The Seljuk Turks
Although Islam experienced a golden age under the Abbasids, the empire gradually fell apart as the Arabs became less warlike and one province after another broke away. Weak caliphs under the power of mameluke bodyguards, the size of the empire, and the disaffection of Shiites and various ethnic groups all led to this disintegration. Fortunately for Islam, a new people came in to revitalize it: the Seljuk Turks.
Various Turkish tribes had been known for centuries from the borders of China to the borders of Islam. Fortunately, the Persians and the Arabs had held them in check. Instead of overwhelming the empire, these Turkish tribesmen, infiltrated it, coming in as mamelukes and mercenaries whom the Arabs relied on more and more, much as the Romans had relied on Germanic troops. An even more interesting parallel is between the most successful Germanic tribe in Europe, the Franks, and the most successful Turkish tribe in Islam, the Seljuks.
The Seljuk Turks, named after a semi-legendary leader and founder, were the first Turkish tribe to convert to Sunnite Islam, thus gaining the favor of the civilized population in much the same way as the Franks’ conversion to Catholic Christianity had made them more popular with their subjects. The Seljuks also came to the aid of Islam’s spiritual leader, the caliph, who was under the thumb of a Shiite dynasty known as the Buwayids, much like the Franks under Pepin and Charlemagne had protected the Pope from similar difficulties. And in each case, the spiritual leader granted his protectors the title and responsibility for defending the faith. In the case of the Seljuks, their leader Toghril was made king, or sultan, of the East and West in 1058 with the job of restoring the political and religious unity of Islam.
Because of their dual mission to unify Islam and expand its frontiers, the Seljuks turned against the Shiite dynasty of the Fatimids in Egypt and Palestine and also against the Christian Byzantine Empire (much as Charlemagne had waged campaigns for Christianity in Spain and Saxony). One reason for these wars was to divert the ever-growing number of wild Turkish tribesmen away from destroying fellow Muslims and towards waging the holy war outside its borders. Because of their ongoing decline, the Byzantines were the ideal target, although the Shiite Fatimid dynasty in Egypt was also a useful target. In each case Seljuk victories triggered a backlash.
In 1071, the Seljuks and Byzantines met in the Battle of Manzikert. The result was a resounding victory for the Seljuks who then proceeded to take over most of the Byzantine heartland in Asia Minor. Their military, political, and religious victory was so complete there that we still call that land Turkey, even though it is a long way from the Turks’ original homeland in Central Asia. The Byzantine emperor, Alexius I, called for mercenaries from Western Europe to help him reclaim Asia Minor from the Turks. Instead, he got the First Crusade, which took much of Syria, and Palestine for the Christian faith.
At the same time, the Seljuks were expanding against the Shiite Fatimids, which brought them up against a fanatical Shiite sect known as the Assassins. This group was centered in a mountain fortress and led by Hassan-ibn-al-Sabah, also known as the Old Man of the Mountain. Determined to stop the advance of the Sunnite Seljuks, he launched a campaign of political terror and murder that has become legendary. Hassan’s followers operated under the influence of the drug, hashish, from which we get the word assassin. They showed remarkable determination and ability to infiltrate the most tightly guarded palaces and reach their intended victims with their poison daggers. Among those victims was the Seljuk sultan, Malik Shah, in 1092. His death combined with the First Crusade and the Seljuk custom of dividing their realm between all their sons (much as the Franks had done), created enough turmoil in the Seljuk realm to allow the Crusaders to take Palestine. Despite these setbacks, the Seljuks did manage to restore their power in Asia Minor. Their state, the Sultanate of Rum (Rome), thrived throughout the 1100’s. However, much like the Franks with the Vikings, The Seljuks had their own nemesis: the Mongols.
In the early 1200’s, a leader known to us as Genghis Khan united the various Mongol tribes in Central Asia into the most fearsome war machine known to history up to that point. Striking at incredible speed (up to 100 miles a day), they burned a path of destruction from China to Europe and the Muslim world unsurpassed until the wars of the twentieth century. Cities daring to resist them were methodically destroyed and their populations put to the sword. The defiance of the Assassins brought the wrath of the Mongols upon the Muslim world. In 1245, the Mongols annihilated the Seljuk army at Kose Dagh. In 1258, they sacked Baghdad and killed the last in the line of Abbasid caliphs. The Egyptian sultan Baibars finally halted the Mongols’ relentless advance in 1260. The Mongols eventually settled down and even adopted Islam in the Muslim areas where they ruled. However their rampage had far reaching effects on the Turks and the Islamic world.
Rise of the Ottoman Turks
On the frontier between the Turks and the Byzantines were various warlike groups, know as ghazis (holy warriors) for their efforts against the Christians. While the Sultanate of Rum was intact, these bands were largely held in check, since their wild ways were often as disruptive to the Seljuks as to the Byzantines. With the shattering defeat at Kose Dagh, however, these ghazi bands were freed to raid at will. Among them was a leader of particular renown, Osman, who gave his name to the greatest of the Turkish states, the Ottomans.
Osman’s leadership in battle attracted many Turkish warriors to his standard and made him the most successful of the ghazi states attacking the Byzantines and neighboring Muslims. His successes brought conquests and plunder which attracted more ghazis to his standard. This would trigger more campaigns against the Ottomans’ enemies, which would bring more conquests and so on.
There were various reasons for the Ottomans’ success. First of all, their army was the best in Europe and the Middle East. In addition to swarms of tough Turkish cavalry, the sultans also had the age’s best artillery and its most dreaded regiment: the Janissaries. These were originally young boys taken from the homes of the sultan’s Christian subjects and raised in his service as devout Muslims. Technically, the Janissaries were the sultan’s slaves, but slaves with very high status. Trained to a peak of high efficiency, they ruled the battlefields from Persia to Eastern Europe.
Ottoman government was also well organized. Much of the bureaucracy was a class called ghulams, also originally Christian boys taken from their homes by the sultan’s men. Like their counterparts in the army, the Janissaries, they were also known for their loyalty and efficiency. At the top of the government was the sultan, who had received “on the job” training as a boy, ruling provinces with the aid of experienced ministers. Upon the death of a sultan, his sons would typically fight for the throne. Such struggles were usually to the death, but, along with the training of the sultan’s sons, did tend to produce the toughest and ablest rulers.
The Ottoman sultans also emphasized their religious position to claim leadership of Islam. For one thing, they were ghazis fighting for the faith. Later, they also controlled the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as well as the last shadowy claimants to the Abbasid caliphate.
However, for a number of years, the Ottomans were seen as just one of a number of ghazis. Then, in 1345, they took the opportunity to intervene in a Byzantine civil war in Europe. And once they had crossed into Europe, they were there to stay.
By 1400, the Ottomans had subdued the other ghazis in Asia Minor and were poised to take that long sought prize of the faithful, Constantinople. Then disaster struck when the last major eruption of nomadic tribes from Central Asia burst upon the scene. Their leader was Timur the Lame, whose path of conquest and destruction ranged from India to Russia. In 1402, he destroyed the Ottoman army, captured the sultan, Bayezid, and dragged him around in a cage for the rest of his days as a monument to his triumphs.
Timur’s intentions were to loot and plunder, not to build a lasting state. As a result, his empire disintegrated upon his death, and the Ottomans were able to reassert their control in Asia Minor and Europe. By 1453, they were at the walls of Constantinople, finally ready to claim that prize.
The siege of Constantinople was the last heroic stand of the Byzantine Empire in one of the most desperate and hard fought struggles in history. It saw the destructive power of the newly emerging gunpowder technology being used alongside old style siege towers, galleys, and crossbows. In the end, the defenders were overwhelmed, and the Byzantine (and Roman) Empire passed into history.
For Europe, the fall of Constantinople meant that the old trade routes to the Far East were shut off by the Turks and new ones had to be found. This helped spur Portuguese exploration around Africa and Columbus’ famous voyage to America. The fall of Constantinople also caused a number of Greek scholars to flee to Italy where they helped to stimulate the Italian Renaissance, one of the great cultural periods in history. In that way the Byzantines still lived on. For Islam, the victory meant that the Ottoman Turks had arrived as a major power. For the next century and a half, their very name would terrorize the Christian world.
The century from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the death of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566 saw the Ottoman juggernaut roll to an almost unbroken series of conquests against both Christians and neighboring Muslim states. Mohammed II (1451-1481), the conqueror of Constantinople, continued his path of conquest, bringing the Balkan Peninsula south of the Danube River under his control.
The sultan Selim I (1512-1520), known to history as “the Grim”, concentrated on his Muslim neighbors. To the east was a revived Persia under the Shiite dynasty of the Safavids. In 1514, Turks and Persians met on the field of Chaldiran. Turkish superiority in artillery and firearms proved decisive as the Persian cavalry were swept away by the Ottomans’ massed gunfire. However, the Persians, learning from this, changed their strategy, laying waste the land before the Ottoman advance so the invaders would have nothing to sustain them. This proved effective, and a stable, if uneasy, frontier emerged between the Persian and Turkish realms.
Selim was more successful against the Mameluke dynasty centered in Egypt. At the battle of Dabik (1516), the Ottomans once again used their firepower with terrible effect and, this time, with more lasting results. The unpopular Mameluke rule quickly collapsed and Ottoman rule extended into Palestine, Egypt, and Arabia, thus giving the sultan control of Islam’s holiest places.
The reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66) was the high point of Ottoman expansion. His energies were directed mainly in the holy war against the Christians, driving northwest into Europe and due west across the Mediterranean. In 1526, at the battle of Mohacs, Turkish firepower proved its superiority once again, this time against the Hungarians, who left their king and most of their nobility dead on the field. The road to Vienna lay open, and it was here that the Ottoman advance into Europe ground to a halt. The siege of Vienna was the Turks’ first major defeat. In its wake, a new frontier emerged between Christian and Muslim worlds, guarded by a complex and expensive series of fortresses on each side.
The Ottoman drive across the Mediterranean also was eventually stopped in two desperate clashes between Turks and Christians. The first was a titanic siege of the Knights of St. John on the strategic island of Malta in 1566. After four months of bitter fighting, a Christian relief force drove the battered Turkish army away. An equally desperate battle was fought at sea at Lepanto in 1571. The fact that there was no place for soldiers to retreat in a sea battle made the hand to hand fighting especially ferocious. After this, the Ottomans’ fleet was severely crippled, their tide of victories and conquests pretty much ceased, and their empire entered a long period of steady decline.