Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Peter’s incursion into the Caucasus

The confusion engendered by the disintegration of the Safavid state also encouraged Peter the Great of Russia (1675.1728/1085.1141) to attempt an incursion into the Caucasus. In 1722/1134.5 an army, some of the time commanded by Tsar Peter in person, conquered Derbend, Baku and, in a naval expedition across the Caspian, Reshd in Gilān. In a peace treaty concluded a year later, the tsar was able to hold on to these conquests. Moreover he tried to ensure that, in the troubled situation obtaining in Iran at that time, the Ottoman sultan did not place his own candidate on the throne in Isfahān. Thus the Russian state, with its newly revamped military machine, had begun to make claims for territory in a region where the Ottoman Empire previously had been the only competitor of the shahs. Even if the conquests of 1722.3/1134.6 did not remain in the hands of the tsars for very long, the fact that they had taken place at all indicated a major change in the balance of power in the Caucasus and Caspian regions. 

At an earlier point in Tsar Peter’s reign, in 1711/1122.3, there had been direct conflict between the Ottoman and Russian empires to the north of the Black Sea, which had ended very badly for Peter I’s army. Only the hesitations of the Ottoman commander Baltac. Mehmed Paşa prevented a total defeat by the river Prut. This success may well have induced Ottoman sultans and viziers to take the emerging power to the north less seriously than they might otherwise have done. However, indications of future Ottoman difficulties are visible at least to historians with the benefit of hindsight. Thus the power of attraction that the Russian state had developed with respect to the Empire’s Orthodox subjects became visible when the Moldavian hospodar Dimitrie Cantemir (1673.1723/1083.1136), one of the more important southeastern European intellectuals of his time, threw in his lot with Tsar Peter. After all, Cantemir had lived in Istanbul for decades, spoke and read Ottoman and had been in contact with many educated Istanbullus. Cantemir, whose history of the Ottoman Empire, while conventional in itself, was enriched by copious notes reflecting the Istanbul folklore of his time, ultimately followed Tsar Peter’s armies into Russian territory (1711/1122.3). In so doing, he was to precede a long line of Ottoman-born Orthodox merchants, intellectuals and even military men who in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, gave up their allegiance to the sultans for careers in the Russian state.

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