Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Strange Death of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha

Today marks the very first guest post on this blog. The below was written by Matthew Quinn, who I mentioned in the previous blog post. Make sure to check out his blog.

The Strange Death of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha
From A New Look at Sokullu Mehmed Pasha, published at Miskatonic University.

The consensus of historians on the assassination of Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pasha on October 11, 1579 AD (or 20 Sha'ban 987 AH in the Islamic reckoning) is fairly well-known in our field. The Ottoman Sultan Murad III, alienated from the vizier who had served his father and grandfather so long and ably by his mother Narbanu Sultan and Venetian-born wife Safiye Sultan, took steps to reduce the vizier's influence on government. The vizier's allies were sent to faraway positions or assassinated. Ultimately, a mentally-unstable dervish talked his way into the vizier's office and stabbed him. This kind of intrigue was fairly common in the Ottoman Empire, especially during the period known as the Sultanate of Women.

However, some recent discoveries by Miskatonic University researchers of documents thought lost forever during the civil unrest that wracked Constantinople when the Janissaries were suppressed has shed new light on the circumstances of the vizier's assassination and an incident that took place in 1571.

These documents paint a far more sinister picture of the vizier. They include accusations of dealings with agents of Safavid Persia, with whom the vizier had counseled peace as opposed to the usual border wars, and even black magic. The documents accuse the vizier of, under the influence of an agent of Persian Shah Tahmasp I, acquiring a book of black magic from an Armenian merchant who had visited the long-vacant shrine of a corrupted Sufi order that had been destroyed by Turkish nomads not long before. The use of this book resulted in an incident in Constantinople that killed dozens of Ottoman soldiers, destroyed one war galley and forced the scuttling of a second, and caused significant damage to the Bayezit II mosque.

These accusations against Sokullu are not new, but have been long dismissed as the slanders from his political enemies. However, the mosque was damaged somehow, necessitating repairs by the famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1573 and 1574. Furthermore, it is often said that converts make the best zealots. Safiye Sultan was a Catholic before she became a Muslim, while the most recent evidence suggests Narbanu was an Orthodox Greek from Corfu before her conversion. If Sokullu was involved in the dark arts, or was widely believed so, this could have provoked the ire of the Imperial women. They would not wish one so tainted to continue virtually ruling the Ottoman Empire in place of their son and husband. And the dervish orders might be willing to provide an assassin to dispose of the vizier, especially given his (tangential) connection to a Sufi order that had become warped by dark forces.

Of course, this is all just speculation. The documents describe how the soldiers killed in the incident were buried in a mass grave outside Constantinople that was given special attention by Muslim imams, Orthodox Christian priests, and even a Jewish rabbi, while the materials used by Sokullu in the incident were confiscated, burned, and abandoned in Persia. Should this mass grave or the dumping site be found, it would lend credence to the incident described in the documents.

So just why was the Grand Vizier assassinated, and is the author's theory about dark powers manifesting in Constantinople actually true? Read "The Beast of the Bosporus" on to find out!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

AnachroCon: My Experience

Today I went down to Atlanta for day two of the AnachroCon, which bills itself as "the place in the Southern United States for Steampunk, History, Alternate History, Science, Music, Classic Sci-Fi Literature and the most amazing costuming you’ve ever seen!" I didn't read that tag line particularly carefully, so I stuck out like a sore thumb in my grey sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers against a crowd of steampunk enthusiasts. It seemed as if a section of 18th century London's well-to-do had time-travelled to a Marriott. Men sporting waist coats and top hats milled with women crammed into corsets and hoop skirts while a highlander in a kilt played a harp and sang.

I didn't see anything in the program about actual alternate history, though I expect the "alternate history" cross-pollinated with science fiction or fantasy which seems to sell better was in evidence somewhere. Actually, if you consider Steampunk merely a type of alternate history, and many do, that seemed to be a unifying theme of the convention. And more power to the people who like that genre or aesthetic or whatever you want to call Steampunk, but I have never been able to enjoy it the way I sink my teeth into more pure "historical what-ifs."

I suppose I did not stay long enough to get a really good feel for the convention. I did, however, get the chance to meet Matthew Quinn, a long time member of and author of the short-story Coil Gun. He's a great guy who gave me some pointers on both this blog and the Alternate History Podcast, the first episode of which will be out soon. So check out his stuff; he will be guest-blogging here and I may reciprocate on his blog which is also in the sidebar under the new "favorites" blog roll.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What if the Hephthalites conquered Persia?

Who were the Hephthalites? You might know them better as White Huns, distant cousins of the tribe that wreaked havoc on the Roman Empire in the fifth century. These Huns went south rather than east, invading Persia and India to carve out a sizable land empire which they ruled from the headwaters of the Indus River Valley. Rather than annex Persia outright, the Hephthalites forced the Sassanids to pay tribute, and for two decades, from their initial invasion in 483 to the beginning of the sixth century, Persia was a pawn in the hands of the Hephthalite king.

So why did these White Huns not conquer Persia in reality? The honest answer is we don't know. Information on the Hephthalites is sketchy at best, and so most of this post will be simple speculation. It seems the decision not to conquer Persia early on when they first invaded was a wise one, as it gave them time to establish themselves in India. Had they simply conquered Persia in 485, they likely would have been subsumed by Persia similar to how many of the foreign tribes which invaded and ruled China became Chinese. Looking forward a few decades presents an interesting point of divergence, but before I get that, I should probably briefly lay out the history of this time period.

In 483 the Hephthalites invaded Persia and went on a two year rampage. The Sassanid Emperor at the time was Peroz I, who was killed on the battlefield in 484. His army died with him. In the ensuing power vacuum, his brother Balash seized the throne. Balash paid the White Huns enormous tribute to leave. His four year rule was marred by a power struggled with the sons of Peroz. Zareh's rebellion was quashed with the aid of Armenia, but Kavadh I would prove much more difficult. Kavadh had married a daughter of the Hephthalite King, led a Hephthalite army into Persia with his father-in-law's blessing. With the army outside the gates of the capital, Balash was blinded and deposed by a group of priests and nobles who opened the gates for Emperor Kavadh.

Once established, Kavadh looked for a way to check the power of his magnates, those people who had overthrown his predecessor. He decided to support a religious group known as the Mazdaki sect, which advocated rich men divide their wives and wealth with the poor. The magnates saw through his game and imprisoned him in a tower in Susa. His brother, Djamasp, became emperor and ruled briefly from 496-8. But Kavadh was able to escape the tower and returned in 498 with 30,000 troops from the Hephthalite King. His brother abdicated and Kavadh began his second reign as Emperor of Persia. In that year he had to pay tribute to the Hephthalites, probably in part for their assistance in placing him on the throne. Kavadh could not pay and sought subsidies from Rome, which not so long ago had been subsidized by Persia. Emperor Anastasius refused, hoping the two eastern empires would turn on themselves.

In our timeline, Kavadh managed to forestall the payment of tribute by persuading his father-in-law to support a war against wealthy Rome. But what Anastasius was right and the two eastern empires did turn on themselves? It seems reasonable to think that Kavadh's familial relationship to the Hephthalite king was important in keeping the White Huns from riding into Persia to collect the tribute themselves. But what if Kavadh was not in power? What if when his magnates overthrew him in 496, they chose to execute him?

Executing the son-in-law of Persia's most powerful neighbor, the king to which they paid regular tribute, would not have been a smart idea. The political misstep might have been taken by the Hephthalites as a pretext for invasion in 497. I highly doubt Djamasp, who seemed to have been a puppet of court interests, could have held off the Hephthalite army. By 500 might the White Huns have been in a position to annex Persia? I don't see why not. Now they do not have a puppet to place on the throne, so the Hephthalite king might have seen it as convenient to conquer Persia, organize it as a province in his empire, and perhaps give it to one of his sons to rule.

Organizing such a large empire will be a significant challenge for the Hephthalites. At this time the capital of the Empire was Baktra (Balkh) in modern northern Afghanistan. This is fairly centrally located, though the western end of the Sassanid Empire, where the capital of Ctesiphon is located is quite far away. A system of regional capitals might be adopted. In our timeline, Sakala (Sialkot) in the Indus River Valley became the capital of the Hephthalite Empire. In this timeline in might serve as a regional administrative center for the Indian province. Old Damghan of Parthian fame could serve a similar purpose for Persia.

I am skeptical that this empire would have any sort of longevity. If the king were to give his sons each a province, the empire could quickly disintegrate at his death. Or perhaps after each bloody succession crisis the empire would be reunited. It's really impossible to conclusively decide one way or the other, though it should be noted that large land empires, especially this early in history, never lasted for long. Then in about a century or so, the now sedentary Hephthalites will have to deal with the Göktürks marauding down from the steppes. Perhaps that would signal the end of the empire, with Persians and Indians rebelling to form their own states.

But let us look beyond Central Asia. How does this change effect the rest of the world? The absence of a Roman-Sassanid war in the early sixth century means the Roman (Byzantine, if you prefer) Empire begins the sixth century in a much stronger position. I see no reason to make significant changes until Justinian's reconquest of the west. In this timeline the great general Belisarius would not have had any eastern wars to cut his teeth on, unless of course Anastasius, Justin, or Justinian decided to attack the Hephthalites. But if there was a long period of peace, it is possible Belisarius might not have been the general he was in our timeline. Then again, how can we say that this economically stronger Roman empire would have had a tougher time retaking the west. On the contrary, with more money and no western distractions, I think the Italy and North Africa could not just be retaken but held onto. And perhaps Spain also, which Rome already controlled the coast of, and which had a natural border against the Germanic Kingdoms with the Pyrenees.

Removing the Sassanids also has a significant effect on the balance of power in Arabia and east Africa. The Persians controlled both sides of the Persian gulf directly and had effectively vassalized the tribes in Yemen and Oman. They used those tribes in proxy wars against the Kingdom of Aksum, Rome's Ethiopian allies who had controlled the lucrative Red Sea trade for the preceding three decades. In our timeline, the sixth century saw the Sassanids wrest that trade route from the Aksumites, who were also suffering due to the effects of climate change, overfarming, and state collapse brought about by a number of factors contingent on the loss of control of the Red Sea. If Persia's influence is removed from Arabia then Aksum has a chance to take a breather and, perhaps, regain its footing on the Arabian peninsula. This has huge butterflies, the most notable being the shifting circumstances which may impact the Arabic religious movements which Muhammad was a product of.

I have hardly scratched the surface with this POD, but I think this is enough for now. Let me know in the comments what you think of my ideas when it comes to the effects of White Huns in Persia.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Mission of the Alternate History Inquirer

The Alternate History Inquirer seeks to promote thoughtful discussion of "historical what-if" scenarios. The primary method will be periodical sketches of alternate scenarios, starting with a fixed POD and then moving forward in time to analyze the results of one small change in history. Hopefully members of the audience will engage with the blog, critiquing and speculating off of each post.

I am also interested in hosting podcasts on a regular basis with members of various alternate history communities to discuss not just specific scenarios but also general themes and tropes in the genre. I may also accept guest bloggers, if this blog ever gets to that level of success.