A Comprehensive Analysis — What makes an empire successful?

Evaristo Derby
10 min readMar 2, 2022

How did the Mughals, Safavids, and Ottomans thrive, and what do they share in common?

Ottoman Empire, Daily Sabah

Throughout the history of mankind, empires across the globe have prevailed in reaching territorial expansion, formidable strength in their militaries, and implementing their interests throughout conquered lands. In addition, ancient empires have shaped notable historical events analyzed today; likewise, they have also influenced modern-day life. In this day and age, the ruins of empires in past centuries impact today’s civilization, from religious conflicts to geopolitical aspects. Muslim empires, further, reached as far West as the treacherous Mediterranean and East to the Indian sub-continent, enacting their interests upon millions of civilians. These triumphant empires survived centuries and influenced history as a whole, from establishing Islamic Law to generating modern warfare that revolutionized battlefield combat and forever altering Persian, Indian, and European culture. Nevertheless, how did these empires, in fact, survive? All in all, prevailing and successful empires were built on the basis of having an advanced warfare capacity, a beneficial geographic positioning, and by establishing religious tolerance in the state; Muslim Empires such as Ottomans, Safavids, and the Mughals attest to this, as the outlined aspects were fundamental to their survival and expansion.

Ancient Muslim empires relied on advanced warfare capacities to survive and prevail; warfare was a fundamental piece for a Muslim empire’s glory. All throughout, Muslim empires such as the Ottoman Turks utilized warfare to enlarge their annexed territories and effectively defend against foreign perils. Such advanced warfare is apparent in the Ottoman Army. For instance, the Ottoman Empire’s forces consisted of elite infantry corps (e.g: Janissaries) who were able to form an immense “gun-powder” empire in the Anatolian Peninsula and beyond (Spiegel, 486). As a whole, the Ottomans had a war-time strength of over two million men, 2.1 million were deployed in World War One (Erickson). The initial Ottoman conquests that set a foundation for the years to come were the annexation of Constantinople (1453), the Battle of Chaldiran (1514), and the empire’s first expansions into the Bosphorus, Dardanelles, Sea of Marmora, Asia, and Northern Africa (under the rule of Selim I), and into Hungary/Austria in the Battle of Mohács, in which they seized Belgrade (Spielgovel, 486). Such initial expansions set the ground for the empire to gradually enlarge its territory, ultimately becoming the most feared military power during its existence. Furthermore, a major role in the advanced warfare of the empire came from the Janissaries, a number of elite men who were converted Christians into Islam, primarily converted under the Devshirme System (Hain). Additionally, all adversaries also feared the logistical preparation and strength of the Ottomans, whose army was twofold, central, and peripheral. Although the Ottoman expansion into Western Europe was halted at the Battle of Lepanto (1571) by the Spanish and Papal Fleets, the Ottomans’ warfare capabilities enabled them to form the empire historians scrutinize today (Spielgovel, 486). Moreover, the Ottoman success when it came to warfare capabilities is seen in the modernization of their weaponry and artillery. Arguably, the most modern rifle of the Ottoman Army (seen in WW1) was the 7.65-mm M1903 Mauser bolt-action rifle with a range of up to 2,000 meters (“Ottoman 7.65mm M1903 Mauser Rifle”). In addition, standard handguns were also utilized, such as the 7.63-mm Mauser C96 and the 9-mm FN-Browning M1903 pistols alongside war horses and elephants (“Weapons of the Ottoman Army”). In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “the Turks (Ottomans) can be killed, but never conquered.” Not only does the Ottoman Empire depict the importance of military modernization, but the Safavid Empire and Shah Abbas do as well. Essentially, under reigns previous to Abbas’s, the Safavid military was fragile, and the Safavids had repeatedly lost at the hands of the Ottomans (Farrokh). However, when Abbas came to power, he underwent a vast military reform with the advice of Englishman Sir. Robert Sherly, in which Abbas established a division of three units in the military (the ghulāms-slaves-, the tofangchīs-musketeers-,and the topchīs-artillerymen-) (“Safavid Empire — Expansion And Military Organization”). For instance, Abbas installed the Ghulam units to counterbalance the traditions of the Qizilbash forces (the initial forces of the empire, too outdated). On the other hand, Abbas also brought reform to firearm units — Shah Abbas introduced the musketeers, the Jazayerchis, and the artillerymen (“Safavid Empire — Expansion And Military Organization”). As a result of the modernization, the Safavids expelled the Ottomans from Tabriz in 1603 and Yerevan a year later; the Safavids also defeated Ottoman counter-offensives at Azerbaijan in 1605 (Farrokh). As a result, a peace treaty was enacted in 1612 between the two forces (Farrokh). Due to the continuous victories in the years to come and the defeat of the Ottomans in Yerevan and Ardabil (1616–1618), a new peace treaty between the Safavids-Ottomans affirmed all of Shah Abbas’s conquests since 1603 (Farrokh). Once again, the capability and modernization of weaponry played an extensive role. Early Safavids in contrast to Abbas drew on other sources of military defense instead of firearms. By 1530 (not under Abbas’ reign), the Safavid forces had at last included several light guns alongside thousands of infantrymen armed with the necessary weapons (Safavid Empire — Expansion And Military Organization). Lastly, the Mughal Empire also attests to the need for warfare development and modernization. The Mughal Empire was at constant fighting, from the Siege of Fort at Chittor (resulting in 30,00 civilian deaths) to the wars with the Safavids (Green). In addition, the Mughal Empire demonstrates the value of advanced military weaponry as a whole — Babur’s (Mughal Empire’s “founder” and first emperor) forces were greatly outnumbered and weaker, yet, with Babur’s advanced weapons and artillery, they prevailed. The Mughal army consisted of over 300,000 infantrymen, 3,000 guns, and over 8,000 war elephants (Searle). The army utilized swords, bows, arrows, horses, camels, elephants, and modernized large cannons (mainly the Affar Baksh; the military had 16) alongside muskets, flintlocks, and blunderbusses (De la Garza). In the decades to come, such advanced warfare enabled the young Mughal Emperor Akbar to expand the empire to most of India by utilizing heavy artillery against his opponents, therefore overpowering the stone fortresses of his rivals. As it is evident, the role of warfare was fundamental for the three listed Muslim Empires, and without such modernization, the empires would not have reached the heights they did.

A states’ geographic positioning has forever been key for economic success and territorial dominance; this being demonstrated in ancient Muslim Empires, World War Two (e.g: German Empire), and today. Geographic positioning is amongst the greatest factors that led to the success of major empires. In essence, a beneficial geographic positioning for empires has brought about beneficial outcomes. For instance, for the Ottoman Empire, their geographic position in the Anatolian Peninsula offered several military advantages. As a result, the Ottomans were not only able to expand towards Asia but also towards the Western Mediterranean and Northern Africa. In other words, the Ottomans were repeatedly on the military offensive against their adversaries. In addition, the Ottomans reaped the benefits of their geographic location when it came to trade — the Ottomans were able to secure a number of trade routes to Asia, alongside expanding their major trade of tobacco and cotton, generating large capital for the empire (Lybyer). On the other hand, the Safavids were mostly harmed by their geographic location. The Safavids suffered negative impacts from their geographic position persistently. Commencing, due to their geographic location, the Safavids were greatly harmed religiously-wise. The Safavid Empire was established in Persia, a Sunni-Muslim-dominated region (“Religions — Islam: Safavid Empire”). However, the Safavid Empire embodied Shia Islam as the state faith (“Religions — Islam: Safavid Empire”). Thus, the Safavids were forced to undergo a years-long conversion of Persia into Shia. The Safavids’ neighboring states, nonetheless, primarily the Mughals (to the east) and the Ottomans (to the west) practiced the Sunni faith. Such countering religions consequently led to conflicts between the empires. Due to their negative geographic positioning, the Safavid Empire eventually came to its end centuries before the Ottomans and Mughals. Nevertheless, as it is also evident with the Ottomans and Mughals, the Safavids were able to establish ideal trade routes in the long coastlines between Arabia and India (Ranjbar and Manesh). In differing circumstances, without the existence of the Ottomans and Mughals, the Safavid Empire could have lived on for centuries to come. Once again, the Mughal Empire also asserts this claim. The Mughals relied on their geographic landscape for their early expansions; the plains of the Indian sub-continent were critical for Babur’s mobile military strategy (e.g: Seen on their annexation of North-Western India) (Harder). In addition, the Mughals benefited from their geographic position in trade, as the Mughal economy was fundamentally built upon foreign agricultural trade (which they taxed) (Green). Due to their geographic positioning, the Mughals were able to expand their territorial empire and gain trade revenue. By analyzing these three Muslim empires, it becomes clear that the geographic location of an empire is vital to the empire’s glory.

Religious liberty and freedom is a foundational pillar for the success of an empire, as it yields innovative thinking, satisfaction amongst the public, and public trust on governmental institutions. Religious tolerance in empires has prospered them to greatness. In the words of U.S. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, “civil and religious liberties always go together: if the foundation of one be sapped, the other will fall.” Muslim empires witnessed firsthand the importance of religious liberty. For example, in the Mughal Empire, an Islam-majority ruling class controlled a Hindu-majority population, and religious tolerance was critical for open dialogue in the state and increased numbers in economic revenue (Green). Under the rule of Emperor Akbar, the Mughal Empire abolished the Jizya Tax and granted all non-Muslims equal rights (Sulh-i kul); Akbar even aimed to create his own religion, the Din-i Illahi, but it never gained a large following (“Religions — Islam: Mughal Empire”). Akbar staunchly believed that the role of government was to perceive everyone justly, regardless of their faith (Green). In Akbar’s reign, religious tolerance led to the empire’s stability and economic peak. Nevertheless, these religiously tolerant policies came to an end when Emperor Aurangzeb inherited the throne. In contrast to Akbar, Aurangzeb installed Islamic orthodoxy in the empire, which therefore led to unrest within the population and weakened the state (Green). Nowadays, historians argue that Aurangzeb’s religious policies led to the empire’s collapse 50 years later (this in addition to the British East India Company present in India). Essentially, religious tolerance effectively contributed to stability within the empire. A similar scenario is seen with the Ottomans, whose religious tolerance is primarily based on the Millet System (enacted by Sultan Mehmed II). The Millet System (millet, meaning “nation” in Arabic) granted every separate religion their own rights and criminal system, as well as their political freedom (“Rights of the non-Muslim in the Ottoman Empire”). To illustrate, the Christians in the Ottomans Empire were able to elect their own separate religious leader, in this case electing the Orthodox Patriarch, who was the Archbishop of Constantinople (“Rights of the non-Muslim in the Ottoman Empire”). Additionally, these religious leaders were able to enforce their own religious rule, with Islamic Law having no jurisdiction over non-Muslims; criminals would be charged in accordance with the established laws of their millet (Christians Law, Jewish Law, etc.) (“Rights of the non-Muslim in the Ottoman Empire”). Such religious tolerance prevented instability and disasters in the Ottomans Empire (Conquered lands of the Ottoman Empire in Europe mostly remained Christian), which enabled them to focus their resources on expanding their territorial superiority. Nevertheless, in contrast to the Mughals and Ottomans, in the Safavid Dynasty, religious tolerance was not present; Sunni Muslims and any “non-believers” were persecuted. Esma’il’s forces assassinated thousands of Sunni Muslims in Persia (“Religions — Islam: Safavid Empire”). As a result, creativity within cities diminished, and such oppression led to unrest and domestic disputes (“Religions — Islam: Safavid Empire”). In the Mughal Empire and the Ottoman Empire, “non-believers” went on to serve in prominent leadership positions (e.g: Grand Vizier), something which was not the case in the Safavid Dynasty. By not establishing religious tolerance, the Safavids “self-destructed” their stability and their empire. As the data presented displays, religious liberties were critical for the success of an ancient empire.

As the world has witnessed the rise and fall of empires and their impact on society, the particular characteristics of warfare, religious freedoms, and geographic positioning have been evident throughout them all. For years did these empires shape the past and define the future. Such empires were primarily built upon the foundation of military strength and its development (e.g: Advanced artillery). In the words of General George S. Patton, “I do not have to tell you who won the war. You know, the artillery did.” Such empires, moreover, were also built with the importance of geographic positioning and their landscapes. Such landscapes impacted trade, domestic products, and combat. Lastly, such successful empires were built on the belief of religious tolerance (in this case, with an emphasis on the Ottomans and Mughals), which paved the way for innovative thinking, content amongst the general public, and stability within the empire. As expressed through this paper, great empires are not built in a day, and they are most certainly not if the three listed arguments are not present. Such three principles resulted in the success of these empires — A clear example being seen in the Ottoman Empire, which after its expansion to Christian-dominated Europe, saw over 80% of its citizens be “non-Muslims”; however, they maintained religious tolerance that resulted in political stability for the state (“Rights of the non-Muslim in the Ottoman Empire”). Nowadays, the presence of these empires is still evident — in India, due to the mix of a Muslim-Hindu population, religious extremism and violence have plagued the nation. Furthermore, India’s Prime Minister, Mr.Modi, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P) mostly reflect radical Hindu nationalist positions. In recent years, the B.J.P.-controlled government has enacted several laws targeting religious minorities such as Muslims. Such religious impact does not conclude there, the Safavids carried out a years-long conversion of Persia into Islam, and presently, 90–95% of Iranians are Shia (“Estimated Range of Shia by Country”). On the other hand, a number of European-driven countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina became mostly Islamic due to the Ottoman presence. Lastly, modern warfare and artillery were forever revolutionized by the strides taken in this time period, primarily warfare strategies and the use of guns and artillery. In conclusion, Muslim empires and their prominent rulers will forever be remembered in history due to their significant influence on past and modern civilizations.

Success is a process, not an event — Gary Halbert.

For further information on the works cited and in-text citations, you may contact Evaristo Derby.