Trouble in Persia~~The Battle is Joined

Personal letter to scholar Wolfgang Capito, from his cousin and friend, Diether von Michelstadt, Knight of the Holy Order of Saint John, from the garrison on Rhodes.

My dearest friend, you will certainly recall my previous comment on Sultan Selim of the Ottoman Turks, the most dangerous enemy to our fortified outpost.  The threatened clash between himself and Ismāil, Shāh of Persia, has now transpired.

Shah Ismail–Turkish miniature

Selim and Ismāil hate one another passionately, particularly because Selim is a devout Sunni, who sees the Persian Shi’ites as heretics and blasphemers.  To aggravate the situation further, Ismāil supported Selim’s brother Ahmed against him in their bloody struggle for power, and allowed Persian raids into Turkish lands.

Selim led a substantial army eastward to the upper reaches of the river Euphrates. Clouds of feudal cavalry were stiffened by the disciplined Janissaries and Selim’s impressive artillery.  Ismāil’s forces were not as large, and consisted mainly of lancers and bowmen on horseback.  It is said the Persians eschew firearms as unmanly and trust in divine providence rather than armor.

They do wear helmets, though the Shãh and his special qizilbash warriors wear distinctive red caps. Outnumbered three to one, Ismāil burned and devastated his own territories to slow the Turkish advance, but Selim’s careful planning for a good supply train kept the Turks fed and well armed.

The battle was joined at a place called Chaldiran, where Selim deployed his Janissaries behind a deep trench, with their flanks protected by carts and wagons chained together, and defended by artillery roped together wheel-to-wheel.  This is the same tactic used by the Hussite heretics against the emperor’s army decades ago.

Great Cannon (of Turks) Dürer–1518

Persian cavalry attacked the flanks, in an attempt to avoid the Janissary corps, but the Turkish guns blew them to pieces.  By my word, these Persians are the enemies of Christendom, but I cannot help but feel sorrow for such brave men smashed beyond recognition by the stone shot of those formidable guns.

Map of Tabriz–16th century

Ismāil himself was wounded in the battle and his troops routed.  Some reports state that he was drunk on wine during the battle, a thing strictly forbidden to good Muslims.  His capital city of Tabriz, famous for its rich carpets and bazaar, was captured by Selim’s forces, but held only briefly.  Selim’s troops refused to advance any further beyond what they considered safe limits, so the Turkish Sultan had to fall back on the freshly conquered lands west of Lake Van.  Leaders of the Kurdish Muslims and Armenian Christians abandoned their loyalty to the Persians, and switched their support to Selim after his victory.  This leaves the Turks in possession of much of ancient Mesopotamia.

16th century Greek Merchant

All of this news is reported to us by a good friend of our Order, the Greek merchant Apostolis.  This worthy trader specializes in Smyrna figs and other fruit commodities, and travels extensively in the lands loyal to Muhammad’s followers.  At the time of the recent conflict, he had arrived at Tabriz, and spoke to Turkish soldiers during their brief time in that city.  After their withdrawal, the Persians returned, lamenting what they predict will be many decades of warfare between these giant empires.

For the immediate future, my own prospects may involve travel back to Europe.  Our Grand Master sees a temporary period of respite in our watchfulness.  It has been many years since I have been to our homeland, so he might send me to visit Germany, Switzerland and the north to recruit more dedicated knights, collect contributions of money and supplies, and amass more and better weapons.  If I am sent on such a tour, it would give me great joy to see your face again after these many years.

I close with a prayer for your health and wellbeing.  May your studies keep you close to the grace of God, who sets all things right.  Please remember your faithful friend and cousin, who holds you in high esteem.


The Fortress of Rhodes, Feast of St. Matthew, 1514

Battle of Chaldiran–note Persian helmets

Diether von Michelstadt created by Leopold Glueckert, O.Carm.,Ph.D

Previous letters from Diether:  Letter from a Knight on RhodesFrom Christian child to Turkish JanissarySunnis and Shi’ites~~The Gathering Storm

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