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It would be an understatement to say that the rise of the Seljuk Empire was dramatic. From a scattered nomadic people, mostly surviving from raiding, they went on to establish a dynasty that ruled a huge part of Central Asia and the Middle East. How did they do this?
The Seljuk Turks have a rich history despite their humble beginnings.
The Seljuk Turks originated from a group of Turkish nomads called the Oghuz Turks, who migrated from around the coasts of the Aral Sea. The Oghuz Turks were known in the Islamic world as violent raiders and mercenaries. After the 10th century, however, they migrated to Transoxiana and began making contact with Muslim merchants and they gradually adopted Sunni Islam as their official religion.
TransoxianaTransoxania is an ancient name referring to a region and civilisation located in lower Central Asia, roughly corresponding to modern-day eastern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kazakhstan and southern Kyrgyzstan.
What's behind the name? The name Seljuk comes from Yakak Ibn Seljuk who was working as a senior soldier for the Oghuz Yabgu State. He eventually moved his tribe to the town of Jand in modern-day Kazakhstan. This is where he converted to Islam, around 985 CE. Afterwards, Seljuk refused to pay taxes to the Oghuz empire, saying that ‘Muslims will not pay tribute to the unbelievers’. The ethnic origin of the Seljuk Turks is the Oghuz Turks.
In the 1030s the Seljuk Turks became involved in conflict with a rival dynasty, the Ghaznavids, who also wanted to rule in Transoxiana. Seljuk’s grandsons, Tughril Beg and Chaghri, defeated the Ghaznavids at the Battle of Dandanaqan in 1040. After their victory, the Ghaznavids retreated from the region and Caliph al-Qa’im of the Abbasid dynasty sent Tughril an official recognition of Seljuk rule over Khurasan (modern-day eastern Iran) in 1046.
Chief Muslim ruler.
In 1048-49 the Seljuks made their first advance towards Byzantine territory when they attacked the Byzantine frontier region of Iberia, under Ibrahim Yinal, and clashed with Byzantine-Georgian forces in the Battle of Kapetrou on 10 September 1048. Despite the fact the Byzantine-Georgian army numbered 50,000 men, the Seljuks devastated them - needless to say, they did not conquer the region. Byzantine magnate Eustathios Boilas commented that the land had become ‘foul and unmanageable’.
In 1046, Chaghri moved east to the Iranian region of Kerman. His son Quavurt turned the region into a separate Seljuk sultanate in 1048. Tughril moved west to Iraq, where he targeted the power base of the Abbasid Sultanate in Baghdad.
The establishment of the Seljuk Empire owes much to leader Tughril's skills and ambition.
Baghdad had already begun to decline before the arrival of Tughril as it was filled with internal strife between the Buyid Emirs and their ambitious officials. It was obvious to the Abbasids that Tughril’s forces were more powerful, so instead of fighting them off, they offered them a place in their empire.
Over time, Tughril climbed the ranks and eventually deposed the Buyid Emirs to decorative state figureheads. He also forced the Caliph to give him the title of King of West and East. In this way, Tughril elevated the power of the Seljuks as they were now considered an official sultanate and the secret power behind the Abbasid throne.
Nonetheless, Tughril had to face several rebellions in Iraq. In 1055, he was commissioned by the Abbasid Caliph Al Qa’im to recapture Baghdad, which had been taken over by the Buyid Emirs. In 1058 a revolt was staged by the Turcoman forces under his foster brother Ibrahim Yinal. He crushed the rebellion in 1060 and strangled Ibrahim with his own hands. He then married the daughter of the Abbasid Caliph who, as a reward for his services, gave him the title of Sultan.
Tughril enforced orthodox Sunni Islam across the Great Seljuk Empire. The legitimacy of his empire rested on the approval of the Abbasid Caliphate which was Sunni. He had to protect the Sunni ideals of the caliphate to keep his power. He launched a holy war (jihad) against Shia sects such as the Fatimids and the Byzantines, who were considered unbelievers.
An area ruled by a Caliph.
As the Seljuk Empire expanded, it set its sights on, and inevitably clashed with, the Byzantine Empire.
Tughril Beg died in 1063 but did not have an heir. His nephew, Alp Arslan (Chagri’s oldest son) took the throne. Arslan greatly expanded the empire by attacking Armenia and Georgia, both of which he conquered in 1064. In 1068, the Seljuk Empire and the Byzantines were experiencing increasingly hostile relations as Arslan’s vassal clans kept raiding Byzantine territory, namely Anatolia. This induced Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes to march further into Anatolia with his army, which was composed of Greeks, Slavs and Norman mercenaries.
Tensions reached a crescendo at the Battle of Manzikert near Lake Van (in modern-day Turkey) in 1071. The battle was a decisive victory for the Seljuks, who captured Romanos IV. This meant that the Byzantine Empire gave away its authority in Anatolia to the Seljuks. From 1077 they ruled over the whole of Anatolia.
The Seljuk army also clashed with the Georgians, who managed to hold Iberia. In 1073 the Amirs of Ganja, Dvin and Dmanisi invaded Georgia but were defeated by George II of Georgia. Nonetheless, a retaliatory strike by Amir Ahmad at Kvelistsikhe captured significant Georgian territory.
Arslan allowed his generals to carve out their own municipalities out of the formerly-held Anatolia. By 1080 the Seljuk Turks had established control as far as the Aegean Sea under numerous beyliks (governors).
Seljuk Turks innovations
Nizam al-Mulk, Alp Arslan’s Vizier (high-ranking advisor), established Madrassah schools which greatly improved education. He also established Nizamiyas, which were higher education institutions that became the example for later established theological universities. These were paid for by the state and were a highly effective medium for training future officials and spreading Sunni Islam.
Nizam also created a political treatise, the Syasatnama Book of Government. In it, he argued for a centralised government in the style of the pre-Islamic Sassanid Empire.
A formal written paper on a specific subject.
Malik Shah would prove to be one of the greatest leaders of the Seljuk Empire and under him, it reached its territorial peak.
Seljuk Empire Kings
The Seljuk Empire had rulers but they were not known as 'Kings'. Malik Shah's name actually derives from the Arabic word for King 'Malik' and the Persian 'Shah', which also means Emperor or King.
Arslan died in 1076, leaving his son Malik Shah heir to the throne. Under his leadership the Seljuk Empire reached its territorial peak, stretching from Syria to China. In 1076, Malik Shah I surged into Georgia and reduced many settlements to ruins. From 1079 onward, Georgia had to accept Malik-Shah as its leader and pay an annual tribute to him. The Abbasid Caliph named him Sultan of East and West in 1087 and his reign was thought of as the ‘Golden Age of Seljuk’.
Despite the fact that the Empire reached its highest point during Malik’s reign, it was also the time when fracture became a prominent feature. Rebellion, and conflict with neighbouring nations weakened the Empire, which had become too large to maintain internal unity. Persecution of Shia Muslims led to the creation of a terrorist group called the Order of Assassins. In 1092, the Order of Assassins killed Vizier Nizam Al-Mulk, a blow that would only grow worse with the death of Malik Shah just a month later.
Increasing division within the ranks of the Seljuk Empire would bring an end to its centuries-long rule.
Malik Shah died in 1092 without assigning an heir. Consequently, his brother and four sons quarrelled over the right to rule. Eventually, Malik Shah was succeeded by Kilij Arslan I in Anatolia, who founded the Sultanate of Rum, in Syria by his brother Tutush I, in Persia (modern-day Iran) by his son Mahmud, in Baghdad by his son Muhammad I and in Khorasan by Ahmd Sanjar.
The division created constant fighting and divided alliances within the Empire, which significantly decreased their power. When Tutush I died, his sons Rdwan and Duqaq both contested control of Syria, further dividing the region. As a result, when the First Crusade began (after Pope Urban’s call for a holy war in 1095) they were more concerned with maintaining their holdings in the Empire than fighting external threats.
Despite the fractures in the Empire, the Seljuks managed to recapture some of their lost territories. In 1144, Zenghi, ruler of Mosul, captured the County of Edessa. The crusaders attacked Damascus, a key power base for the Seljuk empire, by staging a siege in 1148.
In July, the crusaders gathered at Tiberias and marched towards Damascus. They numbered 50,000. They decided to attack from the West where orchards would provide them with a supply of food. They arrived at Darayya on 23rd July but were attacked the following day. The defenders of Damascus had asked for help from Saif ad-Din I of Mosul and Nur ad-Din of Aleppo, and he had personally led an attack against the crusaders.
The crusaders were pushed back away from the walls of Damascus, which left them vulnerable to ambush and guerrilla attacks. Morale was at an all-time low, and many crusaders refused to continue with the siege. This forced the leaders to retreat to Jerusalem.
The Seljuks would manage to fight off both the Third and Fourth Crusades. However, this was owed more to the crusaders themselves being divided rather than their own strength. Division increased with each new Sultan, and this put the Empire in a vulnerable position from attacks. Apart from the Third Crusade (1189-29) and the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), the Seljuks had to face continuous attacks from the Qara Khitans in 1141, which drained resources.
Tughril II, the empire’s last great Sultan, fell in battle against the Shah of the Khwarezm Empire. By the 13th century, the Empire had disintegrated into small regions ruled by various Beylicks (rulers of the Seljuk Empire’s provinces). The last Seljuk Sultan, Mesud II, died in 1308 without any real political power, leaving the various beyliks to fight with each other for control.
The Seljuk Turks were initially nomads and raiders. They did not have a settled place of residence.
The Seljuk Turks trace their heritage to Yakak Ibn Slejuk.
Seljuk’s grandsons, Tughril Beg and Chaghri, advanced the territorial interests of the Seljuk Empire.
Under Malik Shah, the Seljuk Empire reached its ‘Golden Age’.
Although the Seljuks fought off the third and fourth crusades, this had far more to do with the weakness of the crusaders than the strength of the Seljuks.
The Seljuk Empire disintegrated because of internal divisions.
The Seljuk Turks and the Ottoman Turks are two different dynasties. The Seljuk Turks are older and originate in Central Asia in the 10th century. The Ottoman Turks come from the descendants of the Seljuks who settled in Northern Anatolia in the 13th century and later created their own dynasty.
The Seljuk Turks converted to Islam in the 10th century.
The Seljuk Empire was defeated by the Crusaders during the First Crusade 0f 1095. They were finally defeated in 1194 by Takash, the Shah of the Kwarezmid Empire, after which the Seljuk Empire collapsed.
The Seljuk Empire declined mainly because of ongoing internal division. After a point, the Empire had basically disintegrated into small regions ruled by different Beylicks.
Yes. The Seljuk Turks traded in various things like aluminium, copper, tin and refined sugar. They also acted as 'middle men' in the slave trade. Most trading originated in the Seljuk cities of Sivas, Konya and Kayseri.
Where did the Seljuk Turks originate?
The Seljuk Turks originated from a group of Turkish nomads called the Oghuz Turks, who migrated from around the coasts of the Aral Sea. The Oghuz Turks were known in the Islamic world as violent raiders and mercenaries.
Which turning point led to the creation of a muslim Seljuk Turk Empire?
After the 10th century the Seljuk Turks migrated to Transoxiana and began making contact with Muslim merchants. This led to them gradually adopting Sunni Islam as their official religion.
When did the Battle of Dandanaqan take place and why was it important?
The Battle of Dandanaqan took place in 1040. The Seljuk's. victory over the Ghaznavids established them in Transoxiana and led to caliph al-Qa’im of the Abbasid dynasty to officially recognise Seljuk rule over Khurasan (modern day eastern Iran) in 1046.
When did the Seljuk Turks first clash with the Byzantines?
In 1048-49 the Seljuks made their first advance towards Byzantine territory when they attacked the Byzantine frontier region of Iberia, under Ibrahim Yinal, and clashed with Byzantine-Georgian forces in the Battle of Kapetrou on 10 September 1048. Despite the fact the Byzantine-Georgian army numbered 50,000 men, the Seljuks devastated them.
How did Tughril rise to power?
Over time, Tughril climbed the ranks and eventually deposed the Buyid Emirs to decorative state figureheads. He also forced the Caliph to give him the title of King of West and East. In this way Tughril elevated the power of the Seljuks as they were now considered an official sultanate and the secret power behind the Abbasid throne.
Why did Tughril Support Sunni Islam?
Tughril did believe in Sunni Islam but he also needed the support of the Abbasid Caliph to maintain his rule, so it is both.
When did the Battle of Manzikert take place?
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