3.1A: Weapons and State Rivalries

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Learning Objective 3A

Explain how and why various land-based empires developed and expanded from 1450 to 1750.

Main Idea 1

Imperial expansion relied on the increased use of gunpowder, cannons, and armed trade to establish large empires in both hemispheres.

Main Idea 2

Political and religious disputes led to rivalries and conflicts between states.


Gunpowder Changed How Empires Fought and Expanded Their Territories

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottomans, Mughals, and Safavid conquered the Middle East, South Asia, and large portions of North Africa and Eastern Europe. Advanced gunpowder weaponry, including firearms and cannons, made this conquest possible. As a result of their successful use of gunpowder weapons to expand, historians often refer to these empires as gunpowder empires

The Chinese invented gunpowder in the 9th century, and the Mongols successfully weaponized gunpowder during their expansion. By the 13th century, gunpowder was in the Middle East, where European crusading armies would discover it.

The history of gunpowder

Historical trend: Technology leading to significant changes is a trend in world history. The most powerful states will now have the best gunpowder weapons.  

Gunpowder in the Ottoman Empire

Gunpowder led the Ottomans to develop new military techniques and organizations. The Ottoman created the world’s first permanent standing army (permanent and full-time professional soldiers). Referred to as Janissaries, these soldiers were the first military units in the world to wear uniforms. For hundreds of years, they were the best-trained infantry in the world.

Gunpowder battles that expanded the Ottoman empire

Armed Jannersay units proved decisive in helping the Ottomans win the decisive battles below. These battles made the Ottoman’s a significant global power for the next 350 years.

Battle of Varna (1444): The Battle of Varna took place near Varna in eastern Bulgaria. The battle was part of the Varna Crusades, which attempted to stop expanding the Islamic Ottomans in Christian southeast Europe. Following the defeat of European powers, significant opposition to Ottoman expansion into southeast Europe ended. 

Siege of Constantinople (1453): Ottoman armies had attempted to capture the city of Constantinople for decades. In 1453, using cannons, the Ottomans bombarded Constantinople’s walls. Over 47 days, 55,000 pounds of gunpowder and 5,000 cannon shots blasted the city’s walls. While the city’s walls had protected the city from conquest for more than 1,000 years, Ottoman cannon technology finally breached the city’s walls and defenses. After 2,000 years, the final portion of the Great Roman civilization had fallen to Islamic forces. 

The Battle of Chaldiran (1514): The Battle of Chaldiran took place in 1514 and ended with a significant victory for the Ottoman Empire over the Safavid Empire. The Ottoman army had several advantages over the Safavid, including more soldiers and gunpowder artillery. As a result of the battle, the Ottomans expanded and added Eastern Anatolia and Northern Mesopotamia.

Gunpowder and the Safavid Empire

The first Safavid Shah (king), Ismael I, learned the value of gunpowder weapons after losing to the Ottomans at the Battle of Chaldiran (1514). After that battle, Shah Ishmael created a core of Safavid musketeers (the tofangchi). By the late 1590s, Shah Abbas I had also developed a cannon artillery corp. The Safavid used these weapons effectively in future military conflicts to expand their territory.

The Battle of Jam (1528): Following the death of the first Safavid leader Islamic I, the empire entered a civil war period. During this time, the Uzbeks from the northeast invaded Safavid territory. The Safavid fought a series of skirmishes and wars against the Uzbeks to regain the region. At the Battle of Jam in 1528, the Safavid deployed both a musket corps and cannon artillery mounted on wagons against the Uzbeks. While the Safavid were initially losing the battle, the gunpowder weapons allowed the Safavid to turn the fight in their favor and defeat the Uzbeks. 

The Ottoman Safavid Wars (1623-1639): The Ottoman Safavid Wars continued the battle for control over Mesopotamia (far eastern Anatolia and Northern Iraq). Following the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, the Ottomans had conquered these areas from the Safavid. With their army now well supplied and experienced with advanced gunpowder weaponry, Safavid emperor Abbas I looked to reconquer these lands from the Ottomans. Initially, the Safavid were victorious and captured significant Ottoman territory in Mesopotamia. However, the war quickly turned back toward the Ottomans. The Treaty of Zuhab in 1639 ended the war and again awarded the disputed territories to the Ottomans. 

Gunpowder and the Mughal Empire

The Mughal Empire was the third major Islamic gunpowder empire. Babur (1483-1530) founded the empire in 1526 following his defeat of the last Sultan of Delhi, Ibrahim Lodi (1459-1526), at the First Battle of Panipat. 

The First Battle of Panipat (1526): Babur’s victory over the Delhi Sultanate resulted from the expertise of his commander Ustad Ali Quli who had studied and trained Babur’s military in modern Ottoman fighting techniques. Babur’s army also had cannons that frightened Ibrahim Lodi’s war elephants. As the cannons fired, the war elephants ran and trampled Lodi’s soldiers. Ibrahim Lodi lost the battle, bringing an end to the Delhi Sultanate. 

The Mughals used their gunpowder military to subdue most of South Asia over the next 150 years. At its height under Emperor Aurangzeb, the Mughal empire included nearly all of South Asia, minus the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent.

Political and Religious Disputes Led to Rivalries and Conflict between States

Political and religious disputes led to rivalries and conflicts between states. Below are some major political rivalries that took place during this period.

Ottoman-Russo wars (mid 17th century – early 20th century): The Ottoman-Russo wars were a series of twelve wars between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. Most of the conflicts revolved around territories in the Caucasus region of Central Asia and the Balkans in Southeastern Europe. Most of the wars ended in defeat for the Ottoman Empire and victory for the Russian Empire. The Ottoman losses demonstrated to the world the weakening of the Ottoman Empire. In contrast, Russia’s successes in these wars showcased Russia’s rising global power. 

Songhai-Moroccan conflict (the early 1590s):  Following the death of ruler Askia Doud in 1583, the Songhai entered a civil war period. To the north, the Kingdom of Morocco was at the height of its power, having just defeated the Portuguese attempts to conquer the kingdom. However, the war against the Portuguese was costly. Moroccan Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi turned his attention to the goldfields to the south and trade that ran through the Songhai Empire. The two sides met at the Battle of Tondibi in 1591. The Moroccans came with gunpowder weapons, including guns and cannons, which Songhai’s military lacked. At the end of the battle, the Moroccans were victorious, and Songhai’s army lay destroyed.

Ottoman- Safavid conflict (early 16th – mid 18th centuries): The Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire fought wars across several centuries. These conflicts had two causes. 

  • The first was disputed land in Eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia (Northern Iraq), which both empires claimed. 
  • The second was the different forms of Islam practiced by the Ottomans and the Safavid. The Ottoman Empire practiced Sunni Islam, while the Safavid emperors were ardent supporters of Shia Islam. Some Safavid rulers went as far as to issue death sentences to those that did not convert to the Shia version of Islam. 

Islamic tradition states that two Islamic states cannot go to war against each other. However, Islamic powers throughout history had not always followed this tradition. To get around this restriction, Ottomans religious scholars argued that war waged against the Safavid was justified because they practiced a heretical (unpure) form of Islam. War against the Safavid, therefore, served to purify Islam and was justifiable. 

  • The Ottomans proved the stronger of the powers. By the middle of the 17th century, Ottoman control over  Eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia was secure.

Mughal-Safavid conflict (1649-1653): The Mughal-Safavid war began when the Safavid fought to recapture the Afghan cities of Kabul and Kandahar from the Mughals. These cities were essential to the Mughals for several reasons. 

  • First, the Mughals had always sought to expand their empire west toward their original homeland in Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Their ultimate goal was to one day reconquer the area from the Uzbeks who had forced them out. 
  • Second, Kandahar and Kabul were significant trading cities, and it was from here, the Mughals bought their supply of war horses. Should they lose control over these cities, they worried they would be at a strategic disadvantage by losing access to war horses. Both sides had gunpowder weapons. 

Despite being significantly outnumbered by the Mughals, the Safavid captured Kabul and Kandahar from the Mugal forces.

Historical continuity: Islam continues to be the dominant political, religious, and social system across the Middle East, South Asia, and Northern, Western, and Eastern Africa.