Turkey, Iran, and an elephant from India
What was an Indian elephant doing in Aleppo in Ottoman Syria?
Modern scholars often tend to view Ottoman empire - Safavid Iran relations from a sectarian angle and through a military lens. Such a narrow focus ignores broader strategic and political considerations of that period.
July 1548, Zorave, Aleppo governorate: marching towards Tabriz, Iran, the Ottoman vanguard force under the command of renegade Safavid Iranian prince Alqas Mirzā, half-brother of Shah Tahmasp, made a startling discovery near the Zorave mountains.
They found an elephant accompanied by a frightened Indian mahout (elephant-warden). The Indian handed the elephant over to the Ottoman force along with a letter from the Iranian shah addressed to his rebellious half-brother. The elephant would leave a long-lasting impact on renaissance Europe!
The Austrian envoy to the Ottoman court in Istanbul, Johann Malvezz who was accompanying the main force led by sultan Soleiman the Magnificent, reports this as an eyewitness; ‘the elephant was of enormous size, clearly a war-elephant and clearly an Indian elephant’.
A letter to renegade prince Alqas Mirza made sense. But the elephant? The war-elephant bore a message —the elephant was "the message" and it was intended for sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It wasn't the elephant per se but 'where did it come from' that mattered, that's the message!
The letter, personally written by Shah Tahmasp read: "The lamp of your brain is filled with the oil of corrupted thoughts,” and continued: “You don’t understand your situation as you are drunk and stupid from the wine of arrogance”. And promised him severe punishment.
Coming back to the Indian elephant; the origin mystery is solved because we have a detailed document trail of how the poor pachyderm ended up in Aleppo governorate: it was sent by Burhan Nezamshah the ruler of Ahmadnagar Sultanate, in central India, to Shah Tahmasp.
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