—you have given ear to idle deceitful words and have partaken of that which is forbidden:

He has laid waste to mosques, as it is said,
Constructing idol temples in their stead,

that you have rent the noble fabric of Islam with the hand of tyranny, and that you have called the Glorious Qur’an the myths of the Ancients. The rumor of these abominations has caused your name to become like that of Harith deceived by Satan.

Indeed, as both the legal rulings of distinguished religious scholars who base their opinion on reason and tradition alike and the consensus of the Sunni community agree that the ancient obligation of extirpation, extermination, and expulsion of evil innovation must be the aim of our exalted aspiration, for “Religious zeal is a victory for the Faith of God the Beneficent:” then, in accordance with the words of the Prophet (Peace upon him!) “Whosoever introduces evil innovation into our order must be expelled” and “Whosoever does anything against our order must be expelled,” action has become necessary and exigent. Thus, when the Divine Decree of Eternal Destiny commended the eradication of the infamously wicked infidels into our capable hands, we set out for their lands like ineluctable fate itself to enforce the order “Do not leave a single unbeliever on the earth”( Qur’an 71: 26). If God Almighty wills, the lightning of our conquering sword shall uproot the untamed bramble grown to great heights in the path of the refulgent Divine Law and shall cast them down upon the dust of abjectness to be trampled under the hooves of our legions, for “They abase the mightiest of its inhabitants and these will do the same” (Qur’an 27: 34); the thunder of our avenging mace shall dash out the muddled brains of the enemies of the Faith as rations for the lionhearted ghazis. “The wrongdoers will realize what a reversal they shall have.” (Qur’an 26: 227)


When I draw my keen-edged weapon from its sheath,
Then shall I raise up doomsday on the earth;
Then shall I roast the hearts of lion-hearted men,
And toast the morning with a goblet of their blood.
My crow-fletched shaft will fix the eagle in his flight;
And my bare blade will shake the orb of day.
Ask of the sun about the dazzle of my rein;
Inquire of Mars about the brilliance of my arms.
Although you wear a Sufi crown , I bear a trenchant sword,
And he who holds the sword will soon possess the crown.
O Mighty Fortune, pray grant this my single wish:
Please let me take both crown and power from the foe.

But “Religion is Counsel.” Therefore, should you turn the face of submission toward our angelic threshold—the refuge of the noble, the qibla of felicity, and the Ka‘ba of certainty —and lift the hand of oppression from the heads of your subjects bowed by oppression and sedition, take up a course of repentance and become like one blameless, return to the sublime straight path of the Sunna of Muhammad (Prayers and salutations upon him and God’s satisfaction upon his immaculate family and his rightly-guided companions all!)—for “My companions are like the stars: whomever you choose to follow, you will be guided aright.” —and consider your lands and their people a part of the well-protected Ottoman state, then shall you be granted our royal favor and our imperial condescension.

He whose face touches the dust of my threshold in submission
Will be enveloped in the shadow of my favor and my justice.

How great the happiness of him who complies with this!

On the other hand, if your evil and seditious habits have become ingrained in your nature, then that which has become essential can never again be accidental.

Of what avail are sermons to the black-hearted?

Then, with the support and assistance of God, I will crown the head of every gallows tree with the head of a crown-wearing Sufi and clear that faction from the face of the earth—“God’s followers are sure to triumph” (Qur’an 5: 56); I will break the oppressors’ grip with the power of the miraculous white hand of Moses, for “The Hand of God is above their hands.” (Qur’an 48: 10) Let them remove the cotton of negligence from the ears of their intelligence and, with their shrouds on their shoulders, prepare themselves for “That which you are threatened with is sure to come.” Qur’an 6: 134) The triumphant troops “As firm as a mighty edifice” (Qur’an 61: 4) crying out like fate evoked “When their hour is come, not for one moment shall they hold it back, nor can they go before it” (Qur’an 7: 34) and maneuvering in accordance with “Put them to death wherever you find them” (Qur’an 4: 89), will wreak ruin upon you and drive you from that land. “Such being the will of God before and after, and on that day the believers will rejoice in God’s help.” (Qur’an 30: 4) “Thus were the evil-doers annihilated. Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe.” (Qur’an 6: 45)

[An alternate version of Selim’s letter can be found in English translation in John J. Saunders ed., The Muslim World on the Eve of Europe’s Expansion (New Jersey, 1966), pp. 40-43]



RESPONSE FROM ISMAIL TO SELIM, 1514 (Feridun Bey, Munsha’at, Vol. 1, pp. 384-386):

May his godly majesty, the refuge of Islam, the might of the kingdom, he upon whom God looks with favor, the champion of the sultanate and of the state, the hero of the faith and of the earth, Sultan Selim Shah (God grant him immortal state and eternal happiness!) accept this affectionate greeting and this friendly letter, considering it a token of our good will.

Now to begin: Your honored letters have arrived one after another, for “No sooner has a thing doubled than it has tripled.” Their contents, although indicative of hostility, are stated with boldness and vigor. The latter gives us much enjoyment and pleasure, but we are ignorant of the reason for the former. In the time of your late blessed father (May God enlighten his proof!) when our royal troops passed through the lands of Rum to chastise the impudence of ‘Ala’ al-Dawla Dhu’l-Qadr, concord and friendship was shown on both sides. Moreover, when your majesty was governor at Trebizond there existed perfect mutual understanding. Thus, now, the cause of your resentment and displeasure yet remains unknown. If political necessity has compelled you on this course, then may your problems be soon resolved.

Dispute may fire words to such a heat
That ancient houses be consumed in flames.

The intention of our inaction in this regard is twofold:

(1) Most of the inhabitants of the land of Rum are followers of our forefathers (May God the All-Forgiving King have mercy upon them!).

(2) We have always loved the ghazi-titled Ottoman house and we do not wish the outbreak of sedition and turmoil once again as in the time of Timur.

Why should we then take umbrage at these provocations? We shall not.

The mutual hostility of kings is verily an ancient rite.

Should one embrace the bride of worldly rule too close,
His lips will kiss those of the radiant sword.

Nevertheless, there is no cause for improper words: indeed, those vain, heretical imputations are the mere fabrications of the opium-clouded minds of certain secretaries and scribes. We therefore think that our delayed reply was not completely without cause for we have now dispatched our honored personal companion and servant Shah Quli Aqa (May he be sustained!) with a golden casket stamped with the royal seal and filled with a special concoction for their use should they deem it necessary. May he soon arrive, so that with assistance from Above, the mysteries concealed behind the veil of fate might be disclosed. Keeping in view that regrets are of no avail in the end, one should always exercise free judgment and not be bound solely by the words of others.

At this writing we were engaged upon the hunt near Isfahan. We now prepare provisions and our troops for the coming campaign and in all friendship we say, “Do what you will.”

Bitter experience has taught that in this world of trial
He who falls upon the house of ‘Ali always falls.

Kindly give our ambassador leave to travel unmolested for “No soul shall bear another’s burden.” (Qur’an 6: 164; 53: 38) When war becomes inevitable, hesitation and delay must be set aside, and one must think on that which is to come. Farewell.


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