Monday, December 31, 2018

Rise and Fall of the Seljuk Empire

The Great Seljuk Empire emerged in the midst of division and chaos in the Islamic world. From migratory people, they transformed into conquerors that gave unity in the Middle East for a time. Some settled in a land they called their home even to this very day – Turkey.

Rise of the Seljuk Empire

The Seljuk Empire traced its roots from the coastlands of the Aral Sea and a group of Turkish nomads called the Oghuz Turks. In the 10th century, they migrated to the region of Transoxiana and began to make contact with Muslim merchants. They eventually adopted Sunni Islam as their religion.

They made their name in the Islamic world as barbaric raiders, slaves, and mercenaries. During this time, Seljuk ibn Yakak made a living as a soldier serving the Khazar Khagnate as a military commander. From him, the Seljuk Sultans traced their heritage. During a conflict in the 1030’s, the Ghaznavid Sultanate captured him.

Tughril Beg
Tughril Beg
Seljuk had a grandson named Tughril Beg (1055 – 1063). Along with his brother Chaghri, their Oghuz Turk followers fought the Ghaznavid to free their father Seljuk ibn Yakak. Initially, they suffered defeat in a conventional face to face confrontation with the Sultanate. After this set back, they resorted to hit and run tactics raiding and pillaging the Ghaznavid heartland of Khurasan. Overtime, their raids turned into a battlefield victories culminating with the Battle of Dandanaqan in 1040.

Tughril’s brother Chaghri marched east to the region called Kerman. There his son Quavurt later established a branch of the Seljuq Dynasty. Quavurt elevated the province in 1048 into a separate Seljuk Sultanate.

In 1055, Tughril marched westward targeting Iraq and the center of the Abbasid Empire – Baghdad. The capital had already descended into internal strife between the declining Buyid Emirs and other ambitious officials. As a powerful military leader, Tughril succeeded in marching into the city welcomed by the Abbasid Caliphs and Buyid Emirs. Overtime, he deposed the Buyid Emirs and had the Abbasid Caliph confer to him the title of King of West and East. Thus, the Seljuks elevated themselves into the new protectors of the Abbasid – the power behind the throne - formally beginning the Great Seljuk Empire.

Tughril’s reign, however, marred with conflict facing several rebellions and rivals within Iraq. One successfully captured Baghdad in 1057, but he triumphantly liberated the capital and the Abbasid Caliph. As a reward, he received the title of Sultan or authority.

Sultan Tughril set Great Seljuk Empire adherence to orthodox Sunni Islam. The legitimacy of the Sultanate rested in the authority given by the Abbasid Caliphate. Hence, they must protect the Sunni ideals of the Caliphate crushing other Muslims sects, especially the Shia Ismailis. They also launched a jihad or a holy war against perceived infidel states such as the Byzantine Empire and the heretic Shia Fatimid Caliphate.

Pinnacle of Power
Alp Arslan

In 1063, Tughril Beg passed away without an heir. His nephew, Alp Arslan, son of Chagri, ascended to the throne of the Great Seljuk Empire.

Under his rule, the Empire experienced economic and internal security. Trade routes flowed once again and cities like Merv and Isfahan became major centers within the Empire. Much of the administration fell to his intelligent and visionary Vizier Nizam al-Mulk (a name meaning Order of the Kingdom). While his Vizier exercised authority over the state affairs, he embarked in military campaigns to fight the Fatimids as well as the Kingdom of Georgia in the Caucasus.

His reign marked the height of the military success of the Seljuk Empire. In 1068, tensions ran high with the Byzantine Empire due to the constant raid of his vassal Turkish clans. This prompted Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes to march further into Anatolia with his cosmopolitan army composed of Greeks supplemented with Greek, Slav, and Norman mercenaries. The Byzantine-Seljuk War reached its crescendo in 1071 with the Battle of Manzikert near Lake Van. Confusion within the fog of war resulted to an outstanding Seljuk victory. Alp Arslan captured Emperor Romanos IV and opened Anatolia for Turkish raid, conquest, and ultimately migration. In 1077, from the capital of Nicaea (modern day Iznik) the vassal Seljuq Sultante of Rum, a name from the root word Rome, established and ruled over the whole Anatolia.
Battle of Manzikert as depicted in a
15th-century French miniature
Cultural Progress

Nizam al-Mulk, Vizier to Alp Arslan, led improvements in education. He established Madrassa or Islamic schools and institutions called Nizamiya. In 1065, the Baghdad Nizamiya had been established and considered the largest educational institution at that time. The state funded the madrassa paying the salaries of staff and teacher. It also became a means of training for the future generation of government officials. Furthermore, it also became a medium of spreading Sunni Islam.

The Vizier also contributed to the Empire’s literature with his political treatise – the Siyasatnama or Book of Government. In his work, he called for a centralized government based on the autocratic principles of the pre-Islamic Sassanid Empire. 

Decline and Fall
Malik Shah

In 1073, 3 years after the victory in the Battle of Manzikert, Alp Arslan passed away leaving his young son Malik Shah to ascend as Sultan. In his minority, Vizier Nizam gained influence and power. He attempted to wrestle power from the Turkish vassals and strengthen the central government. Eventually, it failed.

Under Malik Shah, the Sultanate Empire reached its territorial peak. It covered lands from Syria to Yemen and from Anatolia to China. It had the centers of Jerusalem, Damsascus, Aleppo, Mosul, Antioch, and finally Baghdad under its fold.

Though his reign saw the height of the Empire’s size, it also marked the start of its disintegration. Rebellion and war with neighboring kingdoms weakened the Empire. Persecution of Shia led to the formation of a terrorist group called the Hassassins. In 1092, the Hassassins stroke a blow to the Sultanate with the assassination of Vizier Nizam al-Mulk. Just a month after the Vizier’s death, Sultan Malik followed leaving no heir.

Divide and War

The lack of heir gave rise to court intrigue that dominated the politics of the Seljuq Sultanate. The Sultan lose much of their power and prestige over their vassals. In 1098, the Sultanate offered no leadership against the might of Western Crusaders that poured into Anatolia in 1097.

Division continued and the Sultanate descended into impotence. With each of the dying Sultan, the Empire divided between remaining offspring. Influential Turkic slave tutors of princes later called atabegs gained influence and even became hereditary stewards just like the situation of the Abbasid Caliphs under the Seljuq Sultans or the Buyid Emirs.
Threats drained the Empire’s strength. In 1141, attacks from the Qara Khitans weakened the Empire further. Finally, the Great Seljuk Empire took its last breath in 1194. The last Great Seljuq Sultan Tughril II fell in battle against the Shah of the rising Khwarezm Empire.

It left the Sultanate of Rum as the last remnants of the Seljuqs, but it too faced growing challenges. The rise of the Mongols also weakened the Seljuq. By the 13th century, it disintegrated into various beyliks. Ultimately in 1308, the last Sultan of Rum Mesud II passed away with no political power at all leaving the Beyliks to fend for themselves.

In 14th century, one Beylik stood out and reunited Anatolia – the Ottomans. From their Anatolian Empire, they continued the legacy of the Turks as great conquerors.

Summing Up

The Seljuk Empire brought short sigh of unity in a fragmented Middle East. It brought the Turks into the forefront of history after serving only as mercenaries and slave soldiers for centuries. They created an Empire and brought an end to numerous factions showing their strength as warriors and politicians. Nonetheless, to keep their peace and to govern properly they delegated lands to vassals and Princes that led to disintegration and infighting once more. Even a Crusade failed to revive the Seljuk’s role as a unifier and ultimately leading to their demise.

General References:
Terry, Janice. "Seljuk Dynasty." In Encyclopedia of World History. Edited by Marsha Ackermann et. al. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008.

"Turkic Peoples." In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and Middle East. Edited by Jamie Stokes et. al. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2009.

Saunders, J.J. A History of Medieval Islam. New York, New York: Routledge, 1965.


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