The Two Roaring Lions Of Chaldiran

A turning point in Turkish history, the Battle of Chaldiran (1514) is the subject of a popular new novel by İskender Pala. We discussed the battle and his novel with the author.

Why Chaldiran?
Chaldiran is a key turning point in Turkish history when a minor decision changed the course of events, which had also been changed earlier by the struggle between Tamerlane and Bayezid the Lightning Bolt (Bayezid I). And the most important turning point of all was the founding of the Ottoman state in the years that followed when Mehmet the Conqueror’s dream of establishing a world empire was realized for the first time and became reality. Chaldiran was a turning point in that whole process.

Both sides were Turks in the Battle of Chaldiran. How did this battle affect the future of the Turkish world?
I became convinced that the political and strategic structures of the sides at Chaldiran were such as to decide the future of the Turkish world. I read some sixty books on the subject and studied all the common points on which they were based. To put it simply: Two lions roared at Chaldiran and two tigers clawed each other. Two brimming jugs collided with great force.

Naturally one of them would break. And the one who was broken that day was Shah Ismail. Had the defeated been Selim I, a completely different Turkish world would have evolved. In the end, two rulers, both of them Turks, fought at Chaldiran. And both, probably without realizing it, were there on behalf of the future of Turkishness. Both saw their own existence in the annihilation of the other. The ambition of both was to rule over a world state.

How would the situation have developed if the Safavid ruler Shah Ismail had won?
The capital would probably still have been Istanbul, but we would have seen radical differences in the structure of the Turkish state. A situation might have developed in which the Shiite tradition took precedence over the Sunni. At the same time, our western-oriented axis might have been more strongly eastern-oriented.

The religious texture of the Ottoman Empire’s belief system could have been different and might have taken on a structure in which Shamanist elements were more prominent. The Safavids’ hegemony in the east and the Ottomans’ in the west were their raisons d’être. And their way of sustaining their existence lay in each other. Western Anatolia meant life for Shah Ismail and Eastern Anatolia for Selim the Grim (Selim I).

In other words,  it was actually a sort of ‘backyard’ war?
What I referred to as a turning point in Ottoman history lies precisely here. Chaldiran is one of the important milestones in the history of Ottoman warfare. There is an image of Chaldiran in everyone’s mind. It’s a battle we read about in our history books starting in elementary and middle school. We know two Chaldiran’s.

One is the Chaldiran on the border with our province of Van, the other is the Chaldiran in Iran. The battle took place at the Chaldiran in Iran. Etymologically the name Chaldiran comes from Char-i Deyran, or ‘four churches’ (‘char’ meaning four, ‘deyr’ meaning church, and ‘deyran’ being the plural). They were churches that had been built over temples left from the pagan era. The power of those four churches also determined and represented the social balance in the region.

They were not of course all of equal influence. The westernmost was the Akhtamar Church on Lake Van. Another church ten kilometers away in the Chaldiran in Iran was one of the leading centers of world Protestantism. They still gather there every year. I went to the Chaldiran in Iran and spent a night there.

Did you start writing the novel there?
I wrote the novel in Istanbul. I felt a little like a grandson of Selim I. In fact, I did not want to take sides at all. In order not to, I read through the novel five times, each time with a different eye. But that wasn’t enough. I had to see Chaldiran, to follow in the footsteps of Shah Ismail, and so I went to Tabriz to touch and feel his legacy there. In Tabriz I read the novel as a grandson of Shah Ismail, and I realized that I had not been objective. So I immediately set to work to rectify that and gave the novel its final form in Tabriz.

What kind of place is Chaldiran?
The site of the Battle of Chaldiran still looks like an open field. There are some little hills and, next to them, a green valley. Just beyond the spot where the battle was fought there is a small town of 500 people, but no permission was given for any structure of any kind to be built on the site where the battle took place.

Archaeological excavations could still be done there today and traces of the Battle of Chaldiran brought to the light of day. There is also a tomb there. In it lies the body of a warrior and two of Shah Ismail’s vezirs who lost their lives in the battle. In order to make those who fought the war come alive in my mind, I listened to the humming noise that comes from the mountains and to the sounds of nature there. I tried to imagine the cries of the warriors and the whinnying of the horses. I imagined myself a soldier who was going to fight at Chaldiran at daybreak. I imagined the whizzing arrows, the clanking swords, the clashing shields.