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Turks, Conquests and the Crusades

Persian Dynasties and Rise of the Seljuk Empire | Seljuk Turks against the First Crusade | Saladin and the Second and Third Crusades | Mid-East divisions before the coming of Genghis Khan


Saladin, an exemplar of romantic ideals of chivalry, his bronze statue unveiled at Damascus in 1993 to mark the 800 anniversary of his death.

Persian Dynasties and Rise of the Seljuk Empire

The founder of the Saffarid dynasty, Ya'qub Laith Saffari, who had been a coppersmith, became a leader of men and a warlord. He promoted Persian culture. He re-established use of the Persian language in official correspondence and was a patron of Persian literature, ending the pervasive use of Arabic, and this helped make him a folk-hero. Where he conquered, people often rebelled against their Islamic overlords and reverted to pre-Islamic worship. Ya'qub is described as a Sunni, but he was the first to move militarily against the Baghdad caliph, and the armies of the Baghdad caliph, Mu'tamid, repelled his attacks.

There was the Samanid Empire that existed at the same time, 819 to 999, which fought the Saffarid, successfully. The Samanids proclaimed the language of their realm to be Persian and themselves as Persian kings. Samanid rule promoted Persian literature. Their missionary work is said to have spread Islam among the Turkish populations in their realm. The Samanid court attracted Persian scientists and poets, among them Ibn Sina (Avicenna).

The Saffarid dynasty weakened and was overrun by the Ghazavids just a few years before the Saffarid dynasty came to an end in 1003, conquered by Mahmud of Ghazni. The Ghaznavid dynasty was of Turkic slave origin.

The Seljuk Turks Expand

Territory ruled by the Ghaznavid Turks was raided from the east by Turks led by the Seljuk family. The Seljuks were converts to Islam. They were devout Sunni Muslims, influenced by the Nestorian Christianity that had been driven east by intolerance. The Seljuks were pastoral and nomadic, with a strong warrior tradition. Seljuk raiding was resisted by the Ghaznavids, and this led to the Battle of Dandanaqan in the year 1040, won by the Seljuks. The Ghaznavids lost all of their realm in Iran and Central Asia to the Seljuks. They were weakened by family feuding and held on to power at Ghazni into the 1100s.

Tahirid Empire

Saffarid Empire

Ghaznavid Empire

The Seljuk empire, 1092 CE

The Seljuk empire, 1037-94, at its farthest extent. The Seljuks are not to be confused with the Ottomans, who conquered Constantinople in 1453.

The Seljuks needed educated people to help them govern the agricultural societies that they had conquered. They turned to fellow Muslims reputed to be learned and wise in Islamic law, to local ulama – guardians of Islamic tradition – to educate them on rightful rule. The ulama accepted Seljuk military capability as beneficial to their community's interests: as necessary for the protection of trade routes and to protect villages from Bedouins and bandits. The ulama lacked the means to employ policing violence themselves and looked to the Seljuks to repress factional strife and to arbiter disputes.

Attaching themselves to the conquerors, Islamic intellectuals became hired servants in state administration and an imperial governing class.

The Turkic Buwayhids in power in Baghdad, who were Shia, were ousted by Seljuk Turks in 1055, and the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad allied himself with the Seljuks – both of the Sunni. The Seljuks were of use to the caliph because of their military power and ability to use force to maintain law and order. The caliph gave the Seljuks a sense of legitimacy and prestige with the general population. The Seljuk leader acquired the title sultan while the caliph at Baghdad remained in name the commander of the faithful.

Alp Arslan and the Historic Seljuk Victory at Manzikert

The Seljuk Turks invaded Armenia, Byzantine territory, in 1067. At the head of their cavalry was their sultan, Alp Arslan, a name that means heroic lion. A showdown battle between the Turks and Byzantium was in the making. Edward Gibbon was to describe the Battle of Manzikert, in Armenia, as the beginning of the end of the Byzantine (Constantinople's) Empire.

Constantinople put between 40 and 70 thousand into the field against the Turks, including French, Norman and Bulgarian mercenaries. They were led by Constantinople's emperor, Romanos IV. Wikipedia writes:

The march across Asia Minor was long and difficult, and Romanos did not endear himself to his troops by bringing a luxurious baggage train along with him; the local population also suffered some plundering by Romanos' Frankish mercenaries, whom he was forced to dismiss.

Emperor Romanos expected to retake Manzikert quickly. Arslan was in the area, with allies and 30,000 cavalry. His spies knew where Romanos was but Romanos remained unaware of Arslan's movements. The two forces engaged on August 1071. The Seljuk mounted archers used the fast-moving hit-and-run tactics of steppe warriors. Constantinople's slow-moving infantry forces couldn't catch the Seljuks. Constantinople's forces couldn't get the Seljuks into a head-on battle, and they got themselves into a muddle. According to Wikipedia they lost between 2,000 and 8,000 killed. They scattered and the emperor was taken prisoner.

The story goes that Alp Arslan asked the humiliated emperor: "What would you do if I was brought before you as a prisoner? "

Romanos: "Perhaps I'd kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople."

Alp Arslan: "My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free."

Sultan Arslan loaded Romanos with presents sent him away attended by a military guard. note35

Romanov's reign as emperor was over. He was succeeded by Michael VII , but he returned to the battlefield against the Seljuks, who were advancing across Asia Minor toward Constantinople. Romanov has been described as sending Arslan ransom money, and writing that it was all he possessed and proof of his gratitude.

Romanov was retired to a monastery, but Byzantine authorities had him blinded on June 29, 1072, and without medical assistance his wound became infected and he suffered a painful, slow death.

That same year, in December, Alp Arslan died. He had been leading an expedition to Turkestan and along the way he had a confrontation with a governor serving the Khwarezmian dynasty. This dynasty was about to become a dominant power growing in power in the Khurasan area, which had been the seat of Seljuk power. Alp Arslan took pride in his reputation as the foremost archer of his time. He accepted the governor's challenge and motioned to his guards not to interfere. His foot slipped. The story goes that as he lay dying he whispered to his son that it was his vanity that had killed him, that he should have allowed his devoted warriors to do their job in protecting him.

Five years later, in 1077, the Seljuks took control of Jerusalem from the Fatimids. Jerusalem had become a place of burial for Muslim dignitaries and had attracted Sufi mystics, Islamic law scholars and Karaite and rabbanate Jews. A crusade against Seljuk control of Jerusalem was to come in 1095.


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