Part LXXII: The Lion in Autumn (1544-1552)
The wars following the death of Arslan II had almost completely gutted the Qutlughid state, and the troubled reign of Siyavash had done little to restore them to their former glory. While much of the empire was still ravaged by years of internal conflict and bad weather, the shahanshah had foolishly invaded Trapezous without bothering to determine their true warmaking abilities, sending thousands of (mostly) loyal soldiers to their deaths and receiving only a series of humiliating defeats in return. Ruling an already destabilized empire in an even more destabilized region and with next to no support outside of the army whose members he had just gotten slaughtered, the shahanshah’s downfall became a question of time within years of his consolidation of power. The only question was if the Qutlughids would fall with him….
As he retreated from Trapezuntine territory in the summer of 1544, Siyavash had succeeded in alienating most of his supporters. The bureaucracy had never supported him, and the members of it that he had allowed to escape his purges out of a need to keep the empire running only hated him more for killing so many of their colleagues and moreover holding the power to do the same to them over them like a cudgel. The ulema in Tabriz still nominally supported him, but their fellows in the outer cities and countryside had mostly supported Mohammed Khosrau, and were both bitter that he had lost and that so many of their followers had been killed in an ultimately pointless civil war, while the commoners were tired of fighting and dying for lines on a map while bandits and foreign raiders became increasingly common. All of this could have been managed if he had kept the support of the army, but after leading so many of his men to their deaths in Khaldea their support for him was quite shaken, and that was before the humiliating debacle at Erzurum. If he were to keep his throne, Siyavash would need to gird up his support amongst the military, but at present he was hemorrhaging men to both desertion and ambush by the many highlanders who were circling his surviving column like vultures. Many of those still loyal to the shahanshah were picked off by the Kurds and the Qizilbash, neither of whom were inclined to show mercy to the Persians after years of heavy taxation and the Sack of Erzincan, respectively. To his credit, Siyavash tried to stop them--at the plain of Vartan, he drew up a fortified camp and then sent away the bulk of his force before having them return that night: when a large force of raiders attacked two days later they were met with pikes and grapeshot at point-blank range--but ultimately, it was like trying to build earthworks out of sand. By the time he reached relative safety back at Bitlis, his force had dwindled to around 15,000, which was the only force in the empire whose loyalty he could really be assured of.
While Siyavash was no great man of history, he wasn’t a complete fool, and realized that after having failed to legitimize himself by foreign conquest in such a dramatic and humiliating way he would need to change tack quickly to keep from being pushed out. In a move made by countless rulers before him, he sought the support of a semi-civilized warlike group from his frontiers: the Turkmen. These were not the Turkmen who had been crushed by Kayqubad or fled into Syria and then Egypt with Suleiman, but instead the residents of the north-eastern frontier of the Qutlughid Empire, whose most redeeming features were their bellicose nature and their burning hatred for the Uzbeks, who were quickly becoming something of ancestral enemy. There was the slight problem of Arslan’s attempt to eradicate them as an ethnic group, but Siyavash was running out of options and could only pray that they would take their pay and move on. After all, it wasn’t like they were a group of fierce warriors known for their long-running clan feuds who he was obviously trying to hire to make up for his own military weakness, was it?
The first city the Turkmen burned was Weyhnisarslan (Ashgabat), a small colony town which Arslan had built to secure his control of Turkmenistan and to oversee a section of the Silk Road. Having been hired in the winter of 1544, a horde of 25,000 Turkmen led by one Sokmen Beg went south in December, reaching Weyhnisarslan in January and completely destroying it in less than three days. By the time word of this reached Tabriz, the Sokmeni Horde had reached Shirvan-in-Khorasan, sacked it, attempted to sack Bojnurd before being fought off by the town militia, then gone on a raping-and-pillaging spree all the way to the gates of Mashad. The Turkmen weren’t exactly subtle, and truthful rumors that Siyavash had hired them to replace the army abounded in the capital. Realizing that his plan had backfired horrifically, Siyavash summoned his generals to the palace to prepare an expedition east to deal with the problem he had created. Feigning sickness, Farrukh Mehrani--being the only subcommander who hadn’t completely humiliated himself during the brief invasion, he had been made the second-in-command of the Qutlughid armies--asked to speak to the shahanshah in the barracks just outside the capital on 13 February. Siyavash obliged, and as soon as he was outside the walls he was mobbed by Khorasani soldiers and hacked to shreds.
Seizing the initiative, Mehrani talked his way inside the town, let his army in and then seized the palace. He found Siyavash’s children all present and swiftly had them put under house arrest, guarding them with fairly mild-mannered soldiers while he consolidated his power. He had the youngest prince, Nader (b.1542) crowned as shahanshah, proclaiming himself regent, then started preparing for the inevitable civil war that would follow. Given Mehrani’s prestige, he, er, Nader, was able to rally a good part of the Empire, mostly the western half of the Iranian plateau, to his cause, promising a return to the stability and prosperity of Arslan the Great’s reign, and among these were a number of the Qutlughids’ greatest urban centers and recruiting grounds. Parts of the west broke away under minor independent rulers of either Armenian or Kurdish extraction, who then immediately turned on each other and resumed their pre-Qutlughid patterns of ancestral genocidal warfare, while the Azerbaijani plain came under the rule of its former governor, xxx Shirvani, who neither proclaimed support for or fought against any of the claimants, instead biding his time and looking for a way to return his polity to its former independence. As usual, the Antolekoi proclaimed their neutrality as well. In Iraq, meanwhile, a young sufi claiming to be Mohammed Khosrau, who had in fact survived in hiding (which was patently false, as the sufi couldn’t even write Farsi) and would now restore the caliphate which the Abbasids had left vacant. With social discontent built up by years of warfare and drought, Iraq and Jazira struck for him almost universally, and within a few short months Nader/Mehrani’s forces had been driven over the Zagros or behind the walls of well-fortified citadels.
To the east, meanwhile, Muhammed Rezim Khan opened the war-gates of Bukhara. If the Qutlughids were weak enough to be unable to drive out some ragged Turkmen, then it was high time that Arslan the Younger be returned to his throne--for a price, of course. By now Arslan the Younger was twenty-two years old and had grown into a charismatic and dashing young man who bore a mirror-like resemblance to his grandfather, and he was well aware that he would be a puppet of the Uzbeks in all but name. Still, it was the best way to get power for himself, and once he was on the throne, well, there were millions of Persians and only a few hundred thousand Uzbeks. For the time being he would play the part of a loyal puppet, but in doing so he would set himself up for eventually becoming a completely sovereign ruler.
In mid-1545, he convinced Muhammed Rezim Khan to give him a small force to prepare the way for his return, and rode south to Bojnurd. Sitting astride a black horse outside the city gates, he proclaimed that he had come to take up the mantle of his father, the rightful shahanshah, and of his grandfather, the greatest ruler of Persia since its conquest by the Arabs, and with God willing he would right the innumerous wrongs which the last civil war had left across the region and restore the prosperity, security and good fortune that the golden age had brought. The Bojnurdis threw open their gates and cheered him into the city, proclaiming him shahanshah as Arslan III. Word of his return spread across the east like wildfire, and in a region that Siyavash had ignored and scorned, where raiders and bandits had overrun the countryside and were entire clans had been shattered by constant warfare, promises of a return to the greatness of Arslan II’s area found fertile ground. Within a few short months, most of the eastern half of the Qutlughid Empire had struck for Arslan III as many suppressed followers of Alp Temur took up arms once again, but many who had remained neutral or fought for Siyavash the last time around supported the return of the young shahanshah. By 1547, when the real fighting began, many cities that had remained steadfastly loyal to Tabriz in the 1530s had struck for Arslan, even those such as Yazd and Shiraz which had lynched Alp Temur’s supporters less than a decade before. In a strange twist of fate, though Kabul remained neutral, more focused on increasing raids from across the Hindu Kush than on a fratricidal to the west.
Unlike the last war, Nader/Mehrani in Tabriz wouldn’t have to fight a two-front conflict, or at least not a two-front conflict against an organized enemy. Pseudo-Khosrau was more focused on securing his hold on Arabia and fending off the Khandarhids, who were very interested in his claims to be the rightful caliph, than he was on fighting on the far side of the Zagros, which allowed Mehrani to turn his attention to Arslan and vice versa. Still, he struggled to raise forces to fight off Arslan and the Uzbeks, as the regions which supported him were often quite opposed to further conscription, if not already on the verge of revolt against the tax collector. Thus, despite the larger population of the regions which struck for Tabriz, Tabriz wasn’t able to field forces as large as those which the poorly organized and supplied Arslan and his Uzbek backers were.
With the region around Fars primarily in Arslan’s camp, the theater of fighting was shifted much further to the west than the previous civil war, as the long roads through the salt flats and the foothills of the Alborz that had played host to most of the combat were much less useful and thus less important than the roads leading up along the Zagros through the south. The Sokmeni horde had settled down to an extent in Tabaristan as well, which only further reduced the import of fighting in the north. There were still maneuvers on the northern side of the plateau--most important in terms of overall strategic action was the capture of Tehran and Qazvin by Abdulloh Ozjoni and a predominantly Uzbek force in 1540, which would help open the road onward to Tabriz itself a year later.
The first major battle of the Second Qutlughid Civil War was fought in the spring of 1547, after Mehrani and Arslan the Younger had spent the better part of two years building up their forces and after all attempts to resolve the situation diplomatically (not that they had held much promise, any settlement would really just be delaying the inevitable, really) had failed. Arslan marched north-east from Kerman, where he had established his temporary capital, with a force of 10,000 infantry and 20,000 horsemen, most of both light and with fairly little artillery. Mehrani had advanced to Qom, where he was positioned to intercept any eastward attack, with a force of 20,000 heavy and light infantry and 5,000 horsemen, and upon hearing of Arslan the Younger’s advance he correctly guessed that he planned to attack Isfahan. Isfahan was a shadow of its former self, having been turned into a charnel house by Timur and having never recovered since, but Mehrani didn’t want to give Arslan the propaganda victory of taking an ancient capital, nor the more concrete benefit of taking a major fortified town, its cannons, and the roads which it sat upon. As such, he moved to engage in March 1547.
The Battle of Isfahan, fought in mid-April, was indecisive. Mehrani dug in on a ridge overlooking the road approaching the city, and it seemed that Arslan would march directly upon it and attempt to batter his way through. The regent found this suspicious, and even as his cannons began to roar he dispatched a force of infantry to reinforce his camp and supply lines. These reinforcements arrived just as the Uzbek horsemen that had been sent to encircle Mehrani’s army did, and they managed to hold the camp against the initial assault and send word of the attack back to the main force. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, he pulled back from the ridge to the Shahdiz Fortress (rebuilt by Arslan the Great), where he could prevent Arslan the Younger from advancing to Isfahan, but could not himself retreat to it. Arslan the Younger was quite irritated that he had failed to encircle Mehrani but kept his cool and ordered the fortress kept under constant bombardment with captured cannonade while his main force crossed the Zayandeh to lay siege to Isfahan itself. After two weeks, Mehrani fought his way clear and retreated westwards, leaving Isfahan to be taken by Arslan the Younger, who proclaimed it his future capital on 3 May.
Isfahan set the pace for most of the civil war. Arslan the Younger held a decisive advantage in cavalry and oftentimes morale, but Mehrani was able to muster sufficient forces to make a pitched battle unfavorable for the rebels. Instead of outright stand-and-fight battles to decide the fate of the empire, the war instead consisted of skirmishes, flying columns and lengthy sieges, as Arslan sought to drive Mehrani back without offering battle and Mehrani sought to defeat him outright, but was forced to split his forces into numerous smaller forces to try and keep up with the more mobile Uzbek horsemen. While such a dearth of decisive actions could potentially spell doom for a revolt, the frequent taking of cities helped to fire Arslan the Younger’s supporters, while the lack of a decisive action slowly ground down Mehrani’s support. While not directly asymmetrical, the way in which the civil war was fought almost seemed to preclude warfare in the contemporary manner.
1547 saw the capture of Isfahan in May, a lull in the fighting during the bitterly hot summer months, when more men could be lost to heat stroke than to enemy actions, and then further skirmishing that autumn before the harsh winter set in. No great cities would be captured, but by May of 1548 the rebels had advanced to the walls of Hamedan, which fell that October after a loose siege lasting months. One of the rare pitched battles would be fought outside the walls on 18 October, where despite a slight numerical advantage Arslan the Younger’s men were forced back and the city retaken; despite a mild winter, though, poor logistics and dwindling supplies would force Mehrani to abandon the city in January 1549 and retreat northwards. There was a lull in the fighting that year with another round of negotiations playing out as the rebels laid siege to Khorramshah, which despite their best efforts refused to fall. The city’s pro-Tabriz commander was clever and feigned having a large number of troops under his command by constantly marching them and lighting great fields of watch-fires, so that Arslan refused to march northward with such a threat in his rear. That ruse would eventually be discovered, though, and with the capture of the Alborz foothills the road to Tabriz was finally cleared.
The final battle would be fought just west of Maragheh, on the plains outside Bonab on 22 February 1551. Mehrani rallied every man he could, some 20,000 footmen and a few thousand horsemen, while Arslan the Younger and Mohammed Rezim Khan both took the field in person to command a combined host of nearly 25,000 footmen and 20,000 cavalry. Despite being outnumbered, Mehrani knew the ground well and had an advantage in firepower, using Lake Urmia to anchor his flank on one end and the Qadim Hill the other. Arslan and the Khan, meanwhile, organized his infantry into a rough wedge, intending to break through the center of the Tabrizi line, then rush through with light horse to exploit this and roll up the enemy line. The battle was joined shortly before noon, but the dust that Arslan hoped would blind Mehrani instead blew the other way, slowing his advance and leaving his men open. Mehrani’s cannonade was accurate and merciless, but despite their heavy losses Arslan’s men pressed onward, hitting the enemy line and beginning to press inward, and for once fortune was on their side as it began to turn concave and pull back. Arslan himself was in the fray, and it seemed as if the battle were about to be won. But it was all a trap, for the concave line served to draw the rebel forces into the center of the Mehranid line, where the long rows of spikes were placed and where the cannons couldn’t miss. The guns which had fallen silent roared once again, and a sudden counter-attack halted the Arslanid advance, and under attack from all sides they began to waver. The Uzbeks charged forward thunderously and slammed into the Mehranid line, knocking them back and buying space and time for Arslan, and a shout went up on the left that Mehrani was dead. Mohammed Rezim Khan then led a second charge personally, and the demoralized Regency left was broken. The light horsemen thundered through and swung around, encircling the remaining line, and the battle was lost. Mehrani famously rode out into Lake Urmia, intending to drown himself, but instead found a sandbar and escaped to Kaboodan Island, but most of his men were either killed on the spot or captured and killed later. Total losses amounted to almost all of the Regency force of 20,000, and the loss of 15,000 Arslanid and Uzbek soldiers, making it one of the bloodiest days in Persian history.
With an exhausted army, Arslan and Mohammed Rezim Khan limped north to Tabriz, arriving a few days later to find the city in anarchy and much of it in flames as looters and brigands used the chaos to steal anything that wasn’t nailed down. Rather than trying to pacify the capital, Arslan was hastily crowned with the Crown of Arslan--the Qal’i Sword was missing, presumably with Mehrani and thus at the bottom of a mound of corpses--and then left, abandoning Tabriz to its fate. It was clear to all at this moment, if not before, that Arslan the Younger and the Qutlughids both were a shattered force, and as Mehrani crawled out of Lake Urmia the circling vultures began to land….