Monday, April 11, 2011

Top Ten Things You Never Knew You Wanted to Know about the Seljuk Turks

Last week was a lovely week for writing (Did I mention I'm at 90,000 words on Road from the West?) and also a lovely week for research. The Seljuk Turks occupied most of my attention as I tried to figure out how, when, and why the Turks got to Turkey in the first place. Here are the top ten things you never knew you wanted to know about the Seljuk Turks:

1. The Turks originally hailed from central Asia, spanning an area about as large as the United States. This land encompassed the modern day countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and northern China.

2. The Turks converted to Islam in the tenth century A. D. under pressure from rulers in Persia.

3. There were dozens of tribes within the Turkish race all striving for dominance over the others. The Seljuks were one such tribe and rose to the top of the pile in the first part of the eleventh century A. D.

4. In A. D. 1055, the Abbasid Caliph invited the Seljuk ruler Tughril to come to Baghdad and provide military aid against his rivals. The Abbasids were Sunni Muslims and constantly at odds with the Shiite Muslims led by the Fatimids in Egypt.

5. Tughril helped the Caliph by promptly seizing power, demoting the Caliph to no more than a religious figurehead, and becoming the first "Sultan of Great Seljuk." His empire stretched all the way from the Holy Land to India.

6. Tughril's nephew, Alp Arslan, expanded the Seljuk empire even farther by conquering Armenia and attacking the Byzantine Empire. He defeated the Byzantines (and captured their emperor) at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Many historians have seen this battle as the fatal wound that would eventually lead to the death of the Eastern Roman Empire centuries later.

7. Alp Arlsan deputized many atabegs (governors) to rule the provinces of his expansive empire. During the reign of his son, Malik Shah, some of these atabegs grew so powerful that they owed only a nominal fealty to the sultan. There was much in-fighting between these Seljuk rulers, a situation that would help the Crusaders immensely.

8. Suleiman, Alp Arslan's cousin, was deputized to oust the Byzantines from Asia Minor. He pushed them back all the way to the Hellespont, taking the ancient city of Nicaea as his capital. The land he conquered became known as the Sultanate of Rum (because it had once belonged to Rome / "Rum"), and by the twelfth century it was being called "Turchia" by historians.

9. It was Suleiman's incursions in Asia Minor that led the current Byzantine emperor Alexios Comnenos to write to Pope Urban asking for military aid. He wanted the westerners to send mercenaries to help him regain his empire. Alexios' daughter Anna Comnena records how serious the situation was for those living in Constantinople:
As I have said in a previous chapter, the godless Turks were in sight, living in the Propontis area, and Sulayman, who commanded all the east, was actually encamped in the vicinity of Nicaea. His sultanate was in that city (we would call it his palace). The whole countryside of Bithynia and Thynia was unceasingly exposed to Sulayman's foragers; marauding parties on horseback and on foot were raiding as far as the town now called Damalis on the Bosphorus itself; they carried off much booty and all but tried to leap over the very sea. The Byzantines saw them living absolutely unafraid and unmolested in the little villages on the coast and in sacred buildings. The sight filled them with horror. They had no idea what to do.
10. In A. D. 1095,  Pope Urban used Alexios' appeal for aid as a chance to call for a Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Muslims. The Faitmid Muslims had held control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land for almost four centuries; however, their policy had been one of religious toleration, allowing Christians to live there and pilgrims to come and go freely. When the Seljuk Turks took over the Holy Land from the Fatimids, this policy changed drastically. Pope Urban exhorted the Franks to journey to Jerusalem and free it from the horrors perpetrated by the Turks:
From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. The kingdom of the Greeks [Byzantines] is now dismembered by them and deprived of territory so vast in extent that it can not be traversed in a march of two months. On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you? You, upon whom above other nations God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the hairy scalp of those who resist you.
Pope Urban Calls for the Crusade
All this is background for the story of the First Crusade, a story I will be telling in my Chronicles of Tancred trilogy. The first draft of the first book, Road from the West, should be completed next month and the finished work will, Lord willing, be published sometime this summer.


Haunted by guilt from the past and nightmares of the future, a young Norman named Tancred takes the cross and vows to be the first to free Jerusalem from the infidels. As he journeys to the Holy Land, he braves deadly deserts, frightful famine, and the sharp swords of the enemy Turks, but the greatest peril he faces is deciding which of the Crusader lords to trust.

When Tancred accepts a commission to deliver an emerald ring to a Turkish princess, the ring turns out to be a far heavier burden than anticipated. A mysterious prophecy promises that he will find great love and great sorrow on his quest, but the last seems intent on claiming him before he has found the first. 

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