The Sort-Of Gunpowder Empires

In the Middle East, three Islamic empires were ruling that all get nicknamed the Gunpowder Empires because they, somewhat begrudgingly, take gunpowder technology from China and Europe and use it to try to dominate the region. Out of these three empires, they all are faced with the issue of how much to adapt and change to the rising tide of western power. Since they are all Islamic theocracies, they are pulled between ruling from the Quran and essentially sticking with what worked in the 600s or adapting to the times, forsaking some of their religious convictions.

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

On the question of how to adapt and survive this new early modern era, one empire failed. One did OK but screwed itself in the end. And one does pretty well, at least until WWI. Let’s start with the bad news…

The Safavid Empire

In Iran there was an empire descended from the Persians called the Safavids. They were Shi’ite Muslims stuck between two powerful Sunni empires (the Ottomans to the west and the Mughals to the east in India).

The Safavids are the most behind the times. They are still stuck thinking that land-based power along the Silk Road is the way to go. Their capital of Isfahan is hundreds of miles away from water and they are slower to adopt gunpowder technology, preferring their traditional swordsmen on horseback. They were called the Qizilbash or “red turbans” and they carried long curved swords – these were the elites of their military but over time they will not be able to compete against armies with guns.

The Mughal Empire

In India, there is another Islamic empire that has replaced the Delhi Sultanate. This one was founded by a guy named Babur, who was a descendant of Genghis Khan. He finally achieved what his ancestor had never been able to do – conquer India – and he named his new empire after the Persian word for Mongol – the Mughal Empire.

The Mughals maintain control of India for a surprisingly long time – from the 1500s up until the early 1800s through a series of talented leaders and a well-organized administration.

The Taj Mahal was built during the Mughal Empire by Shah Jahan. He built it as a mausoleum to his wife who had died in childbirth. Dang, live up to that, husbands everywhere.


But the most famous leader was a guy named Akbar. He tripled the size of the empire and made a lot of pretty good attempts to unite Hindus and Muslims together.

He eliminated the tax on Hindus and appointed them to high positions in the government. He also invited scholars from all over the Muslim world – similar to the Abbasids in Baghdad – and compiled a library of over 24,000 works from throughout history.

He also even tried to create a new religion called the Divine Faith that combined elements from all the major religions and encouraged universal tolerance. It never got off the ground, at its height it only had 19 followers. Not 19,000. 19. Turns out people are pretty serious about sticking with their religions. Who knew?

Another tangent about Aladdin

Now, learning about the Safavid and Mughal empires brings me to an incredibly important question. Where the heck is Aladdin from? Guys, when I started this podcast I had no idea how many times I would reference Aladdin but this process has made me realize just how important that movie is to me and to all of human history. But seriously. What civilization was Agrabah in?

From everything I can tell, Disney did what they always did and just mixed up a bunch of different historical references to make some generic and nonexistent Middle East-ish place. But I still want to talk about it.

The original story is from 1001 Nights or Arabian Nights, compiled during the Abbasid Dynasty. So was it set in Baghdad? It’s definitely a Muslim society because they use the term “Allah” for God. But the fictional city of Agrabah was ruled by a sultan so it has to be later than the Umayyads who were ruled by a caliph. And it wouldn’t be in any Persian civilization because they were ruled by “Shahs” – so I guess that eliminates the Safavids.

They take a trip to a whole new world in China where they see fireworks – but those were invented long before Islam rose so that doesn’t tell us anything. And they live in the desert but near snowy mountains – which rules out the Arabian peninsula. So no Abbasid Dynasty.

Also, Jafar is a popular name in Shi’ite Islam so that implies it’s somewhere in the area of Iran. But we’ve already established that they weren’t ruled by Sultans. Ugh.

But what really gets me is Jasmine’s tiger. That implies they are somewhere in South Asia – like India, unless Agrabah is such a key trading post that they were able to get a tiger from the east. Ah I have no idea. Let’s move on.


The Mughal Empire is going to enter a slow period of decline once they start to let European trading companies have influence. It’s at this point that we need to have a quick aside about how the Europeans are going to be able to slowly inch their way into these massive and impressive Asian civilizations.

The British East India company

Let’s focus on the British. They saw that Asian civilization was well established and it wouldn’t make much sense to try to conquer them – it would take too much money and manpower to control India or China, for example, so instead they set up a company to just get what they wanted – trade.  

Enter, the British East India Company – You know these guys, they’re the bad dudes in Pirates of the Caribbean. You’d think the bad dudes would be the pirates but whatever. The company was formed to break up the monopoly the Spanish and Portuguese had on the spice trade – able to do it after the Spanish Armada was defeated by the British. They competed with mostly the Dutch East India Company and defeated them for power in India – earning trading concessions from the Mughal Empire. They set up shop and became the main trader of luxury goods like spices, silk, and indigo across the Indian Ocean.

The Mughals had internal issues to deal with and were not particularly threatened by this new company – again, they understood the importance of sea-based trade but they didn’t totally realize just how powerful Europe had become. Another big mistake.

We’ll come back to this next era, but over the 1800s the British East India Company is going to gain more and more influence in the Indian subcontinent, eventually replacing the Mughal Empire with the British Raj.

The Ottoman Success Story

So what about the Islamic empire that did get the memo and better adapted to the rising power of Europe? That brings us to the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire was founded by a Turkish leader named Osman – the empire was sort of named after him. At its height, they ruled all of eastern Europe, north Africa, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula. So, kind of a lot.

The Ottoman Empire also continuously expanded its influence in the Christian East from the beginning. The Byzantine Empire – remember, the half of the Roman Empire that survived – eventually fell to the Ottomans in 1453 and Constantinople officially becomes Istanbul.

Suleiman the Magnificent

Their most famous ruler was Suleiman the Magnificent who was sultan from 1520 to 1566  – and I really respect his complete one-upping of all of the “the Greats” out there in history. You think you’re great? Well, I’m… magnificent.

And he was. He used the government to direct massive art and architecture projects that beautified Istanbul and other major cities. Ottoman art flourished, especially calligraphy, architecture, and silkwork.

According to Muslims, the only person who can create or depict human life is God – so Muslims are not supposed to create art of the human form. That’s why most of their art is focused on writing, rug making, weaving or architecture instead of, say, painting like the Europeans. When they do decorate things, they use intricate geometric designs since they can’t just sit down and paint Mona Lisa like the Italians can.

Suleiman also defeated Christian kingdoms throughout eastern Europe but was held off at Vienna. Man I have no idea why everyone was getting tripped up at Vienna. First the Mongols and now the Ottomans, bravo! Maybe you should have sent 1930s Austria some of that same energy… too soon?

Note: this was Suleiman’s attempt to conquer the Holy Roman Empire. I know I said I wouldn’t really get into it because it’s really confusing. But when the Ottomans push into Eastern Europe, Suleiman negotiates with some of the Christian kings. Because of this the empire starts to break apart into three different regions: one ruled by the Habsburg family in the north and west (Austria), one ruled by the Ottomans along the Danube with their main city in Buda (Pest will come later – this is Hungary), and another small region called Transylvania. Yeah I didn’t really care about the other stuff either – that was all just a set up to make sure we all know that Transylvania was a real thing. It’s basically Romania today.

The Ottoman Navy

OK back to the Middle East. Suleiman did get the memo about the rising importance of sea power and he built up the Ottoman navy and became the powerhouse of the Mediterranean. The city-state of Venice tried to stop them but eventually had to negotiate a peace. But just a decade after Suleiman’s death, a coalition of Christian forces led by Philip II of Spain (he’s the same guy that Martin Cortes – Hernan and Malintzin’s son – worked for) defeated the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto.

The Pope had been trying to create a Catholic Alliance of states for years. For some context, the battle is happening just decades after Martin Luther’s 95 Theses – so they are reeling from the loss of millions of followers and they are definitely not OK with Muslims patrolling the Mediterranean. That’s one heathen too far.

The Christian navy was smaller but better trained and they defeated the Ottomans. Among the wounded for the Spanish was a guy named Miguel de Cervantes – who would go on to write Don Quixotes, an incredible work of satire making fun of the bygone medieval era.

So between Charles Martel against the Umayyads and Philip II against the Ottomans, the Muslims are never able to make their way fully into western Europe – but they’ve left a lasting influence on Spain, eastern Europe, and Mediterranean islands like Cyprus.

Ottomans didn’t quite get the memo

And the Ottomans were doing a better job of adapting to the new way of doing things, but there are two examples that highlight why they were never quite able to achieve global dominance like the Europeans, if they had even wanted it.

The first revolves around a group of people called Janissaries. When prisoners of war were captured, they were converted to Islam. For the most part only non-Muslims would have been prisoners of war because the Quran stated that you could only fight a war in defense of your faith – so fighting against other Muslims would have been haram, or forbidden. They’ll eventually find a loophole and fight against Shi’ites – especially the Safavids to the east – but for the first few centuries of their rule they focus most of their conquering on the non-Muslim world.

Anyway, these mostly Christian prisoners of war were converted, trained, and became members of the military and ultimately the sultan’s elite guard. And the reason they were able to become powerful was because the Ottomans seriously undervalued some new military technology coming out of Europe and China.

They were early adopters of guns, but they did not realize their true power and potential, and so they gave them to the Janissaries. Let me rephrase this: they conquered places, kidnapped young men as prisoners of war, converted them to Islam, gave them elite military training, and then armed them with weapons. And for a while, this group was the only group in the military with guns – the traditional cavalry preferred swords.

To me, this is a perfect example of the Asian world underestimating Europe and their new tools. Over time, the Janissaries were able to leverage their knowledge of these weapons to grow more powerful than the traditional military elites and by the late Ottoman Empire they will rival the power of the sultan himself, often using their specific set of skills to take out sultans who do not give them benefits and put people on the throne who will. So there’s a lesson for you, if you’re going to conquer people and subjugate them, don’t give them exclusive control over the most powerful weapon on the planet. Pro tip!

Ottoman tax structure (Less boring than it sounds!)

The second example that showcases some of the reasons why the Ottomans were not fully able to adapt and rise along with Europe, is taxes. Ugh taxes. I wish they weren’t important to history so we could never talk about economic things, but they are and so we have to. I’ll make it quick.

The Ottoman Empire’s tax structure was fixed. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to say that a person in the Ottoman empire had to pay the equivalent of 1 lb of silver a year. This is probably either incredibly high or incredibly low – I have no idea, I’m just sure it’s incredibly wrong. But let’s go with it. So this structure is fine as long as the global supply of silver stays relatively constant. It’s a good system for the Ottomans. They’re like, “The only thing that could screw this up would be if, like, someone were to discover two entire continents that we didn’t know existed and then find insane stores of silver in those mythical places. Wait. What’s that? Columbus? Where the hell is Potosi? Peru?! That’s not a real place. Well, dang, now we’re screwed.”

And they were screwed. Because since they were an Islamic theocracy – any changes had to run through a group of Islamic scholars who would consult the Qur’an. This is sharia law – it’s the thing your uncle, probably, has been forwarding you emails about for the last few years. The Ottomans were advanced and forward thinking in a lot of ways, but they were pretty inflexible when it came to making changes that went against the way things were in the Qur’an. So they don’t change their tax structure. So, I’m still paying 1 pound of silver each year but now the value of that silver has gone way down. That’s a problem.

Over time, the government is losing money and this is going to be one of the reasons why over the next era they will earn the nickname “the sick man of Europe.” Ouch.

We won’t really come back to the Ottomans in the next era. Just know that they were still trucking along, slowly declining due to the rising power of the Janissaries, their declining tax revenue, and a series of corrupt sultans. We’ll come back to them in World War I when they choose to side with Germany. Never a good choice as far as world wars go…

Next up: Africa Responses to the West | Slave Trade