Mongol General: “What is best in life?”
Conan: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”
This quote has been attributed to Genghis Khan and plenty of other steppe nomads, and that is what we recall of them in popular historical imagination. Driven by bloodthirst and a desire for power and glory, as chronicled by historians like Harold Lamb, whose grasp of facts was much more tenuous then his grasp of what made good literature, the Mongols and others like them were generally admired for their warrior skill and empire‑building, as well as derided for their savagery and brutality, from Attila, the Scourge of God, to the pyramid of skulls building Tamerlane who inspired such an excellent play by Christopher Marlowe and whose forces conquered the Middle East, from Moscow to Delhi, and killed plenty along the way. Chinese tradition is likewise replete of fear and contempt for the nomad, from the Xiongnu who regularly pillaged the northern border, to the Mongols of Kublai Khan and the Manchus conquerers who ruled until the 20th century, blamed by nationalist revolutionary propaganda for China’s material and cultural retardation. And it would be foolish to deny how determined the Huns were, for instance, to conquer and assert their will, to gain favourable trade terms and make slaves and vassals of those without the strength to resist. Clearly, Tamerlane did sack cities, massacre children, and heap the heads of his enemies high, but what has changed amongst historians and even now amongst the general public is that Tamerlane, for instance, was not just a destroyer and bane upon existence, that the opponents and chroniclers of his reign, like the Chinese nationalists of a century past, would willfully alter history to suit an ideological and political aim, and that Tamerlane, while with sword in hand, would still build mosques, cultivate intellectuals and holy men, lavish wealth upon poets and encourage artisans and architects throughout their reign.
The Mongols, for instance, despite their reputation for destroying cities, also helped to foster widespread intellectual, commercial and cultural trends, as Thomas T. Allsen’s Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia demonstrated, amongst many other sources. They were capable administrators and diplomats, occasionally even outdoing their sedentary subjects as in the case of the Manchus in China. Cynically, and perhaps rightly, we must consider this diligence to conquered subjects as the same sense of duty a pastoralist might take toward his flock: to be protected and husbanded carefully from other predators in order to benefit from the resources in food and trade they supply. Or is that how all macroparatism works, as William H. McNeil would argue? Some steppe nomads nonetheless proved more then willing to make themselves more like their sedentary subjects, whether, again, in the style of the Manchus, or peoples before them in China like the Shatuo Turks, Touba and Khitan, and rule in the name of a stable administration, peace and tranquillity; the Mughals and the Ottomans represent a relatively efficient example of a nomadic conquerer becoming as sedentary as their subjects and becoming much more then ravishers of women and stealers of cattle.
What is also gone is the idea of tribal or oriental despotism, of the great Khans and unchallenged Tamerlanes whose rule, once official, was of a single charismatic warrior and leader whose will to conquer was shared generically and the driving will of an entire nomadic people. Beatrice Forbes-Mann’s brilliant if dry book The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane sets the tone for the new and much more nuanced scholarly examination of steppe warriors: gone is the image of the ruthless tyrant, to be replaced by a powerful individual, charismatic true, who nonetheless relied upon and was challenged and supported by a vast array of tribal, clan and urban groups whose influence both pushed and restrained Tamerlane (he was still ruthless too, but this was not a function of his unique genius or psychopathy but of struggle for control within a broad and fractured group, in which loyalty could be bought or earned through military escapades, to reward loyal followers and their own followers, or through trade and taxes, much more boring but much more capable of sustaining a state apparatus if the shift to a more thoroughly sedentary life could be made. This understanding of tribal politics and sedentarization and Weberian bureaucratization underlies some of the same understandings in John E. Woods The Aqquyunlu: Clan, Confederation, Empire, in that his revised edition expands slightly upon a history of a nomadic steppe warrior group for whom tribal confederations and alliances, or their failure, were the most important factor behind success or failure on a geo-social and political scale.
Who were the Aqquyunlu? They were Turkmen, which may surprise some who think Turks live only in Turkey or in those ‘Stans’ south of Russia and north of Afghanistan and Iran. Azerbaijan’s historical and present day population is at least partially Turkmen, and once, much of what we now call the Middle East was ruled by tribal bands, kingdoms and warlord armies made up of Turkmen pastoralists, shepherds and warriors. The rulers of the Ottoman Empire and Mughal Empire, as well as Iran up to the twentieth centuries, were sedentary descendants of these same Turkmen groups, whose ancestors had once established an empire in Central Asia and by the eleventh century had converted to Islam, conquered Jerusalem and eastern Anatolia, and triggered the Crusades.
Who were the Aqquyunlu? They were a clan, first and foremost, known as the Buyandur as well, who claimed descent from the near mythical Oghuz Khan, first of the Turks, as one of the ancestral 24 tribes. They were a confederation, led and dominated by the Buyandur clan, supported by the clans of the right and left flank, Purnak and Mawsillu. The manpower and resources of the Aqquyunlu was drawn from allied, conquered, and confederate Turkmen tribes like Afshars, Bayat, Pazukia, Haydarlu and Doger, from other nomad groups assimilated into the confederation as it expanded, and from other allied elite groups like the Safavid religious brotherhoods and Kurdish and Arab tribes. The Aqquyunlu were also an Empire, but this came late in the history of their political organisation, and did not last long. For most of their history, after emerging as a discrete political (as opposed to social) entity during the disruptions of the Mongol conquest of Iran, the Aqquyunlu existed on the fringes of the Islamic and settled world, vying with other Turkmen tribal groups over summer, yaylaqs and winter pasture, kishlaqs. As Woods points out repeatedly, the quest for pastures and caravan routes was a defining feature of much of Aqquyunlu history, necessary to maintain the cohesion and loyalty of the confederacy, alongside the granting of appanages of land and men to the ruling clan’s children, and the granting of political-military and fiscal responsibilities to clan chiefs.
The appanage system, by which the royal clan exerted territorial control over its conquests, however, was also the greatest weakness of the Aqquyunlu state: unlike in European feudalism, where primogeniture was established, encouraging the first born son and heir to inherit all the land of his father, the realm was shared out equally amongst the sons of the confederations head: these dispensations ensured loyalty to the head of the clan by rewarding his children at the expense of the other clans, who remained subordinate politically and economically, even if they monopolised the military and state offices. The problem arose when the dispenser died: all his children, due to their appanages, had equal right to the throne or the tent that served just as well for nomadic shepherds. Even designating a successor did not work, because Turkmen nomadic political authority rested upon ability as much as legitimacy. A weak son would most likely lose out and be replaced by a more ruthless and capable son, but as all sons had an equal share, they all usually attempted to gain control of the state. Worse still, their cousins and uncles also had claims to leadership, as did the other paramount clans through marriage alliances. A very confusing situation; the civil wars that resulted from these ‘disputes,’ to put it blandly, occupy almost all of Woods narrative of Aqquyunlu rise and fall. Unsurprisingly, he blames this unstable political tradition for the obscurity of the Aqquyunlu today.
The thrust of Woods’s book is easy enough to follow, a narrative of the “evolution of the Aqquyunlu confederation from a band of nomdic “cossack” freebooters into a relatively centralised, terrotorial system based on a regularised but essentially predatory relationship with agriculture and commerce”: an evolution brief, dynamic, and extremely bloody, a bright but fiery comet.
The Aqquyunlu as a state emerged in 1402 when they were granted land in modern Diyar Bakir, southeastern Turkey, pastures and towns by Tamerlane in recognition of their self-serving alliance with him. This state expanded on a modest scale under the energetic Qara Uzman, attracting new confederates and gaining control over towns and trade routes (it should be noted that borders and territories, as in Europe at the time, were extremely loose, porous and undefined: un-aligned tribes and Kurdish groups moved as they wished and wielded independent authority within what was considered by the Aqquyunlu as their territory, and many tribes and cities could owe multiple allegiances). Eventually the Aqquyunlu came to control land in Armenia and Kurdistan, until the death of Qara Uzman threw the confederacy into a twenty year civil war in the 1430s and 1440’s, as rival uncles, cousins, brothers and warlords tried to claim leadership of the confederacy. Eventually after a ten year period during which the chief rivals of the Aqquyunlu, the Qarayunlu, rulers of Azerbaijan, Iraq and Western Iran, maintained a friendly ‘pretender’ on the ‘throne’, Qara Uzman’s son Uzun Hasan rose to power, and under his leadership the confederacy expanded to its height, destroying the Qarayunlu, or more appropriately, amalgamating them, By 1468 the confederacy ruled over Kurdistan, eastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Iran. After this, the confederacy was to experience all the rebellions, famines and intrigues, and a cultural renaissance of poetry, Islamic learning of any empire, until the death of Uzun Hazan’s son Yacub threw the empire into a chaos of succession struggles and confederate clan wars (hitherto, clans had sided with factions within the dominant clans, rather than advancing their own agendas at the expense of others). The empire of the Aqquyunlu would collapse by 1508, when the Safavid grandmaster Is’mail, himself a grandson of an Aqquyunlu, would conquer their land and name himself Shah of Iran.
Wood’s narrative is fast, often a little too fast: his descriptions of battles, massacres, politics, and material culture are all incredibly sketchy, seldom deeply detailed and often drained of colour, despite the kind of grissly trophies the Aqquyunlu would dispatch to their friends and enemies: severed heads and headless bodies, and despite the poetry and chronicles written to commemorate Aqquyunlu victories. Aqquyunlu art, produced especially in Tabriz, is incredible, heavily influenced by Chinese ink drawing and equally mysterious, vibrant and strange to our eyes, and there is a little of it reproduced in the book (as an aside, I wish more would be available in book form). The details of nomad society Wood assumes we must already know, and the nature of administration and bureaucracy, or the formations of armies and trade routes, the collection of taxes and the populations they ruled. To a certain extent, this is the fault of the sources, which are limited in scope, unconcerned with boring administrative tasks, sporadic and concerned with panegyric biography over analysis and description (unlike much of the best Chinese history, which combined biography with analytic thought and descriptions of institutions and customs).
There is still much that Woods has marshaled for his book: sources in medieval Greek, Italian, Farsi, Arabic, and several dialects of Turkish. Indeed, a series of massive appendices list the many disparate sources of his study, as well as the genealogies of the Aqquyunlu and the names of all the associated tribes and clans of the confederacy. It’s very, very thorough, in a way, and yet not thorough in the way that a general reader would enjoy, even if I found it very interesting in its own right. Some of the more interesting assertions, however, of Woods study remain outside the realm of his book, a darn shame, but then again, this book is the the groundwork for all English language study of the Aqquyunlu…and indeed is the only English language study of the Aqquyunly.
Why should we care about the Aqquyunlu? I can’t give you a good reason, but frankly, a transitory empire of nomadic Turkmen horse archers riding across Iran and Iraq, reciting Persian poetry and cutting off heads is interesting on its own terms though I imagine studying the Aqquyunlu. From the perspective of those interested in state formation and early examples of federate government, The Aqquyunlu: Clan, Confederacy, Empire might very well give one cause to blush, if you are in to that sort of blushing. The existence and failure of the Aqquyunlu leads me to question, at least on a macro, long duree scale, what makes a civilization, or a social, economic and political model, succeed or fail compared to others? If we reject, as I do, that individuals are the only drivers of history, and accept that social and economic conditions are the primary determinants of a society’s ‘failure’ or survival, then what caused the Aqquyunlu, like other nomad steppe warrior coalitions like them, whether the Touba or Shatuo Turks in China or the Mongols or Timurids, to falter after a few generations and fail completely?
Failure is probably the wrong word; it isn’t exactly as if the Turkmen of the Aqquyunlu disappeared as a culture, and most of their elites and the rest survived into the Safavid period. Or perhaps, a better question would ask how the Aqquyunlu succeeded, if, again, such a word can be used to describe a society? Woods notes several strategies of political legitimacy and social alliances that gave the Aqquyunlu resiliency and vigour as an expansive and rapacious political system. Like many nomads, they were very quick, indeed, eagre to adopt the bureaucratic and administrative techniques of the lands they conquered, and likewise, the fluidity and flexibility of both the clan structure and the confederacy allowed for violation of the central authority without serious risk so long as amends were made or sanctions imposed: likewise, the Aqquyunlu leaders were pursued as policy assimilation rather then annihilation, adding new clans to the confederacy, a flexibility that allowed the small principality concentrated in Armenia and Diyar Bakir to conquer, in two years, the entire Qara Koyunlu confederation in Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan. A shared political ethic based on loyalty to the victorious, and the rewards, loot and power of service, and a basic similarity with their opponents, made it easy to accommodate and absorb defeated tribes, whose were often all too willing to serve new masters, no worse or better then the old. The Aqquyunlu did attempt to have the Qara Koyunlu branded as Shi’a heretics by ulema, but this was the kind of PR stunt needed to convince their allies and elites; I doubt that the rank and file on either side cared much. (An interesting aside: the Aqquyunlu had the most trouble fighting the Ottomans; perhaps this reflects the significant differences in rulership, political culture and terms of service, from tribal muster to bureaucratic army, between the two states?)
The Aqquyunlu adopted and modified, as political ideology, several elements of Turko-Mongol political thought: the paramount clan, the Bayandur, was sacrosanct and could never be replaced or overshadowed by the other clans, limiting until the 1490’s the role of inter-clan warfare and maintaining the relative integrity of the ruling house as source of authority, territory and wealth. At the same time, the Aqquyunlu cultivated a fierce steppe nomad ideology that praised the Turkmen way of life and condemned, in the words of Khunji-Istanfanhi, court historian of khan Yacub, the sahari, open spaces, of the Turkmen way of life, and decried any who settled in the “filthy cities and perverse towns”; a century earlier Qara Usman was said to have advised his sons “do not become sedentary, for sovereignty resides in those who practice the nomadic Turkmen way of life”. This insistence on maintaining a nomadic way of life undoubtedly maintained the Turkmen in fighting shape over generations, and probably served another purpose: it dignified the life of the rank and file, the common clansman, a poor shepherd often little better off economically then the farmers and artisans of the settled world, and served to keep the nomad separate from centres of fiscal power and authority in the cities. Moreover, the nomads were not taxed, and were not restrained to any one place, occupying a position of authority they would not soon want to give up.
This steppe nomad ideology was carried to the divisions of the state as well: the bureaucracy and finances, as well as religious duties, were the exclusive purview of urban dwellers, following both Persian traditions of governance and heterodox religious ideals; these came to dominate the conduct and organization of the state despite the best efforts of many Turkmen to remain pure and true to tradition. Indeed, Persian styles of governance were used to add additional legitimacy to the Aqquyunlu empire and its central clan after the conquest of Iran; the Sassanids of the 6th century, as well the Ilkhanids of the Mongol empire, were both considered bearers of universal monarchy, of imperial rule that could contain the world: the Aqquyunlu rulers styled themselves badshah, king of kings, though this was one of many titles, including khan, they used to bolster their legitimacy, against their enemies and amongst the tribal confederates and paramount clans. These clans, the Purnak and Mawsillu, who also were the only clans beside the Buyandur who were allowed to hold office within the divan, the highest level of state, though various tribesmen could rise to powerful military rank. As monarchs in the Persian style, the Aqquyunlu built mosques, universities and hospices, encouraged irrigation projects, renounced certain taxes and encouraged charitable foundations. The military was the chief centre of Turkmen political activity and no sedentary ‘Tajik’ was allowed to serve. The Aqquyunlu confederacy was at first a military structure, and the ruling clans knew well enough how to divide up the military tribes so that no one group could build a power base amongst followers united by ties of blood, and despite our ideas about nomads and military power, the Aqquyunlu adopted gunpowder weaponry, as early as Europeans and Ottomans and Mughals. Clan chiefs were made into tax farmers and local potentates, extracting wealth from artisans and farmers, tolls and duties, technically against muslim and Persian ideas of government, but encouraging their tribal followers to participate in ordered government.
Finally, the Aqquyunlu relied upon appeasing and cultivating religious sentiment, especially heterodox and Sufi groups whose correctness to religious authority was proportionally inverse to their popularity. Alchemical and mystical, numeroligical and astronomical sanction was sought for political decisions, or at least to add lustre, and Uzun Hazan and Yacub were known for adopting shows of Sufi ascetism, including simple clothes and paraphanelia during public hearings and appearances. The idea of Aqquyunlu rulers as world redeemers and holders of calpihal Muslim authority was developed between the 1450’s and 1480’s, to demonstrate the sacral character and universal appeal of the Turkmen lords. What is more, the level of political sophistication, in service of the state and royal clan, reached quite high and quite far back in time, to scholars marginal, at best, to Turkmen political thought (this is excerpted from a traetise on politicis by Jalal Al-Din Muhammad Davani from 1472):
“The sovereign [hakim] is a person distinguished by divine support [ta’yid-I ilahi] so that he might lead individual men to perfection n and order their affairs. The philosophers designate this person “the absolute ruler” [malik ‘ala al-itlaq] and his ordinances “statecraft” [sana’at-I mulk]. The moderns call him “the Imam” and his function “the imamate.” Plato terms him “controller [mudabbir] of the world,” while Aristotle names him “the civic man,” that is, he who efficiently discharges the duties of the state.”
This royal, philosophical propaganda did very little to maintain the stability of Aqquyunlu rule. Within a decade of Davani writing this, Sultan-Khalil, a new, young ruler who admired the Ottomans and found amongst the Persian elite support for a policy of administrative centralization, was overthrown and murdered by his brother Yacub, who enjoyed the support of the tribal elites hostile to any attempt to ‘reform’ at their expense. Within another decade, Yacub and his family was massacred, and the princes of the Bahanyir clan became puppets to ambitious tribal warlords. Clan began to fight clan, an unheard of situation in a state and confederacy where infighting had traditionally ignored clan boundaries. Within another decade, the last Aqquyunlu were destroyed in Iraq by Ismail, who became the first Shah of Safavid Persia. Unfortunately, Woods gives us little in the way of analysis about this spectacular collapse, other than it being the fault of weaknesses in succession and a failure to ‘centralise’ and ‘modernise’ in the sixteenth century way. The sole attempt after Yacub’s death was undertaken by a teenaged boy educated in Ottoman Constantinople, but his ‘modern’ guard of gun-equipped soldiers were overwhelmed by Turkmen soldiers. It would seem, though we have no idea, that the Aqquyunlu tribal elite and their followers viewed any attempt to curtail their power and ‘freedoms’ (though they may not have understood it so) as a reasonable threat to their very livelihood. Nomadic groups ranged freely over the Ottoman-Aqquyunlu border, and no doubt carried stories of the forced settlements and enforced peasantry of many former nomad and Turkmen groups (one reason why so many rebelled against the Sultan in the 1510’s, perhaps?). Is it possible, though not testable, that the Aqquyunlu clans would rather risk ‘bloody tanistry’ than what must have seemed like slavery? Woods account of Aqquyunlu collapse is also short on economic and social details; could changes in the distribution of wealth and population, or in the trade routes that supplied the pay of the common soldiers and their masters, have lead to collapse? Woods hints that intellectual changes, including the rise of the Safavid religious order, played a role, by providing another pole of attraction, of religious rabblerousing that was almost ‘revolutionary’ (in the Radical Reformation kind of way), as Kathryn Babayan almost, sort of writes in her recent Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran. Finally, Woods is right to point out, as I already mentioned, that the Aqquyunlu tribes didn’t collapse or disappear, only the leadership at the very top; the Safavids merely absorbed and assimilated the confederacy to suit their own purposes. Collapse isn’t even a useful word in this case. Especially when the only ‘losers’ were princes, despots and kings, murdering each other over the spoils. Hardly to be pitied, I’d say