The Rise of the Seljuk Turks

Something I wrote for a seminar in the first year of my MPhil

Though long in the memory of the Turks after its demise, the heady days of the Gök Türk Empire ended in year 741 of the Christian Era.  This state had been a confederation, and, upon its disintegration, the constituent tribes separated.  Amongst this shipwreck of nomads were the so-called Oghuz, whence sprung the family of Seljuk.

The Orkhon inscriptions, the first monuments of Turkish history, declare that the Oghuz were themselves a federation of nine tribes, and the epithet dokuz, the Turkish for ‘nine’, is often attached to the name of the tribe.  The chief of the Oghuz was saluted by a sonorous title: “Yabghu of the Right Wing of the Horde” was his appellation, but Khâghân was not used. 

The eighth century saw the westward migration of the Oghuz, driven perhaps by a growing population, though the Siberian steppe to the shores of the Aral Sea.  Some of these Turks also moved into the steppes of Dihistân, north of the Atrak river.  Settlements at the mouth of the Syr Darya were taken over, and Arabic sources of the early ninth century mark the growth of three important towns here: Jand, Khuvar, and Yengi-Kent.  The Muslim ambassador Ibn Fadlân passed through the wild abode of the Oghuz in about A.D. 921.  The Oghuz, he recalls, lived in extreme wretchedness, and he compares their indiscriminate wanderings to the straying of wild asses.  Such a statement clearly implies nomadism, but not all the Oghuz Turks pursued such a mode of life.  The three towns noticed by the Arabians show that many Turks were settled, and the testimony of the geographer al-Maqdisi proves this also.  He speaks of Turkish strongholds in the province of Asfîjâb,[1] formidable bulwarks against a wild and rapacious group that he calls the Türkmen.  Tension between the nomadic and the sedentary Turks was to be of great moment in the establishment of the Seljuk Empire.

The lexicographer Mahmûd Kâshgharî informs us that the leading tribe of the Oghuz confederation was the Qïnïq tribe, within which the Seljuks were a leading family.  Their origin is shrouded in the clouds of fable and the fog of romance, and even the surest weather balloon is liable to go astray in the mysterious darkness of the Seljuk Annals.  The account favoured in the Cambridge History of Iran is as follows.  The progenitor of the Seljuk family was one Temür-Yaligh, but it was his son who was the eponymous ancestor of the Seljuks.  Father and son served the chief of the Oghuz, who quickly grew jealous of Seljuk’s power and influence.  Seljuk fled to Jand, where he converted to Islam, adopting the creed and manner of the Ghâzî, the warrior for the faith.  In the last decade of the tenth century of our era, at the venerable age of one hundred an seven years, Seljuk died.  Three sons survived him: Mûsâ, Mîkhâ’îl, and Isrâ’îl.[2]  Mûsâ was politically feeble and drifted insensibly off the page of history, but Mîkhâ’îl and Isrâ’îl were left to dispute the heritage of their father, at whose death the Seljuk family was divided between the two brothers.  Mîkhâ’îl soon died in battle, and his two sons Chaghrï Bey and Tughrïl Bey succeeded him.

This men were freelance warriors fighting at the side of any that would assure them pasturelands for their flocks, and they fought for various warring factions within Transoxiana and Khwârizm.

We must survey the state of the Iranian world in the early eleventh century.  Since the year 819 of the Christian era, the region from Khurâsân to Farghâna was ruled by the Sâmânids, a native Iranian dynasty.  But in the eleventh century, this once haughty family was on the verge of extinction.  Economic trouble, religious disputes, and internal dissent had weakened the house of Sâmân, and its territory was gradually absorbed by the Turks.  In Transoxiana the Qarakhânids held sway.  These were a Turkish dynasty, once masters of a state that bestrode the Altai Mountains, and newly converted to Islam.  The Ghaznavids, a dynasty descended from Turkish slaves, ruled Khurâsân and Afghânistân.  Their chief was the redoubtable Mahmûd Ghaznavî, a man who has entered Oriental literature as the hypostasis of tyranny and ambition,[3] whose dream of the conquest and conversion of India was nearly realised.

Isrâ’îl (who soon changed his name to Arslan) fought on the side of the moribund Sâmânids.  A wave of hostile Oghuz expelled his nephews, Chaghrïl and Tughrïl, from the lower Jaxartes and the brothers put themselves under the protection of the Qarakhânids.  In 1025, however, the two branches of the Seljuk family were united in the service of the Qarakhânids, when the bold and irascible Mahmûd of Ghazna defeated them.  Mahmûd hesitated between a plan of resettlement and utter annihilation, and he lived to regret choosing the former.

The Seljuks were settled in Khurâsân—the first step in a massive movement westward.  But in assisting the Turkish drive for Lebensraum, Mahmûd turned a minor disturbance into a gigantic menace.  Türkmen already lived in Khurâsân, and their predations were irritating, but the huge influx of like-minded brigands caused an irruption of pillage and terror.  They sent columns of horsemen into  Afghânistân as far as Gûzgân, Tukhâristân, and Sîstân, where they carried off livestock, and pastured their sheep on agricultural land.  They interrupted the caravans, dread of the Türkmen grew wherever they went, and a trembling population endured starvation at their hands.

Mahmûd could neither appease nor chastise the Seljuks.  Several punitive expeditions were sent against them, and they all failed.  The Ghaznavid army was aggravated by the colossal burden of elephants, siege machinery, and a camp following.  The Turks were lightly armed, swift, inured to extremes of climate, hardened against drought and feminine, and unreliant on fixed bases of operation. 

Though the Seljuks were completely unskilled in siege warfare, and inexperienced in both taking and holding cities, the terrified cities of Khurâsân began to surrender to them.  Marv surrendered in 1037; Herât and Nîshâpûr followed in 1038.  Economic and commercial life withered, and the historian Mîrkhwând has described the trouble.  “The region has become ruinous,” he wrote, “ like the dishevelled tresses of the fair ones, or the eyes of the loved ones, and it became devastated by the pasturing of the Türkmens’ flocks.”  Continued pillaging soon brought Arslan’s Seljuks into Azarbâyjân.  The furious Sultan was dismayed by further rapacity, but he could do nothing.  It was now clear that the Seljuk incursions led in only one direction—the establishment of a permanent state, and the consequent dismemberment of the Ghaznavid Empire.  The greatest cities of Khurâsân had surrendered willingly, Mahmûd’s futile campaigns in India had denuded Khurâsân of troops, and the Seljuk Anschluss proceeded apace.

For Mahmûd, the final stroke fell in 1040.  Withdrawing troops from India, he made for Khurâsân in a last ditch effort to destroy the Seljuk threat.  Battle was joined at Dandânqân, the Ghaznavid army was utterly routed, and Mahmûd, his glories now buried in the dust, beat an ignominious retreat to India.  Khurâsân was now firmly in Seljuk hands, and the Türkmen gazed with eager eyes on the Iranian plateau before them.

In the ensuing history of the the Seljuks, it was the campaigns of Tughrïl Bey and his successors that most directly affected Byzantium and Asia Minor.  As the Seljuks proceeded westward, they fell under the influence of Persian culture and statecraft.  Being totally inexperienced in government, Turghïl lent heavily on Persian on a Persian beaurocracy, and the Persian language—an idiom recommended by Mohammed to the use of the angels—became the vehicle of literature and science.  Under the dominion of the Seljuks the splendour of Iran revived, and Arabian influence waned.

Tughrïl now saw the way forward, and fixed his gaze upon the domination of all Muslim lands, and the subjugation of the heretical Fatimids of Egypt.  As enforcers of Orthodoxy and bearers of culture and political stability, the Seljuks were welcomed into Baghdâd, which had groaned until the oppressive power of the Shiite Buwayhids, until Tughrïl expelled them.  At Baghdâd, the Caliph, Al-Qa’im, a venerable phantom, invested Tughrïl with the title of Sultân, and entrusted him with the pious mission of exterminating the Egyptian heretics.  The Seljuk Machtergreifung was at an end.  Tughrïl was now the highest secular authority in the Muslim world.  Such a change was utterly unprecedented in the Orient, as there now existed between Caliph and Sultan a relationship nearly identical to that between Pope Leo III and Charlemagne. 

Nearly all parties benefited from this extraordinary development.  The Byzantines themselves must have been relieved to see some order brought to the Levant, but the nomadic Türkmen began to cause problems immediately.  New pasturelands needed to be found for them, and raiding continued.  The Türkmen detested the climate, Tughrïl forbade them from taking their women with them, and they were not allowed to pillage actual or prospective Seljuk territory, though the best grazing lands were in northern Iran and Azarbâyjân.  Nevertheless, Tughrïl needed the nomads on his side in all westward operations.  Pillaging and raiding were useful in scouting out roads for future attacks, and the Türkmen were useful as a buffer between states on the frontier and the centre of the Seljuk Empire.  Nevertheless, the bold and refractory Türkmen were nearly impossible to control, they were impatient of the Sultân’s authority, and might easily desert to a better employer.  The might even settle and establish a rival state.  The obvious solution was to direct the Türkmen raids into Armenia and Byzantium.

The reigns of Alp Arslan (1063-1072) and Malik Shah (1072-1092) saw both an increase in the Seljuk Empire and a growth in the power of the Türkmen.  Alp Arslan united under himself all Seljuk domains, save Kirmân in South-western Iran.  Though the Ghaznavids and Qarakhânids were not yet extinct, the offered little trouble in the East.  The Sultân were therefore free to look westward, and each passing year saw deeper penetration into Anatolia.  Such raids met with little resistance.  The weakening of the Byzantine army, and internal revolts, indiscipline, and rivalries among the Armenian frontier chieftains did much to advance the progress of the Turks.  Large garrisons placed at wide intervals were also useless against the small and lightly armed bands of Türkmen.

The Türkmen sacked Melitene in 1057.  Some progressed down into Syria, but others fled Seljuk authority and sought to establish a refuge within Byzantine lands.  In 1067 they were found Armorium and Iconium, and in 1070 at Chonae in Cilicia.  Though their predations were dangerous, the Türkmen made useful mercenaries, and the Byzantines did not hesitate to buy their support.  The Mirdâdid Arabs of Aleppo did likewise, as did the Fatimids.  Alp Arslan, however, seems to have desired both to extricate the Türkmen from Byzantine influence, and to possess himself of Armenia.  He intervened on the frontier, and took Ani in 1065, and annexed territory in Georgia three years later.

The Byzantine Emperor, Romanus Diogenes, tried to strengthen the fortifications on the frontier, and conducted a campaign in Syria and along the Upper Euphrates.  This accomplished little, as the army suffered greatly from the harassment of the Türkmen.  Romanus withdrew in 1070, and Alp Arslan turned his attention to Egypt.  The Sultân’s advance against the Fatimids was halted, when word came that Romanus was mobilising on the frontier—a move construed by the Sultân as a breach of the truce.  The result was the memorable battle of Manzikert. 

The Seljuk Annals are full of wild exaggerations about this battle, but the account of the Sultân’s treatment of Romanus, despite characteristic bombast, is probably true.  The Sultân received the king of Rûm, treated him kindly, sat him beside himself on his throne, and asked his pardon.  He feasted and entertained him: 


“The gold-cupped, silver-greaved cupbearers poured round the goblets of celebration, and spread the chalices among the people.  And the melodious, sweet voiced musicians began to tune their lutes and play their musical instruments.  They fell to chirping like nightingales, and they laid the modes of Irâq and Isfahân in the tune of navâ upon the voices of singers like Barbud.  The audience listened ecstatically to the organ and drank crimson wine.”


At length, “when the heady wine had made heads light, the chaste maid of strangeness removed the veil of modesty from the face of conversation,” and the memorable exchange between Caesar and Sultân occurred.  A tribute was agreed: one thousand dinars every day paid in two instalments each year, every Muslim prisoner in the Byzantine empire was to be freed, the cession of formerly Muslim border towns was agreed, and the Rûm agreed to come to the aid of the Turks whenever summoned to do so.  The Sultân sent Romanus packing with  “an agate coloured horse with golden shoes and trappings ornamented with jade.”

Alp Arslan had no intention of demolishing the Byzantine empire.  He wanted only a guarantee of either Byzantine alliance or neutrality in this enterprise of unifying the Muslim world.  The defeat at Manzikert, however, had ruined the Byzantine army, and Turkish raiders nolonger had any reason to withdraw after a raid.  The penetration of Anatolia continued.  The populations of Armenia and Cappadocia were hostile to the Byzantine government, and welcomed an invader who had no interest in the doctrinal disputes that had sundered them from the Byzantine emperor.  The population on the frontier had much more in common with the Iranian culture espoused by the Turks than they had with the Greeks in Constantinople.  Furthermore, the earlier Byzantine advance into Armenia and Edessa had led to the garrisoning of those places—an unpopular move.  The result was the enlargement of the territory in which anti-Byzantine quarrels and bitterness prevailed.  This situation was to the extreme disadvantage of the imperial government.  Since the nomads held the land in Anatolia, and the native population fled before them, taxes could not be collected.  Though the Seljuks allowed the cities to government themselves, they lost all connection with Constantinople.

The Byzantines themselves did much to further the progress of the Turks.  Between 1078 and 1081, the emperors had frequently sought their aid, and the Turks were hardly strangers.  By consequence the cities of Anatolia were opened to them, but their presence was not entirely destructive.  The Turks brought into the Byzantine Empire a massive amount of man power and military expertise which the emperors were all too eager to exploit.  A telling example is the use made of Turkish mercenaries by Alexius Comnenus.

Under the leadership of Malik Shah the Seljuk state reached maturity, and the diplomatic counsel of his vizier Nizâm al-Mulk never went unheaded.  Power was wrested way from the royal family and invested in a single ruler, and the pacification of the Muslim world continued apace.  The Türkmen of Anatolia remained a problem, but Malik Shah recognised the authority of the Byzantine Emperor over Asia Minor, and sought his aid in finding a solution to the Türkmen question.  Alexius seems to have wavered between playing the various Türkmen against one another, and siding with the Sultân.  No agreement was reached.

On the Byzantine frontier, ecclesiastics deplored the losses in territory and the predations of the Türkmen.  They blamed the emperor for the former and praise Malik Shah for containing the latter.  On these two point Christian sentiment was unanimous.  Though the Ghâzî spirit entailed the subjugation of infidels, it forbade their persecution therafter.  Thus reception of the Turks was favourable in many Levantine cities.  The Monophysite church was finally allowed freedom from “the trickery of the Greek clergy,” but even the Orthodox patriarchs were allowed to remain in their sees.  The pious fiction that Christians were abused was concocted by Latin Christians to serve their own ends.  But if there were any dissent in the East, hope would have been placed not in liberation from the West but rather in Malik Shah.  The disaster of Manzikert spelt trouble only for Byzantium, whose weakness became known in the West.  The Byzantine failure was interpreted as hardship for all eastern Christians, and propaganda magnified this claim, and at Rome, the idea of taking over from a weak Byzantium led to the call for the First Crusade.

[1] By far the oldest city in Kazakhstan, this is the site of the modern city of Sayram.  It is further distinguished by a mention in Zoroaster’s Avesta.  The Arabs conquered the city in the year 766.

[2] These names are rather unusual for Muslims and even more so for Turks.  A Jewish or Nestorian Christian influence may be detected.

[3] Thus Fitzgerald’s Rubâiyât of Omar Khayyâm:


The mighty Mahmud, the victorious Lord,

That all the misbelieving and black Horde

Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul

Scatters and slays with his enchanted Sword.