Exactly 500 Years Ago, This Battle Changed the Middle East Forever

Five centuries ago, the contours of the modern Middle East were shaped through a series of Ottoman battles. The outcomes of these battles—which shaped the region’s politics, demographics and religious movements—were much more important in the long run than modern phenomena such as the Sykes-Picot Pact. This month marks the five hundredth anniversary of one of the most important of these battles, the Battle of Marj Dabiq, between the Ottoman Empire and the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, the Levant and the Hejaz.

Marj Dabiq means the “meadow of Dabiq,” and was fought next to the town in modern Syria where Islamic State believes Armageddon will occur, on the basis of a hadith (a saying attributed to Muhammad). Northwestern Syria is littered with countless battle sites, ancient and modern, as it is situated on the most traversable land route between Turkey and Europe, on the one hand, and the Levant, Egypt and Mesopotamia, on the other hand.

In the early sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire, having already conquered most of the Balkans, shifted its attention to the Middle East. The initial impetus for this was the influence of the rapidly expanding Safavid Persian Empire. The Safavid Empire originated in 1501 in what is today East Azerbaijan Province in northern Iran, and soon expanded to include much of Persia, Afghanistan and Iraq. It wielded enormous influence over many of the Turkish and Kurdish tribes of eastern Turkey, many of which were influenced by the Shia propaganda of the Safavids. In order to counter this enormously destabilizing influence on their eastern flank, the Ottomans moved to confront the Safavids directly. This led to the pivotal Battle of Chaldiran on August 23, 1514, which resulted in an Ottoman victory, aided by its superior artillery. Chaldiran cemented Ottoman rule over eastern Turkey and Mesopotamia and limited Safavid expansion mostly to Persia. This ultimately checked the expansion of Shia Islam and strengthened the association between Iranian national identity and Shia Islam. Sunni Islam, championed by the Ottomans, became permanently dominant throughout most of the rest of the region.

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